William of Ireland

A week ago I was working (and staying) next to Charing Cross in London, and found myself exploring the intellectual rabbit hole of the Eleanor Crosses. To refresh your memory, when Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I of England, died in 1290, her grieving husband erected large memorial crosses at every point where her funeral procession had rested overnight en route from Nottinghamshire, where she died, to Westminster Abbey, where she was buried. There were originally twelve of these, the last one at the top of Whitehall on what is now Trafalgar Square, in an area then known as Charing. Outside Charing Cross station there is an ornate Victorian re-imagining of what the original cross might have looked like, and I guess I have been familiar with that since I started going to London on my own.

Only three of the original crosses survive, in Geddington and Hardingstone in Northamptonshire and Waltham Cross in Hertfrodshire. The royal accounts for the 1290s also survive, and so we know the names (if little more) of the craftsmen who built them. My eye was caught by one name in particular: “William of Ireland”. He provided the sculptures of Queen Eleanor for the crosses in Lincoln and Hardingstone, and the latter survive. He was paid 5 marks per figure (difficult to equate but around £3000 in today’s money). I find them striking.

Photograph from Bob Speel’s website, 2014

William of Ireland must be the earliest Irish artist whose name is known to us. (The earliest known Irish painter is Garret Morphy, who died around 1716.) None of William’s other work survives, as far as we know. But these four graceful figures are quite special. Northamptonshire is not on my usual circuit (I did work in Raunds for two months in 1985) but I would make a substantial detour to go and see this.

Carsten Dilba has apparently taken the study of William of Ireland as far as it can go in his 2009 book Memoria Reginae, but it is difficult to find, and in German. Oddly enough he is one of the sculptors celebrated on the Frieze of Parnassus around the base of the Albert Memorial, itself based on the Eleanor Crosses (one of which features behind him). Of course, John Birnie Philip, who did that bit of the frieze, can have had no idea at all of what William of Ireland actually looked like.

 detail from a photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In a 1925 article in the English Dominicans’ Blackfriars magazine (“A Causeway and a Cross”, Frank Byrne waxes lyrical about him:

I wonder if William of Ireland, artist in stone and marble, ever gave it a thought that some of his sculptures might resist the ravages of time to such an extent that they would still be standing, objects for admiration, well over six hundred years after they had left his hands ! I wonder if this Irish craftsman, as in the fading years of the thirteenth century he worked with chisel and mallet fashioning the lineaments of the deceased wife of Edward I, King of England, ever dwelt on the possibility that in centuries to come there might be people who, while admiring the work of his hands, would inwardly wonder what manner of man he himself had been, and why in his own day he was sometimes styled ‘ The Imaginator.’

William of Ireland ! There is something that pleases the ear and intrigues the mind in the sound of his name. It possesses a touch of regal grandeur, or suggests ecclesiastical authority of no mean order. Yet he was a sculptor, a craftsman in stone; but undoubtedly a craftsman whose capabilities were known and appreciated. The cross as a whole was designed and carried out by John de Bello, or de la Battaille, and he, with John Pabenham, was responsible for its erection; but William of Ireland appears to have had separate contracts for the statues and the head of the cross. In the Accounts of Queen Eleanor’s Executors, where he is occasionally shown as receiving something in part payment and in settlement of his account for the statues, the shaft, the head and the ring of the cross, he is diversely designated ‘ William of Ireland,’ ‘Master William of Ireland,’ or ‘ William of Ireland, the Imaginator.’


What was it that stirred the soul of this Irish sculptor as he fashioned those works of classic beauty? Surely not merely his genius or his admiration for the departed consort of the King of England? To me the statues seem to betoken some deeper motive than either of these, and the remark recently made by a little child strengthened an opinion on the matter which was, and still is, at the back of my mind.

On the last occasion I visited Queen Eleanor’s cross I was accompanied by a little girl, a child of six years of age. After I had silently studied it once more we came away. As we did so, I casually asked this little one what she thought of it. She was very dubious. She thought it very old, and dirty, and that it wanted a good clean; but, brightening up, she added : But I liked the statues of Our Lady very much. They were very nice ! ‘

I think that if the truth were really known, William of Ireland was not only a sculptor of great ability, but was also a deeply religious man. This it was that fired his imagination and stirred his artistic soul. Having, in all probability, executed figures representing Our Divine Lord hanging on the Cross, with Our Blessed Lady and St. John standing by His side as the terminating adornment of the whole memorial, he proceeded for the next stage to carve statues in keeping with the figures above. For this purpose he used the form of Queen Eleanor as his model and glorified it in his work. Hence the delightfully sweet expression, the gracious dignity, the captivating benignity, and the exquisitely virginal pose.

Conjectural? Quite. Far-fetched? Possibly. Yet think again—and again ! It might at least account for the soubriquet that appears to have been bestowed upon William of Ireland by someone—perhaps playfully, or sarcastically, or jealously—’ The Imaginator.’

I regret to say that a subsequent issue of Blackfriars carried a letter from an anonymous correspondent:

‘ There was an English family of de Ireland, later Ireland, supposed to trace back to Lancashire ; but a Thomas de Ireland was a witness to a Yorkshire deed in 1284. As a place name, the Imperial Gazetteer of 1872 gives Ireland a hamlet in the parish of Southills, Bedfordshire. There may have been other places of the name amongst the thousands of forgotten places; but one is enough to refute the assertion that William of (de) Ireland was Irish.’

Wikipedia (for what that is worth) tells me that the “Ireland” in Bedfordshire was known as “Inlonde” in the 16th century. One of the Jesuits who was lynched for the Popish Plot in 1679 is recorded in some sources as “William of Ireland”, but more often just as “William Ireland” and his real name may have been Iremonger. It seems to me rather unseemly that in 1925 someone felt compelled to desperately grasp for other possible origins than the island of Ireland for a sculptor who produced a lovely portrait of an English queen.

A postscript: I wrote this last weekend, and on Tuesday I had lunch with an old friend, visiting Brussels, who lives within five minutes walk of the Hardingstone cross; to make the coincidence even better, as it happens, my friend is Irish – but his name is not William.

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