On a small traffic island, coinciding the centre of the old Charing village, to the south of Trafalgar Square stands the oft times missed equestrian statue of King Charles I. Missed as people hurry to the famous square for that all-important selfie with a lion or scurry past in search of the touristic delights of Whitehall and Westminster.
This statute, one of the finest and one of the oldest (actually the oldest bronze statue) on public display in London, was commissioned in 1630 by Charles’s Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Portland, Richard Weston, for his country house in Roehampton. It was cast by the French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur in 1633. If you look carefully you can see this date inscribed on the horse’s left forefoot.
My reader may recall from my separate review – The Demise And Rebirth Of The British Monarchy – that the arrogant and self-righteous King Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 for subverting the fundamental laws and liberties of the nation and maliciously making war on the parliament and people of England.
With the King’s execution the British monarchy came to an end as a Bill had been hastily pushed through Parliament such that no one else could succeed Charles to the throne.
On Charles’ demise I suspect the Weston family would not have wanted to draw attention to itself by having a statue of Charles in their garden. Richard Weston, who died in 1635, had been the architect of many of the policies that enabled Charles to rule without raising taxes through Parliament – something which would not have endeared him to Oliver Cromwell and his ilk and one of the contributing factors to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642.
When Parliament in 1649, unsurprisingly, ordered the statue to be destroyed the Westons sold it to John Rivett, a metalsmith in Covent Garden, on the condition that it be broken-up for scrap. Rivett subsequently made a small fortune selling small pieces of metal and cutlery, supposedly made from the statue, as souvenirs to both Royalists and Parliamentarians while all the time having hidden the statue, probably in the the crypt of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden.
The statue ‘miraculously’ re-appeared (or rather was ‘found’ by Jerome Weston, 2nd Earl of Portland – son of Richard) on the collapse of the Cromwell Protectorate and the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when the new king, Charles II (son of Charles I) who had returned from exile, expressed his sadness over its loss.
Rivett owned up to his duplicity and following a complaint by Jerome Weston the House of Lords decreed ‘That the said John Rivett shall permit and suffer the Sheriff of London to serve a replevin upon the said Statue and Horse of Brass that are now in his Custody.” The statue was purchased by Charles II in 1675 and erected in its current position at Charing Cross – ironically affording Charles I an unobstructed view down Parliament Street to the Banqueting House, the site of his execution almost thirty years earlier.
The location of the statue may also have been influenced by the fact that the area was the place of public execution of the regicides who had signed Charles’ death warrant.
On the last Sunday in January each year Charles’ death is commemorated via the laying of wreaths at the statue, and the citation of prayers at Banqueting House.
The pedestal on which Charles and his mount stand, possibly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is of Portland stone and embodies a beautifully carved coat of arms. It is the work of Joshua Marshall, a mason to Charles II.
As this statue is one of the oldest in London the photograph below, from the V&A museum’s collection, is thought to be one of the earliest photographs taken in London. Depicting Charles looking down Parliament Street, the photograph was taken by Monsieur de St Croix in 1839 while demonstrating Louis Daguerre’s new invention of the daguerreotype photographic process formed on a silver copper plate.
On 28 October 1844, during a visit of Queen Victoria to open the Royal Exchange, Charles lost his sword and badge of the Order of the Garter to a thief. These were not replaced until after WWII when the statue, which had been removed for its protection during the war, was returned to its plinth.
By this stage my reader may have wondered about the rather cryptic title of this piece.
It merely alludes to the fact that this statue is located on the spot generally recognised as being the very centre of London and consequentially the spot from which all road distances to and from London are measured. A small plaque embedded in the pavement a couple of metres from the statue recognises the significance of this spot.
In actual fact, this spot has never been the geographical centre of London (if it were even possible to establish such a spot given the city’s ever shifting boundaries) though it has been recognised as such for a reason dating back to the early 1290s.
Then it was the site of the last and most elaborate of twelve Queen Eleanor Memorial Crosses marking resting stops for the body of Edward I’s wife as it made its journey from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey for its state burial. At that time the then Charing village was halfway between the City of London and Whitehall. For more on this final Eleanor Memorial cross, a rather grandiose replica of which now stands a few hundred metres away in front of Charing Cross Railway Station, refer to my separate entry – Eleanor’s Cross at Charing. The original Cross stood on this site for three and a half centuries until 1647 when it was destroyed on the orders of Parliament during the English Civil War.
Like many things in London’s rich and colourful history this statue is referred to in a nursery rhyme:
As I Was Going by Charing Cross
As I was going by Charing Cross,
I saw a black man upon a black horse;
They told me it was King Charles the First;
Oh, dear! my heart was ready to burst!
It is likely that the first two lines of this now pretty much unknown nursery rhyme are a variation of the more famous “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross”.
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Some commentators have suggested that the reference to a ‘black man’ meant, at the time, that the man had black hair. Alternatively it could be due to the fact that both horse and man on the statue are indeed black due to the bronze being tarnished. While the plinth was cleaned, for the first time, in 1977 I can find no record of the bronze statue itself having been cleaned since it was erected in 1675.
The last line of the nursery rhyme possibly refers to the to the low audible groan made by the crowd assembled below the scaffold when Charles was beheaded.
Note that both the nursery rhymes referred to above have numerous versions with different wording.