It is a genial face, suggesting a gentle, even a warm and engaging character; and faintly familiar: this could be the friend or neighbour of many years’ standing, perhaps the stalwart member of the parish congregation. Like any of those, it is a face that speaks of life experience; of the passage of time; of service given.

Only at the edge of the frame is there a hint of another, quite different feature of this man: his status as a great public figure, a prelate, represented by the red silk of the cope clasped at his neck and covering his shoulders. This is the face of one that was an actor in public affairs for most of his adult life. The victor of Agincourt, and his heir whose frailty was the cause of the Wars of Roses, this man knew at first hand. He witnessed the renaissance of quattrocento Italy – Florence, Siena, Rome – in real time. There he met the first Roman pope to be securely settled in the Holy City for more than a century. It was an encounter he carried with him, so it seems, to the very end of his life. When they dressed him for burial four decades later, the three papal bulls given to him by that pontiff were tucked into his vestments. It was that act of commemoration that caused his remains to be identified after almost 550 years: John of Wheathampstead (as he was commonly known), twice abbot of St Albans (1420-40; 1452-65), the best known and most influential of all the forty heads of the great Benedictine monastery.

To see Abbot John as contemporaries knew him opens a new perspective on the history of St Albans Abbey. By comparison with many of medieval England’s 650-odd monasteries, St Albans is well-documented, the preservation of a remarkable chain of chronicles providing an almost unbroken record of the fortunes of the church and its convent from its Anglo-Saxon origins to the end of the fifteenth century. These sources not only recall the ebb and flow of institutional life but also some of the personalities that animated it in the nearly nine centuries from first foundation to final dissolution. But these are occasional anecdotes told in an idiom alien to our own which can only reinforce the distance of ages. Some of the surviving manuscripts from the medieval abbey contain original illustrations but they were drawn and painted according to the principles of the time to depict general virtues and vices; rarely do they capture the unique characteristics of real people. The fabric of ancient buildings can carry a tangible trace of those that first inhabited them but in its journey from abbey to cathedral St Albans has been transformed and the daily living and working spaces of its medieval monks have entirely disappeared. Now, in Abbot Wheathampstead there is an authentic connection to the church’s medieval past, to the humanity of the generations that made and maintained the abbey, established the town, extended it and saw it prosper to the point that it took possession of the old monastery church to make it their own.

The facial reconstruction of the abbot equally enhances our view of medieval England. His is only the second face from the fifteenth century to be seen, nearly ten years after Richard III was revealed before the nation’s eyes. Abbot Wheathampstead is also only the second churchman of medieval England to be the subject of research of this kind. The face of Simon Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury who was the most high-profile victim of the mob during the Peasants’ Revolt of June 1381, was modelled in 3D in 2011. Sudbury was a possible subject for forensic investigation precisely because of his gruesome end: his decapitated skull had been kept as a relic in the parish church of his Suffolk home. By contrast, the burials of many of our medieval prelates have been disturbed and displaced over time as a result of the reformation, and re-formation, of their churches. Ironically, Abbot Wheathampstead’s skeleton survived in situ because it was buried outside of the church in a chapel he had built in his last years; although the structure was taken down soon after the closure of the monastery in 1539, the below-ground remains were not moved.

 The skeleton uncovered in November 2017 was far from complete but the skull itself was well-preserved and from the outset it was recognised as an ideal subject for forensic reconstruction. The scientific foundations and the artistic visualisation have been undertaken by the team at Liverpool John Moore University [LJM]’s Face Lab; the underlying analysis of the skeletal remains has been completed by Dr Emma Pomeroy, formerly of LJM and now in the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University. Biographical information that has a bearing on age, lifestyle and underlying health has been provided from the documentary sources by Professor James Clark at Exeter University.

The scientific method, which can be traced as far back as the work of the late nineteenth-century anatomist Wilhelm His (1831-1904), rebuilds the muscles of the face over the visible landmarks of the skull, covering them with a layer of soft tissue at a level appropriate for a subject of a given century and country of origin. Anatomical knowledge alone cannot determine individual features such as eye or hair colour and efforts to resolve these by drawing on genetic data in samples of such age and states of decay remain experimental. The wealth of biographical detail about Abbot John has helped to fill some of these gaps. Even in his prime he was renowned for his florid complexion, unkindly described as ‘girlish blushing’. From his fifties onwards he suffered chronic ill health, reportedly in spleen, kidneys, liver and stomach. He walked only with the aid of a stick. His obituarist recalled that in his last years he was simply worn out by his diverse conditions. No reference to his eye colour has yet been found but otherwise there are strong grounds for seeing him as an unusually red-faced man showing the ravages of the years more than most. The documentary sources do not specify his age but the known dates of his career, and the facts of his university education, indicate that he was born no later than about 1390, and perhaps a little before. When he died in 1465, he was at least entering into his late seventies.

Facial reconstruction is defined as a ‘scientific art’ since it combines forensic research and anatomical understanding with the creative capacity to visualise a subject in a given context. LJM’s artists have given close attention to John of Wheathampstead’s monastic identity, informed by a palette of contemporary portraits assembled by Professor Clark showing styles of hairline, neckline and dress in habit and church vestments. Given what can be inferred about his burial, it was decided to show him dressed in his celebrant’s clothes. His cope is copied from a fifteenth-century example of Opus Anglicanum work held in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The formality of his dress signals not only the status of his office as head of one of the premier abbeys of medieval England but also his principal role within the monastery, to lead the monks in their perpetual round of worship day and night. The arresting character of his face, its age, colour and wear-and-tear, is a valuable reminder that those that created and cared for these remarkable buildings are remote from us only in time; in spirit, and surely by sight, they were very much like ourselves.

Professor James G. Clark, University of Exeter

To find out more about Abbot John, why not join us for our online talk by Prof James Clark, coming up on Monday 21 September at 7.30pm?

Talk: Face to face with Abbot John

The Friends have supported this exciting reconstruction project. You can also find out more about Abbot John in a special display located in the exhibition area of St Albans Cathedral. 

James G. Clark’s book, John of Wheathampstead, Renaissance Abbot is available from the Cathedral shop or directly from the Friends @ £4.50, p&p £1.50