17 February 2014

For Love's Sake: Edward I and the Eleanor Crosses

King Edward I and Queen Eleanor
of Castile (Lincoln Cathedral)
Edward I of England has a bit of a bad rap, historically speaking: the ruthless Leopard Prince, the dreaded Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, responsible for the brutal subjugation of Wales as well as the mass expulsion and murder of England's Jews. It's a fair cop, but for all his brutality King Edward did have one notable soft spot, one famous chink in his stony exterior: his wife, Eleanor of Castile. Not only did Edward love his queen deeply, which was rare in arranged royal marriages, but by all accounts he was faithful to Eleanor and kept no mistresses, which was almost unheard of. 

They married when both were quite young — Edward was 14, Eleanor a mere 13 — and so in a way they grew up together, which may have been part of the reason for their unusually close bond. Eleanor loved her husband as much as he loved her, and they were soul mates for over three decades. She had little political power and appears not to have influenced the King's rule (which may be another reason he loved her so much), but she made a devoted queen and helpmeet, following Edward on Crusade to the Holy Land despite being heavily pregnant and regularly accompanying him on his progresses through the kingdom. Together they had over a dozen children (possibly as many as 17!), which was quite a few even by the standards of the day. With Eleanor, Edward's famously fierce demeanor was softened; by all accounts he treated her kindly and gently, and could at times even be playfully romantic.

the Northampton Cross, one of the 3
surviving original Eleanor Crosses 
After 35 years of marriage, Edward was at Eleanor's bedside when she died of fever in 1290. Her death left the tough-as-nails king devastated and emotionally distraught. The court had been on progress when Eleanor took ill, and she died near the city of Lincoln; as her funeral cortege made its way back to London, Edward marked the places they stopped each night along the journey. At each location he ordered the creation of monuments that came to be known as the Eleanor Crosses, twelve stone pillars carved like miniature cathedrals to commemorate each place his queen lay in state on her final journey: Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham, Cheapside, and finally Charing. They were meant as shrines, both to honor Eleanor's memory and for passersby to stop and pray for her soul. Never had an English queen been honored in such a way, and the fact that King Edward, who bled his nation for taxes to fund his wars and conquests, would use those funds for such an emotional purpose made it even more remarkable. The Eleanor Crosses are a monument to love and devotion in the reign of a king remembered mostly for his ruthlessness and cruelty.

Of the twelve Eleanor Crosses, only three survive, though the foundations of several others are still visible. Some locations replaced their lost original with a replica, and copies have been built in various towns across England; the most famous of these is Charing Cross in London, which was built during the Victorian era. Most of the cities where the original crosses stood have some type of monument or commemorative plaque either near the site or in a museum, telling the story of the Eleanor Crosses and honoring the memory of a queen who was so dearly beloved by her king, and the notoriously warlike king who went to such great lengths for love's sake. 

Heather Domin is the author of Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin, and The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome. She is currently working on Heirs of Fortune, the sequel to SoR, and a paranormal story set in modern-day Glasgow.