The Legend of Fair Rosamund

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Study for a painting of Fair Rosamund by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Public Domain

Fair Rosamund Clifford

The legend of Fair Rosamund tells the story of the beautiful Rosamund Clifford who was the mistress of Henry II the king of England and who controlled large parts of Wales, the eastern half of Ireland and the western half of France.  Rosamund was a young woman who became caught up in an illicit love affair with the ruler of this empire.  As well as Rosamund, Henry had a long list of mistresses but it was Rosamund that entered into legend.

Who was Rosamund?

Rosamund’s date of birth is uncertain but she was thought to have been born about 1150 and to have been the daughter of Walter de Clifford, a marcher lord, and his wife Margaret.  Their main estate was  thought to be Clifford Castle in Herefordshire, on the banks of the River Wye. Rosamund was believed to have been born at the Manor at Frampton-on-Severn where the village green is still known as Rosamund’s Green.  She grew up to be a typical English rose and her beauty was to become the subject of many poems, ballads, stories and works of art all of which added to the legend and mystery of her life.

Rosamund’s Bower

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Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan – Public Domain

According to legend, Henry built a complicated maze at his hunting park at Woodstock in Oxfordshire that led to a bower which housed Rosamund for his secret liaisons with her.  The maze was supposed to have been designed to foil any attempt by Eleanor to reach the bower and protect his lover and their privacy.  The legend says that Rosamund’s bower, possibly a cottage or lodge was surrounded by gardens and a maze with a pool known as Rosamund’s Well where she was said to have bathed.  In later times Blenheim Palace was built on the site.

As so often happens with secrets of this sort word must have got out of the secret love nest and reached Eleanor.  She was furious and determined to put a permanent an end to the affair. Traveling to Woodstock she apparently met Henry coming out of the maze.  A silk thread had become attached to one of his feet without him noticing and had left a clear trail around the maze to Rosamund’s bower.  Eleanor followed the thread through the maze to the love nest and confronted Rosamund about the affair in no uncertain terms.  Rosamund was said to have been given the choice of death by either poison or the knife and chose poison.

Authenticity

There are those who doubt the authenticity of the circumstances in the legend. Rosamund’s abrupt death does not seem to have been reported or mentioned at the time and it was not until the 14th century that the legend appears.  There are different versions of the story of how Eleanor murdered Rosamund.  Some say she was roasted to death, while others say she was put in boiling water with her arms or wrists cut and left to bleed to death.

Henry, Eleanor, and Rosamund

Henry and Rosamund were believed at least to be familiar with each other before his marriage to Eleanor and probably lovers.  There is also a school of thought that says Rosamund and Henry were actually married but no evidence has been found to prove this.  When Eleanor, divorced from Louis VII, the King of France, she became one of the most eligible, richest and most powerful women in Europe.  Henry wanted to use the marriage to strengthen his realm and claim to large parts of France.  Some say to achieve these aims he married Eleanor while Rosamund, who was said to be the real love of his life, was set up as his mistress.

Historians are divided over whether Rosamund was kept entirely in seclusion.   Although the affair became public knowledge in 1174 they may have been seeing each other as lovers for a considerable time before that. There is a view that she accompanied Henry as he traveled around England and the continent as one of his household. Some think Henry may have deliberately flaunted her in an attempt to get Eleanor to divorce him after his relationship with her faltered.

Death of Rosamund

For unknown reasons, Rosamund was said to have joined the Abbey at Godstow while  Henry began an affair with Alais of France who was engaged to Richard, his son.   Rosamund was believed to have died from unknown causes at Godstow in 1176 and was buried there.  Her tomb became a popular shrine and people would leave flowers and candles there. Later the clergy deemed her presence immoral in the church and  had her remains moved outside.

Seeds of legend

Although the church frowned upon her even in death, she was not forgotten and later in the reign of Elizabeth I, popular stories began appearing about the alleged murder of Rosamund.  In 1592 Samuel Daniel wrote the Complaint of Rosamund and in 1612 Thomas Deloney wrote the Ballad of Fair Rosamund, both of which provide a fictional narrative of Rosamund’s death and the circumstances that surrounded it.  The first mention of poison was in 1611 in a ballad. Eleanor was imprisoned between 1173–1189 for her part in a failed rebellion against Henry and Rosamond was believed to have died in 1176 but the seeds of legend had been set and grew.

Rose of the world

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Rosa Mundi – by Schnurri – CC BY-SA 3.0

Rosamund was also often romantically called the Rose of the World and perhaps the best memorial to her is the Rosa Mundi (R. gallica var) a beautiful pink and white striped rose that has been associated with her since the 16th century.

© 02/08/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright August 2nd, 2016 zteve t evans

 

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