Roman origins revealed for statue of Alfred the Great

The base was probably made in the late 1st or early to mid 2nd century AD by a Continental craftsman

Recent analysis of a statue of Alfred the Great (r. AD 871-899) – which has stood in Trinity Church Square in Southwark since at least 1831 – has revealed that it was constructed in two parts, with its right leg and associated drapery having early Roman origins, possibly originally representing a goddess.

Photo: Kevin Hayward.

This latest research into the statue took place during a restoration project funded by Trinity House and Heritage of London Trust. In analysing the sculpture, specialist in Roman building materials Dr Kevin Hayward from Pre-Construct Archaeology and Roman art expert Professor Martin Henig found that while the top part of the statue was in late 18th- or early 19th-century Coade stone, an artificial material, a large chunk of the base was not. It was carved from South Cotswold oolitic limestone (Bath stone), which is the type used in the vast majority of early Roman sculptures from London.

Kevin and Martin believe that the complexity of the carving, which shows detailed muscle definition, indicates that the base was probably made in the late 1st or early to mid 2nd century AD (with a likely date range of AD 80-160) by a Continental craftsman who was used to working in limestone. In addition, they suspect that the original statue, which was twice life-size, probably depicted Minerva, and was a cult image from a major temple dedicated to the goddess. Not only was she widely venerated in Roman Britain during this time (for example, at Bath) but the folds of the drapery are remarkably similar to those found on a headless statue of Minerva from Sibson-cum-Stibbington, near Barnack, now in Cambridgeshire.

Commenting on the nature of the find, Martin said: β€˜It is extraordinary. I know no other instance of a piece of Romano-British statuary being used in creating what is a pastiche Late Medieval style statue. I imagine when it was found it was thought to be medieval and was employed to give the King Alfred statue authenticity.’

It is suspected that the base may have originated from a major Roman temple in the complex found just to the north of Trinity Church at Tabard Square. Part of the site was excavated by Pre-Construct Archaeology back in 2002, when they discovered a large gravelled precinct with two Roman-Celtic temples. The dating from this site suggests that it was mainly in use between AD 120 and 160, which would place it towards the end of the likely date-range for the statue.