Trafalgar Square Redux 13 – the First Equestrian Statue in England

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London.

It’s Monday, March 11th, 2024. Monday. Execution Day.

And it’s take a bow Wandsworth. That’s the Borough of Wandsworth, not Wandsworth Town. Though Wandsworth Town is in the Borough of Wandsworth. As for that word, borough – keeping in mind that to see London you have to hear it – for administrative purposes London is divided up into 32 boroughs. Borough, it’s the same word that you get in Edinburgh. It’s an old Anglo-Saxon word – a Germanic word – that means fortified place. The name Wandsworth goes back a thousand years and more. It means, ‘the enclosure of a man named Weandle.’ He’s also given his name to the River Wandle. And you know that saying, we die three times. We die when we die. We die when we’re buried. And the third death, we die the last time our name is spoken. Well, Weandle, who died a thousand years ago, lives on. His name has got longevity written all over it. Methuselah in the bible lived 969 years. Weandle’s shown Methuselah a clean pair of heels and he won’t be checking out any time soon. Probably for centuries.

Anyway, the news for SW18 – Wandsworth – is it’s just been named the London Borough of Culture for 2025. Big grant coming its way – 1.35 million pounds – which it’ll use to host a year-long series of creative and cultural activities in 2025. It’s going to put Wandsworth on the map, Wandsworth’s going to be where it’s at come 2025. To give you an idea of some of the bill of fare, there’ll a Strictly-style mass dance, a catwalk celebration of local stories and a concert celebrating 50 years of local music. Watch this space. And if memory serves, London Walks has a couple of Wandsworth Walks in the repertory. It’s a safe bet they’ll get dusted off and wheeled out.

So the news from Wandsworth is the pin for the day. The news story that gets the London Calling show on the road. It’s the first act, it’s pinned to the top of the proceedings.

Moving on, today’s Random. And I’ve realised the Random is really the podcast equivalent of a Commonplace Book. What’s a Commonplace book? Well you might ask. A commonplace book is a personal compilation of knowledge, ideas, quotations, and observations collected by an individual. I, David, am the individual in question. And these Randoms, well, they’re my compilation, they’re bits and bobs of information, notable, often quirky stuff that I’ve noted down.

So our Commonplace Book entry today – our Random – is the great Dr Johnson’s ruminations on capital punishment. London’s principal execution site for centuries was Tyburn. Marble Arch we’d say today. Over many centuries thousands of people were launched into eternity there at the western end of Oxford Street. Right where Oxford Street meets Edgware Road meets Bayswater Road. And, well, you get to the latter part of the 18th century that neighbourhood went upmarket. There were smart houses there. Tony squares. And those people weren’t happy with the mayhem and farrago and pandemonium and mob-like scenes and gruesome business of public executions taking place on their doorstep. Put a stop to it, they said to the government. And the government obliged them. The last public execution at Tyburn took place in 1783.

The authorities moved the spectacle to Newgate. At a stroke, that spoiled a lot of the fun. It rained on the parade. Worse than rained, it pulled the plug on the parade. No more ‘going west’ as the old saying said, no more procession from Newgate to Tyburn. The populace was up in arms. They’d been deprived of the cheat. Cheat was the word for gallows. Ok, of an important part of the Cheat – the procession. And Dr Johnson was with them. He wasn’t at all happy about depriving them of the cheat. London can be conservative. How’s the old saying go, ‘unless it’s absolutely necessary to change something it’s absolutely necessary not to change it.’ And just because a few toffs weren’t happy with the Monday parade – Monday was execution day – and thousands of boisterous Londoners turning out to watch up to 24 villains swing on their doorsteps, well, that wasn’t a good enough reason to stop an ancient London tradition.  The Great Cham, Dr Johnson, said, “Sir, the age is running mad after innovation. No, Sir, it is not an improvement. They object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don’t draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties. The public was gratified by a procession. The criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?”

Well, I suppose you could say the criminal was supported until the launch into eternity, until the horses pulled the death cart he was standing on out from under his feet. Transferring the support to the rope round his neck. He couldn’t and the crowd didn’t breathe. There was a sharp intake of breath on the part of the spectators. The only people at that moment who were ‘supported’ were the pickpockets.

The crowd was engrossed in the condemned man’s dancing the hempen jig as it was called. In short, it was the perfect opportunity for pickpockets to ply their trade.

The people whose pockets they were picking were otherwise engaged. They weren’t paying attention to their pockets being rifled. Being a pickpocket was a capital crime. One justification for public executions was that they acted as a deterrent. If that was in fact the case, if they did act as a deterrent, you’d think that the one time for sure that pickpockets would be deterred from picking pockets was when death sentences were being carried out. On the contrary, that was the one time when the incidence of that capital crime was at its highest. Quod erat demonstrandum – case closed – the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Moving on, here’s today’s ongoing. We’re back in Trafalgar Square. Looking at another statue. It’s like being at a horse auction. We’re inspecting the goods. Taking a good look at the bloodstock. And bloodstock’s the right metaphor because the statue we’re looking at is the first equestrian statue in England. You got it in one, it’s the Charles I statue. And as usual, the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. So let’s look the Charles I statue in the teeth, so to speak. It was the work of a Huguenot sculptor, Hubert LeSueur. LeSueur’s initials are on the horse’s left front hoof. And it certainly wasn’t a warts and all portrait. Charles I was only five feet four inches tall. He’s a tall, handsome six-footer in the statue. LeSueur didn’t have to give him lifts in his shoes, he just exercised some poetic license, made him six feet tall. Turned a little man into a Peaky Blinders good-looker, a Gary Cooper riding into town. Pierce Brosnan, say. Problem solved.

The statue originally stood in Covent Garden. Come Cromwell and the Puritans and the Civil War it was taken down. A brazier – he couldn’t have been better named, his name was Rivett – was told to do away with it. Break it up. Well, Rivett had a better idea, a riveting idea. He buried it for safekeeping. Told people he’d broken it up. And made a lot of money selling fragments of the broken-up statue to any and all takers. The Puritans – the Parliamentarians – all wanted a piece of the action. It was a memento of their victory over the hated royals. And royalists wanted a piece of the statue as a souvenir of the old days, when the king was alive and on the throne. In due course, 1660 and the Restoration pitches up. We’ve got a king again. Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, returns to England from his exile in France. And sure enough, Rivett digs up the statue and makes yet another handsome profit from selling it to Charles II.

It’s erected where it is now. And there sure is food for thought in that location. Charles I, astride his horse, is eternally looking down at the spot – the Banqueting House – where his head was lopped off. And if he looks beyond that, quite a way beyond it, down at the far end of Whitehall, is the statue of Oliver Cromwell, who led the parliamentary forces in the Civil War, and was instrumental in the execution of Charles I.

In an earlier Trafalgar Square Redux podcast I took you through why that spot is the centre of London and why proclamations were read out there. And now it’s time for you to know that it was there Charles II took his revenge on the men who’d sentenced his father to death. And carried out the execution. Charles I wasn’t hanged, he was beheaded.

Charles II took his revenge by having the regicides – the ones who were still alive, Cromewell wasn’t of course – took his revenge by having the regicides hanged, drawn, and quartered right there. Samuel Pepys witnessed one of those executions. The regicide was Major General Harrison. They’d taken him across London to Charing Cross in a cart. He was seated at the back of the cart. At the other end of the cart, on wooden stakes facing Major General Harrison, were a couple of the gory heads of regicides who’d already been for the chops. All the way across town Major General Harrison would have been looking at those heads and presumably thinking, that’s going to be me in about half an hour. The English don’t do these things by halves.

Anyway, Pepys went out to Charing Cross to see it happen. And then he wrote about it in his diary. That diary entry is one of the great understatements of English Literature. Pepys said, “I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered. Which was done there. He looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.”

But let’s end with one more factoid about the man on the horse, King Charles I. Trying to instill some religious fervour into his son, the future Charles II, he told him he was to worship God for two reasons: for that he made you a man; and next, for that he made you a little God to sit on his Throne and rule over other men.”

There have been no end of kings – even well into the 20th century – who seriously believed in the so-called Divine Right, believed they were the Chosen One, believed they were appointed by God and were answerable only to him.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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