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Queen Eleanor Crosses
A Medieval Love Affair
Love stories are a popular subject in all literature both non fiction and fiction. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Edward and Bella in 'Twilight' to give some well known examples. A love story well written will allow the reader to become totally absorbed into the relationship . So what to make of a love story that happened over 700 years ago for which the outward expression of that love is still out there for the world to see. It is sooth that there are other ancient stories like Arthur and Guinevere, Anthony and Cleopatra but if you go to a band of English country that extends from Northampton to London you can see that love for yourself. King Edward I met Eleanor in 1254 and were married on November 1st. They were inseparable for the rest of her life and by all accounts it was a true love story. But let me start at the beginning.....
All photos by Peter Broster or in the public domain unless otherwise stated
King Edward I
The king known as Longshanks
Tall and long legged, fair haired with blue eyes, Edward was the epitome of a Plantagenet king. He grew up in his father's court, Henry III and as was customary in those times, he was used as a pawn in the politics of the times. Gascony, a territory owned by England, was being threatened by neighbouring Castille. So Henry offered his son as husband to the King of Castille's daughter, Eleanor. The arrangement was accepted and Edward was married in 1254 at the age of 14!
Eleanor was not initially accepted in the English court. As usual in these times she was accompanied by her own advisers and these were all seen as foreigners or Savoyards. England's island mentality frequently looked down on all outsiders and foreigners. There is an interesting story that this child of Spain, this 'Infanta of Castille' is the origin of the English 'Elephant and Castle' due to English reluctance to pronounce anything foreign, correctly! Whether this is true or not, its still a great story.
Despite the arranged marriage, it is was a very good match the two fell in love. So much so that Eleanor insisted on accompanying Edward on his crusade to relieve Acre in the holy land. I won't explore the crusade here but near the end in 1272 Edward was wounded by a poisoned assassin's knife and there is another story that Eleanor sucked the poison out herself thereby saving her husband. There is some doubt that this idea could have even occurred to her and that Edward was actually saved by a forward thinking surgeon, who cut away all the poisoned flesh and cauterized the wound in what was an early form of surgery. But most agree that if she had been asked, then she would not have hesitated, such was her love.
Edward left the holy land later that year and arrived to convalesce in Sicily where he heard of the death of his father and became King. Lingering two years in France, Edward arrived at Dover in 1274 and was crowned King Edward I in August of that year.
Painting: Eleanor and Edward by John Millar Watt (1895-1975)
Eleanor of Castille
The 'Dear Queen'
Eleanor was born at Castille, Spain in 1241. She is the great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and great-grandmother of Edward I through King John and King Henry III. As was noted above she married Edward in 1252 by arrangement. Little is known of her time as queen up until 1260 when she is seen travelling with her husband around the country and often where he was about to go into battle. She is known to have given birth in a tent on one Welsh campaign! Eleanor was by all accounts beautiful. She was also a bright woman and a good head for business, she invested a lot in property. But she could also be unscrupulous in her acquisition of property and was associated with moneylenders who were not particularly popular.
She widely supported literature and had scribes in her household who were encouraged to create copies of books on a wide range of subjects. Remember this was when copying was legal as there were no printing presses. She was also a patroness of the Dominican Order of Friars. While history has been kind to Eleanor, it is not clear whether she was popular in her time. Reports at the time refer to her as the loving mother of England. Very often her property dealings were made by others and where she detected unfairness, she would correct it afterwards. Nevertheless she died a rich woman and her will hints at a woman trying to make amends for transgressions in life. Nevertheless her devotion to her husband was unquestioned and the marriage was happy and successful to the end.
Eleanor of Castille - Items of related interest on Amazon
Eleanor the Faithful
Death of a beloved queen
Edwards reign was littered with conflicts with Wales and Scotland. However in 1290 things were a little different, Edward was attending parliament in Northampton. (yes in those days parliament was not set in London but wandered the country holding court at major town centres). News came through that Margaret, the Maid of Norway and heiress to the Scottish throne, had died. So rather than moving on, Edward waited upon events. Eleanor was on her way to join him at Northampton but at Harby near Lincoln she fell ill and Edward was summoned to her side. She had been ill in previous years and there is some speculation that she probably had tuberculosis or 'slow sickness' that progressed over the years. She died on the evening of November 28th at the manor house of Richard de Weston.
Edward was heartbroken. The funeral procession slowly made its way to London stopping overnight at 12 places on the way: Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Watham, Westcheap and Charing. Edward ordained a wooden cross be set up at each place and then authorised stone crosses to be erected for the extraordinary sum of Â£50000.
Of the twelve crosses only three originals survive to this day of which the best is Geddington. There is also an extravagant Victorian replica at Charing. Of the other eight all that remains is either plaques at the site or a few building blocks in museums.
This article is really about the three surviving original crosses but there will be a fourth section devoted to what else remains. Happy hunting for these relics of Britain's rich Medieval past.
Queen Eleanor Crosses - Waltham Cross
Waltham Cross is by any estimation unique and impressive. It is the only cross that has survived in an urban setting. It has been heavily restored and cleaned up but as a link to the past it is unbelievably important. It is unsettling at first when you walk through the modern shopping precinct and there stands this monument to a distant past.
The original sculptures, from within the monument, have long since deteriorated but there is one original preserved in the Victoria and Albert museum. The current sculptures are copies made of this statue. The originals were designed and built by Alexander of Abingdon.
I can recommend a visit to this cross, there is ample parking near the town centre and the cross can be approached although it is protected from birds by a wire mesh and from people by an iron fence!.
Queen Eleanor Crosses
The cross on the dual carriageway, Hardingstone is the most inaccessible of all the crosses, lying close to the Hardingstone roundabout in Northampton and is constantly buzzed by traffic. There are parking bays on the other side of the road but if you visit, please take care crossing this very busy highway.
Hardingstone Cross is in as close to original condition as possible. If you want a feel for what the original crosses looked like, this is where to start. The statues are much worn and the whole structure is probably a candidate for some careful tender loving care but as an ancient artifact it takes some beating. There are stone open books carved around the base, said to contain prayers said to celebrate Eleanor whose body had lain close by in Delapre Abbey.
Queen Eleanor Crosses
The finest extant cross this is where to see history come alive as you can stare on exactly what our forefathers saw and very likely Eleanor's contemporaries. How did such a monument that is now over 700 years old, survive so well. A part reason must be the village location away from pollution, tourists and opportunistic eyes both official and unofficial. Maybe it was just forgotten, whatever the reason, it is stunning in its simplicity and to stare on Eleanor's face after so many years is a wonder in itself.
Stand for a moment in the village square and look back over 700 years and connect with a country's past and a monument created to the memory of a queen by her king.
A love story indeed.
Queen Eleanor Crosses
To begin, I am a sentimentalist and always prefer the romantic story to any other. There are so many things wrong with Charing Cross but I just don't care, it's lovely. So what are the criticisms. Well first of all it's a complete reproduction, the original being destroyed years ago, second it is high Victorian Gothic with little resemblance to the original, finally it is not even in the right place. The original cross was some distance to the west.
Given there indictments, it is still a beautiful work of art in its own right. First of all it honours the memory of a long dead, beloved Queen and a Victorian homage is as good as any. Second it is a wonderful piece of Victorian sculpture and stands well on its own even without a connection to the queen. Third, and most important, Victorian art in any form is now at least 113 years old and deserves preservation and admiration for its antiquity in its own right. And finally what better place than having the monument stand outside the station which took its name.
To be truthful, for many years it was the only cross I knew of and it alone lead me to the discovery of the others. One word on the name, credibility is given to origin of the name being a corruption of the French 'Chere Reign' or Dear Queen, the affectionate name Edward gave to Eleanor**. Right or wrong, this is what I believe. It is wonderful to think that the last stopping place of the queen's body is today recognised as the centre of London from where distances from the capital are measured.
**Credence is also given to the old english word 'ciering' or 'bend in the river' but I am not drawn to this explanation since the foundation of the village of Charing too closely approximates the arrival of the body.
Queen Eleanor Crosses - More information on the existing crosses.
Queen Eleanor on eBay - Eleanor in cyberspace
What would the queen say if she knew she was available on eBay. What a strange world we live in and how far removed from those times.