In The Blood of the Fifth Knight, my second medieval thriller with Sir Benedict Palmer, somebody is trying to murder the Fair Rosamund, the beautiful young mistress of King Henry II. Henry summons Palmer to find out who is responsible. Events do not, of course, go to plan. But I really enjoyed writing the character of Rosamund, although little is known about the real woman. Here are some of the facts and the myths about her.
John William Waterhouse, 1916
Her story 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.
|Fair Rosamund in her Bower|
William Bell Scott, after 1854
Rosamund's Well today. The well is beside the lake in Blenheim's Great Park.
© Copyright Philip Halling Creative Commons Licence
But that didn't stop the rumour factory of popular imagination. A further embellishment was that Rosmund 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.’
|Fair Rosamund & Queen Eleanor|
Edward Burne-Jones, 1861
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.
|La Normandie, Jules Janin|
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.
|Godstow Nunnery today|
© Copyright Pierre Terre and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861
References and sources:
Archer, T.A., rev Hallam, Elizabeth, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004-2014)
British History Online: www.british-history.ac.uk
Broadside Ballads Online- from the Bodleian Library: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Daniel, Samuel: 'Delia. Contayning certayne Sonnets: vvith the complaint of Rosamond.'
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
The Poetry Foundation: www.poetryfoundation.org
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)