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13 November 2014

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You are in: Oxford > Places > Places features > Alice's Adventures in... Woodstock?

Woodstock historian Dr Robert Edwards (left) and Alice theorist Christopher Tyler near Rosamund's Well at Blenheim

Dr Edwards (left) and Christopher Tyler.

Alice's Adventures in... Woodstock?

The famous Alice in Wonderland stories may echo life at the lost royal palace of Woodstock.

The Alice in Wonderland stories of Oxford's Lewis Carroll just got curiouser... and curiouser.

An amateur historian in America has spotted parallels between Alice's world and the court of King Henry the Second - and his palace at Woodstock.

Christopher Tyler (l) and Dr Edwards at the site of the lost palace

At the site of the lost palace.

Christopher Tyler says the talking white rabbit, the King and Queen of Hearts and a croquet match played with flamingoes could all echo stories of Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

He says: "I started reading the history of Eleanor and I was familiar with the Alice books. I came across an extraordinary number of coincidences between history and the stories.

"The more I looked into it, the more things seemed to match up."

The stories start with Alice following a talking white rabbit down a burrow and falling into a maze-like corridor with various doors leading off it.

Mr Tyler says there are similarities with a 14th Century description of a labyrinth Henry reputedly built at Woodstock to hide his lover, the fair Rosamund.

Various stories tell how Eleanor penetrated the maze and killed her.

The palace at Woodstock served English monarchs for centuries before being demolished in 1720. A stone plinth marks the site, just across the lake from Blenheim Palace.

Some of the stone may have ended up in Vanburgh's famous bridge across the lake. Otherwise, all that remains is a pool known as Rosamund's Well, widely believed to be part of "Rosamund's bower".

Could it also be the model for the Pool of Tears, in which Alice nearly drowned?

The Alice stories took shape when Carroll - real name Charles Dodgson - began telling them to amuse his young friend Alice Liddell on a rowing trip up the Thames.

Dodgson knew some local history: the stories feature a treacle well, based on a holy well at Binsey, up-river from Oxford. "Treacle" was a medieval term for a healing liquid. So could he also have known about the forgotten palace at Blenheim, and its illustrious queen?

Christopher Tyler - a research scientist who lives in San Francisco - says he could: "Dodgson was a voracious reader of history.

"He was a frequent guest of Dean Liddell, who was himself a frequent guest at Blenheim. They had picnics in the grounds."

Dean Liddell, of Christ Church in Oxford, was also the father of the real Alice.

Queen Eleanor was one of history's most colourful characters. She led 300 women on the Second Crusade and reputedly tried to elope with the crusaders' enemy, Saladin. She also ruled her own lands in France.

The parallels with Alice begin right at the start of the story.

Alice runs after a talking white rabbit that's worried about being late and tumbles into Wonderland. Eleanor's first husband was nicknamed the White Rabbit because he was so timid.

The corridor Alice finds herself in bears similarities with an ancient description of the labyrinth around Rosamund's apartment - including a corridor with nine doors, and a gallery with differently-shaped entrances. 

The description of Rosamund's labyrinth was written by a historian monk from Cheshire - Dodgson's home county. Could one of them be the Cheshire cat?

Both the Alice books - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Alice Through The Looking Glass - feature menageries of exotic animals. Henry II built England's first enclosed park at Woodstock and filled it with animals from far lands, including a lion and camels.

The second book is based on a game of chess: the Queen figure in chess is said to have replaced an earlier piece, the grand vizier, in tribute to Eleanor's power.

The first book ends with a madcap courtroom scene in which the King and Queen of Hearts try the Knave of Hearts for stealing tarts. Mr Tyler says this could hark back to mock trials in "courts of love" that Eleanor invented to amuse her circle.

He says: "The foul-tempered Queen of Hearts accords well with the dual character of Eleanor, doyenne of the courts of love but an iron-fisted ruler."

Alice encounters a lion and a unicorn fighting in the second book. "The lion and the unicorn have been widely interpreted as symbols of the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor," says Mr Tyler.

The bumbling White Knight in the stories could be based on Eleanor's grandfather, he says. "He was famous as the first troubadour, and for his ineffective campaigning as a crusader in Turkey, when he was frequently ambushed and defeated, and once lost his entire army."

Woodstock historian Dr Robert Edwards said the Eleanor theory was "a lovely idea".

Alice herself might have thought differently:

"I think you might do something better with the time," she said, "than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers."

last updated: 07/01/2009 at 10:06
created: 02/01/2009

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