Past Lives

Eleanor of Castile and the Eleanor Cross

Discover the monument erected in Geddington, Northamptonshire, to commemorate the remarkable life of King Edward I’s beloved first wife

Image: Eleanor of Castille

Eleanor was the daughter of the king of Castile, born in about 1241. Shortly before her 13th birthday she met her husband, Prince Edward of England, the future Edward I (himself only 15). The young couple’s parents had arranged the marriage as an alliance between Castile and England, a useful precaution when both countries had France for a neighbour.

From this marriage of diplomacy, a relationship of deep affection developed. Eleanor gave birth to about 16 children over nearly 30 years, including the future Edward II.

The young Edward and Eleanor practised the arts of kingship and queenship in the 1250s, managing England’s French province of Gascony. In the 1260s the couple were swept up in an English civil war and, at one point, imprisoned by the baronial leader Simon de Montfort. Eleanor accompanied Edward on Crusade to Palestine where, in June 1272, an assassin attempted to kill him with a poisoned dagger. According to one colourful account, Eleanor saved Edward by sucking the poison out of his arm.

After the death of Henry III, Edward and Eleanor, the golden couple of Christendom, were crowned in Westminster Abbey in August 1274. They toured their kingdom, stopping for hunting trips, with Eleanor quietly building up a property portfolio to finance her expenses. Eleanor also accompanied Edward during the conquest of Wales in 1282–84.

By the late 1280s, Eleanor was ill with malaria or perhaps a heart condition. Travelling northwards, the royal party stopped at Harby in Nottinghamshire, where Eleanor died on 28 November 1290, aged 49. Edward, struck by grief, embarked on a 21-day funeral procession to bury his beloved wife in Westminster.

He commissioned an extraordinary commemorative scheme for his lost queen: there were three grand tombs, and 12 memorial crosses to mark the stopping points of the funeral procession. Eleanor’s tombs at Lincoln and Westminster survive, as do three of the marvellous carved crosses in Northampton, Geddington and Waltham. The finest surviving cross at Geddington, Northamptonshire, is in the care of English Heritage. Here, three statues of Eleanor look down from her cross-tower, her wavy hair just visible under her coronet and veil.

Words: Nick Holder 

Illustration: Jasmine Whiteleaf