Face/Off

by Nick

It takes five minutes to walk from my office to Parliament, past Westminster School and cutting between Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s church. I have probably walked back and forth along this route about a hundred times in the last year, but I am normally in such a rush that it was only recently that I noticed this on the east wall of St Margaret’s church:

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St Margaret’s has been the church of the House of Commons since 1614, when MPs objected to the type of communion bread being used in the Abbey and switched allegiance to the church next door. There is therefore a certain irony that a bust of Charles I, destroyer of Parliaments, takes pride of place at the east end. However, the reason Charles is there becomes clear when you look across the road:

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There is, of course, an equal irony that Cromwell – another destroyer of Parliaments – has even greater pride of place outside Westminster Hall. However, while the campaign by Lord Rosebery and others to erect Cromwell’s statue is well-known, the story of Charles’s bust is a bit more obscure.

It is there thanks to a campaign by the Society of King Charles the Martyr. In around 1945 the secretary of the Society, Hedley Hope-Nicholson, found two lead busts of the king in a Fulham salvage yard. He donated one to the church in 1950; the other is now at the Banqueting House. The gift to St Margaret’s was finally erected in 1956 after a new niche was made for it. I would love to know more about how the decision to install the bust was made, but can find frustratingly little about it other than a note by the Assistant Keeper of the Muniments at the Abbey Library. However, reading between the lines I wonder if its origins may lie in the politics of the rector of the time.

The Rector of St Margaret’s in 1956 was the Revd. Canon Charles Smyth. It’s not clear whether he was directly responsible for accepting the gift of the bust and arranging for its placement – but he certainly gave a lecture welcoming its donation. He had read history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, before taking holy orders and eventually returning to be Dean of Corpus. As a don he reacted against left-wing orthodoxies and argued that the Anglican clergy could play a superior role to intellectuals as a bearer of truth. In the words of the historian Maurice Cowling – who was not just taught but heavily influenced by him – Smyth was a “destructive intellectual” and “Anglican reactionary” whose primary mode of intellectual inquiry was attack. As a result he never made it as far as a bishopric, despite landing the plum role of rector of St Margaret’s (even quarreling with his neighbours at Westminster School about the noise made by the boys).

With this disdain for liberal values, it is not hard to imagine Smyth taking some pleasure at the idea of Charles facing out across Millbank towards Cromwell. His pupil Cowling certainly indulged in mischief-making – or “genial malice”, as he put it – in order to bait what he saw as dogmatic intellectual arrogance masquerading as altruism, on both the left and the right. AT Peterhouse, where he was a Fellow, he founded a dining club called the Authenticators to commemorate Hugh Trevor-Roper’s mistaken authentication of the “Hitler Diaries”. The fact that Trevor-Roper was Master of the college did not deter him. Cowling retired from his Fellowship in 1993, five years before I went up to Peterhouse, but he was still spoken of in hushed tones by graduate students who remembered him.

Cowling devoted a significant chunk of the first volume of his Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England to assessing Smyth’s ideas and political thought, in a chapter which is as much autobiographical confession as historical argument. There is something in Cowling’s epitaph for him – “Smyth challenged nearly everyone and nearly everyone responded” – that suggests Cowling himself would be quite proud of this verdict. It may just be that the genial malice of Cowling’s character was something, like his Conservative polemic, that he first learned from Smyth.

This is all speculation, clearly. But I do like the idea of Charles’s statue being a barbed intellectual joke as well as a grand statement of political and religious values.