On 28th November 1290 Queen Eleanor of England died, after which her grieving husband, King Edward I, demonstrated his devotion to her in a remarkable and long-lasting way.
Edward and Eleanor
The marriage between Eleanor of Castile and Prince Edward had taken place in 1254 when she was aged 10 and Edward was 15, although it was common practice at the time for child marriages not to be consummated until the girl was of a suitable age. She was Queen of England at the age of 26 when Edward became king, and she would bear him 15 children although most of them did not reach adulthood.
The couple were clearly devoted to each other, with Eleanor accompanying Edward on Crusade and, according to tradition, sucking poison from a wound when Edward was assailed by a would-be assassin. Edward was hot-tempered and often brutal, but Eleanor appears to have been a calming influence on him.
The death of Eleanor
Her death, from a fever, occurred when the king and queen were visiting the East Midlands. Edward had gone ahead because Eleanor was recovering from childbirth and needed to travel more slowly. When news reached him that she was ill (at Harby in Nottinghamshire) he rushed back but was too late to see her before she died.
Eleanor’s body was taken to Lincoln and embalmed before being taken south to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Each night the cortege rested at a town or village along the route, there being twelve such places in all.
The Eleanor crosses
After the funeral, Edward declared that each of the stopping places of Eleanor’s body should be commemorated by the erection of a memorial which could become a place where prayers could be offered for her soul. The memorials, known as “Eleanor crosses” were carved and erected over a three year period.
Today, only three of the original crosses remain, these being at Geddington and Hardingstone (both in Northamptonshire), and Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. Fragments of some of the other crosses are held in museums.
(The full list of original locations is: Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington (see picture), Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham (now Waltham Cross), Westcheap (now Cheapside), Charing (now Charing Cross))
The best known Eleanor cross, because of its location, is Charing Cross near London’s Trafalgar Square. However, this is an ornate Victorian replica, the original having been destroyed during the English Civil War in 1647 due to its supposed idolatrous nature.
© John Welford