Marble Arch is one of London’s best-known monuments. But have you ever wondered what it’s for?
Right beside Hyde Park’s famous Speaker’s Corner, Marble Arch is one of London’s best-known monuments. But have you ever wondered what it’s for? Or how it came to be located on a traffic island at the corner of Oxford Street and Edgeware Road – one of central London’s busiest thoroughfares? We delve into the history of this iconic landmark.
Before Marble Arch
Marble Arch’s present location has an older, more grizzly history of its own. Known as Tyburn, it was the place of public executions for almost 600 years and site of the notorious gallows, the Tyburn Tree, which was used until the 18th century, when executions were moved to Newgate Prison. Those hanged at Tyburn include celebrity criminal and jail-breaker Jack ‘the lad’ Sheppard. And following the Restoration of King Charles II, the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed and symbolically hung from Tyburn Tree.
The idea for an arch
Planning Marble Arch began during the reign of King George IV. The king commissioned the celebrated architect John Nash – the man behind Regent Street, Regents Park and Trafalgar Square - for the project in 1828. The idea was to celebrate Britain’s victories on land and at sea during the Napoleonic Wars and form a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace.
Nash’s original concept for the arch was a flamboyant affair with friezes, sculptures and a statue of King George on horseback as its crowning glory. You can see a model of how Marble Arch should have looked in the V&A museum
In reality …
Sadly, for George, who died in 1933, the project was scaled down considerably by his successor William IV. The Duke of Wellington, who was in charge of the project, sacked Nash for overspending, replacing him with another architect, Edward Blore. Many of the friezes and sculptures had been made by now, and Blore had the tricky task of piecing it all together – Nash refused to cooperate. A scaled down version of the original design was completed in 1833 and installed outside Buckingham Palace. Some of the pieces created for the arch were used on the palace itself, and the National Gallery.
On the move
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and took up residence in the palace, which she found too small for her extensive entourage. Work to enlarge Buckingham Palace began and the arch was soon dwarfed by the growing building.
In 1850 Marble Arch was dismantled and moved to its present spot beside Hyde Park’s Cumberland Gate. The plan was to make the arch a grand point of entry to the royal park, in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The move was a success and the arch remained in place for more than 50 years, until a road was built separating it from the park in 1908. A road-widening scheme in the 1960s would further cut it adrift.
Built – and moved around – by kings and queens, Marble Arch has strong royal connections. Historically, only the royal family and soldiers of the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery were allowed to use the arch, during ceremonial occasions. Queen Elizabeth II’s golden state coach passed through Marble Arch on the way to her coronation in 1953.
Marble Arch the place
Today Marble Arch, London W1H refers to a small area bordered by Marylebone, Mayfair, Bayswater and Paddington. It also gives its name to the nearby tube station on the Central Line.
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