Monday, 17 April 2017

Missing coffin of former Bishop of
Lichfield found in Lambeth crypt

Archbishop Frederick Cornwallis … the missing coffin of the former Bishop of Lichfield has been unearthed near Lambeth Palace

Patrick Comerford

The coffin of a former Bishop of Lichfield is among the remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury that have been found in a crypt beneath a mediaeval church beside Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Frederick Cornwallis was Bishop of Lichfield ((1750-1768) before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury (1768-1783). His coffin is one of five coffins that have been discovered at the deconsecrated church of Saint Mary-at-Lambeth while it was being refurbished, but the exciting discovery was kept secret for months until yesterday [16 April 2017] so that the work could be finished.

The redevelopment team at the Flower Garden Museum, led by Karl Patten and Craig Dick, accidentally came across the dark entrance to the tomb as they began stripping back the flagstones from the church.

After uncovering a set of stairs under a slab, they fashioned a long torch out of a mobile phone attached to a selfie stick. This gave them their first glimpse of a hidden crypt with 30 lead coffins.

Karl Patten told the BBC at the weekend: ‘We discovered numerous coffins – and one of them had a gold crown on top of it.’ Archbishops were often buried with gold-painted mitres on their coffins.

While the identity of some of the bodies remains a mystery, three of the coffins have nameplates: Richard Bancroft (Archbishop of Canterbury 1604-1610); Matthew Hutton (1757-1758); Thomas Tenison (1695-1715); John Moore (1783-1805) and his wife Catherine Moore; and Frederick Cornwallis (1768-1783). Also buried here is an ecclesiastical judge, John Bettesworth, Dean of the Arches (1710-1751).

Saint Mary-at-Lambeth, where Archbishop Cornwallis was buried in 1783 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cornwallis was born in London, the seventh son of Charles Cornwallis, 4th Baron Cornwallis. He was educated at Eton and Christ’s College, Cambridge. He was ordained priest in 1742.

In 1746, Cornwallis became a chaplain to King George II and a canon of Windsor. In 1750, he became a canon of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Later that year, he became Bishop of Lichfield thanks to the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle, then Secretary of State.

While he was Bishop of Lichfield, Cornwallis was also Dean of Windsor (1765-1768) and Dean of Saint Paul’s (1766-1768). On the death of Thomas Secker in 1768, his friendship with the then-prime minister, the Duke of Grafton, secured his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, his sociability and geniality made Cornwallis popular. He was a consistent supporter of the administration of Lord North, and led efforts in support of dispossessed Anglican clergy in the American colonies during the American Revolution. He is regarded as a competent administrator, but an uninspiring leader of the 18th century church – a typical product of the latitudinarianism of the day. It was this lack of zeal that is said to have paved the way for the later rise of both the Evangelicals and the Oxford Movement in the early 19th century.

When Cornwallis died on 19 March 1783 at the age of 70, he was buried at Saint Mary’s Church, Lambeth. But the exact place of burial and his coffin were lost to history until the discovery announced yesterday.

Lambeth Palace has been the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury for almost 800 years, so perhaps it is little surprise that these coffins were buried here. The coffins have been left undisturbed, although the builders have installed a glass panel in the floor above them so visitors can peer into the crypt.

The Garden Museum, which has been closed for the present £7.5 million redevelopment since 2015, is expected to reopen next month, on 22 May 2017.

Flowers in the Flower Garden in Saint Mary-at-Lambeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This report was subsequently published in the ‘Lichfield Mercury’ on 20 April 2017 under the headline ‘Coffin of Bishop of Lichfield found in crypt beneath mediaeval church’

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