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Mystery surrounds whether a queen murdered her love rival

The fate of one of medieval England’s most famous royal mistresses has fascinated historians for centuries. What really happened to The Fair Rosamund?

Much of Rosamund Clifford’s life is now the stuff of legend and folklore but, in her time, she was England’s greatest beauty and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s greatest nemesis. For by the time Rosamund began a relationship with Eleanor’s husband, Henry II, the queen and her king had seen their own romance fade and both had their minds on control of their impressive empire which stretched across part of Europe.

Rosamund Clifford may have been the daughter of Walter de Clifford and his wife Margaret and her birth date is not recorded. All historians have to go on is that she was born sometime before 1150. She had six siblings though the order of their births is unknown.

She spent her early years at Clifford Castle before leaving for Godstow Nunnery near Oxford for her education. Rosamund then met Henry II. The time and place have never been definitively proved but some believe it was around 1166, when Eleanor of Aquitaine was pregnant with their last son, John. Rosamund began a love affair with the king who publicly acknowledged her as his mistress in 1174.

The couple had no children despite rumours to the contrary — Henry II’s other illegitimate children had publicly identified mothers or Rosamund would have been too young to bear children when they were born — and kept their love affair largely under wraps in Woodstock.

Henry II had a great house prepared for Rosamund there including a beautiful garden and a legendary maze. History has been kind to the Fair Rosamund ,who, centuries later is still renowned for her beauty. Some historians say that Rosamund was the great love of Henry II’s life.

What Happened to the Fair Rosamund?

The Fair Rosamund’s fate has largely been tangled up in legends. One such tells that Eleanor of Aquitaine found her rival in the garden maze by using a silken thread to trace her steps. Having found Rosamund, Eleanor then forced her to choose the means of her death: dagger or poison. Legend says that Rosamund chose the poison and died.

Another legend says Eleanor of Aquitaine had Rosamund stabbed, burnt by a fire and then left to die in a scalding hot bathtub while yet another is that Eleanor simply murdered her.

However, all these details were later additions to the story of Fair Rosamund. Eleanor finding Rosamund in the garden maze first appears in 14th-century French writing. The story of Rosamund being stabbed and burned appears in the 1500s while the offer of death by poison or dagger appears in 1611.

The facts remain that when the Fair Rosamund died in 1176, she had been living at the Godstow Nunnery. Her tomb was paid for and honoured by the Clifford Family and Henry II for years after her death. She died before her 30th birthday, the cause never identified.

Her tombstone read: …Adorent, utque tibi detur requies Rosamunda precamur, which means ‘Let them adore…and we pray that rest be given to you, Rosamund.’

Under that, a rhyming epitaph: Hic jacet in tumba Rosamundi non Rosamunda, non redolet sed olet, quae redolere solet, which means: ‘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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About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.