Statues and Monuments

King Charles I (1600–49)

Equestrian statue by Hubert Le Sueur, c. 1630–33
Trafalgar Square

Charles I was King of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1625 and 1649. Believing implicitly in his divinely-ordained right to rule, Charles’s reign is marked by his many conflicts with Parliament. This led to the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651 where it is estimated around 200,000 people lost their lives in England and Wales alone. Charles was also one of the most important patrons of the arts in English history, though this is inevitably overshadowed by the catastrophic events of his reign.

The statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square is London’s oldest bronze statue. It was originally commissioned by the Lord Treasurer for his house at Roehampton in 1630, but was put into hiding during the Civil War. It was re-erected at its present site by Charles II in 1675.


A young Charles painted around 1616
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles I was born in 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and Anne of Denmark. He was created Duke of York in 1605 and then Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester in 1616. He became heir apparent when his elder brother, Prince Henry, died in 1612.

Charles ascended the throne in March 1625 and two months later he married Princess Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France. They had six children together and Charles’s court became a model of happy family life. The king was passionate for the visual arts, and formed a great collection of paintings. His chief architect, Inigo Jones, helped to create a court style in architecture, decoration and in entertainments like masques, making Charles’s court one of the most cultivated and artistically advanced in Europe.

In the later 1620s Charles’s rule was marked by aggressive foreign policy, directed by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. This saw ineffective English naval operations against first Spain and then France, despite the marriage alliance. Although these wars against Catholic powers were popular with the Protestant majority, Buckingham’s style of rule and the taxation required were not. The war policy was effectively ended when Buckingham was assassinated in Portsmouth, on 23 August 1628.

By 1629, Charles’s relationship with the House of Commons had grown so tense that he dismissed his second Parliament, resolving to rule without it. An 11 year personal rule followed during which Charles was unable to collect direct taxes and depended on Ship Money – a custom which he claimed was a royal prerogative – and the granting of monopolies over trades and manufactures.

‘Charles I in Three Positions’ by Anthony Van Dyck, from around 1635
‘Charles I in Three Positions’, by Anthony Van Dyck, from around 1635
© Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Such financial measures were hugely unpopular, as were Charles’s religious policies – causing unrest that would pave the way for civil war. Charles favoured a more traditional, sacramental religion with practices that were reminiscent of Roman Catholicism. This was unacceptable to the Protestant majority of his subjects, in particular the Puritan wing of the church and the Scottish Presbyterians. Charles’s attempt to impose his religious policies in Scotland led to the collapse of royal authority there and was the catalyst for rebellion. The Covenanters (Scottish Presbyterians) raised an army of veteran mercenaries, and invaded northern England, capturing Newcastle in 1640.

Without an English Parliament, Charles had limited means to raise the revenue needed to go to war with the Scots, and so the king summoned what became known as the Long Parliament, which met in November 1640. But Charles’s nominees suffered heavy defeats, and Parliament became dominated by those opposed to the king’s policies and style of rule, led by John Pym and other Puritans. By 1642 relations had broken down so far that Charles tried to arrest five leading MPs – but they fled. Charles eventually withdrew from London and both sides began to prepare for conflict. The king raised his standard at Nottingham, on 22 August 1642.

Charles established his headquarters at Oxford and for two years the conflict was effectively a stalemate. However, Parliament had access to more taxable resources than Charles, and better commanders in Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Parliament’s formation of the New Model Army in 1645 and the decisive defeat of Charles’s army in the battle of Naseby, doomed his cause. Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians in June 1646. Charles fled in disguise and surrendered himself to a Scottish ‘Covenanter’ army at Newark. They eventually sold him to Parliament as a prisoner for £100,000, in June 1647.

A portrait of Charles I at his trial after Edward Bower, from around 1649
A portrait of Charles I at his trial after Edward Bower, from around 1649

Charles’s captors may have been willing to restore a reformed monarchy, but his unwillingness to compromise rendered the negotiations fruitless. Royalist rebellions in 1648 led to the outbreak of renewed conflict – the Second Civil War. In this newly poisoned atmosphere, Parliament was determined to put Charles on trial. In January 1649, he was found guilty for making war on his own people, and was executed outside the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace. He was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Most modern historians’ assessments of Charles have emphasised his failings: his inflexibility, his assumption of his divinely ordained right to rule, and his readiness to abandon agreements with those he regarded as his inferiors. Some recent historians have explored revisionist viewpoints, interpreting Charles as a principled figure dogged by extremist opponents, and appalling luck. Few historians have doubted the king’s contribution to the arts as a patron and collector, and many note his qualities as a private individual and family man. These sympathetic sides to Charles’s character underline the tragic nature of his story and that of his unfortunate reign.

Commission and Design

An electrotype of a medal attributed to Claude Warin depicting Hubert Le Sueur
An electrotype of a medal attributed to Claude Warin depicting Hubert Le Sueur in 1635
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Richard Weston, 1st Earl of Portland and the Lord Treasurer, commissioned the statue in 1630 from the king’s personal favourite sculptor, Hubert Le Sueur (active 1602–58). The French born artist came to England at the time of Charles’s marriage to the 15 year old princess Henrietta Maria in 1625. Having been appointed Sculpteur ordinaire du roi by Henrietta’s brother Louis XIII in 1614, Le Sueur became ‘sculptor to two kings’ when he seamlessly transitioned into a favoured position at the English court.

In London he worked for the king and the aristocracy, producing a number of statues of Charles I, major tomb commissions and many portrait busts, until 1641 when the Civil War forced him to return to France. Le Sueur also travelled to Italy at the king’s request to copy and bring back casts of famous antiquities, including the Borghese Gladiator and the Belvedere Antinous, so he played an important role in transmitting the rediscoveries of the Renaissance to England.

The statue was commissioned to be completed in 18 months (it took twice as long), at a cost of £600. It was intended for Portland’s new gardens at Mortlake Park, Roehampton, and the surviving contract specifies:

the casting of a horse in Brasse bigger than a great Horse by a foot, and the figure of his Maj: King Charles proportionable full six foot, which the aforesaid Hubert Le Sueur is to perform with all the skill and workmanship as lieth in his power...

© View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Le Sueur’s signature may be seen on the base plate of the left foreleg of the horse – HVBER LE. SVEVR [FE]CIT 1633. It is one of only two equestrian bronzes signed by him.

Charles is depicted bareheaded, wearing armour, and around his neck is the Order of the Garter. Le Sueur was born into a family of master armourers, and his work is notable for the skill and precision with which he portrays armour. The horse, though one of his better ones, lacks the conviction of Giambologna’s and Pietro Tacca’s equestrian statues which Le Sueur was clearly influenced by. Altogether the portrait of horse and rider show an idealized monarch rather than a living portrait.

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675, the pedestal which now supports the statue is ornamented with reliefs by Joshua Marshall. They depict the Stuart arms supported by a pair of putti in the front panel, and a lion and unicorn at the back. Beneath these are a collection of trophies of arms.


Photo by Tracy Jenkins/Art UK

Photo by Tracy Jenkins/Art UK

Detail of the statue’s pedestal designed by Sir Christopher Wren, with reliefs by Joshua Marshall. Photo by Tracy Jenkins/ArtUK

Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Detail of the statue’s pedestal designed by Sir Christopher Wren, with reliefs by Joshua Marshall. Photo by Tracy Jenkins/ArtUK
A copy after William Hogarth, 1738, depicting a street scene near Charing Cross with Le Sueur's statue of Charles I in the distance. Bonfires have been lit in celebration of Restoration Day (29 May) when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660
A copy after William Hogarth, 1738, depicting a street scene near Charing Cross with Le Sueur's statue of Charles I in the distance. Bonfires have been lit in celebration of Restoration Day (29 May) when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The statue was initially set up in the Earl of Portland’s garden at Roehampton in Surrey (now in South London). During the Civil War the statue was ordered to be melted down by Parliament, but was hidden by the goldsmith to whom it had been entrusted. After the Restoration of the monarchy (1660), the statue was unearthed and in 1675 Charles II ordered it to be erected on its present site.

In almost 400 years, the statue has suffered some damage. First in 1719, possibly as a result of John Nost taking a cast of the horse, then again in 1810 when the sword, buckles and straps fell to the ground (which is unlikely to have happened without reason), then in 1844 when the sword and George decoration were stolen during Queen Victoria’s visit. The decoration was not replaced until 1947.

During both world wars, the statue was at risk of bomb damage, so was heavily sandbagged, eventually being removed for safekeeping to Mentmore House in Buckinghamshire in 1941. It returned to its commanding position in 1947.


Today, the statue sits on a traffic island south of Trafalgar Square (at the top of Whitehall). It has stood at its present site since its re-erection by Charles II in 1675.

This was originally the site of the Charing Cross – the last of the series of ‘Eleanor Crosses’ built by King Edward I in memory of his queen in the 1280s. The Charing Cross was demolished by order of Parliament in 1647.

Trafalgar Square was laid out on the area to the north of the statue in 1825.

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Further Reading

Charles I:

A MacGregor (ed.), The Late King’s Goods: Collections, Posessions and Patronage of Charles I in the Light of the Commonwealth Sales Inventories (Oxford, 1989)

C Carlton, Charles I: The Personal Monarch, 2nd edition (London, 1995)

CV Wedgwood, The King’s Peace, 1637–1641 (London, 1955)

CV Wedgwood, The King’s War, 1641–1647 (London, 1958)

CV Wedgwood, The Trial of Charles I (London, 1964)

J Brotton, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and his Collections (London, 2007)

P Gregg, King Charles I (Berkeley, 1981)

R Cust, Charles I: A Political Life, (London, 2007)

Hubert Le Sueur and the statue:

C Avery, ‘Hubert L Sueur, The ‘Unworthy Praxiteles’ of King Charles I’, The Volume of the Walpole Society, 48 (1980), 135–209

RM Ball, ‘On the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross’, The Antiquaries Journal, 67.1 (1987), 97–101

P Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, 1 (Liverpool, 2012), 288–291


Header Image: Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images