The Mitre in the Archbishops' Tomb - Image courtesy of Craig Dick
This project has been made possible by National Lottery players
The Archbishops' Tomb
The Archbishops’ Tombs
On Easter Sunday the Sunday Telegraph reported on the discovery of a vault deep underneath the chancel of St Mary’s, Lambeth, in which 30 lead coffins have been buried, including between two and five Archbishops of Canterbury.
Thanks to the further support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we will be able to undertake further archaeological research, and to mount a small exhibition in the autumn. In the meantime, I hope these answers help; thank you for taking an interest.
Why didn’t you know about the vault with the ‘lost Archbishops’?
It was always known that six Archbishops were buried in St Mary’s, which for many years served the household of the Archbishops of Canterbury. However, the church – except for the medieval Tower – was demolished in 1851. It was rebuilt as a new structure to meet the needs of a parish which had become an industrial quarter. While carrying this out, the Victorians emptied the church of graves. You will see the slab of Elias Ashmole, for example, but there is nothing underneath but loose earth. And there is no trace of Anne Boleyn’s family in the aisle built for them in the 16th-century.
The church has been extensively studied, with three archaeological surveys in the years since it has been a Museum. But no one thought there might be a vault for Archbishops.
Also, we weren’t looking. The new Museum has been designed as a structure popping up within the shell of the old church, and it has no foundations. So, no digging. Except when our excellent contractors Rooff Ltd. removed a step to make an access for wheelchair users. They came across a slab, which lifted to reveal steps going down.
The new Garden Museum opens on 22nd May, and we are concentrating on the opening. The tomb has been sealed, with a glass viewing window placed over the steps. The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded further funding to research the vault, and we are working with Archaeology South East.
In the autumn we will make an interpretative display and share what we have found about the tombs.
So far, we have only been able to identify the coffins of two Archbishops: John Moore, who died in 1805, and Bancroft, who died in 1611.
Can I visit?
The Museum opens on 22nd May after a £7.5 million restoration and extension. The church is looking beautiful, and the new work has been inserted without digging up any burials. But don’t rush if it is to see the Archbishops: you will just see steps vanishing into the dark.
Why can’t I go into the tomb?
We feel that the burials should be left undisturbed.
The tomb is underground, and we do not yet know if it is safe. We have built a new floor supported by a steel beam, and over the summer we’ll work out if archaeologists can go inside.
I am having my wedding reception at the Museum, will it be affected?
No. All events will be proceeding as planned without any delay or changes, and the repair works made necessary by the discovery have been completed. The gallery under which is the Archbishops’ vault in inaccessible during weddings and other events.
The Museum opens on 22nd May. But I’m coming to the Plant Fair on 29th April. Will I get a peek?
No, not a peek. The Plant Fair will be held in the nave, and the new galleries, the extension, the café, and the Dan Pearson garden will not be open. Come if you want to buy plants! We wanted to go ahead with the Plant Fair as we have held a spring plant fair every year for 30 years.
Why haven’t you put the mitre on display?
To see the mitre in the dark was astonishing. As someone said, ‘It’s a golden crown’. However, it turns out to be what is called a ‘funeral attainment’: that is, a replica made of gilded tin for the funeral itself. We talked to experts, who agreed that it should be left where it is. Luckily, modern techniques enable us to share images with visitors.
Why was the church deconsecrated?
Many people are surprised to see a church at the gates of Lambeth Palace put to a new use. But try to remember the 1960’s. This part of London was still damaged by bombs, polluted, and less affluent; the church was cold, dark, and leaking. The Rector at St Mary’s was faced with a huge repair bill. No-one would have imagined in 1968 that a Heritage Lottery Fund would come into existence to rescue buildings such as this.
Also, Oliver Fiennes, the Rector at the time, was one of a generation of educated, philanthropic clergymen who saw the need for the church as a community centre in the modern city. He decided to take the congregation to a modern building a few hundred metres away, where it continues to thrive today.
The redundant structure became a Museum because of the vision and verve of one woman, Rosemary Nicholson, who came to see the tomb of John Tradescant, gardener to King Charles I. Tradescant believed that he was creating a new Eden on the banks of the Thames so we think a Garden Museum is a very fitting use for the site. Without us, it is unlikely the church would not be here, busy and alive. We have a long lease from the Diocese of Southwark, and we are proud to be the custodians of such a precious heritage. This current project has restored the surviving features of the interior.
Can I help?
You absolutely can. We are grateful for any donations to further archaeological research; we are a small, independent charity, and did not expect a find such as this.
To find out more about donating contact Christina@gardenmuseum.org.uk.
Christopher Woodward, Director of the Garden Museum