From Geddington the funeral cortege followed a well worn path to Northampton. At the heart of Eleanor’s property empire, these two destinations had been visited earlier in the year, and often since their first visit in 1274.
The route lay along the modern A43 and wended its way direct to two of Eleanor’s properties Spelhoe and Kingsthorpe, which lie along the A43 as you enter the city. Naturally Edward would have stayed here with the cortege party at the substantial Northampton Castle. As for where Eleanor’s body was to rest, there are numerous possibilities, but the site of the cross on the edge of Hardingstone village, just by De La Prie Priory a little outside Northampton, suggests that it may have been here that vigil was kept. There was also an association between the royal family and the Abbey: the Priory held the church of Fotheringhay which was a neighbour of Eleanor’s Apethorpe dower properties, and also the site of another royal hunting lodge. As a result, the cross is referred to by different people in three different ways: the Northampton Cross, the Hardingstone Cross and the De La Prie Cross.
The cross originally possessed twelve steps, though only 10 are visible today. It is unique in the survivals, in that it possesses an octagonal, rather than hexagonal base. This supports a first layer with eight gables with lacework, in each of which a pair of shields appears. Beneath the shields on alternate faces is a stone book, which it has been plausibly suggested were painted or carved with prayers to be said for Eleanor. For myself I find the appearance of a book on book-mad Eleanor’s memorial cross a delightfully personal tribute. The pinnacles and gables of the first layer are adorned with blind tracery and foliage.
For the second layer the monument steps in, and becomes four sided, with another set of fancy gables with finials and foliage, protecting recesses, in each of which a statue of Eleanor appears. It will be noted that this approach avoids the problem found at Geddington of the support structure hampering the view of the statues. The images are a fascinating bunch – each showing a different aspect of the Queen. In one her hands rest by her side, and the clasp of her cloaks is clearly visible. In another she appears to be posed very similarly to the tomb effigy, and to be somewhat serious with a real appearance that she may step towards the watcher at any moment. The remaining two show her almost in motion, weight on one hip, and draperies moving with her. In one of these it appears that she may be wearing a light veil or headdress, like the Geddington images.
Some commentators have argued that they are inferior to the Waltham images. That may once have been the case, but time and restoration have to be considered here, and to my own eyes the Hardingstone images are the best likenesses a modern viewer will see. In any event, both sets of images were made by key workers in royal employ – William of Ireland in Northampton and Alexander of Abingdon in Waltham. The main body of the cross seems to have been the work of one John de Bello (also known as de Bataille and of Battle). He was paid for work on it in 1290 and 1291 with a final payment in 1292. The images, rods and hoods were brought from London by a builder called William de Bernarius in early 1292.
The monument then slims again through two further steps. The third is a square layer, somewhat lower than the Geddington third layer, with Gothic arches. The top, originally bearing a large cross, which will have seemed to float above the monument, is now apparently broken off part way down the final layer.
We know that the Crosses suffered much wear and tear in the years prior to the civil war, and while there is no direct account of Hardingstone, other than a 1460 mention of it as a “Crux sine capite”, Celia Fiennes does not appear to have been very impressed by the cross when she passed it in 1697. But shortly afterwards it began to attract the attention of antiquarians. The first recorded restoration was in 1713, when
the Justices of the county, specifically mention its ' dilapidated condition' and ordered repair. The “restoration” sounds awful. A cross 3 ft. high was placed on the summit, four sun-dials with mottoes were placed on the third stage facing the cardinal points, and on the west side of the bottom stage was placed a white marble tablet surmounted by the royal arms, with a long Latin inscription. More repairs were performed in 1762 and further discussed resorations and the detailed drawings in the Vetusta Monumenta (see extra materials page) perhaps gave rise to the hilarious cartoon by Cruikshank in the British Museum showing a bevy of ill favoured antiquarians hovering over the cross (reproduced in the book!). As if that were not enough, a further extensive “restoration” took place in 1840 under the direction of Edward Blore.
Mercifully he undid the “improvements” of the 1713 restoration, removing the cross from its summit and the dials, royal arms, and inscription tablet.
But he did rebuild one whole gable, and it is he who is responsible for the picturesque broken shaft which is still visible today. The stories that the cross was broken off by a low flying plane in World War II are, sadly, not true!
One thing which strikes me as very poignant about the length of time over which this cross has borne testimony to Eleanor’s life and Edward’s love for her is that fact that in the C18 pictures, centuries after the cross was built, feeble little saplings surround the Cross. As my pictures show, they are now great trees, overtopping the Cross by many feet…