Statues of English Kings and Queens in the First Modern Republic

By James McConnel

In the ‘Elizabethan Gardens’ on Roanoke Island, of the coast of North Carolina, stands a modern statue of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Depicted gathering roses, the Elizabeth’s statue commemorates her granting of a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an English colony on the island in the 1580s (click here for an image). Although Roanoke’s statue may well be the only one of an English queen in the United States, perhaps surprisingly (given that the eighteenth-century revolution rejected monarchism in favour of republicanism) it is far from being the only statue of an English monarch in modern-day America. Indeed, it is merely one of a number that continue a long and fascinating tradition of royal statuery which stretches back to America’s colonial era.

Perhaps the most well known royal example is that of America’s last king, George III, in New York. Produced by a London sculptor and erected at the Bowling Green in 1770 in appreciation of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the one-third larger than life equestrian statue of a gilded king dressed as Marcus Aurelius was made of lead, weighed four thousand pounds, and situated upon a marble pedestal. A symbol of loyalty in 1770, within three years laws had to be enacted to protect it against desecration by patriots and a fence erected, and by 1776 the statue had been transformed into an emblem of royal oppression.

The removal of King George from his marble base was part of what the historian Brendan McConville has called ‘the orgy of iconoclastic [street] violence’ which marked the end of the British Empire in America in the years 1773–76. Royal arms, tavern signs, and portraits were taken down, coins bearing the king’s head were refused or devalued, the king’s name was removed from official documents, and street names with royal associations were altered (especially in the northern colonies). Thus, in Philadelphia, the proclamation of independence prompted patriots to dismantle the royal arms on the state house, while in Boston locals built a bonfire on the shortly to be renamed ‘King Street’, comprising every king’s arms to be found. Washington’s image, it has been claimed, partly filled the space left by these symbolic dethronings.

One of the most famous instances of this iconoclasm (and, indeed, the revolution as a whole) was the bringing down of the king’s statue in New York by a crowd consisting of Continental troops and local citizens. According to one contemporary account, the king was ‘laid prostrate in the dirt the just desert of an ungrateful tyrant’. Having been toppled, George was then symbolically decapitated. Most of the statue was then taken to Lichfield, Connecticut, to be melted down for the production of over 42,000 lead bullets for the Continental Army in the hope that – as one witness put it – ‘the emanations of the leaden George will make … deep impressions in the Bodies of some of his red coated and Torie subjects’.

In contrast, George’s much ill-used head survived. It was rescued by loyalists before being smuggled to England, where the exiled governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson saw it before it disappeared for good. In America itself, various bits of moulded lead appeared over the course of the next two centuries which have been linked to the original statue. Some of these are now in the possession of the New York Historical Society (click here for details).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, statues of British monarchs were not popular during the new republic’s first century. As Don MacRaild has described elsewhere on this website, however, the late nineteenth century witnessed a flowering of American interest for the nation’s pre-revolutionary constitutional history. Along with societies and anniversaries, this mood manifested itself in the form of murals and statues, many of which featured King John. For example, the king features as part of a scene depicting the signing of Magna Charta on Nebraska’s State Capitol building, while a mural depicting the same scene is housed inside the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. John is also depicted on one of the bronze doors of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

Of course, in the context of the Magna Charta, King John is not himself being celebrated in these statues and murals; instead, it is the occasion itself that is regarded as important, since 1215 marked the crown’s recognition that its subjects possessed certain inalienable rights and liberties. In contrast, John’s grandson, Edward I, is celebrated in America in his own right. For instance, statues of Edward surmount the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland and the Franklin County Courthouse in Columbus, Ohio. But perhaps most significantly, Edward I is one of twenty-three marble relief portraits of historical figures in the House of Representatives’ chamber in Washington, DC. As an English king, Edward I keeps such distinguished company because he was judged to be among those seen to have contributed to principles that now underpin American constitutional law. In Edward’s case, he is credited with founding England’s parliamentary constitution and eliminating the effects of feudalism.

While English king’s such as John and Edward still feature on public buildings in America’s state and national capitals, to find a statue of an English monarch of a vintage more recent than the seventeenth century requires travelling above the forty-ninth parallel. With the exception of Elizabeth I’s likeness in North Carolina (erected because of her associations with the early years of American colonialism), those English king’s rendered in modern American statuery possess the distinction not only of having been dead centuries before Colombus arrived, but also of having played a role in America’s history of constitutional development. Perhaps this is why, for all her popularity there, Princess Diana has yet to be immortalisd in stone in the USA.

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