Monuments in St Dunstan's Stepney

St Dunstan's Stepney, late 19th C.

St Dunstan’s Stepney is one of the most important medieval churches in London, and contains significant monuments of interest to these pages. Most of the church dates from the late 15th or early 16th Century, with the chancel being earlier (apparently mid-13th Century), and something of a restoration and a reworking of the exterior in the 19th Century, which saw the additions of the porches and the cladding of the exterior in Kentish ragstone.

Fishy little gargoyle.

What we see from the outside has a medieval feel to it: a 150 ft long, low church, really rather large for the times, with two aisles, a solid tower, all castellated on top, a range of broad Gothic windows, taller and narrower on the tower, and good details, including a few sculpted gargoyles, much weathered, but still rather engagingly horrible little beasts. The main entrance under the tower, reworked in presumably Victorian times, has crisp roundels showing a stylised ship and a grotesque figure, cloven footed and with pointed tail, clutching some instrument.

The church is surrounded by greenery, with various large table tombs dotted around. The one nearest to the south porch has distinctive cherub heads at each corner. The softness of the stone and the covering of moss make it not possible to readily read the inscription today, but this is the tomb of Captain Richard Mathew, 1663, and his daughter Elizabeth, wife of John Marsh, d.1695.

Tomb of Captain Richard Mathew, 1663.

Inside, the breadth and lowness are accentuated by the openness of the aisles and the dark wooden ceiling to the nave, not much higher than the aisles. The monuments we have come to see are between each window all the way along, on the lower walls, and in the chancel near the altar – the oldest part of the church.

The earliest carving, behind the altar and older than the oldest part of the church, is an Anglo Saxon crucifixion on a flat plaque, with two female saints below (presumably Mary and St John), and rosettes or whorls containing leaves all round. Saxon work is incredibly rare in London, and though crudely done, and having lost much to time and the weather (it hung outside previously), the piece exudes history and presence. It has been dated variously to between the 10th and the 12th century.

Saxon Crucifixion, and 14th C Annunciation (presumed).

To the left, above the little door in the sanctuary to the Vestry, is a sculpted fragment showing a female figure in a cowl, with a kneeling figure before her, supposedly and plausibly an Annunciation, under a cinquefoil Gothic arch. 14th Century, apparently, and believed to come from a reredos. Just outside the chancel, to the left, against the wall of the North aisle, is a heavy coffin with a cross, perhaps 13th Century, which would make it of similar date to the earliest part of the church, and to the right, one corbel to the arch has a recognisable monster, rather dragonish, rather good, of similar date. It is carved as a grotesque, with the head, front part of the body and outstretched foreleg naturalistic, a leafy wing, and the tail splitting into two leafy decorations; the breath or fire from the dragon’s mouth becomes further leafy designs. A corbel on the north side is less interesting, being a crudely cut face of some animal, which it is hard to take any view on.

Moving to the conventional monuments, we note them in roughly date order:

From the 16th Century:

Brasses such as that to the wife of John Brewster, 1596, are outside the scope of these pages. And we consider the monument to Sir Thomas Spert, d.1541, under the 18th Century, when it was erected.

From the 17th Century:

17th Century kneelers - Robert Clarke, monument erected by his wife Margaretta.

Also from the 17th Century, we note the Stone brought from Carthage, and inscribed in 1663, with a little ditty: ‘Of Carthage wall I was a Stone/Oh Mortals Read with pity./ Time Consumes all it Spareth none/ Man, Mountain, Town nor City./ Therefore Oh Mortals now bethink/ You, where unto us must,/ Since now such Stately Buildings/ Lie Buried in the dust. THOMAS HUGHES, 1663’

Late 17th C bust of John Berry; early 18th C cartouche to Nathaniel Owen and wives; Mary Leyborne monument with skull.

From the 18th Century:

The clutch of eight monuments from the 18th Century are almost all worthy, sculpturally speaking:

19th Century:

Benjamin Kenton memorial, by Sir Richard Westmacott RA.

In summary, an excellent church and well worth a visit.

A few minutes walk away, up the High Street and along Stepney Green, is an interesting pair of sculptured panels from the 1910s on a small clock tower - see this page.

Interior view, and tower of St Dunstan's Stepney.

With thanks to the church authorities for kindly agreeing to include pictures of the interior and monuments; their website is at this address.

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Monuments in some London Churches // Churches in the City of London // Introduction to church monuments

Angel statues // Cherub sculpture

London sculpture // Sculptors

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