Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “You know you have my support,” Eleanor told him. He looked at her for a lingering moment, his expression warmer than she had seen it in years. But he said nothing; his mind was on practicalities.

  “Close all the ports and keep them closed until you hear from me,” he commanded. “We don’t want our friend Thomas crossing the Channel and spoiling things.”

  “What of your bishops?”

  “Leave me to bully them. They know what’s good for them. When all is ready, I will send for Young Henry. I leave it to you to ensure that he comes with a suitable escort. Add a couple of bishops for good measure, so that the people may believe this is done with the blessing of the Church. You’ll know how to cozen your prelates.”

  “You may safely leave all that to me,” Eleanor assured him. “What of young Marguerite? Is she to be crowned too?”

  “No. I dare not risk offending Louis at this time. He might be upset at my defying the Pope. Keep the wench with you. Tell her I will arrange a second crowning later, when Becket has come to his senses.”

  Eleanor was convinced that Henry was doing the right thing, and she was touched that he now had such a good opinion of her abilities as a ruler that he trusted her to hold Normandy in his absence; but her heart grieved that she would not be there in Westminster Abbey to see her son made a king. On the appointed day, Sunday, the fourteenth day of June, she had special prayers offered up for him at mass, and spent hours on her knees, with Marguerite at her side, beseeching God to bless and direct him in his high office.

  With the Channel ports open once again, messengers were able to bring her reports of the coronation.

  “The Young King cut a fine figure in his crown and robes of estate, my lady! People were saying he was the most handsome prince in all the world.”

  “He was debonair and gallant, every inch the King, and only a little lower than the angels!”

  “Some called him beautiful above all others in form and face. He is blessed in courtesy, most happy in the love of men, and has found grace and favor with his future subjects.”

  Eleanor’s spirit soared when she heard these paeans of praise, yet there was one report that did not come to her directly by way of a royal messenger, but through the gossip of a lady betrothed to a knight who had been at the coronation banquet and now come home to be married. Entering her bower, she overheard this damsel telling the others that the Young King had shown grave disrespect to his father. Then they suddenly realized that Eleanor had come upon them and there was an embarrassed silence.

  “Well?” Eleanor probed. “Pray continue.”

  “My lady, forgive me, I should not be saying this to you,” the girl faltered.

  “On the contrary, it is my son of whom you speak, and therefore my business. Go on!” she rapped.

  “My lady, my betrothed told me that the Lord King insisted on acting as servitor to the Young King, and when he carried the boar’s head on a platter to the high table, he jested that it was unusual to see a king wait at table. But the Young King replied that it was no condescension to see the son of a count wait upon the son of a king, and—and he was not joking, my lady.”

  Eleanor concealed her dismay well. “I suggest you cease telling tales like this about your betters, young lady,” she chided. “Now, fetch my embroidery.” The story rang true, though, and she decided to have a word with William Marshal, who was about to leave for England to head the new household that Henry had set up for the Young King, and tell him to exhort his charge, on her behalf, always to show the proper respect and deference for his father.

  With Geoffrey and the Young King formally invested with the crowns and insignia of their future inheritances, it was now Richard’s turn. As Eleanor’s heir, he was to be installed as Count of Poitou in Poitiers, and it was there Eleanor traveled that summer. She thought she would burst with pride as she stood in the Abbey of St. Hilaire and watched as the Archbishop of Bordeaux solemnly gave her twelve-year-old hero the holy lance and standard of the city’s patron saint. Then she escorted Richard to Niort, where he received the homage of the lords of Poitou, holding himself with dignity and pride.

  Afterward she and he sat together on identical thrones at a feast to mark the occasion, which was followed by a series of tournaments that Eleanor had arranged for Richard’s delight. Already he was chomping at the bit to take part in them himself, and his instructors told her that it would not be long before he was fully competent to do so. The prospect chilled her a little, for jousts were often brutal and bloodthirsty contests, but so great was her delight in her boy’s prowess that she was determined to quell her fears for him. In a year or so, she promised him, he could have his wish.

  39

  Rocamadour, 1170

  Eleanor knelt beside Henry in the dim church, her eyes dazzled by the multitude of candles that blazed before the shrine of the miraculous black Madonna. This was one of the most holy sanctums in her domains, a place of pilgrimage for countless numbers of the faithful. Perched on a sheer cliff above the Alzou gorge, high above the straggling village of Rocamadour overlooking the River Alzou, the shrine could only be accessed by a steep stone stairway. In accordance with pious custom, the King and Queen had knelt on every one of its 216 steps as they made their slow ascent in the company of their lords and ladies and many humbler pilgrims. They had come to venerate blessed St. Amadour, who had escaped from his persecutors after the Crucifixion of Christ, then taken the Virgin Mary’s advice and fled to this land of Quercy, ending his days as a hermit. His sacred bones lay beneath the floor of the Chapelle Miraculeuse, the holy of holies, and above his resting place had been reverently set the dark wooden statue of the Virgin and Child. Above that hung a bell, which was said to ring spontaneously whenever a miracle was about to take place.

  Henry and Eleanor were not looking for miracles. The time for that, she thought sadly, was long past, although she was grateful they had at last reached a state of peaceable amity and accord. No, they had come, on this golden October day, to give thanks for Henry’s recovery from the tertian fever that had very nearly killed him the previous August.

  For this, Eleanor blamed Becket. Of course, the Archbishop could not have sent the fever itself, but by his conduct he had caused the King so much grief that he was more susceptible than usual to illness. Becket and the Pope had been outraged at Henry’s defiance, and for a time there were fears that both the King and his kingdom would be placed under an interdict. But then Louis intervened, and the Pope changed his tune and insisted that Henry and Becket make up their quarrel. Henry had immediately declared that he was ready to make peace and, through the good offices of King Louis, met with Becket in the forest of Fréteval, south of Paris, in June.

  When the King’s party and the Queen’s joined up on the road to Rocamadour, a thinner Henry looking pale and exhausted after his illness, he told Eleanor what had passed on that fateful day.

  “I threw my arms around Thomas. I could not help myself,” he stated, looking at her as if he expected her to make some biting remark. But she was so shocked at the change in him, and by his apparent vulnerability, that she had no heart to criticize.

  “Who spoke first?” she asked.

  “I did. I gave him fair words. I told him that we should go back to our old love for each other, and do all the good we could for each other, and forget utterly the hatred that had gone before.” Henry’s voice cracked with emotion. “I admitted I had been wrong to defy the Church over the coronation, and I asked him to return in peace to Canterbury and crown Young Henry again, with Marguerite this time. And he agreed.”

  “Was he conciliatory?” Eleanor wanted to know. “Did he come in the same spirit of friendship?”

  “Yes, I think so,” Henry answered. “Although neither of us referred to the Constitutions of Clarendon. We’ll have to tackle that issue sometime, and until then I have forborne to give Thomas the kiss of peace, although I have promised to do so when I return to England. I just haven’t said when.” He lo
oked at her with a trace of his former mischievous grin.

  “So you gave him permission to return to Canterbury?”

  “Yes, but before I could make any arrangements, I fell ill with that damned fever.”

  Kneeling beside Henry now, and remembering how they had brought her piece after piece of ill news—that he was unwell, that his life was despaired of, that he had made his will—and how, for one long, dreadful day, she had believed a false report that he was dead, Eleanor shuddered. Confronting mortality certainly had a profound effect on her husband: it was he who had insisted on making this pilgrimage to give thanks for his recovery, and on her coming with him. Had he repented of his immoral life? Was Rosamund still his mistress? She dared not ask.

  Their thanks offered, and feeling the better for it, they emerged into the sunlight and began the long descent to the valley below, where their horses waited. Then Henry rode with Eleanor north through Aquitaine, and at Poitiers he helped her catch up on the business left in abeyance during her absence. It was then that he told her he had broken their daughter Eleanor’s betrothal to the son of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

  “The Emperor is no longer my friend,” he explained. “It will be far more profitable to me to extend my influence south of the Pyrenees by marrying Young Eleanor to King Alfonso of Castile. She shall have Gascony as her dowry. Yes, I know, Gascony is yours,” he added hastily, seeing his wife’s face. “She shall have it only on your death.”

  “Very well,” Eleanor agreed. “It will be a good match for her.”

  It was soon time for Henry to depart for Normandy.

  “I will be arranging a safe-conduct for Becket to return to England,” he said. “I will let Young Henry know that his reinstatement as Archbishop has my full approval. Then I shall meet again with Becket before he departs—and try to avoid mentioning the Constitutions of Clarendon!”

  “May God be with you, my lord,” Eleanor said formally. In truth, she was sad to see him go.

  “And with you, my lady,” Henry answered, his eyes searching hers, and meeting only an unfathomable stare.

  40

  Chaumont-sur-Loire, 1170

  When the Archbishop entered the great hall of the castle of Chaumont, shivering in the dank chill of a November afternoon, the King rose to his feet, walked forward, and warmly embraced him. The two men gazed upon each other for a space.

  “Welcome, my friend,” said Henry.

  Thomas looked perturbed. “My lord,” he confessed, “I am afraid.”

  “There is no need,” Henry reassured him. “All is ready for your return.”

  “It is not that,” Becket said quietly. “My mind tells me that I will never see you again in this life.”

  Henry stiffened. What was the man saying? His anger rose like bile.

  “I told you, Thomas, I have smoothed the way for you. What do you take me for? A traitor to my word? Do you think I have plotted to have you done away with, and am sending you to your doom?”

  “God forbid, my lord!” Becket cried. “Nothing was further from my mind. It was but a premonition of some evil.”

  But Henry was barely mollified. “Then give it no credence!” he snapped. “I shall see you in England, make no doubt of it.”

  “I hope so, my lord,” Becket said. “Farewell.” Henry just glared at him and watched him leave, a monk bearing his crozier in tow.

  41

  Bures, 1170

  Henry had summoned Eleanor to keep Christmas with him at his hunting lodge at Bures in Normandy, and there she was, on Christmas Day itself, seated beside him at the high table, resplendent in her green fur-trimmed bliaut and her great mantle of crimson damask. Most of their children were present also, seated farther along the board, above the salt, as was fitting. Richard was beside his mother, next to Geoffrey and Constance; decorous Joanna and even John, now a tousle-haired, unruly four-year-old, had been brought from Fontevrault for the occasion; Young Eleanor, sadly, had to be left in the care of the nuns, for she was suffering from a winter ague and was deemed unfit to travel. The Young King was, of course, not here: he was in England, holding his first Christmas court at Winchester.

  It was late, and, seeing the King and his lords becoming rather the worse for wear after a surfeit of rich food and wine, the Queen signaled to the nurse to take the younger children to bed. “You go too, Constance,” she said. The pert girl made a face but dared not disobey. After she was gone, Richard and Geoffrey fell happily to squabbling over a game of dice, and Eleanor tried to join in the increasingly incoherent conversation at the table.

  She was just thinking of retiring for the night when the steward entered the hall and announced the arrival of the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury. “They crave an audience, sire. They have come all the way from England,” he said.

  “In this foul weather?” Eleanor was immediately concerned to know what their arrival portended. Surely the bishops would not have attempted to cross the turbulent Channel unless they had urgent news to impart.

  Henry had suddenly sobered up.

  “Show them in,” he ordered, then, belching, rose to receive them.

  The formalities briefly disposed of, the tall and cultivated Archbishop Roger spoke gravely for all three, with the whole court hanging on every word.

  “Lord King, we come to make complaint of the high-handed conduct of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

  Henry groaned. “What has he done now?” he hissed.

  “He has excommunicated the three of us, this very morning, from his pulpit at Canterbury, for our part in the coronation,” the Archbishop announced. As the barons erupted in shouts of fury, Henry stared at him in shock.

  “But that was all resolved,” he said.

  “This is outrageous,” Eleanor murmured, appalled at Becket’s duplicity. “It is not the way to make amends!”

  “Apparently it was not resolved,” Bishop Foliot of London growled. “It seems he has been cherishing his anger against those who defied him. I never had much opinion of him, as you know, and it seems I was right to doubt him. Sire, the Pope should be told of his disobedience.”

  “By the eyes of God, Becket shall suffer for this!” Henry shouted, his voice vibrating with ire and indignation. “Is this how he repays my offer of friendship?”

  “My lord,” said the Earl of Leicester, sitting nearby, “enough is enough. While Thomas lives, you will not have peace or quiet, or see good days.”

  “By God, you speak truth!” Henry cried, furious and indignant. “Becket has gone too far this time. He is doing this only to spite me, and yet he brazenly claims to be defending the honor of God.”

  “It is his own honor he holds so dear,” Eleanor said, keeping her tone even, for she realized that Henry was getting perilously close to a full-scale display of the famously ungovernable Plantagenet temper. “He is puffed up with the sin of pride. My lord, you must appeal to the Pope.”

  “I will have him defrocked!” Henry spluttered, banging his fist on the table so hard that several goblets were overturned. “And then, when his office can no longer protect him, I will proceed against him as a traitor!”

  “Get His Holiness on your side first,” Eleanor urged, but Henry wasn’t listening; he was so distracted with anger that he was beside himself, spewing a fiery stream of wild threats, to the point where his outraged courtiers ceased their indignant chatter and watched him in amazement. Presently, seeing he was the object of their incredulous stares, he ceased his tirade and stood there shaking in a menacing, deadly silence, raking the room with narrowed, bloodshot eyes. Eleanor shivered. She had never seen him so consumed with hatred. She ventured to lay a calming hand on his arm, but he angrily shook her off and directed his terrifying gaze at his nervous court.

  “What cowards you all are!” he hissed. “I curse you all! Yes, a curse, a curse, on all the false varlets and traitors whom I have nursed and promoted in my household, who allow their lord and king to be mocked
with such shameful contempt by a lowborn priest!”

  There was a stunned hush. No one dared speak. Clearly, no one knew how to respond.

  “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry shouted, then sat down heavily and slumped with his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving as, all around him, people looked at one another helplessly.

  Eleanor was up on her feet in an instant, folding her arms around Henry, all other considerations set aside in her desire to alleviate his pain. So engrossed was she in her efforts to console him that, like many others present at that fateful feast, she did not espy four stalwart knights slipping away from the hall, their faces alight with purpose, their hands grasping their sword hilts.

  Henry came to her bed that night, for the first time in almost five years. He came for comfort, rather than for sex, although he would have died before admitting it. And she, knowing his need, welcomed him back, and they were gentle with each other, embracing tightly, not having to say anything. It felt strange—and unexpectedly delightful—to have Henry in her arms again. For this feeling she was ready to forgive him anything. She was deeply moved that at this moment of crisis he had turned to her before all others. And so, when the need for comfort translated itself into the need for something deeper, and he moved toward her in the old familiar way, and entered her, she felt only joy, and a beautiful inner peace that made her want to weep.

  Their lovemaking was not the explosion of lust and fire it had once been—that was long ago, and they were both, quite obviously, older now—but it was gloriously satisfying, and her climax, when it eventually came—for she was quite out of practice, she thought ruefully—was shattering. It was as if all the pent-up desire of the barren, loveless years had been released in one go.

  When the waves of pleasure had ebbed away, Eleanor lay quiet with Henry’s arm about her, thinking that the long separation had allowed time for her wounds to heal and for many matters to be put in perspective. The old saw about absence making the heart grow fonder was very apposite, she realized. And the sensual meeting of two skins between the sheets was sweetly conducive to full reconciliation. Rosamund or no Rosamund, if Henry wanted her, she was ready to go back to him.

 
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