Overwhelming evidence on site of Eleanor cross

Last week's letter on the Stamford Eleanor Cross from the staff of Stamford Museum gave an excellent general background to the Eleanor Cross in Stamford, but was unduly cautious in saying that "the exact position of the Stamford Eleanor Cross remains unclear."

On the contrary, the position is known to within a few yards; it stood on the site of one of the houses in Foxdale on the Casterton Road, very close to the cast-iron milepost at the roadside. The map reference is TF01910758, + 20m.

Why are the museum staff so cautious? I suspect it is the weight of generations of local historians taking the eyewitness account of the 17th century town clerk Richard Butcher as gospel.

He places the cross at 200 ... (no unit of measurement!) from the Scotgate crossroads. If the missing measurement is assumed to be yards or paces, it puts the cross in the crook of the Y at the junction of the present Empingham and Casterton roads.

This position seems so neat and natural, that it has blinded most succeeding historians to the weight of opposing evidence, which places the cross further up Casterton Road.

But if the weight of this opposing evidence is so compelling, then one must, however reluctantly, dismiss Butcher's claims on distance.

Taken overall this evidence is convincing and is supplied by two other witnesses.

The first, a Capt Richard Symonds saw the cross in 1645 and described it as being 'in the hill before ye come into the town'; the second was the antiquarian vicar of All Saints', William Stukeley, exactly 100 years later.

He gives fairly precise directions that place the cross in the Foxdale area and notes significantly that the area was called Queen's Cross by local people.

Stukeley's interest was stimulated by the presence of a large 'tumulus' there and his evidence is crucial, for he carried out excavations on the site. He discovered two rows of steps of an octagonal base 30ft in diameter, and a large number of carved fragments.

This fits beautifully with the base of an Eleanor Cross but would otherwise be very difficult to explain.

He also took home to his house at 9 Barn Hill a piece of the actual cross shaft, and helpfully drew a picture of it. The museum fragment was found in the garden of 9 Barn Hill and accords exactly with what Stukeley drew.

This piece of the cross shaft is of Purbeck marble, as all the other Eleanor Crosses were and is of the shape and dimensions one would expect from an Eleanor Cross.

Additionally it bears roses that accord well with a late 13th century date, and complement the fleurs-de-lis found on the French progenitors of the Eleanor crosses raised in 1270 to mark the passing of the funeral cortege of St Louis.

The evidence of Symonds, Stukeley and the surviving fragment itself speak over-whelmingly for the Foxdale position and makes untenable the Empingham Road-Scotgate position for the Stamford Eleanor Cross.

If the museum accepts the genuineness of its fragment, then it must also accept the site of the cross that this demands; otherwise it is being illogical.

Let us hope that, if there is going to be an inscription on the new Sheep Market sculpture, it is not going to continue the confusion.

The argument here is necessarily much compressed, but for those who wish to delve more deeply, the case is fully presented in my article in the Antiquaries Journal for 1994, A Fragment of the Stamford Eleanor Cross. There is a copy in the museum.

JOHN SMITH

St George's Square,

Stamford

I was interested to read the account of the Eleanor Cross by the staff of Stamford Museum in last week's Mercury.

Several years ago I was asked by John Smith, then curator of the museum, to identify a piece of stone found in a garden near the Clock House and the old windmill site at the bottom of Empingham Road.

It was suspected that it was a fragment of the original Eleanor Cross.

That stone I was able to identify as Purbeck marble, which was the material used in at least some of the Eleanor Crosses.

Purbeck marble is not a true marble, but a very shelly dark limestone from the Purbeck Hills in Dorset. It was prized for its ability to take a high polish.

It formed in fresh water lakes on coastal; plains in late Jurassic times, about 140 million years ago.

It is composed of myriads of tiny freshwater snail shells, called Viviparus.

Widely used for church decoration in the Middle Ages, it was transported to Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent of Europe.

There was an active quarrying industry in Purbeck at least as early as 1258, but imports of more durable true marble from Italy and elsewhere in more recent times killed the industry in Purbeck.

One of the finest examples of the use of Purbeck marble is the interior pillars of Salisbury cathedral.

Closer to home Purbeck marble can be examined in the font in All Saints' Church, Stamford.

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to use the real Purbeck marble in the proposed new monument as part of the alterations in Red Lion Square and Sheep Market, instead of the Ketton limestones.

ALAN DAWN

Sutherland Way,

Stamford