It is a perfect Easter story – except, unlike Jesus’s empty tomb after the Resurrection, this tomb is crammed with the remains of former Archbishops of Canterbury.
Last year, during the refurbishment of the Garden Museum, which is housed in a deconsecrated medieval parish church next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official London residence, builders made the chance discovery of a lifetime: a cache of 30 lead coffins that had lain undisturbed for centuries.
Closer inspection revealed metal plates bearing the names of five former Archbishops of Canterbury, going back to the early 1600s.
Building site managers, Karl Patten and Craig Dick, made their discovery by chance as the former chancel at St Mary-at-Lambeth was being converted into an exhibition space. Stripping out some York stone to even out the precarious paving, and enable disabled access to the old altar, they accidentally cut a six-inch diameter hole in the chancel floor – and noticed a hidden chamber beneath.
Attaching a mobile phone to a stick, they dropped it into the hole. What they filmed astonished them: a hidden stairway leading down to a brick-lined vault.
Inside, piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other, were the coffins. On top of one rested an archbishop’s mitre, painted red and gold.