16 January 2011

Eleanor's Crosses: A Royal Love Story

For two days, the mighty king remained in seclusion. Pale and withdrawn, stricken with an overwhelming grief that distracted him from the impending war with Scotland. For 36 years, Eleanor of Castile had been the faithful and loving companion of the powerful King Edward I. Unlike most royal marriages in history, theirs was a true love story.

Initiated for political reasons designed to shore up the southern reaches of what remained of Henry II’s and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Angevin empire, the marriage between their great-grandson and the Castilian king’s darkly beautiful sister was immediately successful. Handsome, tall and blonde, like all the famous Plantagenet princes, Edward was 15 when they wed while his bride was a dewy-eyed 13.

Eleanor became pregnant with alarming haste, but both of the extremely young parents were distraught when the pregnancy ended tragically. Perhaps filled with fear for Eleanor’s life, the couple apparently engaged more cautiously for the next several years and their first child, a daughter named Eleanor, was not born for another nine years. From that point forward, they were indeed very fruitful with 16 children born in 25 years.

This reproductive success certainly reflects the couple’s devotion to each other, but it was also made possible by their constant togetherness. In an age when royal spouses were often separated for months and even years as the husband pursued his territorial claims, fought off attackers, and journeyed on The Crusades, Edward and Eleanor rarely allowed space to come between them. Even though Edward’s court was in almost constant motion, sometimes staying in one place for no more than a day or two, Eleanor was usually with him.

Even in the late stages of her many pregnancies; she could not be persuaded to leave her beloved husband’s side. Her children were born all over the world of her day as she followed Edward from campaign to campaign. Sometimes arriving in stalwart castles other times in makeshift accommodations, her infants were born at Windsor, Surrey and Woodstock in England, at Rhuddlan and Caernarvon in Wales, and in Gascony and Palestine.

Like her predecessors Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor would not be left behind when her husband, who was not yet king, went on Crusade. During that journey, she nearly lost her husband, not in battle but at the hands of an assassin. Under the pretense of diplomacy, the culprit entered Edward’s tent and pulled out a knife. Ever vigilant and athletic, the prince personally fought off his attacker and killed him with his own knife, but not before suffering a defensive wound on his arm. The poisoned blade soon left Edward near death. Later stories circulated of Eleanor sucking the poison from his wound in a brave display of her devotion. The true story, however, also shows the depth of her passion. The doctors were forced to remove the hysterical Eleanor from the tent before they could operate: better that a princess should cry than that all of England should mourn.

Hale and hearty, Edward survived and the couple returned home to be feted as the new king and queen since his father had died in their absence. To show his love and respect for his queen, Edward had Eleanor crowned with him in the first double coronation for centuries.

As the year’s progressed, Edward and Eleanor never tired of each other. He is one of the few medieval monarchs believed to have been entirely faithful to his wife. She was with him on his journey north in November 1290 to deal with another batch of trouble with the Scots. She remained at Harby near Lincoln as he made the final push toward the frigid border. Eleanor fell terribly ill and word was sent to Edward who, forgetting the urgency of his mission, rushed to her side. But, he was too late.

And so, he sat alone with his grief. How could he honor a wife of 36 years? After so many children and so many decades, her celebrated beauty may have faded, but as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Edward could not forget his bride and would ensure that she was remembered for centuries. As her cortege made its slow journey to London, her widower erected a cross at every place where it stopped for the night. Originally made of wood, each marker was replaced with an elaborate stone sculpture topped with a large cross. Each one included three brightly colored and gilded tiers. The lowest level included stone books likely inscribed with tales of the queen’s life and prayers that passersby were encouraged to recite for her soul. The next level included sculptures of the queen herself.

Edward spent the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money to erect 12 “Eleanor Crosses” from Lincoln to Charing. Carved in the same ornate style that the king’s architects were using in Westminster Abbey, the crosses stood taller than most contemporary buildings at the crossroads where they were most likely to be seen. For the rest of his long life, Edward continued to attend services honoring Eleanor, even after he married again for political reasons.

Unfortunately, the Eleanor Crosses did not weather well the mists of time and politics. They were all made of stone that eroded, except the final cross at Charing, which was made of marble. But even Charing Cross could not stand against the Parliamentarian Roundheads of the English Civil War. It, like most of the crosses, was destroyed by the Puritans who viewed the Catholic crosses as idols. Today, only three of Edward’s memorials remain standing—at Geddington, Hardingstone, and Waltham—although each of these no longer bears the cross at its apex. Pieces from some of the crosses have been preserved or even restored by their local communities.

As for the elaborate monument which now stands in front of the Charing Cross rail station; it is a less-than-accurate replica constructed there in 1865 as a marketing device to advertise the new Charing Cross Hotel.

The crosses may have lost their golden shine or been toppled in the seven centuries that have intervened, but Edward’s tender tribute to Eleanor still echo: “We cannot cease to love our consort, now that she is dead,” he wrote, adding, “whom we loved so dearly when alive.”

For more about the Eleanor Crosses, visit the Art & Architecture feature.

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