London’s only public statue of King Henry VIII has recently been given a makeover, removing decades of pollution and cleaning up the building he stands in.

King Henry VIII’s statue stands above the gatehouse entrance to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, in recognition of one of his unusually munificent moments during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Barts hospital was founded 900 years ago, in 1123, and generated its income from the monasteries, so their closure threatened the hospital with financial destitution. Following petitions by the City of London, it was refounded by King Henry VIII in December 1546 who handed it to the City of London to manage and aleviate “the myserable people lyeng in the streete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthye and nastye savors.”

Legally, it was also renamed as the (deep breath)… “House of the Poore in Farringdon in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation”. Unsurprisingly, people stuck to calling it Barts Hospital, maybe because it’s easier or because the hospital wouldn’t have been in financial difficulty in the first place if the King hadn’t cut off its monastic funding, so they weren’t entirely grateful for his decision to let the City save it.

Later, a new main entrance was built for the hospital, and this, the Henry VIII Gatehouse is now the oldest surviving entrance into the hospital. t was designed and built in a Baroque style by Edward Strong Junior between 1700 and 1702.

About a year later, the statue of King Henry VIII was added.

The statue is by Francis Bird, one of the leading English sculptors of his time, responsible for several statues and memorials, but most famously for his carved panel above the entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral. Here at Barts Hospital, he carved a life-size statue of King Henry VIII, which looks to have been based on Hans Holbein’s lost portrait of the King, which pretty much defines how the King would look even to this day.

Until a year ago, the statue was also very black — after decades of pollution had taken their toll on the regal countenance. In fact so badly affected was the statue that in 1987, the King’s decayed Victorian crown and sceptre had to be replaced with a new one made by John Sambrook.

As part of the hospital’s 900th anniversary restoration, the gatehouse and statue have been given a deep clean and restoration. Now, the King is white instead of black, and his pronounced codpiece that people walk under daily is far more pronounced than it used to be.

His stoney face is still stoney.

Other things to notice on the gatehouse is that above the niche for the King are two figures, representing lameness on the right and disease on the left.

The other thing that’s not that well noticed is the Royal Mail postbox, which is unusual as the slot for letters is on the inside of the arch, but the door for the postie to open to get at the letters is on the outside of the arch. That’s because the gates used to be locked at night, and this layout allowed the post to be removed without unlocking the gates.

Today, Henry looks out over the clean(ish) streets of London, but for most of the statue’s life, it look out over a cattle market — because that’s what Smithfield’s was, and inside its Victorian buildings still is — a meat market.

But before the Victorian buildings arrived, the market was open air, and right up against the hospital gate, with all the smells and muck that entails. And the King had to watch it all through his stone eyes and smell it through his stone nose.

Today though, although there are other entrances into the hospital, this gatehouse is still considered the main entrance, with the King looking down over all who pass within.


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  1. Rob B says:

    Loved the bit about Henry smelling through his stone nose and seeing through his stone eyes!

  2. Jenny Farnsworth says:

    Exquisite little chapel at Barts

  3. Susan says:

    You amaze me with the quirky information you find, Ian! Love it!

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