A 13th-century love story

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic New Service | February 12, 2016

King erected medieval equivalent of wayside crosses

Each of us has sent a Valentine or two in our lifetimes. Most often these were cards, sometimes candy or flowers. Maybe even jewelry.

But in the 13th century, an English king proclaimed his love — and its loss — in a completely different way.

Edward I of England married Eleanor of Castile in 1254. She was only 10, but they were married more than three decades and had 16 children (not all of whom lived to adulthood.) By all accounts, Eleanor and Edward were a loving couple and often travelled together.

They even went on crusade together to the Holy Land in 1272. There is a legend that says that Eleanor saved Edward’s life there by sucking poison from a wound he received in a battle.

They were again travelling together when Eleanor took ill while the couple was on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Hugh in Lincoln. She died on Nov. 28, 1290 in Harby.

The king was heart-broken. He had Eleanor’s body returned to London for burial in Westminster Abbey, a journey that took nearly two weeks. As was common for royalty, her heart was buried elsewhere — in this case, with the Black Friars in London — and her inner organs were buried in the Lincoln Cathedral.

Later, at each place where the funeral cortege had stopped for the night, Edward had a stone monument erected. These came to be known as “Eleanor Crosses.” Each held statues of the queen and bore the royal coat of arms.

While they were called crosses, they don’t seem to have been cross-shaped. However, because of what they symbolized, they could remind us today of the modern wayside crosses people place along highways and roadsides.

The 12 crosses were placed over the span of about seven years and few survive today. Many of them were destroyed in the 17th century during the English civil war. Three remain today, located at Geddington, Northampton and Waltham. Fragments of some of the others still exist as well, including a stone at Lincoln Cathedral.

The most famous of the Eleanor crosses — and the largest — was the one that was erected last: Charing Cross. The cross by that name that exists today at Charing Cross train station is not the original. The current cross, built in 1863, is much larger and more elaborate than the original. That cross would have been smaller. The current monument holds eight images of Eleanor.

The original Charing Cross stood where Whitehall Road meets Trafalgar Square, where a statue of Charles I on horseback stands today. That statue was erected in 1675. The original Charing Cross was destroyed in 1647. According to the BBC, that original Charing Cross was located in what marked the point from which all distances in London were measured. It was the ultimate center of town.

Some romantics will say that Charing Cross got its name from the French term: Cher reine, or “beloved queen.” It fits the romance of Edward and Eleanor’s story, but the word “Charing” actually comes from the Welsh language and was the name of the area long before the cross was placed there by Edward. Cyring appears to be a Saxon word that means a bend in the river, or a turn in the road.

Edward and Eleanor had been married for 36 years when she died. Edward eventually remarried — though not until 1299. He and his second wife, Margaret of France, had three children together.

However, when Edward died on July 7, 1307, it was beside Eleanor, in Westminster Abbey, that he was buried. Side by side, just as they were for so many years and so many travels.

It seems a good end to a medieval love story.

Sources: Traveltime-britain.com; Museumoflondon.org.uk; thefreelancehistorywriter.com; Britainexpress.com; bb.com; HistoricUK.com; historyworld.net; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

Related Posts

Scroll to Top