"She hath a waist, a slender waist
as slim as my silver cane
I would not for ten thousand worlds
king Henry knew her name"
- Fair Rosamund, traditional
So little is known about her. Four hundred years after her death she was celebrated in lonely ballads, poetry, plays and romantic legends. But then, it was a time of unrequited sonnets and of faerie queens. It was a time of pretty myths.
So little is really known about her.
We know she was called 'Fair'; 'The Rose Of The World'. We know that she was born in 1150 at Clifford Castle, a solemn complex overlooking the River Wye – the living, surging border between England and Wales. Her father was Walter de Clifford. A relative in the distant future would rebel against his king and when caught would be hung in chains outside the tower of his castle until death finally pitited him.
We know that she was the mistress of Henry II, creator of English law, and enemy of the meddlesome priest, Thomas Beckett.
Fair Rosamund Clifford in all probability met the King when her father was poring over maps of Wales with him, devising an itinerary of brutalitiy for that bold country. He loved the daughter, and went to war with the father.
Rosamund was 16. She was soft, gentle and, witnesses agree, exceptionally lovely. She was a calm dream that a warrior king could return to at the end of a violent day. She was everything Henry's wife was not. Eleanor of Aquitane was wealthy, schooled in the brutal politics of the day, hard and brilliant as a diamond and as courageous as any man: she had sailed to Antioch on crusade with her first husband when she was 25.
In 1166 Eleanor was pregnant with her final child, John – her least inspired effort. She had plananed to retreat to Woodstock for her confinement. There she would be shuttered away, still and breathless, the air swaddled in the smells of herbs and dried rushes. But at the last moment she was carried to Beaumont Palace – it has been speculated that this decision is based on her finding that Woodstock already had its lady: Rosamund.
Legend says that Woodstock was the site of 'Rosamund's Bower': a garden set at the heart of a maze so subtle and winding that only when she reclined within that living puzzle would she be safe from Eleanor's machinations and jealousies. But she was found with a golden thread; some say it had snagged on Henry's spur, some claim that it had trailed from her box of embroideries.
Eleanor followed that glinting thread, sparking in the sun, amongst the twisted foilage and found her fair nemesis. Spiteful and deadly, she forced the girl to drink a vial of poison – whether she left or chose to watch her die is not revealed.
This terrible myth has been saved comfortably in fiction – like a thorn wrapped in clover. But there was a popular balled, 'Queen Eleanor's Confession' in which Eleanor lies on her deathbed at Whitehall, where:
"The bells they did ring, and the quiristers sing,
And the torches did light them all"
And she decleares her guilt:
"The next vile thing that ere I did
To you I will discover
I poysoned Fair Rosamund,
All in fair Woodstock bower."
Henry's relationship with his rose was made public in 1174. Two years later she retired to a nunnery in Godstow, to fade and dry. She died that same year, lying lonely on her bed – made narrow and hard for her sins. Was it her choice to leave court? Was she thrown out – had Henry found someone else? Was she forced out – was this one of Eleanor's 'good' years, when she held the upper hand over the king? Was she hurried away in secret, sad, in shame, wrapped in a thick woolen cloak against the dank, marshy winds of the Thames, eyes lowered…never, perhaps, daring to look anyone in the face again?
The nuns took care of the final home of Henry's – many say only – love. It became a popular local shrine, laden with flowers and candles, scenting and warming her bones, as the local people came to pray there. If they came to pray at the abbey's high altar, or to The Rose Of The World, no one knows for sure.
In 1191 there was a new king on the throne. Said to have the heart of a lion, he was also a bigot; he preferred war to building, and spent most of his reign on crusade. It was the year that the Bishop of Lincoln stopped to inspect the grounds of Godstow and noticed Rosamund's tomb, its garlands, and worse, its prominent location.
Knowing her story, he immediately demanded that the remains of 'a harlot' be wrenched out of the tomb and buried outside the abbey, 'with the rest, that the Christian religion may not grow into contempt, and that other women, warned by her example, may abstain from illicit and adulterous intercourse'.
England is full of ghosts. Some are in white, some are in clouds of smoke, some are wrapped in chains, some cradle their decapitated heads, some are silent, some weep. Rosamund's ghost has been seen at a local inn that dates to 1472. Originally named 'Ye Sygne of St. John Baptist Head', in 1704 it became 'The Trout Inn'. Perhaps Henry's beautiful fish was finally able to break free of the earth to swim through the currents of the cosmos and the earthly ether.
"Out from the horror of infernall deepes,
My poore afflicted ghost comes here to plaine it:
Attended with my shame that never sleepes,
The spot wherewith my kinde, and youth did staine it:
My body found a grave where to containe it,
A sheete could hide my face, but not my sin,
For Fame finds never tombe t'inclose it in."
– The Complaint of Rosamund, Samuel Daniel, 1592