Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  That left young John, little more than a year old. Try as she might, Eleanor still could not bring herself to love him, this child conceived in sorrow and born in betrayal. His existence conjured up too many memories of that terrible Christmastide when she had gone to Woodstock and come face-to-face with catastrophe and ruin, and then endured that bloody, agonizing travail at Oxford. No, John was the fruit of a marriage in its death throes, and sometimes she could not bear to look upon him. His nurses had the care of him.

  John was going to Fontevrault too. Young though he was, Eleanor urged Henry to consider him for a career in the Church, and Henry had agreed. As the youngest of four sons, it did not seem likely that there would be much of a landed inheritance for him, so the Church seemed an obvious choice. John would be brought up as an oblate, in preparation for his ordination to the priesthood. The gift of a son to God would undoubtedly be one of the best ways of storing up treasure in Heaven, for both parents. And God knows, we need it, Eleanor thought bitterly. She would not miss her last-born; indeed, she was thankful that others would have the rearing of him. Her guilt was overwhelming.

  But there was one other whom she would miss, whose smile would never again gladden her day. Poor Petronilla had died three months before, the victim of her own helpless predilection for the fruit of the grape. At the end she had been comatose, her skin yellowed, her belly horribly distended. Eleanor had wept pitifully for her sister, but could not deny that death had come as a merciful release. But there was now an empty space in her life, which Petronilla had once filled; there were too many empty spaces, she reflected mournfully. Sadness seemed to be her lot these days.

  Amiable Abbess Isabella had gone to her well-earned rest many years before, and it was her successor, Abbess Audeburge, who was waiting to receive them; her monks, nuns, and lady boarders drawn up in a respectful semicircle behind her. As the royal cavalcade drew to a halt, the entire convent fell to its knees and the abbess stepped forward. Audeburge was a capable, dynamic woman whom Eleanor had long liked and admired. She knew she could not have entrusted her children to a better guardian. And her confidence seemed to be justified, for when Eleanor and Joanna were formally committed to her care, Abbess Audeburge bent to kiss them affectionately and summoned forward two of her boarders with a parakeet and a monkey to distract her new charges, instantly winning their hearts. Then she reached out her strong, aristocratic hands to take John from his nurse, removed his thumb from his mouth, and gentled him, receiving a tentative smile in return. Before Eleanor knew it, the good-byes had been said and her children spirited away by a bevy of smiling nuns.

  They could not tarry. After mass in the soaring white abbey church, Henry paid his respects to the abbess and prepared to depart. He had planned to escort Eleanor to Poitiers and see her safely installed there, but was warned of a serious revolt farther south. The Count of Angoulême had allied with the particularly troublesome seigneurs of Lusignan and other malcontent lords, who had all risen in the latest protest against Henry’s rule.

  “You cannot deal with this alone,” Henry told Eleanor when they brought him the news, some little way north of Fontevrault. “I will summon my lieges and ride south with you to Lusignan. Your presence at my side will remind these arrogant fools to whom they owe allegiance. Then you can return by a safe route to Poitiers, and I will teach your rebels a lesson.”

  “They will resent it,” she had warned, in clipped tones.

  “Are you going to face them in battle?” Henry retorted. “Besides, in defying me, they defy you. I want to see Aquitaine settled before I leave you in charge.”

  Eleanor had not answered, but rode on, tight-lipped.


  Lusignan and Poitiers, 1168

  They rode south, toward Lusignan. As they approached, they could see its castle, nestling on a hill above the Vonne Valley. Eleanor recalled Henry telling her, in happier days, that his diabolic ancestress Melusine had commanded it to be built.

  Poitiers, Eleanor’s destination, lay not far to the east. As speed was essential to frustrating the rebels’ plans, Henry, hell-bent on marching on Lusignan, was unable to escort her to her city. Instead, he had summoned Earl Patrick of Salisbury, his military governor and deputy in Aquitaine, to ensure that the duchess reached Poitiers in safety. And here was Earl Patrick now, riding along the dusty road, a small force of men-at-arms at his heels.

  Eleanor knew and liked Patrick. He had given long years of loyal service to the Empress Matilda and to King Henry, and during the year he had been in Aquitaine, proved himself an able, sensible ruler, forging a tactful and politic friendship with her seneschal, Raoul de Faye, and treating her vassals in a conciliatory fashion. She hoped he would stay on, after the handover of power had taken place; she would value his company and his sound advice.

  But first there was Henry. The moment of farewell had come. It would not be a final farewell, of course, but there was little likelihood of them meeting in the near future. It seemed strange, that such a great passion should meet its sorry end on a remote country roadside, with no formalities and no one else even being aware of the cataclysmic event that was taking place.

  Henry was impatient to be gone, to fight his battle and to have the awkward moment over and done with. He reined in his restive mount, leaned across his saddle, gave Eleanor the briefest of kisses, and gruffly wished her Godspeed. She remained seated erect on her palfrey, regarding him with sad eyes, which he would not meet.

  “Good-bye, my lord,” she said softly. “I pray God keep you safe, and that we may meet again in this world.”

  Henry nodded to her—she suspected, indeed hoped, that he could not trust himself to speak—then wheeled around and shouted to his train to follow him. Eleanor watched as he rode away from her toward Lusignan, clouds of dust in his wake. Then she turned to Earl Patrick, forced a bright smile, and spurred her horse in the direction of Poitiers. Home. She was going home, after her long exile.

  For all Eleanor’s sorrows, it was wonderful to be back in residence in the Maubergeonne Tower. The duchess’s apartments had recently been refurbished, and were both spacious and luxurious. Eleanor walked about them hugging herself and fingering in delight the soft squirrel counterpane on the bed and the silky fabric of the cushions. Every room was vivid with color: deep indigo blues, forest greens, and warm reds. There were hangings depicting erotic scenes of nymphs bathing in mythical streams and lovers entwined in forbidden pleasures. Vases of aquamarine glass and porphyry graced the brightly painted cupboards and windowsills. In the duchess’s solar, a silver ewer of wine had thoughtfully been placed on the wide table before the fireplace, and an ivory chess set was left awaiting her pleasure, while in the corner of the room, a portable altar stood on an armoire spread with an embroidered cloth.

  Supper was a delight. Truffles! She hadn’t tasted them in years, and they were as ambrosia to one who’d had to put up with the less refined cuisine of England. They were followed by a plate of duck roasted in its own fat, which was utterly delicious! And peaches and apricots, plump and juicy, such as were never seen in the kingdoms of the North. It was a happier homecoming than she had anticipated.

  As she lay back on fine linen sheets in her bathtub, with Mamille and Torqueri and Florine washing her with herb-scented water and massaging limbs that were aching after days in the saddle, Eleanor began to unwind and to feel a sense of well-being that had long been absent from her life. Here, she was the duchess. She could please herself. She did not have to consider the moods and caprices of her husband. Almost, she felt a sense of liberation.

  To boost her new confidence, she began ordering the finest textiles to be made into gowns and cloaks, and commissioned the goldsmiths of Poitiers to make her elegant jewelery—circlets, bracelets, and brooches—in the latest styles. Wearing her fine new attire made her feel more like her bold former self again, and helped her slough off the feelings of worthlessness that had been the legacy of Henry’s betrayal. She forced herself not to think of
him, and to embrace her new life wholeheartedly. For this was what she had long wanted, she told herself. Yet not like this, not like this! cried her persistent inner voice.

  Resolutely, she occupied herself with the business of ruling her duchy, taking a particular and genuine interest in every aspect of its welfare. Daily, she would occupy her high seat at the head of the council table and patiently listen to the arguments and advice of her seigneurs. Important decisions always had to be referred to Henry for ratification, and there was a constant stream of messengers between Aquitaine and the North. No one, especially Eleanor, liked this alien interference in the affairs of her domains; the duke had never been accepted by her people, and he was hated and resented. But power over her lands was his right, as her husband, and she kept reminding herself, in all fairness, that Henry was allowing her a considerable degree of autonomy.

  When she was not in council, she was out riding or hawking, or supervising the children who were left to her. Presently, with Henry’s blessing, Young Henry and his wife Marguerite traveled south to enter her household, joining Richard, Geoffrey, and Constance; and with this blithe crowd of young people to cheer her, life in the palace was lively and joyful, a panacea for Eleanor’s inner heartache. She was never alone; she had made sure of that, having summoned sixty ladies to wait upon her and cheer her days, and there was always dear Raoul de Faye to give her succor and advice in the business of governing—and to pay her meaningful compliments, as if he still hoped to win her favor in more intimate ways.

  This was very heartening, for she was forty-six years old and given to looking anxiously in her mirror for the dreaded signs of encroaching age. Yet the image reflected back in the burnished silver was of a fine-boned woman with lips that were still full and eyes that could flash wittily and invite to conversation … and more. Beneath the veil, her red-gold hair was paler than it had been, and well silvered with gray, but it was still long and luxuriant, and rippled down over breasts that were yet full and voluptuous. Maybe, she thought wistfully, just maybe, she might even take another lover, since Henry was no longer interested. But it would not be Raoul. She loved him, and depended on him, as a friend and an uncle, but she did not want him in her bed.

  Patrick proved himself to be a charming and witty companion. She sensed that he liked her, and could see in his hazelnut-colored eyes the kind of admiration she had inspired in men many times in the past. It was balm to her bruised pride. She thought that Raoul saw it too, and was jealous. But Raoul was not to nurture his jealousy for long.

  The spring being glorious, with flowers budding unseasonably early and the winds mild and gentle, Eleanor planned a hawking expedition with Earl Patrick. Word reached them that Henry had efficiently crushed the rising at Lusignan, then ridden north to treat with Louis—the news that he had gone so far from her sparked a twinge of anguish in Eleanor’s breast—and now Patrick deemed it safe to ride out for the day.

  “There have been no recent reports of any trouble,” he smiled, “so I’ll leave my armor at home, and we’ll take just a small escort.”

  It was good to be out in the sunshine, Eleanor found, even though her heart was heavy. She was surprised to discover herself thrilling to the sport, watching her mighty falcon soar into the blue sky and swoop with unerring precision to catch its prey, then return to her outstretched hand and settle on her glove, meekly accepting its gay scarlet hood and the jesses with which she tethered it.

  “Bravo, my lady!” exclaimed Earl Patrick. The men-at-arms clapped and cheered admiringly from a distance; they themselves would never be privileged enough even to touch a royal bird like Eleanor’s.

  The ambush, when it came, was sudden and deadly, with mounted armed men closing in on them from every side, uttering bloodcurdling war cries.

  “It’s the Lusignans!” the earl cried, frantic. “À moi! À moi!”

  Eleanor quickly collected herself; in that instant, she could see herself being captured and ransomed, if not worse. But as she made to gallop away, Earl Patrick, shouting orders to his men, dismounted from his horse, quick as lightning, and grabbed her bridle.

  “Take my steed, my lady, you’ll not find a faster in Christendom.” She wasted not a moment in swapping mounts, as the earl told her to make for a ruined castle a mile distant and wait for him there.

  Their assailants were almost upon them as Eleanor, spurring her borrowed steed, deftly evaded them by almost flying through the only gap in their ranks, then cantered off like the wind toward safety. They would have come after her had not Earl Patrick and his escort engaged them furiously in battle. As the Queen rode away, she could hear the clash of steel and the shouts of men receding into the distance, and was in a fever of anxiety to know which way the combat was going.

  Having ridden for several miles and reached the sanctuary of the ruins, Eleanor stood fuming in the peace of the afternoon. How dare the Lusignans make an attempt on her person! No doubt they wished to wring concessions from Henry. Wait until he heard! Then she paused. She was ruler here now, not Henry. Undoubtedly he would come and deal with them, if summoned; he would be furious on her account, if only because she was his queen and duchess, but she decided now that she must prove to him that she did not need him, and show him that she was capable of dealing with problems efficiently by herself.

  She waited an hour or so, becoming increasingly anxious. Then she heard horses’ hooves, and shrank back behind some lichen-covered masonry until she could assure herself that it was her escort—or what was left of it—come to find her. She shuddered. How bad had it been?

  “Lady,” said the captain, a big, florid man, “I bear heavy news. Earl Patrick is dead, stabbed in the back by the traitors as he donned his hauberk.”

  “Oh, dear God!” Eleanor wailed. “That chivalrous man! Those bastards! I will repay them, by God, for they have added grievous injury to grievous insult.” And she smote her balled fist in her palm. Then fear gripped her.

  “Are they defeated, these rebels? Where are they?”

  “Gone back to their castle,” the captain told her. “It was the young knight, John the Marshal’s son William, who held them off, with great courage and skill, until he himself was wounded and captured. They took him with them, my lady, no doubt hoping for a fat ransom.”

  “And they shall have it,” said Eleanor, fighting down her fury and thinking of the tall, dignified young man who had so bravely defended her. He was, she was aware, a soldier of fortune, who had made a reputation as a champion in tournaments, winning many rich prizes. She herself had watched him distinguish himself in the lists and been much impressed.

  “They are bringing Earl Patrick’s body, lady,” the captain told her, indicating a small party of his men approaching on horseback. She froze as she espied the bloody corpse of the former governor slumped across a saddle, but resolutely walked forward to pay all due honor to it, bowing her head in grief and respect.

  “We will have him buried in Poitiers and pay for masses to be said for his soul,” she declared, suppressing her emotion. There would be time enough for weeping later. “Letters must be sent to his family in England.”

  And so it was done, and the young William Marshal was, at length, ransomed. When he presented himself before the duchess, brimming with gratitude, she gave him a gift of money and expressed concern about his wounds.

  “They are healing, my lady,” he said cheerfully, “yet no thanks to Guy of Lusignan. He and his followers refused to have them dressed.” As Eleanor gasped in horror, he smiled at her. “It is no matter, for I count it an honor to have served you thus, my Queen.”

  “It is rare to find such loyalty,” Eleanor told him. “They tell me you fought as a wild boar against dogs. I owe you much, possibly my very life. Rest assured, the King my lord will come to hear of your valor.”

  It occurred to her, as she kept a proprietorial eye on William Marshal in the weeks that followed, and her admiration for him grew, that he would make a fine mentor for Young Henry; and in
due course, with the King’s approval, he was appointed guardian, tutor, and master of chivalry to the prince, a role Becket had once filled. Thankfully, there was little risk of this fine knight causing such grief as Becket had. He filled the role magnificently, and Eleanor rewarded him lavishly, with horses, arms, gold, and fine clothing. William was proving to be, she knew—and as her contemporaries would soon come to agree—one of the best knights who ever lived.

  Henry had met with Louis, and for once Eleanor had cause to be grateful to her former husband. They had thrashed out a peace, and Louis gave Henry wise advice regarding the disposing of his empire after his death. Her heart was immeasurably gladdened when the King’s messenger brought news of the agreement that had been reached.

  “The Lord Henry is to pay homage to the French King for Anjou, Maine, and Brittany; the Lord Geoffrey is to hold Brittany as the Lord Henry’s vassal; and the Lord Richard is to pay homage to King Louis for Aquitaine, and be betrothed to the French King’s daughter, Alys.”

  Richard was to have Aquitaine after all! Her prayers had been answered. Her first thought, as she went rejoicing to her chapel to give thanks, was that Henry had done this for her, as a peace offering. Then she remembered that he had ignored her pleadings and her displays of anger on numerous occasions before, and that he never did anything unless there was a political motive. The truth, she guessed, was that Louis, fearing the power of his Angevin vassals, had urged the division of Henry’s domains on his death, and made that a condition of the peace. She wondered if Henry was making a virtue of expediency, and began to fear that he might well renege on the new treaty as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

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