A monument to love - the Eleanor Crosses

PUBLISHED: 12:43 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:59 03 February 2015

Eleanor of Castile by John Masey Wright (1777–-1866)

Eleanor of Castile by John Masey Wright (1777–-1866)


The Eleanor Cross in Waltham Cross is testament to a medieval love story between an English king and a Spanish queen. With Valentine’s Day this month, Kiran Reynolds examines the history of this 700-year-old monument to passion

Eleanor Cross at Waltham Cross - still at the heart of the townEleanor Cross at Waltham Cross - still at the heart of the town

At the heart of Waltham Cross is the Eleanor Cross, built between 1291 and 1294 by order of King Edward I in memory of his queen, Eleanor of Castile. The queen died in Harby in Nottinghamshire on November 28 1290, aged 49, and was buried at Westminster Abbey on December 17. Twelve crosses bearing images of Eleanor were erected in remembrance of where her body stopped overnight during the funeral cortege’s journey from the midlands to her burial at the capital. The Eleanor Cross at Waltham Cross is one of only three of the original monuments still standing, the others are in Geddington and Hardingstone, both in Northamptonshire.


Love from political ends

The marriage of Edward and Eleanor was arranged for political convenience but is said to have become a relationship of true love. They were betrothed to one another when they were just children – with Eleanor just 10-years-old when she left her native Spain to live in England. 
 As queen, she accompanied her husband on military campaigns to Wales where she gave birth to their son Edward in April 1284 at Caernarfon Castle amid construction works. She also accompanied the king on Crusade. Historical accounts record that during the Siege of Acre in 1272, Eleanor saved her husband’s life by sucking poison from his arm after he was stabbed by an assassin’s poisonous dagger – an act (whether true or apocryphal) that added to her popularity as queen. It was on this crusade that she also gave birth to one of the 16 children she bore Edward, Joanna of Acre, who was born in that city in Palestine.

Cast of Eleanor's tomb in the V&A Museum collection in London. Photo V&A ImagesCast of Eleanor's tomb in the V&A Museum collection in London. Photo V&A Images

When Queen Eleanor died, three days of mourning took place at Harby, after which her body was taken to the nearby town of Lincoln to be embalmed. From here her body passed through Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, West Cheap (now Cheapside) and Charing – resting at each place overnight. It is at these places that the king had the crosses erected, in part to encourage passers-by and pilgrims to pray for the queen’s soul.


Saving the cross

The Eleanor Cross in Waltham Cross, which cost the equivalent of £400 to build, is the most heavily restored of the surviving crosses (the Geddington Cross maintained by English Heritage is in the most original condition). The Eleanor Trustees record the original sculptor as Alexander of Abingdon and the architect, Roger of Crundale, both known as masters in their craft, who were in charge of the design and build of the monument and also responsible for the cross at Charing.

The 19th century replacement cross at Charing CrossThe 19th century replacement cross at Charing Cross

The crosses fit well with the king’s love of artistic works. Strickland in her Lives of the Queens of England states that both King Edward I and Queen Eleanor were supporters of sculptor, architecture, casting in brass and bronze, and woodcarving – including patronage of foreign artists to come and work in England, among whom was the Italian painter and mosaic expert Cavallini.

Centuries of wear and tear left the cross at Waltham with its lower buttresses broken, as there was no protection from passing traffic. In 1720 William Stukeley, vicar of Stamford, made a drawing of the cross and presented it to the Society of Antiquaries which paid for posts to protect the base. The year 1833 saw the first major restoration of the cross under the architect WB Clarke costing £1,200. A 1885 report on the state of the cross by the architect CE Ponting condemned Clarke’s work and made new recommendations for its restoration. Most of these were carried out between 1885 and 1895. A reference model for this restoration can be seen at Lowewood Museum in Hoddesdon.

Further work was carried out in 1950-1953 by Hertfordshire County Council, which repaired damage caused during the Second World War. Further work in 1989, combined with the pedestrianisation of the surrounding area, has helped preserve the monument.


St Albans’ monument

The Eleanor Cross in St Albans was erected in Market Place at a cost of £100. It was later joined by the still extant 15th century Clock Tower in the High Street (opposite the Waxhouse Gateway entrance to the Abbey), but was demolished in the early 18th century due to neglect, and replaced by the town pump. A fountain was erected in its place in 1874, which was subsequently relocated to Victoria Place.

The cross at Charing Cross – an area once known as the Royal Mews – was the most expensive of the crosses, being built in marble. The original stood at the top of Whitehall on the south side of Trafalgar Square, but was destroyed on the order of parliament in 1647 during the Civil War. It was replaced by an equestrian statue of Charles I in 1675 following the Restoration. It was not until 1865 that a replacement Eleanor Cross was erected, in front of Charing Cross rail station, a few hundred yards east from its original setting. It is not a replica, being more ornate than the original. It stands 70 feet high and was commissioned by the South Eastern Railway Company for its newly opened Charing Cross Hotel.

King Edward ordered two wax candles to burn for all time beside Queen Eleanor’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. Candles burned at the tomb for two and a half centuries. The original crosses, still standing 700 years after their erection, remain a more permanent testament to King Edward’s love for his queen.

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