The Recycled King
Statue of King Charles I, Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square in the heart of London is the city’s most famous tourist destination. Aside from its huge pigeon population and throngs of visitors, the square is known mainly for its statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, which commemorates the renowned naval commander’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (off the coast of Spain) in 1805. The 17-foot-tall statue stands atop a 153-foot-tall column in the center of the square, which explains why the piece is commonly called Nelson’s Column. Notable, the column’s rectangular base features four bronze plaques that depict scenes from Nelson’s great naval battles. The plaques were cast from recycled bronze taken from French and Spanish cannons captured during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Admiral Horatio Nelson, Trafalgar Square. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Those plaques, though, aren’t the only – or even the most interesting – recycling-related artwork in Trafalgar Square. That honor goes to the statue of King Charles I on horseback, which stands in the shadow of Nelson’s Column. That work, created in 1633 by French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur, is considered one of the finest equestrian statues in the world.

Now Charles I wasn’t the most popular of England’s many monarchs. His continuous fights with parliament eventually led to the English civil wars in which the Roundheads, or parliamentarians, faced off against the king’s supporters, or Cavaliers. When the Roundheads defeated the royalists in 1648, the king was arrested, tried, and publicly beheaded for his supposed tyranny.

Charles I, King of England. Painted by Daniël Mijtens, 1629.
Gift of George A. Hearn, 1906. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 06.1289.

With the king dispatched, attention turned to his statue, with John Rivett, a scrap metal dealer, being commissioned to recycle the piece. Instead of melting the statue, Rivett reportedly buried it in his garden at huge personal risk and, one assumes, immense physical effort. Then, being an enterprising soul, Rivett began casting candlesticks, bedpans, and other bronze items to sell to antiroyalists as souvenirs. Other accounts say he simply sold lumps of bronze as mementos. Skeptics reported that the scrap dealer sold 10 times the statue’s original weight in these collectibles.

Well, Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentarians had their day, ruling England for 11 years. After Cromwell’s death, the commonwealth quickly fell apart. To avoid further conflict, the army recalled Charles I’s son from exile. Charles II was placed on the throne and charged with setting things back in order. One of his first visitors was an aging but well-heeled scrap dealer named John Rivett. It seemed that, if it pleased his majesty, Rivett had a certain bronze statue of the king’s father that was available for a paltry sum. A deal was struck, with Charles II reportedly paying for the statue out of his own pocket. He commissioned a new base and had the statue erected on the site of the original Charing Cross, which designated the exact geographic center of London.

Today, this site is on a hectic traffic island surrounded by noisy cabs driving in the wrong direction. The area is slated for renovation, however, and Charles I will soon be the centerpiece of a new pedestrian mall. If you travel to London, be sure to stop by and pay old Charles a visit – for certainly he is the recycler’s king.

Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” November/December 2002.