By John Martin

The St. Mary-at-Lambeth Garden Museum, standing beside the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has yielded a long-forgotten burial vault containing coffins of five archbishops.

When workers restoring the medieval building lifted a stone slab, they found a large space below. Searching the void with a smartphone attached to a stick, they found 30 lead coffins, including a stack of six with a red and gold miter on top, glowing in the dark. The coffins for Richard Bancroft (archbishop in 1604-10) and John Moore (1783-1805) had nameplates. The coffin of Moore’s wife, Catherine, was among the six.

A later search of records showed that at least three other archbishops are buried in the vault: Frederick Cornwallis (1768-83), Matthew Hutton (1757-58), and Thomas Tenison (1695-1715). Church leaders had thought the former church had no crypt because it was so close to the River Thames.

Thanks to a £7.5 million (US$9.4 million) restoration project, visitors will see the coffins through a glass panel in the chancel floor.

During Bancroft’s tenure, a group of 54 scholars edited the Authorized (or King James) Version (1611).

“This is really astonishing. This is one of the most incredible things I’ve seen,” said Wesley Kerr, a former chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund. “To know that possibly the person that commissioned the King James Bible is buried here is the most incredible discovery and greatly adds to the texture of this project.”

The first St. Mary’s was a wooden structure dating from Norman times. It was for many years the parish church of Lambeth, and its vicars were often on the archbishop’s staff. The gates of Lambeth Palace are just a few yards away. The current building was made redundant in 1972. When church leaders learned that naturalist John Tradescant the elder was buried in the church in 1638, they designated a garden museum at St. Mary’s in his honor.

Hundreds of people are buried on the site, and many coffins were removed during the Victorian era. The internal organs of Archbishop Thomas Secker (1693-1768) are buried in an urn in the churchyard.

Another famous person buried in the churchyard is William Bligh, the autocratic sea captain depicted in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Mainpage image: Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1604 until 1610, is among those buried at St. Mary-at-Lambeth.

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