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The battle to stop our history turning into dust

When Edward I’s queen, Eleanor died in 1290 at Harby, her viscera, less her heart, were sent to the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral for burial, and her body was then taken to London, taking 12 days to reach Westminster Abbey. Crosses were erected at the twelve places where her funeral procession stopped overnight. Today only three Crosses still stand, at Geddington, Northampton, and Waltham Cross, writes Mike Ingram.

The Northampton Cross has witnessed much of the town’s history. On 10 July 1460, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Papal Legate Francesco Coppini watched the Battle of Northampton from the Cross. After the Battle of Edgcote on 26 July 1469, the Yorkist leader, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke and his brother were taken there to be executed. Then in 1643, Prince Rupert launched a raid on the town from the hill on which the Cross stands.

In July 2016, Northamptonshire Battlefield Society began to express concerns about the deteriorating condition of the Northampton Cross in meetings with Northampton Borough Council and other stakeholders in Delapre park. NBS continued to bring it up at subsequent meetings but got no further than a than a dispute of who was responsible for its upkeep. Frustrated at the lack of action, NBS made their concerns public which were then taken up by BBC Radio Northampton. Starting Monday 24 April, for three days in succession it was headline news and the chair of NBS, author Sara Cockerill and others were interviewed on the radio. As a result, the Borough Council issued the following statement.

“We are aware of the many references to the Cross on our website and sadly whilst this seems contradictory we still believe this isn’t proof of our ownership of the Cross, however we have carried out extensive maintenance on the Cross in the past we now intend to carry out further work to tidy up what is undoubtedly a fantastic monument of national importance”

And this was despite the Cross being listed on the council’s asset register. So, on Wednesday 26 April 2017, Northamptonshire Battlefield launched a dedicated social media page. The threat to the Cross sparked outrage within the local community, Europe and the United States. Support grew rapidly and a twitter feed was greeted with a similar response, also gaining celebrity support from the likes of Tony Robinson and Al Murray.

The Cross’s plight made TV and interviews with the NBS Chair, plus Marie Dickie and Adrian Bell from the Hardingstone History Group on BBC Look East on 2 May. That afternoon, Northampton Borough Council released the following statement

“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.”

A press release from NBC on 16 May 2017 stated “An application was made earlier this month to carry out the work to protect the thirteenth century monument in London Road. While the application is considered by DCMS, the borough council is considering quotes from a range of potential contractors with a view to appointing once consent is received.

Cllr Tim Hadland, Northampton Borough Council Cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and planning, said: “We are keen to ensure that this work is carried out in the right way and as soon as practicable.” Things went very quiet again.

In September 2017, NBC commissioned a condition survey which began with a full laser scan on 16 October. A week later NBC issued a press release saying “The latest phase of work will be carried out from the basket of a cherry picker and will involve the careful removal of plants wherever possible. Cliveden Conservation’s senior conservator will also carry out some essential repair work intended to help safeguard the monument through the winter months. Work was completed by 1 November 2017 and a security fence was left around it. Things once again went quiet. Early the following year after a marked deterioration of the Cross over the winter, the campaign to preserve it was renewed.

In March 2018, the council finally admitted ownership and that they envisaged work on the Cross would be a “partnership project between the Borough Council and Historic England, which will ensure the work is carried out to the required standards.” They added “We understand the wider interest that exists both amongst the general public and the heritage community and we hope that everyone will welcome the news that the much valued Eleanor Cross is to be repaired”. At the beginning of May, Historic England, said that “We need to act and we need to act as soon as possible.” Then on 16 May, Cllr Tim Hadland, Borough Council Cabinet member for regeneration, economic development and planning, said:

“Our aspiration is to get this work under way as soon as feasibly possible and we have taken guidance from Historic England throughout the process.“ Historic England announced it was placing the Cross on its Buildings at Risk register. This enabled the council to apply for a grant from Historic England towards the work.

That August, it was announced that:

“Appropriately qualified conservation professionals have now been appointed by Northampton Borough Council. Their first task is to fully investigate the problems that the Cross faces and to draw up a schedule of comprehensive repairs. The Eleanor Cross has had a complex history of previous repairs. New repairs must be carried out very sensitively and with a great deal of thought about the performance of repair materials in the future.” They added “the repairs will be carried out as soon as feasible. If temporary protective measures are necessary, they will be put in place.”

A further survey of the Cross was undertaken in September 2018, after which it was announced that work would begin in April 2019. This further delay was apparently due to the need to give the lime mortar the best chance to cure properly. As the Cross continued to decay, and its surfaces crumbled to dust, more than 1,600 people signed a petition calling for the monument to be protected during the winter months. In January, a Northampton Borough Council meeting heard Queen Eleanor would be “turning in her tomb” because her monument had been rotting. Thankfully a harsh winter that could have caused further irreparable damage never came.

So, to the huge relief of thousands, after three years campaigning, the £95,000 project to repair the Cross finally began this April. So far, scaffolding and corrugated fencing have been built around the Cross. The first steps will be to use X-rays and radar technology to assess the extent of the work needed. On 16 April, a press launch hailed the beginning of the work. Henry Sanders AABC, from architects Acanthus Clews who will oversee the project, said: “Much like in surgery, you don’t know what approach will be best until your patient is under the knife.”

Skillington Workshop, the conservators plan to restore the Cross using limestone mortar and will make no visible changes to the stonework. Dr David Carrington from Skillington said he would do all he could to “arrest the rate of decay,” adding “we will look at two things – the structure and corroding iron work. It is up there with the best work of the period.”

Dr Carrington is cautious as to when the project will be completed in case any new problem is discovered. However, it should be finished by August. NBC have promised further public updates as the project progresses.

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