Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “I might yet do so, if England is as bitter in December as they say,” Eleanor warned.

  “Over my dead body,” Henry growled.

  “It might be!” She laughed. “How are your preparations progressing?”

  “I’m all packed, and the escort is assembling,” he told her. “I am taking the usual rabble of barons and bishops—they all want a share of the booty. It’ll be hard restraining them when they get to Westminster. I had to include my brother Geoffrey, the little bastard—my mother insisted.”

  Eleanor groaned. “That troublemaker? You’ll need to keep an eye on him.”

  “He’s harmless enough, just a pissing nuisance. But to make up for it, my love, I have summoned your sister to join you.”

  “Petronilla?” An image of a tall, fair young woman with haunted eyes and a fragile mien sprang to mind. “That was most thoughtful. I have not seen her for years. Henry, you are so good to me.”

  “Since my mother is to stay here, I realized that you would be without female company of your own rank in England,” Henry explained, gratified to see her so pleased. “I gather there was some scandal,” he added lightly, throwing the apple core out of the window and reaching for a wine flagon. “I was quite young at the time, and the adults wouldn’t talk about it. Was she a naughty girl, your sister? I have heard that she is very beautiful—although not as beautiful as you,” he added quickly.

  “Pour me some wine too, please,” Eleanor said, dismissing her women and sitting down on the only corner of the bed not occupied by Henry and heaps of clothing. “I need to relax for a bit.”

  “Here, put that stuff on the chests and rest here with me,” Henry offered, extending his arm invitingly and winking. “You are tiring yourself. You must think of the child.”

  “Which is precisely what you won’t be doing if I lie down next to you!” Eleanor chided. “Remember, the Church forbids lovemaking during pregnancy.”

  “Bah!” chortled Henry. “You weren’t saying that last night, if I remember aright.”

  “I don’t see any harm in it,” Eleanor said. “Neither do I see how a lot of celibate clerics, all of them terrified of women, are qualified to pronounce on such matters.”

  “They’d burn you for heresy if they heard that!’ Henry laughed. “They think that sex is only for procreation and that once you’ve procreated, there’s no further excuse for doing it.”

  “How little they know.” Eleanor smiled. “It may sound blasphemous, but when you are inside me, it’s almost a spiritual experience—a communion of both souls and bodies, if you will.”

  “What are you trying to do to me?” Henry asked in mock anguish, pointing to the erection visibly stirring beneath his tunic.

  “Control yourself!” Eleanor reproved him, feigning displeasure. “Not now, please. I’m supposed to be resting. And I was going to tell you about Petronilla.”

  Henry made a face, but settled down to listen.

  “It was over ten years ago,” Eleanor began, settling herself comfortably against the bolster. “My sister was only sixteen at the time, and very headstrong. She fell in love with Count Raoul of Vermandois.”

  “Surely he was too old for her?” Henry interrupted.

  “Yes, by thirty-five years, but it didn’t seem to matter as she was completely infatuated, as was he.”

  “Randy old goat!”

  “Must you always see love in terms of sex?” Eleanor made an exasperated face, but her eyes were twinkling.

  “You’ve never complained.” Henry grinned, and lifted her hand to kiss it.

  “Well,” she went on, appreciating the gesture, “as it happens, you are right, because Raoul was certainly deep in lust. Unfortunately, he was married to the sister of that awful Thibaut, Count of Blois, who tried to abduct me, remember?”

  “As if I could forget that bastard.” Henry frowned.

  “I never liked him anyway,” Eleanor continued, “and at the time, for reasons of his own, he was refusing all homage to Louis, and so to pay him back, I encouraged Raoul to seek an annulment. That wasn’t difficult, as he and Thibaut were enemies. Anyway, Raoul left his wife, and Louis appointed three bishops to annul the marriage and marry him to Petronilla. Then all hell broke loose! Thibaut took his sister’s part and complained to the Pope, and of course Abbot Bernard had to stick his nose in, telling His Holiness and anyone else who was listening that the sacrament of marriage had been undermined and the House of Blois insulted.”

  “And what happened?” Henry asked.

  “Raoul was ordered by the Pope to return to his wife. You should have seen Petronilla—she was beside herself with grief. But Raoul stood by her, and refused to leave her. For that, they were both excommunicated. Louis sprang to Raoul’s defense and went to war against Thibaut. He had many good reasons to, believe me. It was during that war that the massacre of Vitry took place.”

  “I know about that,” Henry said.

  “All Christendom does,” Eleanor sighed. “It was just awful. Louis was blamed, but he never meant for it to happen. When the townsfolk barred their gates against him, he had his men launch flaming arrows at the castle, which was made of wood. It caught fire, and the defenders perished, so Louis’s men were able to force an entry into the town. That was all planned. But the soldiers went berserk; their captains could not control them. They laid about them with swords and torches, and soon all the buildings were ablaze. In the streets, it was a bloodbath. Those people who managed to escape took refuge in the cathedral, thinking they would be safe there, poor fools.”

  “Don’t tell me the saintly Louis ordered the cathedral to be fired,” Henry interrupted.

  “No, he was some way off, watching in horror from a hill outside the town. It was the wind—it blew the flames toward the cathedral, and they engulfed it at terrifying speed. Fifteen hundred people died that day, women, children, the old, and the sick. It was terrible.” She turned haunted eyes to Henry.

  “You saw it?” he asked, his face grim.

  “No, I was in Paris, but I had to deal with Louis on his return. He was stricken. He had seen it all; he’d heard the screams of those poor trapped people, and smelled their burning flesh.” She winced. “He’d watched helplessly as the roof caved in and those wretched souls perished. He felt it was his fault, although he never intended for such a dreadful thing to happen.” She remembered him ashen-faced and shaking, unable to speak, lying sick and mute in his bed for two days. “After that, he was never the same. He was weighed down by guilt. He even cut off his long fair hair, which I had always liked, and took to wearing a monk’s robes.”

  “I suppose sex was out of the question,” Henry said wryly, in an attempt to lighten the mood. Eleanor smiled at him.

  “It was usually out of the question!”

  “So did Louis ever forgive himself?”

  “I think it was more a case of accepting that God had forgiven him,” Eleanor recalled, “and that only happened during the crusade, when we visited Jerusalem and he received absolution at the tomb of Our Savior.”

  “And what of Petronilla?” Henry wanted to know.

  “Well, after more fighting and arguing, Abbot Bernard brought about a peace between Louis and Thibaut, and eventually Petronilla’s marriage to Raoul was confirmed by the Pope. That was a relief! But her happiness lasted no more than ten years. When Louis and I divorced, Raoul decided that he no longer wanted to be married to the sister of the King’s ex-wife; there was no advantage in it for him. More to the point, he had fallen for another woman, much to Petronilla’s grief. Despite her tears and protests, he divorced her, and took custody of their three young children. Losing them has been dreadful for her. Her little boy suffers from a nasty skin disease, poor child, and she worries fearfully about him. Petronilla’s lot has not been a happy one.”

  But Petronilla, when she arrived, looking like a paler, plumper replica of her sister, was cheerful at the prospect of being reunited with Eleanor, and excited to be going to England
for the coronation. Putting on a brave face to mask the ever-present sorrow she felt at being parted from her children, she made much of young William, who gurgled with delight whenever his aunt approached. Petronilla threw herself with vigor into the preparations for the coming voyage, and she and Eleanor spent many a happy hour reminiscing on their childhood and making plans for the future. Before long, though, it dawned on Eleanor that Petronilla’s cheerfulness was largely the result of her increasing dependence on the fruit of the vine. But her sister had had such a difficult life, with her happiness cruelly snatched from her along with her little ones, that she could not bring herself to remonstrate with her.

  In Petronilla’s wake, again at Henry’s behest, had come Eleanor’s two bastard half brothers, William and Joscelin, whom he had appointed to join her household knights. Eleanor thanked Henry appreciatively for his thoughtfulness and warmly embraced the two eager young men who so much resembled her.

  At last the great retinues were gathered, and Henry and Eleanor formally bade farewell to the Empress Matilda and set off on the road to Barfleur, where their ships were waiting to transport them to England.

  13

  Normandy and England, 1154

  “This should make a good impression on my new subjects!” Henry declared, waving an expansive hand at the long procession of magnates and bishops, each with their retinues and baggage carts, that trailed into the distance behind them. Inwardly, Eleanor thought that the English might see the King’s great train as a pack of scavengers come to bleed their country dry, but she was confident that Henry’s reputation was such that his followers would heed the honorable lead he intended to give them, and deal honestly with his new subjects.

  She smiled up at him from her litter; she was too far advanced in pregnancy to ride beside him, and not relishing being jolted along the rutted tracks that passed for roads, but was making light of her discomfort and trying to relax on the piled cushions beneath her, pulling her fur-lined cloak closer about her to protect herself from the freezing wind. She would not complain, she had resolved, because she knew Henry wanted to get to England as quickly as possible, and she just wanted the long journey to be over.

  It was when they were making an overnight stop in Caen that Henry espied Bernard de Ventadour skulking among the varlets of his household.

  “What’s he doing here?” he muttered to himself, and beckoned the troubadour over. Bernard, who was hoping that his master had not seen him, and was on the point of fleeing, had the grace to look terrified.

  “Sire?” he almost squeaked.

  “I thought I told you not to leave England without my permission!” Henry said fiercely.

  “I—I know, sire, but your whole retinue was returning with you, and your knights needed entertaining …”

  “Blast my knights!” Henry roared. “You disobeyed me, you scum.” The troubadour quailed.

  “Now hear this,” Henry went on, “and never disobey me again, or you will rue it painfully. You are to leave here now, without delay.”

  “But sire, where shall I go?” asked Bernard.

  “Anywhere but here!”

  “But I cannot go back to Ventadour …”

  “No, that you cannot, and my good lady has told me why.” Henry had the satisfaction of seeing the young man wince. “You’ll have to find somewhere else.”

  Tears filled Bernard’s eyes. “This is a great grief to me, sire,” he wept. “I know not what to do or where to go.”

  “Take my advice and go as far away as possible. You might try your talents with the Count of Toulouse.”

  “Sire, may I speak frankly?” Bernard was frantic.

  Henry folded his arms and looked at him. “I’m waiting,” he said brusquely.

  “There is a lady, sire—”

  “By God there is!” Henry erupted.

  “Nay, sire, not Madame the Duchess—another lady.” Bernard hung his head.

  “Hah!” Henry pointed at him. “Another lady! You don’t waste much time.” And he doubled up with laughter.

  “Sire, I love her, and could never leave her …”

  Henry stopped laughing.

  “Toulouse!” he barked. “Get your gear and go. And let me not see your face again.”

  Bernard scuttled away. There was no lady; his heart was broken and he knew himself defeated. That night, lodged at an evil-smelling inn, he hastily composed a poem to Eleanor, in which he mournfully sang her praises for the last time and told her that her lord had forced him to leave her. Then he gave it to his servant, who galloped off in search of the royal cavalcade. Eleanor, reading the grubby parchment two days later, sighed in exasperation, then screwed it up and threw it in the River Vire.

  Henry peered over the stone parapet of the tower of St. Nicholas’s Church, the wind and rain lashing his face and soaking his short woolen cloak. Below him, the shallow waters of the port of Barfleur churned and seethed in the storm, and there was not a soul to be seen in the prosperous little village; the inhabitants, grasping lot though they were, had all retreated to their houses in the teeth of the bad weather.

  “How much longer are we to be holed up here?” he fumed to the ship’s master.

  “I beg ye, be patient, Lord King,” the weather-beaten man shouted against the gale. “Them currents down there can be mighty swift. Ye’ll have heard of the White Ship.”

  Henry had heard of it, too many times, from his mother, whose brother had gone down with it on that terrible night thirty-four years before, and he’d heard of it again over the past few days, from the mariners, who always seemed to relish recounting tales of disaster. Of course, if the White Ship hadn’t sunk, drowning the heir to England, he wouldn’t be standing here now, waiting to take possession of that kingdom. And standing here was all he seemed to be doing; he was almost stamping with impatience.

  “By the eyes of God, it’s not far to sail!” he argued. “Do you realize, man, that England has been without a king for six weeks? Why, my very throne might be in jeopardy because of this delay.”

  “Lord King,” the master said evenly, “it is not me that commands the heavens.”

  “No,” Henry muttered, “but when I command you to set forth, I expect to be obeyed. That’s five times you have defied me now.”

  “And it might be five times I’ve saved your life, Lord King,” the man replied sagely. “Better for England to have a king across the sea than no king at all.”

  There was no arguing with that, but Henry was not in the mood to be put off by wise words of caution.

  “Thank you for your consideration,” he snapped sarcastically. “God knows, we might be here forever. No, my mind is made up. We sail today.”

  The seaman was about to protest again when Queen Eleanor, her heavily pregnant figure swathed in a black hooded mantle, suddenly appeared at the tower door.

  “I had to get some air,” she said, turning her face up to the elements, not minding the buffeting wind and smattering raindrops. “They’ve lit so many braziers I am suffocating in my chamber. Petronilla especially feels the cold. God’s blood, it’s wild, this weather!”

  She battled her way through the tempest to Henry, who folded his arms around her.

  “My lady, our ship’s master here is unwilling to put to sea,” he told her, “but I am of a mind to brave the elements and be on our way.”

  “That’s madness, Lord King,” the master cried, “especially with the Lady Queen near her time.”

  “Well, my lady?” Henry asked, ignoring him. “What do you say?”

  “A little weather never bothered me,” Eleanor replied, more cheerfully and bravely than she felt. She knew that Henry would have his way, whatever anyone said, so it was prudent to make the best of things—although that sky looked black and angry, and the gusts were fearsome …

  “I would not put you through this,” he told her, “or young William, but God knows what’s happening in England without me. Is Archbishop Theobald truly the man to keep those unruly English
barons in check?”

  “The last reports suggested he was doing brilliantly,” Eleanor reminded him.

  “Yes, but for how long?” Henry fretted. He knew, none better, how those same barons had defied the weak Stephen: how they had built their castles without waiting for his license, then terrorized the countryside, using the civil war as a pretext for unspeakable depredations and atrocities. No, his mind was made up. There was greater risk in staying here than in braving the sea.

  Eleanor thought she would never see daylight again, shut up as she was with her women in this pitching, stinking cabin with its alarmingly creaking timbers. Outside, the unforgiving Channel continued its howling, relentless assault, surging against the vessel’s sides and tossing it mercilessly on the crashing waves. The wind screamed, and the ship rolled, and every time it did, the ladies emitted little shrieks or threw up once more into the overflowing basins.

  All I will ever ask you for, O Lord, is for my feet to be on dry land, Eleanor prayed silently, as she lay on her wooden cot, clutching at the side for dear life, and trying to ignore the heaving of her own stomach. Beside her lay little William, tight in the crook of her arm, and in her swollen belly the babe kicked, affrighted no doubt by the unaccustomed tumult.

  She could hear men shouting above the storm, and the tethered horses neighing and rearing in terror. The baggage stored in the hold was inexorably sliding about as the ship lurched from side to side, and ominous thumps announced its latest whereabouts. She had not seen Henry once since they set sail, for the master had been firm about the women keeping to their quarters, and for all she knew—or cared, she told herself—her husband could have gone overboard. He might at least have come to inquire how she was coping in this hell.

  She buried her nose in the rough pillow to escape the stench of vomit and the latrine pail. How long had they been at sea? She had utterly lost track of time, and only knew that they had all endured hours of torture locked in this fetid cabin. In the next cot, Petronilla was weeping noisily. She had consumed a lot of wine in a hurry before forcibly being persuaded to board the ship, and had paid dearly for it since, but it loosed her tongue, and her terrified ramblings were threatening to drive the other women hysterical.

 
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