After Hubert Le Sueur (c.1580-1658)
By the nineteenth century the aura of martyrdom that surrounded King Charles I had attached itself to the Le Sueur statue in particular…
This bronze bust is cast after the equestrian statue of King Charles I that stands at the top of Whitehall in London, on the site of the Eleanor Cross demolished by puritan fanatics in 1643. The statue was cast in 1633 by the French sculptor Hubert le Sueur and shows the king in contemporary armour and carrying the baton of a general. No comparably ambitious work in bronze had ever before been cast in this country, either in scale or design. The statue was the first equestrian statue of a British monarch, and as such a suitable expression of King Charles’s desire to ally the character of the monarchy with that of the Continental princes, among whom the equestrian statue had long been an expression of royal power directly descended from the images of Roman emperors. The statue was not, however, originally intended for the commanding and poignant site it now occupies, where it looks down Whitehall down to the grandest of Charles’ former palaces as well as the scene of his execution.
The Earl of Portland had the statue made to sit in the garden of his house at Roehampton, where it remained until the estate – by then the property of Sir Thomas Dawes – was sequestrated by Parliament. The statue was then sold for £150 to the St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, who placed it in the churchyard. In 1650 during the rash of anti-monarchical hysteria caused by the Scottish invasion and the Worcester campaign by King Charles II the statue was ordered to be destroyed. It was delivered to John Rivett, a Holborn brazier, who pretended to have melted it down to produce souvenirs, eagerly purchased by the king’s partisans as memorials and by his enemies as trophies. At the Restoration Rivett was able to produce the statue intact for which he was rewarded by being appointed the king’s brazier. The statue was then given to the new Earl of Portland, before in a show of filial piety King Charles bought the statue and in 1675 had it erected on its present site. In placing the statue overlooking the site of the subject’s judicial murder and on the place of a medieval royal monument destroyed by his enemies the king achieved a doubly emphatic demonstration of the return to royal authority.
A plaster cast of the statue was made in 1855 for the Great Exhibition and the casting of the present bust of the king may date to this occasion. By the nineteenth century the aura of martyrdom that surrounded King Charles I had attached itself to the Le Sueur statue in particular, not only on account of its situation, but also by reason of its stoic dignity, and by the 1890s it had become the focus for commemorations by groups such as the Jacobite Legitimist League and – into the present century – the Society of King Charles the Martyr. The solemn elegance of this bust reflects very well the superb execution of the original and the character of the king whose icon it has become.