Edward I – the king who defeated Braveheart – could never be regarded as a particularly sentimental man but when it came to his wife, he was a clearly a very devoted husband. Eleanor of Castile was the great great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the feisty queen of Henry II. She was also the great grandaughter of Eleanor of England, a daughter of that same king. Medieval England certainly spawned a surfeit of Eleanors!
Castile was an emerging European power as it pushed back the Islamic realm of southern Spain and originally, Eleanor was intended to be married in to the royal family of the neighbouring Christian kingdom of Navarre. However, Edward I’s father – King Henry III – was troubled by the claims Castile was making to the duchy of Aquitaine, then still under English control, and decided the best way to deal with that problem was to marry his son to the Castilian princess.
Eleanor was no shrinking violet and in the wars that her husband, as king, would have to fight against the English barons and external foes – she proved to be a very strong support for him. However, her life would be cut short – though not at a remarkably young age by the standards of the time. Journeying with Edward towards Lincoln, she caught a fever and died at the age of 49.
This clearly devastated the king who erected twelve ‘Eleanor Crosses‘ at the staging points on her slow procession back to London. This included crosses – initially in wood and later in stone – at Lincoln, Northamption, St Albans, Waltham and Westcheap and then finally at Charing. The last cross was in a small hamlet near the city of Westminster, the centre of royal power.
The cross was in place there from the 1290s to the Cromwellian period in the mid-17th century but was then demolished as part of another wave of anti-idolatrous as well as anti-monarchist sentiment. It stood more or less where the statue of king Charles I now stands at the end of Trafalgar Square, by Admiralty Arch. The cross you can now see outside Charing Cross station is a Victorian confection.
Inside Charing Cross underground station, there are murals depicting the construction of the original cross which I’ve taken a few photos of: