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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Trafalgar Square (& Why is it Famous?)

What is Trafalgar Square?

Trafalgar Square is a famous public square in the City of Westminster in London that is named after the site of a 19th-century British naval victory and is a popular meeting space for public gatherings and demonstrations.

Trafalgar Square at night

Trafalgar Square History

Trafalgar Square: the centre of London. Quite literally, this square is the official centre – legally and geographically – of the capital. The search for the exact centre point reminds us that this site greatly predates its current appearance.

Today’s square was constructed in the mid-19th century by Sir Charles Barry and named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who commanded the British Royal Navy to victory over the French and Spanish forces off Cape Trafalgar, southern Spain, in 1805.

The 52-metre Corinthian column, topped with a statue of Nelson, commemorates the admiral who died during the battle, and is guarded by four seven-tonne bronze lions couchant (lying down), modelled by Sir Edwin Landseer from a recently deceased London Zoo lion. (By the time Landseer had finished his sketches, the lion’s corpse had begun to decompose.)

The four bronze reliefs on the column’s pedestal are cast from French cannon captured at the naval battles they depict: Cape St Vincent, The Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar.

Walk south from The National Gallery (with its grand colonnade and steps) and past Nelson’s Column. You’ll encounter a roundabout with a bronze equestrian statue of King Charles I. Look out for a small plaque on the floor: it marks the spot of the exact centre of London. The statue was cast in 1633, just a decade before the outbreak of civil war.

Trafalgar Square Nelson's column & statue

After their decisive victory and deposition of the king, the Parliamentarians ordered that it should be melted down. However, the commissioned metalsmith hid the statue whilst selling overpriced cutlery he claimed was fashioned from the melted statue’s bronze.

The statue was recovered and in 1675, after the Restoration, placed here: the king stares down Whitehall towards Banqueting House, where he was beheaded in 1649.

When the London diarist Samuel Pepys came to the square in 1660 to witness the hanging of a group of regicides, he wrote: ‘I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.

He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy’. Pepys was far from the last staunch royalist. Even today, roses can often be spied attached to the statue.

It is actually this space, not the area outside the nearby train station, that constitutes ‘Charing Cross’. Before the mid-17th century it was occupied by an ornately decorated stone monument topped with a large cross. Today a 19th-century replica of the 13th-century sculpture now stands near the station.

The original cross was the last of twelve to mark the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castile, wife to King Edward I for 36 years. Officially they encouraged travellers to ‘Pray for [her] soul’, but also expressed royal power.

Despite the fact that its fountains were designed to hinder assembly, Trafalgar Square has been the site of many demonstrations over the past 150 years. From suffrage rallies in the early 20th century to protests against inaction on Climate Change, Trafalgar Square has long been an important arena of popular debate; a place to express the power of the people.

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