The legendary medieval queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married Louis VII, heir to the French throne, in the wake of her father's death at the age of fifteen. She presided over one of the most joyful courts in Europe, filled with troubadours, poets and romantic adventures. Sadly, when she could not bear her husband a son, their marriage was annulled and she married Henry II, Duke of Normandy and future king of England. Life in England and with Henry did not hold the gaiety of France, and, though she bore him five sons and three daughters, Henry took many mistresses.
The story of Eleanor and Rosamund fascinated 19th Century society as an indiscernable mixture of fact and apocryphal legend. In this work, Cowper depicts the version of the story in which Queen Eleanor penetrates the labyrinthine castle that Henry II built for his mistress Rosamund, intent upon killing her rival. The queen grasps the thread, which she used to guide her through the maze, and now extends it like a web encroaching upon a weaker Rosamund. Legend stated that Eleanor poisoned her victim; in this picture, however, Cowper chose to paint the Queen clutching a dagger with a golden handle that reflects as brilliantly as her gilded brocade. After the Queen slew Rosamund, her body was buried near Oxford at a house of nuns, with these verses upon her tomb:
Hic jacet in tumba Rosa mundi, non Rosa munda;
Non redolet, sedolet, quae redolere solet.
The legend of Rosamund and Queen Eleanor was a favorite subject of many Victorian painters including Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Frederick Sandys and Arthur Hughes.