Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:52 am
Trafalgar Square is one of those places that have always seemed to be there. It is so famous, such a focal point, and featured in so many news clips and photographs – including those taken by most of London’s tourists – that it’s easy to take it for granted. Its name commemorates, as most people know, the Royal Navy’s victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The architect of that victory, Horatio Nelson, peers down from the top of his column 170-odd feet (52 metres) above our heads. Surrounding him are lions, fountains – and more statues. But Trafalgar Square does not have the atmosphere of a memorial; it is first and foremost a public space, a place to gather, and even more accessible since the north terrace was pedestrianised in 2003. Now, the space flows right up to the National Gallery via a generous set of steps. This area has become a magnet for street artists and performers, transforming a rather tired paved island in the middle of London’s occasionally bewildering traffic into a vibrant place that people want to spend time in.
At the very heart of London, Trafalgar Square is surrounded by classic architecture with echoes of the imperial past. To the west is Canada House, home to the Canadian High Commission; on the opposite side is the South African High Commission – in South Africa House. Through the gates of Admiralty Arch and you’re onto the Mall, heading straight for Buckingham Palace. South of you is Whitehall, the centre of government, Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament – all within easy walking distance. And Trafalgar Square is large – the largest publicly accessible square in London. Small wonder, then, that it became a place where people congregate to protest, hold rallies and celebrate. It was here that the fledgling Labour movement came to gather support, here that the suffragettes spoke out for the dignity and sense of basic equality. Trafalgar Square has seen thousands gather in support of war; thousands come together to demonstrate against it; thousands rioting, sometimes violently, against government policies of one sort or another, Equally, it has witnessed thousands celebrating peace – and thousands seeing in a New Year.
Of course, Trafalgar Square hasn’t always been there. Indeed, once upon a much warmer time, ancient rhinos, elephant and hippopotami roamed peacefully, unaware that they would one day be replaced by black taxis and red buses. One clue to the square’s relatively more recent history, though, is in the name of the church on its north east corner, St Martin in the Fields, because it used to be surrounded by countryside. A burial discovered in the church has been dated with 70% certainty to sometime between 390 and 430 AD, right at the end of, or just after, Roman rule in Britain. It has been amusingly suggested that this could have been Britain’s last Roman. Later, when the Anglo-Saxons established their settlement in London, which they called Lundenwic, it was not in the old Roman city to the east, but around the area now covered by Trafalgar Square, Aldwych and the Strand. A hamlet grew here – Charing. The name suggests Saxon origins, but in any event this was where Edward I chose to erect the last of his 12 memorial crosses to his beloved dead wife, Eleanor – just outside the Royal Palace of Westminster, in 1290. Charing Cross stood there for 350 years, until it was demolished on the orders of Parliament in 1647; the site, now occupied by a bronze equestrian statue of Charles I, is at the top of Whitehall on the southern edge of Trafalgar Square. The church we now know as St Martin in the Fields was not built until 1726, but a church has stood in the same place since at least 1222 – and was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542.
Returning to the original site of Charing Cross – the one outside Charing Cross Station is a modern replica – it traditionally marks the spot from which distances to London were calculated (and still are). The location’s history doesn’t end there: four of the regicides, those who signed King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, were hanged, drawn and quartered on that spot in 1660. It was also used, for a time, for puppet shows. The statue of Charles I on horseback is probably the most interesting statue in Trafalgar Square. It was commissioned by the king’s Lord High Treasurer, Richard Weston, and made in 1633. After the Civil War, it was sold to a Holborn-based metalsmith, John Rivett, who was told to melt it down. Rivett, so the story goes, was a resourceful kind of chap; he hid the statue (some say he buried it) but flogged off bits and pieces of cutlery and so forth, which he claimed were made from the statue of the dead king, as souvenirs. After the Restoration, the original statue miraculously reappeared and was purchased by Charles II, who had it placed in its current spot in 1675, looking down Whitehall toward the place of his father’s execution outside the Banqueting House.
From the late 14th century, part of what is now Trafalgar Square, near Charing Cross, was used to house the royal hawks, particularly at moulting, or ‘mew’ time. Later, the building became stables – referred to as the Royal Mews – and these remained on the site until the 18th century, covering quite a large area. Today, ‘mews’ usually refers to a courtyard or lane that was once enclosed by stables.
Architect John Nash (1752-1835), the man responsible for much of Regency London, had a notion to demolish the royal mews and create an open public space. This was officially named Trafalgar Square in 1830 – it was originally going to be named after William IV – and work began on the National Gallery (architect William Wilkins 1778-1839) in 1832. But progress on the whole development slowed after Nash’s death. In 1838 Charles Barry (1795-1860, probably best known as the designer of the Houses of Parliament) submitted proposals to complete Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton (1800-77), was erected in 1843, the fountains were built in 1845 and in 1867 Edwin Landseer (1802-73) designed the bronze lions that stand guard at the base of Nelson’s Column. Landseer was not a sculptor. Allegedly, he used a dead lion from London Zoo to help him with his work, but took so long over it that the poor creature had started to decompose before he had finished – thus, so ‘tis said, the paws aren’t quite right. Well, they look OK to me – and thousands of tourists clamber over them every year without appearing to care one way or another. Incidentally, the pedestal at the base of Nelson’s Column features four bronze panels depicting scenes from four of Nelson’s famous battles – Cape St Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and his own death at Trafalgar. The panels were cast from captured French guns.
In addition to Nelson and Charles I, there are a number of other statues and memorials in Trafalgar Square. You’ll find the busts of three admirals – Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham – on the north wall of the square. Just outside the square, and St Martin in the Fields, is a memorial to the nurse, Edith Cavell (1865-1915), who was shot by a German firing squad. There used to be statues of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), pioneer of smallpox vaccination, and Charles George Gordon (1833-85), Gordon of Khartoum, in the square; they can now be found in Kensington Gardens and on Victoria Embankment, outside the Ministry of Defence.
Three bronze statues remain in the square itself, mounted on plinths: in the north-east corner, we have King George IV (1762-1830); in the south-east, Major General Sir Henry Havelock (1795-1857) and in the south-west, General Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853). A fourth plinth, in the north-west corner, remained empty for many years; more recently, this has showcased works specifically commissioned for it, and some of these are worth looking at.
Close to Henry Havelock, you’ll find what is often referred to as Britain’s smallest police station – actually a police box – constructed in 1926 to help with public order.
Set into the wall and steps on the north side of Trafalgar Square are official measurements of distance – imperial measurements, naturally – which were originally installed in 1876. So this is where you can see if you are measuring distances like the Perch (aka Pole or Rod – 5 ½ yards), Chain (66 feet – the length of a cricket pitch) and Link (one hundredth of a Chain – 7.92 inches) correctly. These standards can also be found at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and in the Guildhall in the City of London.
We can’t explore Trafalgar Square without mentioning the Christmas tree, an annual gift since 1947 to the people of Britain from the city of Oslo as a thank you for British support to Norway during the Second World War. I have always thought this was a wonderfully warm and generous gesture – particularly when you bear in mind that both sides had an eye on the strategic importance of Norway, and that the British and French attempt to thwart German invasion was a shambolic failure; but the tree always looks magnificent.
While on the subject of World War Two, had things turned out differently, and Hitler’s invasion of the United Kingdom succeeded, allegedly the Nazi dictator planned to move Nelson’s Column (with Nelson) to Berlin in order to underline Germany’s victory. Which strikes me as a curious, pointless, aspiration; but there you go.
Trafalgar Square is owned by the Crown, though managed by the office of the Mayor of London. This brings us neatly onto what was certainly the greatest achievement of the first Mayor of London, the newt-loving Ken Livingstone. For years, Trafalgar Square had been famous for its feral pigeons, which people fed and fussed over. In fact, the wretched things were a menace, messy and probably a health hazard (though that was never proved). Ken, bless his little red socks, hired a pair of hawks, paid off the bird seed sellers and in the end made feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square an offence. These rats of the sky are still a pest, but it’s now possible to walk across Trafalgar Square without getting bombed by birds, or treading on them. Indeed, the pigeons have become a minority and are therefore eligible for sympathy. The biggest threat to safety these days comes from camera-wielding, selfie-obsessed, generally oblivious fellow-visitors.
Finally, every now and again, you come across an anecdote of buried treasure under Trafalgar Square. I first read of it in a book of London produced by the AA, an organisation so renowned for its integrity that I now refuse to deal with it. Their claim was that a mistress of Louis XV (Madame du Barry?) brought the Crown Jewels of France to London in 1793 and buried them under the Royal Mews. She then took the secret of the hiding place to the guillotine. It’s a good yarn and we’d all like it to be true – apart from the good lady’s awful end, that is. We can of course accept that this gallant Frenchwoman did not trust the thieving Brits (who would?); but, apart from that, so much of the tale makes no sense. Why bury the jewels; wasn’t there an easier way of keeping them safe? Did she dig the hole herself, or have help? If so, from whom? Is that how we know about it, or is it yet another corporate fiction? Most puzzlingly – why on earth did she return to France in the middle of its ghastly revolution? If there is any basis for truth in this story, I should like to know. Madame du Barry, if the mistress was her, was beheaded in December 1793; and it was on her loveliness that Madame Tussaud (allegedly) based her Sleeping Beauty.