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The Eleanor Crosses: a king’s memorial to his lost love

They are monuments to love that have told a royal romance for seven centuries. The Eleanor Crosses are a famous part of England’s regal history and, for hundreds of years, they have told the story of the king who built them for the queen he had lost and could never forget. Now, in 2018, just a handful survive to pay witness to the devotion of Edward I to his consort, Eleanor of Castile. But concerns have been raised that one is in danger of being damaged forever.

The crosses were built between 1291 and 1294 on the orders of King Edward I. On November 28th 1290, his queen, Eleanor, had died at Harby in Lincolnshire. Edward was at her side and, despite his passion for strict government, the wheels of his administration stopped for at least three days as he was consumed by grief. Her body was taken, in a huge procession attended by many mourners, to London but made twelve overnight stops on its way. Months after her funeral, Edward ordered ornate crosses to be built at each resting point.

The monuments were exquisite and expensive works of art as well as memorials to a queen. The main framework was usually built locally while the statues of Eleanor that adorned each monument were generally made in London and sent to the site of the crosses. A similar set of crosses had been built in France following the death of King Louis IX in 1270. Like them, the Eleanor crosses were a useful reminder of the monarchy’s power and prestige. But, most of all, they were a memorial to love.

The romance they commemorated had come from an arranged marriage. Edward and Eleanor were barely teenagers when they tied the knot in 1254 as part of their families’ political machinations. However, their wedding, at Las Huelgas Abbey in Burgos, was the beginning of a love story. The couple were devoted to one another with one legendary tale describing Eleanor saving the life of her husband by sucking the poison from a wound on his arm during a crusade to the Holy Land. Historians have long debunked that myth. However, Eleanor’s death, after 36 years of marriage, left her husband bereft.

Twelve crosses were built – at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham in Hertfordshire, Westcheap and Charing in London. The monuments at Waltham and Charing became so well known that the word ‘Cross’ ended up being added to the place’s names. However, over time, most of the monuments have been damaged, destroyed or deteriorated badly, with just portions of them remaining. Only three originals can be seen in the places they were built in 2018.

Among those originals is the one in Hardingstone, in Northampton. A local landmark for centuries, campaigners began raising concerns about its state last year. Northamptonshire County Council and Northampton Borough Council couldn’t agree over who was responsible for necessary repairs. The borough council said it would make sure the cross was maintained with Historic England adding support. However, campaigners say the monument remains in a perilous state.

The author Matthew Lewis, who specialises in the medieval period, has been helping lead the campaign raising concerns about the condition of the Eleanor Cross in Northampton. You can read an interview with him here very soon. He summed up the state of the monument for Royal Central, saying ‘’We are at a moment of crisis for the Eleanor Cross in Northampton….soon it will be too late’’.

Find out more about the future of one of the last remaining Eleanor Crosses and how the local council is responding to calls for more work on the monument on Royal Central over the coming days.

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