When Christopher Woodward got a phone call from some builders, he assumed that they must be having problems with the work they were doing. But the phone call was actually about something far more exciting. In fact, they’d found an object that had been buried under the ground for hundreds of years.
The builders were working at the Garden Museum in London, which is located in the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. And that location would turn out to be very important. Why? Because the museum is next to the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, while it also sits across the River Thames from Westminster Abbey.
Now while the builders were lifting flagstones in the old church, they discovered something unexpected. It looked like an entrance to a subterranean room, and although the opening was small, it obviously led somewhere. Determined to investigate further, then, the workers subsequently attached a mobile phone to a stick and lowered it down – and what they saw was incredible.
Underneath the workers there were a number of coffins; they had found a tomb beneath the floor of the former church. On closer examination, moreover, their discovery became even more astonishing. That’s because something yet more unexpected sat on top of the pile of coffins, and it was an object that gave the entire find an extraordinary twist.
In total, there were at least 20 coffins in the tomb, all of them lined with lead. And there, on top of the pile, was a red and gold miter – which could mean only one thing. The builders had inadvertently discovered the last resting place of at least one former archbishop. As it turned out, however, they’d actually done even more than that.
The church of St Mary-at-Lambeth was first erected in the 11th century, with its initial construction funded by the sister of Edward the Confessor, who was the King of England at the time. Then later, beginning in the 17th century, it was used as a burial site for a number of archbishops because of its proximity to Lambeth Palace. Nevertheless, the discovery still came as a surprise.
Subsequently, in 1852, the church was entirely rebuilt, with only the tower left in its original state – and it was previously believed that all of the remains had been cleared out during this overhaul. Indeed, thousands of coffins were removed during the renovation, and as a result, archaeologists supposed that St Mary-at-Lambeth had given up all of its secrets.
There was another reason for thinking that there would be no more discoveries in St Mary-at-Lambeth. Because of its position at the edge of the River Thames, the church’s crypts were liable to flood. Consequently, many archaeologists believed that there were no underground vaults to be discovered at the church.
What’s more, a number of the coffins that were discovered still had their name plates, revealing who had been laid to rest inside. This in fact led to the most momentous discovery of them all. One of the name plates showed that the body of a man called Richard Bancroft was buried in the crypt – and he had played a hugely important role in the history of Christianity in England.
Bancroft was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1604 to 1610, and during that time he was chosen by King James to oversee a new English translation of the Bible. This version became known as the King James Bible, although it’s also sometimes called the Authorized Version.
Christopher Woodward, the director of the Garden Museum, subsequently spoke to The Telegraph about the significance of Bancroft’s work. “The words he forced into print still ring out across a thousand churchyards every Sunday morning,” Woodward said. “It feels very precious to have his coffin as cargo in our hold.”
Alongside Archbishop Bancroft’s casket, a number of the other coffins carried name plates as well. One was for another archbishop, John Moore, who had held the position from 1783 until 1805. Moore’s wife, Catherine, was also buried in the same crypt, and her coffin had its name plate still firmly in place too.
There are also records that suggest other luminaries of the Church are buried in the crypt as well. Indeed, three more archbishops are believed to share the same final resting place. They are Frederick Cornwallis, who was archbishop from 1768 to 1783, Matthew Hutton, who was in the position from 1757 to 1758, and Thomas Tenison, who held the role between 1695 and 1715.
Another coffin was also identified, and it’s believed that it belongs to a man named John Bettesworth, who held a position known as the Dean of Arches. Essentially, he was a judge who was part of the court of the archbishop. Meanwhile, a sixth archbishop, Thomas Secker, had his organs buried in a container in the yard of the church.
Interestingly, there was a period in the 1970s when the whole of the church, not just the crypt, was in jeopardy. In fact, after it was deconsecrated, the entire building was due to be demolished. Instead, though, it was saved and subsequently became the world’s first gardening museum. Things might have been very different, then, if the old building had been torn down.
What’s more, the only reason that the crypt was discovered was thanks to an accident. The builders, who were undertaking a £7.5 million ($9.8 million) renovation of the Garden Museum, were moving some of the flagstones to aid wheelchair access. And while doing so, they accidentally cut a 6-inch hole in the floor.
Had the hole been in a different place, there’s a chance that the hidden crypt may have remained undiscovered. However, the remarkable coffins that were found in the underground chamber aren’t going anywhere any time soon – and there are a number of very good reasons for that.
While the lead-lined coffins are likely to house only the dry remains of the dead, there’s another possibility. Bodies can sometimes decompose into a black, gloopy liquid called coffin liquor, and if these old caskets ever break, this substance could well spill out everywhere. That doesn’t mean that you can’t visit the crypt, though.
As part of the refurbishment of the Garden Museum, a hole has been left in the floor. It’s square, it’s lined with bricks, and there’s a panel of glass laid into it. This will therefore give people the opportunity to peer down at the stairs that lead into the secret crypt. At the same time, it will allow the occupants to rest undisturbed.
The crypt itself has been left exactly as it was found. That means the miter, the sight that first suggested the magnitude of the find, remains in place too. Indeed, the gold and red headpiece still sits on top of the pile of caskets. And there it will remain, a reminder of the wondrous discovery that many had thought was impossible.