• Richard Ing

Charles I Equestrian Statue. A riveting tale of 17th Century entrepreneurship

At the very top of Whitehall, at the junction with Trafalgar Square, stands the oldest example in England of an equestrian statue. It commemorates the only English King to be judiciously executed, Charles I, King and Martyr. Situated exactly where the old Eleanor Cross had stood for some 350 years until destroyed by Cromwell's puritan mob, the statue appeared, disappeared and re-appeared in a sometimes bizarre and yet compelling series of events.

Equestrian statue of Charles I.

We know that the statue was, very unusually, privately commissioned in the early 1630s by Lord Weston, Lord High Treasurer to Charles I. The commission was awarded to the well known and established Huguenot sculptor, Hubert Le Sueur. Initially the statue was erected in Covent Garden but as tensions between Parliament and the Crown grew, the statue became a focus for anti Royalist sentiment and something had to be done. Enter the appropriately named Mr John Rivett.

Rivett was a brazier and clearly had an eye for a money making opportunity. The Puritans demanded that the statue be destroyed. Rivett, purchased the artwork and as "proof" of destruction, he showed the Puritan authorities some brass metal that he assured them was the remains of Le Sueur's masterwork. Rivett then continued to do a roaring trade in the sale of thimbles, knives and other trinkets, all of which he assured prospective purchasers were fashioned from the melted down statue. And Rivett did very well, selling these gewgaws to Parliamentarians as a reminder of their victory over the Monarchy. He also sold them to Royalists as mementoes of the martyred King! In fact, Rivett had retained the complete statue and so the story goes, had buried it in his garden in the anticipation that circumstances might change.

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, circumstances had most definitely changed and Rivett made the most of this new opportunity. Clearly Rivett had let it be known that the statue was intact. He was quite soon being put under some pressure from the son and heir of Lord Weston to restore the statue to it's original and rightful owner. However, Rivett held out and eventually sold the piece to Charles II thus making a second good profit on his investment.

Eventually the statue was erected on its present site but not before Charles II had exacted his revenge by executing a number of the regicides on exactly the spot that his father's memorial would stand. This was the spot where Samuel Pepy's witnessed one such execution and recorded in his diary; "I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as as cheerful as any man could do in that condition."(!)

Le Sueur's Charles I Equestrian Statue remains in place, proudly standing on the Portland stone pedestal designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carved by Joshua Marshall. He gazes down Whitehall towards Banqueting House to the site of his own execution. Of the brazier John Rivett, little more is known other than his retirement was probably more comfortable thanks to his inspired entrepreneurial spirit.

Copyright, Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.

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