Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  Yet she was not to fret in idleness for long. Suddenly, the door opened and the captain of the guard entered.

  “Make ready, lady, the King comes this way,” he announced, then backed out of the door. “You, woman, follow me,” he said to Amaria, and then Eleanor found herself alone, facing her destiny. Dread filled her soul as she heard Henry’s spurs clinking at a brisk rate up the stairs, then the spears parted once more and he burst into the room, a portly figure in his customary plain hunting gear, his bull head thrust forward, his red curls and beard threaded with iron gray, his eyes icy with fury and hatred. Eleanor took one look at him and knew this was not going to be easy. Had she ever hoped it would be?

  She curtsied and bent her head, observing the proper courtesies. Of course, it might have been more politic to kneel, or prostrate herself, as a supplicant, but she was not the one at fault here, she reminded herself. Not that maintaining that position would help her, she knew, but she could not accept that she was in the wrong.

  “There are no words to describe what I think of you,” Henry growled without preamble. She looked up, but he would not meet her steady, hostile gaze. “This is the bitterest betrayal of my whole life,” he declared, his face puce with anger and distress.

  “There was no reasoning with you,” Eleanor said evenly. “You could have seen it coming. God knows, I tried to warn you what might happen if you persisted in your unjust treatment of our sons. Did you really expect me, as their mother, to stand by and let you do it?”

  “Do you know what you have done?” Henry snarled. “Half of Europe is up in arms against me, and that includes your whoreson vassals of Aquitaine! They make this quarrel their excuse to rise in protest at what they like to call my oppressive rule.”

  “Look to yourself, Henry!” Eleanor flung back. “Look who is really to blame.”

  “Don’t try to excuse your conduct,” he spat. “You have offended grievously, and you are trying to shift the blame on others. Thanks to you and your sons, my kingdom is under threat; why, I could even lose my crown! Is that the act of a dutiful and loyal wife? It is outrageous, beyond belief! I tell you, Eleanor, you could look at all the old chronicles and find numerous examples of sons rising up against their father, but none of a queen rebelling against her husband. You will make me the pity and laughingstock of Christendom. They are even saying that this is God’s punishment on me for entering into an incestuous marriage. Incestuous? Diabolic, more like!”

  He was beside himself; there could be no reasoning with him, so it was not even worth trying.

  “What are you going to do?” she challenged, trying to keep her voice steady. “Are you going to put me on trial, to be judged by your twelve good men and true?”

  He glared at her. “By rights, I should have you hanged as the traitor you are. But count yourself extremely fortunate that I have no wish to parade my shame—or yours—in public. I have made no announcement of your arrest, nor do I intend to proclaim your disaffection. I want no more scandal, as you have caused scandal and damage enough. The whole of Europe will no doubt be whispering of it by now—I hope you realize that. God, Eleanor, did you really want to hurt me so much?”

  “Hurt you?” she echoed. She was safe, she was safe—and could therefore speak out. “I think the boot was rather on the other foot. What of all your women over the years, all the times you betrayed me? What of your foolish thralldom to Becket, on whom your love was wasted, and for whose counsel you forsook mine? What of the way you rode roughshod over my advice on how to rule my domains, with consequences you now have to deal with? And, worst of all, what of the injustice you have shown our sons?”

  “I never realized you hated me so much,” Henry said, his face working in rage and self-pity. “By the eyes of God, I have been nourishing a viper in my bosom!”

  “I loved you!” Eleanor cried. “But you destroyed that love, and I had to watch you do it. I can never tell you how deeply you have injured me. All these years …”

  She buried her face in her hands and began to sob, all the pent-up tension and fear of the last days finding its release in a flood of tears. “Alas, it is too late for us!” she wailed.

  “None of my so-called betrayals justifies your treachery,” Henry said brutally.

  “So punish me!” she screamed, wanting there to be an end to this horrible wrangling between them, wanting to hurt him where he would feel the most pain. “Do your worst. Ask yourself how deep my betrayal went! Put me to death, and then spend the rest of your life wondering.”

  Henry thrust his face into hers. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded, his tone menacing.

  “Ah, so you do care!” Eleanor pounced. Henry gripped her arms.

  “Tell me!” he barked. “Have you been playing the whore, Eleanor?”

  “No more than Fair Rosamund has, or the Lady of Akeny, or Rohese de Clare, or any of the legions of other sluts you have bedded, Henry!”

  “You will tell me!” he roared.

  “And have you make war on a great lord?” She was enjoying having her revenge, in a bitter sort of way; as if it was her last chance to do so, as if it no longer mattered what she said or did.

  “Who was he?” Henry was beside himself. “Tell me!”

  “Ah! You’ll just have to keep guessing—and wondering if I found him a better man than you!”

  The taunt went home. Henry was almost foaming at the mouth. In a moment he would be thrashing on the floor, chewing the rushes.

  “Oh, but he was a well-endowed stallion!” she baited him.

  “You’ve done it for yourself now,” he seethed, baring his teeth.

  “So what will you do to me? Hang me now?”

  “No. That would be too easy for you.” His breath was coming in short pants. He was almost out of control. “You must hate being shut up here. It’s true, isn’t it? I can see from your face. Well, my faithless lady, I’m going to leave you locked up to think on your sins while I deal with the god-awful mess you have caused. And, Eleanor,” Henry added, his bloodshot eyes narrowing, “I hope you rot here.”

  His pronouncement almost winded her; all sense of triumph fleeing. He had the power, she did not. It was as simple as that. She was to be confined here, in this miserable room, for God knew how long. The prospect was grim, ghastly … She could not breathe, she was stifling. Shut up, imprisoned, never to walk in God’s fresh air, never to smell the scent of growing flowers, never to hunt, to feel the wind in her hair, the thrill of the chase. Cut off from her children; exiled from her beloved Aquitaine. It was too cruel a punishment. It would kill her. Already the world was dimming …

  As Eleanor collapsed to the floor in a faint, Henry looked down pitilessly on her and barked for her servant.

  “Lay her on the bed,” he commanded Amaria as he flung himself out of the room, desperate to be gone. “She’ll come round soon. Or she’s faking it, which wouldn’t surprise me.”

  But Eleanor wasn’t faking it. For a few blissful moments she was dead to the world, unaware of the darkness and oblivion closing around her.

  48

  Barfleur, the English Channel, and Southampton, 1174

  The Queen had been suffering her terrible imprisonment for more than a year when the summons came for her to be conducted to the King at Barfleur on the Norman coast.

  “The King has summoned me?” Eleanor repeated incredulously, when the captain of the guard informed her of his instructions.

  “Make ready,” he told Amaria, ignoring the Queen’s question.

  She could not believe it. The dragging months of her confinement had been the worst time of her life; she had thought they would never end, that Henry meant to keep her immured here forever. She had not seen him since that catastrophic day when he condemned her to be shut up here, nor had there been any message from him. It had been as if she were dead and buried—as well she might be, she had thought bitterly. It had changed her, this year of extreme trial; it made her feel as if she had suddenly become anonymo
us, as if the living, breathing entity that was Queen Eleanor had ceased to exist and that in her place there was only a barely existing shell of the woman she had once been. She felt demoralized and isolated, starved of lively conversation and of all the things that had made life pleasant and joyful.

  For a long time she had burned with resentment at the injustice of her punishment, and with hatred for Henry, fanning the flames with thoughts of vengeance, and what if … Yet after a while she discovered that it was best not to nurture her grievances, unless she wanted them to destroy her. That was when she had learned a kind of acceptance, was able to adapt to her circumstances and take pleasure in small, everyday things, and to shut her mind to thoughts of what could or should have been. The worst of it had been not knowing when—or if—she would ever be free.

  But now, at long last, Henry had sent for her. Did this mean that he had made peace with his sons, and that they had insisted on her liberation? God, let it be so! she prayed.

  Two of the most awful aspects of her captivity had been not receiving any news of or communications from her children, and being cut off from the rest of humanity. She missed her sons dreadfully, more than she could ever have expected; she could not bear even to think of her beloved Richard. It was torture to her, not knowing if he was safe or well. Would Henry even inform her if he had died? She could not quite bring herself to believe that he would not, but the Henry who had shut her up here was a vengeful man; he was no longer the idealistic prince she had married, but a king who cared nothing for the sensibilities and opinions of others. So she agonized over her sons, fearing that their father might have turned them against her, or that they were wounded, even dead in the fighting, and no one had told her. But surely if that had been the case, she would have known it in her bones, or at least picked up some hint of it from Amaria.

  She knew virtually nothing of what had been going on in the world beyond her window, just the odd bit of information that she had been able to glean or extract from the waiting woman. Against all her expectations, Amaria and she had become almost friends during the months of living in close proximity to each other; it could not have been otherwise, or they would both have been at each other’s throats. Yet there remained some unbridgeable distance between them, for it soon became clear that Amaria was an uneducated woman of few words and fewer ideas. It was also plain that, however much Amaria might privately sympathize with her mistress, she was in fear of her superiors and the King, and therefore determined to obey her orders to the letter, refusing to discuss with Eleanor anything beyond domestic and mundane subjects. And Eleanor was, of course, the Queen, a fact of which Amaria was still slightly in awe.

  Amaria’s initial hostility had quickly evaporated, Eleanor was quick to realize, yet to begin with, she had embarked on her task with the feudal peasant’s resentment toward those of higher rank, and the woman’s inverted snobbery had made her suspicious from the first, especially after she heard gossip about what the Queen was supposed to have done. But Eleanor had subtly won her around, not by overtly protesting her innocence, as many prisoners in her situation might have, but by letting slip the odd, telling remark, or occasionally betraying the depths of her anguish for her sons; and by and by Amaria had come to realize that the situation was far more complex than she had at first surmised.

  And Amaria, to her astonishment, soon found herself liking the Queen, very much indeed. So now she was pleased for Eleanor that the King had summoned her, although she felt a touch anxious that her services would no longer be required once the Queen was set free. She had served her mistress well, and with as much kindness as she dared—there were now four books, a chess set, a lyre, and three more dresses in the overflowing chest—but my lady might not wish in the future to be reminded of this dark period in her life, or of the servant who had shared it with her.

  “Do not look so worried, Amaria,” Eleanor said, catching her mood. “When I am restored to court, I promise you I will make you one of my waiting women. I shall always be grateful for your kindly treatment of me in this my prison.”

  Dared she let her heart sing at the prospect of freedom? She kept looking at the slit of blue sky, thinking that she would soon be out in the world again and able to enjoy the rest of the summer. But what did Henry really intend? After all that had passed between them, he surely could not want her to live with him again as his wife. If he meant to continue as before, with her ruling Aquitaine and him the rest of his empire, then he would not be summoning her to Barfleur. Barfleur was one of the ports from which they had often taken ship for England. It was years since Eleanor had seen England. For her, England was now and forever associated with that terrible visit to Woodstock and the miserable birth of John that followed it.

  But if Henry wanted a reconciliation of sorts, and for her to accompany him to England as his queen, then so be it. She would go, and meekly do as she was bid—and make the best of it, avoiding all occasion for conflict. Anything would be preferable to this. Her heart leaped at the possibility that she might see her sons again soon.

  Watching the Queen standing at the window, deep in thought, Amaria reflected sadly that these months of confinement had aged her. Eleanor was fifty-two, and looked it. The red in her graying hair had faded to the color of straw and gone thin on the skull; her eyes and the corners of her mouth were circled by fine lines; her skin had paled through lack of exposure to sunlight. Yet she retained—and always would—that exquisite bone structure that lent her her peculiar beauty. The King would find his wife changed, but still, despite everything, attractive.

  Eleanor’s spirits sank rapidly when she saw that she was to be accompanied by a heavily armed escort. There could be no doubt that Henry meant for her to travel as a prisoner, under guard. Unless he was bent on making some dramatic gesture such as liberating her before the eyes of their sons, she had to face the fact that her future still looked bleak. She toyed feverishly with the idea of making a dramatic personal appeal to Henry, of debasing herself before him and promising anything—anything—to regain her freedom.

  It felt strange to be on horseback again; she was stiff and out of condition, she realized. But expert rider that she had been all her life, she soon became acclimatized to being back in the saddle. Yet her pleasure in once more feeling the heat of the sun and the soft breath of the July breeze was subsumed by her inner dread and bleak disappointment. She could take no pleasure in the flowers that bedecked the hedgerows, the green fields peopled by villeins stripped to the waist and singing as they toiled on their strips, the sparkling rivers and streams, or the rich, golden countryside in all its summer beauty. It was as if her life was being held in suspension until her fate had been revealed to her.

  As they rode into Barfleur, Eleanor could see a great fleet of at least forty ships waiting in the harbor. So they were bound for England, as she had anticipated. But why so many ships? Then she saw a great company of soldiers waiting to board some of the vessels anchored at the farther end of the quay. So Henry was taking an army with him. Surely he could not still be at war? She began to feel distinctly uneasy.

  Her escort led her past the squat fortified church tower where she had once waited with Henry for a tempest to cease, so that he could cross to England and claim his kingdom. That had been all of twenty years ago. Where had the time gone? And look where it had brought them! But there was no leisure to reflect, as the captain was leading them toward the quayside, where she could see a large gathering of people, many of them well-dressed women, waiting while their baggage was stowed on board the flagship. As she drew nearer, she recognized many familiar faces.

  There was Henry, his face weather-beaten and tanned, standing with his hand on the shoulder of a stocky boy with dark, copper-gold curls. It was John, grown up fast, she realized with a jolt, looking around anxiously for his older brothers. But there was no sign of them. In fact, it looked as if Henry had rounded up all the females in his family. She caught her breath as she espied her daughter Joanna, pretty
as a partridge, looking apprehensively in her mother’s direction; it was such a joy to see Joanna again; she hoped that her daughter did not think ill of her, that Henry had not poisoned her young mind with calumnies.

  There was Queen Marguerite, sixteen now, and the living image of Louis; Alys, her younger sister, Richard’s betrothed, a willowy brunette who must now be about fourteen, and surely ripe for marriage. The insufferable Constance was staring at her with undisguised contempt; already, even at twelve years old, she was posing provocatively, her clinging white bliaut accentuating every detail of her wide, curvaceous hips and small breasts; unlike most girls, she kept her hair cropped short, which gave her an elfin appearance, but did not, in Eleanor’s opinion, look attractive or suit her. But Constance always was one to be different and draw attention to herself. Gentle Alice of Maurienne stood with her, casting wistful glances at the oblivious John, her betrothed, and watching over them all was the King’s bastard sister, Emma of Anjou, a capable matron in widow’s garb who looked the image of her father, Count Geoffrey. Eleanor supposed that she had been summoned by her brother to take the place of the mother who had been shut up in prison. A little way off a cluster of noble girls and ladies chattered excitedly; no doubt they had been summoned to attend on all the King’s womenfolk.

  As the Queen’s escort dismounted, the captain held Eleanor’s bridle as she climbed off her horse. The King broke away from his party and walked slowly toward them, his face impassive. Eleanor curtsied formally, then rose in trepidation to face him. He looked at her blankly, with no trace of emotion.

  “I will not say you are welcome, Eleanor,” he began, his voice husky. “You’d know I didn’t mean it. But I trust you had a good journey.”

  “Why have you summoned me, my lord?” she asked. There was no point in continuing with the pleasantries, even though everyone was watching them with avid interest.

 
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