Beheaded Archbishop's Face Revealed

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The reconstructed face of Simon of Sudbury. Courtesy of Adrienne Barker.

The face of a 14th-century former Archbishop of Canterbury has been revealed 630 years after he was beheaded by angry peasants.

Resembling a character out of a science fiction movie, the medieval cleric Simon of Sudbury now stares at visitors in St. Gregory’s Church at Sudbury in Suffolk, where the 3-D model is on permanent display alongside the original skull.

“There was a gasp when people saw what he looked like as his sculpture was unveiled. He was compared to characters such as Spock and Shrek, and some were surprised by the size of him. Indeed, he is quite a big guy,” forensic artist Adrienne Barker from the University of Dundee told Discovery News.

Simon of Sudbury, who was Chancellor of Salisbury and Bishop of London before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375, crowned King Richard II at Westminster Abbey in 1377.

Named Lord Chancellor of England three years later, the mild and gentle archbishop soon became the target of the peasants’ hatred.

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Seen as responsible for introducing the third poll tax, Simon met a grisly end when insurgents stormed the Tower of London during the Peasants’ Revolt, or the Great Rising of 1381. They dragged him from his chamber to Tower Hill, struck off his head and placed it on a spike on Tower Bridge.

It is believed that the gruesome trophy was spotted by a man from Sudbury, who grabbed it in the middle of the night and brought it back to his hometown in a barrel of brine.

While the archbishop’s body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, the head has been kept at St. Gregory’s Church at Sudbury in Suffolk ever since.

To reconstruct the archbishop’s face, Barker first carried out CT scans on his partly mummified skull.

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The scans provided grim details about the execution.

“The CT images showed evidence of only one blow, which would have cut through the neck tissue at least halfway and would have severed the cervical spinal nerve 4, causing respiratory arrest,” Barker said.

“This is not to say that there weren’t more blows; however these would have occurred to tissues we no longer had access to,” she added.

Barker, who created a website detailing how the reconstruction worked step by step, made use of known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces.

Once a cast of the skull was produced, she stuck in wooden pegs cut to the lengths of the desired tissue thickness on the corresponding points of the skull.

She then plastered the cast with layers of clay matching the thickness specified by the pegs and made the final touches simulating skin and tissue. Features such as the nose, lips, eyelids, eyebrows and ears were modeled on top, their shape determined by the skeletal details.

“His odd-shaped skull is relatively small for a male of his age. I was surprised about how big a guy he ended up being,” Barker said.