London knights: Cnihtengild statue guards Devonshire Square
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Unusual bronze sculpture evokes a guild of knights of 1,000 years ago.
This impressive work of art in the east of the City of London was completed by its creator Denys Mitchell in 1990. As a sculpture it is relatively unusual in that it is not cast from a mould, but constructed from beaten bronze and includes embedded blue glass in the horse's coat (or caparison). There are also detailed embellishments in the suit of armour, the reins and the horse's tail. The long grass in which the composition stands conjures up a long forgotten time when this land was open fields outside the City walls.
Denys Mitchell was a Scottish artist and blacksmith, based in Kelso, who lived from 1939 to 2015. He also made a public sculpture outside the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1994 and has a piece in the National Museum of Scotland. He had made some railings in Edinburgh for the Standard Life Assurance Company, who then commissioned him to create something on their land in this part of London. He spent the best part of three years working on the sculpture of a knight and his horse
They stand in a garden (formerly known as Cutlers Gardens) in Devonshire Square in the City of London ward of Portsoken, outside a brick building that was once a warehouse for the East India Company (now offices).
The sculpture used to be hidden away in a courtyard formed by one of the buildings on the Middlesex Street side of Devonshire Square, standing on a turntable that revolved one degree per day. The piece was unveiled by another knight of the City, Lord Mayor of London Sir Alexander Graham, on 21 November 1990. It was moved to its current site in 2017, allowing its epically heroic qualities to be seen by more people.
The statue commemorates a guild of English knights that owned the land in this eastern part of the City in the late Saxon/early Norman period. They were known as the Cnihtengild, sometimes spelt Cnichtengild, or Knighten Guilde.
The Saxon King Edgar, who ruled England from 959 to 975, granted 13 loyal knights jurisdiction over the land in this area east of the City walls. The rights, or 'soken', included the City gate, or 'port', of Aldgate. It extended from Bishopsgate in the north to the Thames in the south, as far as a man on horseback riding into river at low tide could throw a spear.
However, there were conditions attached to the grant of land. Each knight had to complete three duels: one above the ground, one under ground and one in water.
According to John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, the main source of information on the guild, the king also required that "at a certain day in East Smithfield [open land outside the City gate], they should run with spears against all comers, all which was gloriously performed".
It is not totally clear why Edgar gave the land rights to the knights, but they probably had a role in defending the east of the City. As a society, the guild probably also had a social, charitable and religious nature (characteristics that remain central to today's City Livery Companies, direct successors to the ancient guilds of London).
King Edgar, known as Edgar the Peaceful, was a great grandson of Alfred the Great and father of two subsequent kings: Edward the Martyr and Ethelred the Unready. His reign was marked by a period of stability and culminated in a symbolic coronation in Bath in 973. This included his wife Elfthryth, the first consort crowned Queen of England. The event forms the basis of the coronation ceremony of British monarchs to this day.
Edgar was closely associated with Dunstan, whom he appointed Archbishop of Canterbury after he had been Bishop of London (and before that, Bishop of Worcester and Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey). Dunstan was not only an important leader of the church, but was also a minister of state to Edgar and successor kings.
After Dunstan's death in 988, he became a saint and was formally canonised in 1029. Two churches in the City of London are named after him: St Dunstan in the West on Fleet Street and St Dunstan in the East (the latter, partly ruined by World War II bombs, is now a beautiful park). He was the most popular English saint until Thomas Becket.
Subsequent kings, including Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, reconfirmed the Cnihtengild's rights. However, the Norman conquest of 1066 and the subsequent construction of the Tower of London to the east of the City reduced the need and desirability to the new regime of a Saxon defensive/military organisation in this part of London.
The Cnihtengild eventually surrendered its land rights to the Holy Trinity Priory in 1125 and the knights entered the priory as canons.
The Holy Trinity Priory had been founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I. After absorbing the Cnihtengild property, the Priory became the biggest landowner in the east of the City until its dissolution under King Henry VIII in 1532.
Full details of the Cnihtengild are lost in the mists of time, but the grant of land rights around Aldgate lives on in the ward name 'Portsoken'. Moreover, Denys Mitchell's sculpture and the accompanying plaque have reintroduced the ancient guild to modern City workers and visitors.
Of course, Denys Mitchell's work is highly anachronistic - a romanticised portrayal of a knight in (not so shining) armour. The knight and his horse do not look like they come from Saxon England, but have the appearance of the later centuries of the medieval period. Nevertheless, it is a striking and visually engaging reminder of more than a millennium of London history.
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