Jane Shore is one of the most famous royal mistresses and certainly the prime one of the 15th century. Arguably, however, the most famous royal mistress in medieval English history is the enigmatic Rosamund de Clifford, known as ‘Fair Rosamund’ or ‘Rose of the World.’
Like Jane, Rosamund seemed to have received a generally benign treatment from historians and later writers, despite one of her contemporaries, Gerald of Wales, making a cruel pun on her name and calling her ‘The Rose of Unchastity.’ In comparison Edward III’s young mistress Alice Perrers, was often depicted as greedy and grasping, and King John’s mistress, ‘queen’ Clementia, was mocked for giving herself regal airs and graces. Just as writers from Thomas More onwards lauded Jane Shore for her beauty and generosity and overlooked her dubious liaisons with William Hastings and Thomas Grey, Rosamund was generally seen in a wholly favourable manner, with her ‘rival,’ Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, taking the part of the villain, despite being the injured party, so to speak. Henry, a notorious womaniser just like his descendant Edward IV, seemed to get no blame for anything at all.
The Victorians and pre-Raphaelites who painted interpretations of Rosamund’s legend painted Rosamund as timid and meek, even a little simple-looking, while Eleanor was shown as being crafty and hard, with a sallow skin, pinched features and hooked nose—despite in reality being a notable beauty of the age herself. It appears Eleanor, being rather liberated for the era she lived in, was deemed by the Victorians as ‘unnatural’and unwomanly, having sought an annulment from her first marriage to Louis of France to marry the younger Henry and then by inciting her sons to rebel against their father. Rumours also abounded of consensual flings in her youth, including with her own uncle. Far better, it seemed, to be a naïve young girl at the command of the much older king than a determined ‘hussy’ like Eleanor who dared to do what SHE wanted!
Some attempts were made to change the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of Rosamund’s story to make it more palatable to the mores of 19th century readers. Suddenly she was not a young girl but of an age with the King—his first sweetheart whom he had married in secret, making her his rightful wife. This was nonsense; Rosamund’s parentage is known and accordingly the birthdates of her parents and siblings and, in all likelihood, Rosamund herself. In reality, she was probably only a teenager when she met Henry, and their affair seems to have started around 1166-7, when Henry’s youngest son John was born. Equally, the myth,also originating in this time, that she was the mother of Henry’s two most famous bastards, William Longspee and Geoffrey Plantagenet, Archbishop of York, has been proven to be false. Recently discovered documents show that William’s mother was Ida de Tosney, Duchess of Norfolk, and not only was Geoffrey too old to be Rosamund’s child, chroniclers wrote that his mother was a prostitute called Ykenai.
Rosamund, of course, is famous not just for the affair with King Henry but also for being kept in a maze near the now-vanished palace of Woodstock. The maze, which was meant to keep her safe from Eleanor, almost certainly did not exist, but there is ground disturbance at the site and a house may have once existed, perhaps with some kind of ornate garden, that had been built or adapted for Rosamund’s use. A well still flows on the spot, which has been known as Rosamund’s Well for around four hundred years at least, although its earliest known name was Everswell.
And what about the dramatic tale of Rosamund being murdered in person by Eleanor, given the choice of poison or a dagger? (Versions that are even more lurid have her roasted between two fires and attacked by toads!) Toads or no toads, murder by Eleanor is almost certainly untrue, since the Queen was imprisoned at the time Rosamund died, and no Queen would personally attend to such matter anyway, vengeful or not. There is a vague possibility one of her agents could have done the deed on her behalf, but at that time, the Queen had no finances to pay an assassin, being in straightened circumstances and reduced to sharing a bed with her maid in Old Sarum Castle.
However, what is known is that Henry officially announced his relationship with Rosamund to the court in 1174 and spoke of an annulment of his marriage with Eleanor shortly thereafter. A mere two years later, Rosamund had departed Woodstock and retired to Godstow nunnery, and then, abruptly, she was dead. Chroniclers say she died before the age of thirty. So something unfortunate did happen to Rosamund, though whether her death was natural or more sinister is impossible to say.
Henry did appear to genuinely love Rosamund, although his mistresses were legion—including, but not limited to, Annabel de Balliol, Duchess Ida, Alice de Porhoet (whose father was furious), Alis of France who was intended for his son Richard (only a rumour but possible given his reputation for seducing his wards), and the intriguingly named BelleBelle, for whom he brought rich robes at the same time as he brought gowns for the Queen. He ordered a lavish tomb made for Rosamund, which was raised before the high altar in Godstow Priory, and made monetary payments to the prioress.
The tomb became something of a shrine, decked with flowers and candles, until the arrival of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln in the years following Henry’s own death. Bishop Hugh was scandalised at the seeming veneration of the tomb of an ‘unchaste’ woman and ordered it removed to the nuns’ cemetery. It was duly dismantled and placed against the wall of the chapterhouse, where it was still visible for some years after the Dissolution. Around this time, a house was built incorporating the priory ruins, and when this was subequently destroyed in the Civil War, most of the remaining features of the priory vanished with it.
Rosamund has appeared in art and in song, and features in several novels about Henry II and his family, including by Sharon Penman, author of the famous Ricardian novel, The Sunne in Splendour. One solitary novel solely from Rosamund’s point of view was written in the 1970’s by Philippa Wiat, the Philippa Gregory of her day, but it was oddly flat and unexciting. However, in early 2017 MISTRESS OF THE MAZE was released, containing solid historical facts while incorporating the more fantastical elements of the legend, such as the Maze at Woodstock. Rosamund here is not the simpering icon beloved by overwrought Vctorian artists but a tragic flesh and blood woman caught up in the midst of the marital entanglements of Kings.