11 December 2011

Story of a statue

Le Sueur's bronze equestrian statue of Charles I (1633) in Trafalgar Square, London

Ignored by passing traffic and lion-clambering tourists, Hubert Le Sueur's Charles I bronze stares blankly down Whitehall to his place of execution.

The French sculptor's 1633 piece has been in the same position since 1676, surviving well over 300 years of tinkering transport planners, pesky pigeons and plinth pimping.

Remarkable, as but for the actions of one man it would have never have survived the Interregnum ...

(Click on any of the photos to view a larger slideshow)

The statue sits on an irregular traffic island to the south of the square, before the sharper-than-expected incline down into Whitehall. In the picture below you can make out the National Gallery at the north edge of the square, with St Martin in the Fields church to the north-east and the Strand to the right of the sculpture.

The sculpture sits to the south of Trafalgar Square

Charles is cast in a demi-suit of armour, with a scarf tied across his chest. His left hand holds the reins of the horse, while in his right he holds a baton, a la Van Dyck's equestrian portrait. Le Sueur was asked to produce the statue by Richard Weston, Lord High Treasurer to the king since 1628, in 1630. He commissioned Le Sueur to cast:
"... a Horsse in Brasse bigger then a greate Horsse by a foot, and the figure of his Maj King Charles proportionable full six foot, Which the afore saide Hubert le sueur is to performe with all the skill and Workmanship as leith in his powoer ..."

The tourists to the right paused to take some snaps!

Le Sueur's fee was paid in instalments:

  • £50 on signing the contract
  • £100 more after completing the model within three months
  • £200 when the model was ready to be cast in copper
  • £150 when cast
  • £100 on delivery of the statue to the Weston's garden in Roehampton.

The total sum of £600 would be worth over £50,000 in today's money.

Le Sueur was paid £600 to complete the statue

A metal plate under the left forefoot dates the completed work at 1633, but was never delivered to Weston (by then the Earl of Portland), who died in 1635. It had not been erected by the breakout of the English Civil War and during the conflict was was stored in the crypt of St Paul's.

In 1655 it was sold by parliament to John Rivett, a Holborn brazier, with the request that he break it up. Evidently hiding Royalist sympathies (or with one eye on his pension), Rivett produced some scraps of brass to prove he had done as instructed, while hiding the statue (which can't have been the easiest of tasks).

At the Restoration it was 'discovered' by Jerome Weston, Second Earl of Portland, Richard Weston's eldest surviving son. Still in Rivett's possession, and the brazier unwilling to give it up, Weston complained to the House of Lords, who decreed on the 19th July 1660 that:
"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 west side of the sculpture, with Northumberland Avenue in the background.
The pedestal has been quite badly worn by the weather

The statue was bought by Charles II and an order given "the effigies of the old King to be brought to Charing Cross and a place made for it." A ledger exists for 1676 detailing all the works carried out to put the statue on its pedestal, amounting to £689 - more than the fee originally paid to Le Sueur. It was placed on the site of the Eleanor Cross, which was destroyed by parliament in 1647.

The pedestal has been replaced and repaired a number of times over the intervening centuries, and the current one is severely weather-worn, with the Stuart coat of arms to the rear being almost unrecognisable.

Intrigue surrounding the statue did not end with Mr Rivett, however. In 1810 The Gentlemen's Magazine (Vol. 1, p.377) reported that:
"The sword, buckles and straps, fell from the equestrian statue of King Charles the First at Charing Cross. They were picked up by a porter of the name of Moxam, at the Golden Cross, and deposited in the care of Mr Eyre, trunk-maker, who has apprised the Board of Green Cloth of the circumstance."

The east side of the sculpture, with Admiralty Arch in the background

In the spirit of Mr Rivett, the trunk-maker also refused to give up his piece of the statue, and kept hold of it until given a receipt from the Office of Works.

The sword was finally stolen for good in 1844 during Queen Victoria's visit to open the Royal Exchange, and had not been replaced at the time of these photos from the 1930s.

The statue was removed during the war for safety, and a new sword and Order of the Garter added in 1946. Further details on its care and maintenance can be found in the National Archives 'Your Archives' website, in the entry for Le Sueur.

A cruel aspect?

The Palace of Whitehall from which the king ruled is long gone, with only the Banqueting House and its magnificent Rubens ceiling which he commissioned, surviving. In his The Sale of the Late King's Goods (2006) Jerry Brotton notes that, for all the "the most public artwork associated with the king was neither commissioned by him or displayed until nearly thirty years after his death". Symbolically, the erection of the statue by his son was more a celebration of the monarchy's restoration than a vindication of his father, a sentiment running through Edmund Waller's poem On the Statue of King Charles I at Charing Cross, in the Year 1674:

That the First Charles does here in triumph ride,
See his son reign where he a martyr died,
And people pay that rev'rence as they pass,
(Which then he wanted!) to the sacred brass,
Is not the effect of gratitude alone,
To which we owe the statue and the stone;
But Heaven this lasting monument has wrought,
That mortals may eternally be taught
Rebellion, though successful, is but vain,
And kings so kill'd rise conquerors again.
This truth the royal image does proclaim,
Loud as the trumpet of surviving Fame.

The 'martyrdom' is commemorated each year in a wreath laying ceremony at the statue on January 30th, the date of the king's execution.

View the statue and surrounding square 'live' on Google maps
'The statue of Charles I and site of the Charing Cross', Survey of London: volume 16: St Martin-in-the-Fields I: Charing Cross (1935), pp. 258-268.


  1. You picked a good day for the photographs. Quite easy to miss at the bottom of the square. I have walked past it many times without realising it was there..

  2. On first glance you wouldn't recognise it as Charles I... theres always an interesting story with history!

  3. Just discovered Canaletto's 1752 painting of Northumberland House. The statue provides useful orientation for imagining the old layout of Charing Cross and what would become Trafalgar Square: