The Archbishop's Bones
Jane Austen's Regency World|88 – July/August 2017

An important discovery was made recently in a London church. Maggie Lane was quick to spot the connection with Jane Austen

 

The coffins of five archbishops of Canterbury from the 17th and 18th centuries were recently found deep beneath the high altar of St Mary’s-at-Lambeth, a deconsecrated church attached to Lambeth Palace in London. Workers discovered the vault by chance when they were working on the floor of the chancel to extend some exhibition space, and found a six-inch hole opening up beneath them. Having lowered a mobile phone to take a photograph of what was down there, they saw a brick stair and vault with a red and gold archbishop’s mitre placed on the topmost coffin. They realised that they had made an historic discovery.

Further investigation revealed that there were 30 lead coffins, some bearing the names and dates of their occupants. But what no one remarked on when the story broke was that one of the archbishops, John Moore, who died in 1805, had a family connection with Jane Austen. She was on visiting terms with his widow and his eldest son, who had married her brother’s sister-in-law. Some of his grandchildren were well known to her.

Lambeth Palace, on the south bank of the Thames, has been the London home of all Archbishops of Canterbury since the 13th century, and is still used as such. There is a chapel within the palace for the Archbishop’s use but additionally, until the 1970s, services were held in a small adjoining church of medieval origin, known as St Mary’s-atLambeth. It was then considered redundant and deconsecrated; for a few years there was danger of demolition, but a new use was found for it and its surrounding churchyard. It is now home to the Garden Museum, a small but charming green oasis for visitors in the busy heart of London.

Although historically most Archbishops have been interred at Canterbury Cathedral, it is not surprising that some of them over the years should have died at Lambeth and been buried there. But it was thought their coffins had been swept away when, except for its tower, St Mary’s was rebuilt by the Victorians and the ground beneath filled in – as indeed it was, except for immediately under the high altar, the most prestigious resting-place of all.

John Moore came from a humble background and had worked and finessed his way to eminence and wealth. His father, Thomas, was a butcher and grazier in Gloucester, where John was born in 1730. Educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, he made the leap from trade to profession via Pembroke College, Oxford, gaining his BA in 1748 and MA in 1751. After taking holy orders he spent some years as tutor to two of the sons of the Duke of Marlborough. Thereafter his rise became meteoric. In September 1761 he was preferred to a prebendal stall in the cathedral of Durham, and in April 1763, to a canonry at Christ Church College, Oxford. On July 1, 1764, he took the degrees of BD and DD, becoming Dr Moore. In September 1771 he was appointed dean of Canterbury and in February 1775 was consecrated as bishop of Bangor. Whether he actually lived in all these places is doubtful, but he certainly enjoyed considerable income from them.

He made two marriages: first, to a daughter of Robert Wright, chief justice of South Carolina; second, in 1770, to Catherine, daughter of Sir Robert Eden, of West Auckland in Co Durham. On April 26, 1783, Moore was translated to Canterbury on the recommendation of two bishops who had declined the primacy themselves, possibly from indolence. It was truly a remarkable rise for a butcher’s son, somewhat resembling the rise of Thomas Cromwell in a different era and different office.

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