Symbol of the Month – the skull and crossbones


Skulls and crossbones
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The skull and crossbones symbol is a ‘memento mori’ which is Latin for ‘Remember that you have to die’ or ‘Remember that you are mortal.’ It’s a reminder of the temporary, transient nature of human life. We are all born to die and should try to make the most of life.
The skull and long bones crossed together are the survivors after death along with the other bones as they are the body parts that survive after the flesh has gone. It originated in ‘The Danse Macabre’, a medieval European allegory, in which the universality of death invites everyone, from all walks of life, to dance along to the grave. They are often accompanied by a pope, emperor, king, child, or

The Danse Macabre
The Danse Macabre Nobleman and Physician from the Lübeck Totentanz courtesy UT Southwestern

labourer as key symbols and people. It was intended to remind people of the fragility of their lives and that earthy glories were i n vain. Skeletons lead them to their death. The images of the Danse Macabre were not only reminders of the ultimate fate for us all but they were often humourous as well. But its most powerful theme is of death’s indiscriminate nature. In the Danse, Death wears many faces, as he brandishes his scythe, sounds the death toll bell or plays a violin – he is a friend as well as the inevitable.
The skull and crossbones was also a reminder that, on the Day of Judgement, the bones and skull would attach themselves together and the deceased would be able to walk again.
This symbol has appeared in other, more ancient cultures such as the Mayans. This example comes from Mexico.

Uxtal, Central Yucatan, Mexico courtesy greenclogdancer. blogspot

The skull and crossbones was also appropriated in the 18th century by sea pirates and rechristened as The Jolly Roger. This emphasises the skull’s eternal wide open grin. There are also military connections and also counter culture with Hells Angels etc claiming it for their own. According to blogger, Amy Johnson Crow, there is also a Christian connection as she claims that the crossed long bones resemble the Christian cross.
The skull and crossbones is one of the most potent and universal symbols that has come down through the centuries. It will always remind us that the skull looking back at us reveals our own ultimate fate.
‘Death’ Richard Harris, Wellcome Collection
An Illustrated encyclopedia of traditional symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978
UT Southwestern Digital Services website

©Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell unless indicated otherwise.


Picturesque Lych Gate with Links to James Bond and Famous Thomas Gray Poem Listed

This is taken from an email that I received from Historic England about various heritage updates. It included an item on a particularly lovely lych gate which they have recently listed and I thought I would share it with you due to its history and associations.

A picturesque Victorian lych gate at St Giles’ Church in the village of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire has been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England, after an application was submitted by local man Harvey Whittam.

Harvey Whittam, Chairman of The Stoke Poges Society, had long admired the lych gate and recently applied to Historic England for it to be considered for listing. He said: “I first saw the lych gate in 1981 in the opening scene of the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’, when I thought it was beautiful and in a delightful country setting.

“Last year, I started volunteering with others to help to compile a list of historic sites in Stoke Poges for the Parish Council – it was then I realised again, but this time in real life, that it’s a fine structure. I am delighted the lych gate has received national recognition. There’s no doubt having it listed adds cultural, social and environmental value to the area.”

Lych gates are the ornamental gateways which lead to churchyards. They symbolise the threshold between the secular and sacred zones of a parish. © Harvey Whittam

Link to famous poem

The wooden gateway and its flanking knapped flint wall stand prominently in the churchyard of St Giles, a setting associated with the poet Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ published in 1751.

The elegy is said to be one of the best-known poems in the English language. Until relatively recently, it was routinely learnt by school children. It’s widely acknowledged to refer to Stoke Poges, where Gray was staying when he wrote the poem in 1750.

Gray is buried in the churchyard and his tomb is listed at Grade II. A nearby monument to Gray designed by James Wyatt and carved with verses of the elegy is Grade II* listed and is a National Trust site. St Giles’ Church itself is Grade I listed. The newly listed lych gate and boundary wall form an ornate entranceway to, and are part of, this group of significant historic structures.

I’m pleased that new, thorough research has enhanced our understanding of this beautifully carved lychgate, which now takes its place on the National Heritage List. 99% of people in England live within a mile of a listed place – we invite you to explore the List and share your knowledge and pictures so we can record information, and even unlock the secrets of some places.

Emily Gee, Regional DirectorHistoric England

The Victorian lych gate at Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire with the Thomas Gray memorial to the left, behind trees © Harvey Whittam

Architect John Oldrid Scott

The lych gate also has special architectural interest in its own right. It is a well-preserved exemplar of its type by a leading architect of the period, with fine carved details. It was designed by the architect John Oldrid Scott and built in 1887 as part of an extension of the churchyard. Oldrid Scott was the eldest son of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, from whom he inherited the family practice in 1878. Oldrid Scott established himself as a leading figure in the development of the Gothic Revival in England in the last decades of the 19th century.

The low-set wall and ‘most beautiful lych-gate’ were paid for by a donation by Mr Gilliat of Duffield House, Stoke Poges, as noted in a letter to The Times from the then Rector of St Giles, Reverend Vernon Blake, published 22 November 1887.

The Stoke Poges lych gate has stylistic similarities with another designed by Oldrid Scott in 1880 that stands in the Churchyard of St Andrew and St Mary in Fletching, East Sussex – the lych gate is listed at Grade II.

However, Oldrid Scott is best known for his churches of the period, including St Mary’s Parish Church down the road in Slough which is Grade II* listed and the Grade I listed Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia in Westminster, London.

View of St Giles’ church from the inner lych gate, 1906 – public domain/out of copyright.

What is a lych gate?

Lych gates are the ornamental gateways which lead to churchyards. They symbolise the threshold between the secular and sacred zones of a parish and once served a practical function of storing a coffin before burial. Their name derives from the Anglo-Saxon or German word for corpse: lich, or leiche.

Medieval lych gates were used as a meeting point and shelter for mourners. The group would convene beneath it and would be met by the priest prior to entering the consecrated churchyard for the funeral service. Lych gates continued to be built throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and later examples, particularly after the First World War, were often erected as memorial structures.

The Stoke Poges lych gate is a well-preserved exemplar of its type by a leading architect of the period, with fine carved details. © Harvey Whittam

©English Heritage 2022