Remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury accidentally discovered

A cache of 30 lead coffins was discovered during the refurbishment of the Garden Museum, in a deconsecrated medieval parish church next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official London residence. Metal plates on the coffins revealed names of five former Archbishops of Canterbury, going back to the early 1600s.

Archbishop’s crown found still standing on one of the coffins (by Garden Museum)

During construction works converting the former chancel at St Mary-at-Lambeth into an exhibition space a 15 centimetre hole was cut in the floor after striping the paving. The hole revealed a hidden stairway leading down to a brick-lined vault under the floor. Inside the discovered chamber, coffins piled on each other were discovered, with one having an archbishop’s mitre, painted red and gold, resting on the lid. The discovery was made months ago and kept in secret until now, to secure the unstable vault for the museum’s grand reopening next month.

Lead coffins of the bishops (by Heathcliff O’Malley)

Some coffins had nameplates, which belonged to Richard Bancroft (archbishop from 1604 to 1610), John Moore (archbishop from 1783 to 1805), and his wife, Catherine Moore, John Bettesworth (1677-1751), the Dean of Arches. Further investigation in the archive documents allowed to identify other individuals resting in the tomb as Frederick Cornwallis (archbishop from 1768 to 1783), Matthew Hutton (archbishop from 1757 to 1758) and Thomas Tenison (archbishop from 1695 to 1715). A sixth, Thomas Secker (archbishop from 1758 to 1768), had his viscera buried in a canister in the churchyard.

Richard Bancroft, former Archbishop of Canterbury (by Alamy)

St Mary-at-Lambeth was built as an Anglo-Saxon church in 1062. Lambeth Palace was built later, in the 13th century. Deconsecrated in 1972, its pews and bells were transplanted to churches and houses across the country. It was even due to be demolished before becoming the Museum of Garden History (later renamed the Garden Museum) in 1977. There were records of archbishops being buried in the church, from the 17th to the 19th centuries. But it was thought their coffins had been swept away in 1851, when the ancient church was almost entirely rebuilt. According to the researchers there is no other vault in the United Kingdom so rich in its priestly contents.

Dr John Moore, Archbishop of Canterbury (by Bridgman Images)

(after Bridgman Images, Alamy, Heathcliff O’Malley & The Telegraph)

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