Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fair Rosamund, Mistress of Henry II

By E.M. Powell

King Henry II has a deserved infamous reputation for extra-marital affairs. Documented evidence exists of several liaisons, some of which produced illegitimate offspring, with women rewarded financially for their services to the King. By far the most well-known of Henry's mistresses is Rosamund Clifford, the young woman who is often referred to as Fair Rosamund. A less flattering contemporary description comes from Gerald of Wales, Henry's acerbic chronicler, who refers to her as 'that rose of unchastity.'

Fair Rosamund
John William Waterhouse, 1916
Public Domain

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
Public Domain

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.

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
Public Domain

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
Public Domain

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

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.'

Fair Rosamund
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861
Public domain

It was finally destroyed during Henry VIII's Dissolution. But even Henry VIII couldn't succeed in wiping out the memory of Fair Rosamund. Her myths endure to this day.

References and sources:

Archer, T.A., rev Hallam, Elizabeth, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004-2014)
British History Online:
Broadside Ballads Online- from the Bodleian Library:
Daniel, Samuel: 'Delia. Contayning certayne Sonnets: vvith the complaint of Rosamond.' 
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
The Poetry Foundation:
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)


E.M. Powell is the author of The Fifth Knight, a medieval thriller based on the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

The sequel is The Blood of The Fifth Knight, in which someone is trying to murder Henry's mistress, the Fair Rosamund. It will be released by Thomas & Mercer on 01.01.2015.
It is available to UK customers on Kindle First from 1-31st December 2014.

Visit her website at


  1. More myth than substance here! What a shame her tomb was lost. Thanks for bringing it all together.

  2. Thanks Ms Powell for assembling an illustrated gauntlet of cascading myths. I think I've read everything on the subject and in truth, little can be known. Well may the records have been obscured. My calculations are that Rosamund was 13 when Henri first embraced her, to be euphemistic. Depending on if you are a royalty lover like most Europeans or a royalty realist as most Americans are (there was a reason for the American Revolution) you will see this relationship as you wish. Henri's archrival, Louis the 7th married two 13 year olds. One being Eleanor of Aquitaine whom 19 year old Duke Henri married when she was 28. No doubt, King Henri came to feel deprived the virgin consummation that Kings relished. If the facts be told, I think we’d find Nobakov’s Lolita story rather timid. The author gave up in the middle his story, unable to sustain the relationship and concieve the ending. What history played out well, we’ll never know. Certainly the incessent drive to princessize young girls and aggrandize Kings is as morally vulger as the truth. But then, I write of this period as an American novelist, finding great sympathy in the revolution of his sons compelled to resolve the causes of separation.

  3. I am fascinated with Henry II. There are so many opposing views of him. And Rosamund vs his wife Eleanor is just one facet of this. I found the book The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin fascinating - it is fiction but incorporates the maze to Rosamund's tower, her murdered body (was it poison?) and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who makes an appearance. So this post was very timely.
    Thanks so much, I enjoyed it immensley!

    1. Thank you Donna. You may be pleased to know that a new book by the late Ariana Franklin has just been released. It's called Winter Siege. Although Ariana passed away in 2011, the book was finished by her daughter, Samantha Norman. I think that is such a lovely tribute to Ariana.

  4. Woe to beautiful young women around a king. All the Henrys were debauchers, even by today’s looser standards. It can’t have been a fun position to be in, being the object of scorn from a queen like Eleanor. I honestly can’t imagine any girl choosing that life. Most likely she was coerced into it.
    Interesting post, E.M.!

  5. I've actually never heard of this lady before now! Then again I know very little about Henry II and his reign. This was a really interesting read - it sounds like Rosamund definitely left her mark on the world.

  6. Oh thanks so much for letting me know about the new book by Ariana's daughter! I am thrilled as I never thought I would see another since she left us.

  7. I have thoroughly enjoyed The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight . The presentation of historical figures by imaginative and creative authors such as Ms. Powell gives them great humanity. I have the third book in my ereader , and am anxious to get started.


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