We had spotted the cross on our way to Rudston, but as time was getting on and we still had a long way to go, we decided against stopping. Although it was an unusually fine and ornate example, we have seen many such crosses and they are usually Victorian or later, erected, more often than not, to the glory of the local gentry or as a mark of civic pride.
They are called Eleanor Crosses, but there were only ever twelve true Eleanor Crosses, erected by her husband, King Edward I, to mark the places where the body of Eleanor of Castile, Queen Consort of England, rested each night as it was brought from Harby in Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey in 1290.
In the end, after catching sight of yet another strange monument on our way through the village, we took note of the name… Sledmere… and determined to return that way and stop to take a look and we were glad that we did, for the Sledmere Cross is now more than a civic folly, it has become a war memorial for the village.
Inspired by the octagonal design of the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross, which is still standing, the Sledmere Cross was designed by the architect Temple Moore as a ‘simple’ village cross. Commissioned by Sir Tatton Sykes and erected in the last years of the nineteenth century, it served no real purpose other than as a display of the landowner’s wealth and social standing.
It was his eldest son, Sir Mark Sykes, who would give the ‘folly’ a new purpose. Sykes was a traveller, politician and served as a diplomatic advisor in the Middle east during the First World War. It was as a result of the conflict that he transformed the cross into a memorial, fitting brass effigies akin to the ones used on medieval tombs, and listing the names of those fallen in battle. The cross now stands and a permanent memorial to the men of the 5th Batallion Yorkshire Regiment and others from the estate who served and fell in the Great War. Sir Mark himself is included, his portrait recently renewed, attired as a Knight Templar. He died in 1919.
The other strange edifice that we had noted also turned out to be a memorial, and the work of Sir Mark. In 1912, he had been given permission to form the Wagoners Special Reserve as a Territorial Army unit. The unit was made up of farm labourers and tenant farmers, whose prime service would be to drive the horse-drawn wagons of the day. When war broke out, the men, completely untrained in battle, began to be called up for active service. One thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven local men were sent to war from the unit, serving in the Army Service Corps and the Royal Engineers, mainly on the terrible Western Front in France. The Wagoners Memorial shows stylised, yet graphic scenes of war, carved by Carlo Domenico Magnoni to Sir mark’s design.
Sir Mark has a place in local history as well as on the international stage. A soldier, he would have recognised the necessities of war, though as a human being, I wonder how he felt about so many lives given and lost, for he was a lover of life. Perhaps the best memorial for him are the words of his friend, the diplomat and scholar, Aubrey Herbert, , who described him at a memorial service as “an effervescent personality; he could turn a gathering into a party, a party into a festival… Mark Sykes had vitality beyond any man I have ever met. When one had been in his company one felt almost as if one had been given from the fountain of life.”
It was as we were on the point of leaving that I noticed the gate. I had seen it earlier, but thought it no more than a side entrance to Sledmere House, the gracious Georgian mansion that Sir Mark’s home. The figures on the gate were typical of the period, but although they had caught my eye, it was the sign that caught my attention. If the village cross was this magnificent, surely we really ought to visit the church…