Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  “No,” Henry replied. “I feel the same, and it is a delight to me that we are equal in our passion.”

  It had to be destiny, Eleanor was certain. She was filled with a sense of it, and of elation. God had led this man to cross her path, this man who had the power to satisfy not only her body but also her ambition. She had known, in the moment they had joined as one, that their coming together would have far-reaching consequences, and with a sudden flash of perfect clarity, she could see what those consequences would be. She would leave Louis and break their marriage. She would go back south to Aquitaine and reclaim it as her own. Then she would give it, with herself, as a gift to Henry. Together, with her lands joined to his coming inheritance, they could build an empire such as Christendom had never seen, and Aquitaine would become a great power in the world. And with Henry’s backing, she would quell her turbulent lords and rule it wisely and well.

  “Henry FitzEmpress,” she said, looking into those fathomless eyes, “I want to be your wife.”

  “And I, my lady, want to be your husband,” he replied ardently, kissing her again. “I know, for many speak of it, that you have doubts about your marriage, doubts shared even by the saintly Bernard. But what of Louis? Will he let you go?”

  “I will talk to him,” Eleanor whispered, nuzzling his ear. “This time he must listen.”

  “You’re not going to tell him about us?” Henry asked, alarmed.

  “Of course not,” she said. “I am not a fool, my heart. Do you think he would relinquish me, knowing I wanted to marry you?”

  “No, I am the fool! My father often says it.”

  Eleanor giggled and began lightly stroking his hairy thigh.

  “It makes sense, us marrying,” she said. “I have long wanted my freedom, but how long would I keep it? I would be beset by fortune hunters. I could not wed just any man. But you would be my powerful protector, and I know without doubt that you would safeguard my inheritance, and help me to rule it well.”

  Henry looked long and hard at her.

  “It did occur to me you would think I had pursued you only for your inheritance. I think you know now that there is a little more to it than that.” He stretched luxuriously, toying with her nipples. “Even if you were dowerless, I would want you for my wife. I mean that, Eleanor. By the eyes of God!”

  “I believe you,” she answered teasingly, “although I should hope that God has averted His eyes for the moment! Yet it has not escaped my notice that the men, money, and resources that my domains could offer you would be of enormous help in gaining you England!”

  Henry laughed. “So you know about my ambitions in that direction. Of course, it is no secret.”

  “And,” Eleanor went on, “I am aware too that marrying me would make you the greatest and richest prince in the whole world.”

  “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” Henry countered. “Suddenly, you are infinitely more desirable!” He began kissing her, playfully at first, then with a more serious purpose.

  “Wait,” Eleanor said, holding him off. “Shall we make a promise to marry?”

  He became still and regarded her solemnly. “We shall. I, Henry FitzEmpress, take thee, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as my future wedded wife.”

  Eleanor sat up in the bed, her long hair tumbling over her breasts.

  “And I, Eleanor, do promise myself to thee, Henry, forever and ever, Amen.” She beamed at him with such radiance that he caught his breath. “Now it is decided. We will make it come about. You can leave Louis to me.”

  “I shall have to. We depart for Anjou tomorrow. You will not fail me, my Eleanor, I know that.” Henry took her hand and kissed it. She had intuitively guessed that, plain man as he was, he made such courtly gestures but rarely, and she prized it all the more for that.

  “I have made up my mind,” she declared. “Nothing shall stand in our way. But there must be the strictest secrecy. We must give Louis no clue that we intend to wed until the deed is accomplished.”

  “You speak sense, for he would be bound to forbid it,” Henry commended her. “He distrusts me as it is, for my fiefs encircle his royal demesne on most sides. I could be his greatest enemy. The prospect of my acquiring rich Aquitaine too would give him apoplexy!” He paused, frowning. “You do realize that our marrying without his permission, as our overlord, could mean war?”

  “I do,” Eleanor said calmly. “Yet which side would have the greater chance of victory? There would be no contest. The kingdom of France is small and weak compared with the might of Aquitaine, Poitou, and Normandy.”

  “Might is one thing, right another,” Henry reminded her. “Many will support Louis out of a sense of moral duty. They will argue that we acted with the greatest provocation, not to mention discourtesy. Yet if you are willing to take the risk, my lady, how could I gainsay you?” His eyes were twinkling in anticipation of a fight with Louis.

  “Some things are worth fighting for,” Eleanor declared. “I am not afraid.”

  “God, I love you,” Henry breathed, and crushed her beneath him once more.

  “Go with God,” Eleanor said as, wrapping a cloak over her nudity, she kissed Henry farewell at the door of her chamber in the lightening of the sky before the dawn. “I will send for you as soon as I am free, then I will ride south to my capital at Poitiers. Join me there as soon as you can, if you would be married to me.”

  “I will not fail you,” Henry promised. “You may count on me. I live for the day.” Again he raised her hand to his lips.

  “I do not know how I shall bear being apart from you,” Eleanor told him.

  “It is only for a short time. Think on our three nights of love, and know that I will be thinking of them too, and longing for more.”

  After Henry had departed, slipping into the early morning mist in search of his tethered horse, Eleanor huddled her cloak close around her and prayed fervently for a happy outcome.

  “Home,” she breathed. “I want to go home. I want this exile to end, to be among my own people, where I am loved. And with Henry FitzEmpress by my side, as Aquitaine’s duke. Together, we will usher in a new golden age. It would be joy beyond what I could ever have wished for. Dear God, hear my prayer! Oh, hear my prayer!”


  The Loire Valley, September 1151

  “I am planning a final assault on England, Father,” Henry announced as he and Geoffrey rode home along the banks of the mighty Loire, a posse of men-at-arms at their heels. It was a blazingly warm day, their clothes sticking to them, and sweat lathered their horses. “I have summoned my good barons of Normandy to a council of war at Angers next week.” He outlined his plans enthusiastically.

  “You have done well, my son,” Geoffrey said approvingly. “Your mother will be proud of you.”

  They plodded along for a mile or so, discussing the planned offensive, then Geoffrey turned to Henry, his face suddenly grave.

  “I trust you have heeded my advice regarding Queen Eleanor,” he said.

  “Yes,” Henry said shortly. It was obvious that he was lying.

  Geoffrey was silent.

  “Nothing good could come of it,” he said at length.

  “So you said, Father!” Henry retorted.

  Geoffrey was silent. Beneath his hat, in which he sported his customary adornment of a broom flower—the planta genista after which his descendants would one day be named—he was sweating profusely.

  “God, it’s hot,” he said, wiping his brow. Henry, perspiring too, gazed ahead across the flat wide plains of the Loire Valley.

  “Do you fancy a swim?” he asked. “It would cool us down. The river is shallow at Château-du-Loir, not far from here.”

  “I should like that,” said Geoffrey wearily. “And I think our escort will appreciate it too.”

  At the appointed place, they dismounted and began stripping off their clothes. The men-at-arms flung themselves full-length beneath the trees to sleep in the shade, or raided their saddlebags for food and drink. One or two disappe
ared into the trees to relieve themselves. The sun blazed down on the dry grass, where crickets sang in chorus and lizards darted hither and thither.

  Naked, Geoffrey and Henry raced to the water’s edge, then plunged into the river, swimming powerfully out into the sluggish current. Laughing, they splashed each other vigorously, then wrestled in the rippling water. Henry was surprised to find his father’s muscles iron-hard—not bad for an old man of thirty-eight, he thought. He had also glimpsed Geoffrey’s impressive manhood, and wondered seriously for the first time if his father had indeed been speaking the truth about knowing Eleanor carnally, and if he had, whether he had satisfied her as well as he himself had done.

  Their horseplay abandoned, they swam a couple of widths of the river, then dragged themselves onto the shore, where they sat awhile in the heat, drying off, before donning their clothes.

  “We will need to find a place to spend the night,” Geoffrey said. “I should send the scouts ahead. My castle of Le Lude is at Sarthe, not far off. Let us make for there.”

  Comfortably accommodated in the fortress, and after bestirring the castellan and his staff to action, Geoffrey called for a meal, then sat down at the board with Henry and their entourage to enjoy it. Lifting a silver goblet of sweet Anjou wine, he toasted the success of Henry’s planned assault on England.

  “I cannot fail,” Henry assured him expansively. The wine had made him bold and overconfident. He noticed his father looked flushed, but attributed it to the heat, although it was cooler in the stone fastness of the castle. Then Geoffrey waved away the plump roasted fowl, saying that he seemed to have little appetite for food in this weather. A little later, Henry, wolfing down the last of his own dinner, felt the first stirring of concern as the count rejected a proffered bowl of fruit, then suddenly gripped the edge of the table, shuddering.

  “Are you ill, Father?” he asked anxiously. To his knowledge, Geoffrey had never known a day’s sickness in his life.

  “A touch of fever, my son. It is nothing.” He sounded breathless.

  Henry placed his callused palm on Geoffrey’s brow. It was burning.

  “I knew I should not have gone swimming in the heat,” his father said, attempting a smile. “I must have caught a chill. It has come on suddenly.”

  “You should go to bed, sire,” Henry advised.

  “I will,” Geoffrey agreed, but when he tried to get to his feet, he had not the strength, and slumped heavily against the table. Henry jumped up, in unison with four men-at-arms, and together they manhandled the sick man up the stone spiral staircase to the bedchamber above, where they laid him heavily on the fur coverlet spread across the wooden bed. By now he was shivering violently, his body hot to the touch, his hands icy.

  “He were a fool to go swimming in that river,” one soldier commented. Henry glared at him.

  “Strip him,” he commanded.

  “Are you bloody mad?” the soldier asked him. “He should be wrapped up warm.”

  “He’s warm enough. He needs to cool down,” Henry insisted. “Get his clothes off.” Begrudgingly, the men complied, leaving Geoffrey wearing only his braies for modesty’s sake.

  “Now, fetch a basin of water and cloths.” The men departed, muttering that their young lord had gone daft and would be the death of the count, but they complied with his orders nonetheless.

  Sponging down Geoffrey’s burning body, a task he took readily upon himself, for he loved his father, Henry willed him to get better.

  “You are strong, sire. You must hold fast!”

  Geoffrey lay there listlessly, his eyes glazed with fever. He was muttering something, and Henry bent an ear down to listen. Most of it was unintelligible, but he could make out the words “Don’t, I beseech you” and “Eleanor.” Grimly, he understood what his father was saying, and still he chose to ignore him. These were just the ramblings of a sick man.

  Henry watched beside Geoffrey all night as the fever raged; he did his best to keep him cool, and turned a deaf ear to his mumblings. In the shadows, the men-at-arms kept vigil also, shaking their heads at his unorthodox treatment. But Henry had learned his wisdom from his old tutor, Master Matthew of Loudun, a very sage man who had taught him much when he was living in England, at Bristol, not just from books, but all sorts of practical knowledge. These uneducated soldiers had never had the benefit of Master Matthew’s learning. His father would live, he knew it.

  But Geoffrey grew worse, not better, and Henry spent much of the second night bargaining with God. If He would spare his father, then he would renounce Eleanor. He meant it at the time, although he had no idea how he could bear to give her up. God, it seemed, was listening, though, and as the sun rose, Geoffrey opened his eyes, from which the wildness had fled, and spoke lucidly for the first time since his collapse.

  “My son,” he said, his face pale beneath the tan, “will you swear that, if and when you become King of England, you will give my counties of Anjou and Maine to your brother Geoffrey?”

  “Father!” cried Henry, alarmed and outraged, for he had little love for his younger siblings. “First, you are not dying, so this is no time for swearing such oaths. And second, you are asking me to swear away my patrimony. I cannot do it, nor should you require it of me.”

  “Boy, I am dying,” Geoffrey said hoarsely. “I feel it in my bones. And I order that my body must lie unburied until you swear to do what I ask.”

  “But Father, Anjou and Maine should be mine by right of birth, as your oldest son,” Henry protested.

  “You have Normandy, and you will, God willing, have England.” Geoffrey’s voice was weakening. “Is that not enough? Can you not humor your dying father?”

  “No,” Henry declared firmly. “I am sorry, I cannot, for it is an unjust request.”

  Geoffrey looked at him sadly.

  “Then will you at least promise not to pursue the matter of the French queen? I ask only because I fear for the safety of your soul. I am done with earthly concerns.”

  “I have renounced her,” Henry said truthfully, knowing that, if his father died, he would be released from that vow, God not having kept His part of the bargain.

  “Then I can die partly content,” Geoffrey croaked, his breath coming now in shallow gasps.

  “Father, do not die!” Henry cried in panic, grasping the sick man’s hands and rubbing some warmth into them, then recoiling horrified as they fell limply from his fingers and Geoffrey’s eyes glazed over. “Father! Father!” He burst into noisy tears.

  The soldiers, heads bowed in grief, for the count had been a good lord to them, knelt by the bed in respect for the passing of a soul; after a moment a dazed Henry knelt with them. It took a moment more before he realized that he was now not only Duke of Normandy, but also Count of Anjou and Maine, and master of a quarter of France.

  Later, Henry stood beside his father’s sheeted body, which still lay on the bed on which he had died.

  “He has paid his debt to Nature,” he told his men, “and yet I cannot order his burial because I would not swear to disinherit myself.”

  “But it would be a disgrace to leave your father’s body to lie rotting here in this heat,” cried the castellan, knowing full well that the ever restless Henry would soon be on his way, leaving him to deal with the problem.

  “You must bury him, sire,” the soldiers urged. “You must swear now to what you would not swear before. You cannot leave him to stink the place out.”

  “Very well,” Henry agreed, almost weeping in frustration. “I vow to give Anjou and Maine to my brother Geoffrey. Does that satisfy you? Now let us go to Le Mans to make arrangements for my father’s burial in the abbey of St. Julien.” And then, he added to himself, vow or no vow, I will take firm possession of Anjou and Maine and secure the allegiance of my vassals there before setting my sights on England—and the crown that is my right. And I will marry Eleanor, with Louis’s approval or without it.


  Paris, September 1151

is, you must listen to me,” Eleanor said suddenly, as they sat alone at supper in her chamber. The servants, having placed spiced rabbit, girdle bread, fruit, and hard cheese on the table, had left them alone in the flickering candlelight.

  Louis turned his fair head with its shorn hair toward his wife; he had cut off his beautiful long locks in penance after the burning of Vitry. There was sadness in his eyes. He knew he had lost her, this beautiful woman who had strangely captured his heart but never his body, and he feared to hear her say the words that would make the break final.

  “We have known, you and I, for a long time, that there are serious doubts about the validity of our marriage,” Eleanor said carefully. A great deal hung on the outcome of this conversation, and she was determined not to let her inbred impetuousness ruin everything.

  Louis’s heart plummeted like a sinking stone. She looked so fine, sitting there in her bejeweled blue gown, that glorious cloud of hair rippling over her shoulders. He could not believe she was asking him to renounce her.

  “Pope Eugenius himself blessed and confirmed our union when we were in Rome,” he said quietly. “Had you forgotten that?”

  “How could I forget it?” Eleanor asked, shrinking inwardly at the memory of the beaming pontiff beseeching them to set aside their differences and their bitterness, and then—it had been hideously embarrassing—showing them into that sumptuous bedchamber with its silken hangings and ornamental bed and urging them to make good use of it. And they had done so, God help them, with Louis taking his usual fumbling, apologetic approach. Little Alix, now a year old, had been the result. But Louis had not touched Eleanor since. She wondered what all those French barons who blamed her for her failure to bear a son would have to say about that.

  “Others, of great wisdom, have different opinions,” she said carefully, reaching for some grapes. “Abbot Bernard for one. The Bishop of Laon for another. Bernard is adamant that our marriage is forbidden. He asks why you are so scrupulous about consanguinity when it comes to others, when everyone knows that you and I are fourth cousins. He told me he would speak to you.”

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