Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “We’re going to die,” she moaned. “I will never see my sweet babes again.” This only provoked more frightened sobs and squeals. Any minute now they would all be wailing uncontrollably.

  “Enough!” Eleanor said sternly. “Sailors face these storms all the time, and survive them.” She was gratified to hear herself sounding more confident than she felt. The women subsided, suppressing their cries and their fears. She spoke more gently to them, offering words of comfort and reassurance that she wished she could believe herself.

  The night hours—presumably it was night—seemed endless. For most of them, Eleanor remained in that twilight state between sleeping and waking, too strung up to fall into slumber and so attain the oblivion she craved. At one point, though, she must have nodded off, for when she next came to, a watery light was penetrating the oiled linen stretched over the single window, and the sea had miraculously stilled. God had answered her prayer.

  She offered little William her breast; mercifully, he was his usual, sunny self, unfazed by the terrible hours they had just endured; how blissful it must be, she thought, to be so young and innocent that one has no conception of the perils and dangers of this world. She kissed her son’s soft, downy head, feeling for the hundredth time that sweet surge of all-consuming maternal love, this time coupled with thankfulness that both of them had been safely delivered from the tempest. As soon as they made land, she promised, she would seek out the nearest church and express due gratefulness to God.

  She rose, shook her women awake, and made them fetch fresh garments and a comb from the iron-banded chest that housed her most prized possessions and had not therefore been entrusted to the hold. This day she must dress like a queen, for she and Henry were setting foot for the first time in their new kingdom, and their subjects would surely come crowding to greet them. She donned her rich Byzantine robe, which fell in stately folds over her high belly, and let her long hair fall regally loose under a simple gold circlet. Then she emerged from the noisome cabin into the fresh, cold morning air, to find Henry standing not a few feet away at the ship’s side, looking across a calm estuary to wide, sandy beaches and a vast expanse of woodland beyond.

  “My lady,” he said, doffing his cap. His barons and clerics bowed courteously as Eleanor came to join him. She noticed he had forsaken his customary hunting gear for a fashionable tunic ornamented with wide bands of embroidery, worn beneath the short cloak he had recently made popular, earning himself the nickname “Curtmantle.” His coppery hair curled endearingly around his ears beneath the ducal crown of Normandy. He looked every inch the king, with his high, majestic features and erect mien, and her earlier resentment was forgotten in the heady joy of the moment: she was grateful to be alive, and proud to be standing beside him as his consort.

  There was no one to greet them when they disembarked. Of course, no one knew when or where to expect them. They were, for the moment, a small party, because the other ships were scattered in the storm and had hopefully made land farther along the coast.

  “We ride at once to our capital city of Winchester to secure the royal treasure and receive the homage of our English barons!” Henry announced to his company, and himself led the way on his magnificent battle charger. “The others had instructions to meet up with us there if we got separated,” he explained to Eleanor. “I have sent ahead to Archbishop Theobald, commanding him to summon the magnates.”

  It was a cold day, but bright with winter sunshine. The land lay damp and glistening after the storm, and the litter’s wheels made sucking noises as they were dragged resisting through the mud on the waterlogged track. The Abbess Isabella had been right, Eleanor reflected, looking out eagerly from her litter: this kingdom of England did look a lot like Normandy and the Île de France. It was green and well wooded, gently undulating with shady glades, glittering streams, heaths, and moorland. For most of their journey, though, they were riding through a great forest, its dense trees—mighty oaks, as well as chestnut, ash, and beech—bare of leaves. Here and there deer could be glimpsed in the distance, and solid, sturdy little ponies, most of them bay, brown, or gray.

  “Good hunting hereabouts!” Henry enthused. “This is the New Forest, established by William the Conqueror, purely for the pleasures of the chase. The forest laws he laid down are very strict. None must poach the king’s deer on pain of death—or, in his day, mutilation.”

  “Mutilation?” Eleanor’s eyebrows shot up.

  “My great-grandfather was a just but harsh king. He abolished hanging, but replaced it with castration or mutilation.” Henry grinned. “It was very effective, of course. In those days you could walk from one end of the kingdom to the other with your bosom full of gold, and no man would dare molest you.”

  “That’s hardly surprising!” Eleanor giggled.

  “My great-uncle, King William Rufus, was shot dead with an arrow in this very forest,” Henry went on. “He had fallen out with the Church, and was generally unpopular. Some said he preferred boys to women, and the bishops, God bless them, got themselves all worked up over the extravagant clothes he and his courtiers liked to wear. His death was supposed to have been a tragic accident, with a man called Tyrell shooting the King instead of the beast he said he was aiming for, but I often wonder.”

  “You think he was murdered?” Eleanor asked.

  “It’s more than possible,” Henry said slowly, “although it’s not the done thing to accuse one’s own grandfather of regicide!”

  “King Henry was responsible?”

  “Well, he got the crown by it. Didn’t wait for the formalities—he immediately raced off to Winchester to lay hands on the royal treasure, much as we are doing now, my queen, although perhaps not with the same urgency!”

  When the forest gave way to farmland, the track took them alongside acres of fields divided into a patchwork of strips; each serf would be working his own strips as well as those of the local lord to whom he was bound. As the royal cavalcade passed through a succession of small villages, each with its stone manor house and squat church surrounded by a cluster of thatched cottages of wattle-and-daub, the country folk came running to see them, curious about who these richly clad, and clearly important, strangers were. Henry greeted them all, with that common touch that came so easily to him. He listened to their grievances, shook his head over their gruesome stories of the terrible years of King Stephen’s reign, and promised that he would ensure justice for all. They cheered him heartily, hailing him almost as their savior, as the rustic priests ran out of their glebe houses to bless him, and women and children approached Eleanor with small offerings of hard apples, black bread, and cider.

  Everywhere they went, they heard the ringing of church bells, that ringing for which England was famous. Once the news of the King’s coming was known, every village rang its bells in celebration, to signal this momentous event to the next parish. As the royal procession passed through each rural community, it left in its wake jubilant peasants dancing and carousing for joy.

  Very soon they found themselves approaching Winchester, that great walled city dominated by its ancient cathedral, its fine abbeys, and the imposing castle built by the Conqueror. This, Henry told Eleanor, was the city of Alfred the Great, the renowned Saxon hero-king, whose bones lay buried in the cathedral not far from those of the little-lamented William Rufus. And here, coming toward them, was the worthy Archbishop Theobald, riding on his mule to greet his king, a mighty entourage of barons and prelates at his back, all craning their necks anxiously to get a good sight of the young man who would now rule over them.

  “My Lord King!” Theobald saluted Henry, then dismounted and, leaning on his crozier, went down on his creaky old knees in the muddy road.

  “My Lord Archbishop!” Henry cried in ringing tones, leaping off his horse and hastening to raise the old man to his feet. They exchanged the customary kiss of peace and welcome, then Henry smiled graciously—and not a little calculatingly—at the magnates, who had dismounted from their saddle
s and made their obeisances as one.

  “Rise, my lords!” he commanded. “Greetings to you all. I thank you for coming.” Turning to the Archbishop, he said, “You have done well, Your Grace, to have kept this realm in quietness these past six weeks. Tell me, is it true that no one has dared to dispute my succession?”

  Theobald beamed. He was a devout soul, but also a competent and shrewd man of business, clearly respected by all. “It is true, sire. These lords here have all remained at peace for love of the king to come. And, to be frank with you, none dared do other than good, for you are held in great awe. Your reputation has gone before you.”

  Henry nodded, well satisfied, then assisted Eleanor out of her litter and presented Theobald to her.

  “My lady, in truth, we are astonished to see you all here safe and sound,” the Archbishop told her. “It is a miracle you survived that terrible storm. And I may tell you,” he added in a lower tone, the hint of a smile playing on his lips, “that our barons here are quaking like a bed of reeds in the wind for fear of your husband. They think him almost superhuman to have defied the elements to come here.”

  It was a good beginning. Enthroned in the Conqueror’s great hall in the castle, Henry FitzEmpress received the homage of the lords and clergy, with Eleanor watching from a smaller chair of estate, her ladies gathered about her, their number now including several English noblewomen who had traveled to the capital with their husbands. It was a day of rejoicing and goodwill, with the English barons displaying an uncharacteristic admiration and respect for their new king, and the common folk singing his praises in the streets.

  After a comfortable night spent sleeping soundly beside Eleanor in the castle’s luxurious painted chamber, his hand resting proprietorially on her pregnant belly, Henry was keen to make an early start. He was anxious to get to London, and be crowned at Westminster without further delay. Then the real business of ruling England could begin.

  London was frost-bound, but packed with exuberant citizens and visitors, come to witness the spectacle of the coronation. Nestling proudly beside the mighty River Thames, the city was smaller than Paris, Eleanor discovered, but equally impressive, and fully deserving of its reputation as one of the noblest and most celebrated cities of the world. Henry was full of praise for its defenses, its stout walls, its strategic position on the River Thames, and its three dominant fortresses, Baynard’s Castle, Montfitchet Castle, and the famous Tower of London, the Conqueror’s chief stronghold.

  They approached through prosperous suburbs of fine houses and beautiful gardens, and, entering the city from the west, by Newgate, rode in procession through slippery, narrow streets lined with waving and applauding crowds. Everyone was huddled in cloaks and furs, but even in the bitter cold, London was vibrant and exciting, its people warm and welcoming. They hailed their new king as “Henry the Peacemaker,” and when they saw sturdy little William clasped in his mother’s arms as they were borne along in her horse litter, they cheered wildly.

  Eleanor was torn between acknowledging their acclaim and gazing in awe at the sights of the City—the great cathedral of St. Paul, the fine Guildhall, the numerous monasteries and churches with their gaily jangling bells, the prosperous inns with their bunches of evergreens hanging above the doors, and the maze of streets packed with wooden houses painted red, blue, or black. In Cheapside, she was itching to take a closer look at the fine shops with their luxury goods on display: she caught tantalizing glimpses of gorgeous silks from Damascus, enamels from Limoges—a reminder of her own fair city, which brought a pang to her heart—and the famed, home-crafted goldsmiths’ work, which was of the finest quality. Eleanor made a mental note to place some orders with the merchants here at the earliest opportunity.

  Eventually, they left the City by Oystergate and traversed London Bridge to the Surrey shore of the Thames and the palace of Bermondsey, where they were to lodge, since the King’s residence at Westminster had been vandalized and was awaiting refurbishment. It had been decided that they would remain at Bermondsey for the Christmas court and the birth of Eleanor’s child, which was expected in February.

  When, late that night, she finally escaped the exuberant and rowdy celebrations in the great hall, Eleanor sank down on her bed, exhausted, as her women folded her clothes away into chests, blew out most of the candles, and closed the door quietly behind them. It had been an overwhelming day, and her mind was full of myriad impressions of London, and of this land of which she was now Queen. She felt elated—and yet a little trapped, like an exile, for she knew she could not hope to return to Aquitaine for some time. Her place now was here, in England, by Henry’s side; but part of her heart—the part that was not his—remained in the South. A tear trickled onto the pillow as she lay in the dark, the babe kicking inside her and homesickness engulfing her as never before. Maybe it was that the treacherous expanse of sea separated her from her homeland; when she had lived in Paris with Louis, or in Normandy or Anjou, her domains were just a few days’ ride away. Now they seemed far, far distant.

  Resolutely, she put the thought away. She must be strong, for Henry, for their children, living and unborn, and for the people of England, who needed a just and strong ruler. And when, the next day, she walked in procession with the King into the magnificent abbey at Westminster, none would have guessed at her inner qualms. She looked every inch the Queen, Henry thought, his eyes roving approvingly over her elaborately gauffered white silk bliaut embroidered with gold trelliswork and clasped with a heavy emerald, and her sweeping blue mantle powdered with gold crescents and lined in rose brocade. Her hair was flowing loose, like molten copper, over her shoulders, and over it she wore a veil of the thinnest gauze, edged with gold. Most satisfying of all, Henry felt, was her obvious fecundity, manifest in the unmistakable rounded contours of her ripened breasts and high belly; it was, after all, the first duty of a queen to be fruitful.

  Eleanor gazed up at Henry’s rugged features, the straight nose, the jutting jaw, the full lips—and loved him anew. There was no mistaking his majesty, as he strode purposefully up the nave, resplendent in his scarlet dalmatic with its border of gold passement around the neck and its diapered weave; beneath it he was wearing a blue tunic, and beneath that, a bleached linen alb. His long cloak billowed out behind him as he walked. His curly red head was bare in readiness for the great ceremonies to come. He looked the perfect image of a king.

  The abbey was thronged with the estates of the realm, the lords and the clergy, brilliantly attired in their silks and brocades. The long coronation ritual was infused with mystery and grandeur, such as to send tremors tingling down the spines of those who heard its timeless rubric. Eleanor thrilled to hear the psalm that Henry himself had chosen as a tribute to his beautiful consort; she, unmistakably, was his “queen in gold of Ophir,” and she was exhorted to forget her own people and her father’s house. In their place, she was told, “The King will desire your beauty; he is your lord, pay homage to him.” At that moment she would gladly have cast herself down in abasement for love of him, for thus proclaiming his devotion to the world.

  When Henry was lifted into his throne by the prelates, and the crown was placed on his head by Archbishop Theobald, there were resounding shouts of joy and acclaim from those watching. Then it was Eleanor’s turn, and she could not but think—as the consort’s diadem was placed on her bent head—that this was a far happier crowning than she had experienced with Louis, all those years ago, in Notre Dame in Paris, when, as a fifteen-year-old girl, she had experienced no sense of a great destiny. And there was to be further rejoicing, for afterward, as the royal couple emerged from the abbey, mounted their horses and rode through London, the citizens ran alongside crying, “Waes hail!” and “Vivat Rex!” Long live the King! It brought tears to Eleanor’s eyes, and made her heart feel near to bursting with jubilation.

  14

  Westminster, 1155

  Eleanor awoke to the sun streaming through the glazed windows of her bedchamber. The June d
ay was going to be beautiful, and she looked forward to walking in the palace orchards with her ladies and courtiers. She would take two-year-old William with her, and four-month-old Henry, a handsome, adventurous baby who never cried and who resembled his father in looks and character. Both infants had been presented to the barons and clergy at Wallingford, where the lords had sworn allegiance to little William as the heir to England. Young Henry, his father had declared, would one day have Anjou.

  At the thought of her husband, Eleanor frowned. She was uncomfortably aware that the space beside her in the bed was conspicuously empty, and would be so for some weeks to come. Having vigorously set his new kingdom in order, and made ambitious plans for the future, Henry was away hunting in Oxfordshire with his new friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket.

  Becket was everywhere these days, with an elegant finger in every pie. Eleanor still found it hard to credit that this hitherto unknown and relatively lowly fellow could so quickly have been advanced so high. It was just six months ago, only that long, that Archbishop Theobald had presented his most promising clerk to the King at the Christmas court.

  “My Lord King, may I warmly recommend my servant Thomas Becket for the vacant office of Chancellor of England,” he had said, indicating the tall, dark, elegant man at his side. Eleanor watched Thomas Becket fall to his knees before Henry, had been aware of her husband, expansive with good wine, warmly greeting the clerk.

  “Welcome to my court, Thomas,” he had said, regarding him speculatively. “My Lord Archbishop here has given me glowing reports of your abilities. Do you think you can serve me as well as you have served him? Are you worthy of the high office for which he has recommended you?”

 
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