Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Geddington Cross

Illustrated by Thomas Sulman.


There are few readers who have not some knowledge, however slight, of the romantic incidents connected with the history of Queen Eleanor, the loving wife of Edward I., and which, but for the corroborative testimonies of contemporary writers, would read like so many pages from the novels of Scott or Bulwer, rather than as dry leaves from the annals of history. A touching air of sadness pervades the traditionary accounts of the various circumstances connected with the death of Eleanor at Hardby, in Lincolnshire; and of the uncontrollable grief displayed by the royal widower, as he knelt by the lifeless body of his beloved queen, and refused to be consoled. The records of our monarchial history are so crowded with details of the many ambitious struggles and devastating wars of our early rulers, that the simple and unpretending character of Edward’s queen shines forth with a strange and unwonted lustre from amongst the dark scenes of strife and bloodshed which tainted the epoch in which she lived: and it would be a cruel blow to our dreams of the pure and beautiful, should it ever occur that some learned and prosaic pedant stumbles over some awkward facts, tending to destroy our faith in the pathetic legend for ever indelibly associated with the name of Eleanor. But such a catastrophe would be difficult to arrive at so long as the crosses at Waltham, Northampton, and Geddington remain to testify to the affection borne by an English monarch to the memory of his deceased queen.

Though archæologists admit the existence of these three crosses only, yet the inhabitants of Dunstable claim the possession of a fourth; but, while admitting that one of the Eleanor crosses was erected in that town, there exists nothing to show that the fragments alleged to belong to the memorial-structure are not, in reality, the remains of the ancient market-cross.

A cross seems to have been erected in every place where the royal bier rested for the night during the slow progress made by the funeral cortège in its journey from Lincoln to London. After Eleanor’s decease at Hardby, the body was embalmed, and, in his recent address before the members of the British Archæological Association, during their flying visit to Northampton, the Rev. C. H. Hartshorne stated that he could remember readding in the queen’s wardrobe account, recently sold in London, the entries relating to this process, the cost of the myrrh and frankincense; and, what struck him as more remarkable, a charge for barley for stuffing the body! The viscera were deposited in the ancient cathedral at Lincoln, while the heart was conveyed, in compliance with the dying request of Eleanor, to the Church of the Blackfriars, in London, for the purpose of interment within the precincts of the sacred edifice.

The body itself was carried with great pomp and solemnity from Lincoln to Westminster, the inhabitants of the towns and villages on the route displaying every possible sign of sorrow and respect, as the sombre procession passed through their quaint and ancient streets. At each place where the cavalcade halted for the night, the bier was taken to the church and guarded by the priests and regal attendants until the following morning, when, previous to its departure, it was deposited in the market-place until the king’s chancellor, and other officials then present, had marked out a suitable site where a memorial-cross might afterwards be erected. The number of crosses thus built has been variously estimated, but the most reliable accounts only mention those at Lincoln, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Alban’s, Waltham, Cheap, and Westminster; those at Leighton Buzzard and elsewhere being merely ordinary market-crosses. Mr. Hartshorne, who has devoted much time and study to the investigation of the question respecting these monumental remains, furnishes many curious and exceedingly interesting details connected with the erection of these chaste and beautiful structures, of which only those at Geddington, Northampton, and Waltham are now remaining. A certain John de Bello was the builder, if not the architect, of the crosses at Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, and St. Alban’s; that at Lincoln being erected by Richard de Stowe; Waltham, by Roger de Crundale and Dymenge de Leger; while Cheap was commenced by Michael de Canterbury, and completed by Roger de Crundale. The ornamental portions of the various structures appear to have been principally finished in London; the graceful effigies of the queen, or at least a portion of them, which ornamented the crosses being the work of William de Ireland.

The crosses at Waltham and Northampton have at times been repaired, and a fierce controversy has taken place between Mr. Roberts, of the British Archæological Association, and several local archæologians and architects of eminence, with respect to an assertion made by the former gentleman, to the effect that the Northampton cross had been restored in a manner at variance with its original appearance; but, whatever may be the merits or demerits of the issue thus raised, there can be no question as to the fact that the cross at Geddington displays to this day, excepting the discolorations effected by the hand of time, the same appearance presented by it during the lifetime of Edward. The top is supposed to have been surmounted with a cross, or by a statue of the Virgin and Child. These are gone, but every other detail remains in a perfect state of preservation. The steps surrounding the base have been renewed at various periods; and the last time at the cost of the Duke of Buccleuch. The structure itself is very simple in design, being of triangular shape, with figures at the angles instead of the sides. This arrangement certainly mars the beauty of the cross when beheld from certain points of view, and hides much of the graceful and classical appearance of the statues; but, at the same time, it has undoubtedly conduced to preserve them from the mutilations and disfigurements which became the fate of many of their contemporaries. Those who have seen the effigy of the queen in Westminster Abbey, and compared it with those belonging to the Northampton and Geddington crosses, can scarcely have failed to observe the similarity of features which pervades them all. It is stated that Flaxman was of opinion that the statue of Eleanor in Westminster Abbey partook of the characteristics which distinguished the school of Pisano; and Mr. Hartshorne considers it not at all unlikely that the various statues at Northampton and Geddington are the work of several of Pisano’s numerous scholars, he states that “The Executorial Rolls, printed by Mr. Botfield bear out this conjecture, as they state that the designer of the effigies at Westminster and Lincoln was William Torel, a goldsmith.” The queen’s statue was modelled in wax, and there is an entry for bringing 726 lb. from the house of Torel. This may serve to account for the resemblance existing in the countenances of the statues yet preserved.

It may seem strange that a little country village like Geddington should have been selected as a locality for the erection of one of these tasteful and elegant structures, in an age when the study of architecture was followed more from an innate love of the art itself, than from the desire of reaping pecuniary profit; but Geddington formerly contained a royal palace, to which the early English monarchs were wont to resort, and where they often pursued the deer in the neighbouring chase. No vestiges of the regal building are now discoverable: everything has disappeared except the church, and the silent memorial of an English monarch’s affection for one of the worthiest queens that ever graced an English throne.

John Plummer.