UNITED STATES

Dark Island, NY

On Dark Island, Ponder Fair Rosamund’s Fate

Singer Castle on Dark Island, New York

Singer Castle, built for the Singer Sewing Company’s president Frank Bourne in 1902, was modelled on Sir Walter Scott’s description of the place where Henry II’s mistress, Fair Rosamund, was imprisoned in the 12th century.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

A MEDIEVAL mystery echoes down the centuries and across an ocean to the halls of a faux castle on this island in the St. Lawrence River.

The mystery: what happened to Fair Rosamund, the beautiful young mistress of King Henry II (1133-1189) of England? Was she murdered by his jealous queen, Eleanor of Aquataine? Or did she live out her later years anonymously, in a convent?

It’s a riddle you can ponder as you walk the corridors and gardens, study the ancient weapons and suits of armour, and peer into the secret passages of Singer Castle, here on Dark Island, a few hundred metres south of the Canada-U.S. border in the St. Lawrence. (Belying its name, Dark Island is a pleasant place, not in the least eerie or brooding.) Or, if you want to pay $725, you and your lover can ponder in the bridal suite, which may be a replica of Rosamund’s bedchamber.

Regrettably, the guide on the day of my visit appeared to know very little about the castle’s medieval connection, beyond saying the building “was modelled on an English castle.”

In fact, the original was not a castle. Medieval castles were fortified structures. Woodstock Manor, in Oxfordshire, was a royal hunting lodge in a forest stocked with deer and wild boar for the entertainment of Henry and his courtiers. (“Woodstock,” in Norman English, means a clearing in the woods.)

It was there that, sometime around 1160, Henry sequestered Rosamund de Clifford, the woman who has gone down in English folklore as Fair Rosamund.

Supposedly—and there are a lot of suppositions in the tale—the entrance to Rosamund’s quarters was guarded by a maze, but the jealous Eleanor found a silken thread that had been torn from her rival’s gown. She followed it to the tragic young woman’s chamber and poisoned her. (Another version says Eleanor’s knight stabbed the young woman.)

Serious historians reject the story. They say Rosamund died in a nunnery, where she had fled to atone for her adultery with the king. Some say Henry “leaked” the murder story to blacken Eleanor, whom he had grown to hate.

Woodstock Manor was destroyed in the English Civil War (1642-51). But a description of it came into the hands of Sir Walter Scott, the great Scottish novelist, and he included it in his 1826 novel Woodstock or The Cavalier.

Fast forward to 1902. It was the Gilded Age for America’s industrialists and tycoons and Frank Bourne, president of the Singer Sewing Company, wanted a summer “cottage” on his three-hectare Dark Island. He commissioned architect Ernest Flagg, who had designed the Singer Building in New York.

Flagg was a fan of Sir Walter so, switching his talents from skyscrapers to castles, he modelled Flagg’s summer home on the novelist’s description, red-topped turrets, a dungeon, tunnels and all. The cost: $500,000, a fortune in those days.

Singer Castle remained a private residence until 2003, when the present owners opened it to public tours. Among the books in its library is a first edition of Scott’s Woodstock.

 

ACCESS

Boat tours to Dark Island depart from Rockport, Ontario (www.rockportcruises.com) and Alexandria Bay, New York (www.usboattours.com). The Rockport cruise also stops at Boldt Castle, another rich man’s folly.

For more information on Singer Castle visit its website at www.singercastle.com.