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The Eleanor Crosses: A Love Story in Stone

by Sara Eliot

Eleanor Cross at Charing CrossMost British readers will know of the existence of Charing Cross station in London. Some are familiar with the replica Cross itself, which now dominates the station forecourt. It is reckoned to be the centre of the capital from which all distances are measured. Fewer people know about King Edward I and Queen Eleanor of Castile. Theirs was a story of an arranged marriage which became true love.

It is often thought that Charing -- the place -- is named after Eleanor. "Chere Reine" can translate as Beloved Queen and the cross at Charing was the last to be built at Edward's command after Eleanor's final sad, journey in 1290. But this is an appealing fallacy: the true derivation comes from an earlier, Saxon word Cyring, meaning 'at the bend of the river'.

Eleanor, born in 1244, was a Spanish princess -- the Infanta of Castile. Her father was Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon, her mother Joanna, Countess of Ponthieu. King Henry III of England negotiated a marriage between the princess and his son Edward, who was to become the next King of England.

Henry III was having problems at home with warring barons as well as a threatened conflict with Alphonso, King of Castile and Leon in Spain. The arrangement was that Eleanor's half-brother Alphonso would, on Eleanor's marriage, transfer any claims on Gascony to Lord Edward. In August 1254 the marriage took place near Burgos in Castile. The wedding was lavish and attended by royalty from many countries. (Henry III was criticised at home for overspending.) Edward was in his teens and Eleanor several years younger.

Edward, who became king on his father's death in 1272, was a great lawmaker, but could be an impatient and sometimes petulant king. Eleanor's gentleness seems to have influenced his behaviour for the better. Once they started married life, Edward and his Queen became inseparable. Where Edward went -- and he travelled widely -- so did she. The first child of the marriage was born when Eleanor was twenty -- a daughter, Eleanor Plantagenet. She was to be the eldest of sixteen children. Sadly, as was all too common in those days, only six survived to adulthood and only two or three outlived their parents. Many of the couple's children who died young are buried inWestminster Abbey: infant girls Joan and Berengaria (or Berenguela), boys, John and Henry and little Alphonso, Earl of Chester, who died when he was eleven. One daughter, Mary, became a nun in Wiltshire; other children died in infancy. In 1284 another boy was born who lived to become King Edward II of England.

In 1272 Edward I led his army to the Holy Land in the Ninth Crusade, accompanied by his Queen. One newborn child died there; another -- Joan of Acre -- survived. At Haifa Edward was stabbed with a poisoned dagger. Legend has it that Eleanor herself saved his life by sucking the poison from the wound.

Some sources suggest that in the autumn of 1290 Edward was travelling to Scotland and that he and the Queen were separated. It is more likely that they were both at the Palace of Clipstone in Sherwood Forest where parliament had been summoned and that they wanted to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Hugh of Lincoln. Eleanor had been ill at Clipstone and may have had weakened lungs; she did not complete the journey to Lincoln, but, attended by Bishop Oliver Sutton of Lincoln, died a few miles away at Harby on 28 November 1290.

Statues of Edward and Eleanor at Lincoln Cathedral Edward was desperately saddened and shut himself away to mourn. He wrote: "Living I loved her dearly and I shall never cease to love her in death." Eleanor had planned for her death; she wished her heart to be taken to the Black Friars in London. Her body was taken to St Catherine's Priory, Lincoln where it was embalmed. Her other organs were buried in Lincoln Cathedral. However, as Edward's queen, her final resting place was to be Westminster Abbey.

The cortege set off on the long journey to London. Soon after Eleanor's death, Edward ordered for crosses bearing statues of the Queen -- the Eleanor Crosses -- to be erected at places where the procession stopped overnight. Their purpose was to remind passers-by to say a prayer for the soul of the "Queen of Good Memory", as Eleanor was called. The King commissioned his Master Mason to provide a basic design for the 12 crosses. Each was to have a plinth of steps and be built in three stages: the lowest adorned with the carved shields of Eleanor's heraldry -- the arms of England, Ponthieu and Castile & Leon. The second level was a platform to carry statues of the Queen; the highest would continue the column and be surmounted by a cross.

The first cross was built near St Catherine's Priory, Lincoln. It was destroyed during the Civil War but a fragment was saved. You can see it in the grounds of Lincoln Castle.

The procession stopped at Grantham, where a cross was built on what is now St Peter's Hill on the High Street. Cromwell's forces later destroyed it. The cross at Stamford met the same fate; its site is thought to be in Scotgate. The cortege left the Great North Road and stopped to rest at Geddington, near Northampton where the Queen's body was received into the church of St Mary Magdalene. The Geddington Cross, built in 1294, survived the Civil War, although it was damaged in the 18th century and has been repaired. Set in the heart of the village, it is probably the best preserved of the remaining crosses. It is triangular and richly decorated, with three recessed statues of Eleanor.

On 9th December the funeral procession reached Northampton. The Queen's embalmed body lay for the night at Delapre Abbey at Hardingstone, just south of the town. The Hardingstone Cross was built south of the Abbey entrance (where the County Records Office now stands) on a slight hill where it can be seen by passing travellers. This cross is less well preserved than that at Geddington and has undergone much renovation over the years; it has lost its third level and cross. But it is still a striking landmark.

The cortege next stopped at Woburn and little is known of the cross erected there. The following night's resting place was Stony Stratford. The cross stood at what is now High Street and was another casualty of the Civil War, remembered only by a plaque. The procession left Watling Street and moved on 11 miles to Woburn where the next cross was built. Very little -- not even the location -- is known about the Woburn Cross.

Another nine miles brought the cortege to Dunstable. The site for the Eleanor Cross -- near the entrance to Church Street -- was carefully chosen and the ground sprinkled with holy water. There is nothing to be seen of it now, but the Queen is remembered by the Eleanor Precinct named after her.

The next night's rest was at the abbey at St Albans. The funeral procession was met at the town's northern boundary by the Abbot and his monks, who escorted the body to the abbey and laid it before the high altar. Later, Cromwell's troops destroyed the top of the St Albans cross and townspeople demolished the rest in the early 18th century.

Waltham, Geddington and Northampton Crosses

Another abbey, at Waltham, was the tenth resting place. The town's name -- Waltham Cross -- is derived not from the Queen's cross but from an earlier legend. Waltham's hexagonal Eleanor Cross survived the Civil War and now stands in a pedestrian precinct. The King, with his courtiers and some of the clergy, had ridden ahead so that he could receive the body of his dead wife. The procession did not go directly to Charing but to various monasteries in the city of London. Eleanor's body was carried to St Paul's Cathedral for the night and Masses were said for her. Her heart was taken to the Black Friars, as she had wished.

Cheapside (opposite what is now Wood Street) was the chosen site for the penultimate Eleanor Cross. It was more costly than the others and, although it was a great London landmark, it fell into ruin. There were thought to be religious statues on the Cheapside cross; and for this reason it was attacked by anti-Catholics in the late 16th century. The Puritans finally completed its destruction.

Perhaps the funeral procession rested for a while at Charing before entering Westminster Abbey. The cross by the station is a later version of the most elaborate and expensive of them all, which was originally sited where Whitehall meets Trafalgar Square. The replica was finished in 1863 and has eight statues of Eleanor with kneeling angels at her feet.

The last journey of Eleanor "The Faithful" ended at Westminster Abbey. The "Queen of Good Memory" had come to her final resting place.


Article © 2008 by Sara Eliot
Charing Cross and Statues photos by Simon Cave; Geddington Cross photo courtesy of Northampton Tourist Office; Waltham Cross photo by Sara Eliot; Northampton Cross photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

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