So, Prince Philip died. You probably heard about that. If you live in the UK, like I do, it is completely impossible not to hear about it because they declared eight days of mourning and have largely suspended reporting on any other news. What has struck me thus far about this entire experience, other than the fact that it was incredibly over the top and just strange, is the interest that a select group of royal people have in involving an entire country in their own mourning process. It was a sort of mourning done at us in the UK, despite our generalised disinterest in the activity.
Attempts to rope an entire kingdom into mourning the death of one specific 99 year old, when we have lost 150,000 ordinary people over the year ring a bit hollow. This is despite the fact that this group of royals likely has had more of a chance to intersect with the lives of those in their various kingdoms than any other monarchs of the past, thanks in part to the massive ramping-up of communicative technologies of the course of the twentieth century. In order to continue this new roll-out of televised monarchy, on the first day of mourning here on normal island, almost all of the television stations ceased their regular programming to show us nothing but a series of reflections about that. I mean literally, almost all other television and radio broadcasts were interrupted to let us know that an old guy died. Repeatedly. Incidentally, the BBC also received the highest number of complaints it had ever at the same time.
This is, of course, very funny. However, these grandiose gestures of mourning done at the common people of this island is far from new. There certainly is historical precedent here in England for massive displays of royal grief. While I sat around being annoyed about this whole thing, and laughing at the transition to the national anthem on BBC1’s Dance Anthem’s channel when the news was announced, as a giant nerd it automatically brought to mind the Eleanor Crosses of the thirteenth century and the process of mourning the Queen Consort Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290).
Eleanor of Castile’s marriage to King Edward I (1239-1307) was not unlike that of Prince Philip’s to Queen Elizabeth II’s in that Eleanor and Edward were also cousins. Eleanor’s paternal grandmother, Eleanor of England (1161-1214), the Queen of Castile, was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) (who I have written about before) and Henry II (1133-1189) of England. So Henry II was both Edward’s and Eleanor’s Great Grandfather, which is technically closer than Elizabeth and Philip who are both the great-great grandchildren of Queen Victoria. So far, so normal.
Anyway Eleanor was married off to Edward in order to help secure English claims to the duchy of Gascony. She moved up to England and her relationship to Edward was a famous love match. Eleanor was, by all accounts at court, really smart and fun to be around. She had been educated to an exceptionally high standard. She was a major patron of the arts in England, and was probably a pretty interesting woman on a personal level.
We have a lot of proof of the closeness of her relationship with Edward, the first being that Edward apparently didn’t have any mistresses during their marriage, and never had any kids out of wedlock, a rarity in the world of political marriages and courtly love. They also travelled together extensively, with Eleanor accompanying Edward on military campaigns in Wales as well as on Crusade.
Another proof we have of their interest in each other comes from a little ceremony that Edward liked to have every year after Lent. Because good pious Christians were not meant to be having sex during Lent, Edward seems to have stuck to that standard. Then, on Easter Monday Eleanor’s ladies in waiting would come and pretend to imprison him in his bed, preventing him from going to Eleanor’s. He would then have to pay them off in order to lift the cockblock and go have some sweet sweet Church approved penis in vagina procreative sex. Anyway, Edward was so serious about the whole thing that after Eleanor died, he still had her ladies perform the ceremony in 1291, paying them off to let him reminisce about how he would never again hit it.
As Edward’s devotion to his post-Lent-sex-fest ceremony indicates, my man was cut up about the death of his wife. As a part of this, he embarked on a massive project of public mourning with the construction of the Eleanor Crosses. These Crosses were twelve elaborate stone pillars with crosses on top erected at each of the places that Eleanor’s body rested as it moved from Lincoln, where she died, to Westminster Abbey. They stood in Lincoln, Grantham, Stamfors, Geddington, Hardinstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, and on the Cheapside here in London, then in Westminster.
The Eleanor Crosses were so distinct that they effectively renamed two places. Here in London, the Cheapside location subsequently became known as Charring Cross (and has some really cool modern medieval-style murals on the platforms showing people building the Eleanor Cross if you ever get off the Northern line going North there), as well as Walham, which is now Waltham Cross. It took four years to build all the crosses, a project spanning from 1291-1295. Now that is some public mourning.
So, with an outpouring like this from Edward, can we extrapolate that England as a whole shared in his profound and extended grief? Can we fuck.
Edward was a fairly unpopular ruler in general. It was under his kingship that England experienced the Second Baron’s War, after it seems like Magna Carta sorta didn’t stick even for those twenty-five guys. Funny that. As the reference to Eleanor being with Edward in Wales also indicates, he was also a big old Welsh coloniser, and apparently people don’t like it when you come and take them over? Wild, I know. He was also a big taxer, which people were not so into. Anyway, while Eleanor was her own person, she was perceived as a part of the royal household writ large, and as a result often as part of the problem.
Contemporaries noted Eleanor’s passing only briefly, with one anonymous chronicler at Dunstable Priory writing simply, “A Spaniard by birth, she acquired many fine manors.” This seems to highlight both a reflection on Eleanor as a continued foreigner. Indeed, she had never learned to speak English, not that many royals at the time necessarily had to. She also did amass a huge fortune in lands, to the tune of about some £50,000 in total, and unimaginably vast sum at the time. In the fourteenth century, the chronicler Walter of Guisborough recorded a rhyme from Eleanor and Edward’s time, “The king desires to get our gold / the queen our manors fair to hold”. So yeah, not hugely popular with the elites that they ruled, the sort of people who would be writing reminiscences.
The thing about royal commemoration is that the elites are often a much better barometer of what people really thought about one ruler or another because they were the people who had the closest connections with them. The average person in the medieval period, as I will never tire of telling you, was a peasant. That eighty percent of the population had very little to do with royalty or kings. There wasn’t really time to worry about whatever it was the rich people were poncing around doing while you were trying to get the harvest in. Odds were, you mostly experienced them as an oppressive force for the bad when the rolled into your backyard and suddenly colonized you. Otherwise it wasn’t really something that had very much to do with you. Sure, I bet the Eleanor Crosses were impressive and cool to look at – hell, what little we have of them surviving is still cool now – but that doesn’t mean everyone necessarily cared.
The thing about royalty is that it is a tiny group of individuals that live an unimaginably privileged existence and it has very very little to do with common people except when they all get in a fight with their cousins and everyone has to go die in a trench for a while. Our modern idea of them as some sort of “public servant” is a very new one, and largely concocted in order to justify their continued existence and privilege in the current world, and our still massively unequal society.
Huge displays like whatever was being broadcast on the BBC and the Eleanor Crosses aren’t a record of how the average person feels about the death of a monarch. Massive outpourings of public grief have never been something that was especially common, no matter how they felt about it. It wasn’t common in the medieval period, and it isn’t now.
To gauge public feeling you have to go look at what chronicles say about Eleanor, not just the crosses. Similarly, in the current environment we have to remember and acknowledge the complaints about the official mourning requirements, and not just the mourning requirements themselves in order to get a real sense of what it is people think about the death of Philip.
TL/DR you can go ahead and mourn all you like. If you want people to care you should maybe share some of your privilege.
 Quoted in Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, (London: Hutchinson, 2008), p. 230
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For more on politics and medieval history, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
Religious iconography has always been a prop
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
One thought on “On the commemoration of royal death”
Thanks for such a lovely article! I’ve always liked the Eleanor crosses, because I have a soft spot for memorials to marriage and love. (I even like visiting the Albert memorial, which makes my wife roll her eyes.)
I wonder how hard the normal folk rolled their eyes at the crosses, which is trickier to find out than how hard they rolled their eyes at the Albert memorial or whatever they build for Philip.