Friday 4 September 2020

'Tearing down the Past' by Karen Maitland

Bishop Absolon topples the statue of the god Svantevit in 1169
Painter: Laurits Tuxen 1853-1927, 
Ferederiksborg Hillerod Museum, Denmark
Ever since kingdoms first began waging war on others, conquerors have begun their reign by pulling down the statues and emblems of the old regime. Likewise, rebels and reformers in every age have defaced, drowned, smashed or burned the statues of those who represent their present or historical enemies. The physical symbols of religion or power have always been the focus of attack in times of change and none more so than Cheapside Cross in London, which repeatedly became the unlikely target of hatred throughout the Reformation.

This seemingly innocent cross was one of the 12 Eleanor Crosses, erected in memory of Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, between 1291-1295. It stood at the commercial heart of London, then called Westcheap, and presided over many transactions made in the market there. It was one of the places where notorious wrong-doers were punished; important civic speeches made and new kings proclaimed. Heretical literature and seditious writings were publicly burned there.  

Statue of Jesus toppled by
Spanish Republican Forces
in anticlerical action, 1936
Photo: Sharon Mollerus

Cheapside Cross was remoulded several times over the centuries and in Tudor times it stood 36ft high, with three tiers whose niches housed statues of religious figures, such as Edward the Confessor, the Virgin Mary and infant Christ. The edifice was crowned by a great gilded cross and a dove. 

By the time of the Reformation, it had become both a Catholic and royal symbol. Even in 1553, the authorities feared it might become a target for vandalism by those opposed to the visit of Catholic King Phillip of Spain during Mary’s reign and a high ‘pale’ was erected to protected it, which was later removed by Elizabeth. But on Midsummer’s night 1581, a group of young men defaced the statue of the Virgin and child, and dragged down some of the other statues with ropes. Despite a handsome reward of 40 crowns being offered, no one was arrested. It was possibly just an act of drunken vandalism fuelled by Midsummer celebrations, but the figures which were mutilated suggest it might have been carried out by fervent Protestants against perceived symbols of Catholicism and the Pope. 

There had been several previous defacings of the Virgin on the Cheapside Cross. So, after this last one, Elizabeth had the statue of the Virgin Mary replaced with the goddess Diana which, in complete contrast, spouted Thames water through the nipples of her bare breasts – Diana representing the virgin Queen Elizabeth herself.  In 1601, the cross was again renovated and the bare breasted goddess was replaced by the Virgin Mary once more. Railings were erected to protect the cross. But within two weeks, the statue of Virgin Mary had been vandalised again, her chest stabbed and her crown ripped off. 

'Coronation Procession of Edward VI passing Cheapside Cross 1547'
Published in Vol1 'Old & New London'  by Walter Thornbury, pub. 1873 
based on a mural (now lost) at Cowdray House, Sussex
Book held in British Library

There were many vociferous Protestant campaigns to have the Cheapside Cross removed as idolatrous, some Puritans even saw it as symbol of Dagon, ancient god of the Philistines. But although most other Catholic symbols were removed, Cheapside Cross continued to be preserved by the London authorities, and ever greater defences were erected to protected it from repeated attacks. But in January 1642, the statues on the cross were severely damaged by attackers overnight. One man was mortally wounded when he fell on the spikes of the railings whilst trying to pull down the figures. Such was the heated emotion on both sides that people passing the cross over the next few days found themselves confronted by gangs demanding to know if they were for or against it. 

'Ancient View of Cheapside' 
in 'Old & New London', Vol 1 pub.1873

The cross had become a focus for the hatred of Charles I who had left London and the city authorities were forced to deploy soldiers to protect it at night. Puritan demands for its removal grew with countless pamphlets and petitions. Finally, in April 1643, Parliament appointed a Commons Committee chaired by Sir Robert Hale who had long campaigned against Cheapside Cross. The committee was set up to oversee the destruction of offensive religious images and three days later the London Court of Aldermen ordered the removal of Cheapside Cross because of the ‘idolatrous and superstitious’ figures. The soldiers who had been protecting it were now forced to guard the demolition crew from those who were determined to prevent it coming down, even at the cost of their lives.

'Demolition of Cheapside Cross', in 'Old & New London' pub 1873
Book in British Library

The funeral of the cross was marked with ringing of bells and bonfires, and in a final sting in this sad tale – the ‘Book of Sports’, considered ‘profane and pernicious’ because promoted such ‘abominations’ as maypole dancing, was ritually burned by a hangman on the spot where Cheapside Cross had stood.

Remnants of Cheapside Cross in
Museum of London
Photo: MattFromLondon

Most of the other Eleanor Crosses were also torn down during the Civil War, but three survived and still stand at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross.

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