When his wife, Eleanor of Castile, died Edward I spoke of her as the woman, “whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love”.
Edward commissioned 12 large and elaborate stone crosses to stand in each of the places at which her funeral procession rested overnight, on the journey from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey in London.
This article is about Edward, Eleanor, and the 12 Eleanor Crosses – some of which, remarkably, are still in existence well over 700 years later.
Eleanor’s early life
Eleanor of Castile was born the daughter of Ferdinand King of Castile and his second wife, Jeanne.
She was their second child, and was born in 1241 (the exact date isn’t known, but probably at the end of the year).
Eleanor married Edward I, future King of England, in Burgos on 1st November 1254; Burgos is in the north of Spain. At the time of the marriage, Eleanor was either 13 years old, or coming up to 13 shortly.
Edward I’s early life
Edward I, often nicknamed “Hammer of the Scots” or Scottorum Malleus was also known as “Edward Longshanks”. He was unusually tall for medieval times, and is thought to have been about 6 foot 2 inches tall.
A few centuries after he died, someone dug him up and measured the bones. Nice.
Edward was born on 17th June 1239, son and heir of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence.
Edward and Eleanor’s marriage was entirely political and arranged by their parents. The young couple had no say in it whatsoever.
Following his father’s death, Edward became King of England and Eleanor, Queen, on 16th November 1272.
Edward and Eleanor’s marriage and children
Although an arranged marriage, the couple appeared to have grown very close. They had either 15 or 16 children.
Their first daughter was stillborn, the second, Katherine, died as a baby, as did the third, Joan. John died at the age of 5, their next son Henry died at the age of 6.
Their sixth child, Eleanor lived until the age of 29, but their next unnamed daughter died at the age of a few months.
Their eighth child, Joan of Acre, lived to adulthood, and had eight children in total. Their next child, Alphonso, died at the age of 10. Their tenth child Margaret lived to adulthood, and had a son, but their next four children, daughters Berengaraia, an unnamed daughter, Mary and an unnamed son all died as babies or infants.
Their fifteen child, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, lived to adulthood and had ten children, and their sixteenth and last child, Edward of Caernarvon, lived to succeed his father and become King Edward II.
The couple appeared to have been happy together. Unlike medieval kings, Edward I had no known mistresses or bastard children.
Eleanor also travelled with him on his military activities. For example, she gave birth to their final son and eventual heir, Edward, in a tent where Caernarvon Castle was being built to subdue the west in 1284.
The Catholic Church in medieval times officially forbade all sexual relations even between husband and wife during Lent.
It can been seen from the household accounts kept by the royal household and which survive that each year on Easter Monday Eleanor’s Ladies in Waiting pretended to hold hostage in his own bed in his own room until he paid them a ransom so that he could visit his wife’s bedroom for the first time since before Lent.
What is known about Eleanor of Castile
As is common, not a huge amount is known about Eleanor. Even queens in medieval times were still just women and therefore not terribly important. What evidence survives does show, however, that she was well educated and intelligent.
Eleanor employed several scribes and an illuminator, or illustrator, paid for from her household accounts, to find and copy books for her to read (in the time before printing, books were extremely expensive, as they could only be produced by somebody copying the entire thing by hand).
She also commissioned works to be written for her, including Saints’ lives and romances. She entered into correspondence with abbots and professors at Oxford regarding matters as diverse as the theories in relation to angels, treaties on chess, and monastic orders.
The death of Queen Eleanor
In autumn 1290, Edward and Eleanor were told that Margaret, heir to the Scottish throne, had died. Edward and Eleanor were in Nottinghamshire, as a parliament had just been held there. Edward and Eleanor left Clipstone, where the parliament had been held, and went towards Lincoln.
When they reached the Valley of Harby in Nottinghamshire, about 8 miles from the city of Lincoln, the Queen’s existing illness became worse. She died in Harby on 28th November 1290, aged about 49 years old. Edward was at her bedside as she died.
After she died, Eleanor of Castile’s body was taken to the Gilbertine Priory of St Catherine, Lincoln.
The Gilbertine Order was an unusual one in that it was the only monastic order to be founded in England. The order therefore ceased to exist at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Gilbertine priories were also unusual in that they featured monks and nuns living in the same establishment. The common layout for Gilbertine priories was to have nuns’ quarters in the north of the precinct, monks in the south, and a church, refectory and other common buildings in between.
The Priory of St Catherine where Eleanor was taken is described as being in Lincoln, but that is only true for the site today. At the time when Eleanor of Castile’s body was taken there, the Priory was south of Lincoln proper, and outside the city walls. It therefore had substantial walls to protect it.
Eleanor’s burials, and burial procession
Eleanor of Castile’s body was embalmed and dissected at the Priory of St Catherine. Rather revoltingly, to modern eyes, different bits of her body were buried in different places, her viscera, namely her stomach and bowels or guts, were buried in Lincoln at the Visceral Tomb in the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral.
The rest of her body was then sent to London. The procession took twelve days to reach Westminster Abbey, where most of her would be buried, and the Eleanor Crosses were built to mark the places where her funeral cortege rested overnight.
On reaching London, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, apart from her heart which was buried in the Dominican monastery at Blackfriars.
The Visceral Tomb in Lincoln Cathedral survives, although the effigy of Eleanor of Castile which was on top of the Tomb was destroyed in the 17th century during the time when puritans got very upset about such idolatry (as they saw it).
The procession of Eleanor’s body to London was a grand one. King Edward I accompanied the procession the whole way.
Eleanor’s body was temporarily placed in a general tomb near the high alter in Westminster Abbey which had contained the body of father-in-law King Henry III until his remains were removed to his finally completed grand tomb earlier in 1290.
After Eleanor’s tomb was built, her body was moved from the grave to her own tomb. That tomb still survives, although has been damaged a little over the years.
Edward I’s 12 Eleanor crosses
The twelve Crosses erected by Edward I were probably designed not only to show his love and respect for his wife but to encourage people to pray for her soul. Twelve Crosses were originally built, but only three of them remain more or less intact, although bits of others can still be found.
Each of the Crosses were slightly different in style. Each had a plinth of steps at the bottom, and was built in three stages further up. At the bottom, the column was adorned with Eleanor’s heraldic symbols, and the Coat of Arms representing Castile, England and Ponthieu. Higher up, statues of the Queen were around the column, and the third part continued the column upwards became thinner, and was surmounted by a cross.
The Lincoln Eleanor Cross
The first Cross was built just outside the walls of the Gilbertine St Catherine’s Priory south of Lincoln. The Priory was destroyed following the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small piece of the Cross is all that survives. It is now in Lincoln Castle.
The Grantham Eleanor Cross
The next Cross was built at Grantham, a market town south of Lincoln but still in the county of Lincolnshire. That Cross has disappeared entirely, no remnants remain. The Cross at Grantham was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century.
The Stamford Eleanor Cross
The next overnight resting place, and therefore the next Eleanor Cross was in Stamford, also in Lincolnshire. A small piece of that Cross survives, which is a stone carved rose. The rose is in the museum in Stamford.
Recently, a thirty feet high statue made of bronze and stone has been put up in Sheepmarket, Stamford, but it is not intended as an exact replica of the original Eleanor Cross, is not in the same place, and is supposed to recall and inspire rather than replicate the original Eleanor Cross.
The Cross in Stamford was, as in Grantham, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.
The Geddington Eleanor Cross
The next Eleanor Cross is at Geddington, which is in the north-east of Northamptonshire.
The Eleanor Cross at Geddington survives, and is probably the best preserved of all of them, and still stands in the original location where it was built in 1293.
The Cross is, like all the Eleanor Crosses were, mounted on hexagonal staircases, and then features a long slim column, narrowing towards the top, with statues around it.
The Geddington Cross was different from the other 11, in that the cross was more triangular in shape than the others.
It is preserved and looked after by English Heritage, and their page on the Eleanor Cross at Geddington can be found here.
The Geddington Cross has three statues of Eleanor halfway up the column. The Cross originally mounted at the top of the Geddington statue has not survived.
The Hardingstone, Northampton Eleanor Cross
The next Cross was erected at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire. This Cross is octagonal, and sites on a plinth of steps which are replacements.
It is different in both shape and style to the Geddington Cross, but has similar features in the statues of Eleanor in the second part and the narrowing part at the top.
At the bottom of the Eleanor Cross in Hardingstone are carved stone books, which were originally painted with prayers for Eleanor’s soul to be said by those who read them.
The Stony Stratford Eleanor Cross
The next Cross is at Stony Stratford. This parish is now part of Milton Keynes, and is in Buckinghamshire, near the border with Northamptonshire. The Cross appears to have been of a similar to design to that at Geddington, and was destroyed by Cromwell’s armies in the Civil War in the 17th century.
The Woburn and Dunstable Eleanor Crosses
The next Cross was at Woburn in Bedfordshire. There are no surviving remnants of the statue and it’s not known precisely where in the town it stood.
The next Cross was erected at Dunstable in Bedfordshire. The Dunstable Cross no longer exists.
The St. Albans Eleanor Cross
The next one is at St Albans in Hertfordshire. It was in front of the Clock Tower, which is 15th century, in the high street, opposite one of the entrances to St Albans Abbey.
This cross was demolished in the 1720s and replaced by a town pump, as it was in poor repair.
The Waltham Cross Eleanor Cross
You’ll never guess where this town got the second part of its name from… This cross is in pretty good repair, and still standing in its original location.
The statues were removed to a local museum in the 1980s to protect them from pollution.
The Westcheap / Cheapside Eleanor Cross
The last but one Cross was in Westcheap, now known as Cheapside. This was demolished under orders from the puritan parliament in 1643.
There are several drawings and pictures of it as well as fragments of the remains in the Museum of London, so what it looks like is still known.
The Charing Cross Eleanor Cross
The last Cross was built at Charing, now called Charing Cross and a major railway terminus in London.
The statue was originally not where the railway station is today, but nearby on the south side of Trafalgar Square. At the time, this site was part of the Royal Mews attached to Westminster Palace.
Distances in London and from London to other places in the United Kingdom are measured from this point in Trafalgar square according to statutory interpretation.
The current Eleanor Cross which can be seen in the foreground of the Charing Cross Station forecourt is a replica.
The original was the most expensive, largest, and grandest of the Eleanor statues and was built from marble, rather than cheaper stone.
The replacement Eleanor Cross is 70 feet high, and was built by the South Eastern Railway Company when they built the station and the hotel above it. There are many drawings of the original and fragments and those drawings are in the Museum of London.