Fair Rosamund: The Legend of Henry II’s True Love

Rosamund Clifford, known as “Fair Rosamund” and the “Rose of the World,” was the Helen of Troy of medieval England. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, quite possibly, from the way poets and contemporaries remarked on her. Her beauty had attracted the eyes of King Henry II of England, a conqueror, tactician, and ruthless leader of his country—including his own wife and children. 

Henry II had married the infamous Eleanor of Aquitane, eleven years his senior, in 1152 when he was the bright-eyed age of 21. Eleanor was the ex-Queen of France, her marriage to King Louis VII annulled after 15 years with no living son. Eleanor had long pushed for this annulment, and not long after procuring it, she found herself the wife of the claimant of another throne, that of England. 

Fair Rosamund, 1917 painting by John William Waterhouse depicting Rosamund looking out a window waiting for Henry II. Eleanor of Aquitaine lurks in the background staring at her rival. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Eleanor of Aquitane was the Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. Her lands in Aquitaine, covering a large portion of France at the time, made her highly desirable on the marriage mart, but there was more than just wealth behind Eleanor. She was a warrior and woman of significant courage, having led armies throughout her life, such as during the Second Crusade. She was formidable, pushing for the annulment from her first husband, the French king, when she was unhappy, and when Queen of England, encouraging her own sons to rebel against Henry II of England after their marriage had been estranged for years. She was also intelligent in the management of her lands, her wealth, and her husbands. Many sources also sang of her beauty, but her exact appearance is left a mystery as no contemporary images of her have survived. 

Eleanor and Henry II were a good match at first. He conquered the English throne in 1154 and began his reign as king. Their marriage produced eight children, five sons and three daughters. She gave her husband and king numerous heirs, three of whom would become king of England through in-fighting and strife. Eleanor had brought extensive lands to Henry’s kingdom, which would come to be called the Angevin Empire. This empire included all of England, parts of Ireland and Wales, and roughly half of France. Eleanor also introduced different cultural aspects to the English court, such as the game of courtly love, a code of chivalry, and troubadours.

Eleanor of Aquitaine overseeing her court.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

However, Henry II’s infidelities strained what had started as a happy marriage. He kept several long-term mistresses, such as Annabel de Balliol, Ida de Tosny, and Alys of France. Alys, daughter from the second marriage of Louis VII of France, had come to England to marry Henry II’s son, Richard, but instead became his lover. There were other women, but none stood out like the Fair Rosamund. 

Rosamund Clifford is reputed to have been the daughter of Walter de Clifford, a lord from the Welsh marches. Rosamund grew up with two sisters and three brothers at Clifford Castle before being sent to Godstow Nunnery, near Oxford, to continue her education there. 

Rosamund’s father possibly fought for Henry II on a Welsh campaign in the 1160s. This might have brought about Rosamund and Henry II’s first meeting, possibly at Clifford Castle when Henry might have been visiting. Many theorize that Rosamund and Henry II began their affair in 1165 or around this time. It could have been later on. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine follows the thread through the legendary labyrinth and finds her rival for her husband’s romantic affection. Painting by Evelyn De Morgan.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Little else is known of Rosamund until Henry II publicly acknowledged her as his mistress in 1174. She’d likely been his lover for years before the announcement. Henry II likely resisted from making this announcement for practical reasons, but after Eleanor tried stirring her sons to rebel against their father in the Great Revolt of 1173-1174, he had no reason to conceal the affair. He quashed the rebellion and forgave his sons, but for Eleanor, there was no leniency. Eleanor was always in some state of imprisonment until Henry II’s death in 1189. 

Henry II and Rosamund were open about their relationship after his sons’ rebellion, but it didn’t last long after the public announcement. After the affair ended, Rosamund withdrew to Godstow Abbey, where she died in 1176. She’d barely touched the age of thirty. Henry II and Rosamund’s family paid for her tomb at the abbey, and he endowed the abbey with money that would ensure Rosamund’s tomb was cared for by the nuns. This might have been the final act of a man in love. 

More myth than fact is known of Fair Rosamund. One legend states Henry II concealed Rosamund in a maze in his gardens at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. He traveled through the labyrinth to conduct his affair with Rosamund. Some versions of the story say Henry II followed a thread to the maze’s center. Eleanor caught wind of the liaison, and she breached the labyrinth to give her rival an ultimatum: die by dagger or poison. Rosamund chose the poison and died. 

Queen Eleanor, a 1858 painting by Frederick Sandys. This painting depicts Eleanor of Aquitaine on her way to confront Rosamund with two options for her death: a dagger or a chalice filled with poison. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Other versions of the legend say Eleanor found out about the affair when she was preparing for her lying-in for her last child with Henry II, their son John. Eleanor selected Woodstock Palace as the place where she wished to settle but found Rosamund living there as the king’s mistress. Eleanor hurried to Oxford to give birth to John. 

A 14th century source puts a completely different spin on the tale, saying Eleanor roasted Rosamund between two fires, stabbed her, and left her to bleed to death. 

None of these elaborate tales ever happened. Modern historians have reached a consensus on this point, but Rosamund’s contemporaries and those who came after, Tudors, Elizabethans, and Victorians, added to the ostentatiousness of the legends. Little truth is known of the love between Henry II and Rosamund. How did she feel about the relationship? How did she live? What were her thoughts and motivations? What did she look like?

Despite a lack of facts and evidence, historians believe the love between Henry II and Rosamund was true. One historian, Dr. Mike Ibeji, wrote an article for the BBC, asserting “there is also no doubt that the great love of his life was Rosamund Clifford.” This is evidenced in Henry II keeping Rosamund as a long-term mistress, paying for her tomb on her death, and providing an endowment to Godstow Abbey for the upkeep of said tomb. 

Fair Rosamund, an 1861 painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Despite this true love, in 1190, the Bishop of Lincoln visited the abbey and was disturbed to find Rosamund’s tomb covered with flowers and candles. He believed an adulteress and whore, did not deserve such adoration, and as an example for all of Christianity, he had Rosamund’s remains relocated to the cemetery close to the nuns’ chapterhouse. 

Despite the relocation, Rosamund’s epitaph was still one of reverence deserved by the legendary woman. Paul Hentzner, a 16th century German traveller, wrote:

“All that remains of her tomb of stone, the letters of which are almost all worn out, is the line,

Adorent, utque tibi detur requies Rosamunda precamur.

‘Let them adore… and we pray that rest be given to you, Rosamund.’

Followed by a rhyming epitaph:

Hic jacet in tumba Rosamundi non Rosamunda, non redolet sed olet, quae redolere solet.

‘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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Further Readings:

The Character and Legacy of Henry II by Dr. Mike Ibeji

Eleanor of Aquitaine, biography from Ohio State University’s eHistory

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122 -1204)

Eight myths about Fair Rosamund by Emilie Amt for Oxford University Press’s blog

Fair Rosamund, Mistress of Henry II by E.M. Powell

Henry II, 1154-89

Rosamond, Britannica entry

Who was ‘Fair Rosamund’ the mistress of King Henry II?

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