Catherine the Great and the extravagant earl

MANY MARKET PLACES in English and Scottish towns have what is called a ‘market cross’. These are often elaborate and ornate structures. One definition of such a building is (according to Wikipedia): “… a structure used to mark a market square in market towns”. Some of them include crosses (of the Christian variety), others do not. A market cross can range in design from a simple cross or obelisk to a significant structure, sometimes serving as a covered shelter.

The market cross in Swaffham, Norfolk, is in the form of a circular shelter topped with a lead covered dome supported by eight plain columns with Doric capitals. The dome is surmounted by a statue of the Roman goddess of corn and agriculture, Ceres. She is depicted holding in her left hand a cornucopia filled with vegetables, and in her right a bundle of heads of corn. This market cross with its statue that harks back to pre-Christian religion does not contain or otherwise display the cross associated with Christianity.

The market cross is a distinctive and attractive feature in the centre of Swaffham’s large, triangular marketplace. Also known as the Butter Cross, it was designed by a Mr Wyatt, who might possibly have been the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who specialised in both neo-classical and gothic revival styles. It was completed in 1783 for the politician George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730-1791), grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745), who became Britain’s first prime minister. George Walpole, founder of The Swaffham Coursing Club (i.e., hare coursing) in 1776, the first such club in England, was extremely extravagant. To raise money, this decadent and bankrupt fellow sold his grandfather’s collection of 204 old master paintings, which used to hang in Houghton Hall (Norfolk), to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1778. The sale was arranged by James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house and raised £40,555. Seventy of these paintings were returned briefly to Houghton Hall for a temporary exhibition held there in 2013 (www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/%E2%84%964-2013-41/walpole-paintings-houghton-hall-brief-homecoming).  

According to a brief history of Swaffham by David C Butler, the market cross in Swaffham was known as the Butter Cross because trading in butter was carried out beneath its dome. In the 18th century, large amounts of locally produced butter were sent to London, where it and other butter from the district was known as ‘Cambridge Butter’.

Restored in 1984, the eye-catching domed structure is, according to David Butler, now a designated scheduled ancient monument. However, it appears to have been ‘de-scheduled’ and re-designated as a ‘listed building’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1269570). I am unsure what to make of this, but that need not bother you should you happen to pass through Swaffham, the childhood home of Howard Carter, the discoverer of the grave of Tutankhamun, and the birthplace of Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (1842-1921), a hero of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Should you wish to sit and contemplate the decadent earl’s contribution to Swaffham, I suggest you have a refreshment at an outside table next to a café named after the Ancient Egyptian king discovered by Carter.

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