The History Behind Charing Cross
You’ve probably noticed the massive decorative monument outside Charing Cross Station, but do you know why it’s there?
Digging into its history gives you a story of romance and the reason this area has its name.
First of, lets clarify that this is a replica. The story of the original cross goes back to the 13th Century and this is a Victorian copy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all starts with King Edward I…
A True Romantic
Eleanor of Castille was the beloved wife of Edward I and when she died in 1290 he was heart broken.
Image Credit: Public Domain
He then decided to set the bar for romantic gestures pretty high (this was the age of chivalry after all) and installed 12 memorial crosses across England between 1291-94. The monuments were erected from Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey, marking the stops her funeral cortège made along its route.
The Village of Charing
The location of the final stop before Westminster Abbey was the village of Charing.
There’s an oh-so tempting myth that the name ‘Charing’ is derived from the French chère reine (meaning ‘dear queen’). However the area almost certainly got its name from the Old English word cerring (meaning ‘bend’) a reference to the curve of the River Thames at this point.
The monument can be seen on the Agas Map from the late 16th century below. Note how rural the whole area was, with deer roaming free in St James’s Park!
The monument lasted in its original location – weather worn and pretty dilapidated – until 1647. It was finally removed by an Act of Parliament.
A few years (and a Civil War) later. An equestrian statue of Charles I, carved by Hubert Le Sueur, was erected in 1675.
The statue is the official centre of London, so when you see a sign saying ’10 miles to London’. It’s measured to this exact point. A plaque on the floor confirms this.
The Current Cross
The replica Eleanor Cross was designed by EM Barry, with Thomas Earp as the stone carver between 1863-65, it stands outside Charing Cross Station, a fair few metres from the original site.
On the Victorian Web (an excellent resource for all things Victorian) they have a quote from Burnet and Blisset calling it “a work of reproduction rather than restoration” i.e. Barry wanted to represent the grandeur rather than get bogged down in what it actually looked like at the time.
Near the top of the monument, there are 8 version of Queen Eleanor. Overkill?
After renovations between October 2009 and August 2010 the new cross as seen today is brighter and more detailed than ever.
Where are the other 12?
If you want to get a flavour of the medieval original, there are still two surviving Eleanor Crosses left but sadly, not in London. There’s one in Geddington, Northampton and the Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire. They’re a little plainer than their Charing Cross counterpart as it was intended the crosses get more elaborate, the closer you get to Westminster Abbey.
Images from Historic England (left) and Wikipedia (right)
So if you’re thinking of making a romantic gesture, why not take a bit of 13th Century advice and go big? Be sure to get planning permission first though.
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Is it true that being overweight, Eleanor gave rise to the Elephant and Castle?
There’s an urban myth about ‘Eleanor de Castille’ over time becoming Elephant and Castle, but the original name is more likely from a famous coaching inn and pub in the area.
twenty years ago I made a pilgrimage to see all three of the crosses, I remember asking a women in a shop near the tube station if she knew where the cross was, but she hadn’t heard of it. I thought it sad at the time that the people in the area we’re not aware 9f the story and monuments. I found it dirty and covered with pigeon dropping. I’m glad to see that it has been restored.
Me too! It happens very often that we don’t really appreciate the history right under our noses!
Hi Kate. I live 15 minutes from Geddington and the Eleanor Cross. Geddington boasts having the best preserved original cross. This is a great site and have added many if your recommended locations to my places to visit when I return to London for my photo walks. I have photos of the cross uf you care to use them.
Hi Gordon, that’s very kind of you, I’ve seen your flickr page and yes I will add one of your pictures (with link and credit of course) that would be great! Many thanks, Katie
Yes, thank you Katie for bringing our attention to the story of these crosses. I believe the queen died in Lincoln, so whether there is a commemorative cross in Lincoln cathedral, I’m not sure. Also, there is one of the crosses in Nottingham itself, weekday cross, and also, not mentioned, Banbury cross, but I had no idea there were a total of twelve crosses. I will keep the location of these crosses in mind, people have kindly mentioned, so if I am nearby, I will pop and have a quick look at these memorials
Hello! Thank you for this very interesting article about the Eleanor Crosses, but I wanted to inform you of a third surviving one. It is also at Northampton, in the grounds of Delapré Abbey. It no longer has the cross, which has been gone for centuries (though it was replaced for a time). Local legend says that it was struck by lightning, but no-one really knows the reason why it came off.