Tuesday 28 April 2009

3 highlights of Stuart London

The Stuart period was a particularly turbulent one for London and England. It began in 1603 with the reign of King James I and VI, took in the English Civil War, and ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The city was prospering, with new buildings by Inigo Jones, a New River providing drinking water, and the opening of Hyde Park to the public in 1637. However, tempestuous times followed with the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration; the physical shape of the city was then changed for ever by the Great Fire of 1666. Much of the mediaeval city was burnt away, to be rebuilt by Wren and Hawksmoor in the following decades.

Charles I statue

Created by French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur in 1633, for Lord Weston to place in his garden at Roehampton, this equestrian statue nearly became a victim of the English Civil War - rather like its subject. The Commonwealth parliament ordered brazier John Rivet to melt it down for scrap. However, he didn't do so, burying it in his garden instead. After Charles II came to the throne, the statue was reinstated in its current position, pointing down Whitehall towards Banqueting House - rather tactlessly, since this was where Charles was executed.

The site was originally occupied by Charing Cross - a Victorian replica of the mediaeval original now stands outside the station - and is the point from which all distances to London are measured. Less pleasantly, the pillory was located nearby in the eighteenth century - this form of crowd punishment left some of those convicted unconscious, blinded or dead.

So, the statue has many functions as symbol of royal power and reminder of the Commonwealth; milestone and pointer to judicial violence. It's well worth your while, then, to turn your eyes away from Nelson's Column to this meaning-rich remnant of Stuart London.

Image: Canaletto, Northumberland House 1752, from Wikipedia.

The Monument
It's hard to pick just one Wren masterpiece, but the Monument has an added advantage: panoramic views of the city. It's no easy climb, though - there are 311 steps, so you deserve both the view and the certificate you get at the top.

The Monument commemorates the Great Fire of London which began in nearby Pudding Lane and destroyed most of the city. A golden basket of fire tops this elegant stone column, with the spectators' cage only slightly detracting from it: this Victorian addition was designed to prevent suicides (there had been 6 since 1788, and one accidental death). However, before heading for it, don't miss the reliefs and inscriptions at the base - the latter notoriously included wording added in 1681 which blamed the fire upon Roman Catholics; that baseless claim was removed in 1831.

The recent restoration allows visitors to appreciate the Monument's hidden purpose: Wren intended it to be used for scientific experiments on gravity and pendulums, and there is a basement laboratory. This dual purpose is perhaps not surprising since Wren had as his assistant Dr Robert Hooke, best known for his scientific work. Unfortunately, vibrations from the surrounding traffic meant that the Monument proved unsuitable for experiments.

Image: The Monument to the Great Fire of London in The Graphic, 1891, from Wikipedia.

Hoop & Grapes, Aldgate
History can be thirsty work (especially if you've been climbing all those steps), so this Stuart survival is a good place for a reviving drink. Built in the seventeenth century as a private home, it was one of the few City buildings to survive the Great Fire of London which stopped just yards away. As a result, it's a very rare remaining timber-framed building: after the Fire, buildings had to be built in brick.

Also worth seeing: Find out more about the Great Fire in the Museum of London, which has a dedicated gallery. St Paul's Cathedral and St Paul's, Deptford are two of the many churches which were built during this period, along with numerous City churches and Hawksmoor's unsettling Christ Church, Spitalfields.

For more London highlights, click here.


Adam said...

I'm glad to see that you recommend a pub. It's amazing how much of the England's history can be told just by visiting these buildings. The problem is trying to remember it all afterwards.

CarolineLD said...

Too true!