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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.
I’m delighted to see the fruits of a recent Exeter-based archaeological research project on the conflict landscapes of the 12th century published in book form. The co-written title Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-century Landscapes of Conflict, a volume of synthesis which is the principal output from the project, has just been published by Liverpool University Press, and a more specialist volume on archaeological surveys carried out during the fieldwork phase of the work is available through Archaeopress.
On the one hand it is a time to breathe a sigh of relief to see volumes that have seen such an investment of energy finally ‘out’. But the moment when fresh copies of your own books arrive on your desk it is also a time when a researcher will also reflect on the reasons for carrying out the work in the first place, ponder areas where the work headed off in directions that you didn’t quite anticipate, and think about future plans…
In this case, the research root of the work was an AHRC-funded project on the historic town and castle of Wallingford, which I had the pleasure to run with colleagues at the Universities of Leicester and Oxford, in partnership with local groups. While the main focus of this project was the evolution of a townscape from the late Saxon through to the post-medieval period, as the work developed we became increasingly aware of the place’s pivotal role in the civil war of King Stephen’s reign, in the 1130s, 40s and 50s. The place was the Angevins’ flagship castle for much of this infamously bitter conflict and resisted three protracted sieges, making it the most besieged place in England at the time. But relating the colourful accounts of these complex actions by chroniclers, involving numerous sieges, counter-sieges, raids and armed clashes, to the actual landscape of the town and its surroundings proved immensely challenging — no more so than in trying to locate the many ‘lost’ siege castles built around the town between 1139 and 1153.
My deepening curiosity about what archaeology could (and could not) tell us about this bleak but fascinating period and its ‘real’ impact on society and landscape led me to develop a project that would aim to marshal and interrogate the full range of available archaeological evidence, and conduct fresh fieldwork to explore on a range of sites. In terms of historical work on Stephen’s, there of course exists a vast historiography, with a raft of key volumes written and edited by towering figures of medieval history. In contrast, precious little had been written of the period’s archaeology.
With funding from the Leverhulme Trust, to whom we are hugely grateful, the two-year project saw a research team working in archives, record offices and of course in the field, where we carried out new surveys of a selection of sites — primarily castles, siege castles and settlements — across England. A characterising feature of the work was the way we investigated this conflict’s archaeology at a series of different scales — from analyses of individual artefacts (such as weaponry and dress accessories) to the physical remains of fortifications and their landscape settings, and through plotting datasets at regional and national scales, including the coinage, which tells us so much about shifting patterns of royal control.
In terms of the big question for historians — whether we genuinely see ‘anarchy’ in mid-12th-century England, or whether revisionist views that downplay the levels of chaos and violence are vindicated — what did our work show? Anarchy in the UK or business as usual? Is it playing safe to say that the material evidence of archaeology shows a bit of both? On the one hand, everyday material culture, such as pottery for example, shows precious little evidence for any Anarchy-period ‘event horizon’ in the archaeological record, and there are signs that in certain spheres, such as sculpture for example, this was a period of experimentation and investment in the arts. On the other hand, our mapping of conflict events and, for example, coin hoards (which can be argued to provide an index of insecurity) show that in those areas of the country where it was focused, the conflict hit the landscape hard. The fortification of churches and even cathedrals (Hereford’s had catapults positioned on its tower!) was just one indication of how the rules of war were being stretched. The focus of conflict in the Thames Valley and Wessex also shows that this was not a struggle over peripheral or separatist regions, but for the very heartland of English kingship. But the area of life brought into the sharpest focus by the archaeology is the rise to prominence of local lords and of the seigneurial image —not just through castle-building, but through investment in sculpture within parish churches and through an unprecedented boom in monastic foundation, for example. As local lords made their mark on local landscapes, this was unmistakably a period of image-making as well as war-mongering.
Oliver Creighton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter