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Henry Ⅱ and the Fair Rosamund: a most mysterious mistress
The love story of Rosamund and Henry Ⅱ
Rosamund Clifford: subject of myth and legend
Rosamund Clifford has always been an enigma and as such she has attracted a great deal of interest, and whole lot more controversy, from writers, poets and artists down through the ages.
So, was she just a casual 'loose woman' or was she a woman wronged on a big scale?
The Rose of the World.
Rosamund was born sometime before 1150, one of the six children born to Walter de Clifford and his wife, Margaret. Her father was one of the marcher lords, a knightly title which denoted that he was entrusted by the king to guard extensive tracts of land on the Welsh/English border.
At that time Wales was a wild country in constant rebellion against the English king as it struggled to free itself from beneath the heel of the armoured boot of the English. The king at this time was Henry Ⅱ, a man of limitless energy and fiery nature.
Rosamund herself grew up to have the necessary requisite for all mistresses everywhere, great beauty and seems to have attracted two famous epithets, The Fair Rosamund and Rosa Mundi, Latin for Rose of the World.
Gardeners will recognise that this is also the name of a rose which has a delicate pink and white appearance but it is unknown whether or not this old rose was contemporary with Rosamund. It is tantalising to think that it may have been and that someone, perhaps Henry, teasingly nicknamed her after the rose as she blushed before him.
Little is known of what sort of person Rosamund was and because of this artists and poets have usually shown her as the victim in her long term relationship with Henry and her unenviable position as 'the other woman' to his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Henry Ⅱ, Plantagenet king of England.
Henry had had a hard battle to obtain the crown of England, having continually tried to wrest the crown from his mother's cousin, Stephen, who had seized power on the death of Henry Ⅰ. Finally, an uneasy truce was reached when Stephen's only son, Eustace, died.
Needing an heir Stephen finally named Henry and then died, very obligingly, only a year later. Despite the suspicious timing it would seem that nobody voiced any thoughts of any skulduggery at the time. Unless they kept their thoughts to themselves.
Henry Plantagenet was also know as Henry Curtmantle (presumably as a result of wearing a short cloak) and also Henry FitzEmpress, (trans. son of the Empress) after a title held by his mother Matilda.
Despite being fairly short and stocky with red hair and freckles it is thought he was regarded as an attractive looking man. He was said to have possessed a very piercing stare, a peculiar characteristic which has made its way down to us through the passage of almost a thousand years.
HIs short stature may have been attributable to his bowed legs, the obvious result of having lived most of his young life in the saddle, honing his warfare skills. He was a formidable warrior and regained large swathes of France that had been English territory during the reign of his grandfather, Henry I.
Henry exuded power and confidence and his nature was fierce and domineering, the sort of qualities necessary to a king of England of the time. Not the sort of person one would like to cross, as Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, found out to his cost. Henry's fiery outburst wanting rid of Thomas set in motion the knights who brutally murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral.
Famous for being somewhat rough and ready, even shabby in his dress, Henry seemed to have little time for the vanities of this world. Leading from the front and dressed as a common soldier must have endeared him greatly to his troops.
Despite his intimidating personality Henry was obviously clever. He understood many languages although he only used Latin and French himself as these were the languages of the court and nobility.
He was also an inveterate womaniser and had many mistresses in his life but only Rosamund and Annabel de Balliol became long term loves. This would seem to prove that he was capable of sustaining love, for some women at least.
A lasting love affair.
It is thought Henry may first have met Rosamund in 1163. Rhys ap Gruffydd was leading another rebellion in Wales and Henry was on his way to crush it. It is likely that he would use the route that passed by Rosamund's home, Clifford Castle, and he may even have commandeered a night's lodging for himself and his men. It would have been his right as Walter de Clifford's liege lord.
Was it also his right, one wonders, to take advantage of one of his host's daughters? He was the king, so most likely refusal was not an option. Henry was a well-known seducer of women, how could Walter de Clifford have allowed any of his daughters to be seen by him?
Clifford was either incredibly trusting or, more likely, willing to use whichever daughter caught the king's eye as a pawn in a game to procure yet more power and more land.
So Rosamund caught Henry's eye and the affair began. To his credit it would also appear that he loved her steadfastly, although possibly not exclusively, until she entered a nunnery in 1176. What we can never know was whether Rosamund loved Henry in return.
An unquiet mind?
She died not long after she had entered the nunnery at Godstow in Oxfordshire and we can only speculate on what prompted her to go into such a place. Did she have an overwhelming guilt at the adulterous nature of her affair with the king and if so, why had it taken her thirteen years to get to that state?
It seems more believable that she was already ill when she retired from her role as royal concubine. Her choice of a nunnery could be revealing. Nunneries of the time had infirmaries for the care of the sick, usually their own sisters, and it would have been the place to be both nursed for a physical ailment ... and a spiritual one.
She was buried in the choir of the convent church and her tomb took pride of place before the high altar. It was jointly paid for by her own family and, most tellingly, by Henry. There was also money set aside to pay the nuns to take care of it. These are not exactly the acts of a man who has lightly discarded a mistress.
Enter the queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine
The other player in this historic ménage à trois was Queen Eleanor, Henry's wife. A strong, capable woman she could have been, quite possibly, a dangerous rival for Henry's affections, if any of the legends have a grain of truth in them.
One famous legend has it that Henry built a bower in the centre of a labyrinth at Woodstock in Oxfordshire to hide and protect Rosamund. However by following a silken thread that had become unwound from Rosamund's sewing box, Eleanor found her way in and offered Rosamund the choice of a dagger or poison with which to commit suicide. It is said Rosamund chose poison and so died.
Obviously this story is one of the more fanciful fabrications that surround Rosamund.
A marriage of convenience.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Ⅱ had the sort of marriage that was commonplace for their status. They allied for the usual dynastic reasons of land and power and as such romantic love rarely intruded on what was in all senses of the word, a business contract.
Part of Eleanor's contract was to produce heirs for the English throne and the many dukedoms their combined lands required. This she did in abundance providing Henry with five sons and three daughters and their large and turbulent family became the stuff of legends, including as it did the crusader king, Richard the Lionheart and King John, who signed the Magna Carta.
The Lion in Winter - 2003 - Glenn Close as Eleanor
Was Eleanor a woman spurned?
Did Eleanor view Rosamund as a threat, a rival? Did she resent the love Henry evidently bore for Rosamund? It could be argued that as theirs was a political marriage and as she was well used to Henry's liaison's d'amour by the time Rosamund appeared Eleanor had no particular feelings at all about the issue. It was, and still is, usual for powerful men to have mistresses.
There are stories that she too took lovers. She was a beautiful and spirited woman, she was often alone in her castle in Aquitaine and she was a woman who, like Henry, did not feel it necessary to play by the rules. But eventually even she appears to have had enough of Henry, his temper and his moods, his mistresses and his illegitimate children, who perhaps presented some sort of threat to her own.
Her own sons were grown and as warlike as their father and so she supported Young Henry, their eldest son, in a revolt against his father. The revolt failed and Eleanor was imprisoned for her support of it. She was only released on the death of Henry in 1189 by her son Richard, when he took his deceased father's place as the king of England.
Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173, the year the revolt started. Rosamund did not die until 1176. A fact that would seem to further disprove the story that Eleanor forced suicide on Rosamund.
So just why was Henry so loyal to Rosamund?
The very fact that Rosamund is such an unknown personality must surely be due to her nature which must have had a sort of retiring quality to it. Such a lack of detail could mean that she was simply a gentle, pliant, even loving woman content to remain hidden. This could explain why Henry had such a long lasting affection for her. She may well have been a much-needed antidote to the energetic, tumultuous and ultimately scheming Eleanor.
Perhaps with her Henry found the peace and calmness that he needed. Perhaps she became his sanctuary from the constant turmoil that was his life.
Rosamund's tomb was removed from the nunnery church at Godstow and placed in the graveyard on the express orders of the zealous Bishop of Lincoln, who was outraged that the 'harlot' had been buried in the church. (Notably that this was in 1191, two years after Henry's death).
The tomb was mostly destroyed during Henry Ⅷ's dramatic purge of Catholicism during the Dissolution but one of its Latin inscriptions was still partly legible in 1599 and it read:
Let them adore ... and we pray that rest be given to you, Rosamund.
Was this inscription Henry's idea? Does it hint at her unquiet conscience as a king's mistress?Had she begged to be released from her position so that she could enter a nunnery and try to redeem her immortal soul? We will never know ...