Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “Dear God, do something!” Eleanor screamed at the doctors in panic.

  “It is the fever, my lady,” they told her helplessly, with tears in their eyes. “It has reached its crisis. We can but wait for it to pass. The Lord William is in God’s hands now.”

  The terrifying jerking ceased almost as suddenly as it had begun. William’s body went limp and mercifully he lay at peace, his breathing shallow.

  “Thank God!” Eleanor sobbed, collapsing to her knees by the little bed and clasping the child tightly, rocking him gently in her arms for what seemed like an eternity, not daring to let him go. Behind her the physicians were shaking their heads. They had seen the tiny hand fall lifeless onto the coverlet. It was only when Eleanor had finally laid her son gently back on the pillow that she realized he had gone from her forever.

  16

  Rouen, 1160–Four Years Later

  Eleanor smiled despite herself as the fair-haired little girl, unsteady on her feet, was escorted by her guardian, the Chief Justiciar of Normandy, up to the altar rails of the cathedral of Notre Dame. There, awaiting her, stood her bridegroom, the Lord Henry, heir to England, Normandy, and Anjou, fidgeting in his best tunic and cloak, his red curls crowned with a small gold circlet. His father, King Henry, was smiling too, well satisfied with this new marriage alliance, and, standing beside him, the Empress was nodding her approval. This was a fitting match for her grandson.

  The bride, not quite three years old, performed a wobbly curtsey to the King and Queen and, at the bidding of the justiciar, placed her hand in that of the Lord Henry. Then the papal legate stepped forward and began intoning the marriage service.

  Eleanor watched, her younger children at her side. Matilda, who had been born during that terrible time of mourning for poor William, was the physical image of her grandmother, for whom she had been named, yet a much gentler soul. Her pleasant, placid round face was framed by the red-gold locks of her race. She was a good, dutiful girl, and one day would make some lucky prince a fine wife.

  Geoffrey, two years old, black-haired, handsome, and willful, clung to Eleanor’s hand. As the King and Queen’s third living son, he was already aware of the need to assert himself against his older brothers, and knew that he came lowest in their pecking order. But he had the tenacity to hold his own and to make his mark, Eleanor thought. No one will make a fool of my Geoffrey.

  Behind her, firmly constrained by his nurse, the plump and motherly Hodierna, fidgeted Henry and Eleanor’s middle son, three-year-old Richard, a handsome, robust, and vigorous little boy with angelic features and the Plantagenet red hair and temper. If any of the Queen’s children could be said to have replaced her precious William, it was Richard. When they had laid him in her arms, bloody and bawling after he came bursting from her womb, ready to take on the world, she had looked upon him and instantly fallen in love. It was wrong, she knew, but he was by far her favorite of all her brood. She could not help it. She loved him so fiercely that it almost hurt, and lived in dread that anything evil would befall him. It was inexplicable, but her fears for him were far greater than her fears for her other children. She had not realized it was possible for a mother to feel such love.

  There was an old, cryptic prophecy of Merlin’s, so legend had it, that predicted the “Eagle of the Broken Covenant” would rejoice in her third nesting. Since Richard’s birth, Eleanor had often wondered if she was the eagle the magician had foretold; an eagle whose wings had stretched out over two kingdoms. And could her divorce from Louis be the broken covenant? Richard was her third son; she rejoiced in him already, but the prophecy indicated that she would have even more cause to do so in the fullness of time. One day, Henry had agreed, Richard would succeed her in Aquitaine. She could not have imagined anything more fitting, or a better cause for rejoicing.

  She would not allow herself, on this happy day, to think of the two sons who were missing from her brood. Little William was a constant ache of longing in her heart; the memory of him always brought tears to her eyes. She would repeatedly relive the shock of his death as if it had happened yesterday; the pain of her loss never got any better. And little Philip, dead before his navel healed. He was a poignant ghost, a fleeting joy in her life, who had also been cruelly snatched away.

  Resolutely, she put away her painful memories and looked on smiling as her eldest son made his wedding vows. Young Henry was a true knight in the making, but headstrong and unruly, needing a firm hand. She could tell he was impatient to be back in the palace courtyard, playing with the royal wards who were his companions, skirmishing with wooden swords and shields, or competing noisily with miniature bows and arrows. This marriage would make little difference to his life, for the Princess Marguerite would be brought up away from the court—although that was a sore point with Eleanor—and taught those things that were deemed fitting for girls, as well as the duties of a future queen.

  Eleanor was struck by how much like Louis the little girl was. The same fair hair, the fine features, the gentle charm. Pray God she shows more spirit, she thought. Marguerite was Louis’s daughter by his second wife, Constance, and ever since her birth, Henry had schemed to marry her to his heir. If Louis died without a son to succeed him, Marguerite would be his coheiress with her half sisters, Eleanor’s daughters, Marie and Alix. There could be rich pickings for the husbands of those princesses, and even a kingdom to be won, if might could triumph over right. That was Henry’s long-term ambition and hope …

  It was Becket who had gone to Paris and negotiated the new alliance—Becket, with his magnificent escort and lavish gifts to impress and sweeten the French. He was received like a visiting prince. The immediate benefit of the marriage alliance had been a new peace between Henry and Louis, who were now the very best of friends, all past wrongs and differences forgotten. Henry had paid a state visit to the French king in Paris, and they even went on a pilgrimage through Normandy to Mont Saint-Michel. The baby Marguerite had by then been handed over by her mother to Henry, and Louis had visited her in the castle at Neubourg, where he pronounced himself more than satisfied with the arrangements made for her care.

  These arrangements were the one jarring note in the negotiations. Eleanor could not forget it. Henry might have been forgiven for the past, but she clearly had not. Louis had insisted that under no circumstances was his daughter to be brought up by Queen Eleanor. It was for that reason that the child had been placed under the guardianship of the kindly Justiciar of Normandy, Robert of Neubourg.

  Eleanor was furious.

  “Does he think me morally unfit, or a bad mother?” she stormed at Henry in the privacy of their chamber. “That I will corrupt his daughter, or not look after her properly?”

  “Let it be, Eleanor,” Henry said wearily. “What is important is this alliance. Neither Thomas nor I wanted to jeopardize it by arguing the matter. Marguerite is Louis’s daughter, and he must do as he thinks best regarding her care.”

  “He has insulted me,” Eleanor raged, “and you and your beloved Thomas are letting him get away with it!”

  Henry eyed her balefully. “Your animosity toward Thomas is beside the point—and irrational, as I keep telling you.”

  “Your mother doesn’t think so,” Eleanor told him. “She disapproves of him as heartily as I do, and makes no bones about saying so, yet you do not dismiss her criticisms as irrational.”

  “Not to her face,” Henry muttered. “I owe my Lady Mother some filial respect, but there are times when I can do without her advice. And yours, my lady!”

  And there the matter was left. Eleanor had to swallow her pride and accept the ban on her involvement in Marguerite’s upbringing, and she had long guessed that she would never woo Henry away from Becket, although it was not for want of trying. Becket was the chief counselor to the King now, the man whose advice Henry took before all others, and indeed the most powerful subject in the realm. There was no gainsaying him.

  Louis knew nothing of this wedding. He had not expected it to
take place for some years, but Henry, with his usual bullheaded determination, went ahead regardless.

  “There is news from France,” he told Eleanor. “Queen Constance has died in childbed.”

  Eleanor stared at him. “God rest her,” she said at length, genuinely grieved for Constance’s little girl, who had been so cruelly bereaved. “Poor Marguerite.”

  “She barely remembers her mother,” Henry stated, “so the loss will not affect her too greatly.” Eleanor reflected that this was probably true, but even so …

  “Did Constance die giving Louis a son?” she asked.

  “No, another girl. Alys, I think her name is. Thomas did tell me. He also heard that Louis did not mourn his wife greatly, but complained about the frightening superfluity of his daughters—as well he may! The news is that he plans to marry again this very month.”

  “Good God, he doesn’t waste time!” Eleanor exclaimed. “Constance can hardly have been cold before he thought to replace her in his bed. Not that he would have done so for carnal reasons, knowing Louis. He must be desperate for an heir. Who is she, this new bride?”

  “Adela of Champagne,” Henry told her. “She is the sister of the Counts of Champagne and Blois, who, I am told, are to marry your daughters by Louis. In effect, Louis has taken to wife the sister of his future sons-in-law. It’s almost incestuous!” He spat out the words as his brow puckered. “I don’t welcome this marriage. If Adela bears a son, it’s good-bye to my hopes in France. And even if she doesn’t, her brothers are my enemies, and they may make trouble between Louis and me. Nothing would please them better than to see this alliance broken. And if that happens, Louis will get to keep the Vexin.” That rich Norman borderland was Marguerite’s dowry; Henry had ceded it to Louis some years before, and was now delighted at the prospect of getting it back. “There is no time to lose!”

  Immediately, Henry had summoned Marguerite to Rouen, quickly procured a dispensation from the Pope, and set in train brisk preparations for the wedding.

  The nuptial mass over, the King and Queen headed the procession that followed the newly wed infants back up the nave and out into the chilly, brittle November sunshine. Crowds had gathered, and blessings were called down upon the two children, who made such a pretty tableau standing there in their gorgeous robes, holding hands and smiling shyly. There were sentimental sighs and aahs from the people, who were well aware that these two little ones represented the future. Then the men-at-arms stepped forward, and a path was made through the crowds, as it was time to go back to the palace for the wedding feast.

  The King seated himself at the high table, with the Queen on his left and Young Henry and Marguerite in the place of honor on his right, next to the Empress, while the Princess Matilda, somewhat overawed by the grand occasion, sat gravely between Eleanor and Becket. The tiny French princess was evidently enjoying herself, clapping at the capers of the Empress’s jester and cramming tasty morsels of food into her rosebud of a mouth.

  “How think you King Louis will react when he hears of his daughter’s marriage, my son?” the Empress asked as the first course was brought in.

  “He cannot complain,” Henry said smugly. “The contract has been signed, and his consent to the nuptials is implicit in it. There was no need to consult him at all.”

  “He might not agree with that,” Eleanor put in, helping herself to some roast pork from a golden salver. “This won’t be the first time we have deceived him over a marriage, my lord!” She smiled at Henry archly.

  “Ah, but in this case he has given his consent, in writing. There’s no arguing with that.”

  Becket leaned across.

  “He might feel that he has been insulted, sire. He could say that the terms of the treaty have been breached, and withhold the dowry.”

  “I think not,” Henry said, grinning wickedly. “I have already sent to the Knights Templar, who have been keeping custody of the Vexin, and they have willingly agreed to surrender it to me. And I have decided to take Marguerite into my own household now that she is married to my son. She will be a hostage against any reprisals that Louis might contemplate.”

  Eleanor’s head jerked up at that. “And who will be in charge of her upbringing?” she asked.

  Henry laid his hand on hers. “Why, you, of course!” he said with a wink.

  “But that is against King Louis’s express wishes,” the Empress said, before Eleanor could answer.

  “I will not have my wife slighted,” Henry declared. “And who better to be as a mother to our new daughter?”

  “You did not say that before!” Eleanor fumed later, when they were in bed and Henry had laid purposeful hands on her, thrusting his knee between her legs. “You have only made this decision because it suits you to do so. My feelings don’t come into it.”

  “Yes they do,” he said, mounting her. “And yes, it makes good political sense to have Marguerite with us, in your care. I knew it would please you.” Eleanor was about to argue that he had missed the whole point of her complaint when Henry’s mouth came down hard on hers and he entered her forcefully. Despite herself, she was swept along by the familiar tide of ecstasy, and had no choice but to give herself up to it completely. As so many times before, they made violent love, rolling in the bed, clinging together, and kissing as hungrily as if their lives depended upon it.

  Lying spent in Henry’s arms afterward, Eleanor felt such a surge of love for this complex, difficult man that it was like an emotional orgasm, leaving her breathless and near to tears. Involuntarily, she clung to Henry as if she could never let go, and found herself wishing that things could always be this perfect between them.

  When she was calm again, they lay there replete, just looking at each other, with Henry’s rough hand resting lightly on her breast. We don’t need words, she thought. We have been married for eight years, and still it can be so good. She basked in the knowledge that her body continued to captivate Henry, and that, for all her thirty-eight years, she was yet a beautiful woman. Despite his dependence on the ever-present Becket, Henry still needed her. She had been at his side all through that great progress of England they made three years earlier; she had seen the wild northern shires and witnessed the submission of the Scots; she had been with Henry when they renounced the wearing of their crowns in Worcester Cathedral, sharing in an act of humility in honor of the crucified Christ; she had ruled England for eight months after that progress, when Henry was absent in France; and she had shared her husband’s joy and pride in their growing family, and borne the pain of his grief and her own in their terrible loss. She had never forgotten Henry’s ravaged face when she came face-to-face with him at Saumur in Anjou, five months after William’s death. Later, back in England, she wept with him before the little tomb in Reading Abbey, where their son had been laid to rest at the feet of his great-grandsire, the first King Henry. It was the heritage of these shared experiences, and the enduring rapture of their physical love, that had become the bedrock of their marriage.

  Henry was sleeping now, snoring lightly against her shoulder. Her eyes wandered the length of his body, feasting upon strong limbs and toned muscles. Louis had looked defenseless in slumber, but not Henry. He was like a dormant lion. She wished they could be back in Poitiers together, as they had been the year before. They had lain night after night in her richly hung chamber in the Maubergeonne Tower, exploring new ways to make love and sleeping late in the mornings. In Rouen she was always the guest of the Empress, and felt she was there on sufferance; but in Poitiers she was the duchess—never mind her queenship—and could fully be herself on her home territory. How she yearned for the wild, summer-kissed beauty of her domains! That was where she truly belonged, not in these chilly northern lands, where the freedoms of the South were so much frowned upon.

  Henry, however, had been in Poitiers for a purpose. In fact, it had been her idea that he should attempt to enforce her ancestral rights to the southern province of Toulouse. But she set herself up for some prolonged
grief, for she had been left fretting in her tower while he rode south at the head of a large army—and she was still fretting, months later, when he rode back in a foul mood, having failed in his purpose. For as soon as he laid siege to the city of Toulouse, Louis had come to its defense, and Henry could hardly fight the overlord with whom he had so recently made that advantageous alliance. So he had been thwarted of Toulouse, and thereafter stayed in Normandy, dealing with pressing affairs there and sulking. Eleanor he had sent back to England, where once again she found herself ruling as regent, touring the kingdom, issuing writs, and dispensing justice. And there she had remained until Henry summoned her back to Normandy for the wedding.

  Louis would not make too much trouble, she was certain of that. He might bluster and protest at the marrying of his daughter without his knowledge, but he knew that Henry FitzEmpress was more than a match for him, so it was fairly safe to say that Henry would get away with what he had so impudently done.

  17

  Domfront, 1161

  Eleanor bit on the sheet and bore down hard, her chin pressed against her chest. The pain was unendurable, and the need to scream overpowering, but even in extremis she remembered that she was Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy and Aquitaine, and must behave as her dignity required.

  “Nearly there, Lady,” the midwife said. “One more push.”

  Eleanor somehow found the strength to make a final effort. This was her ninth confinement, and she had never suffered such a difficult travail; all her previous babes had slipped out easily into the world with the minimum of trouble and fuss. But she had not had an easy pregnancy, what with one problem or another to deal with—and no end to it in sight.

  She pushed—and the tiny head emerged into the midwife’s capable hands, followed by a slippery shoulder—and then the rest of this new little stranger.

 
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