Recently making news headlines thanks to the work of Adrienne Barker of the University of Dundee in reconstructing his face, Simon of Sudbury wasn’t born in London and, in fact, spent much of his early life elsewhere. But, as Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, he was a key figure in the 14th century city and it was in London that he eventually met his grisly death during the Peasant’s Revolt.
Simon Theobold was born around 1316 – the son of a wealthy Norfolk merchant – and, while details of his early life are scant, it has been suggested he studied at Cambridge before eventually entering the service of William Bateman, the Bishop of Norwich. He apparently became caught in the middle of a dispute between the bishop and the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (the details of which we don’t have time to get into here) and it was this which is said to have led to the issuing of a royal order for his arrest, a move which forced him to flee England for the papal court at Avignon.
He quickly came to the attention of the popes and took on an official role, the reward for which was the income from various positions in the English church including Chancellor of Salisbury. In 1356, Pope Innocent VI sent him on a peace mission to King Edward III and it was during this mission that he came to the attention of the king. Having never been formally outlawed, he was apparently forgiven his earlier crimes and was soon acting on behalf of the king including at the Papal court.
In 1361, Simon was made Bishop of London and spent the next 10 years in the role, as well as continuing to act for the king, notably as a diplomat.
In 1375 following the death of incumbent William Whittelsey, he was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. His time as archbishop was somewhat troubled – as well as facing accusations of being too close to the king, he also faced criticism over his treatment of Bible translator John Wycliffe – but it was his role in secular politics which led to his demise.
Following the accession of King Richard II in 1377, in 1380 Simon was appointed chancellor, a position which meant he bore the ultimate responsibility for the imposition of an extremely unpopular new poll tax. In 1381, there were calls for his death at the outbreak of rebellion in Kent, notably when the rebels entered Canterbury Cathedral. But as the crisis now known as the Peasant’s Revolt gained momentum, Sudbury remained with the king in the Tower of London where he apparently counselled a hard line.
King Richard II when to parley with the traitors at Mile End on 14th June and there apparently indicated that action would be taken against traitors around him (Wat Tyler was killed when the king again met the rebels, this time at Smithfield, the following day). A group of rebels subsequently stormed the tower and dragged out Sudbury and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. Taken to Tower Hill, they were there beheaded. Sudbury’s head, which apparently had a skullcap nailed to his skull, was impaled on a lance and put on display over London Bridge. His body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.
The skull, meanwhile, was apparently taken down by a Sudbury man and taken back to his home town where it was kept at St Gregory’s Church. Some 630 years later, following an approach by Sudbury locals, forensic artist Adrienne Barker from the University of Dundee was asked to recontruct Simon’s head.
Following some CT scans of the skull, Barker – who carried out the work as part of her MSc Forensic Art studies under the tutelage of renowned facial reconstruction expert Professor Caroline Wilkinson – used state-of-the-art reconstruction techniques to recreate Sudbury’s facial features and complete a series of 3-D bronze-resin casts of his head. The models, one of which will be on permanent display at St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury alongside Simon’s skull, were unveiled in September.
PICTURE: University of Dundee