St Mary’s church in Lambeth was rebuilt by the Victorians, but its tower is a medieval gem that offers a breathtaking view of an unusual aspect of London. In its present form the tower dates from 1377, though it was founded as a wooden structure in 1062 by Countess Goda (or Godgifu), a sister of Edward the Confessor and daughter of King Ethelred. While Edward was building Westminster Abbey on the other side of the Thames, Goda was constructing St Mary’s. Apart from the crypt of Lambeth Palace, it is the oldest structure in Lambeth and one of the oldest buildings in all of London.
The church used to be intimately linked with neighbouring Lambeth Palace, with which it still shares a wall (see picture below). This may help explain why among the 26,000 people buried in and around the church there are six and a bit archbishops of Canterbury (don’t ask). It has been been known for ages that they were there, but it was only recently, when builders unexpectedly came across an underground cavern, that five of the actual coffins were found, one of them with a gold mitre on top.
For a small fee you can climb a stone spiral staircase to reach the top of the tower from where a spectacular panorama takes in parliament and Westminster Abbey on one side and the the garden and buildings of Lambeth Palace on the other. It was almost certainly from here that be great engraver Wenceslas Hollar drew his Prospect of London and Westminster in 1647, though he used some artistic license in placing the tower of St Mary’s a good 50 yards in front of the position from where he was drawing.
Also buried or commemorated here are Countess Goda herself; Hardicanute, the last Viking King of England, who died in Lambeth in 1042 while standing up and drinking at a wedding; Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk (born 1443), grandfather to Queens Katherine Howard and Anne Boleyn; and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), who composed light operas with William Gilbert, who was baptised there.
It is also the resting place of Elias Ashmole (died 1692), who moved into the “Ark” created by the Tradescant gardening family, whose members are buried there too. The Ark contained all the plants and artefacts they had collected on their voyages. Ashmole transported them in controversial circumstances to Oxford in order to found the Ashmolean Museum. Also resting at St Mary’s is the astrologer Simon Forman, a contemporary of Shakespeare who was consulted by many prominent people of the time.
Read all Vic Keegan’s previous Lost London pieces here.