The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The Marquess of Ripon in Spa Gardens. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
The Marquess of Ripon in Spa Gardens. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Statues are sometimes contentious. In recent times there has been much discussion both in the United States and in Britain about statues to figures honoured in their lifetime or immediately after their death, but who, in the opinion of some people today, were at best scoundrels and at worst murderers.

Last year there was controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. A campaign was started to have the image removed – one campaigner called Rhodes ‘the Hitler of southern Africa’ and said the statue ‘demonstrates the size of Britain’s imperial blind spot.’

Queen Victoria on Ripon's Clock Tower. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Queen Victoria on Ripon's Clock Tower. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The statue remains: the college said that it would add ‘a clear historical context to explain why it is there’ and that ‘the continuing presence of these historical artefacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today.’

More recently there has been conflict over a statue of the Confederate General Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other statues of Confederate leaders have already been toppled. It can only be a matter of time before there are attacks on the image of Lee in his Memorial Chapel at Lexington, Virginia – if it’s not already targeted. Such memorials stir bitter memories among many – but there may be better ways of making a political point than attacking inanimate objects like statues.

Yet statues have always been singled out as targets for political action. The first act of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar shows the two Tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, complaining that the common people have ‘decked with ceremonies’ – placed celebratory garlands on – statues of Caesar, having forgotten their previous hero Pompey. Even earlier, we have the story of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel setting up a huge golden statue which everyone is commanded to worship; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are cast into the burning fiery furnace for refusing to do so.

Overthrowing statues can be very symbolic; one of the enduring images of the invasion of Iraq is the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003. And we might also remember the earlier overthrow of statues of Lenin and Stalin around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nearer to us – and much longer ago – we have the story, told in Bede’s ‘History of the English Church and People’, of the pagan priest Coifi.

He is converted by the Christian teaching of the missionary Paulinus, and rides off the pagan temple at Goodmanham on the Yorkshire Wolds, where he knocks down the statues of the idols and sets fire to the temple.

Such religious-inspired destruction is still with us, of course; in 2001 the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were dynamited by the Taliban, thus reducing to rubble two huge images – the larger 35 metres tall – that they considered to be idolatrous.

Britain has not been immune from such religious destruction, usually known as iconoclasm. When Edward VI succeeded his father Henry VIII as king, the decidedly-Protestant advisers around him quickly issued edicts against images in churches, and much damage was caused then: shrines, including that of St Wilfrid in Ripon, had already been supressed and removed. Under Edward, statues were defaced or smashed.

There was more damage at Ripon caused by soldiers sent to repress the Rising of the North in 1569.

In the English Civil War much more mutilation was caused in many churches; a decree from the Parliamentary forces in 1643 ordered that ‘all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished’. Men like William Dowsing in East Anglia obeyed with gleeful zeal; in two weeks in winter 1643 he destroyed images in all 14 Cambridge colleges and 14 of its parish churches.

After that, we may think, things became more civilised in Britain. Certainly, statues were much less attacked, but they could still be used for political purposes. The headless statue of ‘Anne Boleyn’ at Studley Royal was placed in its position overlooking Fountains Abbey as a comment on her supposed involvement in the suppression of the monasteries under her husband Henry VIII, and her subsequent beheading.

Another Prime Minister, Charles, Second Marquess of Rockingham, is remembered with a statue at Wentworth Woodhouse. This sculpture, too, was the subject of some argument. At the beginning of last century the Earl Fitzwilliam was refused permission to move it from the mausoleum in the grounds into the house at Wentworth Woodhouse. So it’s not surprising that when the House of Lords asked if the Earl would give the statue for display there he refused, saying, ‘If I can’t have it in my house, you can’t have it in yours!’

The question must arise, then, if we have any controversial statues In Ripon. Perhaps St Wilfrid, whose statue is on the façade of the NatWest Bank, is too far in the past to stir argument (though he generated enough in his lifetime).

The dumpy statue of Queen Victoria on the Clock Tower is also, perhaps, above controversy, though some of the actions done in her name by colonialists like Cecil Rhodes may reflect some discredit on her.

And what of Ripon’s largest statue, that of the Marquess of Ripon, sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood and standing at the entrance to the Spa Gardens. He, too, was controversial in his time – not least for his conversion to Catholicism in 1874. Yet, despite his radical politics, he was well respected, not least by the people of India when he was Viceroy; unlike most holders of the vice-regal office he promoted the cause of the native people.

So perhaps Ripon’s statues can rest in peace – though we must always be aware that those we celebrate today may be vilified by later ages.