While history is important, we don’t tend to think about it affecting our daily lives. When you go to work and go to the gym, the very last thing you think about are all the people who have walked that path before you.
But, the truth is that history is everywhere and it informs everything we do. Sometimes you find it where you least expect it and you can’t help but realize that you are just one small part of a much greater story.
When museum director Christopher Woodward was overseeing the renovation of a new space for his museum’s collection, he was eager to bring history to the people. He had no idea that when the builders started taking the old building down they would discover their own important piece of the past.
Christopher Woodward panicked when he got a call from the construction team he had hired. He was fairly certain that they were calling to tell him that something had gone horribly wrong with the project. He was in for a shock…
The builders were hard at work at the Garden Museum in London. The museum is located inside a prized historic building in the city, a former church called St. Mary-at-Lambeth. While doing routine digging they discovered something totally unexpected.
The old church was located directly next to the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, across the river from another important building, Westminster Abbey. However, this building had secrets all of its own. The builders moved an old flagstone and discovered a hidden tunnel that led underground.
Lowering a camera down the passage to make sure it was safe, the builders captured something truly eerie: the lower level of the church was full of tombs. They found coffin upon coffin stacked up in these forgotten catacombs.
All of the coffins (about twenty in total) were lined with lead. The builders made another important discovery as they examined their discovery a bit closer. There was a gold and red colored miter, or bishop’s hat, sitting on one coffin. These must have been the remains of some important figures in the church.
Before it was deconsecrated, St. Mary-at-Lambeth church had been an important place. It was built in the 11th century, and in the 17th century because the church was so close to the Archbishop’s residence, it often became the final resting place for Archbishops.
The church might have ancient roots, but in 1852 it was almost completely torn down and rebuilt from scratch. During this renovation thousands of coffins were discovered and removed from the church by archaeologists. They thought they had found everything, but they were wrong.
The discovery of more tombs underground at St. Mary-at-Lambeth was a real shock, and not just because of the prior renovation. Because the church sat on the water, archaeologists did not think it was possible for underground tombs to even exist inside the church.
That’s what made this discovery by the builders so exceptional. However, that wasn’t the only thing. The builders also quickly saw that the name plates on each coffin were still totally visible and one of the coffins held the remains of an important historical figure.
One of the Archbishops buried in this newly discovered vault was Richard Bancroft who served as Archbishop from 1604 to 1610. Bancroft served as the primary editor of a new edition of the Bible written at this time that is still the most popular version of the book today: The King James Bible.
Christopher Woodward, the head of the Garden Museum and the man the builders first called about this discovery, couldn’t have been more pleased by his discovery. Who can blame him? It’s a major find and an important part of the country’s history.
The other coffins helped fill out a more complete picture of the history of the church of England. Archbishops and their wives from hundreds of years ago were rediscovered in the vault. Many of them were considered missing or stolen until now.
Researchers have also discovered that Frederick Cornwallis, who was Archbishop from 1768 to 1783, Matthew Hutton, who was in the position from 1757 to 1758, and Thomas Tenison, who served between 1695 and 1715, were also entombed in this vault.
All of the discoveries inside the bowels of the church would have been more than enough for the archaeologists called out to the scene, but there was more. In the yard they unearthed the organs of the sixth Archbishop, Thomas Secker, which had been placed there at his request.
These amazing discoveries might have been lost forever! In the 1970s there was a campaign to tear down the old church in order to serve a rising demand for housing. Luckily, it didn’t happen, and thank goodness, or all of this would have been lost.
Even when the builders were hired to do work on the former church, this discovery might not have been made. In fact, it was only when the builders accidentally drilled a hole in the floor while preparing handicapped access to the building that they realized what was under their feet.
If the entrance to this crypt had been located in any other part of the church, there is a very real likelihood that the coffins and their history would never have been discovered at all. No one would have known. What an eerie coincidence!
There are no immediate plans to move the bodies from the crypt. That is because while the lead-lined coffins probably only hold dry bones, if they don’t, and break or become damaged a terrible black fluid called “coffin liquor” could leak out everywhere.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a glimpse of these important pieces of the past! The museum plans include placing glass over the entrance to the crypt so that those visiting can get a good peek at what was found in the basement of the building.
Out of respect for the dead, nothing in the crypt has been removed. Everything has remained exactly as it was when the crypt was first discovered, right down to the bishop’s miter sitting on top of the coffins. It’s a touching testimony to the past.
What an amazing discovery! Once the museum’s renovations are done it will be such an amazing place to visit.
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