Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  She had written to Henry, informing him of the outrage committed by the Lusignans, as her duty bound her; and, as she anticipated, he sent immediately to inform her that he was coming to teach the traitors a lesson they would never forget. She hoped that he would stop by in Poitiers to see her, so she could thank him for settling Aquitaine on Richard, and thereby mend matters between them a little. But the next she heard, from another exhausted travel-stained messenger, Henry had been unexpectedly diverted from his purpose and had to march on Brittany to quell a rising by Eudes de Porhoët, the father of Count Conan.

  “But Conan’s family are our allies!” she exclaimed. “Eudes’s granddaughter Constance is married to the Lord Geoffrey. His daughter Alice is in the custody of the King, as surety for her father’s friendship. This is madness.”

  The royal messenger flushed and looked at her somewhat shiftily, she thought.

  “You must tell me what has happened,” she commanded, her tone sharpened by alarm.

  The man looked at his feet and twisted his felt hat in his hands.

  “It is said that the Lord King lay with the Lady Alice, and that she has borne him a child that died. Her kin have risen up in anger, for the young lady was a hostage in the Lord King’s household.”

  At his words, Eleanor froze. Was there no end to Henry’s betrayals? And when would he cease having the power to hurt her? She had liked to think that she was free of him, and was stronger for it, but tidings like this proved to her that she was still in some thrall to him.

  She dismissed the messenger and withdrew to her bower, trying to seek solace in music and the chatter of her ladies. But however hard she tried, she could not dismiss from her imaginings the horrible, disturbing image of Henry making Alice de Porhoët pregnant.

  Sick to the heart, her delight in Richard’s future being settled so happily deflated, Eleanor resolved to stay in Aquitaine for good. She told herself, firmly and adamantly, that she would never go back to Henry and live with him as his wife. From now on they would be political allies, no more. She would henceforth invest all her love and care in her heir, her beloved Richard, and forget her faithless husband. Nowadays she had come to the comforting realization that her love for Richard was greater than what she had ever felt for Henry—apart from the passion that her husband had inspired in her physically. But that had died long ago.

  Richard was now eleven, shooting up and developing strong muscles. She took great pride in his prowess, both in book learning and military exercises. She marveled at his dexterity in Latin, and herself taught him to play the lyre and to compose verses in French and Provençal; his voice was high and true, and she thrilled to hear him singing with the choir of her private chapel. Tall, ruddy-haired, and slender, he was in most respects his mother’s son. He had her straight-nosed profile and fine bone structure. There was little of Henry in him—save for a streak of Angevin devilment and ruthlessness, already apparent. Never mind, she told herself: a ruler needed to be firm and establish his authority, and he must be fierce in battle. Richard had what it took, in abundant measure. He was her true heir in every way, for he had the South in his blood, as she did. He would do well: he was destined for greatness. She knew it in her bones.

  For much of that year, Eleanor stayed in Poitiers, governing her domains with wisdom and firmness. Her presence in the duchy did much to heal the wounds dealt by decades of foreign rule by both her husbands in turn, and she was intent on making every effort to win back the love and loyalty of her vassals.

  As soon as she had reestablished herself in the duchy, she made a progress through her lands, her purpose being to greet and cultivate her lords, and be seen by them. If force had failed to establish central authority in Aquitaine, she would do it by love and peaceful persuasion. She traveled south, stopping first at the flourishing port of Niort, where she held court in the massive square fortress built by Henry, and was feasted by the locals with eels and snails from the nearby marshlands, and little cakes studded with angelica, a local delicacy. She promised that in due course she would grant the town a charter and new privileges, and was gratified by the delighted response of the worthy burghers.

  Then she rode farther south to Limoges, to repair the damage done by Henry nine years before, when he ordered the walls to be torn down. She admired the new fortifications, granted boons, and received local lords, then moved on to the Périgord, land of the great rivers, the Vézère and the Dordogne, a region populated with flocks of plump ducks and gray geese. Here, she gloried in the deep-cut valleys nestling beneath limestone cliffs and caves, the lush dark woodlands, the fields of maize, the orchards of walnut trees, the bustling towns and hilltop villages, the mighty castles and humble churches, all basking in the golden sun. The people came with their gifts and their blessings, even the seigneurs who ruled these often lawless valleys bent the knee to her and swore fealty. She began to feel whole again, enveloped by the love of her people, cherished in the heart of her duchy, feted by the highborn and the lowly.

  She swept westward to Bayonne on the coast, near the foothills of the mighty Pyrenees, and then north again to Poitiers, staying at castles, manor houses, or abbeys on the way. Everywhere she went, her subjects came thronging, calling down blessings upon her and bringing her their humble petitions and grievances. She read them all, dispensing justice with fairness and humanity, and earning herself a reputation for wisdom and generosity. She had left Poitiers a sad, disillusioned wife struggling to break free of the past; she returned to it a happy, confident, and jubilant woman, thankful to have won her independence.

  Eleanor had written to tell Henry of her resolve to separate from him for good. It had been one of the most difficult letters she ever composed in her life, but she felt better after she set her mind down on parchment; in fact she felt strangely liberated. Love for which one paid a high price in sorrow and humiliation was just not worth having. She might have feelings for Henry still, but overriding those, at least for the present, was relief at having distanced herself from the torment their marriage had become.

  He wrote back: “I am as troubled as Oedipus about the rift between us, yet I will not oppose your decision.” Oedipus! Great Heaven! Did he now think of her as a mother figure, no more? God’s blood, she swore to herself, that trollop Rosamund was welcome to him!

  There was balm to her hurt pride in the courtly adoration of the troubadours who had flocked to her court, overjoyed to be once more dedicating songs of love and beauty to their famed duchess. Their praises warmed her heart, for she knew she was no longer the glorious young woman who had inspired such chivalrous verse in the past; and yet still they sang of the incomparable loveliness of their noble Eleanor.

  It was a luxury, after so many years of what now felt like exile, to be living in the midst of a civilization that celebrated love in all its forms. Indeed, it was a delight to sit in a sun-baked arbor of an afternoon, discussing with her lords and ladies this most fascinating of subjects, with her courtiers gathered around, hanging on her every word.

  “They do not speak of love in the kingdoms of the North as we do here in Aquitaine,” Eleanor told her astonished listeners. “They think that love, as we honor it, is merely an excuse for adultery. My Lord Henry could never understand our culture.”

  “Love,” declared the young troubadour Rigaud de Barbezieux, “is the bedrock of happy relations between men and women.”

  “There can only be true happiness when lovers meet on an equal footing, which is rare,” Eleanor said. “But there is no equality in marriage, and our courtly code dictates that the suitor is always a supplicant to his mistress.”

  “Then how can men and women ever come together as equals?” Torqueri asked, her smooth brow puckered in a frown. “It can never be in a world in which we women are treated either as chattels or whores.”

  “I thank God that our customs in Aquitaine favor women.” Eleanor smiled. “Torqueri is right. In the North, women are just chattels. But here, thanks to our freer society
, they live on pedestals! You see why I wanted to come home!”

  “Did they not treat you with respect in the North, madame?” a young lady asked, shocked.

  “Yes, of course—I am the Queen, and they dared not scant their respect. But woe betide any troubadour who praised my beauty in a song, or dared to imagine himself in my bed! I tell you, they cannot understand that it is a harmless conceit.”

  Bertran de Born, a wild and dangerous young man who was as skilled with the sword as with the lyre, bared his teeth in a wolfish grin. “Whoever said it was harmless?”

  “A woman is not supposed to condescend to give her favors to a man of lesser rank,” Mamille reproved primly.

  “Then, since marriages are made for policy, how will she find love?” Bertran quizzed her. “In truth, no man looks to find love in the marriage bed.”

  “I would question that,” Eleanor put in, enjoying this discussion immensely.

  “Madame, begging your pardon, I contend that true love cannot exist between husband and wife,” Bertran challenged. “It must be looked for elsewhere. And I have to say that, although the object of one’s desire is not supposed to condescend to a humble suitor, many do!” There were cries of outrage from the ladies present.

  “Sir, you are lacking in chivalry, and breaking the rules of the game,” Eleanor chided.

  “But, madame, you cannot agree that love can flourish within marriage,” Bertran persisted.

  “I would not believe it,” Rigaud murmured.

  Eleanor’s smile faded. It was as if a cloud had passed over the sun. “I believe that love may be found in marriage,” she said at length, “if the partners be two kindred souls, which is rare, I grant you. But …” Her voice grew distant, her tone chill. “But where the husband insists on being master, and has the right to take what he wants, rather than sue for it, love cannot flourish, for I truly believe, as I said before, that love must be given freely in a relationship of equals.”

  “But that leads us back to the burning question. How can men and women ever enjoy such a relationship?” Bertran protested. “In marriage, the husband is lord; in courtship, the mistress grants favors, if it please her.”

  Eleanor laughed suddenly, and tapped him on the shoulder. “You tell us, Messire de Born! What about all those ladies who have condescended—of whom you have just spoken? You must know all about love in a partnership of equals!” There was general laughter, as Bertran smirked and nodded, conceding defeat.

  “Love?” Torqueri giggled. “What does he know of it? All he thinks of is that unruly little devil in his braies!”

  “I object to the word ‘little’!” Bertran roared.

  “I should know,” retorted Torqueri archly, to more splutterings of glee. It was all very pleasant, Eleanor thought, sitting here, feeling completely at home and enjoying such idle discourse. Love, she reflected, was perhaps not the most important thing in the world, despite what the troubadours claimed; and there were many compensations for its loss. She knew now that she could live alone, at peace in her own company, and that she could face the future with equanimity. The battle had been a long one, but she had won it.

  38

  Caen, Normandy, and Poitiers, 1170

  Henry had aged in the two years since Eleanor had last seen him. His red hair was streaked with gray, there were lines of strain etched on his face, and he had put on more weight. He greeted her formally with a kiss on the cheek, one prince to another, his face betraying no emotion; then, taking her hand, he led her into the grand Hall of the Exchequer in Caen, his courtiers bowing as they passed.

  “I would not have summoned you North in the depth of winter had it not been important for us to show solidarity on this issue,” he explained.

  “You are resolved on having Young Henry crowned King of England now, I understand,” Eleanor stated.

  “Yes. It is customary in England to wait until a ruler succeeds, but all the French kings back to Charlemagne have had their heirs crowned in their lifetimes, and I am of the opinion that it is a good way of safeguarding the succession. No doubt the English will grumble, as they dislike anything that breaks with tradition, but they will get used to it. There is but one obstacle to my plan.”

  “Becket,” Eleanor said without hesitation.

  “Yes,” Henry sighed, “but we will discuss that over dinner.” He led her into a fine vaulted chamber hung with tapestries portraying hunting scenes. “Some wine?”

  “Thank you,” Eleanor said politely, trying to recall the passion that had once existed between them and failing, for it seemed they had become two strangers. “Did you have a pleasant Christmas?”

  “Yes,” Henry replied. “I kept it at Nantes in Brittany, with Geoffrey and Constance. It’s a pity you were not there at Rennes last spring, to see Geoffrey invested with the ducal crown.”

  “I am sorry I could not be there. I was on progress in Aquitaine. But Geoffrey told me all about it, and Constance was full of it, and puffed up with her own importance, the little minx.” She grimaced at the memory.

  “Geoffrey will have his hands full with that one.” Henry chuckled. “Thank God he won’t be bedding her for several years to come.”

  “So all is quiet in Brittany now?” she could not resist saying. It was ancient history, the rising of Eudes de Porhoët, but she wanted to make Henry sweat a little over it. He gave her a quizzical look, then turned away.

  “You heard,” he said.

  “All Europe heard!” she answered tartly. “How could I fail to hear?”

  “Eleanor, I did not ask you here to fight with you.” Henry’s tone was almost pleading. “You asked for your freedom, and you have it. At least allow me mine.”

  “Naturally,” she said sweetly. “I trust that Rosamund—‘Fair Rosamund,’ as I hear they now call her—how charming that sounds!—wasn’t too upset by it. She is still your mistress, I take it?”

  “Vixen!” Henry barked. “You haven’t been here five minutes and you’re picking a quarrel with me.”

  “Yes, but I’ve been storing up a few things to say to you over the past two years,” Eleanor riposted.

  “Actually, it is good to see you,” Henry said. “Don’t spoil it.”

  “How touching!” she exclaimed, smiling a touch too gaily.

  “We need to work together now,” he told her, frowning. “Shall we call a truce?”

  “A truce!” The smile seemed to be fixed on her face. “If you will.”

  They dined in the solar, the servitors having withdrawn after laying out the food on a side table, from which they helped themselves.

  When they were seated, Henry wasted no time in returning to the subject of Young Henry’s coronation.

  “What I want,” he began, “is to see Thomas restored to his rightful place in Canterbury, and an end to this interminable wrangling. It is fitting that the Archchbishop of Canterbury perform the ceremony.”

  “But I heard you had quarreled again with Becket last year?”

  Henry sighed deeply. “Indeed I did. Louis had offered to mediate—once more—and, at his suggestion, I sent to tell Thomas that I would support his reinstatement if he would retract his condemnation of the Constitutions of Clarendon. And he agreed, Eleanor! He said he would do it.”

  “So what went wrong?” She’d heard several garbled versions of what had actually taken place and had not known which to believe.

  “He came to see me. We hadn’t set eyes on each other for four years, so you can imagine how I felt. He fell on his knees, then prostrated himself fully before me, begging for mercy.”

  “He was ever one for the grand gesture,” Eleanor observed acidly.

  “You sound just like my mother, God rest her,” Henry objected.

  “Your mother was a very wise woman—she had the measure of this man.”

  “Look, I am trying to tell you what happened,” Henry protested.

  “Go on then,” she said coolly.

  “Well, I thought that would be it. We
’d exchange the kiss of peace, he’d go home to Canterbury, and we’d all live happily ever after.”

  “Henry, this is Thomas Becket we are talking about. Nothing is ever straightforward with this priest. What did he do?”

  Henry flung her a hurt look, but resumed his tale without rising to the bait. “He ruined it all. He said he would submit to my pleasure in all things saving the honor of God, and that it did not become a priest to submit to the will of a layman. By which I knew, beyond doubt, that we were back to where we’d started.”

  “And what did you do?”

  “I lost my temper. I swore at him and walked out, with everyone in an uproar, and Louis trying ineffectively to tell Thomas that he was being too obstinate. And that was that. Becket stormed back to his cloister, and has been sulking there ever since, God damn him.”

  Eleanor rose, took her plate to the buffet, and speared two more pieces of chicken with her knife. “So where do we go from here?” she asked.

  “I propose—and I want your approval for this—to have our loyal friend Roger, Archbishop of York, crown Young Henry instead.”

  Eleanor turned and stared at him. “You know that Becket would see that as a gross insult?”

  “I do,” Henry replied defiantly, “and I know too that it would offend those who love tradition. But I cannot afford to let this infernal priest interfere with my plans. Do you agree?”

  “Absolutely. It might be a way of bringing Becket to heel.”

  But it was not.

  “He has threatened me with excommunication if I order Archbishop Roger to officiate at the crowning,” Henry roared. “What’s more, he has complained to the Pope, and His Holiness has forbidden it, also on pain of excommunication. And any bishop or priest who takes part in the ceremony will also be subject to anathema. It is not to be borne, and by the eyes of God, I will defy them both! I am going to England now, to see the thing done, and I want you to stay here and govern Normandy in my absence.”

 
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