Toppling Statues: An Oxford Tradition
Updated: Jun 21
It was Tuesday, and a rebellious crowd was thronging the High Street outside Oriel College. Although Britain and all Europe were being engulfed by a deadly crisis, for now they had one target in mind: a statue. The date was 20 September 1642, the crowd consisted of Parliamentarian soldiers, and the object of their ire was a sculpture of the Virgin Mary carved above the University Church’s porch. Local antiquarian Anthony Wood described what happened next: “passing by St Mary's church, one of them discharged a brace of bullets at the stone image of Our Lady over the church porch, and one shot struck off her head and the head of her child which she held in her right arm.” The #IdolsMustFall movement had just claimed another casualty.
From a twenty-first-century perspective, it may seem outlandish that a carving of Christ’s mother (regarded as a spotless moral exemplar by Christians of all stripes) could stir up passions just as effectively as the statue erected centuries later on the opposite side of the High Street. However, when debating ecclesiastical decoration, Reformation-era churchgoers sincerely believed that their salvation was on the line. On the one hand, radical Protestant reformers (who came to be labelled as ‘Puritans’), claimed that all icons, stained glass, and other ornamental architecture distracted worshippers from true spirituality and lured them into idolatry. On the other hand, traditionalists – both Catholics and the more moderate elements of the Protestant Church of England – argued that beautifying sacred places encouraged, rather than hindered, devotion.
Their struggle was waged over many generations, and the advantage had already swung back and forth several times before the University Church’s statue was even built. In 1549, the staunch reformer King Edward VI ordered a visitation of Oxford which removed many sculptures from college chapels, only for most of these to be restored under his Catholic successor Mary I. The Puritans slowly regained the upper hand under Elizabeth and James I, but Charles I’s support for the “beauty of holiness” movement led to a wave of new construction from the 1620s onwards. The University Church’s south porch – flanked by baroque columns modelled on the architecture of papal Rome, and crowned with a statue of the Virgin and Child in the Italian style – proved to be its most contentious element.
By the time of the statue’s completion in 1637, the surrounding climate of religious politics was more volatile than ever. Continental Europe was already convulsed by the sectarian strife of the Thirty Years War, and the British Isles were about to follow suit in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The decapitation of Oxford’s Virgin and Child took place only weeks into the most infamous chapter of this conflict: the First English Civil War. The rebel soldiers who committed the act were not merely striking a blow against perceived idolatry, they were also attacking a symbol of Charles I’s regime, which they associated with tyranny, extravagance, and subservience to the pope’s agenda.
As the foregoing makes clear, the gulf that separates 1642 and 2020 is a wide one, and we should be wary of overemphasising similarities between campaigns against the two statues. The Civil War iconoclasts were not targeting a historical figure whose actions they opposed, but rather responding to a recent construction project which they felt to be unholy. Their specific theological concerns have little echo in our modern debates; although Rhodes himself was likened to "the old Puritans" by his friend and biographer W.T. Stead, his agnosticism precluded loyalty to any particular Church, and his legacy has primarily been viewed in secular terms by allies and opponents alike. By the same token, concerns about racial justice had no role in the uprisings against Charles I. The statue of the Virgin and Child was so hated partly because its iconography was deemed to be foreign, and Puritans had no qualms about fighting for their liberties at home whilst enthusiastically championing colonialism abroad. Indeed, the commander of the Parliamentarian garrison of Oxford in 1642, Lord Saye and Sele, had been a leading investor in the Providence Island Company, which made one of England’s earliest attempts to establish a slave plantation in the Caribbean.
Nonetheless, although glib comparisons are evidently to be avoided, Oxford’s seventeenth-century experience may still help shed light on certain aspects of the current controversy. The first lesson worth remembering is that means as well as ends matter to the outcome of an iconoclastic campaign, particularly in the longer term. When the troopers opened fire on the statue in 1642, they met with opposition not only from the sculpture’s supporters, but also from moderates who wanted it removed by lawful methods. These included Alderman Jon Nixon, who was later to help convict the archbishop responsible for the sculpture (termed the “very scandalous statue of the Virgin Mary… in front of the new Church porch of St Mary’s” in the charge sheet), but on this earlier occasion actively resisted its destruction.
On a broader level, the inability of the Puritans to build a stable consensus in favour of their reforms doomed their project to ultimate failure. Prior to 1642, they had already succeeded in purging English churches of ‘idols’ on several occasions, but (as we have seen) the statues were swiftly restored or replaced as soon as the political winds changed. This pattern then repeated itself once more. Parliament’s eventual decisive victory over the Royalists in 1651 heralded the high tide of iconoclasm, with the conquerors destroying images of the king and his supporters alongside many religious icons. In some cases, this was carried out with the enthusiastic support of the locals; for example, when the stained glass was removed from the windows of Christ Church, the canon of the cathedral is reported to have “furiously stamped upon many parts of it, and utterly defaced them.” However, in later years, being associated with violent fanaticism in the public imagination helped weaken the English Republic, and after the monarchy was restored in 1660, many statues were too.
The constant ebb and flow of the struggle over statuary – and the fact that the Virgin and Child still dominate the entrance to the University Church, scarred but victorious – remind us that history is rarely a tale of progress marching inexorably in a single direction. If they succeed in their goal, today’s protesters may need to think about how best to ensure that #RhodesMustFall is not followed by #RhodesMustRise.
A second point demonstrated by the events of 1642 is the immense power of religious iconography to shape political discourse. Even though the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era no longer make headlines, this power persists today. During the current clashes, no image has generated more controversy than a photograph of Donald Trump clutching a bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, taken moments after security forces had cleared the area using tear gas. This pious tableau was staged in order to align Trump with the forces of order and orthodoxy, whilst simultaneously depicting protesters as violent iconoclasts by highlighting the recent damage done to the church.
The denominational landscape has changed a great deal since the seventeenth century, leading to something of a role reversal in how different Churches reacted; the primary audience for Trump’s gesture was in fact the neo-Puritans of evangelical Protestant sects, whereas the leadership of traditionalist groups such as the Catholics and Anglicans largely responded with condemnation. Nonetheless, the strength of feeling on both sides demonstrates how contesting religious legitimacy remains an important element of modern debates, even when spiritual issues are not directly at stake. This effect is weaker on this side of the Atlantic, where faith plays a more marginal role in public consciousness, but it would be unwise to disregard it entirely. In recent days the most strident defenders of threatened statues have been far-right groups such as Britain First, who have long excelled at melding religious imagery with racist rhetoric, and are now planning to guard monuments with militias modelled on their earlier ‘Christian patrols’ of Muslim districts.
Finally, a look back to 1642 reveals one more simple but significant fact: symbols matter. Fighting to remove statues is not a fad dreamt up by woke millennials, but has been a staple of Oxford’s urban politics for hundreds of years. Humans have a natural tendency to condense vast moral struggles into battles over specific visual markers, and as such, statues can be more than just static relics of history. They are part of the larger living fabric of society, and their position within it says a lot about who holds lasting power. Cecil Rhodes himself seems to have understood this, for his statue was never intended to exist in isolation. Instead, it was positioned to mirror another sculpture on the inner façade of the quad, invisible to an observer on the High Street but well-known to Oriel members: a second Virgin Mary. Putting his own likeness literally on a level with the Queen of Heaven was just one more way to make him seem immortal and untouchable, and thus far, it has succeeded. Nonetheless – as both Roundheads and Cavaliers could have told him – sometimes pride comes before a fall.
Written by Louis Morris