Rosa Mundi

The air was sweet with the scent of roses that June morning all those years ago. I can hardly remember what I did yesterday, but I remember that day as clear as anything. If you sit quietly I shall tell you about that day and about a girl I met who came from far, far away and who was as generous and kind as she was beautiful.


I was helping my mother in the priory herb garden. We’d risen before dawn while the dew was still wet and silvery on the meadow grass. We were to gather herbs for strewing and they needed to be picked before the sun got too high and burnt away the scent. My mother was one of very few women allowed inside the Priory grounds. She laughed when I asked why the canons so feared women and she said it was because we were too clever, then looked serious and told me never to tell what she had said. I promised and we walked on, lifting our heavy woollen skirts above the grass. I can still remember the feel of the cold dew soaking through my soft leather shoes and feeling the sun strike my cheek as we entered the walled garden that was my mother’s secret domain.


She’d been given the job of herbalist after at least three of the lay brothers had tried and failed to grow anything decent in the ground set aside for herbs. My mother had a good reputation locally and the black canons had reluctantly asked for her help. She had agreed so long as they left her alone, something they were more than happy to do.


Once we had arrived, mother usually took a few minutes to look round to see if any birds or insects had been at work damaging her precious plants. I walked with her, trying to learn as I went; recognising ladybirds, they were good creatures because they ate greenfly; shooing off sparrows because they tweaked out the seedling plants.


We had just collected up our rush baskets ready to start cutting the lemon balm and rosemary for strewing when Brother Eustace came running into the garden. He was friendly with my mother ever since she had cured him of spots with one of her special tinctures. That June day, his face was red with excitement and we had to sit him down for a few minutes to let him catch his breath.


When he’d recovered we realised why he was so excited. The priory was to receive some very special visitors. A Venetian merchant was coming to inspect his wool order while it was still on the backs of the priory sheep. Bolton Priory had thousands of sheep grazing on the hills above Malham. Still do as far as I know. Their wool was highly prized all over Europe and merchants from Venice bought the wool in advance. This particular merchant was visiting several estates in the north of England and Bolton was on his itinerary.


We then set to with greater urgency filling the baskets full of armfuls of fresh green herbs and sweet flowers. Some for placing in washing water. Some for strewing on the floors of the guest rooms to make them smell sweet. More for the kitchens to flavour sauces and roast meat. By lunchtime we were exhausted and hot. Mother called a halt and we rested in the shade of one of the apple trees and ate some bread and sheep’s cheese for our lunch, washed down with cold spring water.


And then we heard them. Horses, dogs, men shouting, the creaking of an ox cart, the bellowing of goaded cattle. We both ran to the gate and saw a sight I shall never forget. A great train of people on horses, men dressed in bright coloured clothing, boys running alongside with fierce hunting dogs on leashes and in the middle, the huge ox-cart pulled by two oxen and on top of it a square pavilion draped with fine woollen cloth. Hidden inside was the merchant’s only daughter, Rosamund (according to our friend Eustace). She was the fairest maid in Venice and the merchant took her with him wherever he went since he couldn’t bear to be parted from her.


The cavalcade passed right by us and we bowed to the ground as the merchant himself rode by. He had the darkest eyes I had ever seen and I heard him muttering to his companion in a lilting tongue that I didn’t recognise.


Brushing the dust from our coifs and clothing we returned to the garden and I remember that all thought of work was forgotten as my mother and I discussed the glorious sight we had just seen. Not for long however as two of the lay brothers arrived with orders to collect herbs for the kitchen and guest rooms. We hurriedly bundled up what we had picked and off they went with them.


After that, there was more work to be done in the afternoon heat, listening to the bees in the mint flowers and dreaming of the mysterious girl hidden behind fine woollen cloth. I was kneeling in among the rose bushes pulling out weeds and must have begun to doze off, because all of a sudden I came to with a dreadful start and realised that someone was standing watching me. I leapt up, and came face to face with a girl about the same age as me, with eyes as dark as the merchant’s. She was wearing a shimmering white dress heavily embroidered with gold thread, and in her tightly bound and covered hair there were tiny seed pearls. She smiled and spoke to me pointing at the roses that I had been weeding. I shook my head because I didn’t understand what she said. ‘Rosa mundi’ she said again and now I heard it through her accent. ‘Yes’ I smiled, that’s what it’s called, ‘Rosa mundi’, she had been pointing at the red and white striped petals of my mother’s favourite rose. It was nowhere near as useful as the dog rose that gave us hips for syrup or the dark red Apothecary’s rose that when distilled gave us perfume, but its crumpled tissue petals were like raspberries crushed into milk and a beautiful reminder that high summer was on its way.


I wondered that she knew the name of the rose and then saw that she was pointing to herself and realised that what she was actually saying was her name, ‘Rosamund’. I laughed and pointed to myself and told her that my name was Rosemary and I took her by the hand and led her to the herb itself and pointed at it. It seemed that she too loved plants and we walked around the garden hand in hand pointing out plants and saying the names. We understood nothing else of each other’s language but it was enough for us to enjoy the beauty of the flowers and be friends just for those few short moments.


My mother was off in the hut crushing up wormwood for our neighbour’s son. He had worms and needed to be purged, I shuddered at the thought and my new friend looked at me with a worried face. I shook my head and then smiled. ‘Come’ I said, and led her back to the roses. I took out my little knife and cut her three of the best Rosa mundi blooms. I curtseyed and gave them to her and she thanked me in her own tongue then untied a grey scarf from around her wrist and gave it to me in return. It was made of the finest silk and ran though my hands like water. It was far too good for a present and I was trying to make her take it back when I heard a shout from the wicket gate.


The merchant’s daughter shoved me into the rose bushes waving her hands and indicating that I should crouch down and hide which I gladly did as the girl’s nurse and two guards came striding over. From the tone of the nurse’s voice she was scolding my new friend and she was then led away. I could hear the nurse’s loud words for several minutes after they’d all disappeared.


At this point, my mother stuck her head out of the garden hut and demanded to know what was going on. I’d already hidden the scarf away in my waist band and realised that if I told her about it I’d probably get scolded as much as my Venetian friend so I just said that the merchant’s daughter had got lost and found her way into the garden and that her nurse had found her and given her a bit of a talking to. My mother knew when I was telling half-truths and looked at me very suspiciously but with so much work to do, she didn’t have time to winkle it out of me.


By sunfall, we had prepared many bags of herb mixtures for the priory’s hospital. All carefully labelled. My mother was proud of her ability to write. No other woman I knew could and of the men, only the canons could use a pen. I was trying to learn too, but my mother had little time and I wasn’t a good pupil.



That evening, back in our wooden, heather-thatched house, I carefully wrapped my beautiful silk scarf up in a piece of soft wool and hid it in the bracken mattress. I knew already that I couldn’t keep it and cried myself to sleep at the thought of my friend’s generosity and how unfair the world was.


Next day, if I remember rightly, my mother was late rising and I managed to creep out of the house before anyone stirred. The farm dogs knew me and let me past and I hurried off down the lane towards the village that my grandmother lived in. It wasn’t far, down to the stepping stones, across the river and up through the fields on the other side of the valley.


When I arrived, she was already up and carrying a full pail of milk from the cow. She was shoving its greedy calf away from the bucket and I laughed to see the battle between my tiny relative, bent with age, and the glossy coated calf, full of energy and determination. I ran to help and between us we headed it off back to its mother.


I carried the milk into her tiny house and we sat beside the open fire, just smouldering underneath the blackened cook pot. She composed herself, knowing without asking that I had some problem to lay at her feet. She was a very wise woman and no problem was too difficult that she couldn’t give you some help.


I unwrapped the scarf and held it out to her, and told her the story of dark eyed Rosamund. She let the fine cloth run between her twisted old fingers and nodded as I talked. Then without a word, she gave me back the scarf, heaved herself up and led me out of the hut and out along the village path that led to their holy spring. The canons were rather rude about St Anne’s spout, and its powers. They preferred to talk to God in their great gloomy church. Grandmother on the other hand thought that you were closer to God in the open air and I agreed.


We reached the trickling spring and we blessed ourselves with the holy water, then I took the scarf and sadly tied it to the hawthorn tree that grew nearby. It was covered with little pieces of cloth left by people with problems and unfulfilled wishes. St Anne looked kindly on all of us and I said a silent prayer for my friend Rosamund, hoping that she wouldn’t get into too much trouble for giving her scarf away.


I never saw Rosamund again. By the time my mother and I went back to work in the garden, the merchant and his entourage had moved on. I did hear that when she left she was carrying a posy of red and white striped roses and that even after she had gone, the room she slept in still smelt faintly of roses. For many years I used to think of her when I gathered rose petals or weeded around the rose bushes. I hope that St Anne gave her as happy a life as I had and that she met a fine man and had fine children. And I hope that her grandchildren are a good deal better behaved than you lot! Now get up and leave me alone. I’ve had quite enough of you all for one day!