The issue of removing American Civil War statues was violently thrust into all our lives recently. The sight of Confederate and Nazi flags being carried side by side through the streets of Charlottesville, is something that shocked many in this country, and around the world. Riots, street fighting, and the tragic loss of life have led to more protests. In Durham, a mob pulled down a statue, while in Baltimore, and other cities and towns across America, under the cover of darkness, more statues have been removed. It is difficult for some to understand why statues and monuments commemorating a war that ended 152 years ago still provoke so much passion. But for those hoping that the issue has now gone away, if the English Civil War is anything to go by, then the subject is likely to rear it's head again soon.
Outside the Houses of Parliament in London stands the statue of Oliver Cromwell. Leaning on his sword eyes looking down at the ground, the effigy of Cromwell, victor in the English Civil War (1642-46) and Lord Protector of England (1653-58), was erected in 1899. Across the street, set into the walls of St. Margaret’s Church is the bust of King Charles I, Cromwell’s adversary. In 1649, Charles I was tried for treason and executed in Whitehall. I once heard a myth about the statue that Cromwell looks down, ashamed of executing his king, while Charles’s bodiless head defiantly glares back from across the road. The king’s bust was placed on St. Margaret’s in 1956, 60 years after Cromwell’s statue was built. Bogus myths aside, even after all this time emotions are still raw, and strong opinions are held regarding English Civil War monuments.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II was to seek a macabre revenge. On January 31st, 1661, 12 years after the execution of his father, the King ordered that the body of Cromwell, and other leading Parliamentarians be exhumed and subjected to a posthumous execution. Hanged in chains at Tyburn (now Marble Arch), Cromwell’s head was then stuck on a pole and displayed outside Westminster Hall until 1685.
In 1875, over two centuries after the Civil War, the first statue of Oliver Cromwell was erected in Manchester, outside the cathedral. As well as being highly controversial, the statue received the scorn of Queen Victoria who had agreed to open the new Town Hall building, as long as the statue was removed. It wasn’t, and the town hall was opened without the presence of the Queen. When the statue of Oliver Cromwell was commissioned and placed outside Parliament in 1899, it was so controversial (especially with the Irish Nationalist Party and members of the Royal Family) it had to be built with private funds only. And even as late as 2004, some Members of Parliament proposed a motion to have Cromwell’s statue taken down.
Even without the emotive subject of slavery and race that stir many Americans, the legacy of that civil war and how to commemorate it, 370 years later, can still be an issue for many people. I am sure the consequences and legacy of the American Civil War are going to be felt many centuries from now.