In an older European city like London, decades of human history seem to seep from the cobblestone streets. Indeed, it seems like you can hardly take a step without passing a historical site or a beautiful medieval structure. Because of that, those renovating or remodeling older buildings can face some complicated issues.

So when the director of a museum located within a medieval church received a phone call from the manager of his remodeling crew, he was naturally nervous. Had the church crumbled? Had the construction damaged another nearby historical site? When he arrived to investigate, however, he found the answer to be far more exhilarating…

Christopher Woodward, Museum Director for London’s Garden Museum, envisioned beautiful renovations to the centuries-old building he operated. So, naturally, he panicked when site manager Karl Patten called him with a ominous request.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

“I think you better come here quickly,” Karl told Christopher over the phone. It sounded like bad news, and given the history of the building, there was a lot that could go wrong. For instance…

Garden Museum / Vimeo

The museum was located within the medieval church, St. Mary-at-Lambeth, not far from the River Thames. Beside it was the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and across the river was Westminster Abbey—both priceless structures. Had the construction damaged something irreplaceable?

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Christopher arrived at his museum, and Karl explained the situation. “We were exposing the ground as part of the job,” he said, “and we uncovered an entry to what looked like a tomb.” Christopher’s mind was racing—uncovering a tomb should have been impossible.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Christopher explained. “We were told there was no crypt because it was so close to the Thames, it would have flooded … [and] in the 1850s … they cleared out hundreds if not thousands of coffins” to install underfloor heating. So what the heck had Karl found?

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Putting safety first, Karl (right) retrieved a camera, attached it to the end of a stick, and lowered it into the chamber. Then, from the ground level, the men peered into the lower level of the church.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Down through the hatch were more than a dozen coffins—30 to be exact. More curious than the coffins themselves, however, was the brilliant object that was perched atop one of them…

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Christoper was floored. “I came in thinking this [phone call] sounds like bad news, problem, and wow, and it’s the crown—it is the mitre of an Archbishop gleaming there in the dark.” But somehow, that wasn’t the most impressive discovery!

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Among the coffins discovered in the lower-level crypt were those of five archbishops—all of whom had extensive and historically impactful resumes to their names! One coffin, for instance, bore a plaque with the name John Moore.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

John Moore served as Archbishop from 1783 to 1805. Described as amiable, he led movements in support of Sunday schools and missionary enterprises. Still, historians working on the project were drawn to one coffin in particular…

Along with Archbishops Thomas Tenison (left, who reigned 1695 to 1715), Matthew Hutton (1757 to 1758), and Frederick Cornwallis (1768 to 1783), Christopher discovered the remains of Archbishop Richard Bancroft (right). You might be familiar with his work…

Archbishop Bancroft served from 1604 to 1610; during his tenure, he oversaw the writing and publishing of the King James translation of the Holy Bible! Historians involved in the project couldn’t contain their excitement.

The Telegraph

“To know that possibly the person that commissioned the King James Bible is buried here is the most incredible discovery,” Wesley Kerr, a historian and horticulturalist, said. It “greatly adds to the texture of this project.” And yet the crypt contained more than its share of mysteries, too.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

“We still don’t know who else is down there,” Christopher said, as the contents of all 30 coffins hadn’t been identified. Still, the church’s history might’ve had held some answers: more archbishops and their families.

“This church had two lives,” Christopher said. “It was the parish church of Lambeth … but it was also a kind of annex to Lambeth Palace itself … Over the centuries a significant number of … archbishops … chose to worship [and be buried].”

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Perhaps most amazing of all, however, was that, by all accounts, this discovery should have never been possible. “Every archaeologist in London has looked in this building,” Christopher said, “but nobody told us to expect us to find anything.”

Hyper Allergic

As for Christopher’s findings, he didn’t have any grand plans to remove the coffins or crown. To respect the dead, he and the Garden Museum left the bodies right where they were—though he didn’t shut them away completely from the public eye.

Garden Museum / Vimeo

Once the 18-month, £7.5 million redevelopment project was completed in 2017, the Garden Museum presented a single pane of glass that would cover the entry to the tomb. So, what did that mean for Garden Museum patrons?

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It meant that, as they perused the museum and inspected installations that beautifully captured bits and pieces of London’s colorful history, they, too, could stumble upon the hidden crypt of the archbishops!

Hyper Allergic

What an amazing thing—especially by accident! Learn a little bit more about the history of the Garden Museum, St. Mary-at-Lambeth church, and the incredible uncovering of this packed tomb!

With the lost archbishops’ tomb as a centerpiece, Christopher’s vision of beautiful museum renovations came true! And to think, he thought he was getting bad news when the site manager called him.

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