Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  Thomas Becket had bowed his head. “My prince, I will dedicate myself utterly to you,” he vowed. “I will make myself worthy of your trust.” Coming from most other people, the words might have sounded extravagant, flattering, empty, but when the clerk raised his handsome face to his king and smiled, his apparent sincerity was striking. Either he was a good actor, Eleanor thought, or he was that rare breed of man whose word is his bond, and whose integrity shines clear. She still was not sure, but in that moment, she saw Henry take an instant liking to Thomas Becket, witnessed the rapport that immediately sprang up between the two men, and felt faintly uneasy when the King unhesitatingly raised the newcomer to his feet and approved the appointment almost at once.

  “But you hardly know this man,” she ventured to remonstrate later, when they were alone.

  “I take him on Theobald’s recommendation,” Henry answered reasonably. “He is a shrewd judge of character.”

  Eleanor had since come to wonder if even the sage Archbishop could make a mistake—or if she was being unfair to the newcomer. Becket, thirty-six, well educated, intelligent and able, and of good Norman stock, coming from a wealthy London family, was—on the surface—the ideal administrator and diplomat, as he had already proved on several occasions. She had learned that even before he came to Henry’s notice, he had taken minor orders and rendered valuable service to his mentor, Theobald, who rewarded him with rich church livings and benefices. Becket’s meteoric rise had made him the object of other men’s envy, and the jealous back-biters at court were already whispering that he had grown lax and idle in his parochial duties, and too ambitious and overworldly for a cleric. What Becket sought, it seemed to those who jealously kept him in their sights—including the Queen—was power, wealth, and glory.

  ——

  She supposed, to be fair, that her overt suspicion of Becket was the reason why Henry had not initially told her that he was going hunting with his new friend. When he informed her, without offering any reason, that he would be away for a few days, and she unthinkingly asked where he was bound, he glibly told her that he was going to make sure that the castles of certain barons who had caused trouble during the anarchy of Stephen’s reign had been dismantled, as he had ordered; but he’d looked like a small boy playing truant from his lessons.

  She’d smelled a rat then. Something was not right. He was lying to her! She knew it.

  “Where are these castles?” she pressed him.

  “In the midlands.” Again she sensed he was making it up. And the lie was easily exposed, for only hours afterward she had heard the justiciar speaking of the King’s hunting trip.

  “I thought you were going to inspect fortifications,” she had challenged Henry.

  “I am,” he said. “Is a man not allowed to combine business with pleasure?”

  It was a less than satisfactory answer, and it left Eleanor wondering why Henry felt the need to be so evasive. It was only when she saw Becket riding away with him, chatting and laughing, that the truth dawned on her. He had wanted to get away and spend time with his friend, and thought his wife would not approve; that she might feel slighted because he should prefer her company to Becket’s.

  He would have been right. She did feel slighted. She also feared that there was something wrong about all this. What were they up to? Wenching? Whoring? Drinking? No, that could not be—Becket never drank, nor did he frequent women. Even so, Eleanor could not suppress her conviction that something odd was going on.

  Who would ever have thought that Henry would desert her for the company of a member of his own sex? But that was what he had done. There had been no falling out between husband and wife. Indeed, Henry was as ardent a lover as ever on the nights he came to her bed; yet it gradually dawned on her that he now preferred to spend his waking hours with Becket—the insidious Becket, who had become his indispensable comrade and adviser in such a breathtakingly short time.

  Her mind in tumult, Eleanor thrust aside the brocade coverlet, pulled back the bed curtains, and slipped out of bed, padding across the green and red tiled floor to the garderobe in the fastness of the thick stone wall. There, having relieved herself, she took a loose robe from its peg and went to rouse the two damsels in attendance, who were sleeping on bench beds along the chamber wall. Her eye was drawn, as it often was, to the new tapestry woven in vivid blues and reds, which hung high on the pale stone wall above the fireplace—a real innovation, this last, a hearth built into the wall. It was the very latest in comfort, and Eleanor was hoping to persuade Henry to have more constructed in his castles and palaces. So far, though, he had shown scant interest in the idea, for material luxuries meant little to him, but Eleanor was not giving up yet. She liked her creature comforts.

  The tapestry depicted the Wheel of Fortune, an ever-present reminder of the ultimate futility of striving for earthly happiness. She wondered now why she had chosen it, and thought that she might one day replace it with something more cheerful—a scene from one of the legends of King Arthur, perhaps, or the romance of Tristan and Yseult, tales much beloved by her.

  She had only days before taken up residence in the newly renovated palace of Westminster, a strong and beautiful complex of honey-colored buildings surrounded and protected by a mighty outwork and stone bastions. The palace rose majestically above the broad, rippling Thames, and was surrounded by woodlands to the west and a teeming suburb to the east, with Westminster Abbey opposite. Eleanor had already been to pay her respects at the tomb of its founder, the Saxon King Edward the Confessor, whom many now accounted a saint. That was hardly surprising, Eleanor thought, smiling, when he had refused to bed his wife and get an heir because of his piety!

  The Queen’s bedchamber, solar, and bower were in the fine new royal apartments built by King Stephen. To the south, nearer the river bank, lay the older part of the palace raised by William Rufus, and now given over to the royal departments of state, the Treasury, Chancery, and Exchequer. Rufus’s huge hall adjoined it; reputed to be the largest hall in Europe. Henry was planning to set up a court here, where his justices would implement his laws. He had also spoken to Eleanor of his idea of appointing jurors—twelve good, true men—to decide verdicts, in place of trial by ordeal or combat. She was so proud of him when he showed such passion for good government and the welfare of his subjects.

  After mass, Eleanor broke her fast with bread, fruit, and ale, then conferred with her steward about the appointment of a master cook; the food in England, she had discovered, left much to be desired. After that she summoned her clerks, listened to petitions, and dictated letters. Henry had always trusted her to deal with routine business in his absence. “By English law,” he had told her after the coronation, “you, the Queen, are a sharer in my imperial kingship.” She had been thrilled to hear him say that.

  Business done, she and her ladies amused themselves by making music, one of Eleanor’s favorite pastimes. Mamille played the pipe, Torqueri the tabor, and Petronilla the harp, as Eleanor strummed a cithara. The others joined in clapping, and before long someone suggested they dance. Soon they were caroling around the bower, skirts and veils flying.

  Eleanor reflected that they were very lucky to enjoy lives of such leisure and luxury. The Queen’s lodgings were a haven of retreat from Henry’s chaotic court, and beautifully appointed, with her chambers boasting every comfort: fine carved furniture, carpets imported from the Orient, plump cushions and silken hangings, even glass in the windows. She supposed she must thank Becket for that. Only weeks before, during the first days of spring, she had grown impatient of staying at the dark, cramped palace of Bermondsey, and urged Henry to put in hand restoration works at Westminster. He himself had conceived great plans for Westminster, so he’d willingly agreed and immediately appointed Becket to oversee the refurbishment. Becket had thrown himself into the task with his usual enthusiasm and flair, and in a matter of just weeks the great palace had been transformed, down to the very last detail. Nothing was overlooked.

&
nbsp; Despite her reservations, she had found Becket easy to work with, and grudgingly admired his smooth efficiency. He had deferred to her in every possible way. Would Madame the Queen prefer this damask or that silk? Should he order silver or gold candlesticks for her chapel? Maybe her chair of estate was too high, and he should obtain a footstool? Was the canopy of estate to her liking? She was sufficiently fair-minded to admit that she’d had no cause for complaint.

  And yet … she could not like him. There was something about the man that repelled her, something she could not define, which was strange, because Becket was exceptionally good-looking, with his proud, finely chiseled features, and she usually responded warmly to handsome men. But there was a coldness about him when he was in her presence, a coldness that was never apparent when he was in Henry’s company, and she sensed also an aversion to herself, for all his courtesy. Maybe he was aware of her resentment, which would not be surprising, for she found it hard to unbend to him as she did to most other people. But she felt it was more than that. It was almost as if they were rivals.

  It soon seemed to Eleanor that Becket stood with the King as Joseph had with Pharaoh.

  “He is too smooth in his dealings,” she’d said carefully to Henry. She had to tread cautiously because he would hear no criticism of his friend. She forbore to add that she suspected Becket of also being self-seeking and manipulative, and that—the antipathy between them aside—there was something about him that repelled her, something she could not explain, even to herself.

  “Is that a fault?” Henry had asked. “He has great talent and boundless energy, which he is willing to expend in my service.”

  “He is vain and ambitious,” Eleanor persisted. “The good Archbishop looks to him as a champion of the Church, but he is far too worldly in my opinion.”

  “I want him to champion me,” Henry had said defiantly.

  Since then, that was exactly what Becket had done, serving his new master in every way he could, and making himself indispensable. And Henry had quickly grown to love him, this man who was fifteen years his senior; indeed, he had become increasingly in thrall to him, treating him as a brother and an equal—and, Eleanor wondered, perhaps finding in him a substitute for the father he had loved and lost.

  “If you ask me,” Henry’s real brother, the obnoxious Geoffrey, had said, scowling, “there’s more than is seemly in this friendship.”

  They had been seated late at the dinner board at Bermondsey, watching Henry and Becket chatting animatedly with a group of young barons. The King’s love for his new friend was evident in his open countenance, his warm regard, and his bodily demeanor. Eleanor, who did not shock easily, rounded furiously on Geoffrey.

  “That is preposterous,” she hissed. “The King is a paragon of manhood in every respect—and I should know!”

  Yet alone in her chamber that night—for Henry was still carousing with Becket and their cronies—Geoffrey’s words had played on her mind, despite her ready dismissal of them. Could the virile young man who had bedded her passionately no less than three times the previous evening, and on countless occasions before—and who had boasted of his previous affairs with women—have suddenly become unnaturally attracted to a man? To this pernicious Becket? It was inconceivable.

  Inconceivable or not, she’d lain there torturing herself. She’d heard of men who were so lusty, and so lacking in morals, that they would fuck anything that moved, women, men, children, even animals. She could not believe that Henry, lecherous as he was, was so mired in filth that he could stoop so low. But if one listened to the teachings of the sterner clerics, men who indulged in this kind of fornication were irrevocably damned for all eternity, condemned both in Heaven and on Earth. People were not as tolerant these days as they once had been, and she’d even heard of some poor wretches who had committed such grievous sins being burned at the stake for heresy. She could not imagine her husband being one of their kind, or doing anything to merit such punishment.

  But the doubt would not be stilled. When Henry finally lurched into bed, drunk and smelling of wine, she’d turned to him in what had become desperation.

  “Henry, have you been staying up late with Becket again?” Her voice sounded shrill, shrewish.

  “What if I have?” he muttered, slurring his words slightly. “Thomas is my friend. He is witty c-company. We have some good times together.”

  “You spend too much time with him,” she accused him. “People are beginning to talk.”

  “They’re just envious,” Henry grunted.

  “No, it’s not that,” she said slowly.

  “Then what?” His jaw jutted forward.

  “They are saying that it is not seemly, this friendship.”

  “What?” Henry roared. “Who is saying this? Who has such an evil mind? I’ll have him strung up, I’ll—”

  “It’s Geoffrey,” Eleanor told him.

  “By the eyes of God, what gets into that Devil’s spawn?” Henry spat, still outraged. “How dare he say such things, and to you, my wife? He will pay for it, by God, he will pay for it.”

  “Oh, leave him be,” Eleanor said, relief flooding through her, for Henry’s reaction had convinced her that her irrational fears were groundless. “He is just jealous. Perhaps he thinks he should be your chancellor.”

  “Heaven forbid,” fumed Henry. “That’s it. I’m packing him off to Normandy tomorrow. Our revered Lady Mother can keep an eye on him. And for now, Eleanor, I intend to prove to you just how wrong that whoreson Geoffrey was!”

  “You are too good to me, sire,” Becket protested, looking up from the document he had just read.

  “Think nothing of it,” Henry said. “Those revenues will help you to live in the style to which my chancellor should be accustomed.”

  “I am not worthy,” his friend declared. “I have not merited such largesse from you.”

  “Nonsense!” Henry snorted, getting up to pour himself more wine. They were in his solar and had just finished going through the day’s business. It was after the final account parchments had been rolled away that Henry had presented Becket with his gift. It was a grant of several manors with a good yield in rent—and it was not the first such grant that Becket had received.

  “You know your courtiers grow envious of me,” the chancellor said slowly, relaxing his lean frame in his chair. “I’ve heard them complaining that there is none my equal save the King alone.”

  “Bah!” Henry scoffed. “None of them have half your talent, or your energy. Do you want some of this?” He came over and handed his friend a jeweled goblet.

  “I see you are using my gift,” Becket said.

  “Splendid, aren’t they,” Henry observed, holding up his own goblet to the light.

  “I had them sent especially from Spain,” Becket told him. “It was the least I could do, given how generous you have been to me.” He was regarding the younger man with obvious affection.

  “Thomas, you have earned it a thousandfold!” Henry retorted. “I want no false modesty.”

  Becket smiled, absently fingering the sumptuous silk of his tunic. “I cannot tell you how much I value your friendship, my prince.”

  “That makes two of us.” Henry’s voice was gruff. Truth to tell, he could not have said, even to himself, what it was about Becket that drew him, and he often asked himself how, in such a short time, he had come to love this man. He could explain it only by telling himself they were kindred spirits, that they shared the same interests, and that Thomas’s company was enormously stimulating.

  “We must plan another feast,” he said, as an idea was born. “We’ll have it at your house and invite my jealous courtiers. Let them see me giving you all the honor and favor that you merit.”

  “Would that be wise?” Becket wondered. “It might be a better idea to hold the feast here, in the palace, since your barons are always grumbling that there is little enough pomp and ceremony at court, and it would look as if you were doing them an honor too.”

>   “I’m bored by pomp and ceremony,” Henry retorted. “Still, you have a point. And there won’t be much pomp and ceremony when the nobility of England are in their cups!” He chuckled at the thought. “Do you remember them last time, sprawling in the rushes and groping the wenches?”

  The chuckle became a belly laugh, and Becket smiled too.

  “You plan it, Thomas,” Henry said. “You’re good at these things.”

  “What of the ladies? Shall I invite the Queen?” Becket asked.

  Henry grinned at him.

  “Better not! We’d have to be on our best behavior, and she’ll only complain when we all get drunk.”

  “When you get drunk, my prince,” Becket corrected.

  “I’ll make a man of you yet, my friend!” Henry jested.

  ——

  Eleanor no longer worried that there might be anything more than friendship on Henry’s part for Becket, but she knew that they were unusually—and disturbingly—close. This was not the kind of comradeship that flourished between fighting men thrown together on military campaigns, but a sort of thralldom, in which Henry hung upon Becket’s every word and preferred his advice to everyone else’s. She had gradually become painfully aware that she was being supplanted, that her husband no longer sought her counsel first, and that he was spending more time with Becket than he did with her. He came to her bed frequently enough, though, and paid her every courtesy out of it, and on the surface all was well between them, but she sensed, more strongly than ever now, that in every other way that counted, Becket was her rival.

  It seemed he was deliberately trying to usurp her place in Henry’s affections—and in the affairs of the realm. There had been that crucial matter of patronage. From the time Eleanor had first come to England, she had been deluged with petitions and requests by those who knew her to be influential with the King, and it pleased and flattered her to know that she had the power to change the lives of others for the better. But only a month ago it had been made plain to her that her enjoyment of that power was under threat.

 
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