CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Cotswold Life today CLICK HERE

In search of Rosamund

PUBLISHED: 18:11 08 September 2014 | UPDATED: 18:13 08 September 2014

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund, by Evelyn De Morgan

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund, by Evelyn De Morgan

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 WaterhouseFair Rosamund, by John William Waterhouse

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.

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.

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Cotswold Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Cotswold Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Cotswold Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & about

I send this postcard from Cirencester, complete with the discoveries and viewpoints from four members of my family – both the young and not so young

Read more
Tue, 11:05

Of all the castles in the region, none have seen as much war, romance and royalty as Sudeley over its dramatic 1,000-year history. And with such a colourful and eventful past, it is easy to see why some people believe there could be spirits from bygone eras which still wander the halls and corridors to this day

Read more

What started as a business ploy by one Cotswold firm has developed into an inspirational garden

Read more
Thursday, October 11, 2018

It’s that wonderful time of year again when we warm ourselves by roaring bonfires and enjoy dazzling firework displays that light up the skies. Gather your loved ones, wrap up warm and enjoy an evening of Guy Fawkes celebrations in the Cotswolds

Read more
Monday, October 8, 2018

If a bit of English eccentricity is your thing, spend an enjoyable afternoon exploring the delightful follies of Faringdon

Read more
Monday, October 8, 2018

From an all-boy, all boarding prep school for just 30 pupils, to the quietly trailblazing yet still traditional school it is today – here is a snapshot of Beaudesert over its 110-year history

Read more
Wednesday, October 3, 2018

After something to entertain the kids during half-term? Or are you counting down the days to enjoy the thrills and spills of Halloween? Here are 20 ways to celebrate the spookiest time of year in the Cotswolds

Read more
Monday, October 1, 2018

Visitors to the village of Bourton-on-the-Water can now escape the well-trodden tourist trail at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s beautiful Greystones nature reserve and its newly opened visitor centre

Read more
Thursday, September 27, 2018

Stephen Roberts walks in the footsteps of the Oxford scholar who enjoyed attending parties dressed as a polar bear, and once chased a neighbour while dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon

Read more
Thursday, September 27, 2018

If you’re looking for things to do in the Cotswolds this month, we have gathered plenty of events for you to pop in your diary

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

No pain, no gain? Walking, cycling and horse riding make getting fit a lot more enjoyable than that

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

On a crisp, autumnal day, there is nothing better than gathering the family for a stroll amongst some of the most colourful woodland and countryside the Cotswolds has to offer. We’ve accumulated a list of our favourite places to catch the majority of this season’s golden hues

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

‘For me, Wick Court is a special place because it marks the beginning of the Henson family journey in rare breeds conservation’

Read more
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Tracy Spiers takes Emily, daughter number two, who shares her love for anything historical, to this vibrant place and get lost in a heady mix of wild bears, Middle Age punishing devices, timber-framed buildings and live bees

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Latest Competitions & Offers

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory A+ Education

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search