Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  “No,” Henry lied, knowing there might one day be several moments of reckoning in regard to a number of other bastards he had carelessly sired, but confident that he could bluff his way through them if or when the time came.

  He rose and walked over to his queen; he still found her utterly beautiful with her coppery locks loose, her deep-set green eyes regarding him seductively—he thought—and her full lips ripe for loving. He bent and kissed her.

  “You are my lady,” he whispered hoarsely. “You have my heart. None can touch you.” It was true, and he meant it absolutely. Frantically fucking Avice de Stafford in a garderobe when overcome by lust did not count at all against his sexual cherishing of his wife. He tightened his arms around her, wanting her urgently.

  “Send your women away,” he murmured in her ear. “I can hear them clucking in your bedchamber. I want to be alone with you, and get another heir to England!”

  An hour later, as they lay peacefully entwined between the tumbled sheets, Henry gazed down at his lovely Eleanor and traced a trail with his rough fingers from her breast to her hip.

  “If only all my other kingly duties were as pleasant!” He grinned.

  “And my queenly ones!” She smiled back.

  Henry caught sight of the hourglass on the table and frowned. “My God, I had best go. I’m already late for a meeting with my barons of the Exchequer to discuss improving the coinage.”

  He stood up and stretched, the sunlight from the window anointing his muscular, naked body. Eleanor gazed at him lazily, admiring the perfection of his broad shoulders and taut buttocks.

  “Will you join me for dinner tonight, my lady?” he asked, pulling on his clothes.

  Now it was Eleanor’s turn to grimace.

  “If the food is palatable,” she said. These days Henry was busy all the time and didn’t care too much what he ate, usually gobbling it up and leaving the table within five minutes. Consequently, the fare served at his court was poor, and she had taken to having her own meals prepared by her own cook, and eating them with Petronilla and her chief ladies in her solar. When he had leisure, Henry would join her, but as he had explained, a king had to have a visible presence at his court, so it was expedient that he made it his usual habit to dine in the great hall with his household. On feast days and holy days, though, Eleanor always took her place there at Henry’s side, and put up with the appalling food. This day was neither feast day nor holy day, but she sensed that he wanted her to be with him after that ecstatic session in bed, and knew that she should seize the moment.

  “I will expressly order my cooks to make sure that it is to your liking,” he promised, pulling on his boots. “And we will have some music, to delight you.”

  “You delight me,” she told him, rising in all her naked beauty and clasping her arms about his neck.

  “Witch!” he growled, kissing her. “Would you detain me with your wiles? What of the coinage? My barons await me.”

  “They can wait a little longer,” Eleanor purred, employing her tongue to artful effect and pulling him down with her once more on the bed.

  At the board of the Exchequer, the lords sat looking at one another and drumming the table with impatient fingers, watching the sand drizzling slowly through the hourglass and wondering what had become of their king.

  At his place at the high table on the dais, Becket, watching Henry’s unruly barons arriving—half drunk already—for dinner, reflected that his friend John of Salisbury had been right when he’d compared the English court to ancient Babylon. All scandal, debauchery, and frivolity were here, encouraged by sensuous music and bawdy mimes and dramas. He had heard that they were to have some entertainment later this evening—more ribaldry, he supposed—but that was fortuitous in a way, since it would ensure that the King actually sat down to eat, and everybody else could finish their meal—although, thought Becket with distaste, perhaps that was not such a boon.

  He could only disapprove of the excesses he witnessed at court, and regretted that Henry did nothing to curb them. But, of course, the King would do no such thing, for he indulged in such excesses too, swearing, drinking himself into oblivion, and whoring with the best of them. It was not dignified behavior in a king. That was why Becket was happier when he could entertain Henry in his own house, and afford him the elegance, luxury, and sophistication that were deplorably lacking at court. He sensed, though, that Henry cared far less for these things than he did, and that the person who gained the most pleasure from them was himself. It flattered his vanity to be able to lavish such bounty on his king, and show him how things should be done.

  The company was standing now—or trying its best to—as Henry entered the hall, holding the Queen by the hand. They’ll have to be on their best behavior now, Becket thought, amused, knowing how Eleanor was a stickler for observing the courtesies. Someone belched loudly, and she glared, quelling the unfortunate culprit, who hung his head in unaccustomed shame.

  Henry escorted her to her seat at his right hand; Becket, standing to his left, bowed as she sat down. He heard her murmur to her husband, “Your barons could at least comb their hair before they come to table. They’re a disgrace.”

  As Becket suppressed a smile, Henry looked about him, puzzled.

  “I hadn’t noticed,” he said. “As long as they serve me well and do as I tell them, their appearance matters not one jot to me. But since it obviously does to you …” He rose to his feet and raised one hand.

  “Silence!” he bawled above the hubbub, and upward of fifty faces turned toward him.

  “I have a new edict for you,” he announced, smirking. “At the express wish of the Queen, no man is henceforth to come into her presence with his hair uncombed. And that means you, my Lord of Arundel!” He frowned disapprovingly at an earl who was engrossed in picking nits out of his greasy locks. The fastidious Becket shuddered.

  Everyone laughed, even Eleanor. Then she noticed that there were no napkins on the table, and grimaced.

  “Summon the ewerer,” she murmured to the steward, as Henry sat down beside her. He made a face and smirked as, presently, reasonably clean napkins were brought and distributed along the tables.

  “Anything else you would like, my lady?” he asked, only half joking.

  “No, thank you. I am looking forward to the culinary delights in store for me!” Eleanor replied, recalling the green, rancid meat she had been served the last time she dined in the palace hall. Even the garlic sauce that smothered it had not disguised the foul taste and smell. But tonight Henry had assured her, she would have a feast fit for the Queen she was.

  The chief butler and his acolytes came in with great flagons of wine, and a thick, murky brew of indeterminate color was poured into Eleanor’s goblet. She sipped it warily. It was horrible, greasy and foul, and tasted like soot. Almost banging down her goblet, she decided to treat herself to some quality wine from her city of Bordeaux when she returned to her chamber. Next to her, Henry was imbibing thirstily, but she was aware of Becket also disdaining to drink. A faint pucker of distaste pursed his thin lips. It wasn’t often that Eleanor found herself and Becket to be kindred spirits.

  The first course was the wild boar that Henry had killed while out hunting that very morning, so it was fresh, and only slightly overcooked. The second course was trout, long dead. Eleanor smelled one whiff and recoiled in disgust.

  “That fish cannot be less than four days old!” she complained.

  Henry took a mouthful. “Hmm, it is a bit off.”

  “Sire, it is so off that it should be food only for worms,” Becket said. “I marvel that the King is so badly served.”

  Eleanor bit back a mischievous suggestion that Becket take on the cooking for the court in addition to all his other duties. She knew he was speaking the truth, and that he was supporting her, but she felt he had no right to be saying such things, which amounted effectively to a criticism of his master.

  “Tell them to send something else,” Henry commanded, “or
I will be paying a visit to the kitchens.” After ten minutes a dish of jugged hare arrived, along with some capons in saffron sauce. Eleanor tasted both cautiously, but they were equally delicious. A plump partridge followed.

  “It’s remarkable how the threat of a royal inspection can work wonders,” Henry observed dryly.

  The Abbot of Winchester, who was in London on business, and the King’s guest by virtue of his standing, sampled the partridge and complimented his sovereign on his table. “Our bishop allows us only ten courses at meals,” he lamented, clearly anticipating more to come. Henry stared at him.

  “Perish your bishop!” he exclaimed. “In my court we are satisfied with three courses. In a moment the tablecloth will be lifted, so hurry up and finish, as we have some minstrels waiting to play for us. From Germany, you understand. They have come a long way.”

  The portly abbot looked crestfallen and hastened to eat up his partridge, as if it might be snatched from him at any moment. Eleanor tried to hide a smile.

  When Becket, as the King’s chaplain, had risen to thank God for His bounty, the minstrels were ushered in.

  “They are called minnesingers,” Henry said. “The German equivalent of your troubadours, Eleanor. I trust they are more respectful.” Eleanor chose to ignore the barb. Henry never had come to terms with the troubadour culture in which she was steeped.

  The lead singer was a beautiful young man with long red hair, full lips, and sad eyes. He fixed them boldly on Eleanor as he rose from an elaborate bow.

  “This for you, meine Königin,” he announced. A hush fell on the court as he began singing, his voice as poignant as his expression, his words imbued with yearning and erotic meaning:

  The sweet young Queen

  Draws the thoughts of all upon her,

  As sirens lure the witless mariners

  Upon the reef.

  If all the world were mine

  From the seashore to the Rhine,

  That price were not too high

  To have England’s Queen lie

  Close in my arms.

  There was a stunned pause as the singer fell silent. Drunk as they were, Henry’s courtiers had seen their master’s face darken, and were refraining from applauding in case of provoking his notorious temper. Eleanor sat tense in her chair, relishing the tribute paid to her in the song, and smiling fixedly, yet graciously, at the young singer, as courtesy—and the best traditions of the South—demanded. She did not dare look at her husband.

  “You are bold, minstrel,” Henry said at last. “Overbold, methinks.”

  “Lord King, I mean no offense,” the young man protested, clearly surprised that anyone should take his song amiss. “The beauty of the Queen is sung of even in my land. Her fame is great. Our young men sigh for a glimpse of her.”

  “Yes, yes, so it appears,” said Henry testily. “Well, you can stop sighing and play us something more appropriate. And remember, minstrel”—he leaned forward menacingly—“the only arms in which this beautiful queen will ever lie are mine!”

  There was general mirth as the discomfited youth bowed and hastily launched into a well-known song about the heroic Chevalier Roland, which was much more to the martial taste of the barons and knights present, who clapped and roared their approval. Eleanor now ventured to look Henry’s way and, to her astonishment, found him smiling at her.

  “Yon bold fellow has some nerve, but he has put me in mind of how fortunate I am!” he said, taking her hand and kissing it. “Will you lie close in my arms tonight, my lady?”

  It was at that moment that Eleanor caught sight of Becket’s face over Henry’s shoulder, and saw the fleeting, anguished look of naked longing and pain that was quickly replaced by the chancellor’s usual suave, aloof expression. Becket had been looking at Henry; he could not but have seen the courtly gesture and heard what the King had said.

  So that’s how things are, Eleanor thought. He suffers an unrequited love, a love to which he dare not ever own up, for he knows it is forbidden and that it will never be returned, and he is sworn to chastity. But he is jealous. He knows that this is one part of Henry’s life over which he cannot hold sway; that in the final reckoning, I will always be the victor. Yet strangely, she felt no sense of triumph—only sadness for the sterility and emptiness of her rival’s existence.

  Henry was leaning over and nuzzling her neck. She watched Becket murmur his excuses, bow, and leave the hall, his young attendants scrambling to follow him.


  Wallingford, 1156

  Eleanor sometimes wondered what she was doing, riding around England seven months into her latest pregnancy, issuing writs and charters, and ensuring that the kingdom was efficiently governed during Henry’s latest absence. He was in Normandy, paying homage to Louis for Aquitaine at last, and curbing the ambitions of little brother Geoffrey, which even the formidable Empress had failed to hold in check.

  Eleanor had with her a sizable retinue, which included her sons, her sister Petronilla, and her half brothers, William and Joscelin. They were now lodged at Wallingford, in the impregnable castle that had been of such strategic importance during Stephen’s wars, but were given to the Queen as part of her dower.

  Already Eleanor’s brothers were becoming restive. They had made no secret of the fact that they disliked England. It was too cold, and the food was ghastly. Soon, they warned her, by her leave, they would return to the sunnier climes of Aquitaine. That gave her a pang. She always tried her best not to think of her own land, knowing that it might be many moons, and probably years, before she saw it again. Understanding their homesickness, she had told William and Joscelin that they might depart whenever they wished, with her blessing; she would not keep them here against her will. She knew they would go soon. They were not creatures of the court, but men of property who had fiefdoms to look after. She would be sorry to see them go, but glad for them, all the same.

  Eleanor was resting in her bower with her feet up, reading letters, when Petronilla, a little blurred at the edges with wine, as she so often was these days, knocked and entered.

  “Eleanor, I think you should come and see young William. He has developed a fever in this last hour, and the nurse is a little concerned.”

  Weary and ungainly as she was, Eleanor got clumsily but hastily to her feet, her heart full of fear. Children died young—it was a common occurrence—and she had only yesterday given thanks to God for being blessed with such healthy boys. Had she been too complacent? Had there been some symptom she had missed? She had last seen William after dinner; he seemed well enough then, had eaten up every morsel, so she had been told. Maybe she was overreacting—but she did not think so. She had appointed the best nurse to be had, and if she was concerned enough to summon her mistress, when usually she dealt competently with childhood ailments herself, then there must indeed be cause for worry.

  As swiftly as she could she ascended the turret stairs to the princes’ apartments on the topmost floor of the keep, a weepy Petronilla lurching in her wake. Bursting into the boys’ bedchamber, she found William lying hot and sweating beneath the rich covers, surrounded by his own nurse and Young Henry’s, the rockers who tended Henry’s cradle, and the nursery servants. As they all stood aside to allow the Queen to approach the bed, she could see from their expressions that her alarm was justified. In the far corner the bastard Geoffrey stood taking it all in, his little face taut with fright. There was much love between him and his half brothers.

  “William, sweeting,” Eleanor said, sinking to her knees and clasping her son’s limp hand. He did not respond. The fever was at its height, and he was barely conscious, moaning fitfully in his stupor, his black curls on the pillow wet with perspiration. This could not be happening! He had been well and thriving only hours before!

  Eleanor felt her son’s brow. It was burning.

  “When did this come on?” she asked, her voice abrupt with terror.

  “An hour ago, lady,” Alice, William’s nurse, replied. There
were tears of distress—and fear—in her eyes. “Young ones of that age—he’s not yet three—take ill quickly; they’re up and down like windmills.”

  “He’s so hot!” Eleanor cried, running her hands over his small body, frantic to do something to alleviate her child’s plight. “We must uncover him.”

  “That be dangerous.” Alice frowned, aghast. “He’d catch cold and it could kill him.”

  “Then what are we to do?” the Queen almost sobbed, gathering her child to her breast and rocking him in her arms. “Oh, my boy, my little boy! Get better for Mother, please!” She turned desperately to the attendants. “Have the physicians been sent for?”

  “They are here,” said Petronilla, her face white, her voice shaking. “And the chaplain.”

  At mention of the chaplain, Eleanor began to tremble, and tightened her arms around William’s fevered body. His head was against her shoulder, damp and tousled; his eyes were closed. How could her sweet, innocent child be struck down so rapidly? It was like a nightmare from which she would surely soon wake.

  The physicians gathered by the bed. They pulled back the covers and took turns examining the patient, their faces grave.

  “It is an imbalance of the humors, my lady,” one pronounced. “We could try bleeding him, although it might be best to let him sweat it out.”

  “I will make up a remedy of caraway, cucumber, and licorice,” said a second. “They are all trusted cures for fever.”

  William was tossing fitfully. Eleanor felt his brow again. It was hot. Her hands roved searchingly over his restless little body and touched dry heat; he was burning up, and no longer seemed to be aware of her. She was praying inwardly, desperately bargaining with God, willing Him to restore her son to health.

  I will promise anything, Lord, she vowed, anything at all, in return for his life.

  Just then William’s body stiffened and his limbs went rigid. His head jerked back and his arms and legs began to convulse. His skin seemed to drain of blood and took on a blue tinge.

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