In search of Rosamund

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund, by Evelyn De Morgan

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund, by Evelyn De Morgan - Credit: Archant

Peter Wyton explores the legend of Fair Rosamund Clifford, and discovers rumours of torture, murder and a tempestuous royal love triangle

Fair Rosamund, by John William Waterhouse

Fair Rosamund, by John William Waterhouse - Credit: Archant

She is this area’s most elusive historical figure. If you stand on the longest village green in England, at Frampton-on-Severn, you will note that it is named after her. Transit the Cotswolds to Woodstock in Oxfordshire and you will hear tall tales of her dalliances. Move a little further on to Godstow by the Thames and you will find the ruins of the abbey where she died, although no trace of her tomb remains.

If you were dissatisfied with this lack of substance, you might travel further afield, to Herefordshire, where you will find a ruined castle, on a cliff, above a ford, which also lays claim to be her home. You would come back little the wiser, except for a greater understanding of why her name was Rosamund Clifford. Even this last piece of information generally causes little stir down the many centuries since her short life ended. Only when the prefix ‘Fair’ is attached does history suddenly sit up and start drooling or finger-wagging.

As soon as the soubriquet ‘Fair Rosamund’ sticks its head above the parapet of the centuries, all manner of speculation rains down on her slight figure, like the pack of cards which fell on Alice in Wonderland (another with a Godstow connection, coincidentally). First come the ecclesiastical judgements, without exception censorious. Historians with fanciful imaginations leafed through monastic documents, added their own conclusions. Entertainers, mainly musicians and story-tellers looking for a good pot-boiler to retail in great halls, snaffled one another’s material and added their own refinements from generation to generation. Tudor literati began to make romanticised verse about her. The playwrights weighed in. In more recent years she has been the subject of portraiture. Donazetti, in 1834, wrote an opera about her. Writers of note including Addison, Swinburne and Tennyson have deigned to take an interest in her and lesser novelists galore have dragged her into their plots. The film makers have so far limited themselves to the odd conversational sally in ‘The Lion In Winter’, but you feel it may not be long before her glamorous portrayer is looking down the barrel of a ‘best actress’ Oscar nomination. Of all this enthusiastic outpouring, perhaps 5% at most is anything other than shameless fiction, repeated, regurgitated and augmented down the better part of a millennium.

What do we actually know about Fair Rosamund? Certainly not her date of birth, and her death can be only estimated as having occurred in 1176 or 1177. We are reasonably certain that she was one of six children sired by the Marcher lord Walter de Clifford and that, most indisputably of all, that she was, for an extended period, the mistress of King Henry ll of England.

It is thought likely that the affair between these two may have begun in the mid 1150s when Henry would have been campaigning against the Welsh and therefore requiring hospitality of his commanders in the area. Fathers of attractive, well-born girls in those times had two choices, when their sovereign lord came to stay. They could relocate them (and their wives) to another of their properties, preferably remote and not easily accessible. Many did. There is more than one historical document extant, containing reservations of Henry’s subordinates concerning his interpretation of droit de seigneur. He was no pipe-and-slippers monarch. Alternatively, of course, there were noblemen who perceived advantages in looking the other way, when the royal eye rested indulgently on an offspring. Perhaps it was so in this case, although it is nowhere stated, but it is a matter of record that at the time of Rosamund’s death, grants of money and land to Godstow abbey were made by the King, her father and her brother-in-law, which indicates a certain air of amicability.

What is equally certain is that the relationship was never flaunted. One reason for that would have been Henry’s Queen, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine who, on her good days, would have made Margaret Thatcher look like a bleeding heart liberal. To be honest, neither Henry nor Eleanor had great track records as models of marital fidelity, but when it came to keeping up royal appearances, both would have known how to play the game.

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It is stated by no less an authority than Giraldus Cambrensis that Rosamund was ‘very young’, when their relationship began, but no figure is given. Henry would presumably have been in his early thirties at their first encounter. One can only hope that the girl was at least in her mid teens, but the possibility of the Plantaganet passing a CRB. check is questionable at best.

Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire is the traditional site of the most popular legends associated with the Rosamund-Henry-Eleanor triangle. The majority of these accounts, accepted as history unquestioningly until at least the 19th century, blithely ignore the fact that Henry was campaigning on the continent for much of the time that he was reckoned to be squiring his young mistress. Equally, the lurid tales in which Eleanor features as Rosamund’s torturer and murderess fly in the face of the well-documented fact that the Queen had the best of all alibis - she was securely locked up, by her husband, lord and master, in a succession of castles, due to her unquenchable habit of meddling in affairs of state.

Although Rosamund was by no means Henry ll’s only infidelity, there is general agreement that he was sincerely attached to her. Their affair ended when Rosamund entered Godstow Priory, shortly before a death about which no information has come down to us, beyond the grants made to the establishment by her lover and her family. She can hardly have been 30, but longevity was not a feature of the Middle Ages.

The gratitude of the church for considerable donations of money and goods was remarkably short lived. Henry survived his young lover by 12 years, but barely two years after that, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, visiting Godstow, was so shocked that someone he stigmatised as a harlot was entombed before the high altar, that he ordered Rosamund’s body to be reburied in the priory grounds, where she remained until her tomb was destroyed in that orgy of licensed vandalism, the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It is pleasant to imagine Rosamund in childhood, before the demanding appearance of Henry Plantagenet, playing with her brothers and sisters in the attractive surroundings of Frampton Green. It may even have happened. We shall never know, but we will continue to speculate and to elaborate in equal measure. Above on this page you will find my own tribute to her, which draws on the distortions of the past no less enthusiastically than any of my predecessors. In the end, we all love a good story, particularly one which features a beautiful young woman. Imagine what they’ll be saying about Lady Diana, a thousand years down the line.


This article is from the September 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.