Eleanor of Castile and Edward I formed an impressive royal team, for theirs was a story of an arranged marriage which blossomed into true love. When Eleanor and Edward first met she was just ten years old and he a tall, long-legged teenager of fifteen (hence his nickname – ‘Longshanks’). Born in 1244, Eleanor was a Spanish princess – the Infanta of Castile. Her father was Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon and her mother Joanna, Countess of Ponthieu. King Henry III of England had negotiated a marriage between the princess and his son Edward, who was to become the next King of England, as part of a political deal to affirm English sovereignty over Gascony and the two married in a lavish wedding at the monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos, the capital of Castile on 1 November 1254.
It seems incredible to think of a little girl being taken in marriage to a strange far-off country leaving her family and friends behind at such a tender age, but in the summer of 1255 Eleanor journeyed to England alone with Edward following a few months later. As both were still so young, Edward went off for a few years to indulge in his favourite pastimes of war and tournaments, but following this a marriage began that was genuinely shared. Once they began married life properly, Edward and Eleanor quickly became inseparable. Edward travelled extensively, and wherever he went, so did she. The couple produced sixteen children during their union although, sadly, as was all too common in those days, only six survived to adulthood.
By 1270 Edward and Eleanor had left to join Edward’s uncle Louis IX of France on the Eighth Crusade, but unfortunately Louis died at Carthage before they arrived. After spending the winter in Sicily, the couple moved on to Acre in Palestine, arriving in May 1271 during the Ninth Crusade. Whilst here, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, known as ‘Joan of Acre’ after her birthplace. Despite the crusade being military unsuccessful, the Baibars of the Bahri dynasty were worried enough by Edward’s presence at Acre to make an assassination attempt, stabbing Edward with a poisoned dagger at Haifa. When the wound became infected and inflammed, legend has it that Eleanor saved his life by sucking the poison from the wound, although this has largely been discredited since.
The couple left Palestine in 1272 and a few months later they learned of King Henry III’s death, so in effect they were now king and queen. They returned to England and were crowned together on 19 August 1274.
Edward’s early reign was filled with warfare for he was determined to create a united kingdom. After a successful campaign in Wales (during which time Eleanor gave birth to a son, Edward - the first Prince of Wales and later King Edward II of England - in Caernarfon Castle) King Edward turned his attention to Scotland. The King wrote to his Queen asking her to join him in the north, but she was taken ill on the journey. Eleanor died in the little village of Harby, Nottinghamshire, around 7 miles from Lincoln, on 28 November 1290, aged 48.
Edward was desolate. He rushed back south and ordered that Eleanor’s body should travel back to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. She was first taken to St Catherine’s Priory, Lincoln for embalming and her viscera were buried in Lincoln Cathedral. It was also Eleanor’s wish that her heart be buried at Blackfriars Monastery in London (now under the station).
Eleanor’s embalmed body was borne in great state on the long journey from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by Edward and a substantial cortege of mourners. In a devastatingly romantic gesture Edward soon gave orders that a beautiful memorial cross be erected at the site of each overnight stop of the funeral procession. The purpose of the crosses was to remind passers-by to stop and pray for the soul of the dead person.
There were 12 crosses in total and the work was not completed until 1294. King Edward commissioned his Master Mason to provide a basic design for the crosses, with each having a plinth of steps and being built in three stages: the lowest adorned with the carved shields of Eleanor’s heraldry – the arms of England, Ponthieu and Castile & Leon. The second level would carry statues of the queen and the highest would continue the column and be surmounted by a cross. Despite the basics being the same, many different artists worked on the crosses and none were identical, although all were built using the best local stone and labour. Over the centuries the crosses gradually fell into decline and today only three of the original monuments remain.
The first was built near St Catherine’s Priory in Lincoln. A fragment in the grounds of Lincoln Castle is all that remains after it was destroyed during the English Civil War by Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary Army who saw the crosses as symbols of idolatry. The cortege then stopped at Grantham and a cross was built on what is now St. Peter’s Hill on the High Street. It too was destroyed during the Civil War by Cromwell’s forces. The next cross at Stamford, thought to have been sited in Scotgate, met the same fate, but today a modern reinterpretation stands on the site of the earlier monument.
From Stamford, the procession left the Great North Road and stopped to rest in Geddington, near Northampton where Eleanor’s body was received into the church of St. Mary Magdalene. The Geddington Cross survived the Civil War, and despite being damaged in the 18th century, it has been repaired and is probably the best preserved of the three crosses that remain today.
Once the procession reached Northampton, the Queen’s body lay for the night in Delapre Abbey in Hardingstone. Built just south of the Abbey entrance, the Hardingstone Cross is less well-preserved than that at Geddington, having lost its third level and cross, and has undergone much renovation over the years.
Stony Stratford was the next resting place and the cross, another casualty of the Civil War, stood at what is now the High Street and marked by a plaque. Very little is known of the next cross which was erected at Woburn, not even the location.
The next stop on the procession’s journey was Dunstable, with the site for the cross being carefully chosen and sprinkled with holy water. Nothing remains of the cross now, but the Eleanor Precinct in the town is named after her.
After Dunstable, the procession moved on to the abbey at St. Albans. Here the cortege was met by the Abbot and his monks, who escorted the body to the abbey an laid it before the high altar. Cromwell’s troops later destroyed the top of the cross and the rest was destroyed by townspeople in the early 18th century.
The procession’s tenth resting place was another abbey, at Waltham. There is some dispute other whether the town’s name –Waltham Cross – is derived from the hexagonal Eleanor Cross which survived the Civil War and still stands in its centre today, or whether it comes from an earlier legend. At this point in the procession the King, his courtiers and clergy rode on ahead so that they could receive Eleanor’s body. Her body was carried to St Paul’s Cathedral for the night, where Masses were said for her and her heart was taken to Blackfriars as she had wished.
Cheapside was chosen as the site for the penultimate Eleanor Cross. It used to stand on what is now Wood Street, and although it was more costly than the others, it fell into ruin and was attacked by anti-Catholics in the late 16th century, with the Puritans finally completing the destruction.
The final Eleanor Cross, and the most elaborate and expensive of them all, was sited at Charing, the place we now know as Charing Cross. It is thought that the funeral procession may have rested here for a while before entering Westminster Abbey. The original was destroyed in 1647 on the orders of Parliament during the English Civil War. The cross which is there today is a restored Victorian replica and is more ornate than the original, featuring eight statues of Eleanor with kneeling angels at her feet.