Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  Becket had come upon her as she sat with her clerks, going through the latests pleas from her petitioners. They had made two piles of the parchments—one for those to be ignored, and one for those the Queen would lay before the King, with her own recommendations. But suddenly, almost symbolically, a shadow loomed over the table and the documents, and when she looked up, she saw Becket standing before her. In the fleeting second before he made his bow, she had seen the contempt in his eyes.

  “What can I do for you, my Lord Chancellor?” she had asked courteously.

  “I think, Madame the Queen, that it is more a case of what I can do for you,” he answered, refusing to meet her gaze, but fixing his eyes on the parchments. “With your leave, I will look after these petitions.”

  She was shocked, outraged! The petitions were addressed to her, and it was her privilege, as queen, to deal with them. How dare this upstart deacon insult her so?

  Even the clerks were gawping at Becket’s presumption. One man’s jaw had dropped in horror.

  Fury blazed in Eleanor’s eyes as she rose from her chair. “My Lord Chancellor, you are new to your office, and quite obviously have much to learn,” she said in clipped tones. “You will not be aware that these are petitions meant for the King, and that they have been sent to me, his queen, by right, in the hope that I can persuade him to grant them.”

  Becket’s response was infuriating. He merely smiled and held out his hand. “On the contrary, Madame the Queen, I think you will find that the King wishes me to deal with them. If you would like to ask him, I’m sure he will confirm that.”

  She was speechless. Never had she been so slighted, not even by those dismissive old clerics at Louis’s court.

  “Leave them here,” she said, her voice steely. “I command it. I will indeed speak with the King. Now you have my leave to go.”

  Had she imagined it, or had Becket actually shrugged before he withdrew, bowing and giving that maddening, contemptuous smile? He would not get away with his insolence, she vowed, as she hastened in rage to seek out her husband.

  She found Henry soaking in his bath, humming to himself as he was washed by his valets. As she burst into the chamber, almost breathing fire, he waved the men away, frowning.

  “Sweet Eleanor, what is wrong?” he cried as he rose and reached for a towel to cover his nakedness. But she wasn’t interested in his body at that moment.

  “It’s your Lord Chancellor, that insolent man Becket!” she seethed. “He has dared to demand that I turn over my petitions to him. He says that you wish it!”

  Henry’s face flushed, and not with the steam from the tub. There was an awful silence. Eleanor stared at him, horrified.

  “It’s true,” she accused him, unable quite to believe it. “You do wish it.”

  Henry found his voice. Tying the towel around his waist, he came to her and put his arms around her. His skin was damp and he smelled sharply of the fresh herbs that had scented his bathwater.

  “Forgive me,” he said. “Thomas suggested that he might be of help with the petitions, and I thought it a good idea, especially since you have the children now, a royal household to run, and many other duties.”

  “A queen’s role is not all domestic!” Eleanor flared. “It is my royal privilege to exercise patronage and use my influence, and you know how much I value that.”

  “It is of no matter,” Henry hastened to reassure her. “I will thank Thomas for his thoughtfulness, and tell him that you will continue to deal with the petitions as before.” He bent and kissed her, clasping her face in his hands. “There—does that pacify you, my beautiful termagant?”

  It was easy to say that it did and so end the quarrel, but Eleanor had come away with the feeling that Henry had been a fool in allowing Becket his head in this matter, and the even greater conviction that she was now—willingly or not—engaged in a power struggle with the chancellor, who was clearly out to subvert her influence, supplant her in the King’s counsels, and have her relegated to the domestic sphere, where he obviously thought women belonged. And the awful truth was that Henry could not see it! He thought Becket was merely being kind. She could have howled with frustration.

  But she had won the first round in the contest, and at least she knew her enemy, whose smile was rather more forced when they next came face-to-face; and she was resolved to fight him with all the subtle weapons at her disposal. She’d known it would be a secret struggle, no doubt of it, because Henry did not understand subtlety, and she would be fighting Becket on his own terms. It had not been long, however, before she realized, to her dismay, that she was losing the battle.

  Becket was clever. He was unfailingly faultless in his manner toward Eleanor and took care never to scant the respect due to her as his queen. She was always invited with the King to his house in London, a splendid establishment provided and maintained by Henry, and as palatial as any of the royal residences. In fact, the first time she saw it, she felt indignant that this upstart chancellor should be living in even more regal state than his master. But she had sat there with a smile fixed on her face, dining off gold plate laden with the finest fare, drinking from crystal glasses encrusted with gems that glittered in the flickering light from the great silver candelabra, and served by the sons of nobles, who had been sent to Becket’s household to be schooled in courtesy, martial arts, and those things that befit fledgling aristocrats. She had graced the table, holding her own in the lively and witty conversation that flowed around it, yet aware that her opinions counted for very little with her host, whose courtesies belied his shut-off look whenever she ventured to hold forth.

  She watched him covertly all the time, this tall, slender clerk, with his dark hair, his finely chiseled features, and his aquiline nose, watched him charming barons and prelates alike, talking of anything and everything from hawking and chess to the business of the kingdom, his eyes alight with zeal as he spoke of his plans for the future. And Henry was captivated, hanging on every word. Seeing them together, you would have thought that Becket was the King, in his magnificent robes of silk and brocade, not Henry, in his plain woolen cloth tunic and short mantle, or his accustomed hunting gear. Eleanor thought Becket’s vanity and taste bordered on effeminacy, and she was inexplicably repulsed by his small, tapering hands, which were like a woman’s. She did not want those hands to touch her, and tried not to recoil when the chancellor bowed before her on greeting and took her hand in his own to kiss.

  Not that Becket’s hands would have touched women very often, she thought. It was well known that he had taken a vow of chastity in youth, and that he avoided encounters with the fair sex if he could. She had sensed his aversion to herself, and noticed that he kept his converse with the ladies to a courteous minimum. She often wondered if he did prefer his own sex, as rumor had covertly speculated. But one thing was certain—he was not promiscuous in the least, and that was something she did not have to worry about: Becket, unlike many other courtiers, would never seek to be Henry’s accomplice in fleshly pleasures, encouraging him to go whoring or to frequent brothels. It was a small thing to be grateful for.

  At the moment when Eleanor was dancing with her ladies at Westminster, Henry and Becket were riding south from Oxford, talking animatedly of yet another hunting trip they were planning, this time to the New Forest; it was to take place as soon as Henry and Eleanor had returned from their coming great progress through England, to see—and be seen by—their new subjects.

  “We will stay at my hunting lodge at New Park, near Lyndhurst,” Henry declared. “Perhaps you would like to come too?” he jested to the little boy who was perched before him on his saddle. He winced as he remembered Joanna de Akeny’s tears as she had given up young Geoffrey into his father’s care; he never had been able to deal with a weeping woman. Anxious to escape, he assured her that he would look after the lad well, and that a great future lay ahead of him as the King’s bastard son, for sons, whichever side of the blanket they were born, could be great assets to a
king. Joanna had wept again, this time tears of gratitude.

  “Sire, have you considered how the Queen might react when you arrive with Master Geoffrey?” Thomas had inquired gently as soon as they were on the road. He had not anticipated this hunting jaunt encompassing a visit to Henry’s former leman, and was astonished to find that Henry intended it as cover for taking custody of his son. He could only deplore Henry’s morals—or lack of them. His king had no self-control!

  Henry had considered it, briefly, but it had not occurred to him that Eleanor would be offended by a bastard child conceived and born before they had even met.

  “I doubt it will concern her very much,” he replied. “The boy is no threat to her or the children she has borne me.”

  “Women can be sensitive about such things,” Thomas said. “She might take your acknowledgment of Master Geoffrey as an insult to herself.” He forbore to add that Eleanor might react even more violently were she to find out about Henry’s covert dalliance with Avice de Stafford, one of her damsels. Henry had boasted of this conquest to Thomas while in his cups one night—although now he probably had no recollection of ever mentioning it. Thomas shuddered at the thought of Henry and Avice together, much as he had shuddered several times during the past months whenever Henry casually referred to other amorous exploits, all of them casual encounters, and none of them troubling his conscience. Becket was well aware, as Eleanor was not, that the King’s reputation was already such that the barons had taken to keeping their womenfolk out of his way.

  “The Queen is a woman of the world,” Henry declared confidently. “She is not easily outraged.” Thomas knew this too; he had not forgotten what he had heard in Archbishop Theobald’s household, from his friend John of Salisbury, who had worked for the Papal Curia when Eleanor was trying to obtain a divorce from Louis. John had confided to him several interesting, even scandalous, pieces of information that he could never repeat. And there had been colorful rumors going the rounds for years. Becket had heard them repeatedly, from many people. If ever a man needed evidence that women were frail creatures, what Thomas had learned of Eleanor would suffice.

  “Do you think me a fool to acknowledge my son?” Henry asked, fixing his steely gaze on his friend.

  “I should have advised discretion,” Thomas said candidly. “But it is a private matter for my lord himself to decide.”

  “I intend to advance the boy. He could prove useful to me in time. I remember my bastard uncle, Robert of Gloucester. He was a rock of support to my mother in her quarrel with Stephen.”

  Becket glanced down at the child; the boy was listening intently. He had intelligent eyes. A child to watch, certainly. Henry was right.

  “Might I suggest a career in the Church?” he ventured. “Although his bastardy might be a bar to high ecclesiastical office.”

  “Popes can be bought,” Henry said. “I could make young Geoffrey here Archbishop of Canterbury! Or even chancellor, when you are in your dotage, Thomas!” He winked, then began chuckling. “My barons won’t approve, of course!”

  “Then they will have to do as the Queen must, and put up with it,” was the apposite rejoinder. The King smiled ruefully. As ever, Thomas had got his measure.

  “I think the Queen does not like me,” Thomas said.

  “Nonsense!” Henry replied. “You have been a staunch friend and a great support to me. How could she not like you?”

  “I fear she resents my influence. I suspect she would like to be first in your counsels.”

  “I dare say she would,” Henry said, “but she is a woman, with a woman’s limitations, although she is more able than most. She has no need to be jealous. I sleep with her, don’t I?” Becket winced, but Henry did not notice. “And I allow her considerable power. I trust her to rule in my absence, and even when I am here, she can issue writs and official documents under her own name and seal. I’ve even told her she can sit in my courts and dispense justice if she wants, and settle disputes on request. So why should she resent you?”

  “Then mayhap I have imagined her resentment,” Thomas conceded, keeping his doubts to himself. He suspected that Eleanor already regarded him as a rival. God knew, that was how he regarded her.

  “The Queen knows you are invaluable to me,” Henry went on. “Where else would I find a man of such diligence and industry, experienced in affairs, and able to discharge the duties of his office to the praise of all? Who else is such a staunch friend to me? Thomas, I tell you, you are my right-hand man. I put all my trust in you. Together, we will make this kingdom great!”

  “My lord flatters me,” Thomas said, with that slow, gentle smile that was so endearing. “I am ever happy to be of service with my small talents.”

  “You speak like a courtier!” Henry scoffed. “Accept praise where it is due, man. You earned it by your merits.”

  They rode on companionably for some time, past the peasants toiling on their strips of land, and beasts grazing in the fields, with Henry pointing out butterflies, cows, and pigs to the inquisitive Geoffrey, and answering his persistent, incisive questions.

  “This child is clever!” he announced delightedly. “He wants to know everything. Young William is all bombast and will make a great warrior, but this one has a brain.”

  “I shouldn’t let the Queen hear you saying that!” Thomas warned.

  Henry laughed, then drew his habitual short mantle around him. It was unseasonably cold for June. He felt a momentary yearning for the warmer climes of Anjou and Aquitaine.

  Presently, the sky darkened and it began to rain. Soon it was sheeting down, and fearful of being soaked to the skin, they tethered their horses under a tree and sought shelter in a church porch, huddling in their cloaks. Suddenly, they realized that they were sharing their sanctuary with a beggar, shivering in his meager wet rags. He regarded them hopefully, as if he had guessed they were persons of some importance.

  “Who is that man?” Geoffrey asked.

  “He is a poor vagrant,” Henry explained.

  The poor vagrant continued to regard him with speculative eyes. The King turned to his friend.

  “Would it not be an act of merit to set the boy an example and give that poor old man a warm cloak to shield him from the rain?” he asked, a glint of mischief in his eye.

  “It would,” Thomas agreed, missing the glint, and thinking this was uncharacteristically generous of Henry.

  “Yours be the merit then!” the King announced gleefully, and whipping Becket’s expensive cloak from his shoulders, thrust it at the astounded beggar, who gathered it around him and scuttled off without a word, leaving Thomas with no choice but to accept his loss; but he was angered and shocked, realizing in that moment that Henry could be unthinkingly cruel. It was the first time he had felt anything other than love for the younger man, and he was further grieved with Henry for making him feel that way. As he stood there, shivering in the damp porch, it even occurred to him to wonder how far his unpredictable master, in times to come, might put their friendship to the test.

  Eleanor stared as her husband stood before her, giving the strange little boy a push in her direction.

  “Bow to the Queen,” he instructed, as the black-haired child stood there uncertainly. Henry grabbed him by the collar and jerked his head forward. “Like that!” he said. “Eleanor, this is Geoffrey. He is my natural son, born before our marriage. I have brought him to court to receive an education and to be company for our boys.”

  Eleanor froze. She knew that kings and lords took mistresses as a matter of right and sired bastards unthinkingly, especially those whose arranged marriages were unhappy. Her father and grandfather had done it, and to prove it her two illegitimate brothers were even now in her household, eating her out of house and home. No prude herself, she knew too that Henry had had mistresses in the past, and accepted that, but being confronted with the living evidence of his rutting with other women was a shock to her. In a flash she realized what the true purpose of the hunting expedition h
ad been.

  “I bid you welcome, Master Geoffrey,” she said coolly, stiffly on her dignity. It had been impressed on her as a child, by Grandmère Dangerosa, that a wife never upbraided her husband for his infidelities, but maintained a lofty silence. That was all very well, but only up to a point. There were questions that had to be asked.

  “Who is his mother?” she asked lightly, as if this were a normal conversation to be having with her husband.

  “The lady of the manor of Akeny in Oxfordshire,” Henry told her, his tone defensive. “I was lonely on my forays into England. I took my comfort where I could. I’m sure you can understand that.”

  “I can,” she replied, her tone softening. “How old is Geoffrey?”

  “He is five years old.”

  Eleanor relaxed a little. The child smiled at her winningly. “I can read, lady,” he told her proudly.

  “Can you now?” she responded, warming to his sunny nature despite herself.

  “He is a marvel,” Henry declared, clearly bursting with pride, “and will be a fitting playmate for William and Henry, who will benefit by his example.”

  Eleanor, still schooling herself to the dignified acceptance that Dangerosa had enjoined, rang the tinkling little bell she kept for summoning her damsels.

  “Welcome to court, Master Geoffrey,” she said. “I hope you will be happy here.” She told herself she could hardly blame this little lad for his father’s sins, and that Henry had in no way betrayed her; he had just omitted to tell her of the boy’s existence. When Torqueri arrived, she instructed her: “This is Master Geoffrey, our Lord the King’s son. Take him to the nursery and tell them to treat him with honor, and kindness, for he may be missing his mother.”

  Hiding her astonishment, Torqueri took Geoffrey’s hand and led him away.

  “We have a new litter of puppies,” she could be heard saying. “The Lord William will enjoy showing them to you.”

  When they were gone, Eleanor looked at Henry.

  “Am I to expect any other additions to my children’s household?” she asked.

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