The Eleanor crosses
In November 1290 Eleanor of Castile, wife of King Edward I, died at Harby, near Lincoln. The king arranged a lavish funeral. The queen’s viscera were to be buried in Lincoln Cathedral, her heart in the Black Friars’ church in London, and her body in Westminster Abbey. The funeral procession took 12 days to travel from Lincoln to Westminster. Afterwards, Edward decided to have a stone monument erected to mark each place the royal coffin had rested for the night – Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, London (Cheapside), and Charing.
These tall, pointed, highly ornamented monuments were built between 1291 and 1297. They incorporated statues of the queen and royal coats of arms, and were called crosses, although they were not cross-shaped. No expense was spared (most of the money came out the queen’s own estate!), and the best stonemasons and sculptors were employed. The cross in Cheapside cost £226 13s 4d, that at Charing, where the road from London turned south towards Westminster, cost over £700.
Only three of the crosses survive today – those at Geddington (near Kettering), Northampton and Waltham Cross. The cross in Cheapside (known as ‘the Great Cross in Cheap’) stood in the middle of the road, nearly opposite Wood Street, until it was demolished in 1643. The cross at Charing was demolished in 1647; it stood where there is now a statue of King Charles I on a horse at the north end of Whitehall. A replica of this cross was erected in the forecourt of Charing Cross station in 1863.
Later stories about the great love between Edward and Eleanor gave rise to the romantic idea that he had called her his ‘chère reine’ – ‘dear queen’ – and that this gave the name to the greatest of all the monuments, ‘Charing Cross’ from ‘chère-reine cross’. Sadly, we know that the area where the cross was to be erected had already called ‘Cherring’ for at least a hundred years before Eleanor’s death. The name probably comes from Old English cierring ‘turning’ – referring either the bend in the river where the Thames, flowing north from Westminster, turns east towards the City of London, or the similar bend in old road joining Westminster and the City.