London – which statues should be toppled?

We’re clearly about to have a wave of statues toppled across London. But if so, who should go and what should replace them?

Let me talk about which statues I think should go and surprise you with how many statues and memorials have been replaced or hidden away in London over the centuries. And then, let’s think about who we should be commemorating today with statues?

To me, the current situation is untenable. It doesn’t reflect the country we are and it often accentuates the worst of our past. Take Whitehall for example. Walk down it and it’s a parade of generals from top to bottom. You’d think Britain was a military-police state and not a civilian democracy.

We’ve had some great social reformers, inventors and artists but instead we celebrate Earl Haig. This is a man whose tactics in the First World War earned him the nickname “Butcher Haig”. And that was because of his cavalier attitude to casualties among his own men – not the enemy.

Get to the top of Whitehall and you’re in Trafalgar Square. I’ve got no issues with Nelson. He can stay up there on the column. But King George IV on horseback. This was the most reviled monarch of the 19th century. I’ve got Victorian era history books where the authors can’t bring themselves to say a kind word about him.

Contemporary satirists dipped pens in poison and lacerated him. He treated his own wife abominably. Built a palace at Brighton while men returning from the Napoleonic wars starved on the streets. Indulged every passion until he died a horrendously obese, self-pitying mess. So – he can go.

And then at the top of Trafalgar Square, there’s a diminutive statue to a king of little stature – James II. The brother of Charles II became king in 1685 and set about trying to return Britain to the Catholic faith but more perniciously, creating an absolutist monarchy based on that of Louis XIV of France.

If James had got away with this plan, Britain would have seen its democracy strangled in the cradle. Fortunately, parliament decided that James would not get his way and forced him from power. They brought in a Dutch prince who became William III.

And which statues have already gone?

What might surprise you is that London has been removing statues from view for a long time. Sometimes they go and come back again. So, here are some toppled statues that either disappeared or moved around.

For example, in 1888, a statue of General Gordon of Khartoum was unveiled in Trafalgar Square between the two fountains. Gordon was always a controversial figure whose handling of the 1885 Sudan revolt, that led to his death at the hands of rebels, was frequently questioned.

In 1943, the statue was removed to the Victoria Embankment and never returned despite a demand in parliament from Winston Churchill in 1948 to reinstate it. The statue remains in its current rather obscure location.

The statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square dates back to his reign in the 1630s. It was toppled under Oliver Cromwell and given to a metalsmith in Holborn called John Rivet.

He claimed to have melted it down and sold cutlery made from the brass. But after the Restoration of Charles II, Rivet revealed that the statue had never been destroyed but buried by him. And it went back on its pedestal where it remains today.

Then there’s the statue of Queen Anne in front of St Paul’s cathedral. It’s a copy of the 1712 original which was attacked several times. Given the queen’s love of a drink, somebody etched on to it: “Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan, left in the lurch; Her face to the gin shop, her back to the church”.

Other statues toppled include one of George I in Leicester Square and a large one of George IV, mentioned above, that once stood at Kings Cross. Sir Robert Peel stood for decades in Cheapside but was carted off in 1935 to the police college in Hendon.

Hyde Park corner was once graced with an enormous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. Queen Victoria hated it but while Wellington was alive, it couldn’t really be taken down. His house was nearby! But after he was dead, it was spirited away and is now to be found in far off Aldershot.

And who to replace them with?

I love history. And it’s not all about General Bufty-Tufty beating up the natives in Bechuanaland in 1879. Which is the impression you get from many of our statues.

History is about great social reformers, inventors, people who cured disease, architects and creative artists. Let’s throw up some statues to them and create a more balanced and nuanced picture of our past.

Tragedy as Jews expelled from England 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response:

He told them that they ought to cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Londoners riot at the building of Somerset House

Somerset House today is an 18th century hulk of a building used for art exhibitions and offices. Previous it housed civil servants working for the Inland Revenue. And before that, it began as a Tudor palace built by an arrogant and unpopular aristocrat.

Edward Seymour wasn’t famous for being humble or tactful. He was very much a creature of his turbulent age. He was the first Earl of Hertford and his sister became the third wife of Henry VIII. Unlike the previous beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn, Edward’s sister Jane gave Henry the son he craved but then died shortly after childbirth.

Edward Seymour

That son ascended to the throne when Henry VIII died – at the age of only nine. So, Edward Seymour became the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. With his new found power – effectively ruling England – he decided it was a time to have a palace that befitted his new status.

Somerset House would spring up in the area between the city of Westminster and the city of London. This strip along the river – now a road called the Strand – had always been home to the palaces of bishops and princes. But Edward wanted a particularly huge palace.

So he started tearing down other people’s palaces!

In order to build Somerset House, he bulldozed (or the Tudor equivalent) the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. And incorporated their masonry into his fabulous new home. But that wasn’t going to suffice.

He then knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.

Still, Edward Seymour cast his greedy eye around and wondered what else he could demolish. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.

They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.

When three thousand people died on London Bridge

London Bridge as you see it today is a modern construction. It’s hard to imagine the medieval bridge that once stood nearby crowded with houses. Even more fantastic is the old story that up to three thousand people may have died as a result of a fire on the bridge.

Even allowing for some medieval hyperbole – it seems there was a huge disaster in the 13th century. Frankly, looking at artist impressions of old London Bridge, I’m amazed it didn’t fall down every other week. It looks rickety as hell.

Before I go any further with this blog post – we are talking about London Bridge here and not Tower Bridge. Please don’t get the two confused. It drives Londoners bonkers. Tower Bridge is that iconic Victorian two level construction further down stream.

London Bridge is the oldest of all the bridges – but what you see today is the latest in several iterations.

London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were.

Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market.

Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings.

Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river.

Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Trafalgar Square – the history you didn’t know!

You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact.

So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:

Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead.

This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would  have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.

StMartinsMap1871-1056

A workhouse off Trafalgar Square – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery.

If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!

Gordon of Khartoum – now absent from Trafalgar Square – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule.

Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.

St Martin’s in the Fieldspredates Trafalgar Square – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!

“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians.

I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.

Royalist beats up journalists in Fleet Street

Sir Roger L’Estrange hated journalists.

He’d been a royalist all his life (born in 1616) and fought with King Charles I during the English Civil War. When the king lost and Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, L’Estrange was sentenced to death as a spy and conspirator and thrown into Newgate prison. Not enjoying his time behind bars in squalid conditions, L’Estrange escaped, fled to Holland, only to return with the Restoration of King Charles II. Now it was time for revenge against all those who had supported Cromwell. Especially journalists.

Fleet Street

Fleet Street in the 18th century – note the heads on display over Temple Bar

The centre of British journalism was Fleet Street with its many little alleyways. In the taverns, coffee houses and printing works of this great thoroughfare, writers expressed themselves a little too freely for L’Estrange’s royalist tastes. Many scribblers had been parliamentarians and against kingly autocracy. They wanted to write what they thought and that often meant mocking or criticising the monarch and his retinue.

In 1663, L’Estrange issued a pamphlet with the ominous title: Considerations and Proposals in order to Regulate the Press together with Divers Instances of Treasons and Seditious Pamphlets proving the Necessity thereof.” Ironically, for a man who hated writers – L’Estrange was a prolific writer himself, though always in defence of royal privilege. In this pamphlet, he argued for the harshest penalties for everybody involved in producing treasonous material. That not only meant journalists but “letter founders, the smiths and joiners that work upon the presses, with the stitchers, binders, stationers, hawkers, Mercury women, pedlars, ballad-singers, posts, carriers, hackney coachmen, boatmen and mariners” (sic). Nobody left out then!

Tyburn gallows

An execution at Tyburn

He was made official press censor. In his new role, L’Estrange abolished all newspapers except two – which he happened to own. The Intelligencer – “started for the satisfaction and information of the people” – and the News. But of course Fleet Street wasn’t just going to roll over and die in the face of L’Estrange. So he had to enforce the dire penalties he’d threatened. One victim of this royalist bigot was the owner of a printing press in Cloth Fair. His name was Twyne and he’d be made an example of to all journalists thinking life could go on as before.

With four burly men, L’Estrange kicked in Twyne’s door. They found writings that advocated the popular will – and you can imagine what L’Estrange thought about that! Twyne soon found himself before Lord Chief Justice Hyde at the Old Bailey who shouted: “Tie him up executioner!”  And added rather unpleasantly:

I speak it from my soul that we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so gracious and good a king, and you Twyne, in the rancour of your heart, thus to abuse him deserve no mercy.

He was then sentenced to be hanged but cut down before he was dead, his entrails burnt “before your eyes” and his head and chopped up body to be “disposed of at the pleasure of the king’s majesty”. And so it was that L’Estrange got to have Twyne executed horribly at Tyburn and his body parts displayed at Ludgate, Aldersgate and elsewhere.

L’Estrange, sad to say, led a long life. Though he fell out with King William III and this old Tory lived long enough to see the Whig party, which he detested for its lack of devotion to the king, grow stronger. As a former journalist myself, I’d say that L’Estrange was an object lesson in why we should defend a free press with our dying breath. Though hopefully, it will never come to that!

The Knights Templar, a feudal lord and the Nazis

What could possibly link the Knights Templar, a particularly controversial medieval aristocrat and the Nazis? Well, more than you might think!

First let’s start with the medieval aristocrat. Geoffrey de Mandeville was a serial rebel and of a violent disposition. Well suited to his times you might think as the early 12th century in England was referred to as the Great Anarchy.

This was following the death of King Henry I in 1135 after eating a “surfeit of lampreys”. His daughter Matilda expected to take the crown but medieval lords weren’t up for giving power to a woman. Her cousin Stephen knew this and declared himself king.

DISCOVER: The gory history of Temple Bar

That led to a vicious civil war between Matilda and Stephen where each gained the upper hand at different times. Geoffrey nimbly swapped sides repeatedly but managed to annoy both Matilda and Stephen in the process.

Eventually, a victorious Stephen ordered the arrest of Geoffrey, who was the first Earl of Essex, and the seizure of his castles. Geoffrey responded by becoming a bandit and holing up in the marshes of East Anglia.

Eventually, the king’s forces surrounded the troublesome earl and he was shot through with arrows. A traitor to his king and rejected by the church for raiding Ramsey Abbey – Geoffrey’s body couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground.

In fact, nobody knew what to do with his remains. Until the Knights Templar stepped in. They took his carcass to their London headquarters – the Temple church still standing – in a lead coffin and hung it from the branches of an apple tree. That way it was in their protection without being placed in the ground.

At some point, a burial was made possible and his son arranged for an effigy of his father to be placed in the Templar church. It can still be seen today. But it’s taken a bit of a bashing.

Up until the 10th March, 1941, the effigy was in almost pristine condition. But this was the Second World War and the Blitz meant Nazi bombs were raining down on the city. One exploded in the circular church bringing the roof crashing down on top of the effigy. As you can see – he took quite a pounding.

Even in death – Geoffrey had a rough time.