Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “What of your allegiance to me, your king!” Henry bawled as the bishops began murmuring their assent, and Eleanor started to fear that her husband would soon be throwing himself on the floor, howling in ungovernable rage. “By the eyes of God,” he roared, his hand flying to his scabbard, “must I obtain that obedience at sword point?”

  “Lord King, these are men of God,” Becket flung back at him, extending his arms in a protective gesture, like a shepherd shielding his sheep. His eyes, direct and challenging, locked with Henry’s bloodshot ones and held them. It was Henry who looked away first, but not before Becket had espied the tear that trickled down his cheek, which he quickly wiped away with his sleeve on the pretext of blowing his nose. Henry did not see the look of regret and compassion that fleetingly softened the Archbishop’s basilisk gaze.

  “Are you going to continue to defy me, Thomas?” Henry asked hoarsely, quieter now.

  “No, my King,” Becket replied. “If you asked it, I would perjure myself.”

  “There will be no need,” Henry said, his mood lightening as he sensed victory. “Just say you will swear to my laws. That’s all that’s needed. It’s really very simple.”

  “Saving your pardon, sire, I will swear in good faith to uphold these laws, and I will order my bishops here to do the same. But I deeply regret I cannot put my seal to this parchment.”

  “Just swear, that’s all I ask,” Henry conceded. He thinks he has won, Eleanor thought, that he has outmaneuvered friend Becket. But I fear this is only the beginning. She bent her head as tears welled in her own eyes. She could see her future mapped out, the long, tortuous years ahead, overshadowed by this difficult, contentious, self-important priest, with herself losing Henry in the process, and Henry losing his very soul, until the grave swallowed them all up. It was an unbearable prospect.

  Becket had sworn, and his clergy with him. But he went about the palace with lowered face and bitter eyes. One day, entering the chapel ahead of her ladies, Eleanor was horrified to see a man, naked to the waist, kneeling on the chancel steps. His exposed back was crisscrossed with bloody lacerations, and as she watched, unable to tear her eyes away from this grisly vision, she saw the barbed discipline flung again and again over his shoulder, flagellating and tearing his white skin. At her gasp, he flung the whip down on the tiles, his head jerking round. It was Becket, his face a mask of grief. She stared at him for a long moment, then hastened away, shooing her tardy women before her so that they should not intrude on the Archbishop’s private hell.

  Word soon got around that Becket regretted what he had done and was punishing himself with heavy penances. He even tried to flee the kingdom, but was halted by the King’s officers on the very seashore.

  “We can’t have the Primate of England sulking in France,” Henry sneered, his face dark with anger. “How would that look?”

  “I would let him go,” said Bishop Foliot, his bushy brows creased in a frown. “The Pope could not approve of him deserting his flock, and I have little doubt he would agree to your replacing Becket with someone more amenable.”

  “I could not agree with you more, my Lord Bishop,” Eleanor put in. “We have heard enough of this priest!”

  “You speak truth, Foliot. Thomas must go,” Henry agreed. Eleanor looked at him in surprise.

  “All your bishops will support you,” Foliot assured him. “He is too unstable for high office in the Church. He is bringing it into disrepute!”

  “He has gone out of his way to undermine my new laws,” Henry fumed. “Well, I will use them to get rid of him. I have decided to have him arraigned for the misuse of moneys entrusted to him as chancellor. Let’s see if that doesn’t shift him!”

  “Was there a misuse of moneys?” Foliot asked.

  “No, but it will serve our purpose!” Henry said grimly.

  Eleanor was watching him. He was a man on a quest, driven by a zealous desire for revenge. Only a man who had loved so deeply could hate this much, and yet … She was sure that he was still hurting, deep inside, and that no cure, be it revenge or reconciliation, would ever heal the gaping wound of Becket’s betrayal.

  24

  Northampton, 1164

  “As Archbishop of Canterbury, I am not subject to the jurisdiction of the King!” Becket’s normally impassive face was flushed with fury.

  Henry leaned forward on his throne.

  “Thomas, you have not been charged as an archbishop, but as my former chancellor,” he explained, pleasantly enough. “Now, if you would be so good as to account to me and this court for the disposition of the moneys that passed through your hands back then, we can clear this matter up.”

  Becket looked at him in hatred.

  “I think you are out to ruin me, sire!” he breathed.

  “I?” inquired Henry. “I thought the spur was on the other foot.”

  Becket pursed his lips, then turned to the clergy, seated by order of rank on the benches behind him. “My Lords Spiritual,” he cried, “I beseech you, advise and help me! I ask for your support.” There was an embarrassed shuffling, as the ecclesiastics shifted position, looked down at their feet, and generally tried to avoid meeting his pleading eyes. Only Bishop Foliot fixed his gimlet gaze directly on the Archbishop.

  “By your folly, you have brought yourself to this!” he accused Becket. “But if you will submit to the King, as he lawfully requires, then you will have our perfect allegiance.”

  Becket looked profoundly shocked.

  “Lord King,” he said, turning back to Henry, who was glaring at him implacably, “might I have time to consider my position and prepare an answer for you?”

  “Of course,” Henry replied. “I am not a monster. I’m a reasonable man. But don’t even think of leaving the kingdom! Have I your word on that?”

  “Yes, sire,” Becket replied, meekly enough. “You have my word.”

  Eleanor was kneeling in the chapel. The candles on the altar illuminated in warm tones the painted statue of the Virgin and Child, and it seemed that Mary was smiling sadly in poignant reproach.

  On the prie-dieu before the Queen lay the letter she had received that day, a formal missive from Louis, informing her of the marriages of their daughters, Marie to the Count of Champagne, and Alix to his brother, the Count of Blois. Her first thought had been that it was hard to believe that her little girls were now young women of nineteen and fourteen, and married to boot!

  She rarely thought of them these days, and could barely remember their faces now, although of course they would have changed much in the years since she had seen them—and yet she was astonished to find that she was deeply upset at not having been invited to their weddings. The reason, she knew, was not far to seek: Louis thought her a bad, uncaring mother who had abandoned her little girls without a thought, to marry her lover. Well, she would prove him wrong. She would write to her daughters and express her joy in their marriages and her warm wishes for their future. There must be an end to this silence. She owed them some share of the kind of deep and abiding love she felt for her other children, the children she had been allowed to nurture from birth. She would write today. Even if there was no reply, she would have salved her conscience.

  Eleanor was in her customary place of honor beside Henry when Becket was again summoned to court. She heard his sharp intake of breath when the Archbishop made a dramatic entrance, clothed in his rich vestments and carrying his episcopal cross, which was normally borne before him by one of his monks.

  “Why is he doing that?” she whispered, shocked at Becket’s aggressive stance, when he should have been suing for Henry’s favor.

  “I think he is claiming the Church’s protection against my ill will,” Henry muttered dourly. Bishop Foliot, seated within earshot at the end of the nearest bench, looked up and said, quite audibly, “He was always a fool, and always will be!” Becket glared at him.

  “Well, Thomas, what have you got to say for yourself?” Henry asked, his gray eyes bearing down on his former fr
iend.

  “Lord King, I am come to remind you that you yourself have long since released me from all my liabilities as chancellor,” Becket told him with a defiant stare.

  “God’s blood, man! Are you to deny my justice at every turn?” Henry blustered.

  “I think, sire, that there is less in this of justice than malice,” Becket retorted, and as Henry roared oaths at him, he swooped down on his bishops. “I forbid you to sit in judgment of me!” he shouted at them.

  Henry leaped to his feet. Eleanor found herself gripping the arms of her throne; she could have killed Becket with her bare hands. How dare he provoke Henry in this way? Henry, who had done so much for him, and loved him too well.

  Henry stepped off the dais and bounded forward until he was standing toe-to-toe with Becket.

  “You have gone too far this time, Thomas!” he snarled. “Now, my lords and bishops, you see his venom plainly. He defies not only his king, but the Pope himself. Now, listen. You will all write to His Holiness and inform him that this priest has breached his sworn oath to uphold the laws of England, and you will request that he be deposed from his office.”

  There was a stunned silence as Becket gathered his wits.

  “You have planned this, haven’t you?” he flung at the King’s retreating back, at which Henry, mounting the dais on the way back to his throne, rounded on him, shaking with rage.

  “You—” he spluttered, barely able to speak. “You viper! My lords, let us proceed to the judgment at once. This priest is condemned out of his own mouth.”

  “I will not hear it!” Becket thundered. “You have no right. God alone can judge me!” And holding aloft his great golden cross, he stalked from the hall to furious cries of “Traitor! Traitor!”

  Eleanor could not sleep. The momentous events of the day kept playing on her mind, and at length she rose from her bed, wrapped herself in a fur-lined robe, stoked up the glowing coals in the brazier, and settled herself on the seat in the window embrasure, gazing out at the stars that glittered over the dark, sleeping town. Her chamber overlooked the curtain wall of the castle, and on the bailey side, in the courtyard, the sentries had built up a bonfire, at which they were warming their hands as they stamped their feet on the damp earth. A solitary soldier was patrolling the walls; she watched him casting a cursory glance over the distant landscape before disappearing through the door that led to the opposite tower and the continuing wall walk beyond it.

  It was then that she espied two dark, hooded figures emerging on the outer side of the castle. They must have come through the now unguarded postern gate almost directly below her. She peered at them with interest, then realized they were monks. What business they had, to be about after curfew, she could only imagine: maybe they had been summoned from the nearby priory to attend someone in the castle who was sick, or maybe they were two members of Archbishop Becket’s entourage escaping for a stolen hour to the taverns and brothels of Northampton. As the figures disappeared into the night, Eleanor forgot about them, and dousing the candle, climbed wearily back between the sheets. She thought she could sleep now.

  “Becket has fled,” Henry said a week later, climbing into bed beside Eleanor. Suddenly awake, aroused by the import of his words, she was surprised to find him in her chamber; these days, he did not come to her as often as she would have liked, and he had been so drunk at dinner that she’d feared he might collapse in a stupor where he sat. But soon she realized that he had not come seeking her body, but to talk over this latest outrage of Becket’s.

  “So he has gone?” she said. She was not surprised. Nothing Becket could do surprised her now.

  “Yes. He disguised himself as a monk and fled across the Channel. He thinks he is safe—but I have not finished with him yet!” Henry’s voice came out as a hiss.

  “You are well rid of him,” she said tartly.

  “That may be so, but is England well rid of its archbishop?” Henry retorted. He had a point, she conceded.

  She sighed. She was truly pleased to see him. She had missed the warmth of him lying next to her, the sudden passion that sprang up between them, the drowsy peace and contentment that came after their coupling. She knew she was advancing helplessly into middle age, that the burnished beauty of her youth was beginning to fade, and that Henry was yet a man in the vigor of his prime. He was highly sexed—as she had good cause to know—and she often wondered if he sought sexual release anywhere else. She had no proof, but her common sense—and the odd, careless whispers of gossip she had not been meant to over-hear—told her it was more than likely. Nevertheless, she could not bear to dwell on the possibility of her husband being unfaithful. But it was coming to something, she reflected bitterly, when he came to her bed primarily to talk about the friend who had become his most bitter enemy.

  Well, she would not be defeated in the bedroom by Becket! She was a woman of experience and she had weapons at her disposal. Smiling welcomingly at Henry, she raised herself up on one elbow, letting her chemise fall open to reveal her voluptuous breasts.

  “Would you prefer to talk?” she murmured, but Henry’s troubled eyes, deep pools of gray fire, had suddenly lit up, and he reached for her, burying his face in her neck, biting her hungrily as his hands roved over her body. He was not a man to waste time, and within seconds they were locked together in the old, familiar way, lust igniting powerfully as so many times before. All that Eleanor wanted at this moment was to feel him inside her and never let him go.

  When, later, they had slid apart and Henry lay catching his breath beside her, she turned her face to his.

  “Becket was disguised as a monk, you say?”

  “Yes,” Henry grunted.

  “It’s strange,” Eleanor recalled, “but some nights back—it was the night after you confronted Becket—I was watching from my window and I saw two monks leaving the castle. I did wonder what they were doing. You don’t think …?”

  “My God, that must have been him!” Henry cried, sitting up suddenly. “He left that very night. Why didn’t you say anything?”

  “There was nothing to say. I thought them of little consequence. I had no idea, in fact I’d forgotten all about them until now.” Eleanor realized she was stammering.

  “Of course,” Henry relented, subsiding onto the pillows beside her. “How could you have known?” His body was tense, rigid, his attitude no longer that of a lover but of a man in pain. “By God, I will find him,” he muttered. “There is not a place in all Christendom where he can hide from me.”

  She had lost him once more. His thoughts were clearly over the sea with his Thomas. He was obsessing again over how he could carry on the fight with his renegade archbishop. He was lying there, his troubled gray eyes staring up at the vaulted ceiling, unaware that she was still there beside him. It was useless. Her heart heavy, she rolled over, turned her back to him, and pretended to go to sleep.

  25

  Marlborough Castle, 1164–65

  Another Christmas, and here they were in the Great Tower of Marlborough Castle, perched high on its mound on the edge of Savernake Forest, where Henry was hoping for some good hunting. Geoffrey, Henry’s bastard, now fourteen, had just drawn the bean from his slice of the traditional cake, and was in consequence proclaimed Lord of Misrule for the evening. He had begun his sovereignty by issuing the most daring forfeits, and was even now challenging every handsome man in the room to kiss the cheek of the Queen.

  “That should narrow the field!” Eleanor laughed. She loved the levity of the Yuletide season.

  “By God, I’ll have their balls if they show the slightest scanting of respect!” Henry growled good-naturedly.

  It was a shame that the French envoys timed their arrival just now, when the court was at its merriest. A page came and whispered in the King’s ear, and his grin faded.

  “I’ll be back shortly,” he told his wife, and she watched as he threaded his way through the revelers, absentmindedly ruffling his giggling daughter Eleanor’s dark curls
on the way. After waiting in vain an hour for him to return, the Queen could bear it no longer, and so murmured her excuses and hurriedly made her way up the spiral stair to the King’s solar, the sounds of jollity receding as she ascended. There was a light under the wooden door. He was there, as she had expected. She turned the iron ring. As she entered the room, Henry turned a ravaged face to her.

  “What has happened?” she asked, forbearing to go to him, and horribly aware of the aching distance between them.

  “Louis!” he snapped. “He has offered Thomas his support and asked His Holiness not to heed any unjust accusations against him.” He got up and began stomping up and down the room, working himself into an incandescent rage. “But Thomas had got to the Pope first, and do you know what he did? He complained that I had harassed him!”

  “But Henry, the Pope is on your side and always has been,” Eleanor soothed.

  “Not anymore!” Henry’s mouth was twisted in an ugly, anguished grimace. “He has threatened me with excommunication!” he roared. “By the eyes of God, that priest will be the death of me! I will tolerate him no longer. Let them do their damned worst! I’m going to bed.”

  He was beyond consolation, beside himself with anger and pain. His face red and livid, he tore the cap from his head, threw it on the floor, then unbuckled his belt and tossed it to the far side of the room. Nearly weeping with frustration, he shrugged off his cloak and his fine, long robes, donned in honor of the season, and kicked off his braies; then, naked and trembling, he ripped the silken coverlet from his bed and sat down heavily on it, his hands and face working in distress. Overcome with frustration, he abruptly clawed back the sheet, grabbed a handful of straw from his mattress, and stuffing it in his mouth as if to stop himself from howling out loud, began chewing it voraciously.

  “Henry …” Eleanor began, but he flung out an arm to silence her, his outthrust jaw chomping, his face a mask of agony. Then he got up, walked to the fire, and spat out the straw. “Just go,” he said.

 
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