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‘We’ve found a body. We’d like you to help us with our enquiries’. An unnerving telephone message to pick up amid the usual end-of-term pressures, but as it turned out I was wanted only as a witness at a distance of some 550 years.
Canterbury Archaeological Trust have been leading an excavation at St Albans Cathedral as a prelude to the construction of a new welcome centre which is the centrepiece of their project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The dig has already offered up fresh insights into the early history of the Benedictine Abbey, uncovering the footings of the apse chapels that were a central feature of the devotional scheme of the Norman church built by Paul of Caen, the Norman monk entrusted with the revival of the old Saxon monastery by Archbishop Lanfranc of Bec. Paul’s abbey was quite different from the St Albans known from later medieval sources, not least in the attention given to saints’ cults other than the so-called protomartyr, Alban. The Norman church was made ready to receive altars and relics of the then more modish English saints, Cuthbert and Wulfstan.
The unidentified burial has been revealed after clearing a sequence of much later burials, of those citizens of St Albans who worshipped at the former abbey in the eighteenth century when it served as the town’s parish church. Beneath these remains the archaeologists have uncovered the traces of a substantial rectangular structure which would have projected southwards from the abbey’s presbytery. At its centre they have found a brick-lined tomb chamber still holding its original incumbent. The skeleton is of a male in advanced old age. To find a medieval burial intact was surprising in itself since earlier excavations have shown that the site has had a long history of the disturbance – and robbing out – of the higher status pre-Reformation graves. Even more unusual was the presence with the skeleton of three papal bullae.
Each one bears the inscription of Pope Martin V (1417-31), the pontiff whose election at the Council of Constance ended the Great Schism which had divided the Latin church at the height of the Hundred Years War.
While the presence of the bulls allowed the burial to be placed loosely on the abbey’s timeline, there was nothing more in the material evidence to suggest an identity.
So it was time to turn back to the texts. St Albans Abbey is well known to medievalists for its historical writing and a rich seam survives from the fifteenth century. For the period of Martin V’s pontificate in fact there are three substantial texts, an annal, a book of benefactors and a biography of an abbot. Each of these recount how Abbot John Whethamstede journeyed over the Alps in 1423 to attend the ecumenical council at Pavia.
While in Italy, he also made the journey to Roman Curia in the hope that he might secure an audience with the pope. On arrival he was struck down with a mortal illness and since plague was raging through the peninsula, causing the council delegates to swap Pavia for Siena, it was assumed that he would die. Pope Martin offered him the aid of his own physicians and when no cure could be worked, sent one of his officials to administer extreme unction. When all hope was lost, the abbot experienced a vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and on waking his recovery began.
When he was restored to full strength, he finally secured his hoped-for papal audience and, thankful for his survival, determined to do his best for is abbey by requesting three significant privileges from the pope. He was amply rewarded: Martin assented to his request and issued three bulls which the abbot hoped would distinguish St Albans from its Benedictine peers: to dispense the monks from the traditional abstention from meat during Lent; to permit the use of a portable altar at the monastery’s studium at Oxford and at their hostel in the city of London; to allow the abbot and convent to farm the income from the churches under their jurisdiction to laymen. Abbot Whethamstede gathered up his bulls and promptly returned home to St Albans.
Martin V’s bulls were an early success in a long career. Whethamstede held the abbacy twice, stepping out of office in 1441 when his health again failed but returning in 1452 and remaining then until his death in 1465, when he was probably at least 75 years old. He is remembered now for his achievements as a scholar and bibliophile, for his pioneering interest in Italian humanism and for his friendship with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V, and Protector during the minority of Henry VI. Yet his monks always remembered his audience with Pope Martin and in the biographical sketch they entered in their book of benefactors, they made much of his ‘three-fold’ character, surely a nod towards the bulls he had brought them all the way from Italy.
Certainly, the episode was well enough remembered for the abbot to be laid to rest with these trophies, and the biography tells us that the chapel Whethamstede built for himself was, yes, projecting southwards from the presbytery.
A fitting reburial is planned. And so, unexpectedly, it seems the first to be welcomed across the threshold of the abbey’s new welcome centre will be one of its own abbots.
Last July Cheryl Cooper, who had just completed a History degree at Exeter, did a student internship (funded by the College of Humanities and the Widening Participation scheme) looking at resources for medieval research in the Devon and Exeter Institution. She sums up her findings here. Now that we’re gearing up for the new academic year it might particularly interest returning undergraduates and MA students who are thinking about possible dissertation topics. For Exeter students and staff, Cheryl’s full report will shortly be put on the undergraduate and MA history dissertation ELE sites.
The DEI is one of Exeter’s hidden gems. A perfect paradise of calm and tranquillity for writers, historians and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Tucked away in the historic centre of Exeter, the DEI, from the outside, looks like many of the quaint buildings in Exeter Cathedral quarter, boasting beautiful cathedral views but you would be remiss to believe that this is where the magnificence of the DEI ends. The real treasures of the DEI are located just behind the historic front doors. Founded in 1813 for ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts, and for illustrating the natural and Civil History of the county of Devon and the History of the City of Exeter’, the DEI holds over thirty-thousand volumes and thousands of maps, prints and pamphlets and continues to be a ‘living library’ in which new acquisitions continue to be sourced. Students of Exeter University are automatically eligible for membership of the DEI for the duration of their degree, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) the DEI is a place that stays undiscovered for many students at Exeter. This may be partly due to the fact that many students, myself included, were/are unaware they are members of this hidden gem. As well as boasting a rather grand and peaceful reading room there are a number of study desks located in the library itself. The DEI makes a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of the campus library, and whether you choose to study in the library itself or in the reading room under the shadow of the cathedral, you will not be disappointed spending a few hours in this beautiful building – in fact as historians, the environment may even add some extra flair to your historical writing, as it certainly transported me back a few decades!
Medieval Resources at the DEI
Last July I was delighted to accept an internship with Exeter University cataloguing the medieval material held at the DEI – rifling through old books in a beautiful historic building did not seem like a bad way to spend a few weeks of my summer. The aim of the role was to try and get a clearer idea of what medieval materials the DEI possessed and to organize and present my findings in a way that would be useful for medievalists. Professor Henry French and Dr Catherine Rider had informed me at interview stage that to date, there was no comprehensive list of medieval materials held at the DEI so there was no way of knowing how long this task would take. It was a case of digging through the materials and finding a way of making it accessible to future researchers. I found this an exciting prospect, if not a little daunting. It was a project which I could fully co-ordinate and organise myself and one in which no one was sure what I might find hidden in the depths of the DEI. Of course as an historian the dream of finding a rare, undiscovered manuscript, hiding, untouched on a dusty shelf was never far away. Alas, this did not happen, but I did discover that the DEI holds a wealth of resources for medievalists, in particular for those wanting to research the history of the local area and contemporary views on medieval life.
The DEI (for those yet to visit) consists of two large rooms downstairs (The Inner Library and The Outer Library) and the Gallery situated upstairs. With over thirty-thousand volumes held within these rooms it was almost impossible to know where to begin. However, for this I must thank Paul and Derek from the DEI library team, who sat with me and explained how the library catalogue worked, where the most likely places to find medieval resources were and certain books of interest. Without their help I think I may have been unintentionally trapped in the DEI forever examining each book in turn! With their advice, as well as help and advice from Dr Catherine Rider, I identified the following categories as areas of interest: the Rolls Series, Local History, Wider Local History, Royal History and General History. These five areas are the ones which are covered in the most depth in my catalogue. The aim is to help medievalists who are researching the local area and students who are embarking on a research project and who want to use this local collection of sources.
Working through the areas identified produced a surprisingly large amount of medieval material; so much so, that it was impossible within this internship to list every individual resource. The catalogue produced is intended to give the researcher an idea of what type of material is held in each category and list examples from each. I have also included material that I found to be the most interesting, for example The Alchemical Testament of John Gybbys, translated from a 1423 ms held at the Bodleian Library and a wardrobe account from Edward I. I have tried to select a wide range of material to showcase just how useful the DEI library can be to medievalists.
This project has highlighted the medieval resources held at the DEI and has hopefully catalogued them in way which proves useful for medievalists. I would highly recommend the DEI as a place to study for Exeter students and hopefully this guide will show that it holds potential for medieval researchers. There are still areas yet to be covered in the hunt for medieval material, so who knows that medieval manuscript or unpublished source may be hiding in the DEI waiting for you to find it! Happy researching!
Cheryl Cooper, BA History Graduate and MA Student, University of Exeter