Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  Her son was born with very little trouble that month, on the very day—as she later learned—that Eustace died suddenly from food poisoning. Both events, she had no doubt, demonstrated God’s approval of Henry’s cause. The child was strong and lusty, with a shock of black hair, and he would be a king’s son before long, for it was now only a matter of time before the grieving and war-weary Stephen ceded victory to Henry FitzEmpress.

  She named her son William, at Henry’s insistence. It would, he had sent to command her, please the English—or, more importantly, the Norman barons who ruled over them—if the future heir to England were called after King William the Conqueror, Henry’s great-grandfather, who had invaded the kingdom and seized the crown in that memorable year 1066. She approved the choice: William had also been the name of her father, her grandfather, and many of their forebears. Her people would be pleased, and to please them further, she gave the child the title Count of Poitiers.

  Little William thrived. Although she handed him over to the care of a wet-nurse, since it was unthinkable that a great lady feed her own child, she made time each day to sing and play with him, taking delight in his progress and his gummy smiles. This child would not be a stranger to her as Marie and Alix had been. She would make sure of that.

  William was three months old when news came from England that Henry and Stephen had made a peaceful settlement at Winchester, the capital city. They had agreed that Stephen would remain on the throne for the rest of his life, and that Henry was then peacefully to succeed him as his legitimate heir; Stephen was even going to adopt him as his son. With the treaty concluded and sealed, nineteen years of conflict were brought to a joyful end.

  God knows, Henry might well be his son, if the rumors about Stephen and the Empress were true, Eleanor thought; it was only what others were saying openly. She rejoiced in her lord’s success and imagined how jubilantly his mother the Empress, who had fought so hard and bitterly to topple Stephen, would be receiving the happy news. There could be no question now, Eleanor reflected, that God approved of her divorce and remarriage, for now He had ordained that she should be a queen again, and that Henry should be master of a vast domain that stretched from the Scottish marches almost to the mighty Pyrenees. To crown it all, He had blessed them with an heir to carry on this new royal line. Her heart swelled with triumph and thankfulness. All their hopes and dreams were coming to fruition at last. Their empire would soon be a reality.

  It was Christmas; the palace was adorned with boughs of greenery, the yule log burned in the hearth, and the festive meats were roasting in the vast kitchens. Her beloved had been gone from her a year now. What would I not give, she thought, to see his face, hear his voice, feel his body hard upon mine? But it could not be long now before they were reunited and the terrible, dragging months of separation were over. With this joyous prospect in mind, she presided enthusiastically over the merry celebrations, and after solemn high mass had been celebrated in the cathedral on Christmas Day, sat enthroned in the Hall of Lost Footsteps wearing her ducal crown, her little son crowing upon her knee, to receive the greetings of her vassals.

  Soon, God willing, she would have another crown, although that would mean she must leave her beloved Aquitaine once more. This time it would be for that far-off, war-ravaged northern kingdom with its fertile green fields, ringing church bells, and cold winters, as Abbess Isabella had described.

  “But I will return whenever I can, never fear,” she promised fervently, kneeling before the painted statue of the Virgin and Child in her private chapel, saying her prayers as she always did before retiring for the night.


  Poitiers and England, 1154

  The new treaty had been sealed at Westminster, and England was now at peace. Henry had sworn allegiance to Stephen, and Stephen had promised to act with his advice in future.

  “God has granted a happy issue, and peace has shone forth!” the messenger told Eleanor, much impressed by the ceremonies he had witnessed.

  “What boundless joy for us all!” Eleanor exclaimed. “What a happy day for England!” It cannot be long now, she told herself. I will see him soon. She willed Henry to come home. What need had he to linger now?

  Henry raised himself on his forearms and looked down with distaste at the woman lying beneath him. She had a round, cheerful face, wavy fair hair that had fanned out over the straw-filled pillow, and a voluptuous body, but now that he’d had his fill of her, he realized that she repelled him.

  She puckered her lips, hoping he would kiss her as he used to.

  “Woman, you’re insatiable!” he told her, not unkindly, and, sitting up, reached for his braies.

  “Must you go?” she asked.

  “Surely the Lady of Akeny wishes to make herself ready for her husband’s return,” Henry mocked.

  “He rarely comes,” she said. “Roger never loved me. He turns a blind eye to my affairs. It’s his fault that people call me a strumpet, but what else can I do, when he never comes to my bed?”

  Henry, who was one of the chief causes why Sir Roger de Akeny had forsaken his wife for another, was at a loss for words. What did the woman expect? He did not love her. He had nothing to offer her beyond the fairly generous allowance he paid her for their son, the child conceived of their lust during one of his earlier visits to England. Geoffrey was four now, and lay sleeping in another chamber in the Akeny manor house, which commanded a ridge at Garsington, a village that lay in rolling country to the south of Oxford. Joanna did not think it fit that Geoffrey’s cot remain by her bed when Henry was in it.

  Henry loved his bright little boy, who always delighted him with his quick mind and precocious speech. He was prepared to do much for him in the future, but had tired of the child’s mother long since. Yet she was unavoidably there when he went to visit his son before departing from England, and she was available and willing—so why refuse what was on offer? He had taken his casual pleasure of sundry women—prostitutes, most of them—during his time in his future kingdom, with never a thought for Eleanor, or any sense of guilt. She was his wife, he loved her and missed her deeply, but he was a man, and when the urge came upon him, he could not deny it. So he had spilled his seed where he would, and the opportunities had been legion. Women were throwing themselves at him, this young, lionlike conqueror, tarts and noble ladies alike. He had taken full advantage of it. It never occurred to him that Eleanor would see this as the worst of betrayals. It was merely a physical need, like eating or pissing, and nothing to do with her.

  He stood up, fastening his belt. “I will send for Geoffrey when I am king,” he told the pouting Joanna. “I will acknowledge him as my son and bring him up accordingly. He will be well tutored, and should go far in life.” He did not pause to wonder what Eleanor would have to say about that.

  Henry was back at Westminster when his brother Geoffrey’s messenger reached him.

  “Well?” he barked. He was still annoyed with Geoffrey for allying himself with Louis, and—more importantly—was impatient to be out hunting.

  “My lord,” the man said, “my master sends you this.” He handed over a scrolled parchment. Henry broke the seal and unraveled it, then frowned.

  “It’s a poem,” he said, puzzled. “Why has he sent this to me?”

  “He asks that you read it, my lord duke.”

  Henry read. It was a love poem:

  I am not one to scorn

  The boon God granted me.

  She said, in accents clear,

  Before I did depart,

  “Your songs they please me well.”

  I would each Christian soul

  Could know my rapture then,

  For all I write and sing

  Is meant for her delight.

  He looked up. “What does this mean? Who wrote this?”

  “Bernard de Ventadour, a troubadour.” The messenger, a young man with a fresh, ruddy complexion, looked embarrassed. “Might we speak in private, sire?”

  Henry ush
ered him into an alcove. “Now, what is all this about?” he asked testily.

  “My Lord Geoffrey told me to say, sire, the poem was written for Madame the Duchess. She entertains this Bernard de Ventadour at her court. She always receives him as her guest with a warm welcome. His devotion to her is now well known, and many say he is in love with her. My master wishes you to know that his poems in her honor are sung even in Anjou and Normandy.”

  Henry grabbed the messenger violently by the collar of his leather jerkin.

  “What are you implying?” he hissed, his face twisted in fury.

  “Nothing, sire,” gasped the young man. “I but repeat what my master has asked me to tell you. Out of his great love for you, he thinks you should know that people are beginning to talk. He says that he himself would never question Madame the Duchess’s virtue, of course, but that others say this Bernard is her lover.”

  Henry howled in rage. “How dare they? And how dare he presume so far? I’ll have him strung up for this! And worse!” He was shouting, and several men-at-arms who were drinking nearby turned curiously to look at their future king, exchanging glances among themselves. But he was unaware of their interest. He was remembering that Eleanor had not scrupled to take a troubadour to her bed in the past—and that she had deceived Louis over it.

  “Tell me truthfully,” he growled, “think you there is any truth in these bruits? On your honor!”

  “Sire, many say there cannot be, for the duchess’s love for you, my lord, is well known …”

  “But others say there is!” Henry filled in, when the man fell silent.

  “Some say she is in love with this Bernard.” The messenger swallowed hard.

  Henry could not bear the thought. Eleanor was his, and his alone. He was no Louis to shun her bed and turn a blind eye to her infidelities. She was his wife, his duchess, and the mother of his heir.

  With an effort, he mastered his fears and his fury.

  “You may tell your master that I will deal with this,” he said gruffly, then strode off to the scriptorium to rouse his clerks, thinking that castration might be too good for this impudent Bernard de Ventadour. Yet, gripped by fury as he was, he knew his revenge must be more subtle than that. No breath of scandal must taint Eleanor’s name—and nothing must be allowed to sully what was between them. He must take care not to perpetuate the scandal. If this matter were handled discreetly, the gossip would soon die a speedy death. Yet the pain in his heart was searing. Had Eleanor betrayed him? Had she bestowed her smiles—or, God forbid, more—on this piddling poet? He must search out the truth, and soon. He would know when he saw her, he was certain, but that would not be for a while: he could not leave England just yet. In the meantime he had several weeks of mental torture to endure, imagining her in another man’s arms, rousing the interloper to passion as only she knew how, using all the tricks she had practiced on himself. Not to be borne!

  At first he thought of murder. Covert and efficient, the body thrown in a river under cover of darkness, leaving no trace. Yet reluctantly, his innate sense of justice—which would one day make him a great king—asserted itself, and his fevered brain conjured up another plan.

  “I have been summoned to England, madame,” Bernard said, rising from his elegant bow.

  “To England?” She looked at her ladies, who seemed as puzzled as she did herself.

  “Yes, madame. My lord duke wishes me to compose martial tunes for my lyre, to entertain his knights.” He looked downcast—almost desperate.

  “It seems your fame has spread,” Eleanor said uneasily, wondering what else Henry had heard. Surely he had his hands full enough in England without going to the trouble of sending for a troubadour to entertain his knights?

  “That is what the duke’s messenger told me, madame. But alas, I cannot bear to leave here, or say farewell to the person who is the most dear to me.”

  “When the duke sends such a summons, you may not ignore it,” Eleanor said. “His patronage will be most valuable to you and add to your fame. You are a fortunate man.” Truth to tell, Bernard’s excessive displays of devotion were becoming a little exhausting, and she would not be sorry to see him go, for what had begun as a pleasant interlude was now becoming merely prolonged tedium, and a little embarrassing. Besides, she would soon be reunited with Henry. When the spring came, he had sent to say, he hoped to return to her. She was counting down the days until then.

  Bernard was miserably aware that Eleanor was making no protest at his going to England, and hurt to realize that she was not even showing any sorrow. In the privacy of his chamber he wept bitter tears over her unkindness and the prospect of being parted from her, this wondrous being whose presence was so essential to his happiness. He tried to console himself with the notion that she was merely protecting herself by being so distant toward him—after all, his love for her was a secret, and she would not betray it by showing emotion in public—and even ended up convincing himself that this separation would secretly be as distressing for her as it was for him.

  When he arrived, London was overcast, freezing, and deep in snow. To a man of the South, it felt like the edge of the world. Mourning the tragedy of his exile, he looked at the ice-bound river banks and thought longingly of far-off Aquitaine, and its beautiful duchess—and suddenly, miraculously, it seemed as if those banks were crowded with flowers, red, white, and yellow, in a glorious sunburst of color. He could almost smell their scent, and felt faint with longing. Then he looked again and the illusion was gone. He was convinced it had been a good omen that presaged his speedy return to his lady.

  His need became an obsession. When he thought of Eleanor, his heart filled with joy and misery in equal measure. He was a man possessed. Shivering in his meager lodging in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, he composed song after song in her honor, as he waited for the duke’s summons to Westminster.

  When it came, Bernard was disconcerted to find that Henry FitzEmpress—a steely-eyed, hawklike, terrifying young man—did not seem to be interested in discussing the martial songs he had been summoned to write. Instead, he began firing questions at him about his life at the court of Poitiers.

  “Does Madame the Duchess welcome many troubadours like yourself?” he inquired aggressively; almost accusingly, Bernard thought. He had met with his duke in the lofty, magnificent stone hall that adjoined the King’s palace; it had been built, he had learned, by the Conqueror’s son, King William Rufus, just over fifty years before—and, like everywhere else in this godforsaken city, it was freezing.

  “Yes, my lord. Her court is an academy of great culture,” Bernard enthused, shivering.

  “And she has singled you out for special favor?” Henry went on.

  Bernard nodded happily. “She has been most kind to me, a humble poet.”

  “How kind?” Henry snapped. “I have heard disquieting rumors about you. Now I want the truth!” His face was suddenly puce with anger, his voice menacing.

  Bernard quailed before him. Now the awful realization dawned, and he knew exactly why he had been summoned to England. Poor lady, he thought: this man surely is the Devil’s spawn, as people say.

  “Sire, as God is my witness,” he declared hotly, “I have never compromised Madame the Duchess’s honor. It is more dear to me than my life. And she, sweet lady, would never condescend so far, I know it. She is much too virtuous. I beg you to believe me, sire.”

  Henry looked at him hard. He wanted—needed—to believe him.

  “These poems, though,” he said. “They speak of love.”

  “Unrequited, sire,” Bernard told him, then pulled himself up. What was he saying? This harsh young man did not seem to understand the conventions of courtly love, so he hastened to explain. “In my land, it is permissible for a humble minstrel like myself to pay his addresses to the lady he loves, however exalted she be, or even wed to another. He might love her, but he would be most fortunate indeed if that love were ever reciprocated. I am devoted to Madame the Duchess, I do not d
eny it, but I never dared hope for her favors. I am content, as are many, to worship from afar. It is the custom. My lady has proved a most kind mistress to her servant, but that has been all, I assure you. I have been like a man without hope, sighing with love for her.”

  “You dare to stand before me, Bernard de Ventadour, and brazenly tell me you are in love with my wife?” Henry was incandescent with rage.

  “In my country, such things are accounted no insult to either wife or husband,” Bernard explained desperately. “It is permitted for the poet or the squire to bestow his devotion on some great lady, and hope for her favors, be they ever so small. There is no shame or evil in it.”

  “And in my country, they would cut your balls off if you were so impertinent!” Henry hissed.

  “I have been a madman,” Bernard said fearfully. His face was ashen.

  The duke looked at him, fury and contempt mingling in his expression. Bernard quailed, terrified of what he would do.

  “You need to be taught a lesson,” Henry growled. “Guards! Take this varlet to the Abbot of Westminster and tell him to lock him in a cell and feed him on bread and water to cool his blood, while I decide what to do with him.”

  Strong hands laid hold of the unfortunate troubadour, pinioning him, and he was marched away forthwith, struggling and wailing, beseeching his lord to have pity on him. Henry watched him go, grimvisaged. He had been so consumed with jealousy that he had come near to killing the wretch in cold blood. It was best for Bernard de Ventadour that he was out of the duke’s sight.

  Bernard had been three days fretting and weeping in his freezing cell before Henry calmed down and relented. Having thought the matter over with a cooler head, he decided that the wretched man was clearly harmless; he himself could not, if he were honest, imagine Eleanor ever wasting her time on him.

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