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Two of London's more unexpected statues

London has many, many statues. Some are famous, some are old, and some are just plain weird. Then there are those that you wouldn't expect; did you know, for example, that London's most famous square contains the statue of a man who fought a war against Britain, and the statue of one of our least successful kings?

You may not have noticed them on Trafalgar Square, the most famous statue on which is Lord Nelson on top of his column with the four lions to guard him at the base. Then there are the two Victorian generals whose names no-one remembers (Charles Napier and Henry Havelock) and the equestrian statue of George IV; that last one was meant to have been complemented by a similar statue of his brother, William IV, but after he died there wasn't any money for an equestrian statue - the result being the famously vacant fourth plinth which has of late been occupied by various works of modern art (my favourite was the time when members of the public were able to apply for hour-long slots on it - one bloke apparently took a chair and a newspaper up with him and just sat and read the paper for his allotted time).

The two statues that I'm interested in here are right at the back, so much so that it would probably be more accurate to say that they're in front of the National Gallery rather than on Trafalgar Square (indeed, we probably wouldn't have said that they were on the square at all before the north end got pedestrianised). 

The first, up in the north-eastern corner, is of the man who fought a war against Britain: George Washington. This, which probably really surprises the American tourists who notice it, was given to Britain by the "Commonwealth of Virginia" (so it says on the plinth, a reminder that not all of the United States officially refer to themselves as states) in 1921, and it's one of many copies of the Washington statue by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon which stands in Richmond, Virginia. Apparently it came with some soil from Virginia, because the first President had vowed that he would never set foot on British soil and it was felt that erecting a statue of him in Britain would violate that promise, so the statue actually stands on American mud.

It may seem odd to have a statue of a man who fought a war against this country in the capital city's most famous public space, but there is a certain mad logic to it. After all, at the time not everyone in Britain supported war against the Colonists; in fact, it divided political opinion as much as Iraq has done in more recent times. Some thought that the Colonists were onto something with their complaints about being taxed without being represented, and reckoned that the Declaration of Independence was very much in the spirit of the Magna Carta. 

To give two examples: Pitt the Elder, the man who had led the country in the war that had consolidated British power in North America, collapsed in the House of Lords while attacking government policy towards America (quite literally the last thing he ever did, as he died without recovering) and in the Commons the famously radical Charles James Fox was hardly a lone voice (Lord North, who led that war on George III's behalf, became the first British PM to be forced out of office by a motion of no confidence, brought about by MPs opposed to the government's conduct of the war). Tellingly, Fox would go on to become a key agitator for parliamentary reform and one of his followers, Earl Grey, would be the PM when the 1832 Reform Act was passed.

Washington is not the only US president to have a statue in London; you can also find Abraham Lincoln on Parliament Square and FDR (standing up, weirdly), Eisenhower and Reagan on Grosvenor Square. 

Over in the north-wetern corner is a man dressed as a Roman soldier but, unlike the statue of the Emperor Trajan near the Tower, this one isn't a statue of an actual Roman. Depicting a statesmen or politician in Roman costume used to be a popular thing (down on Parliament Square, short-lived 19th century PM George Canning can be seen in a toga); this one dates back to 1686 and has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, better known as one of this country's most famous wood-carvers. The plinth has a Latin inscription: "Jacobus Secundus, Dei Gratia, Angliae, Scotlae, Franciae et Hiberniae, Rex" - James the Second, by God's Grace, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King. Usually ranked as one of this country's least successful rulers.

The younger son of Charles I (whose statue on a traffic island just south of Trafalgar Square, the point from which distances from London are traditionally measured, looks out onto the sight of his execution), James had acquitted himself well during the Great Fire of London (he had organised the knocking down of buildings to stop the fire from spreading further) and as Lord High Admiral, but by converting to Catholicism he made a lot of enemies; in post-Restoration England, the memory of what had happened under Mary I ('Bloody Mary') over a century earlier cast a long shadow. 

There were some who, fearing that he would try to rule as an absolutist monarch, opposed the very idea of James becoming king; they were nicknamed 'Whigs' (the term derived from the word 'whiggamore', meaning cattle-driver, which had been applied to Scots who were opposed to Charles I a generation before), while those who were in favour of his remaining in the line of succession were derided as 'Tories' (which derived from the Irish toraidhe, meaning outlaw or robber); both terms were originally used as insults. 

When he ascended the throne as King James II (or VII as far as Scotland was concerned) in 1685, he had to deal with a popular but poorly-led rebellion by one of his illegitimate nephews, the Duke of Monmouth. This was defeated, but James's reign was far from stable. Charles II had been clever in his dealings with Parliament, and had hidden his true religious inclinations while taking money from Louis XIV of France in return for a promise to convert to Catholicism; James, alas, was not blessed with his brother's subtlety and he quickly alienated his (mostly) Protestant subjects by enlarging the Army and appointing Catholics to senior posts; when Parliament objected, he prorogued it.

The turning-point, though, came when his wife gave birth to a son. Until then, the Whigs had assumed that the Crown would pass to James's (Protestant) daughters from his first marriage. The birth of a son, and with it the prospect of an heir who would be raised as a Catholic, changed everything. 

(The son, by the way, would be known to history as the Old Pretender, and his 65-year 'reign' as pretender to the throne was longer than that of any actual British monarch.)

The Protestant aristocracy now moved against James, inviting his daughter Mary and her husband, the Dutch prince William of Orange (who was also James's nephew) to reign as joint sovereigns. James tried to resist this, but he lost the support of the Army; John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough), the man who'd defeated the Monmouth Rebellion, now sided with Parliament in what is now known as the Glorious Revolution.

James fled the country, his apparent last act as king being the throwing of the Great Seal of England into the Thames. He would try to get his crowns back (this being prior to the Act of Union, there were three - the claim on the French one, as listed on the plinth along with his actual titles, was by this time a mere historical curiosity), but a military campaign in Ireland backed by Louis XIV was defeated by William at the battle of the Boyne - an event commemorated to this day by the Protestants in Northern Ireland.

A man who fought against the crown, and a man who wore the crown and then lost it; both adorn London's most famous square.

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