The significance of skulls – the Jacobus Deane monument, St Olave’s, Seething Lane, City of London

The Deane monument, St Olave’s. copyright Carole Tyrrell

 I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a very flamboyant and imposing monument.  However, it is also one with great poignancy.  It dates from the early 17th century and can be found in St Olave’s church, Seething Lane in the City of London. I was working in the City at the time and spent my lunch hours exploring the ancient City churches. St Olave’s is known for several grinning skulls on the entrance arch to the churchyard which dates to 1658.  They impressed Charles Dickens so much that he included it in his book of sketches, The Uncommon Traveller, in which he renamed the church, St Ghastly Grim. 

The skulls that caught Charles Dicken’s eye over the entrance arch to the churchyard. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Full view of the churchyard arch with its complement of skulls. copyright Carole Tyrrell
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The diarist, Samuel Pepys and his wife had strong connections to St Olave’s and Mrs Pepys is buried within it.  It is a church steeped in history.

Samuel Pepys monument. copyright Carole Tyrrell

So, Sir Jacobus, or James, Deane is in good company.  This would have been an immensely expensive monument when it was created and is one laden with skulls.  Deane and his 3rd wife kneel, facing each other, over a prayer table which was a convention of the time.  They are both fashionably dressed as she wears a ruff and bonnet in addition to her beautifully carved black gown.  Jacobus himself wears dull gold armour which has been highlighted in red.

The two women also dressed in fashionable clothing on either side of the couple are Jacobus’s first 2 wives and both carry skulls. However, it isn’t a Gothic fashion accessory but an indication that they both died before their time.  The three swaddled infants beneath the figures, a pair and then one on its own, all died in infancy.  According to the V & A:

Newborn babies were swaddled, wrapped in cloth with bands around them for the first 6-12 months of their lives.  It was thought to strengthen the spine and help their body develop.  Swaddling would usually bind the whole body, leaving only the head to move.  These bands were usually just plain linen.’

The swaddling bands can be seen quite clearly on the figures of the infants.  The pair rest on a small skull as does the single one which again indicates mortality.

The two swaddled infants – note the skull that they rest on. Copyright Carole Tyrrell
The single swaddled infant – again resting on a skull. Copyright Carole Tyrrell

Two other skulls grin from on top of the monument.  Cherubic heads or possibly winged messengers also look back at the observer and there are several armorial bearings as well.

One of the two skulls on top of the Deane monument. Copyright Carole Tyrrell

Sir Jacobus Deane was knighted on 8 July 1604 and was a very wealthy man.  He made his fortune as a merchant adventurer to India, China and the Spice Islands and was very generous to the poor in every parish in which he lived or owned property.  He built almshouses and left liberal bequests.  Susan Bumsted was his first wife and Elizabeth Offley was his second.  James’s third and last wife was a widow, Elizabeth Thornhill.  She already had a son by her first husband and her third husband was John Brewster.  Sir James Deane died on 15 May 1608 aged 62 having left no children.

There has been a suggestion that there is a significance to the number 3 contained within the monument.  I can’t see it apart from the references to 3 wives and 3 children, but I would refer you to the Rushton Triangular Lodge in which there are a plethora of references to this number and its symbolism. It dates from the same period.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:,_Hart_Street,_Hart_Street,listed%20on%20the%20National%20Heritage%20List%20for%20England.


Symbol of the Month – the Pyramid

St Anne’s Limehouse copyright Carole Tyrrell

It was on a cold, wet day in April when I visited St Anne’s church in Limehouse, East London.  Again, I had been enticed there by ‘strange symbols’ according to a reader in Fortean Times.  Headstones and altar tombs sulked in the abundant cow parsley as the traffic sloped along Commercial Road.  It didn’t appear to be very gentrified there – yet.

Headstones lined the churchyard walls, piled up three deep.   I could just about discern symbols and scenes on them but maybe on a sunnier day they would be more obvious.  The churchyard is now a park with the aforementioned altar tombs and urns in one area near the road. 

St Anne’s is one of London’s six Hawksmoor churches and was sadly closed when I visited.   It is a very large church and was consecrated in 1730.  After it was gutted by fire in 1850 it was restored to its original beauty and has a Baroque style interior from what I could see from photos on the church’s website.

Hawksmoor’s Pyramid copyright Carole Tyrrell

Then I saw the pyramid – well, I could hardly miss it as it’s 9 feet high and nestles up to a tall tree.   No one’s sure if it’s an actual grave marker or was originally intended to be the pinnacle on top of the church tower.  It is reputed that the builders may have just left it there. 

On one side it has an eroded crest and coat of arms with ‘the Judgement of Solomon’ inscribed on it in both English and Hebrew.   Nicholas Hawksmoor, who designed St Anne’s, was known as ‘the Devil’s architect’ and worked with Christopher Wren on various buildings.

Coat of arms on the pyramid copyright Carole Tyrrell

However, It wasn’t the only pyramid that Hawksmoor designed as he’s also responsible for the Pyramid at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

The Pyramid, Castle Howard. copyright Gordon Hatton. Shared under Wiki Commons

He designed it in 1728 and it contains the

‘colossal bust of Lord William Howard, the 3rd Earl’s great, great, great grandfather which sits on a stone plinth.’

David Castleton says in his fascinating blog post on pyramid tombs that,

‘Hawksmoor was a noted Freemason and fond of peppering his buildings with pagan symbols such as obelisks and pyramids.’

The Solomon reference could be a nod to King Solomon who Freemasons revered.  Again, according to David Castleton

‘Hawksmoor apparently made plans for a full reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple, a monument that was thought to express the universe’s secrets with its geometry.’

It would have been an amazing building!

As I said in my post on the Darnley Mausoleum, the pyramid fascinated architects of the 18th century.  They may have been inspired by the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. 

The Pyramid of Caiius Cestius in Rome – shared under Wiki Commons

There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and may have been one of the inspirations for the Darnley Mausoleum.   

Nicolas Poussin – the Sacraments – Ordination 1 – shared under Wiki Commons

According to symbolsage:

‘The word ‘pyramid’ may have come from the Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid which was ‘MR’ which was often written as mer, mir or pimar. However, another theory is that it may come from the Roman word ’pyramid’ which itself came from the  Greek word ‘puramid’ which meant ‘a cake made out of roasted meat’.  The Greeks were mocking the Egyptian burial monuments as resembling stony cakes.’

Pyramids can also be seen as representing the struggle to reach the top either in earthly ambition or the ascent to Heaven. They are also supposed to represent enlightenment and spiritual attainment.

However, the one that I like best is that a pyramid shaped tomb prevented the devil from reclining on a grave and you can’t argue with that!

We’ll never know why Hawksmoor placed his enigmatic symbol in St Anne’s churchyard so it is destined to remain as one of London’s little mysteries.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading: a wonderful selection of pyramid tombs throughout the UK.

The lure of strange symbols……a springtime saunter to St Peter’s, Bridge, Kent

View of St Peter’s from the churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell

I was drawn to make my first church crawl post lockdown by the lure of ‘strange symbols’ at St Peter’s in Bridge, Kent.  It’s in a village, well hamlet really, where the number of pubs outnumber the shops.   The church is only open on one day of the week and, knowing only too well the vagaries of country bus services, I planned it like a military campaign with timetables etc. 

Blackthorn blossom foamed over the hedgerows and the acid yellow of rapeseed was beginning to spread over the fields. It felt good to be outside on a sunny April day.  St Peter’s church nestles at the end of the high street and I could see its distinctive ‘candle snuffer’ spire when I got off the bus.  I have missed poking about inside churches although I have had a good poke about in churchyards over the last year.

St Peter’s is a really pretty and ancient church surrounded by a small churchyard. Spring flowers were dotted around the headstones and in the remembrance section by the wall.  Bluebells were still in bud, there was the understated yellow of primroses, purple violets, dandelions and the leaves of Garlic Mustard gave colour around  the stones    There was a part of the churchyard that was overgrown and a side path led to a more modern section. But I wasn’t alone as I explored.  2 squirrels cavorted amongst the large trunks of the yew trees and from the large field beyond the churchyard wall there were many enthusiastic baaa-ings and bleats from a flock of sheep and lambs. 

According to Tim Tatton-Brown from the Kent Archaeology Society,

‘there is evidence of burials in the churchyard since 1474 but there are no markers for them.

Violets in the churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell

Bluebells copyright Carole Tyrrell
Primroses copyright Carole Tyrrell
Dandelions on ancient lichens and stones. Copyright Carole Tyrrell

But what of the symbols?  There was a sprinkling of skulls and winged souls but no ‘strange symbols’ – yet. So I assumed that, as the book which had recommended them had been published in the 80’s, they might have eroded away.  So I went inside.

View of churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell
A trio of skulls copyright Carole Tyrrell
View of churchyard copyright Carole Tyrrell

‘If you are here alone. Does anyone know where you are?’ announced a printed sign on the welcome  table which made me feel a little spooked.  Most of the pews were cordoned off and I was soon admiring the colourful and beautiful stained glass.  The sun shone through the chancel windows creating little patterns on the carpet.  Tom’s window, which is a recent addition from 2019, is a masterpiece of modern stained glass and is in memory to a boy who lived for 100 days.  My camera couldn’t do it justice.   The window was designed by Grace Dyson, a glass painter and conservator at the highly regarded Cathedral Studios based at Canterbury Cathedral.

A 19th century stained glass window copyright Carole Tyrrell
Modern stained glass copyright Carole Tyrrell
Tom’s window which was dedicated in 2019 copyright Carole Tyrrell
The sun shining through the chancel windows created tiny patterns copyright Carole Tyrrell
Beautiful patterned stained glass copyright Carole Tyrrell

There has been a church on this site since 1189 and it is now regarded as a chapel of ease.  St Peters became a church during the 12th and 13th centuries. There are still traces of the 12th century and again, according to Tim Tatton-Brown:

the nave may be 11th century but there’s no proof of this.  The bells in the tower may have been cast in the 14th century by William de Belyetre of Canterbury.’

Until 1850 part of the church was used as a schoolroom. St Peter’s was restored in the 19th century by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott during 1859-60 and some say that it has been over restored.   It was then that the outer walls were covered in knapped flint. However, there are still traces of the 12th century building in the nave, chancel, south aisle and tower base.   I walked up to the altar and there were the strange symbols at last!

The ‘strange symbols’ copyright Carole Tyrrell

Mounted on a wall was a carved relief with biblical scenes carved on it.  These were the strange symbols mentioned in Peter Haining’s Ghosts of Kent.  The ones that I could recognise were of Adam and Eve by the tree of knowledge with a strange bird climbing it, Cain and Abel, and Abraham sacrificing his son. The others were too damaged to read.  The figures all have little scripts issuing from their mouths  – a little like a ancient century comic strip.  Nobody’s sure if its 16th century or if it was originally set into a 12th century doorway.  I agree with the Kent Archeological Society that it was a tympanum. According to Wikipedia:

‘a tympanum is the semi circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window…it often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments.

There’s more work to be done on this which will form a future post.

Fragments of a memorial to a previous vicar, Malcolm Ramsey copyright Carole Tyrrell

On the other wall of the chancel facing the sculpture were fragments of a relief memorial to another vicar of the church named Malcom Ramsey who died in 1538. He was the vicar of Patrixbourne and Bridge for 44 years.  The fragments form part of an inscription.

The top half of the effigy to Macobus Kasey copyright Carole Tyrrell
Lower half of effigy of Mac0bus Kasey copyright Carole Tyrrell

There is a wooden effigy, split into 2 halves, on one side of the altar which is of a 15th century priest called Macobus Kasey who died in 1512.  However, there was no guidebook to tell me anything more.

Upper half of memorial panel dated 1635 copyright Carole Tyrrell
Lower part of memorial panel dated 1635. copyright Carole Tyrrell

There is an ancient memorial set in the chancel wall on the same side as the effigy.  It has a date of 1635 on it but I am not sure if it’s a headstone or a memorial.  I wanted to take a photo but there was a chair in front of it which I decided to move. However, the chair weighed a ton and it felt as if someone was actually sitting in it.   In the end I had to drag it across the tiles but only a little way.  I took a photo of the memorial and then decided to take another one of the effigy. My camera wouldn’t focus.  It had been working perfectly before I moved the chair.  So I dragged the chair back into position and the camera worked again.  A little strange I thought.

The chair I moved by the altar copyright and a panel set into the wall. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Near the entrance there are Romanesque style arches which end in either cat or lion’s heads.  These date from 1859 and replace earlier, much cruder, ones. copyright Carole Tyrrell

I walked back towards the church door and turned round to have a last look at the church interior.  I could now hear loud sounds from the direction of the organ and the font but I hadn’t heard anyone come in.  Coincidence – who knows? The church had grown colder as well. 

But it was time to go and have a look at the field of sheep and lambs and catch a view of the church from across it. 

View of St Peter’s from across the field of sheep and lambs copyright Carole Tyrrell

 ©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading