The fiery fifteenth century Abbot of St Albans who lived at the time of Agincourt and the War of the Roses is the latest facial reconstruction to bring the past vividly to life
King Richard III may be the most famous 15th century face to be revealed through the wonders of forensic reconstruction, but now another historical figure from the 1400s has emerged from the shadows of the past – digitally reconstructed for all to see.
Abbot John of Wheathampstead may not be a familiar name to most, but the unexpected discovery of his chapel and skeleton in December 2017 during the excavations for St Albans Cathedral’s new Welcome Centre, offered a vivid reminder of the political and religious scene in England of the late Middle Ages. The discovery also uncovered – nestled in his skeletal remains – the three papal bullae (or seals) he gained from Pope Martin V in 1423.
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He lived through the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and the height of the Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and now the face of this mover and shaker of fifteenth century religious and court life has been reconstructed by Professor Caroline Wilkinson of FaceLab, the craniofacial identification and forensic reconstruction specialists based at Liverpool John Moores University. Wilkinson’s CV includes work not only on Richard III, but also reconstructions of St Nicholas and Robert the Bruce, but this latest historical face also has a story to tell.
As well as meeting and corresponding with the Pope, Abbot John (who died in his seventies in 1465) became one of the leading Benedictine abbots in England and represented the English clergy at international conferences including the plague hit Council Pavia in 1423.
Cultivating the acquaintance of those in power, he even had a hand in guiding the Regency of King Henry VI when he was a minor until 1437, and forged a friendship with the irascible Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (1390 – 1447) with whom he not only shared an interest in the guardianship of the boy king but also a passion for humanism and a love of books. He was among the first to promote the new humanist writings coming out of Italy in early/pre-Renaissance England and corresponded with Italian scholars.
A widely read man, he actively promoted learning among the monks and book production in the monastery, writing and copying books on many subjects, including an encyclopaedia, the Granarium.
“The reconstruction of Abbot John of Wheathampstead’s face brings him startlingly to life, and immediately invites us to read his character from his features,” says the Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans.
“He has an impish look, but also looks like a man who was not to be trifled with – as befits one of the most powerful ecclesiastical fixers of his day. I hope that seeing him in his human reality will raise interest in his life, and in the central role St Albans Abbey has played in this country’s history.”
Unusually, Abbot John held the office of Abbot twice, from 1420 to 1440, retiring through ill-health, before taking charge again from 1452 to 1465. Both spells saw him undertake building projects including a spectacular west window whilst also actively protecting the land interests of the Abbey through a series of litigation cases.
“Few contemporary portraits of the monks of medieval England are known to survive,” adds Exeter University Professor James Clark who with Dr Emma Pomeroy (University of Cambridge) and James Holman (Canterbury Archaeological Trust) helped supervise the project. “This facial reconstruction of John of Wheathampstead offers the first accurate representation of a monastic figure in England before 1500.”
A new free trail has been created for visitors to walk in Abbot John’s footsteps, as well as a brand-new exhibition which allows visitors to look into the eyes of this influential medieval monk. Visitors will discover a man of letters, of vision, and of international renown – and for the first time, be able to see him face-to-face.
In due course, Abbot John’s body will be laid to rest again at St Albans Cathedral, with proper prayer and ceremony.
Read St Albans Cathedral John of Wheathampstead blog: https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/face-to-face-with-a-medieval-abbot
St Albans Cathedral is open daily from 8.30am until 5.30pm https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/