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Important news of the day: the Eleanor Cross is safe

October 17, 2019 - 2:09pm

Big news for our country today, I think we can agree. Yes, the Eleanor Cross in Northamptonshire, one of only three surviving 13th century monuments built by Edward I to commemorate his late queen, is off Historic England’s “endangered list” of buildings.

Work had begun earlier this year after the cross had become seriously dilapidated.

The crosses mark the route taken by Eleanor of Castile’s corpse after she died in Lincoln in 1290. Edward and Eleanor had been married for 36 years, having been betrothed in childhood, but unusually for royal marriages theirs was a genuine love match and he didn’t even have illegitimate children.

King Edward was a feared ruler, and even by the standards of the age a brutal one; he conquered Wales, invaded Scotland six times (you may recognize him from that historical documentary Braveheart) and persecuted and eventually expelled England’s Jews. As a young man he had fought his uncle Simon de Montfort for control of the country during the Second Barons’ War, using trickery to win and executing defeating enemies. De Montfort, whose role in the early Parliament is still commemorated in the US capitol, sort of had a moral victory in that many of his demands were eventually accepted, although that might not have seemed apparent after his own testicles were hung upon his nose and his head cut off.

As a king, Edward broke the centuries-old taboo about executing aristocrats and having their wives imprisoned, leading to the collapse of the code of chivalry that would culminate in the War of the Roses. A cleric once approached him with a mild complaint about taxes and, so terrified upon meeting “Longshanks”, dropped dead with fright. He could be violent even towards his own children, especially his youngest son Edward, who he despised; he was also, of course, the inspiration for Tywin Lannister.

Much of his reign was spent negotiating with the continent, in conflict with his cousin the equally terrifying Philip IV of France, and their simmering conflict over Gascony, which had been joined to the English crown for two centuries; this region linked to England would prove to be a legal minefield because, as Duke of Gascony, Edward was supposed to swear fealty to the king of France.

Of course back in those days international matters of diplomacy could be resolved through marriage contracts, and so after Eleanor died Edward was married to Margaret, sister of King Philip, while at the same time Edward’s son Edward married Philip’s daughter Isabella (who ended up overthrowing him, but then they had a difficult marriage, Edward being gay). Margaret was 19, her new husband 60 – she must have been thrilled.

During their marriage Queen Eleanor had given her husband 16 children, of whom just 4 survived childhood, reflecting the enduring misery of the age. However their line continued and through their son Edward it is believed that over 90% of people of English origin are descended from Eleanor (who herself was supposed to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed), and millions of Americans, Canadians and Australians too. So if you’re reading this, you probably owe her your existence.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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