Alarming pictures of Northampton’s Queen Eleanor Cross overgrown with weeds prompted a new Facebook group and the promise of action from Northampton Borough Council. Historian Mike Ingram reminds us why we are so lucky to have it at Delapre…
Since the 1290’s Northampton’s Queen Eleanor Cross has stood majestically looking out over the town, marking the passage of time (until the 1800’s, the view would have been uninterrupted by houses or trees) and witnessing some of the key moments in the town’s and Britain’s history. Today it has been almost forgotten, there are no brown signs to proclaim its location, parking nearby is almost impossible, meaning few visit it, and it is in urgent need of major repair and renovation. With the threat to the cross recently highlighted by the Northamptonshire Battlefield Society, there has been a resurgence of interest, prompting the Borough Council to promise those urgently needed repairs.
The cross itself is an enduring story of love and loss. The future King Edward I (aged fourteen) married thirteen-year-old Eleanor on 1 November 1254 in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas in Castile. From that day forward they were rarely separated, and unlike most medieval kings, Edward remained faithful throughout their long marriage. Together they had sixteen 16 children of which the last, Edward of Carnarvon became King Edward II. They were also frequent visitors to Northampton, not only because of the royal castle and the hunting lodges, but it was at the heart of Eleanor’s business empire.
In 1264 war broke out between King Henry III and his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort. And, the very first battle of what became known as the Second Baron’s War was fought at Northampton. De Montfort’s son (also called Simon) took Northampton. Since 1238, the town had the only university in England and all the students joined de Montfort’s cause. Whilst King Henry attacked the town from the south, Edward led a large force around the outside of the walls and attacked through St. Andrews Priory (in the area of the modern Hampton Street). It was said the breach they made in the walls was wide enough for forty horses. Edward and his men charged the breach three times before breaking in. The town was ransacked and many people were killed. De Montfort’s men fell back to the castle but surrendered the next day. Henry banned the town from having a university again. Simon de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265. Northampton became Edward’s base of operations when he laid siege to the last rebel stronghold Kenilworth the following year.
Edward and Eleanor were back in Northampton on 24 June 1268, when during an elaborate ceremony involving all the nobility of England, Papal Legate, Ottobuono preached for a crusade at Holy Sepulchre. Edward, his brother Edmund and Henry, a cousin took up the cross. Edward and Eleanor left England soon after and stayed in the Holy Land until his father’s death in 1272. Their very first trip on being crowned King and Queen, was to Northamptonshire, stopping at the town, Fotheringhay, King’s Cliffe and Geddington.
Eleanor was a devoted patron of the Dominican Order friars. Their priory in Northampton was on corner of Horsemarket and modern-day Gold Street, so whenever they visited the town, they sent the Dominicans alms for one day’s food. Eleanor also granted the friars a spring of flowing water, called ‘Floxewell,’ from her village of Kingsthorpe, and the water was conveyed to their buildings by an underground conduit.
It was at the end of July 1290, that Edward and Eleanor would leave London on what would be their last journey together. On 4 August, they stopped at Passenham and two days later held mass at Silverstone, before going to Yardley Hastings. They had reached Northampton by 15 Aug, where they fed 300 poor men with additional alms distributed by their son-in-law, John of Brabant.
At a Parliament held in Northampton Castle, Edward ratified the Anglo‐Scottish “Treaty of Birgham” which provided for the marriage of Margaret ‘the Maid of Norway’, granddaughter and successor of King Alexander III of Scotland (and a descendant of the Earls of Northampton), to Edward of Caernarvon (later Edward II). However, it became redundant on Margaret’s death in September 1290.
They left Northampton the next day, stopping at Pychley, possibly due to Eleanors failing health, before spending several days at the hunting lodge at Geddington. After this they spent five more days at Rockingham before going on to Eleanor’s estates in Derbyshire and Chester. At the beginning of October, they were at Clipstone near Nottingham for Parliament. By this time, Eleanor was seriously ill.
The journey was abandoned at the village of Harby in Nottinghamshire, less than 7 miles (11 km) from Lincoln. The queen was lodged in the house of Richard de Weston. After piously receiving the Church’s last rites, she died there on the evening of the 28 November 1290, aged 49 and after 36 years of marriage. Edward was at her bedside to hear her final requests. For three days afterward, the machinery of government came to a halt and no writs were sealed.
Her viscera, less her heart, were sent to the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral for burial, where they still rest. Her body was then sent to London, taking 12 days to reach Westminster Abbey. The funeral procession stopped overnight at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham, Westcheap and Charing. Edward ordered Crosses to be erected at the places where they stopped. Today only the Northampton, Geddington and Waltham crosses survive, the others destroyed by time, weather, or wanton malice. So, the ones that do survive are rare and precious.
Where Eleanor’s body rested at Northampton is uncertain, however Abbey of St Mary de la Pré (The Abbey of St Mary in the Meadow) is the most likely place. The cross itself was built on the hill overlooking the town on the edge of the Abbey grounds and the parish of Hardingstone and is therefore, alternatively called the Northampton Cross, the Hardingstone Cross or the de la Pré Cross. The main body of the cross seems to have been built by John de Bello (also known as de Bataille or of Battle), with the statues carved by William of Ireland. The images, rods and hoods were all brought from London by a builder called William de Bernarius in early 1292.
The cross originally had twelve steps, although there are only ten visible today and is unique as it has an octagonal, rather than hexagonal base. The cross itself is in three tiers. The first has eight gables with lacework, each with a pair of shields and on alternate sides a stone book. Exactly what was on the books has been lost to time, but may have been painted prayers. The second tier is four sided and recessed in ornate arches on each side is a statue of Eleanor in various poses. Above this tier is a short square layer above which is now the comparatively modern broken cross shaft. Exactly when it was lost is unknown, but we do know it was missing at the time of the battle in 1460.
The first recorded restoration was in 1713. A 3 ft. high cross was added the top, and to the third tier four sun-dials with mottoes were added. Whist on the west side of the base, a white marble tablet with a latin inscription surmounted by the royal coat of arms was added. Further repairs were carried out in 1762. Another major restoration took place in 1840 under the architect and antiquary, Edward Blore. He undid all the 1713 alterations, rebuilt one gable, and added the characteristic broken shaft to the top. More restoration was carried out in 1937 and the early 1980’s.
The cross has been witness to much of Northampton’s long history and Kings and Queens passed it on the way to parliaments held in the town. The Battle of Northampton in 1460 was fought in the fields below it. In 1469, Warwick “the Kingmaker” executed William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and his brother as well as the father of Queen Elizabeth Woodville somewhere nearby.
The Cross is referred to in Daniel Defoe’s Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, in his report on the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675, “…a townsman being at Queen’s Cross upon a hill on the south side of the town, about two miles (3.2 km) off, saw the fire at one end of the town then newly begun, and that before he could get to the town it was burning at the remotest end, opposite where he first saw it.” During the Civil War, Prince Rupert attacked the town from the cross and much later there were bread riots nearby.
As a to its importance, apart from the obvious, two copies have also been built. A life size one at Sledmere in Yorkshire which now doubles as a War Memorial built in 1895. Another, which has recently been restored (for which it one a major award) can be found at Ilam in the Staffordshire Peak District.
Whilst much of old Northampton has been destroyed by time, fire or so called “progress”, the cross is one of the last acknowledgements of the important part the town played in this country’s history and the associations with one of England’s greatest kings. It is also a testament to love and as such, in its hour of need, should we now be showing the cross some of the love which it stands for?
Northampton Borough Council statement on Queen Eleanor’s Cross:
We are moving ahead as quickly as possible to get the permission we need to carry out work on the Eleanor Cross.
We have met with Historic England and taken their advice and have already approached three accredited restoration and conservation companies with the experience of working on such important monuments.
Two have already responded and when we have heard from the third, we will appoint a contractor to carry out a condition survey, commission initial works and advise on what further work is needed going forward.
We have formally made an application to work on a scheduled monument and once we have received the permission necessary from Historic England work will begin straight away. We are well aware of the importance of the Eleanor Cross and how our plans for Delapré Abbey will raise its profile even further.