Saturday, March 30, 2013

John de Bostock of Whethamstede: Part 3 - Gard Line

This is the third of three installments on John of Whethamstede.
If I could meet with one person on our family tree for an afternoon of conversation, I think it would be John de Bostock of Whethamstede (1383-1464), abbot of St. Albans in England.

For the record, our common ancestor is Sir William de Bostock (b. 1225).  By his first wife, Elizabeth, he had a son named Edward (b. 1245). By his second wife, Amice, he had a son named Gilbert (b. 1255).  We are descended from Edward, while John de Bostock of Whethamstede is descended from Gilbert.  (Gards, take note: the Bostocks are ancestors of Elizabeth Johnson, who married Jeremiah Gard in 1740.)

John de Bostock of Whethamstede’s life provides a window onto many aspects of medieval life: religious, political, military, cultural, and familial.

Part III: A Window onto Medieval Cultural Life

 In addition, then, to the familial, religious, and military matters of the age, Abbot John’s life is also instructive regarding the cultural life of the times.  The Benedictines were well known for the establishment of libraries, so Duke Humphrey appears in the picture once again.  An avid book collector, Duke Humphrey would eventually bequeath his vast personal library to the University of Oxford, where it is still housed at the Bodleian.  Duke Humphrey made regular visits to St. Albans to meet with the abbot, and over the years helped him to found a substantial library at the abbey.

Education was the province of the monks in the Middle Ages, and during the time that John of Whethamstede was taking his hiatus from the monastic life, the quality of the teaching function of the monastery had sunk to a very low standard.  When John began his second term as abbot, there was virtually no one in the Abbey any longer who could teach grammar [the rudiments of each subject], and at Oxford’s Gloucester Hall there were “hardly any students from St. Albans.”  What is more, it was very slim pickings when it came to finding someone who would take on “the burden of preaching” (Galbraith).  It shows something of Abbot John’s ability and devotion when the DNB reports that the monastery greatly improved once he undertook his second abbacy.

Whethamstede himself was a writer, keeping a chronicle for the period between 1440 and 1460, which still serves today as a source of information for this period.  In his verse, Galbraith reports, “It is impossible not to see in the florid verses of Whethamstede and in his prose (loaded with classical allusion and metaphor) an early appearance of the Renaissance spirit in England. Verse and prose are alike worthless, but show a striving after something better than mediaeval monastic writing. The tendency becomes more marked in his work after his visit to Italy in 1423, where he
was certainly influenced by the early Humanist movement.” The DNB lists the following as writings of Abbot John:
Granarium de viris illustribus (4 vols.)
Palearium Poetarum
Registrum Abbatiae Johannis Whethamstede, Abbatis Monasterii Sancti Albani
     (Register to the seventh year of his abbacy, with various letters)
Super Valerium in Augustinum de Anchona
Super Polycraticum et super Epistolas Petri Blesensis (a commentary on the epistles of Peter)
Cato Commentatus
Cato Glossatus
De situ Terræ Sanctæ
Pabularium Poetarum
Letters (“verbose and flowery”) in the Chronicles of St. Albans Abbey
Latin verses for many occasions (“mere doggerel”)
A small book with metres and tables

(Note: Cato Commentatus and the Granarium are probably the two books he presented to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, which Gloucester later donated to the University of Oxford. Others are in the British Museum.)

Whethamstede’s chamberlain at St. Albans, a lay clerk named Richard Fox, was also interested in books and writing and is known for having created an expanded version of the Brut Chronicle and seeing to its printing by William Caxton, who set up the first printing press in England. In addition, Fox wrote an account of the death of the abbot’s friend, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.  

One more aspect of medieval life remains: hospitality.  When one thinks of a medieval abbey, one doesn’t necessarily think of it as a hotel for travelers, but in the Middle Ages abbeys and convents often hosted dignitaries who passed through the area. The boy-king Henry VI and  his mother (Catherine of Valois) are known to have stayed at the abbey in 1428, and, in fact, Henry VI frequently visited the abbey during his reign.  Queen Johanna, the widow of Henry IV, who was Whethamstede’s tenant at nearby Abbots Langley, was hosted by the abbey as were  Henry de Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, and his wife Cecily Neville, Countess of Warwick.  The fact that the Duke and Duchess of Bedford once arrived with a retinue of three hundred people shows the level of entertaining the abbey was charged with doing.

In summary, then, we can say that the life of John de Bostock Whethamstede provides a window into the world of medieval England in all its array.  Abbot John died at the age of 81 on January 20, 1465, and was buried in the abbey church at St. Albans in a tomb that he had had made for himself years earlier.  Requiescat in pace.


Alston, George Cyprian. “The Benedictine Order.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907.  Web.  27 Mar. 2013. 

Galbraith, Vivian H., ed. The Abbey of St. Albans from 1300 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries: The Stanhope Essay, 1911.  2008.  Web. 29 Mar. 2013.

Hunt, William. “WHETHAMSTEDE or Bostock, JOHN.”  Dictionary of National Biography. 1885-1900. Vol. 60.  31 Aug. 2012.  Web.  30 Mar. 2013.,_John_(DNB00)

Riley, Henry Thomas, ed. Registra quorundam abbatum monasterii S. Albani, qui saeculo XVmo floruere: Registra Johannis Whethamstede. . . London: Longman, 1878. 15 Jan. 2008.  Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

© Eileen Cunningham, 2013

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