Friday, June 21, 2024

Æthelflæd monument was suffragist’s ‘foil’ to statues of Leicester men

A suffragist’s gift of a monument to an Anglo-Saxon female ruler in Leicester was intended as a foil to statues of Simon de Montfort and other men, a study suggests.

Dr Rosa Smurra, of the University of Bologna, said historical research along with 3D reconstructions illustrated how the Æthelflæd fountain bequeathed by Edith Gittins was supposed to counterbalance four male figures on Leicester’s clock tower.

She said the models also revealed that traffic problems cited by officials as the reason for erecting the monument at a “less meaningful” location away from the intended one were not a valid concern.

Edith Gittins. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In her will, drawn up in December 1909, Gittins, an artist, suffragist and social reformer, left £500 for the erection of a public drinking fountain in her home town. She said the fountain should provide pure water and should be surmounted by a statuette of Æthelflæd, who ruled a large part of the Midlands in the early 10th century.

Gittins, who was born in Leicester in 1845 and became heavily involved in various women’s and philanthropic organisations, suggested that the fountain should be located at the junction of High Street and Silver Street in the heart of the city centre.

According to Smurra, Gittins must have intended it to be in visual proximity to the 19th-century clock tower, 90 metres away, which features statues of four men: Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, leader of the baronial revolt against Henry III, and three later merchants and civic dignitaries.

“Æthelflæd was more representative of the history of Leicester”

Dr Rosa Smurra

“It was a counterpart to the other important monument,” Smurra said. “She tried to counterbalance this male presence with a small bronze statue of a woman. That woman was an Anglo-Saxon ruler who was particularly important for Leicester and for Leicestershire because Æthelflæd freed the territory from Danes and was a hero for that part of England.”

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey. Photo: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, was sole ruler of Mercia from the death of her husband Æthelred in 911 until her own death in 918. She retook a large area, including Leicester, from Viking forces and established a network of fortified burhs.

Smurra, whose work was enabled through an honorary fellowship at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History, said that, while the monument looked back to history, it represented Gittins’ response to two pressing issues of her own day.

At the time she made her will, women still hadn’t won the vote despite years of activism and wouldn’t do so until laws were passed in 1918 and 1928. The provision of clean drinking water to all classes was also of concern to reformers and philanthropists after cholera epidemics of the 1850s and 1860s were traced to contaminated water sources.

“Edith Gittins, a great woman, united two main issues on one site: pure water and women’s rights, embedded in one monument,” Smurra said.

Gittins died in August 1910 but made provision for the monument to Æthelflæd to be erected by Leicester Council only after the death of her sister and heir Mary Catherine. In fact, Mary Catherine oversaw the process in her lifetime and the “Ethelfloeda Fountain” was unveiled in August 1922. However, it was not located on High Street, where Gittins had intended. Instead it was erected in Victoria Park, on the outskirts of the city centre, on the grounds that it would have obstructed traffic at Gittins’ favoured site.

The Æthelflæd statuette, by sculptor Benjamin Fletcher, was stolen in 1978 and replaced with a replica, which was moved to new locations twice and now stands, without its basin, in the courtyard of the Leicester Guildhall.

To get a better sense of how the monument would have appeared in its intended location, Smurra’s co-author Marco Orlandi created a 3D computer rendering of the urban landscape of central Leicester in the early 20th century. He used Ordnance Survey maps and about 130 historic photographs showing buildings and street scenes to ensure accuracy. He also ran simulations of street traffic at the site.

The Æthelflæd fountain in its intended location on High Street. Image: Marco Orlandi/Rosa Smurra

In their paper, in the journal Urban History, Smurra wrote: “The traffic congestion cited as the official reason for choosing a location in Victoria Park is shown by the 3D visualisation to have been unfounded: the modest dimensions of the fountain or monument, reconstructed on the basis of its exact measurements, would not in any way have obstructed the road traffic or the circulation of pedestrians.

“However, Æthelflæd’s fountain would have played an important role, contributing to collective memory, bringing to mind the exploits of a woman who had acted in the defence of Leicester, at the same time allowing for the emergence of a female civic identity, and recognising female agency in the creation of the urban landscape.”

The fountain as it would have appeared in Victoria Park. Image: Marco Orlandi/Rosa Smurra

Smurra said there was no evidence that the council had acted deliberately to thwart Gittins’ plan to place the monument as a counterpart to the male figures. In fact, there was no evidence that civic officials recognised this intention at all. She said the world had changed after the First World War, the women’s movement in Leicester was weaker and Gittins’ family had fewer connections. It was simply more convenient “but definitely less meaningful” to locate the monument in the park.

Replica Æthelflæd figure at Leicester Guildhall. Photo: Katie Chan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

She said: “The location she preferred was absolutely perfect because there were a lot of people passing, there were many shops and it wasn’t far from the town hall. And the most important thing in my opinion was the clock tower with the [statues of] men.”

Smurra believes Æthelflæd was not only important to Leicester’s history, but, through her actions at a formative period, more important than any of the men commemorated at the clock tower. “Æthelflæd was more representative of the history of Leicester, so it was a mistake not to build the monument right where she suggested.”

She has presented her research to the mayor of Leicester and hopes that by drawing attention to the story of the fountain, a new monument may one day be erected on or close to the intended site. This would celebrate not only Æthelflæd, but also Gittins and the wider women’s movement in Victorian and Edwardian times.

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