JOSEPH SPENCER, WEEK 1: Why stop at Rhodes?
Cambridge is littered with suspect statues, portraits, and memorials
All sorts of statues and memorials in Cambridge are ripe for a good thwacking with a wrecking ball.
I set out on a short trip around the city to pick out a choice few.
Henry VIII, King’s & Trinity
You thought he was all harmless beheadings and multiple wives? Wrong. A warmonger and parasite, he waged an interminable war of conquest against France, petulantly crushed Irish and Northern revolts, and broke with Rome, thereby contributing greatly to two centuries of conflict amongst his own people.
He also forced Wales into their Act of Union with England. I have no comment as to who got the worse deal.
The fact all this was relatively normal, or only mildly extreme, in the 1500s should be no excuse, of course.
Cromwell Court, Sidney Sussex
The biggie. This man that Cambridge has the dishonour of having ‘educated’ was England’s last dictator, proroguing parliament, banning Christmas joy, and allowing the outrageous show trial and execution of the rightful monarch.
If you think all of this is abstract, long-forgotten history, ask the Irish and Scots, who still resent his near-genocidal repression of Catholics. In the Irish Republic the memory of the Siege of Drogheda, where he massacred 3000 civilians, is potent symbol of English imperialism.
Please Cambridge, wipe clean the stain of the Regicide.
Henry VI, King’s
You can just about see him in this picture. He may also be the founder of King’s, but as the founder of Eton he has been a daily reminder to generations of state school students that until 1861 no non-Etonian could be a member of King’s. They still have the same crest.
Pretty damning structural class violence if you ask me. I won’t even go into his culpability for the Wars of the Roses.
William Pitt the Younger, Pembroke
Pitt may have been a friend and supporter of William Wilberforce, and led the resistance to the violence of the French Revolution, but he had a dark side by our own modern standards.
During the Napoleonic Wars he greatly expanded Britain’s imperial territories and, in the cause of repressing the Jacobin threat, briefly suspended habeas corpus. To many contemporaries he was a symbol of the oppressive state. Tool of the King, he manipulated and bought himself elections in the heyday of the ‘rotten borough’.
Unless you’re objecting to the architecture, don’t even think about it.
Symbols do matter, and the status of a nation’s memorials to past figures can and should be contested ground. You only have to look at the fall of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein in recent decades to recognise there are grounds on which removing statues that glorify history’s bad guys can be justified.
But – and this is a big but – it is incumbent on us as the generation alive today to tread with care. Germany’s mature recent republication of Mein Kampf should remind us that no country can ever truly escape its history, even if we did seek out and systematically destroy all the evidence of our imperial past in the cause of comforting the descendants of our victims. We must be very, very careful before we remove any signifier of the past.
The sad irony is that this is an issue over which far too much energy has already been expended. But when you consider real, modern-day injustices it should not be the ‘structural violence’ of a high up statue that shocks people, but the very real violence of being poor and black in South Africa. More than two decades after the end of Apartheid South Africa is still one of the most unequal, violent, and racially divided countries on earth.
That is the real outrage, not Cecil’s smug stare.