If you’ve been to London you may have noticed the elaborate monument in the forecourt of Charing Cross Station. But did you know that there were once twelve “Eleanor Crosses” between London and Lincoln? And did you know the story behind them?
The Death of Queen Eleanor
The story begins when Eleanor of Castile came to England in 1254 to marry the future King Edward I. It was obviously an arranged marriage, as she was only ten at the time, but it proved to be a happy and fruitful union, producing at least sixteen children. Like many medieval kings, Edward was often away fighting, but he encouraged Eleanor to join him whenever possible. So it’s not surprising that she was a long way from home when she became ill and died, in the village of Harby near Lincoln in 1290.
When the king heard the news he rushed back from his campaign in Scotland and ordered that Eleanor’s body should travel back to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. She was first taken to Lincoln for embalming, and her viscera were buried in the Cathedral there.
The journey to London took several days, so overnight stops were needed along the way. In fact, it doesn’t look as if the funeral procession took the most direct route to London. Perhaps they planned it so that they could stay at abbeys or noble houses where they – and the queen’s body – would be safe from the perils of the road.
Building the Eleanor Crosses
Edward was devastated by his wife’s death, and he decided to erect a memorial cross at each place where the procession had stayed overnight. He had probably seen similar crosses in France, particularly those built after the death of King Louis IX. They were more than just a memorial; they were intended to encourage passers-by to stop and pray for the soul of the dead person.
There were twelve crosses altogether, and the work was not completed until 1294. Many different artists worked on them, and they were not identical to one another. We do not have records of all the designs. However, it is reasonable to assume that they were all tall and imposing, with intricate stonework and medieval imagery.
The Eleanor Crosses Today
Over the centuries the crosses gradually fell into decline. Three of them – at Stony Stratford, Cheapside in London, and Charing Cross – were deliberately destroyed during the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary Army saw them as symbols of idolatry.
Today some of the crosses have disappeared altogether, and only fragments of others have survived. Three of the original monuments remain – at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross. The one at Charing Cross is a 19th century replacement, more ornate than the original which stood at the end of Whitehall. And in Stamford in Lincolnshire a modern reinterpretation stands on the site of the earlier monument.
Despite the ravages of time and of the Parliamentarians it seems that King Edward achieved his aim; his crosses have ensured that Queen Eleanor will never be forgotten.