Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  Indomitable to the end, the Empress had breathed her last in September, at Rouen, after a short illness. Eleanor could not mourn her deeply, but she knew that Henry must be missing her sorely. Matilda had ruled Normandy for him for years, and given him the benefit of her wise counsel in many matters. Now she was gone, and there would be a void in his world. Even so, Eleanor could not bring herself to feel much grief for him: he had wounded her too deeply.

  They avoided looking at each other as Henry escorted her into the castle of Argentan, her hand resting lightly on his. Courtiers were packed against the walls to watch them pass, their King and Queen, come together after so long to hold their Christmas court. There had been much speculation as to the true state of affairs between them, and whispered gossip about a fair maiden shut up in a tower somewhere in England, but the long separation could equally be accounted for by the demands of policy. Eleanor had been in England, preparing for her daughter Matilda’s wedding to the Duke of Saxony; and Henry had been in Aquitaine, suppressing yet another revolt, and then in the Vexin, negotiating an uneasy truce with Louis.

  “I have missed my children,” he muttered as they proceeded into the hall, now hand in hand. “I trust they are in health, and that our Matilda went cheerfully to greet her bridegroom.”

  “She did,” Eleanor replied tersely, remembering the busy weeks of choosing a trousseau and packing it into twenty chests, and Matilda clinging to her, weeping, at Dover, begging her mother at least to cross the sea with her and delay the inevitable, awful moment of parting. She remembered too calling upon all her inner reserves of strength so she could stay calm and positive, and let herself allow this beloved child to go alone to her destiny. Oh, how she missed her, the sensible, gentle girl. It had been like having a limb severed. But Henry would not be interested in any of that, she thought sourly. To him, his children were pawns to be pushed around on a chessboard whenever it suited him.

  “How is Young Henry?” she inquired, her voice like ice. She had neither forgotten nor forgiven Henry’s presentation of the boy as her heir to her subjects at Poitiers the previous Christmas. She still thought it outrageous, and the matter of Richard’s inheritance remained unresolved.

  “You will see a change in him,” Henry said gruffly. “He is twelve now, and already he seems to be verging on manhood. He will make a great king when the time comes.” As would Richard—the thought came unbidden to Eleanor, who said nothing. She was mentally upbraiding herself for her resentful feelings toward Young Henry, because it wasn’t his fault that his father had overlooked Richard in advancing him; it was just that … well, she knew in her bones, with all a mother’s instinct, that Henry was not cut out to be Duke of Aquitaine. He lacked the soul of a troubadour, unlike Richard, who was already as accomplished at composing elegant lays as he was in the martial arts. Her people would understand that—look how they had loved her grandfather!—but try explaining it to Henry, she thought grimly.

  “Aquitaine is the reason I have summoned you here,” Henry said, handing her courteously to her seat at the high table. It was as if he had followed her train of thought. Instantly, she was alert and on the defensive, prepared to defer for a time the matter of Rosamund de Clifford, which she had firmly resolved to broach with Henry. All the way here, sailing to Normandy in the foremost of a flotilla of seven ships, all laden with her movable goods and personal effects, she had argued with herself—agonized, rather—over whether to confront him with what she knew. Do it, and the thing would lie like a sword between them, severing the present from the past. Say nothing, and the pretense that all was well could be maintained, and a sort of peace achieved. A sort of peace? How could that ever be, when she knew the truth and was bursting to challenge her husband? And so she had turned it round and round again in her mind, torturing herself, not knowing what best to do. Really, she wanted to scream and rage, to rake her claws down Henry’s face and devise some apt revenge on that little bitch. But in the end she decided that she must confront her husband with what she knew, and see what his reaction would be. Yet now, with Henry’s abrupt mention of Aquitaine—she had guessed he would not have summoned her for her own sake—she was ready to set aside the matter of Rosamund.

  When the company was seated and the first course had been served—a barely palatable dish of chunks of rabbit marooned in greasy gravy—Henry turned to her, his expression unreadable.

  “As you know,” he said, “I’ve spent the autumn riding around Aquitaine quelling rebellion. Your vassals are worse than most, and they hate me.”

  “You have given them little reason to love you,” Eleanor could not resist retorting.

  “It’s not even worth the effort. In fact, I have also given up trying to make them obey me. You’ve always wanted power in the duchy, haven’t you, Eleanor? Well, it’s your turn now.” There was a hint of dark humor in Henry’s face.

  “My turn?” she repeated, unable to still the excited racing of her heart.

  “Yes, yours,” Henry told her, with the hint of a smile. He was enjoying disarming her. “Your presence in Aquitaine, and the reassertion of your authority as its duchess, might make all the difference. Your rebellious subjects love you, and if they see me devolving my power on you, they might yet cease constantly opposing me.”

  Eleanor could not speak. He was asking her to go back to Aquitaine as its sovereign duchess. This was what she had longed for all through the fifteen years of her marriage—no, in fact it had been her dream ever since she was borne off to Paris, a bride of fifteen, by Louis. Aquitaine was her home, the place she wanted most of all to be, that enchanted land of the South, the land of mighty rivers, wooded valleys, wine and song. She wanted to fall to her knees and praise God for this sought-after blessing. She even felt some gratitude toward her faithless lord, although that was mixed with resentment, because he had been ignoring her urgent advice on courting her vassals for years, and had only belatedly come to this eminently sensible decision.

  “Now you see why I asked you to bring all your belongings,” Henry said.

  “I thought you were planning to set up home with me again,” she told him with an acerbic smile. He had the grace to look uncomfortable.

  “Eleanor, circumstances have kept us apart,” he said. And Rosamund de Clifford, she thought bitterly. “Will you do it?” he went on. “Will you go back to Aquitaine as its ruler?”

  “Did you have to ask?” she replied.

  To Eleanor’s astonishment, Henry followed her up to her solar at the end of the evening. He was a little drunk after all the carousing, and they left behind them most of the barons of Normandy slumped asleep over the tables or sprawling drunk on the rushes.

  Henry waved her ladies away.

  “I will be the Queen’s tirewoman tonight,” he told them, his speech slurred. They scattered, giggling and exchanging knowing glances. Evidently all was well between their master and mistress …

  Once the chamber door closed, Eleanor turned to face him.

  “Why are you here?” she asked coldly. He came lurching toward her.

  “You of all people should know that,” he replied. “State business—the getting of heirs.”

  “We have enough heirs,” she said, her voice strident. “I told you, I wanted no more children. And you know very well we have nothing to say to each other.”

  “I didn’t come here to say anything,” Henry jested. “You’re still a beautiful woman, Eleanor. Time was, you would have been eager to bed with me.” He was becoming petulant.

  “That was a long time ago. Before Rosamund de Clifford usurped my place.” Eleanor’s tone was frigid. It was only her body that betrayed her, responding involuntarily to the familiar nearness and scent of this man whom she had loved so wholeheartedly. She was shocked to realize that she still wanted him, despite the hurts he had dealt her.

  But now it was out, the thing she had dreamed of saying. The gauntlet had been cast down.

  Henry halted, stopped dead in his tracks, instantly s
ober. Lust withered and died. His eyes took on that shifty look she knew so well.

  “Who told you that?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.

  “No one! I saw for myself. And she told me, your little whore, how you love her, and she loves you. It was so touching I almost wept.” She felt like weeping now, but would have died rather than let him see her cry. “A pretty bower you’ve built for her at Woodstock—and that labyrinth, Henry: did you think to ward me off when I came seeking revenge? Did you think I wouldn’t find my way into that fine tower you’ve built for your leman?”

  Henry was speechless with surprise: who could have predicted that, of all the houses she had to choose from in England, his wife would turn up at Woodstock? And Rosamund, the silly little fool, why had it pleased her vanity to brag of his favor and his love? With an effort he found his voice.

  “I can explain,” he said, in the time-honored manner of cheating husbands.

  “I’m listening,” Eleanor answered, eyebrows raised in disbelief.

  “I don’t have to justify my actions to you or anyone,” Henry went on defensively, “but for the sake of courtesy, I want you to know the truth. I did have an affair with Rosamund, I admit it, but I haven’t seen her in eighteen months.”

  “An affair? You told her you loved her! Or did you deceive her, much as you’ve deceived me?” Eleanor was in a ferment.

  “No,” Henry said quietly. “I said I would tell you the truth.” He paused. “The truth is that I do love her. I can’t help it. I miss her desperately. And I know she returned that love—I hope she returns it still.” His voice was hoarse.

  Eleanor could not speak. His brutal words echoed in her ears. I do love her, I do love her … It was the cruelest betrayal. She wished she could fall down and die, she wished she had never uttered the name Rosamund, she wished that Henry and his trollop were burning in the fires of Hell …

  He had forsaken her, his aging wife, the mother of his children, for a younger woman, as so many men did; for a woman so young and beautiful that there could be no hope of him abandoning her.

  “So this is the end for us,” she stated flatly.

  “That’s up to you,” Henry said.

  “Is this why you want me to go to Aquitaine?”

  He snorted. “You know me better than that. Kings can’t afford the luxury of putting their pleasures before the demands of state. I want you to go to Aquitaine because your presence is needed there. It has nothing to do with Rosamund. If it did, then I would have been in Woodstock with her, instead of chasing after your rebellious vassals.”

  “But, of course, it’s very convenient for me to go to Aquitaine just now,” Eleanor said caustically. “As soon as I’ve gone South, no doubt you will summon your whore here to rut with you.”

  “No,” Henry replied, his voice leaden. “I have to treat with Louis.” He sank down on the fur-lined counterpane that covered the bed and buried his face in his hands. “I did not look for this to happen, Eleanor. I still love you, as my wife, you must believe that.”

  “I know nothing!” she snapped. “Or I wish I did. And I don’t want to be loved as your wife. I want you to love me as you once loved me. When you were mine. Before Rosamund.”

  Henry threw back his head and laughed mirthlessly. “You’ve got it all wrong, Eleanor. Our marriage was made for policy, as much as for love, and I not only loved you, I lusted after you as I had lusted after no woman before you. But lust like that doesn’t last. It dilutes in the marriage bed after long years of usage. I was never wholly yours, as you think. There have always been women along the way. I have a devil in me, and I can never be content with one woman, not even Rosamund. I’ve bedded quite a few since I left her in England. It’s not in my nature to be faithful, yet I am quite capable of loving you as my wife, and of lusting after you yet—and of loving her too.”

  Eleanor had been listening in mounting horror, unable to accept the magnitude of Henry’s betrayal. She had wondered and speculated, all through the years; she’d heard what Raoul de Faye told her, but never truly believed … until she went to Woodstock. At the memory, the dreadful tears welled.

  “You love her the way you once loved me,” she muttered, bitter.

  “We are a partnership, Eleanor,” Henry was saying. “You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy, and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.”

  “You talk very lightly of hatred!” she flung at him. “You make a nonsense of my feelings, and then preach to me about partnership. Come, Henry; I am not a fool. You itch for that strumpet, and you want me out of the way. No, don’t dispute that!”

  “I will dispute it!” Henry shouted. “I love and honor you as my wife—”

  “Honor? You don’t know the meaning of the word!” Eleanor screamed, tears coursing down her cheeks, and slapped him hard across the face. “That’s for every time you’ve fucked where you shouldn’t!” She lashed out again, her fury out of control.

  Henry caught her wrists, his face a mask of wrath. His grip hurt.

  “How dare you strike me, the King!” he roared.

  “I struck my faithless husband,” Eleanor choked, crying helplessly now. “Henry, you have hurt me, to the quick. You have betrayed my bed and my trust. You have made me realize I am old. If I felt joy at going back to rule Aquitaine, it is dead now. There can be no more joy for me in this world. You have killed it. I hope you are satisfied!”

  Henry said nothing, but suddenly slid his arms tightly about her and held her until the storm of weeping had passed; she could not see his face with hers pressed wetly against his beard, and wondered why she wanted to. Even when the tears dried and she was still, she stood there in his embrace, wanting to free herself, yet needing to be held there forever, and dreading the moment ending. It was a bitter realization that the only man who could comfort her was the man who had dealt her a mortal hurt. But just then she felt him stir against her.

  “No!” she declared, beginning to struggle. “Not that. Never that.”

  “You are my wife,” Henry muttered. “It is my right.”

  “Then you will have to rape me!” she spat.

  “Don’t tempt me,” he said, then let her go. When he spoke again, his voice was barely controlled. “Very well. I was trying to mend things between us, but you have made yourself clear. From now on we will observe the courtesies, and no more. You will not mind, I take it, if I indulge my lust in other beds?”

  “Do as you please.” Eleanor seethed with the desperation of one who realizes she has deliberately, impulsively burned her bridges. “I will go to Aquitaine, and we will keep up the pretense that all is well between us, if that is what you wish.”

  “You know very well I wished for something rather different,” Henry told her.

  “No, my lord, it’s you who have got it all wrong,” Eleanor said, resolutely wiping away the last of her tears. “Our marriage is dead. You cannot have us both.”

  36

  Fontevrault, 1168

  They were riding south together, making for Poitiers, a veritable army of lords, servants, and soldiers at their heels. Henry had insisted on escorting his wife, warning her that the times were lawless and that his mailed fist stretched only so far. They traveled in hostile silence.

  Eleanor was in turmoil, resentful that her joy in her yearned-for return to Aquitaine as its rightful ruler had been ruined by the dread knowledge that it effectively signaled her separation from Henry, a situation that was her doing but in no way her fault. Every mile was taking them nearer to that parting, after which they would go their own ways, partners in a marriage, yes, but miles apart in far more than distance. She ached for inner peace, and could only pray that, once settled in her beloved domains in the South, she would find it.

  There was to be more than one parting. With the King and Queen rode their children
: Young Henry, now styled Count of Poitiers, fair of face and shooting up in height, wearing his royal status with all the assurance of his race. He would be remaining with his father from now on, to learn the business of government. Richard, eleven years old, long-limbed and blue-eyed, already a hardy warrior who was praised alike by the captains who drilled him in military exercises and the tutors who taught him Latin and book learning. He was to accompany his mother to Aquitaine with his brother Geoffrey, dark and handsome Geoffrey, who was patiently suffering the twittering of vain young Constance, who rode by his side; he would be wasted on her, this clever boy, Eleanor thought. Then there were the little girls, Eleanor and Joanna, golden-haired images of herself, but gentler, and far more docile and biddable.

  They were very subdued today, her daughters. It had been decided, by Henry, with her reluctant approval, that they should be brought up by the good nuns of Fontevrault until such time as they were married. Eleanor knew there could be no better education for girls of high birth. Her family—and Henry’s—had a long tradition of sending daughters to Fontevrault. But the decision saddened her. She would miss Eleanor and Joanna, and felt that in some way she was abandoning them, much as she had abandoned two other little girls all those years before. Recently, at long last, in response to her own importunings, she received another letter from Marie, to which she had felt constrained to reply in conventional fashion. She took pride in the knowledge that the young Countess of Champagne had inherited her own love of music and poetry, but there was no true bond there—it had been loosed long ago. It was like writing to a stranger. She did not have the will to pursue the correspondence further.

  She smiled encouragingly at her little girls as a pang gripped her heart. It was for the best that they be entrusted to the good sisters of Fontevrault, she told herself. Henry had warned her that she would have enough on her hands trying to control her rebellious vassals, and that most girls of high birth were reared by nuns. Yet she had prided herself that, contrary to the common custom of royalty, she had until recently kept all her children with her. She wondered if this consignment of Eleanor and Joanna to a convent was some form of revenge on Henry’s part, or if he feared she might go behind his back and make alliances between his daughters and Aquitainian lords, to keep the latter sweet. He would not want to waste the fruit of his loins on such ingrates—she understood that.

 
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