The Maze and Grail At Blenheim Palace


The estate given by the nation to Marlborough for the new palace was the manor of Woodstock, sometimes called the Palace of Woodstock, which had been a royal demesne, in reality little more than a deer park. Legend has obscured the manor’s origins. King Henry I enclosed the park to contain the deer. Henry II housed his mistress Rosamund Clifford (sometimes known as “Fair Rosamund”) there in a “bower and labyrinth”; a spring where she is said to have bathed remains, named after her. It seems the unostentatious hunting lodge was rebuilt many times

The Spencer family is one of Britain’s most illustrious aristocratic families. This noble family descended in the male line from Henry Spencer, claimed to be a descendant of the cadet branch of the ancient House Le Despencer (died c. 1478), male-line ancestor of the Earls of Sunderland, the Dukes of Marlborough, and the Earls Spencer. Two prominent members of the family were Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Spencers later joined the Churchills upon the marriage of Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland and Lady Anne Churchill, daughter of the most celebrated Duke of Marlborough. From them descends the current line of the Spencer family which was divided into two branches. The senior line are currently the ducal line of the Spencer family who holds the Dukedom of Marlborough. The 5th Duke of Marlborough later changed their surname to Spencer-Churchill to emphasize their descent from the first duke. The junior line are currently the comital branch of the family who holds the title Earl Spencer.

The comital branch of the Spencer family can trace their ancestry to most of Britain’s nobility as well as to most of Europe’s royal houses. The Spencers are direct descendants albeit illegitimate of the House of Stuart, with the family boasting at-least five line of direct descendancy from the Stuarts, and from them, the Spencers can trace their ancestry to other royal houses such as the Bourbons, the Medicis, the Wittelsbachs, the Hanovers, the Sforzas, and the Habsburgs. More-so, the Spencers are one of the very few British noble families to be the heirs body of a once sovereign family, being the senior female-line descendants of John Churchill, the once sovereign Prince of Mindelheim.

Children of Winston Churchill and Mary Caroline d’Erlanger
Lieutenant Randolph Leonard Churchill+1 b. 22 Jan 1965
Jennie Spencer Churchill+1 b. 25 Sep 1966
Marina Spencer Churchill+1 b. 11 Sep 1967
John Gerard Averell Spencer-Churchill+1 b. 27 Aug 1975

The remains of the medieval Woodstock Palace were cleared in 1705 to build Blenheim Palace, designed by John Vanbrugh for the first Duke of Marlborough after his victory against the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. The beautiful Marlborough Maze, which ingeniously incorporates cannonballs, trumpets and flags inspired by Grinling Gibbons’s Panoply of Victory roof carvings, was opened in 1991. It also includes a V sign in honour of Winston Churchill, who was born at the palace. According to the head gardener, Hilary Wood, it takes six people with hedge trimmers a week to prune the maze’s two miles of tapered yew hedges every October.

THE story of “Fair Rosamond” and her mazy Bower, though it cannot lay claim to that standard of authenticity which is generally required of historical data, has for so long occupied an honoured position in the realm of popular romance that, in a book professing to treat of mazes from a broad point of view, we cannot dismiss it quite as briefly as we might perhaps do in a book on English history.

“Fair Rosamond” has been stated, without very much foundation, to have been the daughter of Walter de Clifford, and is in consequence frequently referred to as Rosamond Clifford.

The story runs that King Henry the Second (A.D. 1133 to 1189) adopted her as his mistress, and that, in order to conceal his illicit amours from his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he conducted them within the innermost recesses of a most complicated maze which he caused to be made in his park at Woodstock. Rumours of her spouse’s defections having reached the ears of Queen Eleanor, that indignant lady contrived to penetrate the labyrinth, confronted her terrified and tearful rival, and forced her to choose between the dagger and the bowl of poison; she drained the latter and became forthwith defunct.

Various trimmings, more or less scandalous in nature,

p. 165

gathered around the central tale, as, for instance, that Rosamond presented Henry with the son who was afterwards known as William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, but the main outline as indicated above was handed down intact for many generations.

The poisoning incident is not mentioned in the account given by a chronicler of that time, John Brompton, Abbot of Jervaulx (Yorks). It seems to have been first recorded by a French scribe in the fourteenth century.

Brompton’s version, given under the year 1151 in his “Chronicon,” is as follows:

“Sane idem rex Henricus quanquam multis virtutibus fuerat ornatus, aliquibus tamen viciis involutus personam regiam deturpavit. In libidine namque pronus conjugalem modum excessit. Regina enim sua Elianora jamdudum incarcerata factus est adulter manifestus, palam et impudice puellam retinens Rosamundam. Huic nempe puellae spectatissimae fecerat rex apud Wodestoke mirabilis architecturae cameram operi Daedalino similem, ne forsan a regina facile deprehenderetur. Sed ilia cito obiit, et apud Godestowe juxta Oxoniam in capitulo monialium in tumba decenti est sepulta, ubi talis suprascriptio invenitur:

“Hic facet in tumba Rosa mundi, non Rosa munda;
Non redolet, sed olet, quae redolere solet.”

It would appear from this account that the “bower” was a labyrinth of an architectural kind, perhaps like that mentioned in Chapter XIV as having been built at Ardres by Louis of Bourbourg in the previous century, not, as popularly believed, a maze of evergreens. It will be seen, also, that Henry did not long enjoy his clandestine delights, for Rosamond shortly died and was buried before the high altar of the nunnery church of Godstowe. Her death is believed to have taken place about 1176. It is possible that she had entered the nunnery some time

p. 166

before that. According to the contemporary annalist Roger de Hoveden her body was removed in 1191 by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, on moral grounds, and was apparently re-interred in the chapter-house.

The imprisonment of Queen Eleanor, referred to by Brompton, was a consequence of her connivance at the rebellion of her sons in 1173-74.

Ranulph Higden, who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, deals with the Henry and Rosamond story in the seventh book of his “Polychronicon,” and tells us that visitors to Godstowe Abbey used to be shown a wonderful coffer which had belonged to Rosamond. It contained figures of birds, beasts, fishes and boxing men, which, by clockwork or springs, were endowed with apparently spontaneous motion (Cista ejusdem puella vix bipedalis mensura, sed mirabilis architectura ibidem cernitur; in qua conflictus pugilem, gestus animalium, volatus avium, saltus piscium, absque hominis impulsu conspiciuntur).

Most of the subsequent chroniclers seem to have followed Higden in their relation of the story. By Tudor times the romantic and tragic episode had become a favourite theme in popular lore; it was enshrined by the Elizabethan poet Drayton in his “Epistle to Rosamond,” the bower being therein described as an arrangement of subterranean vaults. It achieved its greatest popularity, however, in the ballad form, and was printed, with several other “Strange Histories or Songs and Sonnets of Kinges, Princes, Dukes, Lords, Ladyes, Knights and Gentlemen, etc.,” in a black-letter volume written or edited by Thomas Delone (or Delorney) in 1612. Two editions of the ballad were represented in the collection of Samuel Pepys, under the title of “The Life and Death of Rosamond, King Henry the Second’s Concubine. And how she was Poysoned to Death by Queen Elenor.”

John Aubrey, in his “Remaines,” 1686, tells us that his nurse used to sing the following verses to him:

p. 167

“Yea, Rosamond, fair Rosamond,
Her name was called so,
To whom dame Elinor our Queene
Was known a deadly foe,
The King therefore for her defence
Against the furious Queene
At Woodstocke builded such a Bower
The like was never seen.

“Most curiously that Bower was built
Of stone and timber strong.
An hundered and fifty dores
Did to this Bower belong,
And they so cunningly contriv’d
With turnings round about
That none but with a clew of thread
Could enter in or out.”

[paragraph continues] The whole ballad will be found in the well-known “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” collected by Bishop Percy and published by him in 1765.

Of a widely different nature was the version published in 1729 by Samuel Croxall in his “Select Collection of Novels,” Vol. IV. “The Loves of King Henry II and Fair Rosamond.” Here the attitude assumed is one of learned contempt for popular credulity. “What have we in this Story,” says Croxall, “but a Copy of Ariadne’s Clue and the Cretan Labyrinth? . . . Yet are we not to wonder that the monkish Historians should deliver down to us a Tale of such Absurdity, when the same Chronicles tell us that, in that King’s Reign, a Dragon of marvellous Bigness was seen at St. Osyth’s in Essex, which, by its very motion, set many Houses and Buildings on Fire.”

As for the inscription on Rosamond’s tomb, quoted by Brompton, our critic is equally scornful. “The conceit,” he says, “is poor and common and, like the other Poetry of those times, depends on a certain Jingle and Play on the Words. The sense of them has been thus expressed in honest English Metre:”

(Whether the verse is in better taste when expressed in

p. 168

honest English metre the reader must judge for himself.)

“Rose of the World, not Rose the peerless Flow’r,
Within this Tomb hath taken up her Bow’r.
She scenteth now, and nothing Sweet doth smell
Who earst was wont to savour passing well.”

[paragraph continues] This rendering is perhaps preferable to that of Stowe (“Annals,” 1631), which concludes with:

“Though she were sweete, now foully doth she stinke,
A mirrour good for all men, that on her thinke.”

In any case the epitaph must be accounted a libel in one respect, for Leland, the Antiquary to Henry VIII, records that, on the opening of Rosamond’s tomb, at the dissolution of Godstowe nunnery, the bones were found to be encased in leather, surrounded by lead, and that “a very swete smell came out of it.”

An interesting point mentioned by Croxall is that in his time “a delightful Bower” was still in existence at Woodstock and was shown as the original of the story. Another reliable writer of the same period (Thomas Hearne, 1718) makes a similar observation, but in this case it is made clear that the remains are those of a large building, not, as we might have inferred, those of a hedge maze or arbour. These remains, whatever they may have been, have disappeared long since.

Woodstock Park, according to the historian Rouse of Warwick, was the first park to be made in England. Henry the First had a palace here, but the present great building, the masterpiece of Sir John Vanbrugh, was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and was named after the scene of his famous victory, Blenheim.

The traditional story of Fair Rosamond, in which she is made to figure as a cruelly wronged and guileless damsel of impregnable virtue and the victim of an unreasoning jealousy, formed the basis of many novels,

p. 169

e.g., “Fair Rosamond,” by T. Miller (“The Parlour Library”), 1847, and as late as 1911 it was cast into the form of a one-act tragedy by Mr. Oliver W. F. Lodge, under the name of “The Labyrinth,” and was first performed by the Pilgrim Players on October 14 in that year. A little-known opera by Addison deals with the same theme; it is entitled “Rosamond” and is inscribed to the Duchess of Marlborough. The most poignant and beautiful version of the tragedy is that given by Swinburne in his “Rosamond” (not, of course, to be confused with his “Rosamund”).

Tennyson, in his “Becket,” makes that prelate rescue Rosamond from the Queen at the crucial moment and take her to Godstowe nunnery, whence she later escapes to intercede—ineffectually—with his murderers in Canterbury Cathedral.

No authentic portrait of Rosamond is known to exist, but in Hampton Court Palace, just outside Cardinal Wolsey’s Room, there hangs a half-length female portrait by an unknown painter (No. 961 [937]), which is labelled Rosamond Clifford. The lady depicted, however, is attired in a fashion which did not obtain until considerably later than the time of Rosamond; in fact, there seems to be no justification whatever for assuming that the picture represents the fair Rosamond at all, except perhaps in the imagination of the artist.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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3 Responses to The Maze and Grail At Blenheim Palace

  1. Ben Toney says:

    I would like to point out that William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury was the son of Ida de Toney, Countess of Norfolk, wife of Roger de Bigod 2nd Earl of Norfolk. A London cartilary of the abbey at Bradenstoke (Wiltshire) found in 1979 in William’s own words said “Contissa Ida mater mea” (Countess Ida my mother). Ida had been one of Henry’s mistresses before her marriage to Roger de Bigod. Her father had died when she was very young, and she was brought up in Henry’s household.

  2. I will be posting on Ida tommorow. She may be Rosamond.

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