Whethamstede, John, Abbot of St. Albans

(c. 1390–1465)
   The Registers of John Whethamstede (or Wheathampstead), abbot of the important Benedictine monastery at St. Albans, are important sources for the personality and reign of HENRY VI and for the first phase of the WARS OF THE ROSES.
   Born in Hertfordshire and educated at Oxford, Whethamstede entered the monastery of St. Albans, where he was elected abbot in 1420. Because St. Albans was an old and wealthy foundation, Whethamstede was frequently involved in litigation to protect the monastery’s privileges and properties. Although a shy man in public, Whethamstede tenaciously defended the abbey’s interests by cultivating persons of influence. Henry VI visited St. Albans in 1428 and in 1459, and the king’s younger uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, became the abbot’s close friend and patron. Whethamstede resigned his abbacy in 1440, ostensibly for ill health, but was reelected to the office in 1451.
   Although influenced by Renaissance ideas, Whethamstede was not a humanist. His Latin works of history and classical mythology display much learning, but they were written in the flowery and verbose medieval style. Whethamstede was important in opening England to humanist scholarship, but he was not himself part of the humanist movement. Nonetheless, his Registers are important sources for the last years of Henry VI, especially since their author witnessed several key events firsthand. After the Battle of ST.ALBANS in 1455, Whethamstede asked leave of Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, to bury the bodies of Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset; Henry PERCY, earl of Northumberland; and Thomas CLIFFORD, Lord Clifford. During the second Battle of ST. ALBANS in 1461, the abbey was so heavily damaged that Whethamstede and his monks had to disperse to temporary quarters elsewhere.
   In about 1457, Whethamstede wrote in his Register that Henry VI was “simplex et probus,” which, in the context of the passage, would have been translated as “honest and upright.” Some later historians used the comment to support the laudatory view of Henry put forward by John Blacman in his “COMPILATION OF THE MEEKNESS AND GOOD LIFE OF KING HENRY VI.” However, after the Yorkist triumph in 1461, Whethamstede described Henry as “his mother’s stupid offspring, not his father’s, a son greatly degenerated from the father, who did not cultivate the art of war . . . a mild-spoken, pious king, but half-witted in affairs of state” (Wolffe, p. 19). Because of this seemingly radical change of heart, Whethamstede was accused by historians of transforming overnight from a staunch partisan of the house of LANCASTER to an ardent supporter of the house of YORK. But the abbott’s earlier use of “simplex” may actually have hinted at his Yorkist sympathies; it may have been a veiled allusion to Henry’s childish simplicity.
   Although too anxious to please the party in power and too ready to accept myth and anecdote— e.g., he attributes the 1461 St. Albans defeat of Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, to the ill effects of too much sun on the blood and resolution of southerners—Whethamstede provided useful accounts of such events as Henry VI’s initial illness, the Battle of NORTHAMPTON, and York’s attempt to claim the Crown (see Henry VI, Illness of). Whethamstede died at St. Albans in January 1465.
   Further Reading:Weiss, Roberto, Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967);“John Whetehamstede,” in Michael Hicks, Who’s Who in Late Medieval England (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1991), pp. 264–265;Wolffe, Bertram, Henry VI (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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