The Eleanor Crosses were a series of monuments erected to commemorate Eleanor of Castile the wife of Edward I. Eleanor had fallen ill during a trip north to meet her husband. Eventually taking refuge at a manor house in the village of Harby near Lincoln. She passed away there on 28 November 1290. Following Eleanor’s death her body was taken first to Lincoln and then on to London to be buried at Westminster Abbey. Deep in mourning King Edward I, decreed that a memorial cross would be built everywhere her body laid on route.
In total 12 Eleanor Crosses were created. Edward I commissioning some of the finest masons to work on them. The idea of a series of memorial crosses had probably derived from the French ‘montjoies‘ erected to mark the funerary procession of Louis IX in 1270-71. The term cross however really refers to the locations as opposed to the crosses which would have stood at their top. Each monument would have been positioned at a prominent crossroads and this is what cross refers to. Passing travellers would be more likely to see them and to pray for Eleanor whilst on their travels.
The Story of the Eleanor Crosses
The story of the crosses is a remarkable one. The work created representing some of the greatest sculpture in England at the time. These however weren’t the only monuments erected to Eleanor.
In Harby, the village were she died, a chapel was built. After being taken to Lincoln, her viscera or internal organs, were then buried in a tomb at the cathedral. In London, her heart was buried at the long gone Blackfriars monastery whilst her body ended up at Westminster Abbey.
Eleanor became ill and sought refuge at the manor house of a Knight, Richard de Weston and it was here where she died. The manor house itself is now gone but the remains of it’s old moat can still be seen in a field next to the church. After Eleanor passed the body was transported to Lincoln and it was from there that the great procession was made to take her back to London.
Harby itself didn’t get a cross but there was a chapel built in her memory. This was consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1294 and it lasted until 1548, succumbing to the dissolution. Parts of the building would survive until 1877 as part of the old All Saints church. That however was pulled down and replaced by the new Victorian All Saints church. Today a canopied niche on the church commemorates Eleanor. It shows the Queen on a plinth looking down over the door. On either side are all of the coats of arms associated with her. These are those of England via her husband Edward I. Castile & Leon for her father Ferdinand III and Ponthieu for her mother Jeanne de Dammartin.
The first Eleanor Cross to mark the journey was at Lincoln. It was here where Eleanor’s body was first taken from Harby to the Priory of St Katherine to rest prior to the trip to London. A Gilbertine priory, the site also housed the Hospital of St Sepulchre and the monks of the priory would have cared for it’s inmates. Here on 3 December 1290 the body of Eleanor was embalmed ready for the trip south. It was also the place where her internal organs or ‘viscera’ would have been removed to be buried at the nearby Lincoln Cathedral. The viscera tomb can still be seen in the cathedral though the original and what remained of Eleanor was likely destroyed in the 1640’s by Cromwell’s troops. It was restored in 1891.
St Katherine’s Priory
The cross itself would eventually be built opposite St Katherine’s Priory on Swines Green an area better known now as South Common. The exact location of the cross has been lost to time but it’s position would have been notable along route of Ermine Street near the junction with the Fosse Way. These were two major thoroughfares in medieval times meaning the cross would have been clearly visible to travellers. The modern day cathedral of St Katherine now stands on the site of the former priory.
Frustratingly surprisingly little is known about the Lincoln Cross. Nowadays all that remains is a fragment of one of the statues of Eleanor that would have looked down from it. Sitting in the grounds of Lincoln Castle it had been discovered laying over a ditch and acting as a footbridge. Eventually it found it’s way to the grounds of Frederick Burton before, sometime after his passing in 1874, being moved to the castle. The full story can be read here.
The first stop on the journey to London was Grantham. In total the journey from Lincoln to Grantham was 23 miles and the procession stopped in the town on 4 December 1290. The cross was erected in 1294 on the High Street by St Peters Hill. It survived for 351 years until it was torn down on the orders of Colonel Rossiter, a parliamentarian as part of the English Civil War. In 2015 a plaque was installed on the nearby Guildhall commemorating the cross. Made of local Ancaster stone, this would have been the same type of stone which the original Eleanor Cross would have been made from. It features the heads of Eleanor and Edward with their eyes closed. The words ‘Eleanor of Castile 1241 – 1290’ are inscribed beneath.
Following Grantham, a further 22 miles was travelled to Stamford and the party stayed here on 5 December 1290. The cross itself was erected just outside the town on the Great North Road, now Casterton Road. The exact location has since been lost to history. Another which was all but destroyed in the English Civil War. Though it was likely to be in poor condition even before that. Once a prominent landmark it wasn’t until 1745 that the famous Stamford based antiquarian William Stukeley likely rediscovered it. Excavating a tumulus on on the brow of a hill a half mile north of Stamford. He discovered the hexagonal base and some fragments which would almost certainly have been the Eleanor Cross. One of these fragments, a stone rose, was kept in Stukeley’s garden and is now in Stamford Library. It is the only surviving section.
Nowadays even despite William Stukeley’s discovery the exact location of the cross is lost again. Using descriptions from Stukeley’s letters it is likely that it was in the Foxdale area of Casterton Road. This would have been a place once known as Anemone Hill which would have overlooked the town to the north. It would have been one of the main entry points into Stamford from people travelling along the Great North Road.
Modern Day Tribute
There is today a modern day version of the cross in Stamford. Now positioned in the town’s Sheep Market it has a circular base and rises to a sharp point. Decorated with roses it was designed by Wolfgang Buttress a local sculptor from Nottingham. He took his inspiration directly from that surviving piece discovered by Stukeley.
The Eleanor Cross at Geddington is one of only three surviving crosses. It is also the best preserved from the time when it was built. Studying the Geddington Cross we can take a lot of inference in terms of how the others might have looked. It sits on an hexagonal base and rises up in a triangular tower where three statues of Eleanor look out. It rises further into a kind of spire with pointed pinnacles.
On top of this it is likely that an actual cross would have been placed. This section however was likely destroyed in the civil war. The cross is decorated with roses, an emblem of Edward I. It is also surrounded by the familiar coats of arms associated with Eleanor. It total the monument today stands around 13.2 metres high though it would have towered higher when it was built.
Royal Hunting Lodge
Geddington itself would have been well known to Edward and Eleanor. A hunting lodge had been built here in 1129. Over the years it became a popular location for royal hunting parties. Certainly Edward is known to have stayed there on a number of occasions. Edward’s predecessor Henry III (1216-1272) had also made a number of improvements during his reign. During this time it would have been more known as a palace or castle. Almost certainly it’s location influenced the choice of Geddington as a stopping point. The pivot of the cortege to Geddington away from their current route however was more out of necessity rather than been planned.
Flooding on Route
It was the flooding of the rivers Nene and Ouse further down the route which meant it would have been impassable. This was further south along the Great North Road which was the most direct route into London. It meant that in order to continue on the journey a detour had to made. This part of the journey however would have been on a much less established road. The party would head from Geddington with the intention of fording the Nene at Northampton and the Ouse at the crossing point at Stony Stratford. Here they would also meet up with the Roman road of Watling Street and another established route into London.
Hardingstone is now a small village to the south of Northampton and one of only three locations where the original cross still stands. Eleanor’s body rested here at the nearby Delapre Abbey whilst King Edward stayed at the nearby Northampton Castle. The cross is octagonal and situated on the London Road which once would have been the principle route from Northampton to London. It’s positioning on the outskirts of Delapre Abbey is close to where Eleanor’s body rested that night. Built up in three tiers, much of the cross is original though the base steps have been replaced. Only the very top is missing, disappeared to antiquity some time ago, it is believed that it would have been actual cross which would have sat on the summit.
Interestingly the first tier of the monument contains a series of open books. Perhaps once inscribed with verses, poems or readings from the bible. The coats of arms of England, Castile & Leon and Ponthieu are also prominent and decorated all around. Statues of Eleanor then look out from it’s niches along the next layer up. Neglected for some time, the eleanor cross at Hardingstone has also recently been renovated in 2019. Once on Historic England’s at risk register, it is thankfully no more. Previously the cross had been restored in 1713 and there is still a stone plaque in place which commemorates that restoration nearby. A further restoration took place in 1984 though by then the plaque itself had become seriously weathered. The plaque says…
The journey to Hardingstone had been made necessary due to flooding further down the Great North Road of the Rivers Nene and Ouse. An alternative crossing of the Nene was at Northampton near the castle which would have been a place very familiar to both Edward and Eleanor. This was an obvious place to head towards given the circumstances. The new route would still take the entourage further south. Heading ultimately towards Watling Street, the crossing of the Ouse at Stony Stratford and towards the abbey at Woburn.
From Hardingstone the cortege moved south down towards Woburn via the crossing of the Great Ouse at Stony Stratford. From here they would have also been able to join Watling Street one of the main routes into London. Previously journeying from Lincoln, the natural route would have been the Great North Road, which is the modern day A1. This however had been made impossible due to flooding which meant that alternative means were needed to cross the rivers. Stony Stratford takes it’s name from it’s crossing. Literally the stony crossing of the street at the ford of the river.
Stopping at Soney Stratford was not originally planned. The intention was to go straight from Delapre Abbey at Northampton to the Cistercian monastery at Woburn. However the weather made for some tough going and the shorter nights prevented further travel. Crossing the Great Ouse itself would have also taken some time. Despite being a known crossing. It was still only a ford over the river which would have been in full flow. It is said that Edward’s strongest knights were needed to carry the body of Eleanor over, taking extra care as they did so.
Resting place in Stony Stratford
It’s unclear where Eleanor’s body would have stayed whilst in Stony Stratford. It’s possible that this would have been at the parish church of St Mary Magdalene. The tower of this old church still survives and is close to where the cross was supposed to have been situated. The nearby village of St Mary Haversham is also an option as Eleanor owned property there. Alternatively Bradwell Priory was a few miles away so might also have been considered.
Sadly no trace remains of the original Eleanor cross. However a plaque marks it’s approximate location at 157 High Street. This would have been at the north end of the high street near to the ford crossing itself. The plaque is situated on the arch of a relatively new housing block which is close to the old church of St Mary Magdalene. The cross itself was another destroyed during the English Civil War. Despite this it is said that it’s base existed for a while afterwards, but that too has now been utterly lost to time.
The old Cistercian abbey of Woburn no longer exists. Instead, on the ground on which it once stood is one of England’s grandest homes, also confusingly called Woburn Abbey. Built in 1145 by Cistercian monks from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 and acquired by John Russell soon afterwards who then converted it into a mansion. Later Russell would become the first Earl of Bedford and it has remained as part of the Bedford estate ever since. In 1747 the first major redevelopment took place. The 4th Duke of Bedford commissioned Henry Flitcroft to start a major rebuild leading to the destruction of the remainder of the former abbey. It is likely that any above ground remains of the old abbey were lost at this time. Possibly being reused and incorporated into the new grand house emerging on the site.
Despite previously having experienced financial woes, Woburn was at the time one of the richest abbey’s in the country. It had extensive lands in the area and indeed still does. Only a relatively short distance from the unplanned stop at Stony Stratford, this was the cortege’s intended destination upon crossing the Great Ouse. It would have been a place that Edward and Eleanor knew well. Eleanor’s body would have rested in the abbey church which is located approximately in the East Wing of today’s mansion.
Mystery of Woburn Cross
Today, the Eleanor Cross at Woburn is synonymous with being the cross that people know the least about. Indeed any research into the crosses will go to great pains to explain how little is known about it. The only thing we do know is that it was indeed built. It is referenced six times by Eleanors executors between 1292 and 1293 as being constructed by John of Battle. After that all is unclear. Sources are very thin on the ground when it comes to the cross at Woburn including its design and location. However this is not to say that there aren’t some good potential locations for where it might be.
Where was the Woburn Cross?
The first and most obvious location is at the crossroads in Woburn. Old maps show that the crossroads through the village hasn’t really changed over the years. Indeed, if anything that development has been curtailed due to much of this area been within the demise of the estate of the Dukes of Bedford. This is an obvious choice because we know that many of the crosses were located at crossroads. One of the main reasons that the crosses were built in the first place was so that travellers passing by might see them and offer prayers. The crossroads at Woburn would have checked this box and many visitors to Woburn Abbey would have needed to pass though the crossroads to get there. Today a cross does look out over the crossroads but this in the form of the villages war memorial.
Another option for the location of the cross at Woburn is claimed by the Woburn Heritage Museum. Housed in the former St Mary’s Church there would have been a chapel on this site at the time of Eleanor’s death. On a sign outside the museum it notes that the cross could have been located in this spot. However there doesn’t really seem to be much evidence for this. We know for example that Eleanor’s body rested further away at the abbey and not at the chapel. The chapel itself was also just a little away from the main crossroads so locating the cross there wouldn’t have made sense. Even if Eleanor had rested there, the main decision point in terms of the crosses positioning would have been footfall and the amount of people who were likely to pass it.
Other potential locations
Other potential locations would be at the abbey itself. This is plausible as it could have been a pilgrimage destination. However our experience of the cross at Waltham shows that even though the abbey there was a major location, the cross was still located at the crossroads over a mile away. In Waltham’s case, the fact that the abbey was set away from the major thoroughfare at the time was more of a reason not to locate it nearer. The area around the cross at Waltham subsequently became known as Waltham Cross and can still be seen to this day. It is quite possibly that the same logic would have applied to the abbey at Woburn. Positioning a cross at the abbey would have simply been too far away from the main road network.
Finally it’s possible that the cross could have been positioned somewhere along Watling Street near to a junction with a road heading into Woburn. This was very much the main road into London from the midlands and today’s modern A5 follows its route. Certainly this would have been the road which the cortege would have used to travel from Stony Stratford towards Woburn and then onwards towards London. There are villages along Watling such as Little Brickhill and Hockcliffe which could well have been turnoffs towards the abbey. This however is pure speculation and the sheer distance away from the resting place would render the positioning of a cross here highly unlikely.
A short distance from Woburn was Dunstable Priory. Founded in 1132 it was a once grand building like many of the monastic priories of it’s time. It was here where Eleanor’s body rested on here journey through the town. Today all that remains is the admittedly impressive Priory Church of St Peter. This was once part of the priory itself and is a survivor from the time of Edward and Eleanor. The site of the rest of the priory can be accessed through a surviving gatehouse arch and is now a field. Geophysic surveys have since identified the footprint of the rest of the building. It would have been impressive.
Dunstable is also notable for being the only resting place where Edward did not stay in the same town as wife’s body on the journey down. Whilst at Woburn the King needed to rush ahead in order to get to St Albans. There he planned to attend the election of it’s new abbot, John of Berkamsted. It meant that Edward himself was not present to choose the location of the Eleanor Cross. This was decided by Robert Burrell, the kings chancellor.
Crossroads at Dunstable
Today the cross has long since disappeared. Another victim of the English Civil War. However we know it’s location which is at an existing crossroads which would have run through the old town. A plaque commemorates it on the side of the Natwest bank. It’s exact positioning isn’t entirely certain but the crossroads would have been the logical place to choose. The priory where Eleanor’s body would have lain is also just a very short distance away and it would have been at the heart of the old medieval village..
Sculpture of Eleanor
A modern day statue of Eleanor does still remember the Queen. Now hidden away in the slightly forlorn ‘Eleanor Cross Shopping Precinct’ is a sculpture by Dora Barrett. A gift to the people of Dunstable it was unveiled on 23 October 1985 as a symbolic replacement for the long gone cross.
The funeral procession arrived in St Albans without Edward I. The king had arrived in the town earlier in order to attend the election of it’s new abbot, John of Berkhamsted. For both Eleanor and Edward, St Albans would have been a place they knew well. They would have often needed to pass through the town on their way to Eleanor’s property at Kings Langley.
As the main procession arrived they were met by the monks of the abbey and the new abbot at St Michael’s Church at the entrance to the town. The church is still there today and was likely built on the site of the old Roman Basilica. It’s also notable as the place where Alban, the man who gave his name to the town, was tried for being a Christian. He was executed shortly afterwards, becoming a martyr to history, though not at the church. Today, St Michaels is one of the most significant anglo saxon buildings in the area. From here the Queen’s body was then taken to the abbey and placed by the high alter. The abbey of course still exists. Now known as St Albans Cathedral it has been through a number of changes in it’s history.
The cross erected in St Albans no longer exists but it was positioned in the market place. Nowadays the area is known as Market Cross in a reminder of it’s location. Over the years it had become a meeting point and a notable monument in the town. Like so many others though it eventually fell at the hands of parliamentary troops during the English Civil War in 1643.
Sections of the severely damaged cross did remain until 1701 until it was all replaced by another Market Cross which also served as a water pump. That in turn was demolished in 1810 and replaced by a drinking fountain. The fountain still exists though not still in the same place. It was moved in the 1920’s to support the redevelopment of George Street. It then could have easily been lost had it not been rescued from demolition. Spending some time in various gardens it eventually found it’s way to Victoria Square in a complex near to the train station.
The monument at Waltham Cross is the third of the surviving crosses though this has been much restored. This followed what was a combination of bomb damage suffered during the second World War and general poor repair. The funeral procession stopped to stay at the nearby Waltham Abbey on 14 December 1290. Founded by Henry II it would have been the ideal location to stay prior to their journey into London. The position of the Eleanor Cross was built just over a mile away at a crossroads just south of Cheshunt. The area around it would eventually take its name. It became known as Waltham Cross.
Situated in the centre of town, the Eleanor Cross at Waltham Cross has a hexagonal base. It rises in stages with the first being decorated with roses and the familiar shields denoting Eleanor’s lineage. Above this three statues of Eleanor look down from stone niches. After this it rises further with more decoration towards a stone cross perched at the top. Restored in the 1950’s the original statues of Eleanor were removed and are now in the care of the Victoria and Albert museum. There are three in total. One is on display in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 10. The others, less well preserved, are currently stored in an art depot off site.
From Waltham Abbey the funeral procession made it’s way into London on 15 December 1290. Here they wound through the Bishopsgate and into the narrow streets of the city. They stopped first at the Holy Trinity Priory before heading along Westcheap (now Cheapside) and then towards Greyfriars Monastery. Here the funeral party attended a mass prior to entering the precinct of St Pauls Cathedral.
The Eleanor Cross would be erected only a short distance from St Pauls at Cheapside. Built at the crossroads between Bread Street and Wood Street. It sat just near St Mary le Bow church and in front of the now long vanished church of St Peter. Given it’s location it was one of the most costly and impressive crosses. With most others so far costing round £100 to build, this one was far grander costing around £300. Cheapside was a major thoroughfare and was London’s busiest street meaning that the monument would be seen by many. As a result the cross would become a major landmark and the site of major events for years to come.
On 2 May 1643 the Cheapside cross fell victim to the travails of the English Civil War and it was ordered to be pulled down. The cross had become a symbol of the battle between parliamentary and royalist forces. Indeed this was the reason so many were destroyed during this period. They were in themselves seen as symbols of royal idolatry that supporters of parliament felt needed to be removed. Now there is really nothing in the area to say that the cross ever existed.
Today probably the best reminder of the Eleanor Crosses is in the name of Charing Cross. A part of London which has now become so synonymous with the story of Eleanor that eventually it became part of its name. Outside the station it also proudly shows off it’s own version though this is sadly not the original. Rather it is a grand reproduction created in 1865 sometime after it’s own version was destroyed by parliamentarians in 1647. This however is not to detract from the true splendour of the modern day monument. Designed by Edward Middleton Barry it was carved by master stonemason Thomas Earp. Barry had also been the architect behind the grand Charing Cross hotel which the monument stands in front of.
St Mary Rounceval
Charing, takes it’s name from the old English ‘cierring’ meaning ‘bend’. At the time it was only a small hamlet and would become the processions final stop prior to arriving at Westminster Abbey. Here the cortege would stay one more night at the chapel and hospital of St Mary Rounceval. Standing in the area of todays Northumberland Avenue and would have occupied land between today’s Whitehall and down towards the banks of the Thames. Made possible through the gift of William Marshall, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, it had been founded in 1232. It would be from here that the procession would then head down the Royal Mews which led to the Palace of Whitehall and ultimately towards Eleanors final resting place at Westminster Abbey.
Prior to arriving at Charing, the procession made a stop at the nearby Blackfriars Dominican monastery. It was here where Eleanor’s heart was to be buried. Both the Greyfriars where mass was said the night before and the Blackfriars were within a short distance from St Pauls Cathedral. Now not much remains of either building though you can read about them here. Ultimately the act of burying the heart at Blackfriars meant that this become Eleanor’s second resting place as her viscera had already been entombed in Lincoln.
Eleanor Cross and the Statue of Charles I
The choice of location for the Eleanor Cross was to be in positioned in front of St Mary Rounceval at the crossroads and looking directly down the Mews or what is now modern day Whitehall. It was by far the most expensive monument costing around £600 to make and would have been an imposing and impressive sight. Such was the prominence of the monument that even today it’s original location is known as the point from which all distances from London are measured.
Today the spot is occupied by a statue of Charles I on a horse which looks down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament. The placing of the statue here is no accident. The monument to Eleanor was ripped down by parliamentarians during the civil war and only a short distance away at the Banqueting House, Charles I was beheaded on 30 January 1649. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the choice to place a statue of the deposed monarch here was a clear show of strength. Originally commissioned in 1630 it had been placed into hiding during the civil war. It was finally erected in 1675 and is today London’s oldest bronze statue.
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The Eleanor Crosses were all visited at various points between 2021 and 2022. This post was inspired by the documentary on History Hit hosted by the excellent historian Alice Loxton.