For those who spend their days navigating the cobbles of Westminster, his face is likely more familiar than some friends and family. An enduring bastion of Englishness, the statue of Richard the Lionheart keeps his vigil through sun and snow, in pride of place at the Mother of Parliaments.
When the passing throng of Parliamentarians, tourists and politicos take a closer look at the monument, they see something interesting. An inscription that hints at a more complex, continental connection: ‘Coeur de Lion’.
As the UK prepares for Brexit, why does a Frenchman, who spoke no English and spent barely six months of his reign in England, occupy this most exalted position in Parliament? The answer tells us a great deal about our country and politics today.
A charismatic but controversial leader, beset with challenges on the Continent, Richard’s career hardly sounds out of place in the current political landscape. However, while some today talk of a European Empire of sorts, 800 years ago it was this King of England projecting power across the Channel.
Richard ruled a sprawling dominion, including much of France, stretching from the Irish Sea to the Pyrenees. A constant thorn in the side of his kingly French counterpart Philip II, Richard arguably enjoyed more success on the continent than our negotiators today.
Of course, the key to a stellar career in politics (and a plinth in Westminster) is the constructing of myth and legend. For Churchill this was a bulldog spirit, and for Ghandi a stoic dignity. It earned them both a statue in Parliament Square.
Richard’s legend, as well as the key to his place in our collective consciousness today, was forged among the sand dunes of Syria and Palestine. His daring deeds on crusade in the East became a paradigm of chivalry as England searched for a national identity. His shadow continues to loom large.
Every UK firm longs to establish branding as enduring as Richard’s three lions. His royal arms are perhaps the single most evocative symbol of Englishness today, more than 800 years after his death. Whether pro-Leave or pro-Remain, few people in England will not have pulled on a shirt featuring those lions or cheered for someone wearing them.
In many ways, Richard’s standing in the nation reflects the Parliament that surrounds his statue. Our politics, like our people and civic life, are an amalgamation of dozens of cultures across many centuries. The country’s success has long been based on flexibility and adaptation; building an English legend from a Frenchman is perhaps the best example of this we can find. We built Richard to be what the country needed him to be.
Richard owes his statue to his illustrious relation, Queen Victoria, who joined supporters such as Benjamin Disraeli to raise funds. No stranger to war himself, Richard’s statue endured as the Blitz shattered the Parliament around it. The sword was bent, but never broken.
Regardless of his past or provenance, Richard’s monument endures as an emblem of what is treasured about the nation: a confidence, a courage, a strength of will. If Parliament endures another 800 years it is impossible to know which figures will be immortalised there, but we can be certain they will stand for the same virtues.