Henry’s sons are rebelling in France. It is the year 1173, which began on a Monday and will see fighting from Scotland to Brittany. The land will watch man tearing himself to pieces, destroying much of what has been built.
Before Henry quits England for France, he goes to his mistress, Fair Rosamond. He drops to the floor at her feet, but she will not allow her king to kneel before her, and curls around him on the cold stone. He is talking of his sons…insolent, he says. Contemptuous… The words bring blood to his face.
Of his wife, who is also involved, he cannot even speak.
Rosamond strokes his hands, his cheek. She kisses his lips.
My Rose, he says. My royal Rose.
He swears his return will be soon.
Why should I stay behind? Let me come and bear your sword, and prepare your bed at night, she begs.
The king shakes his head. He cannot help smiling.
Wanting you, my life is death, she says, gripping him.
My dearest love! Roses are not fit for travel. You shall pass the day with music, the king tells her.
Rosamond feels tears down her face, creeping towards the corners of her mouth. They are salty on her tongue.
This was to be the last time they saw each other, or so the ballad by Thomas Delone published in 1612 goes:
After that daye faire Rosamonde
The king did see no more.
The ballad ends with a murder – Eleanor of Aquitaine, the jealous queen, poisons Rosamond with a deadlye draught –though this is a story modern historians don’t believe.
Within the remaining walls of Godstow Nunnery, near to the shell of the south-east chapel, is a fragile tree. Its trunk is grey, brittle. There are very few leaves – green, but a diminished green. In 1808 Robert Southey, writing under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella in order to write Letters From England, talks of a hazel tree growing over the grave of Rosamond, bearing every year a profusion of nuts, which have no kernel.
Enough of the last year’s produce were lying under the tree
to satisfy me of the truth of this, explain it how you will.
I don’t know if this ailing tree is the hazel tree that Espriella talks of, but it is a striking figure, alone in the Nunnery ruins; tall above the grass and weeds around, battered by wind, cowering almost. Why has this tree grown where none other has? Or is it the sole survivor?
Beyond the perimeter, there are numerous trees. Trees in rows, in flocks, scattered across the lumpy landscape. Close to the ruined walls, directly west of this sole survivor, are two trees entwined; the trunk is like the fingers of a worn, wrinkled hand that have crossed themselves for luck. Above, is a mix of slight lime leaves and pink blossom – possibly a crab apple – amongst larger, greener foliage – almost waxy – durable and thick. There are bursts of both, lying like continents and sea.
Adelina rises, gathers the cloth by her bedside, and goes directly to the dormitory door. The nuns sleep clothed with their girdles on, so she simply adjusts the cord around her waist, which had slipped to the back during sleep, and touches her head. She no longer wears her hair in ringlets as she once did – but that is almost another life now.
The birds sense the coming sun and have begun to call softly, enquiring. Some of the older nuns are wheezing in their sleep. Sister Talida has been removed because of her illness. It will not be long for her now. Under insistent pain, her life will tighten and break.
Adelina descends the stone steps to the church. She can hear into silence now, sense the life of it – what it gives, that feeling of peace. But peace is not always with her. There is doubt and fear in her heart, which often makes little room for good. Life is a hard task, each day a climb, never knowing always wondering: what lies beyond?
She folds the cloth in half and then again until she has a long narrow strip, which she holds across her arms and walks slowly in this way towards the gravestone. Nubs of wax lie scattered, their flames burnt or blown out. Adelina kneels, laying the cloth on the stone and closing her eyes. She does not know, but thinks perhaps that it is love we all seek; love, which in its purest form can guide and heal.
On my way to the Abbey, I saw a man in a field, moving slowly and with method. He had a small shovel in one hand and some contraption in the other. I left the path and began to walk towards him, across the pitted, marshy ground. At one point he stopped still and dug the shovel into the ground.
Hello, he said, when I drew near.
Is that a metal detector? I asked.
I told him that I’d never met anyone with a metal detector before.
It was his boss that had got him into it, he said. They were fairly cheap to buy – anyone with a few hours to spare could take it up.
How deep does it detect? I asked as he dug up another lump of earth.
Twenty to thirty centimetres.
I wonder what’s down there.
He stopped and handed me something and said: I’ve already found this today.
It was a buckle. The frame of the buckle was extremely slender and the prong had a fine, almost sharp, triangular point.
The man told me that he thought it might be about 1870.
He crouched down then and put his hand into the hole he had dug. When he stood up I could see that he had something and was cleaning the dirt off it. He handed it to me – it was a smoothed, thick shard of metal. I made a tight fist around it, and felt a presence against my flesh, a small yet perceptible weight.
Is it warm from your hand or the ground? I asked the man.
Rosamond was buried in front of the high alter at the nunnery in Godstow. The nuns lit candles for her and laid them around the tombstone. As I approached the ruins and saw the walls of the chapel, with the windows – some of their tracery still intact – I thought of the women that had looked at the world beyond. They might have pressed their palm against the glass, wondering what life meant, what their future would be. Unmarried life was hard and may have been why many women came to the nunnery, and also why the story of Rosamond became such a meaningful one for them – this woman who had won the heart of a king, a woman like any one of them could have been. Although the ballad is not historically accurate in terms of the events it portrays, it told me something of the times: Rosamond is prepared to bear Henry’s sword and target in France so that the blows will come to her breast instead. But Henry sees only a woman before him – and thinks only of the soft peace in which their sex delights – unable to grasp the strength that Rosamond’s love has given her. There was also the queen’s jealousy – thought powerful enough to give rise to a legend of murder, even if this murder didn’t actually occur.
I told the man with the metal detector that I was on my way to Godstow Nunnery.
Ah yes, he said.
I asked whether he had searched there.
It’s not allowed, he told me. The site was protected.
I asked him how long he thought this protection would last – moving on in general to all the land along the river here, saying how incredible it was to be in town one minute and then suddenly surrounded on all sides by countryside. At what point in the future, beyond our lifetimes, would this all be built upon?
But this area floods, he told me.
Measures can be taken against that, I said, thinking of all the terrain that man had already reclaimed of this country; how centuries ago the invention of machines such as the plough had enabled the taming of land that had for so long been thought inhabitable. Everything changes.
As I came inside the walls of Godstow and approached the south-east chapel – the only significant remains – I took in a deep breath, thinking, you are to enter a space that is hundreds of years old, where many things have gone before. I stepped inside and listened. I imagined how trapped a life could feel in times of ignorance – constrained, desperate, frightening. I reached out and placed my hand against the stone. There are so many people of this world, whose names we will never know – thoughts, troubles, joys that have gone on unwritten and thus are lost to us.
A cobweb stretched across the mortar. It had caught hold of a tiny leaf that had browned and curled. Now, an earwig scuttled across the pale stone.
It struck me – leaving the chapel and finding a rock to sit on and watch, feeling the nunnery’s still quiet presence – how things are shaped: it was Henry’s relationship with Rosamond that enabled Godstow to become the building it did. He made huge endowments after her death. This was the place of her resting and Henry gave money and shingles and wood, enabling the nunnery to be enlarged. Now, it is a ruin, though it’s no longer falling down. It looks stable. A lot of the damage was purposefully inflicted by the Royalists, during the Civil War of the 17th century, to stop the Parliamentary army getting hold of the nunnery and using it as a stronghold. Some of it was due to people coming and taking stones to build their own houses. Times move on.
Inside the chapel I had seen something glinting amongst the grass and nettles. I’d thought of the man with his metal detector, and crouched down, but it was only a scrunched up aluminium pie case, thrown by someone, unthinking of this place and all it had held once. On the walls, initials were carved in the stone, full names, dates – people needing to have some remains of themselves within these already remains. Something in this deliberate act for posterity seemed cheap against the unknowing, humble ruins of the nunnery.
On visiting Godstow Nunnery after Henry’s death, the Bishop of Lincoln asked whose grave it was that was being so worshipped. When he was told, he was furious that a harlot could have been given such pride of place and ordered that her remains be removed outside the nunnery.
They were moved again during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. It is said that when the tomb was opened up, a sweet smell issued forth.
On my way back, I saw the man with the metal detector still making his way around the field.
I’d asked him what he did with the things he found.
Clean them up, try to date them, he said.
Do you sell them? I asked.
No, I keep them. But then, I’ve never found anything that’s worth much.
I continued home, but watched him as I walked, waving once. He was too engrossed in his work to see me: head down, waving the metal detector from side to side, searching out what had been left behind – these fragments of the past.
It seemed to me that the trees were fragments too, pieces of a bigger story. Those two trunks, plaited as one, knotted together forever, just as Henry and Rosamond. Their lives became entwined the moment they met, as did the future of Godstow. Then there is that sole survivor, grey and crooked, which spoke to me of what endures, despite all. Eleanor was to outlive both Rosamond and Henry, see the start of the 13th century and become ruler of England for a time. But beyond even her life was the unfaltering enchantment of Fair Rosamond – her remains venerated by the nuns of Godstow, still fragrant centuries later, producing a hazel tree, whose nuts possess no kernel as if in some proof of chastity. These are the things the metal detector can’t ring out, which come to us some other way.