01 October 2023

The Emperor Constantine
in York was the victim
of culture wars waged
in the right-wing press

Philip Jackson’s statue of the Emperor Constantine at York Minster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us are spending the weekend in York, and this morning I was in York Minister for the Choral Eucharist in the cathedral.

Outside York Minister, the Statue of Constantine the Great in Minster Yard is a bronze statue depicting the Roman Emperor Constantine I seated on a throne. It was commissioned by York Civic Trust and designed by the Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson, who also created ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’ a bronze sculpture in the Theatre District in Milton Keynes that I was discussing on Thursday.

Philip Jackson’s Constantine was unveiled in 1998 and it commemorates the accession of Constantine as Roman Emperor in AD 306 on the site.

The statue depicts a seated Constantine wearing military dress. His right arm is outstretched behind him and his left holds the pommel of a sword, the tip of which is shown to be broken. A legend inscribed on the base reads ‘Constantine by this sign conquer’. The words are a translation of the Latin in hoc signo vinces. The phrase is quoted by the historian Eusebius of Caesaria, who recalls how Constantine was marching with his army when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above with it the Greek words ‘(ἐν) τούτῳ νίκα’ (‘In this, conquer’).

The Roman column in Minster Yard was originally erected around the first century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Nearby, a Roman column in Minster Yard was originally erected around the first century by the soldiers of Legio IX Hispana, it was reused by Legion VI in the 4th century. It is believed to have been part of a group of 16 freestanding columns – eight on each side of the nave – supporting the walls of an earlier church on the site.

The column was discovered beneath York Minster during an excavation in 1969, and was given to the City of York three years later to mark the 1900th anniversary of the city’s founding.

The column is 7.6 metres (25 ft) tall and built of magnesian limestone and millstone grit. It was donated to the city to mark the 1,900th anniversary of the foundation of York by the Romans in the year 71AD and now stands in front of the Minster School, in Minster Yard, on the south side of York Minster.

Philip Jackson’s statue of Constantine at York Minster has been the target of a number of japes and pranks in recent years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Philip Jackson’s statue of Constantine has been the target of a number of japes and pranks in recent years. It was one of several statues in York gagged by the Yorkshire Party on Yorkshire Day (1 August) 2016 as part of a campaign to highlight the lack of devolved government in the region. Two years later, on Yorkshire Day 2018, the statue was dressed in a flat cap and given two chocolate themed props: a giant Kit Kat and Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

The statue’s sword was stolen in 2016 and dumped in a drain. The restoration work by York Civic Trust cost £783. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the statue was found to be wearing a protective face mask.

However, the most ridiculous news about the statue was surely a report in the Daily Telegraph in June 2020 that the statue was ‘under review’ following complaints to York Minster about Constantine’s support of slavery in light of Black Lives Matter protests.

Investigative reporting by the Guardian and the York Press revealed, of course, that York Minster had never received any complaints about the life-size statue and that it was never under review. The Guardian described the story as an ‘imaginary statue scandal’ as part of a culture war.

The Daily Telegraph claimed York Minster had received complaints that the emperor supported slavery and that Black Lives Matter protests had led to the statue being put under review. The Daily Mail, as you might expect, swallowed the story whole and regurgitated it, stirring up ridicule and fury among the usual moralising ‘loony right’ figures who love to indulge in conspiracy theories.

‘Pathetic’, the Welsh assembly member Neil Hamilton proclaimed as he asked what would happen next if a classical Roman statue could become a target for destruction – of course, the statue is not classical and was erected in 1998.

As the Guardian pointed out, the story simply is not true. There had been no complaints to York Minster, the statue is not under review, and Black Lives Matter played no active role in a debate that was either a fantasy or an invention to fuel an already heated culture war.

Sunder Katwala, the director of the thinktank British Future, spoke to the Observer and said that the right-wing press often complained, ‘but if [they] don’t want these culture wars, why are [they] inventing them?’

Of course, ever since the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, cathedrals, churches, universities and colleges are reviewing monuments and statues connected with the transatlantic slave trade.

The Church of Saint Botolph without Aldgate in London removed the bust of the 17th-18th century slave trader Sir John Cass in response to a growing awareness of his involvement in the slave trade. Sir John Cass secondary school has changed its name to Stepney All Saints School, and the Cass Foundation in the City of London has removed a similar bust.

All Souls College Oxford has changed the name of the Codrington Library after three centuries. Christopher Codrington’s wealth came principally from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados. He left the Codrington Plantations in Barbados and Barbuda to the Anglican mission agency the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG) to establish a college in Barbados. Now USPG is confronting that slave-holding part of its history in Barbados, and has committed £7 million to tangible repentance.

For some years now, the of Cecil Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street in Oxford has been the subject of a number of protests, with calls for its removal. It has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. Oriel College has placed a notice below his statue on the Rhodes Building, explaining that his statue is controversial and that the college is addressing this.

Legend says the Emperor Constantine was baptised in the Baptistry at Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But Constantine and the Romans hardly fall into the categories of transatlantic slave traders or racist British colonial exploiters in Africa. A plaque beside Philip Jackson’s sculpture at York Minister reads: ‘Near this place, Constantine was proclaimed Roman Emperor in 306. His recognition of the civil liberties of his Christian subjects, and his own conversion to the Faith, established the religious foundations of Western Christendom.’

So, understandably, he is not an unusual figure to find in other cathedrals. I am familiar with the fourth-century statue of the Emperor Constantine In the narthex of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. This is the church that is the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome, and legend says the Emperor Constantine was baptised in the Baptistry. The state was moved to the basilica in the early 18th century by Pope Clement XII.

Culture wars are the invention of the right, distracting attention from the real problems in Britain today, including a faltering economy, the perilous state of the NHS due to lack of adequate funding, the collapse of local government and essential services due to cuts in government funding, inflation in food prices and utility bills, the contamination of our clean water, rivers, and seas, police violence towards women and ethnic minorities, the demonising and ill-treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, Suella Braverman’s imperious attempts to abolish our global understanding of human rights, and cronyism within the Tory party.

As for Constantine, he continues to sit triumphantly on his throne beside York Minister.

The fourth-century statue of the Emperor Constantine In the narthex of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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