Fair Rosamund, Mistress of Henry II
King Henry II has a deserved infamous reputation for extra-marital affairs. By far the most well-known of his mistresses is Rosamund Clifford, the young woman who is often referred to as Fair Rosamund. I feature her as a character in my latest medieval thriller, The Blood of the Fifth Knight. Somebody has made an attempt on her life. Outraged, Henry calls on the only man he can trust to track down the would-be killer: Sir Benedict Palmer, my fictional hero from the previous book, The Fifth Knight.
When creating the character of Rosamund, I took my lead from Gerald of Wales, Henry's contemporary acid-penned chronicler, who refers to her as 'that rose of unchastity.' Such descriptions are a bit of a gift to a novelist. But it isn’t just me who decided to write a version of her. Rosamund’s story (or rather, the documented lack of it) has been embellished by layers of myths and legends over the last eight centuries.
Born to Sir Walter de Clifford, a knight who had served Henry faithfully, Rosamund may have begun her affair with Henry at a very young age. The affair became open and public in 1174 when Henry had imprisoned his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for her part in a rebellion against him. Later chroniclers mistakenly claimed that Rosamund bore Henry children, but there is no evidence that she did so.
The bearing of children is one of the tamer stories that grew up around Rosamund. Ranulf Higdon, monk of Chester, born almost a century after her death, claimed that Henry had built pleasure gardens and a labyrinth or a maze for her at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. There is no evidence of such structures at the site which is located near Blenheim Palace. The spring and pond known as Rosamund's Well were not part of the buildings at Woodstock when Rosamund lived there.
But that didn't stop the rumour factory of popular imagination. A further embellishment was that Rosamund had been murdered by Eleanor, who had found her in the maze.
Thomas Deloney, a renowned writer of popular ballads who died about 1600, wrote 'The Ballad of Fair Rosamond'. An edition in circulation between 1658 and 1664 is titled: 'A mournful ditty of the lady Rosamond, king Henry the seconds concubine, who was poysoned to death by Queen Elenor in Woodstocst [sic] bower near Oxford.'
Poet Samuel Daniel wrote 'The Complaint of Rosamond' in 1592 and dedicated it to his wealthy patron, Mary, Countess of Pembroke. Again, the myth of Eleanor poisoning Rosamund endures, with Rosamund uttering such lines in the poem as:
‘And after all her vile reproches used,
She forc'd me take the poyson she had brought...
The poysoon soone disperc'd through all my vaines,
Had dispossess'd my living sences quite.’
There continued to be numerous references to Eleanor carrying out the ghastly murder of Rosamund. As well as poisoning, there was stabbing, burning, bleeding and doing something unmentionable with toads. In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's play, Becket, Rosamund becomes the reason for Archbishop Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
Rosamund's life certainly was cut short. She died at Godstow Nunnery in Oxford in 1176 to where she had retired. The cause of her death is not known. Henry paid for a highly decorated tomb to be erected before the altar at Godstow. The records also show Sir Walter de Clifford making grants of 'several mills and a meadow' to Godstow in memory of his wife and daughter.
Henry's generosity continued after his death in 1189. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln visited in 1191 and found the tomb still adorned with silk cloths and looked after by the nuns in accordance with Henry's wishes. Bishop Hugh, however, took a rather dim view of what he found. He ordered the removal of Rosamund's tomb to the nearby cemetery for 'she was a harlot.'
It was finally destroyed during Henry VIII's Dissolution. But even Henry VIII couldn't succeed in wiping out the memory of Fair Rosamund. She still endures today, through poetry, paintings and of course novels. My story of her is one among many. I hope you’ll come and check it out!