Monarchs & Miscellanea

 Now that the monarchy is a toothless institution most of us like it or tolerate it contentedly enough. But when the King or Queen played a more pivotal role in Government, the issue of their attitude and aptitude was central to the national story. There are three Kings remembered on Trafalgar Square and merit doesn’t seem to have played a part in their selection.    

Charles 1st 

To the south of Square, marooned by traffic on the little roundabout is Charles 1st an S man on an XXL horse. Brains are no correlate of wisdom. Charles, no dope, was encumbered by a rigid belief in his divine right to be boss and made no pretence to be a man of the people. That was tricky because many of those people didn't like autocracy and had a similarly fixed suspicion that he wanted to re-introduce Catholic practices into what was then a protestant country.

Cue a Civil War between his supporters and those who followed Parliament. An estimated 4% of the British English population perished, twice the number who died in World War One. The outcome was a win for the ‘Parliamentary’ and protestant opposition led by Oliver Cromwell. Thereafter, as a renegade or prisoner, he proved to be a bad and unrepentant loser and the new government who eventually and controversially decided that he had to go. Permanently. At noon on January 30th 1649 he sank a glass of claret and faced his masked and bewigged executioner. 

In short, an inflexible ruler who put his own interests before the country’s and paid the price. But it was a long time ago so, like the ancient bigot propping up the end of the pub bar, he is a fixture and stays.

His successor, his eponymous son Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) went into exile until Cromwell’s regime disintegrated and he was invited back to take the throne as Charles 2ndHe didn't live for long and was succeeded by his younger brother James 2nd, who sits on the North West side of the square in a pseudo-Roman get-up topped with a laurel wreath, the adornment of a victorious commander. 

James 2nd

Views on James vary. He was a clever, cold, humourless oddball, but many believed him to be religiously tolerant up to a point. Others thought that this just a hypocritical bigot following in his father's autocratic and quasi-Catholic footsteps. I don’t know, I never met him but in any event, he wasn't popular. I blame the parents. 

Once again the result was political turbulence and rebellions ending up with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which actually wasn’t glorious and wasn’t a revolution. Rather, it was a Dutch invasion achieved with a lot of inside assistance and a population that must have been fed up with it all. James had done more than his share of soldiering, but now he read the tea leaves and fled into exile. So much for the laurel wreath. The Dutch protestant William of Orange took the throne as William 3rd. The fig leaf was his marriage to Mary, James' daughter. 

Frankly, the whole episode makes the 'Succession' TC series sound uneventful! James was wiser but not wise enough. Our low benchmark of monarchical competence suggests that he could have been worse and, as you can see from my pen-pic of Charles, there is a point in time before which I am happy to let bygones be bygones. He can stay providing his ghost doesn't mind us mocking his clobber. 

On the much larger Northern plinth, on horseback and dressed in even more laughably pretentious Roman garb, is George 1V who reigned in the early 1800’s which comes after that point in time. 

This was the era of the final defeat of Napoleon but he played no role in that; over the preceding century, government had mostly passed from the Monarch to Parliament who sensibly kept this liability away from world affairs. 

George 4th 

Whoever designed this monument should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. George was a financially and sexually incontinent, glutinous culture vulture. People hated him for it and in particular for his treatment of his Queen, Caroline of Brunswick, chosen because she was rich, rude, ugly and smelly; thus no threat to his existing secret and illegal marriage or his many other liaisons. She didn’t think much of him either. What a pair they made! There is too much rich stuff to summarise so the tale is told here: George & Caroline

In the end, George engineered a controversial divorce. And when he succeeded his Father and was crowned (with a crown with 12000 diamonds) they wouldn’t even let her into the Hall. By that time he was obese and reportedly hooked on opiates.

In short, an unpopular, embarrassing, expensive and dissolute waste of space. If we must have statues of Kings, can we have the good ones, please. He should go. A long way away.

The empty fourth plinth in the Square was going to hold a statue of William 4th, George 4th’s younger brother who succeeded him and was thankfully nothing like him, but sadly this more deserving man never got it because the funds ran out. So, a few words on the man whose statue should have been here but in fact is in Greenwich So, no William. But this is what he looked like. 

William was a sailor who saw action, starting as a junior officer and ending up as an Admiral of the Fleet. He does have a statue, but appropriately for a naval man in his sailor days, he seems to have found girlfriends more convenient than a wife. By the time he became King and married another fish from the sea of sub-royalty from the German micro-states, he had already begat at least eleven live children. 

Their subsequent begatting led to David Cameron but we shouldn't blame him for that. His legitimate kids all died young so when he died the Crown then passed to his niece Victoria. He had a far more modern view of his role, saying 'I have my view of things, and I tell them to my ministers. If they do not adopt them, I cannot help it. I have done my duty.' Quite. 

There are a few other things you might notice around the square and some you won't! 

The most obvious one is the 4th Plinth, which as explained in the second of this series was originally earmarked for William 4th but which after decades of standing empty is now being used for a rotating cast of modern ‘cutting edge’ sculptures. (Art UK’s words, not mine!) . Some are interesting, some not, while others are cartoonish or whimsical. The pic below is the current offering based on a 1914 photo of a Baptist preacher from Malawi. It will soon be replaced so I won’t add in the back story but you can find it here: John Chilembwe

If you want to see all the past occupants of this plinth search online for something online. Here is the Wikipedia offering:  Fourth Plinth

Frankly, it splits opinion and I doubt that folk would want to see the idea cloned. So when the powers that be wake up and declare ‘Pootler is right! We need to clear out this imperial reliquary; there would be another debate on what the replacements should be. Should we ask the public? Maybe not. Think ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and at least in that case, the evidence was to be despatched to the Antarctic. Or leave it to our elected representatives? Certainly not. Think of recent Prime Ministerial honours lists.

To be clear, I have no gripe with the various monuments along the Mall and elsewhere which honour the military dead and am keenly aware that I wouldn't have been first to volunteer for the trenches. Rather, I am just not so keen on giving the prime position to the blokes that led them to their death but somehow survived themselves. The truth is, I can’t get the image of Stephen Fry’s General Melchett out of my mind and would welcome a balance with people who made a humane contribution to the common weal.

Or move Shakespeare from the dark heart of London that is Leicester Square?   How about Wilberforce who did so much to abolish slavery and is currently remembered by a statue in Hull and at his tomb in Westminster Abbey.   


 Or Jenner who introduced vaccines, is now remembered in Kensington Gardens but was actually in the Square until the military allied with early anti-vaxxers to oust him. According to a newspaper at the time '...the veterans of the Horse Guards and Admiralty were scandalised at the idea of a mere civilian, a doctor, having a place in such distinguished company, and moreover daring to be seated while his betters were standing”. He was cancelled! The medical profession followed Queen Victoria (and Albert) in being unamused, noting that the others remained in the square ‘because they killed their fellow-creatures, whereas he only saved them’. They didn’t let it rest and have petitioned for his return since.  


On the monarchical side, why not replace the awful George 4th with Elizabeth 2ndOr Henry 5th, to double down on teasing the French. And do Kings have to be real ones? I wouldn’t mind seeing Arthur there. After all, he is the King who will rise again in Britain’s hour of need. Not that he has seen fit to do so yet. I do like this spectral image of him from Tintagel. 

The Once and Future King? 

A few factoids and micro-trivia.

The National Gallery’s site above the square is not an artificial architectural conceit. During the ice ages and the warmer periods between them, the Thames followed sea levels by rising and sinking. When it sank, it marooned its old beaches and foreshores as gravel terraces on higher ground. The National Gallery sits on one of those terraces and the Square itself on a later one. Water levels were highest when the climate was warmer and the river would have been popular with wildlife. The remains of rhinos, lions, wolves, hippos and elephants have been found buried here. Their bones are now in the Natural History Museum.

Here is some real micro-trivia.

On the wall and steps along the north side of the Square to the right of the bust of Beatty are plaques, each representing the imperial measures of distance. They were installed by the Board of Trade in 1876 after previous official measurements were destroyed when Parliament burnt down in 1834. 

The Imperial measures of length

Finally, a police observation cubby hole is built into the light in the southeast corner of the Square. It is not, contrary to the information in many of the guides, London's smallest Police Station. Rather, it dates back to the time before surveillance cameras and they wanted to keep an eye on protesters. In fact, the whole design of the square serves the purpose of crowd control; the position of the column and fountains made it an unpromising location for large political protests. Unlike the ubiquitous monitoring cameras, at least then we watch them watching us.....



Popular posts from this blog

Start Here : Explanations

Mapping Apps Review

3. Mud