The Eleanor Crosses

Waltham Cross Photo Credit- Nigel Cox

Edward I of England and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, were deeply devoted to one another.  Their marriage, like most marriages at the time, was pure rooted in pragmatic politics.  Henry III, Edward’s father, was having a dispute with Eleanor’s half brother Alphonso over claims to the duchy of Gascony.  A deal was struck that Alphonso would cede his claims to his half-sister’s new husband after the marriage.  They were married at Burgos in Castile in August 1254 in a lavish ceremony.  Although the two had not known each other previously, there seems to be a real affection that grew up between them.  From the time of the marriage, they were inseparable often traveling together.  Eleanor even accompanied Edward on crusade to the Holy Land instead of staying in comfort at home.  Legend tells that she sucked the poison from a dagger wound at Haifa saving Edward’s life.  This is dismissed as a story as it came out after the couple were both dead, but the fact that it was seen as plausible shows their devotion to one another.  It’s also thought her gentleness tempered her husband’s impetuousness and nasty temper.  Together they had sixteen children, only six of whom survived to adulthood.

The Hardingstone or Northampton Cross Photo Credit- Brookie at the English language Wikipedia,

In 1290, Edward was on his way to Scotland and, as was her custom, Eleanor was accompanying him.  Some sources suggest the two were travelling separately, but other historians believe they were together at the Palace of Clipstone in Sherwood Forest where Eleanor fell ill.  She attempted to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Hugh of Lincoln, but did not make it and died at Harby on November 29, 1290.  Edward was devastated and shut himself away to mourn his wife.  He wrote, “Living I loved her dearly and I shall never cease to love her in death.”  Eleanor’s body was embalmed at St. Catherine’s Priory in Lincoln, where her heart was removed to be taken to Blackfriars in London.  Her other organs were buried in Lincoln Cathedral.  Then the funeral cortege began its slow trip back to Westminster Abbey for her final resting place.  

Every place Eleanor’s body stopped overnight, Edward ordered a cross erected in stone to remind the passers by to pray for the soul of the queen.  Although fifteen were planned, there were ultimately twelve crosses designed by Edward’s Master Mason, each with steps leading to three levels.  The first level had shields representing Eleanor’s heraldry, the second had statues of the queen and the third would continue the column and the whole thing would be topped with a cross.  These twelve crosses were built in Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone near Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap, and Charing.  In fact, some people believe Charing got its name from a corruption of the phrase “Chere Reine” or beloved queen.  Other scholars believe Charing really comes from the Saxon word “Cyring” or “at the bend of the river”.

Geddington Cross Photo Credit- www.britainexpress.com

The first cross was built at St. Catherine’s Priory, the start of the procession, and was destroyed in the English Civil War.  Only a fragment was preserved, which is on display on the grounds of Lincoln Castle.  The Grantham, Stamford, Stony Stratford, and St. Albans crosses were also destroyed in the Civil War.   The Woburn and Dunstable crosses vanished without a trace.  The Westcheap cross was counted as being filled with “Popish images” and was repeatedly attacked and finally pulled down in 1647.  Parts of it were burned by zealous Puritans.  The Charing Cross was pulled down in the same year.  However, an elaborate replica was built in 1863.  It was designed by architect E. M. Barry and was loosely based on images of the original cross.  Sculptor Thomas Earp did the work.

Of the original crosses, only three remain.  The cross at Geddington was only damaged by the Civil War.  The remains are on display in the heart of the village of Geddington.  The Hardingstone Cross also still exists, but is badly damaged.  It has undergone renovations, but is missing its third level and cross.  The final surviving cross is at Waltham.

When the funeral cortege reached Westminster Abbey, Eleanor’s body was interred there and a effigy was made of either copper, bronze or brass.  It has been described as all three in various sources.  This was the final resting place of Eleanor, known as the “Queen of Good Memory”, beloved of Edward.

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