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Why a traffic island needs to be on your list of places to see in London!

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It's a busy traffic island near Trafalgar Square. Buses, cars and trucks rattle past and pedestrians use the conveniently located crossings to negotiate the numerous roads which meet here. But this site has a significance far outweighing the attention paid to it by most who pass by. It has tales of love, treachery, treason, revenge and atonement.

The road which is now 'Whitehall' was once a muddy, rutted track linking the hamlet of Charing to the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. Charing did not adopt the name Charing Cross until after 1290 when it was the final overnight resting place of a sad and mournful procession. 

Edward I was bringing his wife's body back from where she had died, unexpectedly at the age of 49, just outside Lincoln. Eleanor of Castile had married Edward when she was 13 years old and he was 15. It was a political alliance, as were many royal marriages before and since, but this turned into a true love match. Eleanor had accompanied Edward on crusade and had bore him 15 children and her death left him heart broken. He ordered crosses to be erected at each of the 12 overnight stops that her body made on it's way to her final resting place in Westminster Abbey. 

Of the 12 'Eleanor Crosses' only 3 survive. A Victorian replica of the cross can be seen outside Charing Cross station. That cross was designed by John Barry (son of Charles Barry who design the Houses of Parliament) and was based on the surviving crosses and drawings of the original.

That however, is just the beginning of the story.

The Eleanor Cross stood on this spot for about 350 years until, in 1643, it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces. As a symbol of monarchy, and the much resented privilege that accompanied it, the cross was a target.

The statue that now marks this spot is that of Charles I on horseback. He looks down Whitehall, toward the spot of his own execution, in January 1649, outside Banqueting House. The statue had actually been commissioned in Charles I's lifetime but had been successfully hidden during the civil war.

It is not without irony that this spot had been used for the execution of some of the men that had signed the death warrant of Charles I. On the re-establishment of the monarchy under Charles' son, Charles II, the regicides were hunted, arrested, tried and convicted of treason. They suffered a traitors death, being hung until they were barely conscious, cut down whilst still alive before being castrated and having their intestines cut out and burnt in front of them. Eventually after hours of torture (it was a skill of a good executioner to keep his victim alive for many hours during the ordeal) they were beheaded and quartered. Samuel Peyps, the famous diarist wrote of one of these executions;

"I went out to Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered - which was done there - he looked as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition....."

One of the regicides successfully quickened his own death by managing to land a punch on his executioner, who was so embarrassing and angered that he killed him there and then!

Sources: Whitehall The Street that Shaped a Nation by Colin Brown, published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2009. 

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