Saturday 28 November 2015

The Eleanor Crosses

When Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I, died at Harby, near Lincoln, on 28 November 1290, the king ordered the building of 12 elegant crosses to mark each of the resting places of his wife’s funeral procession as it travelled from Lincoln to her burial place at Westminster Abbey.

Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 28 November 1290) was Queen consort of Edward I of England, and Countess of Ponthieu, an area of Normandy much fought over during the Hundred Years War. Eleanor was the only daughter from the second marriage of Ferdinand III of Castile, who after fathering ten children in his first marriage to Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen, then married Joan, Countess of Ponthieu.

It seemed at one time Eleanor was destined to marry Theobald II of Navarre but to avoid Castilian control of the area an oath declared that Theobald would never marry Eleanor. Instead she was betrothed to Prince Edward, who would become King of England from 1272 to 1307. Edward and Eleanor married at the monastery of Las Huelgas, Burgos, in Spain, on 1 November 1254.

At over six feet tall Edward, (1239 – 1307), was known as “Longshanks” and later in his reign as “the Hammer of the Scots,” war seemed to be one of his favourite pastimes. And he did it well. He raised the greatest armies of the English Middle Ages, and summoned the largest parliaments; notoriously, he expelled all the Jews from his kingdom. The longest-lived of all England's medieval kings, he fathered no fewer than sixteen children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, including the future Edward II of England

In 1277 Edward had beaten Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, in the first of his Welsh campaigns. Within a few months of humbling Llywelyn, Edward took his court to Glastonbury Abbey to visit the tomb of King Arthur at Easter in 1278.

Two days after Easter the king ordered the tomb to be opened. At twilight Edward had the remains removed to the Abbey's treasury while a grander tomb was constructed. The following morning Edward personally wrapped Arthur's bones in silk, while Eleanor similarly prepared Guinevere's remains for reburial. After carefully wrapping the bones in precious cloths they placed them in decorative caskets. Finally Edward and Eleanor affixed their seals as if to authenticate the contents. The remains were transferred to a finely decorated black marble tomb before the high altar where they remained until the Dissolution.

Perhaps unusual for an arranged Medieval marriage, Eleanor and Edward appear to have been totally devoted to each other. Edward is among the few medieval English kings not known to have fathered children out of wedlock from extramarital affairs.

The couple were rarely apart; Eleanor even accompanied Edward on military campaigns. They joined Edward's uncle Louis IX of France on the Eighth Crusade and journeyed to the Holy Land, where Eleanor gave birth to a daughter known as Joan of Acre.

Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris as a shrine to house relics of the Passion such as Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross which he purchased from Emperor Baldwin II of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Baldwin had obtained these sacred relics during the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

Their daughter Joan died on 23 April 1307, at Clare in Suffolk where she was interred in the Augustinian priory. In 1357 her daughter Elizabeth De Burgh is said to have inspected her body and found it to be intact, seen as a sign of sanctity. Later miracles are said to have occurred at Joan's tomb.

On campaign in Wales Eleanor gave birth to their son Edward on 25 April 1284 at Caernarfon Castle, the only one of four sons to survive childhood, later to become Edward II of England from 1307 to 1327.

On her journey north to Scotland to meet her husband in 1290 Queen Eleanor was not in the best of health and only capable of travelling about eight miles a day. Less than 7 miles from Lincoln, the village of Harby, Nottinghamshire, turned out to be her final stop where she died on 28 November 1290, aged 49 and after 36 years of marriage to Edward.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor's body was carried in state from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, through the heartland of her properties and accompanied for most of the way by Edward, and a body of mourners. Following her death Edward erected memorials, the Eleanor Crosses, at locations he stopped over while taking her body to London, during the twelve days to reach Westminster Abbey.

Based on crosses in France marking Louis IX's funeral procession, Edward gave orders that memorial crosses be erected at the site of each stop between Lincoln and Westminster, the most elaborate series of funerary monuments to any queen of England, marking a trail of sorrow that bears witness to Edward's grief.

Edward had the spire-shaped crosses erected over three years, from 1291 to 1294, in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile, at the places where her funeral procession stopped overnight along the route taken when her body was transported to London: Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham (now Waltham Cross), Westcheap (Cheapside), Charing (Charing Cross).

Many of the Eleanor Crosses were destroyed during the Reformation; today only three crosses still stand, those at Geddington, Hardingstone, just outside Northampton, and Waltham Cross, although remnants of the lost ones can also be seen at other sites. On the anniversary of Queen Eleanor’s death, prayers were said at all of the crosses but the practice ceased during the Reformation.

The best-preserved cross is at Geddington where the cross is in the care of Historic England (formerly English Heritage). It was erected opposite St Mary Magdalene Church, where the procession rested overnight on 6 December 1290. Standing at 42 feet tall the cross is built in three tiers of local limestone.

Below the tapering pinnacle at the top are three canopied niches, each containing a Caen stone figure of Eleanor. Beneath these figures are six shields, two on each face, bearing the arms of Castile and Ponthieu in France, of which Eleanor was countess. Originally, the pinnacle was crowned by a cross.

Eleanor Cross -Charing Cross

At Charing Cross in London a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross today stands outside the station. The replica Cross was built on the site of the lost original in 1863. The 13th century original was built in marble and located a few yards away in what is now Trafalgar Square, marking the point to measure distances to London, but was destroyed in 1647 at the instruction of Parliament. The 150 year old replica was renovated in 2009-10 and subsequently removed from the Heritage at Risk Register.

Charing Cross is named after the original Eleanor Cross that stood on the site. Romantic tradition claims that 'Charing' derives from French 'chère reine' meaning 'dear queen' in French. However, an alternative explanation claims the name derives from the Old English word 'cerring' a bend, as it positioned by a sharp twist in the River Thames.

Several replica Eleanor Crosses were erected during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including one at Ilam on the Staffordshire border near Dovedale. The Market Cross in Glastonbury was built in the style of an Eleanor Cross, standing opposite the Abbey gates the Glastonbury Cross replaced a much earlier and more elegant monument.

Edward ordered that two wax candles were to burn for all time beside her tomb in Westminster Abbey. They burned for two and half centuries until extinguished at the time of the Reformation. However, Eleanor’s gilded bronze effigy continues to shine in Westminster Abbey.

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