Forgotten archbishops everywhere

Forgotten archbishops everywhere –

Five archbishops found at St Mary-at-Lambeth

In my last post, I looked at the fate of an archbishop of Cologne, whose forgotten remains had recently been re-found in Bonn Minster.  I thought that losing one archbishop was maybe a tad careless.  However, one archbishop seems irrelevant compared to five.  It was recently revealed that the authorities at Lambeth Palace had managed to do the same with five archbishops.

Lambeth Palace has been the regular London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury since Hubert Walker (c.1160-1205), as it was close to Westminster Palace. Stephen Langton (c.1150-1228) wrote some of his first letters from the palace when he succeeded Walker in 1207.

The probably best-known feature of Lambeth Palace is the gatehouse built by John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1501).  Like his manor at Hatfield, the gatehouse is built of red brick, the building material for fashionable people in Morton’s time. It has been said that these two buildings are the only surviving examples of the early Tudor style of brick building in the area of London and close surroundings.[i]

Forgotten archbishops everywhere

Gatehouse of Lamabeth Palace, London

Right next to the gatehouse is the deconsecrated parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, which is now used as the Garden Museum.  The origins of the church go back to Saxon times, as the Domesday Book mentions a St Mary’s Church belonging to Countess Goda, sister of King Edward the Confessor.[ii]  The old church was rebuilt in 1852. The oldest part of the present building is the tower, built 1374-1377, at the south-western corner of the former church, which forms a right angle with Morton’s gatehouse.

Forgotten archbishops everywhere

St Mary’s next to the gatehouse of Lambeth Palace

In 2012, I visited the exhibition ‘Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer’ at Lambeth Palace Library to see Richard III’s Book of Hours.  To make sure that I wouldn’t miss my booked time for such an important event, I arrived early and thus had the opportunity to have a quick peek at St Mary’s.  Though, unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for a visit to the Garden Museum.

Forgotten archbishops everywhere

St Mary’s from the east

The museum has been closed since 2015 for refurbishment and is due to reopen later this month.  Last year, in the course of converting the former chancel of the church into an exhibition space, some stone flooring was stripped out.  The aim was to make the floor more even and enable disabled access to the old altar.  By accident, the workmen cut a hole into the floor – and discovered a staircase and a vault underneath.  Inside the brick-lined vault were 30 coffins, piled on top of each other.

On the coffin on top was an archbishop’s mitre, painted red and gold.  Some of the coffins had nameplates. Two archbishops of Canterbury could thus be identified:  Richard Bancroft (archbishop from 1604 to 1610), who was the “chief overseer” of the production of the King James Bible (first published in 1611, the year after his death). Also identified was another archbishop of Canterbury, John Moore (in office 1783-1805), as well as his second wife Catherine.  Another plate indicates the coffin of John Bettesworth (1677-1751), who was Dean of the Arches, the judge who sits at the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Forgotten archbishops everywhere

Richard Bancroft (via Wikimedia Commons)

Without nameplates, the others are more difficult to identify.  However, according to records, it seems likely that the vault also contains the coffins of Frederick Cornwallis (archbishop from 1768 to 1783), Matthew Hutton (archbishop from 1757 to 1758) and Thomas Tenison (archbishop from 1695 to 1715).  Another coffin might be that of a sixth, Thomas Secker (archbishop from 1758 to 1768).  His internal organs were buried in a canister in the churchyard, but the rest of his body might be in one of the coffins.

The mitre was made in the 17th century.  As the coffin, on which it was found, only dates from the late 18th to early 19th century, it probably was moved up as new coffins were placed on top of older ones.

The surprise when finding the coffins was not so much that archbishops and others had been buried in St Mary’s, but rather that they were still there.  It had been thought that the vaults had been filled in, during the 19th-century rebuilding of the church.  However, this discovery shows that the most prestigious vault, right in front of the altar, was left.

It is interesting to see that these archbishops had not been buried in the chapel within the precinct of Lambeth Palace, but rather in the parish church next door. As the director of the Garden Museum, Christopher Woodward, explained: “St Mary’s was unique as a London parish church as it was also, in effect, an annex of Lambeth Palace. This discovery opens up that whole story.”[iii]

The coffins were left where they were found and will not be disturbed.  The mitre was also left on top.  A glazed panel in the floor will allow visitors a glimpse of the staircase leading down to the vault.  Just a reason more to visit the Garden Museum once it re-opens later this month, on 22 May.

The Garden Museum has posted a short video clip about the discovery online.  You can find it here:

After rediscovering lost archbishops in churches other than their cathedrals and rediscovering lost kings under car-parks, who knows what else archaeologists may find.  I just read this morning that there are plans to dig up the tennis courts in Bury St Edmunds to look for St Edmund.[iv]

Further reading:

‘Remains of five ‘lost’ Archbishops of Canterbury found’, BBC News (16 April 2017).  URL: [last accessed 16 April 2017]

‘The Archbishops’ Tomb’, Garden Museum.  URL: [last accessed 2 May 2017]

Brinkhurst-Cuff, C., ‘Remains of five archbishops found near Lambeth Palace’, The Guardian (17 April 2017).  URL: [last accessed 17 April 2017]

Mount, H., ‘How the remains of five ‘missing’ Archbishops of Canterbury were found by accident’, The Telegraph (16 April 2017).  URL: [last accessed 16 April 2017]


[i] ‘Lambeth Palace’, in: Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall, ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1951), pp. 81-103. Available at British History Online, URL: [last accessed 17 April 2017]

[ii] Information on St Mary’s Church:  ‘Church of St Mary, Lambeth’, in: Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall, ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1951), pp. 104-117. Available at British History Online, URL: [last accessed 17 April 2017]; ‘Former Places of Worship in the Diocese of Southwark – Lambeth, St Mary-at-Lambeth’, Diocese of Southwark (last updated July 2007).  URL: [last accessed 17 April 2017]

[iii] Quoted in Mount, H.

[iv] Matt Reason, ‘Plan for Bury St Edmunds Abbey tennis courts dig in hunt for St Edmunds body’, East Anglian Daily Times (1 May 2017).  URL: [last accessed 2 May 2017]

2 thoughts on “Forgotten archbishops everywhere

  1. Pingback: Digging deeper at St Albans | Dottie Tales

  2. Pingback: A trip down memory lane – Richard III’s Book of Hours and the Middleham Jewel | Dottie Tales

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