LONDON, United Kingdom — The remains of five archbishops of Canterbury have been accidentally discovered by builders in a hidden tomb beneath a London church, site developers said Sunday.
Some 20 lead coffins were discovered in a crypt underneath St. Mary’s-at-Lambeth, which sits outside Lambeth Palace, the central London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury — the highest cleric in England.
Two have been identified from name plates, while records show that five were buried in the crypt.
Of the two identified archbishops, one is Richard Bancroft, who was in office from 1604 to 1610 and who oversaw the production of the King James Bible, considered a definitive work of the English language.
Several hundred coffins were cleared out of the church for extensive renovation works in the 1850s, during which the vaults were filled in with earth.
But builders accidentally discovered one crypt had been left untouched.
“This was the discovery of a recorded vault below the chancel for high status burials, including those of five archbishops of Canterbury,” said the trust which runs the site.
The deconsecrated church is now the Garden Museum. It closed in October 2015 for renovations.
The discovery of the hidden crypt was made by builders during the re-laying of ledger stones.
“We were lifting the slabs and we uncovered an entry to what looked like a tomb,” said site manager Karl Patten.
“We got a camera on the end of a stick and discovered numerous coffins and one of them had a gold crown on top of it.”
The crown was an archbishop’s mitre.
Among the jumbled coffins found, four had name plates, including those of Bancroft and John Moore, who was the archbishop of Canterbury from 1783 to 1805.
Finding the coffin of Bancroft, the man who oversaw the English language’s landmark Bible, is “the most incredible discovery”, said historian Wesley Kerr.
Church records fished out since the discovery have revealed that three more archbishops were likely buried in the vault: Thomas Tenison (1695-1715), Matthew Hutton (1757-1758) and Frederick Cornwallis (1768-1783).
The archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the world’s Anglicans and the spiritual head of the Church of England.
Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward said: “We know there are five archbishops buried here.
“What we still don’t know is who else is down there.”
The museum is due to reopen next month. The coffins have been left undisturbed and a glass panel will allow visitors to see down into the vault.