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.


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