Eleanor’s Cross, Hardingstone

Last updated on January 16th, 2024 at 10:54 am

The above is not a comment on Eleanor’s mood, addressed to someone called Hardingstone (which I’m thinking is a good name for a butler); it is a memorial to a dead queen beside a busy road in a suburb of Northampton.  And it is part of a very old love story.

When you think of King Edward I of England (as I’m sure you often do), picture an educated, able, tough, testosterone-charged man; a legislator, reformer, summoner of parliaments, builder of castles, warrior and crusader.  Not renowned for his peaceful nature, Edward conquered Wales and is known as “the hammer of the Scots”.  He reigned for 35 years from 1272 – 1307 and was an extremely busy chap.  If you’re English, Edward is probably a good egg – but not necessarily loveable.  If you’re Scottish or Welsh, Edward is close to being the Devil incarnate.  It’s certainly hard to imagine this epitome of medieval kingship going all gooey-eyed and weak at the knees over some woman.

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross
However, when his wife, Eleanor of Castile, died aged 49 in 1290, Edward made extraordinary, elaborate and expensive, funeral arrangements.  They had been married for 36 years (yes, they started young in those days) and had 16 children together.  It is said they were rarely apart and Eleanor even accompanied Edward on his military campaigns.  At the time of her death, in Harby, near Lincoln, they were on their way to Scotland with an army.  By any standards, but particularly considering theirs was an arranged marriage, they appear to have been an exceptionally close couple.

Eleanor’s viscera (innards) were taken for burial in Lincoln Cathedral; her heart was interred at Black Friar’s, in London; her body was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.  The royal funeral procession from Lincoln to Westminster took 12 days.  It was winter – it must have been a cold and depressing journey.  At each stage where the dead queen’s cortege rested overnight, Edward ordered that a monumental ‘cross’ should be constructed.  And, between 1291 and 1297, they were – twelve of them, at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham (Cross), Cheapside and, finally, Charing just outside the Palace of Westminster.  Each one included images of the queen, the royal coat of arms, and was a masterpiece of medieval sculpting and masonry work.  Many people are familiar with the  Charing Cross, in London.  However, the monument you see outside the rail and tube station today is a twenty-first century restoration of a nineteenth century replica and not on the site of the original, which stood near Trafalgar Square, at the top of Whitehall.  There’s an equestrian statue of Charles I on the spot today.  All of this cost a fortune – the cross at Charing alone apparently set the king back £700, a huge amount of money in those days.  Mind you, the cash came from Eleanor’s rich estate.

Eleanor of Castile, Hardingstone Eleanor Cross
Everything about this suggests that Edward loved Eleanor very much indeed.  You may think that cutting your wife’s organs out is fairly weird, but it was done to help preserve the body on its journey.  If you stop and think about it, Edward did not have to go to all the trouble that he did.  He could have given Eleanor a decent send-off without all the crosses.  Maybe it was guilt.  Perhaps all Eleanor ever wanted was designer handbags and some nice holidays, and all she got was a ruined figure and endless trips to draughty castles in the company of loads of hairy-arsed soldiers.

It is far more likely that Edward was grief-stricken and that this was the final act in a medieval romance.  Though Edward eventually married again, to Margaret of France, and this too appears to have been a happy union, I get the impression that, for Edward, ‘the first cut was the deepest’.  In any event, he made absolutely sure that his Eleanor would never be unknown, or forgotten.  She must have been a remarkable woman.

Hardingstone is one of just three surviving original Eleanor crosses, the others being just up the road at Geddington (the best preserved) and at Waltham Cross (the clue’s in the name) in Hertfordshire.  The Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone is on a nondescript, but busy, road close to an equally busy traffic junction not far from the huge, soulless, Brackmills business estate.  With the traffic zooming by, and a residential area opposite, it’s well-nigh impossible to picture what the area must have been like more than 700 years’ ago.  The cross would have been in a prominent position at the time, on the road south to London at the edge of the convent at Delapré Abbey, where the funeral procession had halted.  It was their fifth stop since departing Harby.  It is thought that Eleanor’s coffin was laid in the Abbey overnight, whilst Edward stayed at Northampton Castle – which now lies under the railway station.

Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone, Northampton
Incidentally, the Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone is close to the site of the Battle of Northampton, a short clash in the Wars of the Roses in 1460 which the Yorkists won.  The battlefield is now mostly a golf course.

The cross originally had five levels. An octagonal base of steps surrounds a central shaft with decorated niches displaying heraldic shields.  The next level contains small statues of Eleanor.  The top ‘cross’ is missing, and has been for centuries.

In any event, gaze at the cross, spare a thought for the king who loved his queen – and wonder whether anyone’s going to erect a monument to you that people will be looking at 700 years after you’re gone.

27 thoughts on “Eleanor’s Cross, Hardingstone”

  1. peopledonteatenoughfudge

    I’m going to show SD this I demand my own erection (did I really say that – sorry, got a stinking cold, taking lots of drugs – the over the counter kind!) – maybe I’ll get a little pile of stones in the garden or something – a kind of minumont 🙂

  2. Hi Mike – I gather Edward loved Eleanor very dearly … and his next wife, too … he was lucky in love (marriage – he needed an extra heir: only one son and 5 daughters survived Eleanor) … as you and others have said -it was a complicated era …

    Cheers Hilary

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by this pair and wish more attention to this era was given and less to the tudors who have been done to death. Bring based in Guildford there are reminders here too of this Queen Eleanor and also he’d equally feisty mother in law Eleanor of Provence.

  4. How fascinating! (And it is hard to read blogs since I am so VERY often thinking of King Edward I of England!)
    When I am next in London and am at Charing Cross, I will think of you and this post!
    I LOVE to learn things from you!

  5. What do you mean “close to”? Of course Edward was the devil incarnate! I’m a Stewart after all. As for what he instructed his son to do with his own body….! I guess that’s another story.

  6. Thanks for sharing this story. I love a good romance!

    And thanks for visiting my blog — I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with yours.

  7. How interesting was that! Well researched and written. I shrank at the thought of having 16 children!

  8. I’ve always thought the crosses story of Edward and Eleanor was a wonderful tale. Why would removing the organs be a religious thing? Wouldn’t it be part of embalming the body to keep it in better shape until burial? Anyway, I love the story and your telling of it. I suppose we can eliminate the possibility that Edward considered taxidermy?

    1. Hi CM. The practice of separate burial of body parts was not unusual. You’re right, having done a little digging, it seems organ removal was partly to help preserve bodies – eg if a long journey was necessary before burial. Separate burial also enabled prayers for the departed’s soul to be said at different, and sometimes particular, places. Robert the Bruce wanted his heart buried in the Holy Land, for instance.

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