Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Godstow

Godstow Bridge
Godstow Bridge

The path takes me underneath the busy A34 trunk road, and the dainty stone bridge at Godstow gradually appears into view.

I stand on the bridge and look across at one of “The” pubs along the banks of the Thames. This is the Trout Inn at Godstow and it has one of the finest riverside terraces you could desire for sitting in the sunshine with a drink and watching the river go by.

The small weir just upstream makes the waters running past the terrace an extremely attractive environment for fish. A large shoal of chub inhabits this stretch and the fish can often be seen cruising just below the surface, waiting for the inevitable piece of sandwich to be thrown towards them which rapidly disappears in a quick swirl. A very attractive wooden footbridge connects the terrace to an island in the river, although public access is not permitted.

The Trout, Godstow
The Trout, Godstow

The Trout was originally a hospice for the nearby Godstow Nunnery, and is believed to date from 1138. It was always a popular venue for the people of Oxford, and when it was featured regularly in the popular “Inspector Morse” books and television series it became very busy indeed.

I cross the narrow lane carried over the river by Godstow Bridge, and ahead lay the sad ruins of Godstow Nunnery.

It was once a magnificent ecclesiastical complex. In addition to the nunnery it possessed a church, chapel, courtyards, cloisters, priest house, guest house and a chapter house. Now all that remains are the outer walls and ruins of the chapel.

The grounds were given to Edith, the widow of Sir William Launceline in 1133. Edith caused the priory to be built on what was then an island between two Thames streams. The nunnery was consecrated in 1139 to the honour of St.Mary and St John the Baptist.

Godstow Nunnery
Godstow Nunnery

How did the nunnery become so impressive? For that we must go back to one of the earliest Royal scandals.

Rosamund Clifford was a noted beauty of the 12th century. Known as “The Fair Rosamund” she first met and enchanted Henry II at her father’s castle in 1163 when Henry was leading regular raids into Wales. She became his mistress, and when this eventually became public knowledge in 1164 there followed the inevitable rows between Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

After two more years as Henry’s mistress Rosamund decided to retire and join the sisterhood at Godstow Nunnery. Shortly after joining the community of nuns Rosamund died in what we would today cautiously term “suspicious circumstances”. The detailed facts are not recorded or properly known, but suffice to say that the popular conspiracy theory of the day included the words “poison” and “Eleanor”.

Rosamund was buried in front of the high altar at Godstow. King Henry was distraught, and granted large endowments to the nunnery in memory of Rosamund. These endowments were utilised to expand the properties to their later glory.

The local people had taken Rosamund to their hearts and decorated the tomb with flowers and it became a shrine for many years. Then, in 1191, two years after Henry II’s death, the Nunnery received a visit from the Bishop of Lincoln. On seeing the shrine in front of the high altar the bishop denounced Rosamund as a harlot and ordered the shrine to be destroyed and the body exhumed and reinterred outside of the church. The second grave was still visited by many of the local people who paid tribute until it was destroyed during the dissolution in 1539.

The nunnery also had a somewhat racy reputation. An information board at Godstow Lock coyly refers to its former reputation for offering “hospitality” to the monks of Oxford.

After the dissolution, the nunnery was turned into a private residence by George Owen and became known as Godstow House. The civil war brought the final destruction of the former nunnery with constant clashes between Royalists and Roundheads. After this the stones were taken away by local people to build their houses, leaving the sad, grey outlines that we see today.

Some say that the fair Rosamund is still to be found wandering the ruins and surrounding meadow as the Ghost of the Grey Lady soulfully searching for her final resting place and everlasting peace.

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