St Albans cathedral laid 15th century Abbot John of Wheathampstead to rest on July 30, five years after he was discovered unexpectedly during excavation work.
When archaeologists studied the skeleton that was discovered during the building of St Albans Cathedral’s new welcome centre in 2017, they immediately knew exactly who it was. Entombed in a brick vault with three papal privileges from Pope Martin V, it was clear that Abbot John of Wheathampstead had finally been found.
Abbot John was one of the most important Benedictine monks of the 15th century, leading the St Albans monastery on two separate occasions, first from 1420 to 1440, and then again from 1451 to his death in 1465.
This meant John was abbot at the first battle of St Albans in 1455, which kickstarted the Wars of the Roses, and the second battle in 1461, where he was forced to flee from ransacking soldiers.
John was also well known for his relationship with the Royal Prince Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was son, brother and uncle to three kings of England. They studied in Oxford together, and were said to have shared an interest in renaissance Italian literature.
Stephen de Silva MBE, guide at the St Albans Cathedral, said: “John was about rebuilding the reputation and prestige of St Albans after the black death, with many monasteries suffering. Abbots were advisors to the king and John was a political mover as well, he reconnected the abbey politically and religiously back to the centre of English power.”
John worked on multiple designs that can still be seen in the cathedral today. He oversaw the painting of the symbols of his two patron saints, the lamb of John the Baptist and the eagle of John the Evangelist, on the ceiling.
Stephen said: “It’s a bit naughty because he replaces a painting of Jesus with his coat of arms – he was not a modest man!”
Project manager, Julia Low, said: “Whenever you dig around here, you’re going to meet somebody! The Victorians had put a pipe through his feet, they didn’t know he was there either. It was a wonderful discovery, but it immediately posed a big question: where can we put him?”
It was planned that John’s remains would be placed into an ossuary, and set alongside his old friend Humphrey. COVID-19 prevented the ceremony from happening as intended two years ago, so when it did take place on July 30, 2022, it was exactly 602 years on from when John was first chosen to be abbot by the king.
During a special Evensong on Saturday July 30, Abbot John’s earthly remains were placed in a zinc ossuary, draped in a purple pall with his coat of arms beautifully hand stitched into the fine material, and taken on their final journey via the original 14th century Abbot’s door. A door that he would have used daily to enter the then Abbey.