The Taj Mahal is often celebrated as the world’s finest monument to love. Shah Jahan’s wife’s mausoleum is indeed impressive, but England’s Eleanor Crosses run it a close second.
The story starts with Edward I, King of England from 1272 to 1307 and also known as Edward Longshanks on account of his great height. He was 6″2 , which may not be excessively tall to you and me, but to a 14th-century peasant who doesn’t believe in eating greens, walks with a hunch and towers over only Ronnie Corbett he’d have been an intimidating sight. With the weight of monarchy behind him he wouldn’t have had much trouble getting his bidding done. Among other things, he’s also known as the Hammer of the Scots and copped flack from Hollywood in Braveheart for his treatment of them.
Anyway, whatever the man’s faults he loved his wife, Eleanor of Castile, very, very much. This wasn’t a given in medieval marriages, and royal matrimonies were almost always strategic and political rather than romantic. If you liked your partner it was a bonus, and the truth was often very different. She died in November 1290 and Edward was grief-stricken.
Eleanor died near Lincoln, and her body moved in slow procession, returning for burial in London. Twenty miles a day would have been fast for a journey of this kind, and the Queen’s remains paused twelve times on its journey to Westminster Abbey. Each was originally marked with a wooden cross, later with a lavishly decorated stone cross. In London, there was one on Westcheap, today’s Cheapside. One formed the original Charing Cross. Only three survive: one at Geddington, near Corby; one at Waltham Cross – hence the name and one between them at Hardingstone, Northampton. I place this one last because I was lucky enough to pay it a visit this week.
The M1 is very, very familiar. My Dad once said he’d driven it so many times on away trips with Arsenal, family holidays and runs up to Sheffield and Leeds to drop off and pick up university-bound sons that he could do it with his eyes closed. The familiar landmarks and service stations haven’t changed much over the years. The Biling Aquadrome* sign remains baffling. What is an aquadrome anyway? On a trip to Leicester with some friends to see a band which never showed up we detoured off at Junction 15 bound for the Hardingstone Cross.
We wondered how many of the drivers roaring along the A508 and A45 understood the provenance of Queen Eleanor Interchange, the most visisble modern sign of the cross. The roundabout is busy enough to spook an entire royal entourage and as we dodged our way around it cars tooted and hooted. Rush hour traffic has no time for 820-year-old memorials. We, however, were bright-eyed as we neared the fringed of Delapre Park, on the site of the Abbey where Eleanor’s body rested all those years ago. And there it was, on a broadly sloping hill with views of Northampton beyond.
Though it was night, the Cross was well lit and you could clearly make up that it was missing its top section. The remainder was well-preserved and superbly lit on a cold December night. Someone’s proud of it, even if there are no signs to say what you’re looking at. The semi-detached houses opposite have quite a view. As it was dark the only picture I have is a bit ‘arty’, but there’s a daylight snap here.
Eleanor of Castile, Queen of England never had a curry house named after her though. Mumtaz Jahan has several so is some sort of proof of primacy.
*Don’t click the link if you want to remain ignorant about Biling Aquadrome. I reproduce it without looking. Actually knowing what it is and what it’s for would be no fun at all.