Rosamunde de Clifford, the most neglected royal courtesan.

Waiting for Henry

Rosamunde de Clifford was the celebrated mistress of Henry II. She is believed to have been one of six children of the marcher lord Walter de Clifford and his wife Margaret. Rosamunde grew up at Clifford Castle, near Hay-on-Wye in the Wye Valley of Herefordshire, before going to Godstow Nunnery, near Oxford, to be educated by the nuns. At some point Henry and the fair Rosamunde met, possibly after his Welsh campaign in 1165 when he was looking into the security of the castles of the marches. He may have stopped at Clifford Castle for the night.

Clifford Castle ruins

Undoubtedly Rosamunde became the love of his life, though it is unlikely he was any more faithful to her than he was to Queen Eleanor.

Many fables have grown around the love affair, for instance that Queen Eleanor poisoned her rival. Highly unlikely, as Eleanor was her husband’s prisoner from 1173 until his death. One story recounts that Rosamunde was roasted between two fires, stabbed and left to bleed to death in a bath of scalding water. Thankfully untrue.

It is generally thought that Henry installed her in the royal hunting lodge at Woodstock, and built for her a pleasure garden with a labyrinth, where she lived quietly and out of the public eye. Whenever he was in England he visited her there. Or possibly he left her in the care of her family and stopped in occasionally to give her a good roll in the hay before continuing about his busy life. I like to think not, but who can say how far Sir Walter was prepared to go in order to procure royal favor.

It is possible that Rosamunde traveled with her lover, but if not she must have been the most neglected royal mistress in history, for during the years that the affair lasted Henry was more often to be found in his continental domains than in England. In 1174 after the Great War, Henry acknowledged her openly and she was often seen with him.

How and why the affair ended is a matter for speculation. It is possible that Rosamunde wished to do penance for her sinful life, but her death shortly after taking the veil at Godstow suggests that she was already mortally ill when she retired as resident royal mistress. Rosamund died, still a young woman, on July 6th.1176. Henry himself died on the same day thirteen years later.

The ruins of Godstow Abbey
The ruins of Godstow Abbey

She was interred before the altar at Godstow. Henry and the Clifford family paid for the tomb and an endowment that would ensure the tomb was cared for. Two years after Henry’s death Bishop Hugh of Lincoln (later to become St. Hugh) visited the nunnery and noticed the tomb was still covered with a silken cloth and flowers. He ordered the removal of the body to the cemetery ‘that other women, warned by her example, may abstain from illicit and adulterous intercourse’. The tomb was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. As for that prolific fornicator and adulterer, Henry II, Bishop Hugh made no attempt to interfere with his earthly remains.

You can meet Rosamunde in many poems and books, also in my favorite historical film, The Lion in Winter.



Henry II by W.L.Warren

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