Friday, 19 September 2014

On Boadicea, William Cowper and Westminster Abbey

Boadicea and I first met sixty years ago. On my fifth birthday, my father took me to London ‘to see the sights’. He made it sound, and feel, like a rite of passage.  In addition to the Changing of the Guard, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, he made sure that I saw the statue of Boadicea in her chariot, which stands on a plinth at the Victoria Embankment side of Westminster Bridge. Dad had been born in London, and liked to think of himself as a Londoner, though he’d not been much older than five himself when his parents moved to Hastings, shortly after the start of the First World War.

Boadicea stayed in my memory: my father had a book he had somehow kept from his own childhood – a child’s history of London entitled London Bells and What They Tell Us (Blackie & Son, 1911) – and when we got home that evening, he gave it to me, and in it I found the chapter on Boadicea.  I had just learned to read, and this was the first bedtime book I ever read by myself.

I visited Boadicea again last week.  She still rises magnificently above the Embankment traffic, pointing towards Big Ben and urging her bare-breasted daughters and her unseen army onwards against the Romans. She is heading straight towards the Palace of Westminster, and the blades attached to the wheels of her (entirely non-historical) chariot would still easily scythe their way through the crowds that nowadays make Parliament Square all but impassable.

Forgotten (by me) and almost unnoticed by everyone else are two short lines on the river-facing side of her plinth:


The message seems wholly inappropriate. Surely, Boadicea was revolting against oppressive imperialism? Yet here she is, apparently being celebrated as the mother of the British Empire. One has to remember that ‘Boudica’ means Victory, and that the memorial was originally designed as a tribute to Queen Victoria, who in all other respects (apart from a disposition to bad temper) resembled the Queen of the Iceni not at all. Prince Albert enthusiastically supported the project, even lending horses from the Royal Mews for the sculptor, Thomas Thornycroft, to use as models.  Thornycroft* had worked on this giant sculpture for many years, but it was not finally cast in bronze and presented to the nation until 1902, seventeen years after his death.

The lines on the plinth are by William Cowper, who seems an unlikely poet to have been attracted by Boadicea or indeed to have been an enthusiastic imperialist. But in an eponymous eleven-stanza poem, the Queen, having been humiliated by the Romans who beat her and raped her daughters, visits a Druid who predicts that the Roman Empire will be eclipsed by her glorious descendants:

Then the progeny that springs 

From the forests of our land, 

Armed with thunder, clad with wings, 

Shall a wider world command. 

Regions C├Žsar never knew 

Thy posterity shall sway, 

Where his eagles never flew, 

None invincible as they.

This reassures Boadicea no end; and, although she is defeated in the ensuing battle, she dies (according to Cowper) hurling scorn at the Romans:

Ruffians, pitiless as proud, 

Heaven awards the vengeance due: 

Empire is on us bestowed, 

Shame and ruin wait for you!

Unexpectedly, I came across Cowper again later the same day, having gone into Westminster Abbey to look for a window depicting George Herbert. But here I must pause: it is many years since I last visited the Abbey, the place Joseph Addison once called ‘this great magazine of mortality’. I’ll never go again. After paying £18 admission – does any other cathedral or abbey, mosque or temple in the world demand such a fee? – everything conspires to make visitors feel unwelcome. We are herded like sheep; barriers everywhere pen us in, making it difficult to move from one part of the Abbey to another; and the rudeness of some of the vergers and guides shouting (“What makes you think you can use cameras in here? Can’t you read?”) at uncomprehending overseas visitors is as embarrassing as offensive. If the Abbey authorities treat visitors as tourists to be fleeced, they should at least allow them to do what tourists like to do: take photographs.

There are, of course, exceptions. A kindly green-begowned volunteer – taking several short cuts not permitted to lesser men - led me from one end of the Abbey to the other, where I eventually found George Herbert, sharing a window with William Cowper. Both poets in their time had been scholars of Westminster School.  This window looks down on St. George’s Chapel, which is where the Coronation throne has lately been re-sited – minus, however, the Stone of Scone. It used to be there. London Bells has a chapter on Westminster Abbey, about a group of small boys (“The children took off their caps and went in slowly”) on a visit with their teacher:

Then they saw the chair in which the King sits when the crown is put on his head for the first time.  “What is that big stone under the chair?” asked one child. “That is the stone on which the Kings of Scotland used to sit when they were crowned. An English king brought it here long ago. The Scots used to say that the Kings of Scotland would again be crowned on that stone. And that saying came true after the death of Good Queen Bess. For the King of Scotland became the King of England also. Ever since that time the two countries have had the same king.

Tactfully put. Writing this on the morning after Scotland voted No to independence, I am glad that what the author of London Bells, And What They Tell Us said in 1911, the year of George V’s coronation, still applies, for good and aye.

* Thornycroft was the founder of a family of sculptors. His wife, Mary, was a favourite sculptor of Queen Victoria, and his son, Hamo (also a sculptor) was Siegfried Sassoon’s favourite uncle. It was Hamo, indeed, who introduced Sassoon to Thomas Hardy.

[illustrations: (i) Boadicea and her daughters, by Thomas Thorneycroft; Victoria Embankment, 1902 (ii. & iii)  Title pages from London Bells

© Text and illustrations copyright Adrian Barlow 2014