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Beheaded cleric gets his face back after six centuries

Univ. of Dundee

A forensic reconstruction shows the face of Simon of Sudbury, a 14th-century archbishop of Canterbury who was beheaded by English rebels.

More than 600 years after he was beheaded, Simon of Sudbury has his face back,  thanks to a 21st-century virtual forensics project.

Sudbury was the archbishop of Canterbury when he lost his face, along with the rest of his head, in 1381. It was a mighty fall from grace for the man who made his way up to the top of England's ecclesiastical ladder and crowned King Richard II. But when Sudbury introduced the third Poll Tax as Lord Chancellor in 1380, the country's peasants had had enough. Sudbury was said to be so unpopular that the guards at the Tower of London just let rebels rush in during the Great Rising of 1381 and drag the bishop to his execution on Tower Hill.

Sudbury's head was put on a spike on London Bridge. Under cover of darkness, a man from the bishop's native Suffolk supposedly had it taken down and brought to St. Gregory's Church at Sudbury. (The bishop's body, meanwhile, ended up in a grave in Canterbury Cathedral, and the legend was that his ghost haunted the cathedral's tower.)

Now fast-forward six centuries: A Suffolk school worker named Ian Copeman worked with church officials to have Sudbury's partly mummified skull (with bits of facial tissue still attached) put through a CT scan at a local hospital. The readings from the skull were sent along to the University of Dundee's Center for Anatomy and Human Identification. In the past, the center has helped reconstruct the faces of other personages such as Johann Sebastian Bach. the sister of Cleopatra and the son of Ramses II

Under the guidance of center director Caroline Wilkinson, forensic artist Adrienne Barker took on the project. She digitally removed the extra facial tissue and had the CT data turned into a cast of the skull, using rapid prototyping. Using that cast as her foundation, Barker built up layers of clay to simulate muscle, fat and skin. The teeth were missing from the skull, perhaps because they were sold off as relics, so Barker had to use a bit of artistry to fill out the face. But she told me she followed "the current most accurate standards" to complete the project.

Barker acknowledged that the result, unveiled last month at St. Gregory's Church, shows that Sudbury was "strange-looking fellow." She told Discovery News that some onlookers at the church gasped when they saw his visage. "He was compared to characters such as Spock and Shrek," she said.

For better or worse, this is probably how Simon of Sudbury will be known from now on. Barker noted that the only other depictions to come to light are found in two stained-glass windows in Canterbury Cathedral.

"Both of them were done in Victorian times, a good 400 years after Simon was killed, so they're not really accurate," Barker said. "This is the most accurate reconstruction."

Now she's filling out an educational website about the Simon of Sudbury project that she hopes will get kids interested in forensics.

Barker acknowledged that "a lot of people think that it's morbid" to put make-believe flesh on the shape of a 600-year-old skull. But she thinks it's "really fascinating," and I'm betting a lot of kids will as well.

Other faces from history:

Tip o' the Log to Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi.

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