Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “She will liven it up, I make no doubt. She has her mother’s charm, I can see it.” He was placating her, she knew it.

  “Charm availed me little at Louis’s court,” she sniffed, unwilling to bend. “But it would be a great match, and it could bring a more stable peace between England and France.”

  “No doubt the princes of Europe are all rubbing their hands in glee in the hope of securing such a rich matrimonial prize for their daughters as the new heir to France,” Henry observed wickedly. “But I think we have a strong advantage. I can always dangle the Vexin as a carrot!”

  “They said Louis was overjoyed to have a son at last,” Eleanor recalled, remembering how, strangely, she had felt so pleased for her former husband when she was brought the news. He had waited an unconscionably long time—and she herself had failed him in the one thing that mattered. Now his prayers had been granted, and she was glad. “There were great rejoicings, I heard. Much will be expected of this little prince. Already they are calling him Philip Augustus, like the old Roman emperors.”

  “I heard he was named after the month he was born, and that he’d been nicknamed ‘the God Given’,” Henry said. “Well, I hope, for his sake, he doesn’t take after his father with names like that! He’ll have to live up to them!”

  He handed the baby back to the nurse, picked up his goblet, drained it to the dregs, and reached for the flagon.

  “Well, I will have one more cup of wine, and then I will change my clothes and slough off the dust of the road and go greet my beloved barons of Anjou.” He poured the red liquid. Eleanor watched, wondering if they would ever again be close enough to get beyond the pleasantries and generalities.

  “Is there any news of our friend the Archbishop?” Henry asked, his flippant tone not quite masking his obsessive interest.

  “Yes, but it’s not good,” Eleanor told him. “He is still living in the abbey at Sens, and still threatening to excommunicate you. It is said that he is angered by the Constitutions of Clarendon.”

  Henry scowled. “He should get over it and accept that change is necessary. My patience is wearing thin.”

  It’s about time, Eleanor thought, but she forbore to say anything; she hesitated to disrupt this uneasy peace between them. So she just smiled and called for the nurse again, asking her to bring the other children to greet their father.

  Henry came to her bed that night and paid the marriage debt. At least, that’s what it felt like, a duty to be done. Never before had he seemed so uninvolved when making love to her. She lay there afterward, sleepless and in turmoil, suspecting that what she’d long dreaded had come to pass: that he no longer loved her, and all that was left to them was a marriage of convenience, which fulfilled the purpose for which it had been made. Her personal feelings were not supposed to matter, when one looked at the wider picture. But they did, oh, they did!

  She looked at Henry’s sleeping back, its solid form white and shadowy in the moonlight that flooded the room through the tall window. It had struck her anew, when she first saw him on his return, how manly he looked in the strength and vigor of his maturity; a little thicker about the girth, true, but still a muscular bull of a man, broad-chested and leonine of feature. How she loved and wanted him! She could not help herself. Of all the men she had known—and known in the biblical sense—none could touch him. Yet she feared he was hers no more. Her pillow was sodden with her tears.

  32

  Chinon, 1166

  The court was staying at the Fort St. George, Henry’s magnificent castle of Chinon, which straddled a high spur above the River Vienne, when both the King and Queen sickened. Eleanor knew very well what was causing the familiar nausea: she was pregnant for the eleventh time, made fruitful with the seed planted that tragic night at Angers, the night when she realized that she had lost Henry in all the ways that were most important to her. Since then, matters had not improved between them, and now it seemed that there was an unbreachable distance. They still observed the courtesies, and they talked like civilized beings; he had frequented her bed on several nights, but it was like coupling with a stranger. She knew he sensed her withdrawal from him, a retreat less tactical than instinctive, born of the need to protect herself. She told herself that love was not essential in a royal marriage: she was Henry’s wife and queen; she was Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of England, Duchess of Normandy, Countess of Anjou and Maine. She was undefeatable, a match for any light-of-love to whom her lord might take a passing fancy. She dared not let the facade drop; she must think of herself as invincible.

  Henry appeared not to be troubled by her studied amenity; she believed he welcomed it, for it absolved him of any need to put things right. There was no point in him trying to do that if his heart wasn’t in it. She did not want him to play a role for her: she needed his honesty, but she was damned if she would probe for it, for she feared to provoke any painful revelations. But now, here she was, pregnant with his child once more, another reason why the pretense that all was well must be maintained. And she must tell him her news.

  She came upon him in their solar as he sat stitching a tear in his hunting cloak, and sat beside him on the wooden settle, struggling to suppress the rising bile in her throat. The thought of the coming months depressed her: she was weary of childbearing, had suffered it too often. She was forty-four, and she’d had enough. This, she vowed, would be the final time.

  “I am to have another child, Henry,” she announced quietly. He paused in his mending.

  “You are not pleased,” he said.

  “If I spoke the truth, no. However, it is God’s will, and I must make the best of it. But I pray you, let this be our last child.” She looked at him as she spoke, but he would not meet her eyes. “You understand my meaning,” she persisted, her heart breaking. She had the horrible, sinking feeling that she was closing a door forever—and perhaps closing it prematurely.

  Henry did not answer. The needle flew in and out.

  “Henry?”

  “It’s your decision,” he said.

  “Do you care?” she ventured, thinking that she might as well be dead, and knowing she was about to shatter the fragile equilibrium between them.

  Now he did raise his head and look at her. His eyes were guarded, his expression unreadable. There was a slight flush on his bristled cheeks; was it anger? That would be something … Surely he would not agree, uncomplaining, to what she asked. As her husband, he could insist on claiming his rights—and who knew, a miracle could happen and they might recapture the joy they had shared. She would endure ten more pregnancies for that, if he would just intimate, by one word, that he still wanted her.

  “It’s your decision,” he said again, turning back to his handiwork. “You’re the one who has to bear the children. Whether I care or not is beside the point.”

  “Are you accusing me of deliberately ignoring your needs?” Eleanor cried, forgetting her resolve to maintain a gentle and dignified detachment.

  “I’m saying I don’t need this at this time!” Henry snarled. “I’ve got Thomas threatening to excommunicate me and proclaiming to the whole of Christendom that my Constitutions of Clarendon are unlawful. There’s trouble in Brittany, where my vassal, Count Conan, is unable to keep order, and your Aquitainian lords are up to their usual tricks. I’m not feeling well, Eleanor, in fact I’m feeling bloody awful, and you choose this moment to tell me you don’t want to sleep with me anymore!”

  Relief flooded through her. He was ill. That explained much. Maybe things were not so bad after all. Then the implications of his being ill hit her like a blow.

  “You are ill?” she echoed. “Why didn’t you tell me, Henry? What is wrong?”

  “I feel sick to my bones,” Henry said, glad to be able to offer Eleanor an explanation—albeit a temporary one—for his coolness toward her; he could never have admitted that he no longer loved her as he had, that there was a new love in his life now. Overburdened by cares as he was, the sweet image of Rosamund re
mained with him constantly, his longing for her a continual ache in his loins. If that was a sickness, then yes, he was ill. But there was more to it than that.

  Thomas was threatening him with anathema. Flippant as Henry could be in regard to religion, he still feared eternal damnation, and of being cast out from the communion of the Church. Where would that leave him as a ruler who held dominion over all the territories from Scotland to Aquitaine? When a man was excommunicated, all Christians were bound to shun him; he could not receive the Blessed Sacrament, or any of the consolations of his faith. He would be as a leper.

  He knew, though, that it was forbidden to excommunicate a man who was sick. The Church, in her wisdom and mercy, held that the sick were weak in judgment and incapable of rational thought. It would make good sense, therefore—for so many reasons—to take to his bed and feign illness.

  So he took to his bed, and had it given out that he was laid low by a mysterious malady. He even fooled his doctors, groaning and rolling his eyes in mock pain as they approached. A mystery illness indeed, they agreed, conferring privately among themselves. Had they not seen the King in such evident discomfort they would have said there was nothing wrong with him.

  Eleanor was at her wits’ end. Henry had not thought fit to take her into his confidence, so she was terrified of him dying, and distraught at the doctors’ failure to cure him. When she came to sit beside him, he affected to be all but comatose, suffering her ministrations in silence and wishing she would go away. Nothing further had been said by either of them on the subject of their quarrel: the issue remained unresolved, although, a thousand times each day, Eleanor crucified herself for what she had said. She made bargains with God; she demanded that He heal Henry; and when He had done that, she beseeched Him to make things right between them. Daily, on her knees, she nagged, pleaded with, and bullied Him as if He were one of her subjects.

  Henry had lain abed for two months, and Eleanor was beginning to lose all hope of his recovery, and to worry if Young Henry was ready for the heavy task of ruling the empire, when news came from Vézelay.

  “Becket has excommunicated all those who formulated the Constitutions of Clarendon,” announced the Empress, who, frail as she was, had traveled from Rouen to be with her ailing son. Wearily, she climbed the stairs to the Queen’s bower to convey the latest tidings to her exhausted daughter-in-law.

  Eleanor swayed. It had come, this news they had all dreaded, the fear of which—she had begun to suspect—was one of the causes of Henry’s malady.

  “Sit down, Eleanor!” the Empress commanded. “You must think of the child you carry, and take comfort from the fact that Henry is not included with the rest, on account of his illness. Even Becket did not dare to go so far.”

  “Thanks be to God,” Eleanor breathed fervently, collapsing onto a stool with relief. “We must tell Henry at once.”

  They found him propped up on his pillows, partaking of a little pottage. When they told him the news, his face contorted and he wept in such rage that they both feared he might suffer a relapse.

  “The bastard! I will have him. I will ruin him! He will not defy me again, I swear it, by the eyes of God!” And then he fairly leaped out of bed, this invalid who had been almost at death’s door, with all trace of his illness gone. His wife and his mother looked at each other in astonished incomprehension. Then, as Henry shouted for water to wash in and clean clothes to put on, realization dawned—and, for Eleanor, the bitter understanding that he had not been ill at all, but carried on this long-drawn-out charade without a word in her ear; that he had let her suffer prolonged anguish and fear, and not thought to alleviate her misery. How, she wondered bitterly, could things ever be right between them after this?

  Henry was still yelling his head off, heedless of his mother’s admonishments.

  “My son, you must have a care to your health!” she enjoined him.

  “There’s nothing wrong with my health!” he retorted, then his furious eyes met Eleanor’s appalled ones, and he had the grace to look guilty. But the moment was fleeting.

  “I will write to the Pope, and to Frederick Barbarossa,” he vowed. “I will demand that the excommunications be revoked.”

  “I have no doubt His Holiness will comply,” the Empress said. “He needs your support, and the Emperor Frederick’s. I, for my part, intend to write to Becket and give him a piece of my mind for showing such base ingratitude for all the favors you have showered upon him.”

  “Thank you, Mother. Someone needs to make my Lord Archbishop see sense.”

  “I shall warn him,” Matilda went on determinedly, “that his only hope of regaining your favor lies in humbling himself and moderating his behavior. I shall go and write the letter now, so that he may see how angry I am. And, my son, I rejoice to see you restored to health. Your recovery is no less than miraculous.” Her tone was sardonic.

  When she was gone, and the sound of her footsteps had faded down the stairwell, Henry looked again at Eleanor, who had said not a word.

  “I couldn’t tell either of you,” he explained. “You had to believe I was ill, so that others would be convinced.”

  “You think I can’t act as well as you?” she answered in an icy tone. “You don’t know the half of it!”

  Henry raised one eyebrow questioningly, but did not rise to the bait. He could not be troubled with confrontations with Eleanor at this time; his mind was busy elsewhere.

  “I will have that priest!” he seethed. “I will crush him to the ground.”

  33

  Rennes, 1166

  Eleanor was present in the cathedral of Rennes when Henry formally took possession of Brittany, having deposed his ineffectual vassal, Count Conan. It was a triumphant day, coming as it did so soon after the Pope had ordered Becket to annul his sentences of excommunication and molest his king no more.

  With Henry formally invested with the insignia of the newly created Duchy of Brittany, the Archbishop now sealed the betrothal of eight-year-old Geoffrey to Conan’s daughter Constance, a proud little lady of five. Try as she might, Eleanor could not take to this blond-haired madame, with her pixie face, winged eyebrows, and posturing, imperious manner. She had been spoiled and allowed her head, and Eleanor feared that Geoffrey would have his work cut out to control her in the years to come, unless she, Eleanor, took steps to discipline the little minx. And that she would do, she promised herself. Constance could have her moment today, but after that she must be taken in hand.

  Eleanor gazed fondly at Geoffrey as he joined hands with his pouting betrothed. He was a dark, handsome boy, devious by nature, it was true, but clever and charming. He was to be Duke of Brittany when he married, Henry had decreed, but until then his father would hold and rule the duchy for him. It was gratifying to have the boy’s future so happily and advantageously settled, and the problem of Brittany brought to such a satisfactory conclusion.

  There was but one jarring note to mar this day of celebration, and that was Eleanor’s nagging awareness that although Young Henry’s and Geoffrey’s futures were mapped out—Henry was to have England, Anjou, and Normandy—and brides had been found for both of them, Henry had as yet made no provision for her adored Richard, his middle son.

  She tackled him about this as they presided at the high table over the feast that followed the ceremonies in the cathedral.

  “It more than contents me to see two of our boys settled,” she began diplomatically, “but tell me, what plans have you for Richard?” Her eyes rested on the nine-year-old lad with the flame-red curls who sat gorging himself on some delicious Breton oysters and scallops farther down the table. A strong child he was, a vigorous child, who was surely destined to make his mark. What she was really determined upon was to make him heir to all her dominions; and she believed that was what Henry too had in mind for Richard. It would be entirely fitting.

  “Not yet,” Henry said, his mouth full of lamb. “But, since you mention it, I have something in mind for Young Henry, and I shoul
d like your approval.”

  “And what is that?” Eleanor asked.

  “I want to make him your heir in Aquitaine.”

  “No!” she told him, shocked. “Why Henry? What of Richard? That would leave Richard with nothing!” Her face had flushed pink with fury, and a few of the revelers were looking at her curiously.

  “Calm yourself,” Henry muttered. “Do you think I would not see Richard well provided for? Does it not occur to you that it would be better to keep this empire of mine in one piece, under one ruler? There is strength in numbers, Eleanor, and by God I need all the strength I can get to keep your vassals in order. It’s one thing to confront them with the Duke of Aquitaine, quite another when that duke is also to be King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Maine, and Count of Anjou. You must see that!”

  Eleanor did not. All she was aware of was the need to fight for the rights of her beloved. “Richard is but two years younger than Henry. You know he has the makings of what it takes to rule Aquitaine, he is a true child of the South, and I want him as my heir, and to see him settled as Henry and Geoffrey are settled. It would only be fair.”

  Henry turned to her, his face set. “Trust me. I will see Richard settled.”

  “With what?” she asked defiantly. “All your domains are spoken for. What if you died after naming Henry my heir? Richard would be left landless!”

  By now a lot of the guests were watching them speculatively as they quarreled. Eleanor saw it but did not care. All that mattered was Richard’s future. But Henry, seeing that their discord was observed, resolved to put an end to it.

  “It’s no use arguing, Eleanor,” he said. “My mind is made up. I but asked for your approval as a courtesy. You know I do not need it. There is no more to be said, except that after these celebrations are over, I intend to deal once more with your ever-impudent seigneurs, and then go to Poitiers, where I shall hold my Christmas court and present Young Henry to your people as your heir. I should like you to be there too, obviously, to show some solidarity.”

 
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