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24 September 2014

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You are in: Oxford > Features > Fine Lady: the facts

Banbury Fine Lady

Banbury Fine Lady

Fine Lady: the facts

The Fine Lady statue by Banbury Cross is more than a lump of beautifully-crafted bronze. It's part of a fascinating muddle of curious facts, and plain old fiction.

Most versions of the Banbury Cross nursery rhyme don't feature a Fine Lady. They include:

     Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
     To see an old woman get up on a horse         
     A ring on her finger, a bonnet of straw,
     The strangest old woman that ever you saw

The statue was sculpted in Stoke on Trent and cast in the Welsh village of Llanrhaedr Ym Mochnant... except for the small frog on its base, which was cast in Birmingham and stuck on.

The frog - which sits in a puddle after rain - is there because in mythology, it was the first creature to communicate on land.

Sculptors Andy Edwards, Julian Jeffery and Carl Payne - who work as Artcycle Ltd - also created the famous statues of footballer Sir Stanley Matthews at Stoke-on-Trent. Equine sculptor Denise Dutton, helped craft the Fine Lady's horse - a Welsh cob.

Banbury's Fine Lady statue

The sculptors planned to have two moths and a butterfly in the Fine Lady's head dress, to represent the dark and light periods of the year. But the original wax versions melted under the foundry lights and fell off before casting. One landed in her hair, so they left it. Another's still in the head dress. The third can't be seen - though the sculptors insist it's still there.

Banbury photographer Rosy Burke gave the sculptors a bunch of daffodils as a gift on the day they made the Fine Lady's head dress. They tore off the leaves, dipped them in wax, and wove them into the final work.

Critics thought the statue a waste of money. They suggested it would become a Fine Lady on a White Elephant. 

No one knows the true identity of the Fine Lady - she probably never even existed - but the sculptors decided she's Guinevere, from the Arthurian legends.

Another theory is that she was Celia Fiennes, a member of the family that owns Broughton Castle. She travelled round England on horseback in the 17th Century, but the rhyme was already published by the time she became famous.

The rhyme is also thought to refer to a lady in a May Riding tradition, riding through Banbury on May morning. The sculptors picked up on the theme by putting spring flowers in the statue's head-dress, and a ying-yang symbol on the base.

It's not the only statue in Banbury with a spring theme... there's also a figure of Ceres, Roman goddess of plenty, at the top of the old Corn Exchange frontage. The sculptors took note.

Cynics think the Fine Lady has her arm raised so she can sniff her armpits. Actually, she's sprinkling flower petals.

"Among dignitaries greeting the princess was a man in a dress, with a large artificial horse strapped to his waist. "

The original planning permission was for the statue to face the cross. But the promoters applied to reposition it when they realised people coming down South Bar would have a splendid view of the horse's bottom. 

The original rhyme may have not have referred to Banbury. It was published by a Banbury printer in the late 18th Century and it has been suggested he changed it.

Two plaques record the original site of Banbury Cross... but they're in different parts of town, and give different dates for the destruction 1602 (wrong) and 1600 (right). The one that's wrong is on the present-day cross. The real site was somewhere in the market place.

The original cross was knocked down by the Puritans, who objected to a carving of the crucifixion on it. It looked like a modern war memorial, but much, much bigger. 

People often ask whether the present-day Cross is one of the Eleanor Crosses that marked resting sites on the late Queen Eleanor's final journey in 1290. Given that the new Banbury cross was built in 1859... 

An early attempt the put up a Fine Lady statue failed in the 1980s because of complaints that it would get in the way of the buses.

Veteran campaigner Jack Friswell OBE revived the project... and was later made the town's first honourary burgess.

The statue came three years late. It was meant to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee, but it took too long to raise the money - around £180,000. 

The Fine Lady statue finally arrived in Banbury on a flatbed trailer on Sunday 24 April, 2005. Supporter Rosy Burke intercepted it at the motorway exit, and persuaded the drivers to take it on a tour of the town. 

Thousands watched the Princess Royal unveil of the Fine Lady statue on 27 April, 2005. But when the modern Cross was "unveiled" in 1859, the town mayor didn't even turn up. His place was taken by the town crier, who then led the small group of observers off to a pub.

Stephen Wass as the Fine Lady

Stephen Wass as the Fine Lady

The Princess Royal made an appropriate choice to unveil the statue... because the modern cross, a few yards away, was erected to mark the wedding of a previous Princess Royal.

Banbury's Victorians couldn't decide whether to have a cross, or a drinking fountain... so they fitted the cross with a water tap (now removed). 

Techically, the statue wasn't unveiled by the princess... the shroud covering the figure was actually pulled away by two members of the Army Cadet Force, who have never been given the credit.

Among dignitaries greeting the princess was a man in a dress, with a large artificial horse strapped to his waist. He was Stephen Wass, head of nearby St Mary's School, who plays the Fine Lady role at the annual Banbury Hobby Horse Festival. He and the princess discussed problems keeping white horses clean.

Stephen's role is featured in part three of BBC Oxford's off-the-wall documentary, The Almost True Story of the Fine Lady of Banbury Cross. To hear the four-part documentary - featuring the princess's unveiling speech - click below.

last updated: 26/09/07

You are in: Oxford > Features > Fine Lady: the facts

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