Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  He sent orders to Westminster Abbey, commanding that his prisoner be brought before him, and when the trembling troubadour arrived, shivering in a coarse, chafing monk’s habit, the duke strode up and down for a bit, then came to a halt before him.

  “Don’t worry, I won’t make a eunuch of you,” he barked. “My lady has told me something of you troubadours, but evidently I was not listening properly. I had not realized that such—games—were customary in Aquitaine. Well, henceforth, things will be different. I rule Aquitaine now. In future, kindly address your poems to some whore or serving girl.”

  Bernard visibly slumped in relief, yet had the temerity to look grieved. “My lord has not understood the custom.”

  “My lord has some choice words to say about that custom,” Henry flared. “Now, to business. My knights are waiting to be entertained, so I suggest you put on some decent clothes and go and get your lyre.”

  Bernard was only too glad to scuttle out of his master’s presence. But he did not relish his new duties, and pined still for Aquitaine. A week later, encountering the duke in the gardens, and spurred by the courage born of desperation, he threw himself to his knees.

  “Sire,” he entreated, “how long am I to stay here in England?”

  “Until I say you can depart,” Henry said.

  “But it is so cold here, and the court is a rough, unfriendly place. There are no ladies to lighten it.”

  “The Queen is dead, so what did you expect? The King does not need ladies to attend upon him!” his master retorted.

  “I beg of you, sire, allow me to go home to Poitiers, where I can mingle with fair and courteous ladies and chevaliers!” the troubadour pleaded.

  “No!” Henry barked. “You must stay here, if only for the sake of my lady’s reputation. And do not ask me again, for the answer will be the same.”


  Rouen, 1154

  As Eleanor’s colorful cavalcade wended its stately way through the wooded hills of the Haute-Seine toward Rouen, the capital city of the Dukes of Normandy, she could barely contain her excitement. The news brought back to her by the outriders that she had sent ahead, impatient to be at the center of things, was excellent.

  “Lady, the lord duke has returned triumphantly to his duchy and is even now lodged in his palace!”

  “Lady, he has been received with joy and honor by his mother, the Lady Empress, and his brothers, and by all the people of Normandy, Anjou, and Maine!”

  They would be celebrating in Poitou also, at Eleanor’s behest, but she had not stayed to participate. At the first news that Henry had crossed the English Channel, she hastily gathered together a retinue, settled her little son in a horse litter with his nurses, and traveled north. Now she was approaching Henry’s greatest city—for he had chosen to make it his seat of government for all his domains—and her mind was in joyous turmoil, her body tense and alive with desire. It had been sixteen long, dragging months since she had laid eyes on him, her beloved lord, and now it was only a matter of minutes before they would be reunited.

  Had she been anticipating a private reunion, with just the two of them present, she would have been delirious with anticipation. Even a public reunion on familiar ground would have set her heart beating wildly. But she and Henry were to be restored to each other not only in the presence of his entire court, but also under—she anticipated—the eagle eye of his mother, the formidable Matilda. This would be her first encounter with her mother-in-law, and she was dreading it. Hence her mixed—and very turbulent—emotions.

  Before her lay the fair and bustling city, set among murmuring streams, meadows, and woods, and encircled by strong walls. As Eleanor rode through the massive stone gates, a slender, elegant figure in rich red silk on a dancing white horse, the people cheered. They had a warm affection for their duchess, for she had brought great lands and prestige to their duke, and done her duty by presenting him with an heir. And just look at him, tiny William, Count of Poitiers, gurgling and pointing on his nurse’s lap as he was borne into Rouen in his fine litter! The delighted citizens waved back. Such a sturdy child, and strong! He would be another like his sire, they told one another.

  Eleanor passed through narrow, cobbled streets lined with the timbered houses of prosperous merchants and fine churches. Presently, she saw before her the impressive Romanesque cathedral of Notre Dame, with its high, tiered tower dedicated to St. Romain. Inside, she was told, were the tombs of Henry’s ancestors, the early Dukes of Normandy, right back to the Viking Rollo, who had seized the duchy in the tenth century. Impatient though she was to see her lord and to have her meeting with his mother over and done with, she graciously acceded to the citizens’ pleas that she enter the cathedral and marvel at its glories.

  When she emerged, her eyes dazzled by sunlight after the gloom of the dimly lit interior, she became aware of the crowds parting for a small party of horsemen who were riding toward her across the market square, their hooves clattering on the cobbles. She squinted at them as they pulled up a few feet away, then as their leader dismounted, recognized the wonderfully familiar hunting attire and realized, her heart leaping with joy, that it was Henry, come to welcome her. Shaking with excitement, she sank to her knees as he approached.

  “Eleanor, you should not kneel to me!” he exclaimed, grasping her delicate hands in his strong ones and raising her to her feet. She looked at him and marveled. A youth had gone away sixteen months before, and come back a man. A new maturity cloaked him with ease and invested him with greater authority and assurance. At twenty-one, Henry was battle-hardened, taut of muscle, ferocious with energy. His cropped red head jutted forward from his bull neck as he bent and kissed her full on the lips.

  “You are most welcome, my lady,” he beamed, his voice cracked and husky as he spoke the formal words of greeting suitable for such a public occasion.

  It was wonderful to hear that voice again, to see his face, and to have him near her. Battling surges of lust and the need to cry joyous tears, Eleanor gladly placed her hand on his as he led her to her mount. It was obvious from his expression that he was as delighted to see her as she was to see him; he was grinning broadly, and there was a highly suggestive glint in his eyes that promised glorious bed sports later. But for now they were duke and duchess, reunited, and must show themselves to their cheering people.

  Eleanor’s smile had become fixed as, her hand still on his, Henry walked with her into the hall of the magnificent royal palace that lay in the shadow of the church of Notre Dame des Prés, just outside the walls of Rouen. This palace was the chief residence of the Empress Matilda, and had been built by her father, King Henry I of England; it was as grandly appointed as Eleanor would have expected the palace of so great a lady to be, with its imposing arcaded hall and rounded archways richly ornamented with chevrons, its silken hangings and costly tapestries, and all the luxurious accoutrements of a royal and imperial household.

  Matilda herself was very grand too. There were two thrones on the dais, and she stood erect and proud before one of them, a tall, regal woman in her early fifties, wearing a purple robe girdled with gold and a snowy white wimple held in place by a circlet studded with amethysts. Her face was still handsome, despite its hawklike nose and the faint lines that bore witness to the many disappointments she had suffered in her life. As Eleanor drew near, she saw there could be no doubting that she was Henry’s mother—or that she was regarding her approaching daughter-in-law with undisguised disapproval.

  Eleanor sank into a deep obeisance.

  “Welcome to Rouen, madame,” the Empress said in a cool voice. “Please rise.” She turned to Henry. “My son!” she said, with more warmth, and raised her face for the expected dutiful kiss.

  “Mother, where is Eleanor to sit?” Henry muttered, ignoring her and jerking his head at the two thrones.

  “I will have a chair brought,” the Empress said. She signaled to her steward.

  She means to slight me, Eleanor thought. She wishes to show m
e who is mistress here. She knew I was coming, yet conveniently forgot to have a third throne set ready.

  Aloud, she said, smiling, “My Lady Empress, I am most happy to meet you, especially on this joyous occasion. You must be overjoyed that Henry’s invasion of England has led to such a successful conclusion.”

  The Empress bristled faintly. Was Eleanor implying that Henry had succeeded where she, for all her efforts, had failed? “He has indeed done well in championing and vindicating my cause, for England was always rightfully mine,” she declared frostily. “But I happily cede my claim to him, for I will never return to that godforsaken island …”

  Henry cut her off in mid-flow. Clearly he had heard this before, and had no mind to listen to another tirade against King Stephen, his adoptive father, whom he had found himself quite liking, after having been brought up to regard him as the archenemy, and little worse than the Devil himself on the general scale of wickedness.

  “You are of much greater use to me here, ruling Normandy in my absence, Mother,” he said. “And when I have England under my hand, as well as Aquitaine and my other domains, I will need your help and support more than ever.”

  Matilda looked somewhat mollified. Just then the third chair was brought and placed next to Henry’s. It was lower-backed than his, but Eleanor swallowed the insult and sat down on it, not waiting for the Empress, as the highest in rank, to be seated first. Henry covered her hand with his and squeezed it, which made her feel a little better, but she knew already that the battle lines had been drawn.

  “I have a surprise for you both,” she told her husband and his mother, then nodded at Torqueri de Bouillon, who briefly disappeared, came back with little William wriggling in her arms, and handed him to Eleanor.

  “My lord, let me introduce your heir, the Count of Poitiers!” Eleanor announced triumphantly.

  Henry’s face was ecstatic as he took the child, marveling at the infant’s chubby limbs and the red curls that were so like his own.

  “What a grip!” he grinned, as William grabbed his finger in his tiny fist. “That’s a sword grip, my son! That augurs well for the future. This boy will hold onto his own.” Even the Empress’s steely gaze softened. Then Henry rose to his feet and held William high above his head, much to the child’s delight.

  “Madame my mother, my lady, my lords and barons all. Behold my son, William, who will one day rule this duchy—and England and Aquitaine too, God willing. When he is older, I will bring him to you so that you may swear fealty to him, but in the meantime I thank God for the gift of such a fine boy, and entrust him to the excellent care of his mother.” As the company cheered lustily, he passed William back to Eleanor.

  “He looks like your father,” the Empress said to Henry.

  “And his beautiful mother!” Henry replied. “Eleanor has done well, has she not, in bearing me such a strong son?”

  Matilda smiled faintly. “You are both to be congratulated,” she said stiffly. “Now, send the child back to his nurse, as our lords and bishops are waiting to be presented to the duchess.”

  They dined in private that evening, just the three of them, in the Empress’s solar. After spreading the cloth, the servitors brought napkins, wine cups, and dishes, all offered on bended knee. Then round cakes of wheaten bread marked with crosses were served, followed by the best that Normandy could offer: gigots of lamb and succulent duckling, sole in a cream sauce, spiced apples with jugs of thick cream, and a platter of the Pont l’Évêque and Livarot cheeses that tasted like ambrosia to Eleanor. When the servitors had withdrawn, the talk was mostly of England and Normandy, and by the time the fruit and spiced wine appeared, she was growing tired of being ignored.

  “Have you ever visited Aquitaine, madame?” she asked Matilda.

  “No,” Matilda said. “Henry, did you go to Oxford? I had a horrid time there.”

  “Yes, Mother, I did, but we were speaking of Aquitaine. It is a land of great beauty.” Oh, so you did notice, Eleanor thought, a trifle resentfully.

  “I have no desire to go there,” Matilda said. “I have heard that the lords there are violent and uncontrollable.” She shot a look at Eleanor.

  “It has ever been so,” Eleanor said. “That is because Aquitaine has massive rocky hills and rivers, and each lord thinks he is a king in his own valley. They have always fought among themselves, but I trust that now, thanks to their love for me and my lord’s reputation as a strong ruler, they will not be so disobedient. My cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux are always safe and quiet, and there we enjoy a good standard of living. My duchy is a land of great abbeys and churches, and the arts and letters are thriving.”

  “By that, I take it you are referring to your troubadours,” her mother-in-law said, her tone dismissive. “I have heard that they sing only of love and its trivialities.”

  “Love is not trivial,” Eleanor defied her. “In Aquitaine, it is an important part of life. And women are valued there as nowhere else. Believe me, madame, I know. I have lived in France—”

  “Where women are required to be virtuous and live in subjection to their husbands!” the Empress cut in.

  Henry, toying with his wine cup, glanced at his mother in mock surprise, wondering when she had ever lived in virtuous subjection to his father. But Matilda was a woman on a mission and did not notice.

  “I dare say,” she was commenting to a frozen-faced Eleanor, “that you would not understand that, coming from Aquitaine, which, I am told, is little better than one vast brothel!”

  Eleanor’s temper flared, but Henry was there before her. He had been sitting at the head of the table, listening to the exchange between his wife and his mother with amused interest, but now it had gone far enough.

  “Are you suggesting that Eleanor is less than virtuous?” he barked, his blood up. “Remember she is my wife!”

  His mother looked as wrathful as he did. “I’m not only suggesting it, I know it!” she retorted. “Either this woman has deceived you, my son, or you have lost all sense of respect for me in bringing her here and forcing me to receive her.”

  Eleanor rose. “I am leaving,” she said hotly. “I will not be spoken of like that.”

  “Will you deny, then, that you were Geoffrey’s mistress?” the Empress flung at her. Eleanor paused in her flight, drawing in her breath, and there was an awful silence before she found the words to reply. Henry’s expression was, as so often, unreadable.

  “I will not deny it,” she said, her cheeks burning, “but know this, madame, that he told me he was unhappily married and that you had no more use for each other as man and woman. Do you deny that?”

  “My relations with Geoffrey are no business of yours. What you did was wrong, and it was even more wrong of you to marry my son, knowing you had been his father’s leman.”

  “That’s enough,” snarled Henry. “I will hear no more. And you, Mother, must keep what you know to yourself, if you wish to retain what power is left to you in the world—and my filial devotion.” His tone was sarcastic.

  Matilda got to her feet. “You must both live with your consciences. It is not I who have committed the sin of incest. Mark me, there will be a reckoning one day. God is not to be mocked. And there’s no need to threaten me, Henry. I had already decided that discretion was essential—do you think I would bring shame on myself by publicly announcing that my late lamented husband had an affair with a woman who is the scandal of Christendom? Don’t think I haven’t heard the rumors—”

  “Enough!” Henry bellowed, flushing with rage.

  “You’re right, I’ve had enough,” spat Eleanor, and gathering up her mantle, swept regally out of the room.

  “Well, I hope you’re pleased with yourself, Mother,” Henry said, his gaze thunderous.

  “Your marriage made good political sense, I grant you that,” Matilda muttered. “But I can only deplore the fact that your wife has a stained reputation, and that she betrayed me with my husband, your own father. And that she has the brazen nerv
e to come here and expect to be honorably received.”

  “Mother,” Henry said quietly, leaning forward and glaring directly into her eyes. “Perhaps you did not hear me or understand, but Eleanor is my wife, and you will treat her with respect, as I do. I love her, I love her to distraction, and you had best get used to that. It matters not to me that she has strayed from virtue in the past, for I have done the same myself, often, and so am not fit to judge her. But I know that she loves me and that she has been true to me, so let that be an end to it.”

  “You are a besotted fool!” she told him. “And one day you will realize it. You are so much your father’s son, headstrong and impulsive.”

  “I am your son too, Mother,” he reminded her.

  “No, Henry, you come from the Devil’s stock, and more’s the pity, for the Devil takes care of his own. Now go. Leave me, I am weary.”

  “Very well. Shall I crave your nightly blessing, my Lady Mother?” Henry jeered. “No, don’t bother. Since I’m descended from the Devil, it won’t do me any good. What I want from you, rather, is a truce. You don’t have to be friends with Eleanor—even I, besotted fool that you say I am, wouldn’t ask that—but I want you always to treat her with the respect due to her rank and to my wife, if that is at all possible. Is that understood?”

  Matilda said nothing. Her expression was glacial.

  “I’m waiting,” Henry said pleasantly.

  “Very well,” was the tight-lipped reply. “Just make sure that I see her as little as possible.”

  “I should imagine she wouldn’t want to see you at all,” Henry said.

  “I’m really sorry, Eleanor,” Henry said, climbing into bed and taking her in his arms. “I especially regret that my mother decided to poison our reunion with her vitriol—and my first meeting with young William.” He kissed her. “He’s wonderful, isn’t he? Me to the life!”

  “I love you, Henry,” Eleanor murmured, feeling vulnerable, and resting her head on his chest, taking comfort from his strength. Then she forgot all about Matilda as the familiar and much-longed-for melting sensation coursed through her body, and she gave herself up to her husband’s delightful caresses—although not for long. As needy as she, he mounted her swiftly.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]