Eleanor Cross

Nuggets – bite size chunks of London

The Eleanor Cross at Charing Cross

Eleanor Cross - Charing Cross (detail)The medieval vil­lage of Char­ing prob­a­bly took its name from the Old Eng­lish cer­ring, ‘a turn’, refer­ring either to the bend in the Thames or in the west­ward road from the City.

Accord­ing to leg­end, Eleanor of Castile, queen con­sort of Edward I, sank here and rose again at Queen­hithe. The sto­ry seems to have begun with an anony­mous­ly writ­ten bal­lad that sug­gests, among much anti-Span­ish deri­sion, that Eleanor mur­dered the lord may­or of London’s wife by thrust­ing ven­omous snakes into her bosom. When Edward accused his queen of the deed she denied it and wished the ground might swal­low her up if she lied:

With that, at Char­ing Cross she sunk
Into the ground alive;
And after rose with life again,
In Lon­don, at Queen­hithe.

There­after she lan­guished 20 days in pain, and con­fessed to the crime and also to bear­ing a child by a fri­ar. The poet­’s choice of loca­tion for the sink­ing is curi­ous (but pre­sum­ably delib­er­ate) as Char­ing would­n’t have become Char­ing Cross had it not been for the king’s grief at his wife’s death at the age of 49.

Eleanor died at Har­by in Not­ting­hamshire in 1290 and was buried in West­min­ster Abbey. Cross­es were set up at each of the 12 places where her body rest­ed on its jour­ney south­wards, of which three sur­vive: at Ged­ding­ton and Hard­ing­stone (both in Northamp­ton­shire) and Waltham (now Waltham Cross, Hert­ford­shire).

The cross at Char­ing, which stood just to the south of what is now Trafal­gar Square, was demol­ished in 1647 and much of its stone was used to pave White­hall. An eques­tri­an stat­ue of Charles I was erect­ed in its place in 1675 and now marks the exact point from which all dis­tances from Lon­don are mea­sured.

The present Goth­ic cross in the court­yard of Char­ing Cross sta­tion (detail shown above) was designed by Edward Mid­dle­ton Bar­ry, sculpt­ed by Thomas Earp and erect­ed in 1865.