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How Northampton’s Eleanor Cross has been saved

After years of neglect, the 700 year old Northampton Queen Eleanor Cross, one of only three surviving in England from the original twelve, has at last been conserved after four years of campaigning by locals and supporters from all over the world. As a result, it has finally been removed from Historic England’s ‘Heritage At Risk Register’. The scaffolding is now down, and the cross can once again be seen in its glory. 

The cross was not restored to its original condition but conserved to prevent further damage or collapse. It is not even known for certain what it exactly looked like because of a number of ‘restorations’ over previous centuries. The top for example has been missing since 1460 at the latest. The conservation which began in April, cost a reported £95,000, with Historic England contributing half, with the rest paid for by Northampton Borough Council. The works were carried out by Skillington Workshop, one of the UK’s leading building conservation, repair, and restoration companies. 

The whole structure was subject to x-ray fluorescence, to see if it has ever been painted. However, no paint has been found. An investigation by a consultant geologist found the cross to be made of Weldon stone from near Corby. This is the same stone as used on Northamptonshire’s other Queen Eleanor Cross at Geddington. At least six pieces had to be re-carved, mainly for the plinths and for the pinnacles. The masons that carried out the work were Martin Coward, who worked on York Minster, and Alan Micklethwaite, who worked on Lincoln Cathedral. The twenty-six pieces that were temporarily removed have all now been put back.

The hoods over the statues were the key part of the repairs with the legs being the weakest points. It was found that water had got into the hood which pushed the legs out and away from the canopy, with those nearest the road in the worse condition. At some time in the past, the North facing hood had failed completely and lead and iron supports had to be added. 

It was discovered that when the cross was first built around 1290, pinning was used to hold parts together. This was partly achieved by pouring molten lead around the wrought-iron pins. Several of these had to be replaced, as well as later Victorian pins which had fared far worse, with marine grade stainless-steel which will allegedly last around 800 years. To enhance stability, Skillingtons also fitted three additional stainless-steel pins, each around 1 metre long in two areas.

Where necessary, “nano lime” was used to bind and preserve the Cross. This lime-based putty was made without solvents or accelerants and then allowed to air-dry so it did not damage the existing stonework. The whole thing was finished in a ‘shelter coat’, which is a water/lime/milk mixture designed to protect the mortars, its colour exactly matching the colour of the stone. However, this isn’t permanent, and normally only lasts 5-10 years, although it has been known to be effective for 25 years or more. This is why a condition of the Historic England grant was that a 10-year maintenance programme was put in place.

In recent years, partially due to the brilliant book “Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill and the worldwide campaign to save the Northampton cross, there has been a resurgence of interest in the surviving crosses. So for now and hopefully long into the future, people will be able see this most important part of Northampton’s and England’s history.Dr. David Carrington, the founder and Managing Director of Skillington Workshop Limited, will be sharing his insights into conserving Northampton’s nationally important monument at a talk for Northamptonshire Battlefields Society on 27 Feb 2020. All welcome. See NBS website https://northantsbattles.com/ for more details.

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