The Forgotten Burial of William Lyndwood in St Mary Undercroft

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Created on Wednesday 13th May 2015 by:
Dr Elizabeth Biggs

I came to the College of Canons based at St Stephen’s from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries from looking at fifteenth-century political interpretati... Read more

George Scharf (?). The disclosure of Bishop Lyndwood’s burial. Watercolour, 1852. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1874,0314.170.
George Scharf (?). The disclosure of Bishop Lyndwood’s burial. Watercolour, 1852. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1874,0314.170.

I want to use this blog as a chance to expand on William Lyndwood’s life and career as well as what he means for the wider Project of understanding the medieval chapel and its subsequent rebuildings and reuses. The first thing to note is just how deep the destruction of the 1834 fire went that even the Undercroft Chapel walls had to be razed and rebuilt by Charles Barry. The second is to think about Lyndwood’s connections with the college, which we wouldn’t know about unless we had his will. How many others knew and used the chapel but we have no records of their interest?

The story starts in 1852 when builders tasked with taking down the walls of the ruined St Mary’s Chapel found an unexpected burial in the north wall. St Mary’s was the chapel underneath St Stephen’s Chapel, since 1548 the home of the House of Commons, and until 1548 was part of the same collegiate complex. Since the 1834 fire, work on the modern Houses of Parliament was stripping away earlier layers of building and repair work and a very surprising discovery was made. The body of William Lyndwood, well preserved and still with his bishop’s mitre and crozier, lay within the rubble core of the wall, unmarked by any surviving plaque on the outside. The Victorian builders knew St Mary’s only as the dining room of the Speaker of the House of Commons, so the find generated considerable interest, including a set of articles in the antiquarian journal, Archaeologia.

Bishop Lynwood’s funerary crozier. Oak, c.1446. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1852,0220.1.
Bishop Lyndwood’s funerary crozier. Oak, c.1446. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1852,0220.1.

Moving back in time, in the winter of 1446 Lyndwood’s funeral and burial took place in St Mary’s. It was the end of a long and distinguished career in the English church, but it was the start of an even longer afterlife. He lay close to the main altar of the church where according to his will, ‘he had received the gift of consecration’ as a bishop. Every year from 1447 to 1548 on the anniversary of his death all the canons of St Stephen’s said Mass for his soul and  every single day of the year two priests said other masses for his soul, possibly in a specially dedicated chapel. Their wages were paid for by income from lands bought with the 24 marks (£16, a large sum!) handed over to the college by Lyndwood’s executors in 1454. The priests’ prayers, both yearly and daily, were intended to speed the bishop’s soul to Heaven.

William Lyndwood had been born around 1375 and died on 21 October 1446. The son of a prosperous wool merchant in Lincolnshire, he was educated at both Cambridge and Oxford in both civil and canon law before he went into the church and did well. We catch a solitary glimpse of him at St Stephen’s in 1415 when just before Henry V’s campaigns in France Lyndwood assisted Archbishop Chichele at a Mass in the chapel in front of Henry himself. When Lyndwood died, he was a trusted servant of Henry V’s son, Henry VI, Bishop of St David’s in Wales and a leading figure in collecting and summarising English Church law and practice as they related to the Roman law. He left a copy of his book summarising this, the Provinciale, to be chained in the chapel vestry of St Stephen’s as a reference work for future generations. He also was a diplomat, whose travels took him to France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Council of Basle in 1433, as well as an administrator, who had been Keeper of the Privy Seal from 1432-43.

So why did a major bishop ask to be buried in the wall of a palace chapel? Why not be buried in his own cathedral? We don’t have a definitive answer to this. His will gives few clues, only telling us the form of his remembrances rather than the why, other than that comment about St Stephen’s as being the place where he became a bishop. He was a royal servant often based at Westminster and so would have known many of the canons, and would have been to services in the chapels. St Mary’s Undercroft was a popular place for burials in the fifteenth century, so perhaps he wanted with friends and fellow royal servants to be the ones responsible for the masses for his soul. We may never know for sure – what do you think?

To learn more on the discovery of Lyndwood's burial and even meet him 'face to face', see the relevant photographs on the Society of Antiquaries' Facebook page.