Charing Cross lends its name to one of London’s busiest overland stations, seeing over 37 million people passing through every year. However, a majority of those who pass through Charing Cross probably have no idea what the station is named after. In the forecourt of the 19th century station stands a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross, of which the original stood on the edge of the hamlet of Charing from the 13th century.
After years of passing by the Eleanor Cross and admiring the ornate carvings, I decided to find out the history behind it. I had long heard of Charing Cross as being referred to as the centre of London and was interested to find out how this came about with the area being located west of the original City of London.
The original Eleanor Cross was erected on the junction of Whitehall with Trafalgar Square – where the statue of Charles I on a horse stands today. The cross was commissioned by King Edward I (1239-1307) in the 13th century as a memorial to his wife Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290). The Charing Cross was one of 12 erected to mark the nightly resting places her body stopped on its way from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey. The Cross was placed where the hamlet of Charing – believed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word for bend – ‘cierring’ (referring to the nearby bend in the River Thames) met the Royal Mews of the Palace of Whitehall. Out of all 12 Eleanor Crosses, the one at Charing was the most expensive and was created by senior royal mason Richard of Crundale and sculptor Alexander of Abingdon.
For over 350 years, the Eleanor Cross stood at the top of Whitehall until the Civil War. In 1647 it was destroyed on the orders of Parliament, and nearly 30 years later, replaced by the equestrian statue of Charles I during the restoration. Since the late 19th century, Charing Cross has been seen as the centre of London and it’s from this point of Charles’s statue where distances from the capital are measured.
With the Industrial Revolution transforming the city, the name Charing Cross was to be used again to name the railway station being built on the site of the Hungerford Market – which had been there since the late 16th century. In the forecourt of the station and its adjoining Charing Cross Hotel, it was decided by the South Eastern Railway company that the Eleanor Cross should rise again.
Architect Edward Middleton Barry, who had also designed the hotel and the Royal Opera House, designed the reconstruction. Built by Thomas Earp of Lambeth with Portland stone, Mansfield stone and Aberdeen granite, it was a much more elaborate and ornate design than the original. Standing at 70 feet (21 metres) high, it consists of three stages on an octagonal plan, topped by a spire and cross. The first stage features shields copied from the other Eleanor Crosses and bear the arms of England, Castile, Leon and Ponthieu. The next level features likenesses of Eleanor of Castile. It was finished in 1865 – a year after Charing Cross station opened.
Over the decades, the Eleanor Cross started to suffer a bit from the weather and general ageing. After being designated a Grade II listed monument in 1970, it was put on the English Heritage At Risk Register in 2008. During its restoration in 2009-2010, over 100 missing ornamental features were recreated, with existing ones being re-attached or secured. Let’s hope this Victorian piece of architecture survives as long the original Eleanor Cross, if not longer.
To read about the history of nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.