Southwark's Statue Of Alfred The Great Is Much Older Than We Thought

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Southwark's Statue Of Alfred The Great Is Much Older Than We Thought
A white-stone king stand before classical columns

New dating on "London's oldest statue" finds it is both much older, and younger, than previously supposed.

Trinity Church Square in Southwark is one of those picture-perfect streets that hides away from the main roads; the kind you might randomly stumble across and think: "I had no idea this was here".

It also hides a remarkable statue. This is Alfred the Great, the scholar-warrior who sorted out the Vikings, promoted literacy in his subjects, and paved the way for a united England.

It's long been famous as a contender for London's oldest outdoor statue. Some historians think Alfred's likeness was one of those erected on Westminster Hall in the 14th century (and removed in the early 19th century).

Now, new research has discovered something remarkable. The lower part of the statue is much older than the 14th century. In fact, it's older than Alfred the Great himself!

Legs of a goddess

Statue of a robed king in white stone
The statue in full.

While undertaking conservation work, stonemasons found that the lower body is made from Bath stone, a material commonly used by Roman sculptors. Academics then deduced that this piece of the statue — everything beneath the belt — originally formed the lower half of a three-metre-tall statue of the goddess Minerva. She was probably carved in the reign of Hadrian in the mid-2nd Century.

In other words, King Alfred has the legs of a goddess, which predate the man's birth by more than 700 years.

At the same time, the upper part of the body was found to be younger than suspected. It is made from Coade stone, the material used for the famous lion that guards the South Bank end of Westminster Bridge.

This artificial stone was not invented until the 1770s, meaning Alfred's torso must have been carved after this time, and then expertly grafted onto the salvaged Roman base. King Alfred, then, is a Frankenstein's monster of body parts from different ages.

Intriguingly, the statue stands five minute's walk away from a very important Roman site. Just off Long Lane in Tabard Square, a modern stone plaque marks the place where a tablet was found bearing the earliest known mention of Londinium, the Roman city of London. It's thought that the Minerva fragment came from the same location.

New public access

Children and teachers gather around the base of a white King Alfred statue
Children from Charles Dickens Primary School gather around the newly restored king

The good news is that you can now admire the hybridised goddess-monarch up close. Trinity Church Square gardens have just opened as a public space for the first time, having previously been a private garden for residents of Trinity Village. Work on the statue and gardens was funded by Heritage of London Trust and the Corporation of Trinity House, which owns much of Trinity Village.

Which just leaves the question of London's oldest statue. The already muddy waters are now even murkier. Is it King Alfred, whose truly ancient legs are let down by a johnny-come-lately torso? Or should we place the crown on Elizabeth I of Fleet Street, who's graced the area since 1586?

Last Updated 10 November 2021

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