Archaeological work at the Garden Museum, housed in the former Lambeth parish church, delivered a major surprise. In January 2016, as builders set to work on a concrete slab, a hole appeared underneath. This cavity led to a long-forgotten crypt where, by the light of mobile phones, coffins could be seen stacked in the gloom. Steve White told Matthew Symonds how his team studied a space that was too dangerous to enter.
There is a reassuring permanence to churches. Exploring them in settings ranging from a country hamlet to a picturesque plot in suburbia reveals ranks of memorials clinging to the walls and ornate ledger plates under foot, worn smooth by generations of congregations. It is a space where the great and good of the parish can literally become part of the stonework. Seeing this accretion of the centuries provides a sense that this is a place where monuments will endure, and the dead can rest in peace. In many cases, it is also an illusion. Few churches demonstrate this as dramatically as Lambeth.
A church has stood at Lambeth since before the Norman Conquest. Today, the deconsecrated structure is home to the Garden Museum, while the building fabric betrays few clues to the longevity of worship on the site. Victorian renovation of the church was carried out with typical gusto, resulting in the existing structure being razed more or less to its foundations and then rebuilt. Only in the tower, which escaped such heavy-handed treatment, can traces of the deeper past be glimpsed in the surviving 13th- and 14th-century workmanship. By then, the parish church of St Mary at Lambeth was rubbing shoulders with a powerful neighbour: the adjacent Lambeth Palace was acquired as the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury some time around AD 1200.
Canterbury on Thames
‘The Church of St Mary and Lambeth Palace do have a unique relationship’, says Steve White, who led work on the site for Archaeology South-East. ‘There is a lovely quote from The Survey of London, which explains how close the bonds were: “It was for many centuries almost an adjunct of the palace, and many of its rectors have been chaplains or household officers of the Archbishop and often men of considerable eminence. Its bells rang out whenever royal personages came, as they frequently did up to the Stuart period, to visit the Archbishop.” According to a late 19th-century account, seven Archbishops of Canterbury were buried in Lambeth church, making it second only to Canterbury. The people of this diocese also tended to appeal directly to the Archbishop, instead of the Bishop of London.’ Of the seven archbishops that were supposedly buried within St Mary, five are commemorated by magnificent ledger plates set into a step leading up to the chancel. Although the dates of these run back into the 17th century, most of the memorials still present in the church do not stretch so far into the past. ‘We have a survey of the church that was undertaken in the mid 18th century’, says Steve, ‘and that gives all of the names of the people on monuments inside the church. None of these correspond with the ones that are apparent now. Indeed, looking at all of the burials outside the church area there’s a very finite date range, from 1750 until the burial ground was closed in 1857. The implication is that everything earlier than that has been moved.’
Evicting the dead
If freeing up space by raising the remains of those lying in St Mary’s was intended to increase revenue for the church, there is a good chance that it seriously backfired. By 1769, grave digging had been pursued with such vigour that St Mary’s needed emergency repairs after one of its main structural supports was accidentally undermined. The vestry minutes for 1770 document the expense of the ensuing building works, with an eye-catching £90 assigned to a bricklayer. Although it would not go far today, in 1770 this was a huge sum of money. On average, in the years running up to 1770, the annual amount spent on bricklaying was about £2. These twin strands, of a motive to move the dead in 1750 and a massive expenditure on brickwork 20 years later, bring us back to the mysterious crypt found under the chancel in January.
‘At the outset of the project, it was considered unlikely that there would be any human remains left inside the former church’, Steve says, ‘and the crypt doesn’t appear in any of the surviving architectural drawings. The plans for the Victorian rebuild are in the London Metropolitan Archive, and this tomb is conspicuous by its absence. There are a series of hashes in one of the side elevations of the eastern chancel, but that’s the only indication something was there. Now, that crypt is built of bricks, and it created a space that measures about 3.3m by 6m in plan, with a barrel vault. So could it be that this was inserted as a solution to both the need for a place to put some of the dead, and the need to shore up the church after it was undermined?’
‘For completely reasonable safety reasons, we couldn’t get into the crypt to examine it. First, the entrance was a very tight, confined space, and second it was immediately obvious that it contained numerous lead coffins, many of which appear to be unbroken. Instead, we took a series of photographs from the hole over the entranceway, so it was essentially a case of undertaking a survey using a camera on a stick. From the hole, we were looking east into the crypt, and it was clear that it contained a large number of coffins. There are certainly over 20 and the total may be as high as 30. One of the coffins had a red and gold archbishop’s burial mitre balanced on top of it, while metal coffin furniture and wood had flaked off some of the caskets. There were two questions we were particularly interested in: how had the coffins accumulated in the crypt, and who did they contain?’