Walk along the busy ‘street of ink’ from the Royal Courts of Justice towards St Paul’s Cathedral, and if you keep your eyes peeled you will see statues of two of the most iconic monarchs in British history. Given their fame you may imagine they would be on plinths or set in a nice square, but they are rather hidden away, as unassuming in death as they were imposing in life.
First up, in an alcove set within the church of St Dunstan in the West, you’ll find a statue of Queen Elizabeth I. Experts debate the age of this figure, but if we are to believe the inscription of 1586 underneath, it may well be the oldest outdoor statue in London.
What we know for sure is that there was a statue of the ‘virgin queen’ on Ludgate – one of the gates to the City of London – in the 17th century, and that the diarist John Evelyn describes the statue as having survived the Great Fire of London of 1666 with ‘little detriment’. However, it is possible that the gate and its figures may have been remade following this event.
When Ludgate was torn down in 1760, the statue of Elizabeth was restored and placed at St Dunstan in the West looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral and the location of the old gate.
When the church was demolished in 1830, the figure was sold for £16.10 and bought by the local Goslings bank. But while work was undertaken to rebuild the church the statue spent some years inside a neighbouring pub until it was rediscovered by some rather surprised construction workers who were in the process of knocking the pub down!
Finally in the twentieth century, girl power and common sense prevailed when four notable women funded the restoration – Gwen John the painter, Miss Jones of Lincoln’s Inn, and the famous suffragist Dame Millicent Fawcett (now with her own statue in Parliament Square) and her sister.
Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, unveiled in 2018.
Stay on the same side of Fleet Street, and after a couple of minutes you will come across a rather beautiful building with an inevitable Pret a Manger at ground level. Look up, and you’ll discover a statue of Mary Queen of Scots.
Those of you who know your history will know that Mary Queen of Scots was executed upon the orders of her cousin in 1587. And who was this cousin? Queen Elizabeth I. Oh the intrigue!
This statue certainly wasn’t sculpted during the lifetime of the monarch, instead being created in 1905 by the wonderfully named Sir Tollemache Sinclair. Being a Scottish MP and landowner, he had a particular fascination with the life of Mary, and not only erected this 2 metre statue above the entrance, but also had a plaque bearing a poem of hers in the hall.
In 1950 the Daily Telegraph reported that the statue of Mary was in a neglected state, and was ‘rousing the ire of Scotsmen’ until arrangements were made to give her a ‘first wash for 75 years’ (the press exaggerating? Whatever next…) Still, it is interesting to note that it took until 2015 for a statue of Mary to be created in Scotland.
So next time you wander down this particularly busy stretch of London take a moment to look up and pay your respects to two of the most distinguished women in our history.