Neptune and Victory tend to the dying Robert Faulknor in the north transept of St Paul’s Cathedral
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See, the conqu’ring hero comes – to be ridiculed by vegans

A Procrustean bed of critical theory is examining a British military hero – with predictable results

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Not knowing St Paul’s cathedral very well, and having a break from filming, I decided to have a wander round. One monument in the north transept caught my eye. Sculpted in white marble in the grand Classical tradition and with more than life-size figures, it showed a dying warrior, naked but for an artfully tucked-in chiton or tunic, falling into the arms of Neptune while a winged Victory held a wreath over his head with one hand and bore a palm with the other.

“Overblown heroics”, I thought. And then I read the inscription. “This monument”, it declared, “was erected by the British Parliament to commemorate the gallant conduct of Captain Robert Faulknor” of the frigate Blanche, who in January 1795 had taken the French frigate, La Pique, “of very superior force”. In close combat, the bowsprit of the enemy had come athwart his ship and by lashing it “with his own hands” to his capstan Faulknor had “converted the whole stern of the Blanche into one battery”. 

But then, “in the moment of victory”, he’d been “shot through the heart” and died, aged only 32. I paused and (that fashionable word) reevaluated. Overblown heroics perhaps in the sculpture. But surely the real, the humbling thing in the man.

A detail from a printed memorial of Captain Faulknor

I’d forgotten all about this until the recent launch of Pantheons: Sculpture at St Paul’s Cathedral. This is a joint project between the history of art department of the University of York and the cathedral to reevaluate (that word again) and reinterpret the sculptures in the cathedral in the light of — and I quote from the official abstract of the research proposal — the “Black Lives Matter, the Rhodes Must Fall and All Monuments Must Fall Movements, and in the wake of the Brexit decision and Trump presidency”. 

The Project, whose “Principal Investigator” lists his research interests as including “queer theory, critical animal studies and vegan theory, and world systems and complex systems theory”, sees the sculptures as “address[ing] some of the … Empire’s most pressing questions, including the status and treatment of slaves, prisoners of war, and native peoples”. Imperial “heroes” are even mentioned — though the word is carefully put in raised commas, as something not to be taken seriously.

I can imagine all too clearly what queer theory might make of Faulknor’s artfully tucked-in chiton. But what does the rest of this farrago have to do with either Faulknor the man or Faulknor the monument — apart, that is, from the word “hero”, bashfully tucked in between its raised commas?

The death of Faulknor and the public reaction to it was the real origin of the St Paul’s pantheon

For the capture of La Pique was not the only such incident in Faulknor’s short career. The previous year, during the attack on the French West Indies island of Martinique, he had personally led his men in scaling the walls of Fort St Louis with bamboo ladders, escaping death by a miracle when grapeshot shattered the wooden cartouche box strapped to his waist but left his person unharmed. After the capture of the fort he was promoted captain on the spot — and the band on the admiral’s flagship saluted him by playing “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus:

See, the conqu’ring hero comes! 

Sound the trumpets! Beat the drums! 

See the godlike youth advance!

Myrtle wreathes and roses twine

To deck the hero’s brow divine!

There does seem to be a pattern here, doesn’t there? Within a few weeks of the news of his death reaching England, a “musical interlude” in Faulknor’s honour was composed. Entitled the “Death of Captain Faulknor; Or, British Heroism”, it was given its premiere that summer at Covent Garden. The applause was rapturous — especially for the piece’s thunderous climax in the depiction of the battery of the English frigate’s guns, apparently staged with real ordnance.

The sound of that applause, which made Faulknor a “British hero” by popular acclaim, even penetrated the walls of Parliament. Indeed, it turns out that the death of Faulknor and the public reaction to it was the real origin of the St Paul’s pantheon. Hitherto, as and when the occasion required, the House of Commons had voted a Humble Address to the king requesting him to order, at public expense, the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey to a naval or military commander who had fallen in an important and victorious engagement. 

The proposal so to honour Faulknor was the first and only one to be debated. Its opponents rejected it on the principle that only those who fell in “great and general actions” should be memorialised; its supporters focused instead on Faulkner’s “bold[ness] and daring”. In other words, on his personal heroism. After repeated adjustments to the wording of the motion to make Faulknor’s case approximate more to the general rule, heroism won.

A German historian identifies the status of heroism as a key differentiator between eighteenth-century England and France

This led in turn to the decision to move Faulknor’s and other subsequent monuments from the already overcrowded Abbey to St Paul’s; and further to set up a machinery to ensure that the memorials contributed “to the beauty and ornament” of the cathedral. The task was entrusted first to a committee of Royal Academicians and later to the “Committee on Taste”, made up of the great and good of English collectors and connoisseurs. 

Neptune and Victory tend to the dying Robert Faulknor in the north transept of St Paul’s Cathedral

Between them the two committees oversaw the erection of the core of the St Paul’s pantheon. It consists of some 31 monuments in high Regency taste to the fallen of the revolutionary wars against France and it cost the public purse the immense sum of £110,000 or about £3,500 apiece.

The greatest of those thus memorialised, such as Nelson, combined both the qualities — the performance of “great and general actions” and personal heroism — distinguished in the Faulknor debate. But what drove them was the heroic quest. We even have Nelson’s own word for it. Convalescing from malaria aged 18, he had a visionary experience: “A sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me and presented my King and Country as my patron. ‘Well then,’ I exclaimed, ‘I will be a hero and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger’. ”

Indeed, an important recent study by a German historian goes so far as to identify the status of heroism as a key differentiator between eighteenth-century England and France: the English/British elite learned it at public school; practised it in the army and navy; set it to suitably stirring music by Handel; and rewarded it in glorious death by memorialisation in Westminster Abbey and latterly St Paul’s. The French didn’t until its febrile revival by the Revolution and Napoleon (compare and contrast the Marseillaise with “See, the conqu’ring hero comes”).

In the old days of empirical research, the Project would have spoken to the odd Brexit supporter

Where does all this leave the Pantheons Project? In the old days of empirical research (“When the facts change, I change my mind — don’t you?”), the Project would have changed its initial approach. The “hero” would come out of his quotation marks; the researchers would even talk to the odd Brexiteer and Make-America-Great-Again Trump supporter for insight into the patriotic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mind.

But of course they won’t. For the Project’s criteria aren’t hypotheses to be tested by facts but a Procrustean bed of critical theory to which the facts, such as they are, must be fitted, however uncomfortably.

Expect therefore a “critical animal studies and vegan theory” reinterpretation of “The Roast Beef of Old England” and be grateful. After all, it’s only going to cost £800,000 of public money. Back in the nineteenth century you’d have got a whole Pantheon for that. Now we’re promised some fancy labels, a bit of computer-generated virtual reality and a documentary or two on BBC4.

But then we’re so much better than our ancestors, aren’t we?

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