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The Equestrian Statue of George I

Stowe: The Course and North Front



The Equestrian Statue of George I This garden monument is the oldest surviving one at Stowe, though like many others it has been moved from its original, though equally prominent, position farther to the north at the point where the central axis of the House meets the axis of the Oxford Avenue. The North Front area looked much different in the 1720s, when the entire garden was more formal. Between the House and Statue was a long canal, and on both sides of this were formal plantations of trees, rank upon rank, intended to remind the visitor of troops of soldiers.

It should not be surprising that Viscount Cobham would have raised a monument to George I because it was largely due to that king's favor that he was able to develop his estate. Cobham made no secret of his political views -- he was an ardent Whig, whose party was devoted to defending what they saw as English liberty or, in other words, to keeping in check the power of the monarchy and maintaining the Protestant succession to the throne. (The Tory party, adversaries to the Whigs, supported the Stuart dynasty, which was tainted by the Roman Catholicism of its heirs to the throne). The House of Hanover, which came to power in 1714 with George I, was German, and was content for the most part to let Parliament rule Great Britain.

As John Robinson points out, Cobham was the beneficiary of a number of the King's favors: "he was appointed Colonel of the Royal Dragoons, created Baron Cobham and sent as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Emperor Charles VI in Vienna to announce the new king's accession. . . . In 1718 he became Viscount Cobham, and the following year saw the high point of his military career when he was appointed commander of the highly successful punitive expedition against Vigo in Spain. . . . He was [later] created Constable of Windsor Castle, Governor of Jersey, a Privy Councillor, Colonel of the First Dragoons, and was afterwards to become a Field Marshall (in 1742) and Colonel of the Horse Guards."

Cobham's tribute to his generous benefactor is a statue in lead of the King on horseback in Roman armor. The model for the statue is that of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol in Rome. The monument originally bore the following inscription from Virgil:

In medio mihi Cæsar erit,
Et viridi in Campo Signum de Marmore ponam
Propter Aquam.

Imperial Cæsar shall the Center grace;
A Marble statue to my Prince I'll place
Near the clear Water, on the verdant Grass.

Two things should be noted about the inscription. When the North Front was modified, the canal filled in and the statue moved closer to the House, the final line (which mentions water) was deleted. In addition, as Richard Wheeler of the National Trust pointed out to me, the two lines of the inscription do not follow one another in the original poem (Georgics, Book III). Instead of a statue, Virgil says he will raise a temple, and that Caesar will have his shrine in the middle of the temple. Anyone knowing the poem would have caught the pun on Lord Cobham's family name and the implication that the Temple is larger than the Caesar who inhabits it. This innuendo is entirely in keeping with the attitude of the Whig Patriots who, as suggested above, wished the monarchy to be subservient to Parliament.

A close-up view of the Statue of George I

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu