Trafalgar Square is one of the most popular tourist interests in Central London, attracting well over one million people per year. Surrounded by museums, galleries and historic buildings, the public square is continually travelled through as sightseers make their way from place to place. Containing numerous statues, there are plenty of photographic opportunities for selfies or group pictures as well as the chance to witness a diverse selection of street performance.
With so much to offer, how much do visitors gain from their visit to Trafalgar Square? Apart from the lions and the acclaimed Nelson’s Column, a lot goes unappreciated or even unnoticed. By stepping back from the crowds and taking the time to look around you – up high, down low and side to side – you will discover the history and wonders of the dynamic location.
Trafalgar Square was developed by the architect John Nash (1752-1835) in the early 1800s. After its completion, the new square was officially christened Trafalgar Square in 1830 to commemorate the victory at the infamous Battle of Trafalgar a quarter of a century earlier. Some tourists are frequently confused by the name and incorrectly assume that the battle against Napoleon took place in this very square. The British Naval victory was earned at Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain, in which the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life.
In 1843, a bronze statue of Nelson was erected on top of a 145 ft Corinthian column designed by the English architect William Railton (1800-77); a tremendous monument in honour of the war-hero. The bronze lions on the pedestal below, sculpted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), were added thirty years later to stand guard around the column.
Nelson, literally and figuratively, overshadows all the other statues and plinths around the square and, unless time is taken to study them carefully, many remain unaware of who they represent and the significance of their position. Over the years, several sculptures have been erected (and even removed from) Trafalgar Square and they are worth having a look at.
To the left of the entrance to the National Gallery, stands a particularly old bronze statue. Originally erected in the Palace of Whitehall in 1686, King James II stands in a Contrapposto pose (hips and legs twisted away from the position of the head and shoulders) sculpted to resemble a Roman emperor. With right hand outstretched, it is believed that the King, or Jacobus Secundus as the plinth states, once held a baton, which is now missing. The rest of the plinth, when translated from the Latin, reads “by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Defender of the Faith. 1686.”
In the top right-hand corner of the square sits an equestrian statue of another king of England. Cast two years before George IV’s death in 1830, his statue depicts him in ancient Roman garments – possibly an attempt at resembling a Roman emperor similarly to James II – and was originally intended for the top of Marble Arch when it was used as the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Temporarily placed upon a plinth in Trafalgar Square, it has remained there ever since, although the inscription below was only added in the late 19th-century once his flattering features were no longer recognised by the public.
The most interesting thing about the George IV statue designed by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) is that he is riding with no stirrups. Whether it was intentional to depict the king bareback riding or an oversight of the sculptor remains unknown.
There is another equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square on the opposite side, near Whitehall. Older than both James II and George IV, the statue was cast in the 1630s by Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658), a French sculptor, in honour of Charles I. Dressed in armour typical of the era, the King sits proudly on his horse who has its right front leg raised as if walking.
Those who know their English royal history will wonder how the statue survived after the execution of Charles I. The bronze figure was sent to a metalsmith in Holborn along with instructions to melt it down, however, the smithy secretly hid the statue instead. When the royal family was restored to the throne, it was rediscovered and placed in Trafalgar Square in 1675, on the original location of one of the Eleanor crosses.
The Eleanor cross that stood in Trafalgar Square was destroyed during the civil war, however, a replica was produced in 1865 in front of Charing Cross railway station, where it still stands today. The Eleanor crosses were ornately decorated monuments adorned with a cross commissioned by Edward I in memoriam of his beloved wife. Each cross was positioned at the site her coffin lay overnight as it made its twelve-day journey from Lincoln to London before finally being buried in Westminster Abbey. Charing Cross was the final stop and therefore the most elaborate of the twelve monuments.
Victorian sculptor, Thomas Earp (1829-93), constructed the replica cross from designs by E. M. Barry (1830-80), an architect famed for his work in Covent Garden. Using Aberdeen granite, Earp expertly carved the decorative monument, including a statue of Eleanor of Castile standing towards the very top.
There are a number of other statues located in Trafalgar Square, and there are even more located nearby within short walking distance. When visiting the square, there is so much to see in the surrounding areas, for example, the Eleanor cross, that could so easily be missed by tourists. Diagonally across from the north-east corner of the square, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery stands a monument to the British nurse, Edith Cavell. Working in Brussels when the First World War broke out in 1914, Edith nursed hundreds of soldier regardless of which army they came from. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupation.
Unfortunately, Edith Cavell was caught and arrested by German soldiers, found guilty of treason and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her remains were brought home after the war, her bravery earning her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Sir George Frampton (1860-1928) constructed the modern-looking, ten-foot marble statue of the British nurse standing on a granite pedestal. Inscribed below are the words “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The monument was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 and, since 2014, it received a Grade 1 listing.
Another statue to look out for in the area is the Royal Marines Memorial installed on the north side of The Mall. Created at the beginning of the 20th-century, the memorial honours those who lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902).
To get to the Royal Marine Memorial from Trafalgar Square, the pavement takes you under Admiralty Arch. This is just one of the many historic structures that surround the square. The Grade 1 listed triumphal arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his long reigning mother, Queen Victoria. Initially used as a residence for the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the arch became government offices at the beginning of the millennium. The neoclassical arch is now in the hands of property developers who intend to reopen it as a luxury hotel in 2020.
London, being steeped in history, has countless plaques around the city commemorating certain events, past and present buildings, notable people and so forth. Although buildings have been demolished, plaques provide information about the past to prevent history from disappearing entirely. On the ground by the Charles I statue is a metal sign explaining that it was once the site of the Eleanor cross. On the railings in front of Charing Cross Station is another plaque with a lengthy description of the design and construction of the replica. Nearby is another sign recording details of a violent storm that occurred in 1987.
It is quite surprising the places that memorial plaques can be found. In St Martin’s Street, little more than an alley way, behind the National Gallery, is a sizable memorial of the 16th century Hampton Site. The information inscribed on the stone explains that the site used to belong to Hamptons furniture store which was flattened by bombs in 1940. Later, in 1959, the government acquired the demolished area allowing the National Gallery to expand. Thus, the Sainsbury Wing was born.
Plenty of tourists take photographs outside the entrances to the National and National Portrait Gallery even if they do not venture inside (although, judging by the crowds, most do!), however, it is not a common thought to look behind the buildings. By continuing along St Martin’s Street and turning right into Orange Street, a small Congregational Church is located sporting more historical information. According to historians, the former resident of the building next door was none other than the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton.
Orange Street Congregational Church: This church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus III. Toplady author of “Rock of Ages” was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton’s house which was built in 1710 and condemned in 1913. Mrs Jemima Luke, author of the beloved hymn “I think when we read that sweet story of old” was a teacher in the Sunday School. A copy of the hymn in her own handwriting is in possession of the church.
When exploring, always remember to look up. Approaching the National Portrait Gallery from Orange Street allows the building’s architecture to be seen in a new light. Above the highly positioned windows are sculpted busts that are easily missable from ground level. Sculpted along with the three founders of the gallery are fifteen illustrious portrait painters, writers and historians, notably: Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Louis François Roubilliac, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynold.
There are far too many things to note in and around Trafalgar Square to write about it one go. The more you look the more you discover, especially when glancing in the more obscure places. Whilst standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, look out for the worlds smallest police phone box (now a cleaning store cupboard), and, whilst having a drink at the Cafe on the Square, do not miss the outdated standard Imperial measures plaque where people used to come and check the accuracy of their rulers.
Trafalgar Square is so much more than statues, water fountains and street performers. With so many marvels hidden in plain sight, hours can easily disappear as you tour the area. This goes for the rest of the City of London, too; the more you look the more you find. Do not be blind to the history surrounding you, it is there to be noticed.
Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of Trafalgar Square with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)