Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Rose of the World: Rosamund Clifford

One of the most enigmatic royal mistresses in English history was Rosamund Clifford, the favorite and long-time mistress of King Henry II of England. But she has always been surrounded in mystery, and her life and relationship with the king and his jealous wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has always been the stuff of legends.

Fair Rosamund painted by Herbert Sydney

Often called "the Fair Rosamund" or "the Rose of the World", Rosamund Clifford was famed for being both very beautiful and desirable. She was born sometime in 1150, one of the six children of a marcher lord named Walter de Clifford and his wife Margaret de Tosny. The family resided at the Clifford Castle in Hertfordshire, England, and it was here on a visit that King Henry met the teenage Rosamund for the first time. From there, a passionate affair began between England's king and the beautiful Rosamund.

King Henry II of England possessed an energetic and fiery nature. He was also described to be very good-looking and to have possessed a piercing glance. He was an intimidating and formidable warrior-king, a trait necessary for a King of England at that time. He was married to the equally beautiful and formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, Europe's wealthiest heiress. But their marriage was turbulent. When Henry met Rosamund, she was a breath of fresh air for the rambunctious king. She was gentle, pliant, and feminine, the complete opposite of the passionate and dynamic Eleanor.

It was said that Rosamund was the great love of Henry's life. Their affair started around the time when Queen Eleanor was pregnant with her last child, and as a result, Rosamund earned the Queen's hatred. Henry installed Rosamund at the Woodstock Palace and she lived quietly there while he was away in his continental possessions.

Although little is known about Rosamund, she was frequently mentioned in works about Eleanor. Nevertheless, there were countless stories and legends concerning her. There was a story that Henry constructed a labyrinth surrounding Woodstock Palace to protect his mistress from the wrath of his jealous wife. Another tale, which was certainly untrue, was that Queen Eleanor poisoned Rosamund.

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor
by Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1920.
Henry's affair with Rosamund became public knowledge in 1174. It ended when she entered to a nunnery at Godstow in 1176. She died there in the same year and was believed to be also buried there. Her tomb was carefully maintained by the Clifford family and became a popular local shrine until 1191. After Henry's death, the Bishop of Lincoln, calling Rosamund a harlot, ordered her remains to be removed from the church and be buried outside. Her tomb was moved to the cemetery by the nuns' chapter house where it could be visited until it was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII of England in the 16th century. The Latin inscriptions were still partly legible in 1599 and it read: "Let them adore ... and we pray that rest be given to you, Rosamund." It was followed by an epitaph, also in Latin: "Here in the tomb lies the rose of the world, not a pure rose; she who used to smell sweet, still smells - but not sweet."


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