King Charles Pediment (1)

Many of the places you might expect to have elaborate classical sculptures in the Old Royal Naval College tend to be rather forlorn – though when you do get a carved pediment, it’s usually a real humdinger.

Apart from the obvious, the other three buildings of the ORNC are plain but King Charles Building actually has several carved pediments. Thing is, I can find virtually nothing about them. Even the usually-highly-detailed John Bold doesn’t seem to mention the building of the King’s House very much at all, and I certainly haven’t found any explanation of these figures. Here’s the pediment on the east front of the building:

Okay. So the coat of arms doesn’t take much working out. It’s Charles II’s badge, including the garter, but with a couple of cornucopias instead of the Lion and the Unicorn.

I’m even cool with the guy on the right. I’m assuming, given the whole beardy-bloke-with-sea-monster deal, it’s Neptune – all very maritime.

But who’s the woman? And what the hell is she holding? A spike? Some kind of navigational instrument? An obelisk? Something Masonic?

Answers on a virtual postcard, please…

the attachments to this post:

Charles II coat of arms
Charles II coat of arms

king charles pediment
king charles pediment

close up king charles pediment
close up king charles pediment

11 Comments to “King Charles Pediment (1)”

  1. James says:

    Walford’s Old and New London (Vol. 6, 1878) via British History Online says that the two figures are Fortitude and Dominion of the seas. I think that makes the woman on the left Fortitude.

  2. James says:

    If that’s correct, the obelisk type thing would have to be standing in for a pillar, as here:
    Which seems a bit off to me, to be honest.

  3. shipwrightspalace says:

    I’m glad you decided to write about this because passing the College recently I remembered reading once that there was stone from the Parthenon within one of the pediments. Has anyone else ever come across this?

  4. Franklin says:

    They are indeed Fortitude and Dominion of the Sea. However, the meaning or symbolism of the pyramid in Fortitude’s arms seems to be something of a mystery, even to the otherwise very well-informed Public Monument and Sculpture Association National Recording Project.

  5. valley_girl says:

    The stonemason is thought to be Joshua Marshall and the work completed in 1666. This is the ‘official’ description from the Historic Monuments record:

    Triangular pediment containing high relief representation of Fortitude and Dominion of the Sea. Two figures are reclining on either side of a large cartouche bearing the Stuart Arms. The right hand figure is a robed man who has his right arm leaning on a dolphin which is facing to the front. It has an ear and may have a tooth. The figure is in ‘river god’ pose, leaning on a pot which is the source of a river. The left hand figure is female, semi-draped, facing to the left with her arms round a shaft. This resembles two sides of a tall, very tapered and pointed pyramid, but uncertain what it is. There are elaborate mouldings around the inner edge of the pediment.

    So even they don’t what it is that Fortitude is holding. Any more guesses?

  6. Rod says:

    A possible explanation of the obelisk could be that, under Masonic influence, there was a mania for erecting obelisks, that continues on our very doorsteps to this day. Wren and Hawksmoor were both Masons, with Hawksmoor planning to put an obelisk on the roof of St Anne’s, Limehouse, which can still be seen in the churchyard close to the church door if you look carefully down from the DLR.
    The obelisk that Fortitude clutches could have come from that sort of impulse. The ORNC bristles with Masonic symbols, as does Canary Wharf, of course.

  7. Franklin says:

    What’s interesting about this, though, is that it’s a pyramid rather than an obelisk. Although still Egyptian, pyramids were used much less often in Masonic symbolism than the ubiquitous obelisks.

    Interesting also to note that Fortitude is one of Catholicism’s four cardinal virtues, and – as James points out – is usually depicted holding a broken pillar or column. Could the use of an (unbroken) pyramid here contain some anti-Catholic sentiment? A Masonic warning against Charles II’s tolerance toward Catholics? An expression of Anglican superiority? The heady politics of the Restoration being played out in this tympanum – fascinating stuff.

  8. Rod says:

    Franklin -
    Apopros pyramids as Masonic symbolism – Look at the back of a US dollar bill, and then look at the top of Canary Wharf.

  9. Joe F says:

    Hawksmoor…Wren…Masons…pyramids. Have a look at the left corner of the pediment of Wren’s St Paul’s (see

  10. Capability Bowes says:

    Personally I thought she was holding a gnomon – the pointy bit of a sundial. I’m having a hard time translating that into Fortitude though

  11. Capability Bowes says:

    Aha. Fortitude can also be represented as a woman holding onto a tower – from which technically there should be a dragon emerging. Could said obelisk actually be a very stylised tower?