Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “Then we are of one accord,” Eleanor declared. “Yet before we go ahead and make plans, I must ask of you all if you are aware of the implications of what you are doing, for you must go into this with your eyes open. By anyone’s reckoning, it is treason.”

  “Treason,” interrupted Young Henry hotly, “is a crime against the King. I am the King, am I not? Even my father cannot dispute that. And King Louis says that, in making me King, he abdicated all sovereign authority.”

  “That last is open to dispute,” Eleanor said, “but it will serve for now. You do realize you are effectively declaring war on your own father, to whom you owe love and obedience?”

  Geoffrey shrugged.

  “Do you not know it is our proper nature that none of us should love the other? We came from the Devil, remember? So it is not surprising that we try to injure one another!”

  “Our father has forfeited his right to our love and obedience,” Richard averred, his handsome face creased in resentment.

  “Aye, indeed!” the Young King agreed. “So you are both for me in this?”

  “Yes!” the brothers chorused.

  “You must go directly to Paris, to King Louis,” Eleanor urged them. “He is your greatest ally, and will back you with military force. I will give you letters informing him and his council of my support. I will dictate them now, while you make ready.”

  Within an hour she was in the palace courtyard, kissing her sons farewell and wishing them Godspeed, wondering if she would ever see them again. Their departure was supposed to be a secret, but within hours word of it, and excited speculation as to their purpose, had spread throughout the city of Poitiers, and within a week the whole province of Aquitaine was in jubilation at the prospect of an end to the rule of the hated Duke Henry. Eleanor only became truly aware of this when a troubadour, Richard le Poitevin, visited her court and played before her and her company. His words, sung in a rich baritone voice, conveyed just how strongly her subjects really felt:

  Rejoice, O Aquitaine!

  Be jubilant, O Poitou!

  For the scepter of the King of the North Wind

  Is drawing away from you!

  Deeply moved, Eleanor turned to Raoul de Faye.

  “We cannot ignore the voice of our people,” she murmured. “It further strengthens my conviction that opposing Henry is the right thing to do.”

  “I think many of us have been waiting a long time for you to come to that conclusion, Eleanor,” Raoul said with a gentle smile. She gripped his hand.

  “Will you go to Paris for me?” she asked. “Will you be my envoy, and convey a personal message from me to Louis, thanking him for his support for my sons, and begging him to have a care for their safety? He will appreciate such a personal gesture, and while you are there, you can send me word of my young lords’ welfare, and perhaps contrive to have some say in making decisions.”

  “I will go with pleasure,” Raoul agreed. “I will be the voice of the Duchess of Aquitaine. You may depend on me.”

  Raoul had gone, but now there came a letter, bearing the seal of Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen. What business had he, the Primate of Normandy, to be writing to her, Eleanor? Then fear gripped her. Could the Archbishop have written to tell her that something terrible had befallen one of her sons? With trembling fingers she cracked open the seal and read, her jaw dropping in horror.

  Rotrou had begun courteously enough: “Pious Queen, most illustrious Queen …” But then he had gone on immediately to deplore that she, hitherto a prudent wife, had parted from her husband. That was not what appalled her—she could deal with sanctimonous platitudes any day! It was the Archbishop’s accusation that she had made the fruits of her union with the King rise up against their father. It was terrible, such conduct, he fulminated, before going on to warn her that unless she returned to her husband at once, she would be the cause of the general ruin of Christendom.

  He knew! Henry knew of her betrayal. He had made Rotrou, his Archbishop, write this letter, there could be no doubt of it. But how had he found out? Everything had been planned in secret. Had her letter to Louis been intercepted? Worse still, had Raoul been taken on the road and forced to confess what he knew? Worst of all, had Henry planted spies at her court? She tried to recall the names and appearances of those who had recently joined her household, and remembered that before he left, the King had appointed four of her Poitevin countrymen to her chancery. She could not think there had been anything sinister about that, but one never knew with Henry. He was a suspicious man. Of course, it might not be the Poitevins at all, but one familiar to her, who could have been suborned into turning his coat. That was a chilling thought. Yet maybe her imagination was running away with her—Louis could well have implicated her in a letter to Henry.

  Shaking, she read on, casting her eyes over pious exhortations to return with her sons to the husband whom she was bound to obey and with whom it was her duty to live. “Return, lest he mistrust you or your sons!” the Archbishop cried. Well, clearly, Henry did already mistrust her and their sons. She did not believe Rotrou’s assurance that her lord would in every possible way show her his love and grant her the assurance of perfect safety. This was the man who had sworn to kill her if she betrayed him! If she did as she was bid, she might be walking straight into a trap.

  The letter continued: “Bid your sons be obedient and devoted to their father, who for their sakes has undergone so many difficulties, run so many dangers, undertaken so many labors.” Might she infer, from this, that Henry did not yet know that she had sent the boys to the court of his enemy, Louis? It seemed to assume that they were still with her in Poitiers. If so, the King could not realize the full extent of her perfidy, as he would see it.

  Then came the threat. If she did not return to her lord, Rotrou warned, he himself would be forced to resort to canon law and bring the censure of the Church to bear on her. He wrote this, he protested, with great reluctance, and would do it only with grief and tears—unless, of course, she returned to her senses.

  With what exactly was he threatening her? she wondered, feeling a little faint. Divorce? That had once held no terrors for her, but then she had been the one to happily instigate the process. It was bound to be a less happy experience when one was the person being divorced, especially as she knew she had much to lose, including her children. And the consequences for the Angevin empire would be dire indeed.

  But the “censure of the Church” sounded worse than divorce, although it might imply that too.

  Excommunication. The terrible, dreaded anathema. To be cut off from God Himself, from the Church and all its consolations and fellowship, from all Christians, cast out friendless from the community, and condemned to eternal damnation. Surely Henry would never go so far? It was the thing he himself had most dreaded throughout the long quarrel with Becket.

  She could not go back to Henry. Very soon, he would find out that she had sent their sons, and Raoul de Faye, to his enemy, Louis—if he had not learned that already. Even if she set out now, she would probably not reach the King ahead of that intelligence. And with proof of her treachery, Henry might very well carry out his threat to kill her. For her children’s sake, and her own, she dared not return to him, not even at the risk of excommunication.

  It dawned on her suddenly that she was not safe here, even in her own Aquitaine. Henry might have his hands full with his sons’ rebellion, and war on all sides, but he would surely send men after her—and then what?

  She must leave. She must get to Paris as soon as she could. She had never thought that one day she would be eager to seek refuge from Henry with her former husband, but now realized that Louis was the only one who could offer her protection.

  She summoned the captain of her guard and ordered him to have a small escort party made ready. The fewer they were in number, the faster they could travel. Then she gathered together her ladies, Torqueri, Florine, and Mamille, the three of her women whom she loved the best, who had been with her for year
s, and whom she would have trusted with her life; and she told them of her predicament.

  “It is your choice entirely, whether or not you come with me. If you choose not to, I am not so handless that I cannot shift for myself, so do not trouble yourselves about that. I should welcome your company, of course, but this is flight, not a pleasure jaunt, and I cannot guarantee your safety, or when you will be able to return.”

  “I’m coming,” said Mamille without hesitation.

  “You may depend on me,” Torqueri added.

  “Did you need to ask?” Florine smiled. Eleanor hugged them all gratefully.

  There was no time to lose. They packed hurriedly, taking only what was essential and could fit into saddlebags. Then they hastened downstairs and emerged into the May sunlight. Eleanor could not help looking around her at the dear, familiar surroundings of her palace and its beautiful gardens, just then bursting into bloom, and wondering when she would see it all again. But there was no time for sentiment. The horses and men-at-arms were waiting, and they had to make haste. Their departure went almost unnoticed, for they looked to all appearances as if they were off to visit a religious house or the castle of a local lord. Four men alone, watching from a tower window, registered that the duchess was leaving and that this might be a matter worth reporting to their masters.

  Once clear of Poitiers, Eleanor and her party broke into a gallop and rode hard in a northeasterly direction, as if the hounds of Hell were at their heels—as well they might be, Eleanor thought grimly. She and her ladies were all expert horsewomen, and in other circumstances the ride would have been exhilarating fun, but Eleanor was in fear that they would at any moment be intercepted or ambushed. She had been so hell-bent on fleeing that there was no time to send word of their coming ahead to Louis, and anyway, no fast messenger could have covered the long distance as rapidly as they were doing now. They were bound for the Loire crossing at Tours, then for Orléans, whence it was seventy miles to Paris.

  In all, more than 180 miles lay ahead of them, a daunting distance in the circumstances. Their mounts would never stay it, of course, and they would have to rely on obtaining fresh horses at towns along the way. Eleanor had brought money for that purpose. She had even remembered to thrust a pot of salve into her bag, knowing they would all be suffering miseries from saddle-soreness by the time they reached safety.

  Ten miles out of Poitiers they heard the ominous sound of hoofbeats behind them, and Eleanor nearly froze with apprehension. If she was taken now, Henry could use her as a hostage for her sons’ submission, and that would be an end to all they were fighting for. The captain heading the escort swung around in his saddle, his finger to his lips, and signaled that they should slow down and walk their mounts into nearby woodland, where they could conceal themselves behind the trees. As they obeyed his orders, they could still hear the thuds of distant galloping, which seemed to be gaining on them, but as they came to a standstill beneath the overhanging branches and stayed there, holding their breath apprehensively, the noise faded, and soon all that could be heard was the rustling of the leaves and the twittering of birds.

  “Let’s press on,” the captain said brusquely.

  “Stay a moment!” Eleanor ordered, and turned to her three ladies. “Torqueri, Florine, Mamille: there can be no doubt that we are in danger, even of our lives. I realize that I have been selfish in asking you to come with me, for I have made you a party to treason. If we were to be caught, you would suffer for it, so I am commanding you to turn back and go home to your families until I am able to send for you.”

  The ladies made to protest, and Mamille burst into tears, but Eleanor stilled them with a shushing finger. “Go, I beg of you!” she urged. “Now. Do not worry about me. I told you, I can shift for myself.”

  “But, madame, you cannot travel alone in the company of men!” Florine cried, shocked. “It would not be fitting.”

  “God’s blood!” Eleanor swore. “This is not a hunting expedition or a pilgrimage to Fontevrault!”

  Florine dissolved in tears.

  “Just go,” the Queen said to the other two. “Take her with you and comfort her. I will take care of myself, never fear. I know we will meet again in happier circumstances.” How that would be achieved she had no idea, but one must always have faith in the future.

  After brief farewells, she watched them ride back along the road they had traveled, then turned briskly to the men of her escort. “Wait here a moment,” she bade them. “I will not be long.”

  She pulled her bag from her saddle and carried it some way off through the trees, to a place where she could not be seen. Then she stripped off her veil, jewels, girdle, gown, and chemise and, standing there naked, bound her breasts tightly with some old swaddling bands, then pulled out of her bag some clothing the Young King had left behind and that she’d brought in case it was necessary to disguise herself: braies, hose, a tunic, leather belt and shoon, and a caped hood clasped at the neck, under which she bundled up her long plaits. Gloves and a dagger completed the ensemble, and when she emerged from the woods, having thrust her female attire under some bracken, she was confident that she made a very passable knight or gentleman. Certainly the astonished stares of her escort told her so. She suspected that they were a little shocked, for the Church taught that it was heresy for women to wear male clothing. Yet it seemed the only safe thing to do.

  They rode on, pausing briefly to swallow some bread and cheese purchased from a farmstead, then made good speed through the afternoon. It was just as evening was falling, that golden dusk-time of the day that saw the bloodred sun sinking in an azure sky, when they again heard riders coming up behind. They were on a lonely road south of Châtellerault, and had been hoping to reach the town and change horses there before curfew. But now they deemed it wiser to turn aside along a hillside track shaded by trees that would provide some cover.

  To their chagrin the hoofbeats followed them. They quickened their pace, but the terrain was stony and Eleanor’s horse stumbled. Looking around in dismay, she could now see the approaching party of riders, and knew without a doubt that it was Henry’s men come for her.

  “Escape! Scatter!” she cried to her escort. “It is me they want. Go now, if you value your lives.” The soldiers hesitated, saluted her briefly, impressed by her courage, then cantered away. Alone, she turned to face her pursuers.

  ——

  They had not recognized her at first. Of course, they were looking for a queen. Instead, they had been confronted by a strange knight on a white horse, holding up his hands in surrender. It had momentarily thrown them.

  “Messire, we seek Queen Eleanor,” the sergeant called as they drew near. “If you help us find her, we will not harm you.”

  “I am Queen Eleanor,” the knight said, and the men-at-arms gaped, appalled at seeing her so attired. If she hadn’t been in such peril, she would have found it amusing.

  The sergeant recovered his equilibrium and swallowed. “Lady, I am directed to apprehend you in the King’s name for plotting treason against him,” he said gruffly. “We have orders to take you to him in Rouen.”

  They were not unkind to her. They did not insist on manacling or chaining her, but rode closely on either side of her through the long ride north, one always holding her bridle, so that she had no chance of fleeing from them. At Châtellerault, they stopped briefly to buy her a plain black gown and decent headrail, then stood guard over the back room they had commandeered at an inn, so she could change into these more seemly clothes. There was no mirror, of course, and she supposed she looked a fright, but at least they let her bring some of the contents of her saddlebag, which mercifully included a comb and the pot of salve. Women’s things, harmless.

  When she emerged, the men looked at her furtively, and she even detected a touch of admiration in their faces. She could not have known—or cared—that she looked quite beautiful in the simple gown and veil, with her long hair in two braids, her features drawn from anxiety but still arres
ting. Nor did she realize that whatever she had done to injure the King, her daring flight held in it something of the legends and stirring tales on which these soldiers had been bred. Already, her own legend was in the making.

  No, she did not care what became of her, she told herself, as they brought her some passable duck roasted in its own fat, and a flagon of ale, and locked her in the back room to eat it all by herself. What she did care about was what might be happening to her sons. She was in an agony to know that, and terrified lest any evil had befallen them. Were they even now shut up in a prison in Rouen?

  When the sergeant came himself to take away her barely touched trencher, she tried to pump him for information.

  “Please, messire, do you have any news of my sons?” she asked. The tears in her eyes were genuine.

  The sergeant was a personable, heavily muscled married man in his thirties, and stolidly committed to completing the duty assigned him, getting paid, then going home to his wife and stolid daughters in Angers. He was a reliable, moral man without much imagination, and unlikely to succumb to the wiles of a clever woman, and Henry had chosen him for this task for that quality alone. But when he looked at his queen, helpless and in distress, his upright heart softened and he was briefly tempted to bend the rules a little. But then he thought of the hoped-for promotion to captain that might be his by way of reward for this service to his king; it had been hinted at, and even if it never materialized, there was still a bonus in gold coins to be collected. So he pulled himself up, and said abruptly, “My orders, lady, are simply to convey you to the King in Rouen. I am forbidden to speak of anything but domestic matters.”

  “Then I will be domestic,” Eleanor said, and in that moment the sergeant realized that given the chance, she might run rings around him. She stood up, wringing her hands, her expression pleading. “At least tell me that my sons are in health. Please!”

 
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