Edward and Eleanor: a royal love story set in stone

A royal wedding in medieval times was all about sealing alliances and striking political deals, so emotional entanglements didn’t usually enter the equation. Consequently, it was common for husbands in royal and elite circles to play the field, often enjoying a string of dalliances or even find lasting extra-marital love. But occasionally there was a true success story, and in 1254 a diplomatic marriage between two teenagers began a lifelong devotion between one of our most powerful warrior kings and his Spanish queen that has left its mark on our landscape to this day.

It started with a squabble over Gascony, England’s last remnant of its former Angevin lands. A new and ambitious Spanish king, Alfonso X, was laying claim to this territory of the English King Henry III and the stage was set for a fight. Alfonso backed a Gascon rebellion, and the province began to fall to the Spanish. Eventually, however, both sides agreed that a diplomatic solution was the best way forward, and this would be sealed with a marriage between Henry’s eldest son, Prince Edward, and Alfonso’s little half-sister, Eleanor of Castile. Edward was 15 years old and Eleanor just shy of 13. Edward was keen to do his duty, praising the fiancée he’d never met as a girl “whose prudence and beauty we have heard by general report”. The two met and married on the same day in November 1254, and despite efforts to keep them apart owing to their tender ages, it quickly became apparent that the young royal couple were forming a close attachment.

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Edward 1st and his beloved queen Eleanor of Castile

It was a good match. By the age of 16, Edward had grown into an unusually tall, handsome, blond and broad-chested hunk, while Eleanor was said to be beautiful as well as highly intelligent and well educated. They shared mutual interests including hunting and a deep love of the romantic Arthurian legends.

The couple became inseparable, with Eleanor an unwavering support throughout her husband’s endeavours and campaigns. She accompanied him on the ninth crusade to the Holy Land, where she gave birth to a daughter in Acre. There’s even a legendary story of her intervening to save Edward’s life after he was stabbed with a poisoned dagger during a meeting with Muslim messengers on a spurious peace mission. According to one account, she sucked out the poison from the wound herself. Edward survived the attack, and later returned home to the news that his father had died, and he was now King Edward 1st of England.

Eleanor worked tirelessly. She bore Edward 16 children, many of whom died young, so she spent a great deal of her adult life in a state of pregnancy. She played the property market, becoming a business woman in her own right, and she was a keen patron of the arts and literature. Eleanor was said to have brought out the best in Edward, and unlike many other kings, there’s no evidence or records to suggest that he ever took a mistress. Instead, there are stories of the couple’s fun-loving side, as they enjoyed playing games. One playful tradition took place every Easter Monday, when Eleanor would send her ladies to trap Edward in his bedroom until he paid them a token ransom to be allowed to go to her chambers on the first day after Lent.

But constant pregnancy and hard work would eventually take its toll, and after the birth of their 16th child Eleanor’s health began to fail, and she suffered a malarial fever during a trip to Gascony. But it was whilst travelling in Nottinghamshire during November 1290 that Eleanor fell ill again, her condition worsening, and on the evening of 28th November in the village of Harby, she died with Edward by her side.

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Eleanor depicted on her memorial cross at Geddington

Edward was grief stricken, and the effects of his pain were felt across the land. Eleanor’s body was taken to Lincoln for embalming, and from there Edward organised an elaborate funeral procession to Westminster, lasting some two weeks, until 17th December when she was buried in Westminster Abbey. But Edward hadn’t finished with his tributes; he wanted more to preserve the memory of his beloved wife. He ordered a dozen monuments to be created in marble and stone, each one surmounted by a devotional cross, and had one placed at each point the funeral procession had stopped on its journey from Lincoln to London. Known as the Eleanor Crosses, only three of the original twelve remain, one at Waltham in Hertfordshire and two at Hardingstone and Geddington in Northamptonshire, the latter being the best preserved. The other, now vanished crosses included one sited at Cheapside and another at Charing – hence the name Charing Cross – in London.

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The Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone, one of the three to survive

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The best preserved Eleanor Cross at Geddington, Northamptonshire

Edward did eventually remarry. A singleton medieval king was a waste of diplomatic opportunities. And Eleanor’s death didn’t diminish his dynastic ambitions, so his dream of ruling over a united Albion continued unabated with his invasion of Scotland. But his love for Eleanor never faded. He attended memorials to her for the rest of his life, and the brutality of his later years is often attributed to his enduring grief. From the distant cries of this far-away time, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of how keenly Edward felt the loss of Eleanor in his own words. The year after her death, he wrote a letter to the abbot of Cluny in France in which he referred to his late wife: “whom in life we dearly cherished, and whom in death we cannot cease to love”. It’s these precious relics of a rare medieval love story that have survived in words and in stone, bearing across the centuries the eternal echoes of a devotion that never died.

 

46 thoughts on “Edward and Eleanor: a royal love story set in stone

  1. Another great post – well worth the drive to see them. I really like their story and you’ve written it in such a warm and lovely way – well done you.

    I still can’t believe she had 16 kids… 16?!! She must have been mad!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Quite a tale and I used to think of it when I was at Charing Cross. We went a while ago to see the lonely spot where he died on the Solway marshes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fantastic post. You’ve made this story very human which makes history so much more interesting than just reading about facts and figures. Thank you Abbi.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading Malc, and I’m glad you found it interesting. It’s good to breathe life back into these very real experiences from the past. Thanks for your lovely comments. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It speaks volumes for how their story captured the imagination, that there are now so many later ‘Eleanor Crosses’ up and down the land. I loved the story about the twin candles Edward ordered to be lit in Westminster Abbey beside her tomb, to burn in perpetuity together… Cromwell’s lot put a stop to that after a couple of hundred years.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cromwell has a lot to answer for! Edward even went through with the same ritual of their Easter Monday game the year after Eleanor died, even though she clearly wasn’t waiting in her chambers for him any more. He said that’s what would have happened if she’d still been alive. Ahhh… The crosses are worth seeing if you’re ever in the vicinity. Thanks for reading, Sue. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. 16 children – poor woman! Shame the men didn’t realise in those days how that was likely to cause the early death of their wives (although I’m sure a lot wouldn’t have cared as he did). Nice to see at least some matches were happy back in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – 16! Eeeek! she basically worked herself to death. At least they were happy together while she was around. Thanks for reading, Carol. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. enjoyed your history post (and the comments from readers) – but you write with a nice flow and the little quotesinserted are just enough to support your points with a tasty quote (too long of a quote can be too much – so that is nice)
    and what love.
    to suck out the venom – ha – seriously cool if it did happen.
    and too bad he had complicated grief – so sad but glad he remarried (even if for alliance sake)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you enjoyed this medieval love story, Yvette, and thanks for the kind and thoughtful comments. Much appreciated. And yes, you would have to love someone very deeply to suck out venom from a wound! Just as well they were close then! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • and considering how rare it is that royal couples would be so in love – this was a heart tug to hear she died – but 16 children does mean they had a lot of time to bond and nurture offspring – etc (and sad many of the children died)

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, mine too! 16 – no wonder she died aged only 49! I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about Edward and Eleanor, and the relics of their relationship they left behind, and I’m very pleased to share some great medieval stories with you. Thanks for reading, Robyn. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I absolutely loved reading this story, Alli! What a beautiful romance! And all the more special for being rare. It’s fun to think of them as kids, isn’t it? Knowing how important they were and so relieved to find they’d been paired with someone they liked. I imagine them giggly and conspiratorial and mischievous. How nice it must have been to be themselves and fall in love. And they seem so cute together. The ransom story after Lent is pretty funny. They seem so much like that cute couple that you know. The ones that people get jealous of and roll their eyes when they tease each other and kiss in public. And it’s nice to read that she was such a great woman on her own, too! I’m sure not many women ventured into war with their husbands, much less sucked poison from their wounds! That just seems so brazen! Such a cool lady! And the crosses are a magnificent tribute. They’re also quite lovely with all of the detailed carvings. And I like knowing that about Charing Cross. That’s a very interesting little tidbit. All in all it’s just one of those stories that makes you smile and that warms your heart. So well told, Alli. Again you’ve brought a little piece of history back to life. And it felt magical. Thank you!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Lindsay, and thank you for such kind comments! I do love to hear from you and to read your thoughts. They were a pretty unusual and cool couple, and I think we’re very lucky to have the proof of their love in material relics after all these centuries. I wanted to tell their story because of these remnants, and because there seemed so much of it to tell, like as you say, the little ransom game they played. It makes them so human and alive. And of course, Edward is the king that built all the castles in North Wales I’m going to be trekking around in summer, so I have a natural interest in him and his rather extraordinary life. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about them, Lindsay, and thanks again for taking the time to comment so kindly and thoroughly. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • How neat to be touring his castles! It’s not only cool to have the rich history floating around in the background all summer, but all the sweeter for having a fondness and admiration for him! That’s very neat! Now I’m even more excited! I like this guy!!! 😃

        Liked by 1 person

      • He was a huge figure, Lindsay, with a complex mix of light and dark in his character. Because he was so tall for his day (they reckon about 6ft 2inches) he had the nickname ‘Longshanks’. A fascinating man, but boy did he know how to build a castle! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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