And yet there were marriages in English royal history that were remarkably close and happy ones. One of the happiest was that of Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) and his wife, Eleanor of Castile.
She was probably no more than thirteen or fourteen, and he not much older, when they were married, but they grew up to be a deeply devoted couple. She traveled with him to his wars in France, Wales, and Scotland and on crusade in the Holy Land; legend says that, when he was wounded by a poison-tipped sword in battle there, she sucked the poison from the wound. She also bore him sixteen children, though only four of them lived to adulthood, and only one—a daughter, named Marie, who became a nun—lived past fifty.
Eleanor of Castile was about fifty years old when she died at Harby, in Lincolnshire, on December 10, 1290. As was the custom of the time, her entrails were buried in Lincoln and her heart at Blackfriars, while the rest of her body was returned to London’s Westminster Abbey to be buried with other royals. This sad journey took twelve days, in that late autumn.
In the following year, Edward did something no English king had done before or since: he commissioned memorials to his wife– “whom living we deeply cherished and whom dead we cannot cease to love”–at each of the twelve towns where her body had rested on the journey back to London. These monuments were built in the three years 1291-94.
The memorials—in later centuries referred to as “Eleanor crosses”—were built at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone in Northhamptonshire, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham (now called Waltham Cross), Westcheap, and Charing (now called Charing Cross). Only three of the twelve survive: the ones at Geddington, Hardingstone (above), and Waltham Cross.
Edward may have been inspired by memorials he had seen in France that were built in memory of the French king and saint Louis IX (reigned 1226-70), who died at Tunis during the Second Crusade and whose body was returned to France, resting at fifteen places on its journey to St. Denis in Paris for burial. Cynics might say he was actually trying to upstage his French cousins (the kinship ties between the royal houses of France and England in the Middle Ages are almost too much even for a hillbilly to figure out!) with the expensive and ornate monuments; I prefer the romantic conclusion of the scholar who called the Eleanor crosses “those touching memorials of a hard man for his beloved wife.”
Edward did not remarry for nine years following Eleanor’s death—a long time for a king who had only one surviving son, and that one the feckless boy destined to become Edward II, arguably the worst king in English history. Although he loved his second wife—a French princess named Margaret—and had two sons and a daughter (named Eleanor for her father’s first wife) with her, he never had quite the bond with her that he had with his beloved Eleanor.
There’s a legend attached to the lost cross erected at Charing, the last place where Eleanor’s body rested before its interment in a tomb at Westminster Abbey. In later centuries it was said that Charing got its name from the French phrase “chere reine”—Dear Queen—in memory of Eleanor. More prosaic minds say that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “cerring” which means “a bend in the river”—and indeed Charing stood at a deep bend in the river Thames. But it became known, after the Eleanor cross was built there, as Charing Cross rather than plain Charing. One of the most famous of London’s underground rail stations is located there. The Eleanor cross at Charing was taken down in 1647 and replaced in 1675 by a statue of King Charles II on horseback, but a Victorian reconstruction of the Eleanor Cross was put up nearby in later years..
I first read the story of the Eleanor crosses in FOUR GOTHIC KINGS: THE TURBULENT HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND AND THE PLANTAGENET KINGS (1216-1377) HENRY III, EDWARD I, EDWARD II, EDWARD III SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF THEIR CONTEMPORARIES (1987; edited by Elizabeth Hallam, with a preface by Hugh Trevor-Roper). It’s an excellent overview of the period in spite of its unwieldy title, and has eyewitness accounts (mostly from church chroniclers) of each of the four kings.
So—there are great love stories to be told of British royals. And I don’t mean Charles and Camilla. Or for that matter, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. ;D