The Eleanor Cross
E. M. Barry
Charing Cross Road, London
Source Illustrated London News
The long article that surrounds the engraving has interest for at least half a dozen reasons, not least of which is its history of Queen Eleanor’s memorials, their relation to royal finances, and the legendary and authentic sources of the name “Charing.” It provides a good dose of medieval history, including a summary biography of Eleanor, and tells us the names of the Victorian architect, sculptor, and builders as well as what is known of the medieval ones, explaining the monument’s relation to the Charing Cross railway hotel. It also reports a somewhat bizarre argument with the Hungerford family, who wanted the refurbished (or re-created) monument named after them and who criticized the paper for providing the public with their family history “‘darkened with tragic mysteries and wild eccentricities,’ such as the stories of the wife of the house executed at Tyburn, for, as our correspondent terms it, the ‘aristocratic crime’ of poisoning her husband, and of the extravagant knight who paid five hundred guineas for a Court wig.” The Hungerfords should have known it's unwise to argue with mass media.
Make sure you compare the engraving at left to modern photographs of the Eleanor Cross. Which makes it seem larger? — George P. Landow
Click on image to enlarge it and mouse over text for links
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Hathi Digital Library Trust and the University of Michigan and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. — George P. Landow]
The very beautiful cross, the erection of which before the new Charing Cross Hotel (image) is just completed, and of which we give an Engraving, is designed as a restoration of a most interesting historical memorial. In what was once the village of Charing, and on the spot now occupied by the statue of King Charles, was erected the last, and by far the most costly, of the twelve crosses which marked the resting-places of the funeral procession which conveyed the body of Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I., from the house of Robert de Weston, at Hardby, in Nottinghamshire, where she died, to her tomb in Westminster Abbey. The resting-places, we may observe, were for the most part arranged to bo at religious houses, where services could be performed over the body at night. The cross at Charing, like so many other precious monuments of the art of the Middle Ages, was swept away by iconoclastic Puritan bigotry in 1647, but its memory was preserved in the word “cross” still retained for the site added to the proper name of the locality. Of the twelve original crosses only three remain — those of Waltham, Northampton, and Geddington; butt these are amongst the most perfect and beautiful examples of Gothic art at the best period, and drew the warmest eulogy from the classic Flaxman. It speaks well also for the fertility of invention of their producers that they differ widely in design and character. The artistic interest of the Eleanor crosses, and also of the exquisitely sculptured effigy of the Queen on her tomb in Westminster Abbey, is greatly enhanced by the fact, ascertained on the discovery of the accounts rendered to the Queen’s executors, that (with one possible exception) the producers of these admirable works were in all probability English artists. Vertue and Walpole conjectured that the Eleanor crosses were designed by Pietro Cavallini, who, it was supposed, hud been brought from Rome either by the Abbot of Ware or the King himself; and “Torel,” the sculptor of the latten effigy on the tomb, was long believed to be the Italian artist Torelli. But dates and documents are alike against these assumptions, and Torel doubtless belonged to a family named in records from the days of the Confessor. Only one name rendered in the “accounts” employed on the crosses is foreign — i. e., Dymenge de Legeri. The memorials of Queen Eleanor, then, like the sculpture of Wells and Lincoln cathedrals, show us English native work, which, on comparison, will be found at least equal to that much-vaunted contemporary sculpture of Pisa in which we trace the earliest style of the Renaissance.
A most interesting discussion has lately taken place respecting the evidence for the popular tradition that the Eleanor crosses were erected by command of the King, as monuments of his conjugal affection. By-the-way, probably originating in this popular belief was the fanciful derivation of the name “Charing” from the French words chère Reine, “dear or beloved Queen” — “ fanciful,” we say, because the village of Charing is mentioned in records dating earlier than the erection of the cross. But the popular belief to which we have referred has itself been disputed since the discovery, about twenty years ago, of the already-mentioned accounts for the erection of all the memorials. These accounts were rendered to the Queen’s executors, foremost among whom was, naturally, the King himself. Hence it has by recent writ ere been inferred tlmt because the cost of them was defrayed from the Queen’s own funds, therefore they were erected in pursuance of her own wishes. Edward himself, be it remembered, was at the time enormously in debt to the money-lending companies of Lombardy, and greatly embarrassed how to find money to prosecute the war with Scotland. Mr. Abel, author of “Memorials of Queen Eleanor” (an interesting work, embellished with photographs of the existing crosses, most admirably executed by Mr. Robert Hayward, of Finchley), favours the popular tradition, which is almost consecrated by an uninterrupted existence of more than 500 years; for the tradition first appears in Thomas of Walsingham’s Chronicles, some of which were written within one hundred years of the completion of the crosses; moreover, some of them are known to have been compiled from chronicles of still earlier date. Mr. Abel has also, since the publication of his book, adduced certain evidence as inferential!y confirmatory of Walsinghain’s statement, from the “Annales de Dunstable” which date about the time the crosses were erected; but this particular evidence appears to us far from conclusive. Assuredly, however, it would not be difficult to frame a theory which should be reconcilable with the rendering of the accounts to the Queen’s executors, and yet which should give Edward the credit of having erected the memorials. The fact of his embarrassment might even be used as an explanation of his appearing indirectly as an executor, as well as an argument on the opposite side. But, without dwelling on any far-fetched assumption, we have only to suppose that the King was the residuary legatee of his wife’s will, than which nothing is more probable, and that the residue which came to the King was disbursed on memorials — which, surely, is also highly probable —and no obstacle whatever is opposed by the “accounts” to our retention of the time-honoured popular conviction. On the other hand, it is but fair to admit that suflicient time had elapsed for one of the many errors imported from popular tradition into the old chronicles, and often disproved by contemporary records, to have crept into Wnlsingham’s compilation. There is, for example, strong contemporary inferential evidence against the popular legend of Queen Eleanor sucking the poison from the King’s wound. Nor were testamentary directions in prospect of death for the funeral obsequies and the erection of votive testimonials of piety, memorial crosses, or whatever should invite a prayer for the soul of the departed, at all contrary to precedent or the spirit of the time.
The Queen to whose memory, as we love to think, was erected, as tributes of a husband’s affection, those crosses which have supplied the “motive” for the magnificent Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, was, there is every reason to believe, well deserving to be held in remembrance equally by her lord and neoplc. Eleanor, or more correctly, if you will, Alianora Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand III., and sister of Alphonso, King of Castile, was married to Prince Edward, at Burgos, in 1254, several years before either were, according to modern notions, “of age” throughout thirty-six years of wedded life, during which bore she fifteen children, Eleanor “the Faithful” seems to have been a pattern of wifehood; when queen, a model of gracious and beneficent sovereignty (for she was universally beloved); and, in short, the very ideal of a “woman of the time.” Whether the story is or is not true of her sucking the poison from the wound her husband received from the assassin’s blade at Acre, she certainly nursed the Prince till he recovered, and attended him during the whole of his absence from England with the Crusaders. It is recorded of her that, when remonstrated with on account of her avowed intention to accompany Edward to the Holy Land, she replied, “Nothing should put asunder those whom God had joined; the road to Heaven is as short from Syria as from England.” Indeed, she shared the cares and perils of all Edward’s expeditions. She accompanied him to Wales, and she had followed him towards Scotland to the place of her death. Eight days did the King watch beside that death-bed; one month succeeding her interment did he live in strict seclusion at Ashbridge, whence he addressed to the Abbot of Clugny a letter beseeching the prayers of him and his order in terms whicn even now cannot be read without emotion. Besides the monuments of (as we believe) Edward's affection already mentioned, there were two others — both by the able sculptor, Torrel: one in the monastery of the Blackfriars, which contained her heart; and another over her viscera in Lincoln Cathedral.
Such was the Queen, one of whose richest memorials was at Charing. It may be mentioned incidentally that, although crosses of various kinds were very common in the Middle Ages, and date from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, very few such monuments are known to have marked the course of a funeral procession. Among the rare instances are the crosses erected at the resting-places of the bearers of the body of “St. Louis” from Paris to St. Denis. It is a significant fact that these crosses must, in all probability, have been seen by Edward and his Queen. But of such crosses that at Charing was probably the most remarkable. Its erection took three years; and, whilst the cross at Waltham only cost £95, that at Charing cost about £650, which, allowing for the great difference in the value of money, was a very large sum; and this was exclusive of the cost of materials, these being for the most part Caen stone, marble being, however, used for the steps and some portions of the structure. On the destruction of the cross, “part of the stones,” says Lilley, “were converted to pave before Whitehall. I have seen knife-hafts made of some of the stones, which, being well polished, looked like marble.” The work was begun under the direction of Master Richard de Crundale, “cementarius,” who, dying in 1293, left the rest of the work to be completed by Roger de Crundale. Richard de Crundale was also much employed on the works then in progress at the Palace of Westminster. The reader will remark some curious analogies between the Crundales of the thirteenth and the Barrys of the nineteenth century. The sculuture of the Eleanor Crosses at Waltham, Northampton, and elsewhere was executed by William de Ireland and Alexander L’Imaginator, and it is recorded that the last-named artist received five marks in part payment for the statues of Charing-cross.
The public must feel grateful to the Charing-cross Hotel Company for their liberality in seeking to rescue from oblivion so interesting a monument of bygone times. And even on the low commercial ground we think the shareholders have no cause for complaint. Whatever attracts visitors to the terminus and heightens the prestige of the railway and of the hotel as a place of resort must tend to increase the traffic. Of course, for the sake of the old associations one would have preferred to have had the cross exactly on the original spot; and it would have been better seen there, though assorting less, perhaps, with the present genius loci of Trafalgar-square (image) than with the monster hotel by the same architect, but in a very different style, before which it actually stands. We trust that the apprehension of the cross being found in the way will not be realised. It is, however, a pity that a gigantic grille should have been erected as if for the express purpose, not only of dwarfing the hotel, but of concealing this beautiful monument from the millions who will pass it in the Strand.
An attempt, and a very groundless one, as we think, has been made to fix the name of Hungerford on the new cross because it stands about a hundred yards east of the original site, and on ground once belonging to the Hungerford family. A letter favouring the attempt has been written to us by a representative of that family, complaining also of our having, some time back in an archaeological article, disputed the claim of the Hungerfords to such a commemoration by “garbling for sinister purposes” the family records; by “intentionally” suppressing its brighter pages and alluding only to those “darkened with tragic mysteries and wild eccentricities,” such as the stories of the wife of the house executed at Tyburn, for, as our correspondent terms it, the “aristocratic crime” of poisoning her husband, and of the extravagant knight who paid five hundred guineas for a Court wig. But, surely, such facts are too notorious for us to be suspected of “sinister purposes” in repeating them. Moreover, although the market is swept away which was originally founded by Sir Edward Hungerford, and whose town house was hard by, yet the family name is preserved in the bridge with the construction of which Sir Edward had certainly nothing to do. To call the new monument “Hungerford Cross” would be simply to ignore and deny the whole object and intention of the “restoration.”
As already intimated, Mr. Edward M. Barry, A.R.A., was intrusted with the difficult task of restoration. It is, however, a restoration only in name; the authorities are so extremely scanty that an exact reproduction, even if desirable, was impossible. A very rough drawing in the Crowle Collection at the British Museum; another scarcely better at the Bodleian at Oxford, and a third of similar character in the library of the Society of Antiquaries, are all the authorities available for the work, if we except some few engravings of obvious incompleteness and inaccuracy. It is fortunate, however, that the drawings above named, though evidently by unpractised hands, agree thoroughly together, and may therefore be regarded as tolerably safe guides for the leading principals of the design, number of stories, and other important features; though their very rude and unfinished execution necessarily left it to the architect to work, as he has done most successfully, in the spirit merely of his predecessor, and to supply the details from his own invention and knowledge of and feeling for thirteenth-century Gothic. Pennant, in the last edition of his “London,” describes the cross as octagonal, and specially states that there were eight figures, which is double the number on any of the other crosses. The new cross follows Pennant in these particulars, and agrees, in its leading features, with the drawings above referred to. Its height to the top of the gilt copper cross by which it is surmounted is about 70 ft. The structure is of Portland stone; but the panels and shields of the lower story and the diapered tracery of the upper story are of red Mansfield stone. The gables, also, over the lower story are panelled with red Mansfield stone and Aberdeen granite. The mixture of materials gives great richness without presenting too startling contrasts between different portions of the design.
The sculpture has been ably executed from the architect’s designs, by Mr. Thomas Earp. The almost Greek ideal of the monumental efligy (a cast of which was obtained for the guidance of the sculptor) has been reproduced in the eight beautiful crowned statues of the Queen in the upper story of the cross. Four of these statues represent Eleanor as Queen, with Royal insignia of crown, orb, and sceptre; and the other four with the attributes of a Christian woman — thus one figure carries a purse, out of which she distributes alms; another bread, for a similar purpose; whilst the others bear models of churches and religious houses, representing her as a foundress. At the feet of the statues are eight figures of kneeling angels, with their wings outstretched and their hands clasped as in prayer. The shields in the lower stage are accurately copied from those existing on the crosses of Waltham and Northampton and on the tomb, and consist of three varieties. The first displays three lions passant gurdant, first assumed as the Royal arms of England by King Henry II. in 1154, and which still forms part of the Royal arms as borne by Queen Victoria. The second is that of Ponthieu, which Queen Eleanor bore in right of her mother, and simply consists of three bendlets within a bordure. The third shield represents the arms of Castile and Leon, arranged quarterly; and this is especially interesting, as being the representation of the earliest known quartering of arms. The arms of Castile are a castle, triple-towered; and those of Leon represent a lion rampant. The order of the shields accords with the arrangement at Northampton, Waltham, and Westminster. The diaper above the tracery in the lowest stage of the monument is composed of octagonal panels, richly undercut, representing alternately the castle of Castile and the lion rampant of Leon: the pillow and couch of tlie effigy has a similar design. The carving generally of the crockets, capitals, canopies, diapers, gargoyles, &c., agrees with the best remains of English thirteenth-century art; and much difficulty was, we are informed, experienced in finding carvers for the work in consequence of the now-fashionable prevalence of French and Italian types of decorative sculpture. A word of commendation is due to the contractor, Mr. Field, for the excellent and painstaking manner in which he has performed a task by which, we understand, he has been considerably a loser, as will be readily understood (by those conversant with the value of such work) when we say that the whole cost of restoring one of the chefs-d’oeuvre of English Mediaeval art has not exceeded the sum of £1800. We are glad the monument is not “utilised” in any way : it is not a clock, a drinking-fountain, a telegraph, or postoffice. It is simply “Charing Cross.”
In conclusion, it should be remarked that, although the enrichments are probably more elaborate than in the original cross, they always spring naturally out of the masses, and that these are distributed with the finest sense of the beautiful in proportion.
“The Eleanor Cross Restored at Charing-Cross.” Illustrated London News. (6 December 1865): 560. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 22 January 2016. The text above was created from images from the Internet Archive the using ABBYY FineReader software. — George P. Landow
Last modified 22 January 2016