Archbishops were buried with painted, gilded, funerary mitres placed on their coffins

Golden Crown on A Coffin Leads the Way to Discovery of Five ‘Lost’ Archbishops of Canterbury

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Construction workers have stumbled across the tombs of five archbishops of Canterbury, dating back to the 17th century during Garden museum’s refurbishment. The museum is located in a deconsecrated medieval parish church next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official London residence.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury.

Use of Mobile Phone Leads to the Lucky Discovery

Last year, during the refurbishment of the Garden Museum, construction builders working in the site made an incredible discovery, finding a cache of thirty lead coffins that were hiding underground for centuries. Closer examination uncovered metal plates bearing the names of five former Archbishops of Canterbury, going back to the early 1600s. Building site managers, Karl Patten and Craig Dick, discovered the coffins accidentally as the former chancel at St Mary-at-Lambeth was being converted into an exhibition space. With the use of a mobile phone on a stick to film a flight of stairs leading down to a hidden vault, they spotted the coffins lying on top of each other alongside an archbishop's mitre. Karl Patten told BBC News: "We discovered numerous coffins - and one of them had a gold crown on top of it.”

The Garden Museum at St Mary-at-Lambeth

The Garden Museum at St Mary-at-Lambeth (CC by SA 3.0)

Some Coffins Include Nameplates and Reveal Valuable Information

Two coffins had nameplates, which belonged to Richard Bancroft, who served as archbishop from 1604 to 1610, and John Moore, archbishop from 1783 to 1805. Additionally, Moore’s wife, Catherine Moore, has a coffin plate as well.  It’s important to mention here that Richard Bancroft was the lead supervisor of the publication of a new English translation of the Bible, known as the “King James Bible”, which was first published in 1611.

Also identified from his coffin plate is John Bettesworth (1677-1751), the Dean of Arches, the judge who sits at the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Archbishop Richard Bancroft

Archbishop Richard Bancroft (public domain)

According to Harry Mount, a Sunday Telegraph's journalist and the first person who wasn’t involved directly to the discovery but was granted access, St Mary-at-Lambeth’s records suggest that three more archbishops were most likely buried in the secret vault: Thomas Tenison, archbishop from 1695 to 1715, Matthew Hutton, archbishop from 1757 to 1758, and Frederick Cornwallis, who served as archbishop from 1768 to 1783. A sixth archbishop (1758 to 1768), named Thomas Secker had his viscera buried in a canister in the churchyard. “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,” an excited Patten tells The Sunday Telegraph.

The archbishops' lead coffins in the hidden crypt

The archbishops' lead coffins in the hidden crypt CREDIT:  HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

Mystery Surrounds the Identify of the Rest Bodies

Garden Museum Director Christopher Woodward confesses that when he first received the call from the builders he worried that something was wrong with the project and couldn’t imagine that such an important discovery would’ve taken place. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Woodward tells The Sunday Telegraph and continues, “I knew there had been 20,000 bodies buried in the churchyard. But I thought the burial places had been cleared from the nave and aisles, and the vaults under the church had been filled with earth.”

The good news though, made him more than happy, “Wow, it was the crown - it's the mitre of an archbishop, glowing in the dark,” he told BBC News. However, he suggests that there are many more things we don’t know about the church’s history, “Still, we don't know who else is down there,” he said. And continues, "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 annex 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."

Deconsecrated back in the early seventies, St Mary's was due to be wrecked before becoming the Garden Museum. In October 2015, the museum closed for nearly a year and half to go through a € 8,8 million redevelopment project and is due to reopen in May 2017.

Top image: Archbishops were buried with painted, gilded, funerary mitres placed on their coffins CREDIT: GARDEN MUSEUM

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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