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Royal Heritage: author Matthew Lewis on Northampton’s Eleanor’s Cross

The Eleanor’s Cross at Hardingstone in Northampton is a monument to medieval love. It’s one of a dozen crosses built on the orders of King Edward I in memory of his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. Constructed between 1291 and 1294 at the places her coffin had rested on the way to her funeral in London in 1290, the crosses are famous across the world but just three originals now survive in the places they were built – including the one at Hardingstone.

However, in recent times concerns have been raised about its condition. A campaign has been set up to help preserve it — it’s attracted words of support from Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, among others. Author and historian, Matthew Lewis, is part of the Campaign to Save Eleanor’s Cross and he’s been talking to us about the monument. Matt began by telling Royal Central about the origins of the Cross at Northampton.

“The Cross commemorates the night Eleanor’s body spent at Delapré Abbey. It’s known as the Hardingstone Cross and is an original example — though it has been restored in the past too. It is believed to have been started in 1291, the year after Queen Eleanor’s death, making it more than 700 years old.

We even know from the Expense Rolls that the statues were carved by John of Battle and William of Ireland.  The Hardingstone Cross has open books carved on some of the faces that may well have displayed prayers that pilgrims could say for Eleanor’s soul.”

How well known is the Cross in the area?

”The Cross has played a part in local history for centuries. In 1460, the Battle of Northampton was fought next to the Cross, on what is now a golf course. Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury watched the battle from the steps of the Cross as the Yorkist army defeated the Lancastrians. Today, it is a well known local landmark.”

Why the campaign to ”Save Eleanor’s Cross”?

Photo credit: Save Eleanor’s Cross Twitter

”The Northamptonshire Battlefields Society began raising concerns about the condition of the Cross more than a year ago. I visited them to do a talk and the condition of it was quite startling even then, in early 2017. I asked Mike Ingram of the Society if there was anything I could do to help and I volunteered to operate a Twitter account to raise awareness of what was going on.

Mike and the Battlefields Society have been working tirelessly and it is them who deserve the recognition for their hard work.”

Why did you get involved?

”I find it shocking that we might be the generation that allows a 700 year old monument to love to crumble and blow away in the wind. I know councils have a hard time finding money but there are options such as crowdfunding or even a charitable trust that we would urge the council to explore. I enjoy visiting ancient sites and I want future generations to be able to enjoy it, too, before a beautiful story is lost.”

What does the Cross mean to local people?

”The response to its plight has seen people reminiscing about walking past it on the way to school, meeting friends there and I’ve even seen wedding photos taken at the Cross. I think its one of those local things that it is assumed will always be there, because the genuine outrage and fear that it might be lost forever has shown what a shock the thought is to the local community.”

What state is in the Cross in?

 ”A team of conservators examined the Cross in November 2017 and reported on what needed to be done. It has endured the Beast from the East without any help and there is increasing concern that it will not survive much longer unless steps are taken. Ultimately, the aim of the campaign is to ensure that the Cross doesn’t fall over and the future generations can enjoy it.”

How much has the state of the cross changed in recent times?

Photo credit: Save Eleanor’s Cross Twitter

”Almost exactly a year after my first visit — the deterioration is really quite shocking to see. A metal fence has been erected around the Cross to prevent anyone getting near it. There are cracks in several places that weren’t there last year, and if the frost were to get into those and widen them, it could be catastrophic. It is believed by many local people that there is a perceptible lean to the Cross now that must be a warning that it is on the verge of falling over.”

”I took a photo of freshly fallen pieces of stone on the steps from the top of the Cross. A week later, Mike Ingram took photos that showed these pieces had been cleared away, but that more stone had fallen off onto the steps. The deterioration has gone from almost imperceptible, to deeply worrying, to weekly pieces of 700 year old stone simply falling off and being swept away. We are at the moment of crisis for the Eleanor Cross in Northampton. The time to act is now, because soon it will be too late.”

What do you want to see happen now?

”There seems to be two strands to the Cross’s current plight. There is work that needs to be done to sure it up, preserve the structure and prevent it falling over. That should be undertaken immediately, even if it involves unsightly scaffolding or strapping. The stream of pieces falling off the Cross needs to be stopped immediately. I have contacted the Council to ask them about crowdfunding, which we are happy to manage, or a charitable trust, or any other help that can be provided by those locally, nationally and internationally who are concerned at what is happening – or rather what is not happening.”

”The second part of what needs to happen is a restoration wherever it can be done on the Cross to ensure that it is equipped to survive into the future. Right now, that is on a back burner in everyone’s minds as we try to get the structure saved before it crumbles away to nothing. I would like Northampton Borough Council to engage seriously with concerned parties and to listen to what we can offer in terms of practical and financial help to save the Eleanor Cross.”

When the condition of the cross was first raised in 2017, neither Northamptonshire County Council or Northampton Borough Council claimed ownership of the monument. The Borough Council later said it would ensure it was maintained given its importance. Royal Central has been in touch with Northampton Borough Council who sent us a statement.

The authority said they’d been collaborating with Historic England for several months ”to ensure any work carried out is in line with best practice.” Historic England has placed the monument on its Heritage at Risk Register and will contribute towards urgent conservation work on the Cross. The council added that ”whatever we do has to be appropriate for the monument in the long term.” In the same statement, it was confirmed that Historic England would provide half the costs of repairing the cross.

Work was due to start this summer although so far nothing has taken place. Meanwhile, if you want to follow the progress of the calls to Save Eleanor’s Cross on Twitter, you can find it here.

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