Eleanor of Castile was just a girl when she married King Edward 1 of England, left her mother country Spain, and arrived in England c1254. Under normal circumstances she would probably have only been remembered by academics and historians but, through a remarkable act of love and devotion by her husband, her memory has been literally set in stone.
Whilst on campaign in the north in 1290, Edward sent for his wife to join him. However, whilst travelling up through the midlands, she became ill and died near the village of Harby in Nottinghamshire. Devastated by his loss, Edward hurried south to make arrangements for Queen Eleanor's funeral at Westminster Abbey. Her body was embalmed in readiness for the long journey south, and her viscera (excluding her heart) were buried in Lincoln Cathedral.
The sombre procession south took 13 days and 12 nights to complete. King Edward ordered a memorial cross to be constructed in Queen Eleanor's honour at each place where the funeral cortege rested for the night. In total, 12 'Eleanor Crosses' were constructed at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap and Charing.
Possibly the most famous Eleanor Cross known today is in central London at Charing, which takes the modern name of 'Charing Cross'. Ironically, the ornate stone cross that currently stands at the entrance to Charing Cross Station is a fanciful Victorian imitation, built to mark the opening of the Charing Cross Hotel. Surviving fragments of the original structure, together with some original drawings, are held in the Museum of London.
Three original Eleanor Crosses do survive and these can be found at Hardingstone, Geddington and Waltham (pictured above in that order). The most complete is the one at Geddington, which stands tall and slender in the centre of the village, but the other two are most certainly worth a visit. Waltham has been restored many times, and the original statues are now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Unfortunately, very little survives of the remaining eight Eleanor Crosses:
- a fragment of the Lincoln Eleanor Cross can be seen in the grounds of Lincoln Castle
- a small piece of marble from the Stamford Eleanor Cross can be found in the town museum
- a commemorative plaque is the only evidence of the Eleanor Crosses erected at Stony Stratford and St Albans. The inscriptions are similar, and read "Near this spot stood the Cross erected by King Edward 1 to mark the place in Stony Stratford where the body of Queen Eleanor rested on its way from Harby in Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey in 1290"
"Near this site stood the Eleanor Cross where the body of Queen Eleanor rested one night on its progress from Harby to Westminster 13 December 1290"
- as with Charing, some fragments and drawings survive of the Westcheap Eleanor Cross and are also held at the Museum of London
Several crosses, in the style of the original Eleanor Crosses, have been built in various parts of the country, but these should not be confused with those ordered by King Edward. The most notable of these can be found at Ilam, Walkden, Sledmere and Queensbury.