The Statue of King Alfred The Great that isn’t all it might appear.

Every where you go in London, it is hard to move without bumping into statues and the politics behind who is worthy of a statue, where it should be and how high a status it has in comparison to other figures especially in statue-dense areas are things that get the proponents and opponents quite worked up.

There’s one statue that I visited a few days whilst researching my new book. It’s not by any means a new statue and in fact it may very well be the oldest statue in London though for reasons somewhat lost in the midst of time, it is not in a place even many Londoners get to see.

The statue of King Alfred the Great in Trinity Church Square, Southwark was thought medieval until recent conservation work. King Alfred the Great of course is one of our greatest monarchs and Alfred, King of Wessex, was a defender against Viking invasion and a social reformer. Legend has it that, distracted by his problems, he allowed some cakes to burn while he was supposed to be watching them – and is roundly scolded by the woman whose baking was ruined. He eventually managed to reclaim London from the Vikings (we go to his plaque on our River Thames London Walking Tour).

There has been some debate for a while about the statue however and recent research shows that all is not how it may appear.

King Alfred the Great or is it?

For a start the top and bottom halves of the statue are composed of different stones. The lower half was then discovered to be Bath Stone. Bath Stone is what is known as a freestone – one that can be cut in any direction, unlike other rocks such as slate, which forms distinct layers. It is a golden buff colour that seems to glow in sunlight. The Romans extensively used it on domestic, ecclesiastical and civil engineering projects.

A professor of Roman art has reached the conclusion that this lower section dates to the 2nd Century AD and part of a large 3 metre tall ancient sculpture that was dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Minerva, in Roman religion, was the goddess of handicrafts, the professions, the arts, and, later, war.

The top half of the statue that is obviously King Alfred is composed of Coade Stone, a mix of clay, terracotta, silicates, and glass invented in the 1770s. It was fired for four days at a time in incredibly hot kilns and making a seamless going to the Bath Stone must have been incredible difficult and complex as Coade Stone clay shrinks when it is being fired in the kiln.

Coade Stone is not a stone but a ceramic invented by Eleanor Coade in the mid 18th century and whose recipe was a closely guarded secret but obviously hugely successful and architects of the say including Sir John Nash and Sir John Soane made great use of it for delicate ornamental touches on their magnificent buildings and indeed it was used at Buckingham Palace too.

King Alfred The Great (and Minerva) in the grounds of Triny Church.

Obviously someone a few years ago thought that it would save a lot of time and money by making use of an old Roman statue and have it make the basis of a great statue of King Alfred the Great.

This sort of thing has happened for millennia, whilst this was likely for convenience it was quite common in places like Egypt or other ancient civilisations for the heads old rulers on statues or paintings to be replaced by the current leader…. particularly so if they were from rival factions.

This revelation about the unexpected age of the statue is another great legacy of Roman London but how it ended up in this quiet if beautiful square isn’t really known. It is thought the statue might be one of those missing from the north face of Westminster Hall, removed by Sir John Soane in about 1825.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to The Statue of King Alfred The Great that isn’t all it might appear.

  1. Kelly MacKay says:

    Another good read. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Bumping into John Keats at St. Guy’s Hospital | Stephen Liddell

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