Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  The man hesitated. He remembered how his wife had been distraught when their five-year-old had gone missing for just a few minutes in the marketplace; how she had agonized that time the baby was ill of a fever. He swallowed. It could do no harm … and it was, as the Queen said, domestic.

  “I have not heard anything to the contrary,” he said, and left the room, impervious to Eleanor calling down blessings on him for his kindness.

  Tours. Le Mans. Alençon. The trek north seemed endless, although they kept up a good pace. Eleanor got nothing more out of the sergeant, and she had dismissed the men-at-arms as being dull oafs, unable even to communicate coherently. She sensed that they were in awe of her and became tongue-tied in her presence, and took perverse glee in trying to get them to engage in conversation, and in making the occasional mild jest. Then, having provoked little response, she grew weary and gave up. Her heart was too heavy to brook any diversion for long. Soon, she was aware, she would be brought face-to-face with Henry. The prospect filled her with dread. What would he do? Would he carry out his threat to kill her if she betrayed him? If so, she was a dead woman—and then what would become of her sons? Her blood turned to ice in her veins as she confronted the very real possibility of Henry’s vengeance having fatal consequences for herself.


  Rouen, 1173

  It was growing dark as they approached the late Empress’s palace outside the walls of Rouen. Eleanor had spent much of the journey imagining how Henry would receive her. Would it be in private, to spare her humiliation—and his? Or would he go so far as to parade her, his captive, before the whole court? She would not put it past him. Then again, Henry might not receive her at all. He might have her shut up in a dungeon, and not again see the light of day until she was brought to her judgment.

  Her heart was racing as they approached the palace and the drawbridge was lowered. She was aware that she must look a sorry sight, travel-stained and no doubt haggard with apprehension, and that her gown stank with the sweat engendered by fear. Dear God, she prayed, give me the courage to face with dignity what may lie ahead!

  Word of their coming had preceded them, and in the courtyard, one of the King’s captains, with four men-at-arms at his heels, came forward to relieve the sergeant and his men of their illustrious charge. When Eleanor dismounted, the captain bowed stiffly.

  “My lady, you must come with me,” he said, and led her, his men following close behind, to the door to one of the towers in which guests were usually accommodated. Momentarily, she was thrown by this, but after they climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the topmost floor, she could see that the door to the single chamber had been fitted with a new lock. This, then, was to be her prison.

  The captain opened the door and indicated that she should enter. She went warily, half expecting that Henry would be waiting inside for her. But there was only a woman standing there in the candlelight, a stocky, hatchet-faced body of indeterminate age, wearing a gray wool gown, a snowy wimple, and a hostile expression. Was this to be her gaoler? Her heart sank. Almost, she would have preferred to see Henry in a rage.

  “Amaria is to be your personal servant, my lady,” the captain told her, his face impassive, his eyes fixed at a point beyond her shoulder.

  “My guardian, you mean!” Eleanor retorted, finding her voice. She sensed the woman bristling.

  “No,” he told her. “The King has appointed this woman to see to your needs. For your security, guards will immediately be posted outside this door, and at the outer door below. Amaria may come and go as she needs, to fetch necessaries, but I would advise you, my lady, not to be so foolish as to attempt to escape. It will go harder for you if you do.”

  “I could not imagine that things could ever be any harder for me than they are now,” Eleanor retorted. “Tell me, do you know if I am to see the King, my lord?”

  “I cannot say,” the captain replied.

  “Is he here? I was told I was being brought here to see him.”

  “I am not privy to the King’s plans, my lady,” the soldier said. “My orders are to keep you safely under lock and key.” So saying, he produced the key from a chain at his belt, shut the door behind him, and locked it.

  Eleanor sighed in despair, then looked about her. The woman Amaria was watching her furtively with unfriendly eyes. No doubt she has been told I am some kind of monster, Eleanor thought.

  The room was circular. A single tapestry, so dull with age that it could have come from the Conqueror’s old fortress in the city, graced one wall; she could not make out what it was supposed to depict, but there was a female figure at its center. Some wicked woman of legend, no doubt, she supposed. Henry might have chosen it himself, thinking it apt. There was a polished wooden chair, a stool, a table, a small chest carved with chevrons, an empty brazier, a pole on the wall for hanging clothing, and just the one wide tester bed, hung with heavy curtains of Lincoln green and made up with a comfortable enough bolster and striped cushions, clean bleached linen sheets, and a thick green wool counterpane lined with what looked like sable. But there was no sign of any pallet bed beneath it for Amaria, just two chamber pots where such a bed would normally be stored.

  She turned to the woman. If their confinement here together in such close proximity was to be in any way bearable, then she had best get off on the right foot—but there was the problem of the bed to be addressed.

  “Good evening, Amaria,” she began. “I suppose you are no happier to be here than I am, but for certes we must make the best of it. Tell me, what are the sleeping arrangements?”

  The woman regarded her coldly, but replied civilly enough. “Lady, my orders are that I have to share the bed with you.”

  Are they afraid I might seduce the guards while she’s asleep? Eleanor thought angrily. It was a petty humiliation, and one that offended her innate fastidiousness. What if the woman, whose accent betrayed her rustic origins, smelled unsavory or snored? Country people were used to whole families tucked up together in one bed, but Eleanor liked to choose her bedfellows, and, when alone, she liked to fantasize, and more … There would be no opportunity for that with Amaria in the bed.

  But what could not be avoided must be endured. She supposed she had forfeited her rights to privacy and freedom of choice … or freedom of any kind, she thought sadly.

  “Are you hungry, lady?” Amaria asked.

  “No,” said Eleanor, “but a little wine would be welcome.”

  Amaria rapped on the door, and when it opened, two gleaming spears could be seen across the doorway. That gave Eleanor a jolt, bringing home to her, more than anything else, the fact that she was a prisoner. She watched, dismayed, as the guards lifted the spears to let the serving woman through, then slammed and locked the door behind her. So this was how it was going to be from now on. She felt the walls closing in, stifling her …

  But she must be strong, if she was to survive this—and practical. Grateful to be left to herself for a few precious moments, she quickly used the chamberpot, undressed down to her chemise—she must ask for more body linen, as a matter of urgency—then climbed into bed.

  When Amaria returned with the wine, Eleanor downed it quickly, seeking oblivion, but it had no effect. She tried to sleep, yet sleep eluded her. She was tormented by thoughts of her sons in peril and what the morrow might bring. When Amaria climbed heavily into bed beside her, she shuddered with distaste, moved as far to the edge of the mattress as possible, and lay there weeping silently, her heart burdened with dread and sorrow.

  The morning dawned bleakly, on all counts. Eleanor awoke to see a troubled gray sky through the window slit and, with a plummeting feeling in her breast, realized where she was. Beside her, Amaria still slept, her mouth slackly open, her breath fetid. Eleanor slid carefully out of bed and relieved herself as quietly as she could. It was going to be a problem, attending to the calls of nature and keeping her dignity as queen in the face of the serving woman’s unwelcome scrutiny. She could see herself enduring agon
ies of discomfort as she waited for Amaria to disappear on some necessary errand.

  Some water and holland cloths had been left on the table. She washed herself as best she could and donned the black gown and veil. No other clothes had been provided. She must demand some, along with the body linen, as a matter of urgency.

  Amaria woke up and rubbed her eyes as a church clock struck seven.

  “Good morning,” Eleanor said, trying to be civil. Surely the woman must see that they each had to make an effort to make this bearable.

  “Good morning,” Amaria said guardedly, getting up and pulling on her gray gown over her shift, with no thought for washing herself. Peasant! Eleanor thought. She watched the woman clear the table and empty the washing water out of the window into the courtyard below. “Gardez l’eau!” she cried.

  “I will fetch something to break our fast,” she said then, and rapped on the door. Once she was gone, Eleanor fell to her knees and tried to pray; she had always heard mass before breakfast, but no provision appeared to have been made for her spiritual needs. That was something else she would have to ask for.

  Prayer was difficult. The prospect of her imminent confrontation with Henry kept intruding, as did the memory of him threatening to kill her. When would he come, or summon her? Was he even here in Rouen?

  She tried to focus her thoughts on Christ’s sufferings. It had been easy to commune with her Redeemer in the richly furnished royal chapels or in the peace of Fontevrault and other great abbeys; but here, in this cheerless room, in the hour of her greatest need, He seemed to be elusive.

  She made herself dwell on the five points of prayer. Give thanks—but for what? The ways of God were indeed inscrutable. What could be His purpose in inflicting this misfortune and suffering on her? To say she was sorry? But to whom? To Henry, the husband whom she was bound to love and owed all wifely duty—who was also the man who had betrayed her again and again, and fatally failed to do the right thing by their sons? No, rather should she say sorry to Young Henry, to Richard, and to Geoffrey for failing them. Pray for others—God knew, when it came to her sons, and her other children, she did nothing but pray for them. And she prayed for her land of Aquitaine and its people, and for all Christ’s poor, and for those who needed succor in this miserable world.

  Pray for oneself. Her heart swelled with need. Help me, help me! she could only plead, for she could not focus her thoughts sufficiently to enumerate her troubles. God knew them, though. She trusted that He would be merciful.

  Listen to God, to what He is saying. She tried—how she tried!—to still her teeming thoughts in order to clear her mind and let Him in. But she could not do it, and so, if there had been a still, small voice attempting to speak to her, she did not hear it.

  What she did hear was Amaria returning with a tray of bread, small cuts of meat, and ale. Eleanor was not hungry but forced herself to eat a little, as Amaria took the stool opposite and began stuffing the food unceremoniously into her mouth. Eleanor recoiled. Had the woman never been taught that mealtimes were not just occasions for satisfying the needs of the body, but for good manners, courtesy, conversation …

  She tried. “Do you live near here?” she began.

  Amaria stared at her coldly, chomping noisily on her bread.

  “No, lady,” she said.

  Eleanor tried again. “Do you have family nearby?”


  “Then where are you from?”


  “So what are you doing in Normandy?” Eleanor’s natural inquisitiveness was beginning to assert itself.

  “My husband were one of the Lord King’s captains, and went with him everywhere. I missed my man, so I got a post as a laundress in the King’s household, so as I could travel with him.”

  “Is he here with you, your husband?”

  “He be dead,” came the flat reply.

  “I am sorry to hear that,” Eleanor said kindly. “Have you been a widow long?”

  “Three months. Anyway, what’s this to you, lady?”

  “I just thought that if we are to bear each other company all the time, we might try to get along in a friendly manner, so that it will be more pleasant for us both.”

  “For you, you mean.” There was contempt in the rustic voice.

  “Of course. But you would benefit too.”

  There was a pause as Amaria thought about this. “I’m not supposed to talk much to you, lady,” she said, “just to see to your needs.”

  “I will not ask you to talk about why I am here,” Eleanor promised. “Just about yourself and matters of general interest. I am interested to know how you came to be in attendance on me.”

  “When the Lady Alice de Porhoët was here as hostage, my husband had charge of her, and I helped look after her. That were some years back, but since then I’ve acted as waiting woman to other visiting ladies, on occasion.”

  “Were some of them hostages, like the Lady Alice?”

  “I don’t know. All I were told was that I had given satisfaction and that the Lord King were pleased with me. I reckoned that were why I were sent for the other day and told as I was to have charge of you, lady.”

  “Did they tell you why I am here?” Eleanor asked.

  “No, just that you were the King’s prisoner.”

  “But you have heard rumors, yes?”

  The surly look was back, the woman’s lips pursed. “I can’t talk about that.”

  “Fair enough,” Eleanor said evenly, anxious not to kill off this fragile rapport before it had gone beyond the budding stage. “Tell me, do you have children?”

  “I have the one boy, Mark, who’s twelve. He be in the cathedral school at Canterbury. He’s a clever boy. Going into the Church.” Amaria’s eyes suddenly softened with pride and she looked quite different. Eleanor could even see that she might have been pretty once.

  “You must be so proud of him,” she said. “I am a mother too, so I understand how you must feel. Our children are the most important thing in the world, aren’t they?” She wondered if Amaria was astute enough to get the message she was trying to put across, if the woman realized that she was trying to tell her that whatever she had done, it had been for her sons.

  Amaria was regarding her with a puzzled but concerned frown, but quickly looked away when Eleanor smiled hopefully at her. “I must clear these things,” she said, and began piling up the breakfast clutter.

  “I need some necessaries,” Eleanor said.

  “In the chest,” Amaria said. Eleanor knelt, lifted the lid, and found a pile of clean clouts for the monthly courses that, in her, had long since ceased, fresh chemises, headrails, and hose, all strewn with fresh herbs, and two gowns, one of Lincoln green, the other of dark blue woolen cloth, both plain and serviceable. Nothing regal or grand here—being stripped of the trappings of her rank was clearly all part of her punishment. She wondered, with sinking fear, which gown she would wear to her execution.

  “I can see that you had a hand in preparing these,” she said appreciatively to Amaria. “Thank you.” The woman looked nonplussed; plainly, she did not know what to make of her queen. Maybe she had been expecting a monster, Eleanor thought, and has been surprised to find that I am a creature of flesh and blood much as she is—and that I love my sons as much as she clearly loves hers. That, at least, was something upon which she could build.

  “There is one other thing,” she said, getting to her feet. “I should be grateful to have the consolation of faith in this my ordeal. Might it be possible for a priest to be sent to me?”

  “I will ask, lady,” Amaria said, and rapped again on the door.

  She was back within a quarter of an hour. “Father Hugh will come tomorrow morning to hear your confession and say mass,” she told Eleanor. Already her manner was warmer.

  As Amaria busied herself with making the bed, Eleanor sat down in the single chair and wondered what on earth she was going to do during the long hours that stretched ahead. She desperatel
y needed something to occupy her, to keep her mind from wandering down fearful paths. But there were none of the things with which she was used to passing the time: no books, no musical instruments, no embroidery, no ladies to challenge with games of chess or riddles—and, of course, no possibility of riding out for the hunt, or even walking in the gardens. Her imprisonment, although it was not as bad as she had anticipated, felt suffocating; she could not bear it a moment longer.

  But she must. She must do something.

  “Tell me, Amaria, how do you like to pass the time?”

  “I sew,” the woman said. “And I used to like tending my little garden, but the cottage is gone now. No need for me to keep it on.”

  “Do you think I could help with some sewing?” Eleanor asked. “I have nothing to do.”

  “There’s a pile of sheets need turning,” Amaria said.

  “Then let’s set to,” Eleanor said gratefully.

  “I’ll fetch them.” The woman’s face creased into what could have passed for a smile. “Strikes me I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be sitting mending sheets with the Queen of England!”

  It was the afternoon of the second day, and the pile of sheets seemed only a fraction lower than on the previous morning. Eleanor was sitting there wishing that she had something more mentally stimulating to take her mind off her predicament, but was thankful that at least Amaria had grown, if not exactly friendly, then more amiable. They had managed to keep a steady conversation going, touching on food, childbirth, travel, and a host of other mundane things. Eleanor was desperate to confide in the woman, but dared not risk compromising the delicate accord between them. But she needed to unburden her fears to someone. The priest had been no good; he was an old man, doddery and deaf, and heard her whispered confession with sage weariness, then mumbled some undemanding penance. She had performed it immediately, reciting her Hail Marys as she bent to her needle. It was a tough challenge, she realized, sitting here sewing with nothing else to distract her fevered mind, and thinking she might go mad.

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