Banbury Cross is of course, synonymous with local Oxfordshire folklore for many, because of the popular rhyme which has a ‘Fyne lady’ riding to it astride her cockhorse.
Far less known perhaps is the fact that the Cross commemorates a royal marriage, a topical thought given the recent royal wedding at Windsor between HRH Prince Henry of Wales and Ms Meghan Markle on 19 May 2018. Given the fact that the Cross now forms the centre of a busy roundabout, few would have time to contemplate the Cross in detail, let alone get closer to look at the three splendid royal statues that adorn it. The fact that one of these represents Queen Victoria is particularly apt because the Cross celebrates the wedding of one of her children. Queen Victoria herself visited Banbury on many occasions, usually on her way to other destinations, therefore providing for us not only a fascinating glimpse of royalty in the historic market town but also of royalty en route.
The wedding in question was celebrated on 25 January 1858, between Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the seventeen-year-old Princess Royal and Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia. The marriage was celebrated in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, a royal peculiar and also the place where Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. The wedding was commemorated in paint in 1860, by the Scottish artist John Phillip, described by the Queen as ‘our greatest painter’, who had been present at the ceremony and made a sketch at the time.
Banbury Cross, built to commemorate the marriage of the Princess Royal
(By Snapshots Of The Past (The Cross and horse fair Banbury England) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Importantly, this was the only one of the marriages of his nine children which Prince Albert was destined to attend, as he died at Windsor a mere three years later. Of the day itself, the Queen wrote that she ‘felt as if [she] were being married over again, only much more nervous’. The wedding day was captured in early daguerreotype, at a time before photography was fully developed; the Queen wrote that the Princess Royal looked ‘very touching and lovely with such an innocent, confident and serious expression… her veil hanging back over her shoulders, walking between her beloved father and dearest Uncle Leopold’. Typically in Queen Victoria’s family, items deemed of special sentimental importance were photographed for the private album known as the ‘Album of Important Occasions – 1837-1885’ which survives in the Royal Photograph Collection; the Princess Royal’s wedding veil was photographed in its own right, as was the monumental cake made for the occasion.
Incidentally, a beautiful, gilded volume of the ‘History of Banbury, including copious historical and antiquarian notices of the neighbourhood’ by Alfred Beesley from 1841 – during Queen Victoria’s reign and the year after the Princess Royal’s birth – survives in the Royal Collection.
The Marriage of Victoria, Princess Royal, 25 January 1858 by John Phillips
[John Phillips] via User A1bc2, (United States Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Banbury Cross was designed by British Gothic Revival architect John Gibbs and stands fifty-two feet and six inches in height. It was begun the year after the marriage of the Princess Royal and completed in 1860, the year before Prince Albert’s death. It was erroneously believed to have stood on the site of an earlier medieval cross, which had been demolished by Puritans in the early seventeenth century, an assumption based on the theory that Banbury had once had three crosses at the time of the Reformation. Gaslights were added to the Cross in 1888; the Victorian railings were removed in 1927, around the time that the Cross’s removal from its present position was under discussion, due to the possible hazard that it represented as a convergence point for the roads leading to Oxford, Warwick, Shipston-on-Stour and of course, the busy main High Street.
Three statues representing Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V were placed in the three niches of the Cross in 1914, although a design for six niches had been part of the original plan; it is topped by a gilt cross. The choice of Queen Victoria is a particularly apt one, given the fact that the Cross represented the marriage of her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal. The Queen was extremely close to the Crown Princess of Prussia – later German Empress – something to which their enormous correspondence numbering sixty volumes, contained in the archives at the former castle of Friedrichshof near Frankfurt, certainly testifies. Edward VII was also extremely fond of his elder sister and caused a marble medallion to be erected ‘In Loving Memory’ of her in Craithie Church in Royal Deeside – close to the private royal residence of Balmoral – as a pendant to that to his brother, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. The medallion was inscribed at the wish of Edward VII as being ‘erected by her sorrowing brother, Edward R & I.’ In 1901, Edward VII visited the great fortified manor house of Broughton Castle, local to Banbury and slept in the King’s Chamber. Photographs of the royal visit are still preserved at the Castle in the collection of the Fiennes family.
Queen Victoria mentioned passing through Banbury on numerous occasions. We know this because of her detailed journals, which run to one hundred and forty-one volumes, kept at Windsor. What makes her mentions of Banbury particularly fascinating is the fact that she came to the historic market town not as part of an official visit, but as part of her travels. Looking at her journals, we can see that she normally chose Banbury as a place to stop for refreshments, usually en route from Gosport to Scotland – usually Ballater, the latter being the nearest railway station for Balmoral – but sometimes in reverse, for example in 1887, when she stopped at Banbury from Ballater. There were other occasions, however, such as when she travelled from Gosport to Renfrew or Llanderfel, as she did in the late 1880s. Her journals record this practice as early as 1852, and by 1875, it seems as if this had now become an accepted pattern of things, as part of her northbound journey to Balmoral. Perhaps significantly, she does not mention Banbury Cross, made to mark her daughter’s marriage.
Queen Victoria’s Saloon at the National Railway Museum, York ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
The possibility that the Queen chose Banbury as a place for refreshments because of the legendary Banbury Cakes – first recorded in 1586. It might be seen to be reinforced by the fact that the Queen was presented with a basket of the local delicacy in 1866, when the Queen passed through on her way to Wolverhampton to see the new statue erected to the Prince Consort. Fascinatingly, the Queen refers to a ‘Saloon’ when visiting Banbury; this refers to what is now fondly known as ‘Queen Victoria’s Saloon’, built for the Queen in 1869 as a veritable ‘palace on wheels’ and now kept at the National Railway Museum in York; it was announced in December 2017 that the Saloon – adapted into one carriage in 1895 – would be restored, thanks to a private donation. It would have been in this Saloon that Queen Victoria would have pulled into the Great Western railway station when she came to Banbury. She continued the practice of stopping at Banbury into the 1890s; the last occasion of her life that she did so was in her train en route from Windsor to Ballater, a later trip to Balmoral, in 1897.
Banbury continued to celebrate Queen Victoria’s family, even after the Queen’s death in 1901. A photograph of the Original Cake Shop in 1902, shows the Shop decked out for Edward VII’s coronation, celebrating with the proud words ‘…trumpets blare and joy-bells ring, we cry God strengthen and God Save The King’.
Yet another King on Banbury Cross was celebrated too, Queen Victoria’s grandson, George V. The clock on the High Street was put there to mark George V’s coronation in 1911 and was designed by the clockmaker, jeweller and optician, F. W. Ginger. It was in celebration of George V’s coronation that the three statues were added to Banbury Cross. These three royal statues together might bring to mind the famous photograph of ‘four generations’, taken at White Lodge, Richmond in 1894, showing Queen Victoria holding the future Edward VIII at his christening, surrounded by Edward VII and George V, a unique occasion in which all three heirs to the British throne were living and centred around the current ruling monarch.
A photograph from the Banbury Guardian, showing a street party on Cherwell Street to mark the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen in 1953, is held in the Royal Collection.
The Banbury Cross has come to represent far more of course, than a royal wedding back in 1858; it has become part of the fabric of the town’s folklore. It is interesting however to remember, in the light of the recent wedding of Queen Victoria’s great-great-great-grandson, HRH Prince Henry of Wales, that this Cross was in fact erected, to celebrate the wedding of her eldest daughter.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.