Wednesday, 27 April 2022

A royal love story is
told on the streets
of Stony Stratford

A gable end mural on the corner of New Street and High Street recalls the story of the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I have found images of Queen Eleanor in surprising places in Stony Stratford: on gable ends, in hangings in the local medical practice, and on display boards throughout the town telling stories of the history and heritage of Stony Stratford.

Queen Eleanor was once commemorated by the Eleanor Crosses across England, and at least two places have been identified as the site of the Eleanor Cross erected in Stony Stratford after her death in 1290.

The story of the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford is explained on the corner of New Street and High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Legend says that as a young princess Eleanor was known as ‘La Infanta de Castilla’ and her enduring popularity led to the myth that the ‘Elephant and Castle’ – a popular heraldic emblem in mediaeval England that gave many inns their names – was derived from an English corruption of the phrase ‘La Infanta de Castilla.’

However, Eleanor of Castile never held this title. She was born in 1241, and she was only 13 when she was married to the future King Edward I, King Henry III’s eldest son, Prince Edward, in October 1254.

She first came to England in 1255, and although the marriage of Eleanor and Edward was politically motivated, it was full of love. During 36 years of marriage, Eleanor gave birth to 16 children, including the future Edward II who was born in 1284.

A plaque on High Street recalls the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Queen Eleanor first became ill during the winter of 1285 and her health slowly deteriorated over the next five years. Some sources suggest that in the autumn of 1290, Edward was travelling to Scotland and that he and the Queen were separated. It is more likely that they were both at the Palace of Clipone in Sherwood Forest where parliament had been summoned and that they wanted to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

Eleanor had been ill at Clipstone and she did not complete the journey to Lincoln. Attended by Bishop Oliver Sutton of Lincoln, she died a few miles away in the house of Richard de Weston at Harby in Nottinghamshire on 28 November 1290. Edward was at her bedside to hear her final requests.

King Edward was grief stricken. Queen Eleanor’s body was first taken to Lincoln for embalming at Saint Catherine’s Priory. Her viscera was buried in a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral, her heart was buried at Blackfriars Priory in London and her body taken to Westminster Abbey for burial in the Chapel of Saint Edward the Confessor on 17 December 1290.

Did the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford stand near Nos 155 and 157 High Street, where the street widens? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

King Edward had an ‘Eleanor Cross’ erected at each of the 12 places where her body rested on this journey from Lincoln to Westminster.

The crosses were erected to honour her memory and to encourage prayers for her soul from passers-by and pilgrims. It is thought that similar crosses erected between St Denis and Paris after the death of Louis IX, which King Edward saw, may have inspired the Eleanor Crosses.

All 12 Eleanor Crosses had three sections and followed a similar style and structure, but each had its own individuality. The lower section had the coats of arms of Castile, England and Ponthieu, the middle had statues of Queen Eleanor and the top section had decorated pinnacles.

The exact location of the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford is not known, although two locations claim this privilege: one is a point at Nos 155 and 157 High Street, where the street widens; the second is a little further north, close to the bridge over the Great Ouse River, linking Stony Stratford and Old Stratford and marking the border between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.

Did the Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford stand near the bridge over the Great Ouse River? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Eleanor Cross in Stony Stratford was designed by the master mason John of Battle. It is believed to have had a tall elegant design, triangular in plan, and similar to the cross at Geddington.

Each Eleanor Cross had a flight of steps at the base, and was built in three stages. The top and middle sections of the Stony Stratford cross were destroyed around 1646 by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Although the lower section survived for some time, no traces of the Cross remain today.

But Eleanor of Castile and the Eleanor Cross are remembered to this day throughout Stony Stratford, including a gable painting at the corner of High Street and New Street, hangings in the medical centre, and other surprising places throughout the town.

Hangings in the medical centre in Stony Stratford recall the love story of Queen Eleanor and King Edward (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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