In the first of my new regular series on royal mistresses from history I put Rosamund Clifford aka Henry II’s ‘Fair Rosamund’ under the Hisdoryan microscope.
Now, Rosamund wasn’t the first ever royal mistress – just the first one most people remember. There’s several reasons for this, some of which we will discuss later on in this post.
It should be pointed out that illegitimacy and relationships outside wedlock weren’t always a big no-no, and they weren’t barriers to claiming thrones either. Just look at William The Conqueror – or William The Bastard as he was known in his lifetime. He was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy by his mistress Herleva, but that didn’t stop William becoming Duke of Normandy AND King of England!
All I’m saying is the importance of legitimacy in royal succession has changed A LOT over time. Therefore the role and standing of royal mistresses has too. One of the reasons Rosamund Clifford may be the first royal mistress we remember is because legitimacy and marriage were much more important by the 12th Century.
Anyway, on to the juicy stuff.
So who was Rosamund?
Rosamund Clifford was the daughter of Sir Walter Clifford, a knight from the Welsh Marches, and his wife Margaret. She was probably born around 1140. Like most women of this time, very little is known about her early life. We do know when she was young she was sent to a nunnery near Godstow, Oxford to be educated.
No one knows for sure exactly how or when Henry met Rosamund. One theory goes he met her at her father’s house while campaigning in Wales.
What did Henry’s wife think of it all?
Probably not a lot. But then again she had bigger fish to fry.
Henry’s queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122 – 1204). Eleanor was definitely no pushover. She was one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Europe at the time, being Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right.
Eleanor was also not without scandal. Her first marriage to the King of France was annulled after she didn’t produce any sons (that old chestnut). Oh, and there was the small issue of her potential over-familiar relationship with her uncle Raymond!
We should bear in mind that Henry’s relationship with his queen fell apart in the early 1170s. Eleanor joined her sons in open rebellion against Henry, and rebellion can kinda have a negative effect on a marriage! She went to France, leaving the door open for Henry and Rosamund’s relationship to blossom.
On the flip side, Henry wasn’t exactly a faithful husband to Eleanor. He had his fair share of dalliances and even a few illegitimate offspring, but none of these appeared serious and the relationships did not last.
What made Rosamund different from Henry’s other mistresses is that he openly acknowledged her and actually even looked after her, giving her her own household at his favourite castle in Woodstock, Oxfordshire (near the site of the present day Blenheim Palace). Hell, it sounds like he actually cared for her! Henry and Rosamund were the real deal.
When Rosamund died in 1173 Henry was apparently distraught and paid a lot of money to have a shrine erected to her in the nunnery at Godstow, Oxfordshire.
(P.S. Don’t worry too much about Henry – apparently he moved on to his son Richard’s fiancee the French Princess Alys de France!)
The Source of Many Legends
Despite her notoriety, we actually know very little for certain about the life of Rosamund Clifford. Its so shrouded in legend that, for many people, those legends have become fact and entered history (I call this the King Arthur effect).
So let’s get a couple of things straight;
- Queen Eleanor did NOT murder Rosamund – with poison, a dagger or by bleeding to death in a hot bath
- Queen Eleanor did NOT find Rosamund at the centre of a maze by following a silk thread
- Henry and Rosamund did NOT have an illegitimate child called Geoffrey Plantagenet – There was a Geoffrey, but historians aren’t even 100% sure he was Henry’s son. We dont know exactly when Rosamund was born, but the most convicing theory would have made her about 10 years old at the time Geoffrey was supposed to have been born, and that would have been physically impossible!
Royal Mistress Rankings
And that one star is being nice. In the course of my research I couldn’t find one solid reference to Rosamund wielding any power or influence. She did publicly appear as Henry’s mistress at his court, but only when his marriage with Eleanor had long since broken down.
I’ve given Rosamund 3 stars because, while contemporary sources agree Rosamund was beautiful, like much other early medieval evidence these sources are few and far between. Also, while a lot of the sources call Rosamund beautiful they don’t say why or how she is beautiful.
She wasn’t the most long lasting of royal mistresses (there’s a lot of debate about long she was actually Henry’s mistress for – based on the small amount of evidence we have I would say for approx. 3 to 5 years ).
However, in terms of legacy she’s had quite an impact, especially in art and culture. Fair Rosamund had the last word as she has been immortalized in countless paintings and poems (I especially love the painting above by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
Okay, so Rosamund wasn’t the most scandalous of royal mistresses, but like I said earlier, she’s the first royal mistress most of us remember. That’s got to count for something.
Overall Mistress rating **
A solid start to my series of royal mistresses, but somehow I don’t think Fair Rosamund will be making the final.
What are your impressions of Rosamund Clifford? To me, she seems a bit of a ‘supporting actor’ beside the much larger figures of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. What do you think?