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Cheape Cross

One of the twelve Eleanor Crosses was erected by Master Michael, a Canterbury mason, shortly after the death of England's King Edward I's beloved wife in 1290. The site chosen was Cheape, later called Westcheap and currently Cheapside, which is a few yards from St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Cheape Cross

Artists impression of the Cheape Cross
Artist's impression of the Eleanor Cross at Cheape
A painting by Peter Schneider

A bizarre history of the cross can be found in Old Church Lore where we read that one of the twelve Eleanor Crosses was erected in Cheape, a few yards from St. Paul's Cathedral in London. ('Cheape' is the old English word for 'market place'.)

That cross has long since disappeared and we cannot be certain what it looked like; no drawings remain and each of the twelve Eleanor Crosses was designed by different artisans. But there are some common features and our image (left) is a composite of the crosses which have survived.

The original cross did not last nearly as long as the other Eleanor Crosses and in 1441 it was rebuilt in combination with a drinking fountain.

An account of pageants celebrating Edward VI's Coronation in 1547 includes a good description of the cross as it appeared then. Three octangular sections, each supported by eight slender columns. Its height is calculated to have been about thirty-six feet; the first section being about twenty feet, the second, ten, and the third, six. Statuary included (probably) the pope, four apostles, and the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms. Four further standing figures filled the top niche, and the whole ornament topped with a cross surmounted with a dove.

On 21 June 1581, enthusiastic Puritans attacked the monument, which they considered a popish icon, and tore away the carving representing the Virgin Mary. In 1595 the figure was reinstated.

Shortly after that, an even more sacrilegious act tore down the cross. This was replaced by a pyramid and an effigy of the Roman goddess Diana, patroness of hunting, emblem of chastity, and later became a moon goddess. (She is refered to in Acts 19:21-41.) Perhaps considered tasteful at the time, the effigy was practically naked and Thames river water flowed from her breasts.

That is not what Edward I would have had in mind when he commissioned the memorial in 1290. But like all public memorials, they belong to 'the people', and 'the people' can do with them what they wish. Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth I was not amused and insisted a gild cross should surmount the monument.

So in 1600, the monument was rebuilt in a more modest half-Grecian half-Gothic design and stood undisturbed until the night of 24 January 1641, when again it became a flashpoint for Puritanical zeal and was the centre of a riot. Westcheap, unlike the rural location of most other Eleanor Crosses, was densely populated, especially by merchants, the educated and gentry. They identified the monument with 'Dagon', the ancient god of the Philistines, and deemed the embodiment of Catholicism.

On the 2 May 1643, under an ordinance from the parliamentary Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry "the cross in Cheapside was pulled down. At the fall of the top cross, drums beat, trumpets blew, and multitudes of caps were thrown in the air, and a great shout of the people with joy." said Sir Robert Harley, sent by Parliament to pull down the monument. (More modern parlance; "Mission accomplished!")

Now there is no trace of the monument at Cheapside, but fragments are retained by the Museum of London.

Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 138-147.

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