Photo: Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede

In Edinburgh there is a very large monument dedicated to Sir Walter Scott. Even a writer in such a noteworthy publication as the London Review of Books (LRB) recently mentioned the monument and the “local worthies depicted” on it. In reality, none of the 68 statues on the monument depict local worthies: they are fictional characters from Scott’s novels!

This famous monument does not feature in the book under review, which deals rather with commemorations stemming from British politics, but I mention it for two reasons. There was a mania in the 19th century to erect statues to a large number of political figures or ‘local worthies,’ so the default assumption when one sees such statuary is to assume it must be such a person. In addition to this dangerously faulty assumption, the error in the LRB highlights the dimming of memory. Of all the statues of people you might see dotting the British landscape, how many people today have any idea who that figure in bronze (or stone or marble) is? Once even a single generation passes, the fading of memory turns most of these statues into mute figures: they are simply are no longer able to speak to us. Actually, I’m being very generous on the timeframe. In 1870, the Bradford Daily Telegraph newspaper declared statues “a public nuisance – they are, at most, a nine-days’ wonder after they are unveiled.”

The book considered here is written by 12 experts; one of these, Matthew Roberts, is the editor. He is a Reader in Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University. I will comment on a select group of these 12 chapters.

One by Kathryn Rix (Assistant Editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1945 project) focuses on MPs in the North and Midlands between 1832 and 1868. During that time 843 men were elected to Parliament from these regions. An astonishing 15% of this sample “had statues raised to them, with at least 108 statues erected in total, a figure which confirm prevailing perceptions of ‘statue mania’ among contemporaries and historians.”

In an age with no sound from television or internet, the visual was a key way in which the populace related to their members of Parliament. “Political likenesses attained a remarkable popularity and cultural resonance.” Sometimes obelisks or columns were erected, but one newspaper in 1844 was having none of it, stating that such commemorations had the disadvantage of “conveying no idea of character to the mind.” As Rix writes, “Reports of statue unveilings routinely commented on whether the statue provided a good likeness.” This persisted into the 20th century. When such things as a school or infirmary was suggested as a suitable memorial to the MP Titus Salt in 1903, the committee in charge rejected the notion as they would be just “one of many kindred institutions with which Sir Titus’ name is associated, while the erection of a statue will much more vividly impress the traits by which his life is distinguished.”

Of course, statues can be the subject of vandalism. Not surprisingly the greatest source of damage to statues were perpetrated by Irishmen. Unable to commemorate anything good of their own, they collectively turned to the Dark Side to attack the good done by the English.

The chapter by Roberts deals with Romantic Memory, and a working-class movement for political reform termed Chartists. A key figure he studies is the French writer C. F. Volney, “a second-tier figure in the Chartist pantheon, another figure of the radical Enlightenment. Reading Volney’s Ruins; or a Survey of Revolutions of Empire (1791) was a formative experience for many future Chartists.” Roberts identifies something of great importance in this study.

“The ubiquity of references to Volney’s Ruins in metropolitan radicalism in the early 1830s,” Roberts writes, “suggests that historians have seriously underestimated the centrality of an infidel current in popular radicalism at this time.” Roberts mentions a radical infidel and a defrocked priest who began their Sunday lectures at the premier venue of London radicalism by reciting chapters from Ruins! While historians seem to have missed it, “the government were certainly alive to this current,” which led to a “royal proclamation for the encouragement of piety and virtue in 1830.” Imagine such a proclamation today!

So, what is the relevance of all this for monuments? “One of the most important aspects of any form of commemoration,” Roberts explains, “is inclusion and exclusion. Who is remembered, who is forgotten, who is absent, and who is excluded are questions not only generative of the pantheon but also key dynamics in the politics of commemoration.” The monuments of elite culture in Great Britain “are conspicuous by their absence in Chartism and British radicalism more generally.” I thought this would have been a good place to at least mention the statue of the most notorious radical of all time, Oliver Cromwell, whose statue is on the grounds of Parliament. While Cromwell is mentioned a few times in the book, his statue is ignored (personally, I think it should be melted down).

A chapter on Magna Carta by Sam Edwards (Loughborough University) shows how strong the ties are between England and the United States. Anglo-Saxon texts first emerged in recognizable form in sixteenth-century Britain. In the period from 1880-1920, there was a pervasive idea of Anglo-Saxonism in the US and UK. After World War I, President Wilson actually termed the League of Nations as the “World’s Magna Carta.” Its importance strengthened in subsequent decades. In 1941, “Magna Carta day itself was marked at St. John’s Cathedral in New York with prayers identifying it as the cornerstone of liberty.” With Magna Carta in mind, Winston Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” to describe the US-UK diplomatic discourse which persists to this day. Churchill stated in 1957 that “Between Magna Carta and the formulation of the American Constitution, we in Britain can claim authorship of the whole growth of the English common law.” His talk in London was attended by American lawyers, 3,000 of whom were in England for “the dedication of a monument at Runnymede,” where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215. “The monument consists of a neoclassical and columned pagoda made of white Portland Stone.” My main quibble with the book is that it contains no illustrations of the monuments it describes! (The lead photo with this review is the Runnymede memorial.) A serious omission, but the text is solid and affirming, so I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in British or American history.

Memory and Modern British Politics: Commemoration, Tradition, Legacy, is by Bloomsbury. It lists for $72.45.

Photo credit: Magna Carta Memorial is by the National Trust: James Dobson.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.