Banbury is best known around the world for the nursery rhyme ‘Ride A Cock Horse‘ which references the cross of the time of the rhyme’s creation. This cross is not the same one that proudly stands at the intersection of the town’s main thoroughfares today, but is most likely the High Cross which used to be nestled inside Market Square outside the Corn Exchange. For this reason it was also known as the Market Cross. This 20 foot edifice was the focal point for public preaching and had a flight of eight steps with a single column of stone. The earliest reference to it is from 1478.
The world famous nursery rhyme Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross has had a few variations through it’s history, but the most common contemporary version is as follows;
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes
No one knows for sure who this mysterious ‘fine lady’ was, if it was actually based on real events to start with. Could it have been Lady Godiva, Countess of Mercia, an English noblewoman that lived at the end of the 11th century and was famed for riding naked (except for only her rings and bells?) through the streets of nearby Coventry? Godiva has her own mysterious mythology so that is even harder to pin down in this context.
Others say it was based on Queen Elizabeth I after she visited the town’s cross once it had been erected. Perhaps the fine jewellery represents the royal fashion of attaching bells to the end of the toes of shoes; a fashion that originated from the Plantagenet era of English history.
Or the lady in question could be Celia Fiennes, brother of William Fiennes, 3rd Viscount Saye and Sele of nearby Broughton Castle… perhaps we’ll never know.
The High Cross has an infamous history to rival the iconography of the present cross, as it was brutally destroyed in 1600 by local puritans who deemed the cross to be a symbol of paganism, the worshipping of such idols a sinful crime in the eyes of the devout Christian population. On the dawn 26th July 1600 two masons took it upon themselves to start hacking and pulling at the defenceless cross, soon to be joined by 40 more helping hands as a partisan crowd started to gather. Once the cross crumbled and fell, a soon-to-be bailiff named Henry Shewell cried out “God be thanked, Dagon the deluder of the people is fallen down!” He later said he was referencing the carvings that adorned the cross, which happened to be quite un-pagan; Christ upon the cross, the Madonna with child and the image of a bare-headed man with a book in his hand. We have little evidence on both the situation and the indeed the carvings on which the masons supposedly focused their fury.
The word Dagon comes from either the description of a Middle Eastern fish deity and/or the Mesopotamian god Oannes, or a symbol of grain which brings the more relevant associations of fertility and agriculture. In the book of Samuel in the bible it describes how the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and taken to Dagon’s temple in Ashdod. The following morning the Ashdodites found the fallen stone image of Dagon lying broken before the ark. But whatever we take from this information, the news of the destruction spread far and wide and brought with it the reputation of the godly townspeople’s strict principles.
The Bread Cross was situated at the corner of High Street and Butchers Row. It was a large, covered cross, made of stone with a slate roof so that the butchers and bakers who had their market stalls there could keep dry in wet weather. This cross was associated with the distribution of bread to the poor each Good Friday. A cross on this site was first referred to in 1441.
The White Cross lay on the western boundary line of the old town borough, at what is now the corner of West Bar Street and Beargarden Road. It was first mentioned in 1554 but little is known about it. Both the Bread Cross and the White Cross were pulled down the same year as the High Cross in 1600. It seems that the start of the new millennium was a turbulent time for all Banburians.
The present 52ft high cross was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and Princess Royal, Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa. Within the cross itself stand statues erected in 1914, of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V to celebrate his coronation 1911. An engraving features the different arms of the town throughout its history, along with the town’s motto ‘Dominus nobis sol et scutum’ (The Lord is our Sun and Shield). Closer to the top are the coats of arms of prominent people connected with the history of Banbury.