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Banbury Cross and a Royal Wedding

Banbury Cross is of course, synonymous with local Oxfordshire folklore for many, because of the popular rhyme which has a ‘fine lady’ riding to it on her cockhorse. Indeed, this is the main reason why many people know of the existence of the Cross at all. Far less known is the fact that the Cross commemorates a royal marriage, a topical thought in the light of the recent royal wedding at Windsor between HRH Prince Henry of Wales and Ms. Meghan Markle, now TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, on 19 May 2018. Given the fact that the Cross now forms the centre of a busy roundabout in Horsefair, there is scarcely 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 Banbury Cross celebrates the wedding of one of her children. Queen Victoria herself visited Banbury on numerous 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 Victoria, the 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 incidentally, also the place where Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. The royal 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.

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, because photography was of course, not yet fully developed; indeed, the Queen’s nerves caused her to shake so much that the resulting image is blurred. Queen Victoria 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; even the Princess Royal’s wedding veil was photographed in its own right, as was the monumental cake made for the occasion.

Incidentally, a beautiful, gilt-edged book on 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, bound in leather and brown marbled calf. (RCIN 1140752). It was largely due to Beesley’s assumption that the ‘principal’ cross of Banbury had once stood in Horsefair, which probably led to the choice of this location for the later Banbury Cross, which was placed there a year after the Princess Royal’s marriage, in 1859.

The Banbury Cross was designed by British Gothic Revival architect John Gibbs and stands fifty two feet and six inches in height. Despite the fact that Banbury is primarily identified in the popular mind with its Cross, firm knowledge about Banbury’s crosses was in fact somewhat scant until more recent years, with little that could be established about their origin other than the tradition that the rebuilt Banbury Cross stood on the site of an earlier, medieval cross that had been destroyed. It was not until 1967 that original research undertaken by Mr. Paul Harvey revealed the background of Banbury’s other crosses, producing firm proof that the High Cross had once stood in the Market Place and was to be distinguished from the Bread Cross, another cross. Through his examination of the records of the English court of law known as the Court of the Star Chamber – which met until the mid-seventeenth century – Mr. Harvey was also able to discover the full truth about the destruction of the High Cross in 1600 about which little had been known hitherto, other than the fact that it was destroyed.

The idea for a memorial in the town to mark the royal marriage was mooted about a week before the wedding took place. A poster dated Banbury, 20 January 1858 called for ‘an historical cross, or some other substantial memorial, [to] be erected, which will not only do honour to the occasion, but be a lasting credit and honour to the town’. This bold summons was signed by ‘An Inhabitant’ who opined that a memorial would be ‘lasting’, in contrast to an evening dress ball which would be altogether transitory. The day before the poster was printed, Mr. Thomas Beesley, a chemist, and Arthur Rye, a surgeon, suggested the putting up of a memorial to commemorate the event and a meeting was held in the drawing room of Beesley’s home. A formal meeting to chair the question was held in the Red Lion two days before the wedding, where it seems that there was some debate as to whether in fact a fountain might be a more appealing and practical type of monument instead.  As a purist, Beesley was unwilling to support the proposal of a Banbury Cross, given the then lack of known evidence as to the ‘real cross of history’. Agreement was reached that a memorial of some description should be put up in Horsefair, although a meeting to agree the exact spot was not convened until 11 April 1859.

In the event, some sixty residents from Banbury took advantage of the four-day excursion organised by Great Western Railway to London for the wedding.  The subscription raised for the proposed ball was the cause of some certain bad feeling for those who felt that such an event should be accessible to all; the ball went ahead as planned, but the free public concert of classical music – also held in the Central Corn Exchange – was well attended, by 2,430 people and was conducted by a Mr. Aspa of Leamington Spa. As early as three days after the wedding, over £140 had been already been collected for the raising of a memorial. There was no official ceremony for the laying of a foundation stone, nor of a dedication of the finished Cross.

Gaslights were added to the Cross in 1888. 1888 was the year when Banbury Cross was subject to a full redecoration; by a tragic irony, this was also the year that the Princess Royal’s husband, now Emperor Frederick III, died of throat cancer in Potsdam. The Victorian railings were removed in 1927, roughly the same period 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. The Cross remained however; flowerbeds were added in 1938.

Three statues representing Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V were purchased for the niches of Banbury Cross in 1911, the year of George V’s coronation; these were however, not placed in the three niches of the Cross until 1914. A design for six niches had been part of the original plan; this was amended to three at a Board Meeting in 1859. It is topped by a gilt cross.

The Queen was very close to her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal – Crown Princess of Prussia on her marriage and later German Empress – something to which their enormous correspondence numbering some sixty volumes, contained in the archives at the former castle of Friedrichshof near Frankfurt, certainly testifies. Edward VII – the first of the two kings in the niches – was also extremely fond of his elder sister and caused a marble medallion to be erected ‘In Loving Memory’ to her in Craithie Church in royal Deeside – close to the private royal residence of Balmoral – as a pendant to that erected 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 castellated 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. Lord Saye and Sele incidentally, had contributed £10 towards the cost of the memorial project.

The statue of George V celebrated the ruling King by the time that it was installed into the third niche, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. During the Great War, the plaque on the Cross that mentioned Prussia for the royal marriage of 1858, was removed, in an outpouring of paranoid anti-German feeling due to the perceived politically sensitive nature of any reference to the Royal Family’s historic German connections; similarly, the Prussian eagle that represented the Princess Royal’s spouse, Crown Prince Frederick – later Kaiser Frederick III, the ’ninety-nine day Emperor’ of 1888 – was removed and never replaced. It could be seen as a local example of George V’s decision to Anglicize the German titles of the Royal Family in 1917, making the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha into the present House of Windsor, Queen Victoria having been the last British monarch of the House of Hanover.

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 given her great interest in the memorials she had made for her own family, she does not mention Banbury Cross, which was built to commemorate the Princess Royal’s marriage, although admittedly, she was passing en route through the station and only tended to stop at Banbury for ‘refreshments’.

The possibility that the Queen chose Banbury as a place for refreshments because of the legendary Banbury Cakes – first recorded in 1586 – 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 almost certainly refers to what is now fondly known as ‘Queen Victoria’s Saloon’, built for the Queen in the late 1860s 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. 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 will be remembered that the three royal statues were purchased for Banbury Cross in celebration of George V’s coronation. These three royal statues together might bring to mind three-quarters of 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.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.