Visitors to Charing Cross in London may have walked past this monument many times without giving it a second thought, but it is quite possibly one of the saddest memorials in London.
King Edward I adored his beloved wife Eleanor of Castile. They married when he was 15 and she was the tender age of 13. Their marriage lasted 36 years until she sadly died of what appeared to be a form of malaria at the age of 48. Edward was heartbroken. As she died in Harby near Lincoln, he arranged for her funeral cortège to make its way to Westminster Abbey where she was laid to rest. The route took 12 days and each stop made was marked latterly with a stone cross and figurines of Eleanor. Only 3 remain today. The final stop - Charing Cross is not one of the original crosses but a replica created by the Victorians and stands outside the Charing Cross hotel.
Eleanor wasn’t an ordinary Queen of her era, she was cultured and clever, well read and an incredible business women. Their marriage was one of arrangement but they could barely stay apart from each other, she even accompanied Edward on crusades and battles.
Edward spent 9 years alone after Eleanor’s death in 1290 before he met and married Margaret of France.
Margaret was aware of Edward’s grief for Eleanor and was not at all jealous about his need to mark her passing throughout London. Despite being 40 years his junior she took to Edward with the same passion and adoration as his first wife. They played chess together and shared a love of music. On one occasion when she was missing him desperately she travelled to be by his side when he was fighting a battle in the North. This reminded him of Eleanor and pleased him greatly. He was so taken with her and it is said that she was a mediator and helped him reconnect with his sons who he had become estranged from.
When Edward died in 1307 Eleanor never married again even though she was just 28 years old. She is quoted as saying "when Edward died, all men died for me". After his death she moved to Marlborough and lived out her final years there until her death in 1318. She was only 38 and her body rests not in Westminster but alongside Edward II’s wife Isabella and others from the family line in Greyfriars Church, City of London.
On my Sisters of the Square Mile tour we visit Greyfriars ruins and talk more about these Queens from the middle ages.
The name Charing Cross comes from the old English word ‘Cierring’ which means to turn, in this case away from the river Thames and of course the cross was Edward's memorial to his beloved wife.
What does this story say to us today?
Grief like so many other emotions of extremity can be a builder of beauty or arbiter of desolation. When a loved one passes we can build something of value like Edward did, a lasting commemoration of loss, like Mughal emperor Shah Jahan did when he commissioned the Taj Mal for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal or we can wreak havoc on our loved ones and any who may stand in our path in some sort of retribution for our loss… it really is a choice.
It is never too late to find love again, you have to be open to it and that person may not be the same or even similar to what you lost but they will be beautiful in its own way.
We pass structures and streets which have no meaning to our daily lives as they stand…but they contain the stories of those before us who felt as strongly and deeply as we do. Having the picture of our past gives us a springboard for a future which is more informed.