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.


A Good Samaritan found in Rochester Cathedral

The relief of The good Samaritan with pointing finger on the tomb of Frederick Hill, Lady Chapel, Rochester Cathedral.
©Carole Tyrrell


I was exploring Rochester Cathedral recently after visiting The Museum of the Moon temporary exhibition. It featured the Luke Jerram artwork which had travelled there from the Natural History Museum.   This was my first opportunity to have a good look around the Cathedral since moving here in 2019. There was much to see; 14th century Green Men and a zodiac depicted in tiles in front of the altar amongst others.


But it was a guidebook to the Cathedral’s monuments that pointed me in the direction of the Lady Chapel and a grander version of the Good Samaritan symbol.  It’s usually covered by a rubber mat so passing visitors may not even know it’s there.  A helpful Cathedral guide lifted it for me and as it was so busy I only had time to take a few snaps. I have to apologise for the quality of the photos. exhibition.


Someone really wanted visitors to notice the relief as there is a carved pointing finger indicating it.  These are known as ‘manicules’ from the Latin root, ‘manicula’, meaning ‘little hand’  and you can just see it in one of the photos.


This is a wonderful depiction of the Good Samaritan in 3D.   I have read that the figure of the Good Samaritan is based on the incumbent, Frederick Hill, himself.    I can see the reason why it is protected by the mat as generations of visitors feet would soon start to wear it down.  However Mr Hill may not be buried directly underneath the ledger stone that bears his epitaph. But they are usually placed over an actual burial vault.


According to the booklet, the ledger is:


‘an incised stone slab set flush into a stone floor.


This one is considered to be:

‘one of the Cathedral’s finest’


The fulsome epitaph reveals a probable reason for the choice of symbol.   I have corrected the 18th century spelling in which an ‘s’  looks like an ‘f’.  This is called the medial S which was also known as the long ‘s’. This was a second form of the uppercase ‘S’.



To the Memory of



Anno Domini 1720 Married the Widow of

His Bosom Friend


To whose children

Two sons and Three Daughters



Affectionate and Bountiful

In the most tender

Parental Sense

In his PUBLICK Trust

Providing for his Majesty’s Sick and Wounded Seamen

At this Port,

So Fair,

So Just

Such His Love and Care for them

As One

(Solely Observant of

The Seal of His Office)

That Thought for,

Or Justice to


Was his last, as Least Concern;

He Departed this Life, the 20th  of May 1759.

Much Regretted as Greatly belov’d by all who knew him,

Being a Kind Neighbour, Sincere friend; in Disposition;

Above Guile, and in Practice; an Exemplary Christian.



As you can see, Mr Hill married his best friend’s widow and became stepfather to his children.  He was obviously an important figure in the town and he lived in the St Margaret’s area close to the Cathedral.


I have obtained a copy of his Will via The National Archives.  It’s dated 6 June 1750 and written in flowing calligraphy.  However, I could find no mention of his wife in it so maybe she pre-deceased him.  Mr Hill appears to have been quite well off as he owned land, or estates, in both Southfleet and in the Brompton area of Chatham both of which are in Kent. He appointed his son, Captain Thomas Snarkston, his daughter in law, and Mary Snarkston, spinster, as his joint executors.  The estates were to be sold and the resulting money to be divided between his daughters; Susanna Borthwick, wife of Edward Borthwick, Frances Powney, wife of Mr Powney and Frances Flight, wife of  Major Thomas Flight.  Mary Snarkston was to have the use of all of Mr Hill’s household goods included his plate, china etc for the rest of her natural life. After she died it would pass to Captain Thomas Snarkston, then to Frances Flight and then be sold by the executors and the money divided amongst the aforementioned children.

Susanna Borthwick was to have one of his diamond rings and Mary Snarkston would have the other one.  Two god-daughters, Henrietta Soames and Elizabeth Page were  to have £50 and £20 respectively. With the latter it would be paid on either her 21st birthday or her wedding day. Mr Hill’s gold repeater watch was bequeathed to Captain Thomas Snarkston and 5 guineas each went to Frances Powney and Frances Flight.  Finally after payment of any debts and funeral expenses Mr Hill bequeathed the rest and residue of monies to be divided equaly between Susanna Borthwick, Mary Snarkston, Captain Thomas Snarkston, Frances Powney and Frances Flight.


Mr Hill was a man who appeared to have been as generous in death as he was in life to his adopted children.

A Good Samaritan indeed.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated


References and Further Reading:

 A Trail of Rochester Cathedral’s Monuments, David Carder, The Association of the Friends of Rochester Cathedral, 2019

 Will of Frederick Hill, Gentleman of Saint Margaret Rochester , Kent, The National Archives


The ships forever sailing in Rochester Cathedral

A ship scratched on one of the pillars in the nave of Rochester Cathedral
©Carole Tyrrell

Last month’s Symbol of the Month was devoted to the ship.  It’s a central symbol of Christianity and recently, on a visit to Rochester Cathedral, I found more evidence of this in the medieval graffiti etched on several of its pillars.

They are in the nave of the Cathedral and consist of at least a dozen scratched images of sailing ships.  They look almost as if a child has drawn them and you have to look very closely to see them.   Th eone above is the only one that I could find easily.

According to the Cathedral’s information board these were often drawn by :

‘…..crew members and sea captains with proximity to an altar, image or shrine dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of those in peril on the sea. At times of trouble on a sea voyage, such as storm, a vow could be made to St Nicholas that, if they survived, a votive offering would be made in thanks, sometimes in the form of a model ship of wax and wood. Some of these models survive in coastal churches today but at Rochester this graffiti is the only surviving trace of this once common tradition.;

It goes onto add:

‘……..All recorded designs are located on the south face of the pillar, (this) may indicate the suspected  position of an altar or shrine to St Nicholas in the south nave aisle in the 12th of 13th centuries.’


There is a church dedicated to St Nicholas adjacent to the Cathedral but this is now the offices of the Board of Education of the Diocese of Rochester.  According to their website, there was a shrine to the saint within the Cathedral at which people worshipped until the 15th century. It was consecrated on 18 December 1423.   The current church dates from the 17th century with 19th century restoration.

So these little ships, symbols of protection, will sail on a sea of stone for as long as the Cathedral stands.  Let’s hope that all of the crews and captains, they who go down to the sea in ships, who created them came home safely back to port.

©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading,_Rochester