THE long-forgotten remains of five former Archbishops of Canterbury have been accidentally uncovered in a deconsecrated medieval church next to Lambeth Palace.
Workers at the Garden Museum, which is on the site of the former St Mary-at-Lambeth, just outside the walls of Lambeth Palace, came across a hidden crypt during recent renovations.
When archaeologists inspected the space underneath the former chancel, they discovered 30 lead coffins, including several holding the remains of former Primates. On top of one rested an archbishop’s mitre, painted in red and gold.
Two of the coffins had name plates, revealing that they were the final resting-place of Richard Bancroft, Archbishop from 1604 to 1610, who oversaw the King James translation of the Bible; and John Moore, Archbishop from 1783 to 1805.
St Mary-at-Lambeth’s records suggest that another three former archbishops are also interred in the vault.
It had been thought that all the remains of former archbishops buried at the 11th-century church had been moved when the church was largely rebuilt in 1851. St Mary-at-Lambeth was deconsecrated in 1972, and was due to be demolished before it was taken over and turned into the Garden Museum.
The museum’s director, Christopher Woodward, said: “This church had two lives: it was the parish church of Lambeth, this little village by the river . . . but it was also a kind of annexe to Lambeth Palace itself.
“And, over the centuries, a significant number of the archbishops’ families, and archbishops themselves, chose to worship here, and chose to be buried here.”
Because historians thought that the Victorians had cleared all the coffins while rebuilding the church more than 170 years ago, Mr Woodward said that he had been told not to expect to find anything during the recent construction work.
The manager of the building site, Karl Patten, who made the discovery when he accidentally cut through the chancel floor, told The Sunday Telegraph: “It was amazing seeing the coffins. . . We’ve come across lots of bones on this job. But we knew this was different when we saw the Archbishop’s crown.”
The funeral historian Julian Litten told the paper that the find was unique. “There is no other vault in the UK so rich in its sacerdotal contents. In short, it is the only archiepiscopal vault in the UK, and therefore unique in the true meaning of the word.”
The Garden Museum has been closed since 2015 for renovation. When it reopens, next month, visitors will be able to see into the rediscovered crypt, with its untouched archiepiscopal coffins, through a glass plate which has been installed in the floor.