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Northampton's Eleanor Cross: the romance of the stone

History is more than stones and bricks. A trip down heritage lane might start with a fight for a space in a castle car park but what brings visitors to the past are the stories of those who lived there. Even the most impressive palace is made more beautiful and intriguing by the knowledge of the loves and lives that echoed through its walls.  There isn't a building or monument that's survived long enough to be classed as historic that doesn't have a tale attached. Its story, like many others, will have been passed down through generations and its very telling binds those who know it now to those who first described it, centuries before. When the stones and bricks that hold our history are threatened, it's not just the architecture and design we fear losing. What's at risk is the common telling of our shared past.

The Eleanor Cross at Northampton is a case in point. It is a pretty, weathered monument to a love lost whose story has rung down through generations. You probably know the tale already. When Eleanor of Castile, Queen of England as wife of King Edward I, died in 1290 her body was carried from Lincoln to London and stopped twelve times on its way there. The following year, Edward commanded that a stone cross be put up at every location to remember his queen. Between 1291 and 1294, these intricate memorials were made and in the years that followed they became a part of local life. For generations, people walked past them and told the story of why and how and when. The love story of Edward and Eleanor lived through the words of thousands who never knew them. It is still told today, even thought just three of those crosses remain. And now that campaigners have highlighted that the one still standing at Northampton might be at risk, the passion of losing a part of our past has been stirred again.  

In the last week, BBC Northampton has been highlighting the future of this Eleanor Cross. Its plight was brought to their attention by local historian, Mike Ingram. We'd expect the cross, now sitting at the side of a road, to show signs of wear and tear. It's old, that happens. The bigger problem is that no one seems to know who should spruce it up and protect it for years to come. Neither Northampton Borough Council or Northamptonshire County Council can say for sure who is responsible for the Eleanor Cross and in the meantime, it's being left to its own devices. The worry is that without someone doing that very 21st century thing of 'taking ownership', this relic of the 13th century will fade and crumble through neglect.  Now, a Twitter campaign (Save Eleanor's Cross) and Facebook page have started to raise awareness and get the cross the love it needs. 

It seems amazing, in an age where heritage is so valued and the past is a tourist trap worth millions every year, that anything as precious and rare as this Eleanor Cross could find itself at any sort of risk. More people than ever before are searching out our past and its colourful characters, brought to life through historical fiction, TV and film. The Eleanor Crosses are one of the best royal history tales around and just so rare. I remember my dad telling me the story of Edward and Eleanor when we went to Charing Cross years ago and the one there is a (rather splendid) later replica. You'd think people would be queuing up to make this original piece of a royal love story theirs. 

The other two surviving crosses don't share that issue. There's one at Geddington, Northamptonshire which is under the protection of English Heritage. It's truly entered the 21st century with its own page on their website with misty, romantic photos. The one at Waltham, in Hertfordshire, is now protected by low railings while some of its statues have been taken to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Yep. English Heritage and the V&A. You kind of get just how important these crosses are when you hear the big boys of historic preservation getting involved. 

Quite why Northampton's Eleanor Cross isn't being fought over tooth and nail as a monument to have and hold forever is a bit of a mystery.  But it has new friends. Social media means that within hours people around the world became aware of the concerns about the cross and began to share its story once more. Let's hope the new focus on Northampton's Eleanor Cross keeps it safe for many years to come. For its tale of love and loss, spoken of through generations, helped shape our idea of royalty and of history and even now, it bridges the ever growing divide between us and our past. History is more than stones and bricks, it is our link to each other through centuries gone and still to come. Our love of it should never be lost through uncertainty or doubt.

You can follow Save Eleanor's Cross on Twitter here.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons


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