A popular urban myth in many countries holds that you can work out how someone died by the attitude of his or her horse in an equestrian statue.
- If one hoof is lifted, the rider sustained serious injuries in battle, possibly dying later.
- If two hooves are raised, he died in battle.
- All four hooves on the ground indicate that the rider was never injured in battle and died by other means.
London contains at least 15 equestrian statues of named individuals. These are summarised below in alphabetical order. Crosses indicate that the statue does not satisfy the legend. Ticks mean that it does.
Albert, Prince Consort (Holborn). One hoof up. Victoria’s husband was an intellectual, not a warrior, and never sustained a battle wound. XXX
Charles I (Charing Cross). One hoof up. He was never wounded in battle, as far as is known. XXX
Duke of Wellington (Hyde Park Corner). All hooves down. The Iron Duke sustained only minor injuries in his military campaigns, not worth commemorating in statue. √√√
Duke of Wellington (Royal Exchange). All hooves down. A second equestrian statue which agrees with the first. This statue is also peculiar in lacking stirrups. √√√
Edward VII (Waterloo Place). One hoof up. The monarch died in old age. Appropriately, his final words concerned a horse racing result. XXX
Ferdinand Foch (Victoria). All hooves down. The first world war French soldier lived long and prospered without serious injury. √√√
Garnet Wolseley, First Viscount Wolseley (Horse Guards Parade). All hooves down. This exceptionally decorated soldier and field marshal is mostly forgotten today, but served with distinction in many campaigns, including Crimea. He was badly injured on one occasion, but eventually died in old age. √√√
Earl Haig (Whitehall). One hoof up. The first world war commander evaded serious injury, despite presiding over the Western Front and its unimaginable carnage. He died of a heart attack in later life. XXX
George III (Pall Mall). One hoof up. He never fought a battle. XXX
George IV (Trafalgar Square). All hooves down. The fat old king never saw combat and died in bed after a painful, withering gastric illness. √√√
George, Duke of Cambridge (Whitehall). All hooves down. The last Duke of Cambridge (until 1904) before the current one assumed the title (Prince William) served in the military, but was never badly injured. √√√
Sir George Stuart White (Portland Place). Four hooves down. The soldier and VC winner got through many a scrape and lived to a decent age. √√√
Richard the Lionheart (Palace of Westminster). One hoof up. The unfortunate king died of gangrene two weeks after taking an arrow during a siege in France. √√√
Lord Roberts (Horse Guards Parade). Four hooves down. The Victorian soldier lived to a ripe old age, dying of pneumonia. √√√
William III (St James’s Square). Two hooves up. He did not die in battle, but after falling from his horse, which supposedly stumbled on a molehill (represented in the statue). XXX
In conclusion, nine of the 15 equestrian statues match the code, showing that it is not a reliable system for reading the fate of any particular rider.
One final monument worth considering is the statue of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the country during our brief experiment with republicanism in the 1650s. His likeness stands outside the Palace of Westminster close to Richard the Lionheart. Old Ironsides does not sit on a horse, although there had been many calls for an equestrian statue before this horseless figure was unveiled in 1899.
Nevertheless, Cromwell appears to anticipate a ride, judging from his impressive pair of spurs. It is often said that he wears the spurs upside down, perhaps as a deliberate symbol of overturning the system from a monarchy to a republic. However, it is not hard to find paintings from the period that show similarly booted figures.
This article is adapted from Everything You Know About London Is Wrong, a new mythbusting guide to London by Londonist's Editor-at-Large Matt Brown. Available now from Batsford. Photos by the author, not from the book.