Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  Louis’s brows furrowed; he was inwardly quailing at the prospect of Bernard hectoring him yet again. He looked at Eleanor helplessly. He had stopped eating. He could not face another mouthful.

  “Can’t you see—God Himself has made His displeasure clear,” Eleanor went on earnestly. “He has withheld the blessing of a son, an heir to France. Our daughters cannot inherit this kingdom, you know that as well as I. Will you risk your immortal soul, Louis, to stay in this marriage?”

  “No, my lady. I cannot fight you anymore,” he said sadly. “It seems I must heed the good Abbot’s exhortations, even though they run contrary to my own wishes.” A tear trickled down his cheek. “Did you ever love me?” he asked plaintively.

  “It is because of the love I bear you that I fear for your immortal soul,” Eleanor told him, congratulating herself on this spontaneous response that so neatly sidestepped his question. “And I fear for my own soul too.” She leaned forward. “Louis, we must part. There is no help for it.”

  The King continued to sit there in his high-backed chair, weeping silently.

  “You have ever had your way of me, Eleanor,” he said at length. “Yet have you thought what our separation will mean for me? I will lose Aquitaine, that jewel in the French crown.”

  “You could never hold it,” she reminded him, cutting a sliver of cheese. “You have not the men or the resources. You would be well rid of the responsibility.”

  Louis nodded, frowning. “You speak truth. It has proved a thankless task trying to govern your unruly lords. But do you think you can succeed where I have failed?”

  “I know them,” Eleanor said, “and they know and love me. I am their duchess.” She drained her wine goblet.

  “They might not love you when you rule against them in one of their interminable disputes.”

  “That is a risk any prince must take,” Eleanor replied.

  “You will remarry, of course,” Louis stated. Looking at her, in all her vital beauty, he could not bear the thought of her as another man’s wife. It was unendurable. She had been his prize, his ideal, and, he had to admit it, his torment. She was so vital and strong, whereas he knew himself to be a poor apology for a king—and a man. He could not help it: he was afraid of the sins of the flesh. He knew he had failed Eleanor in that regard, which was why she wanted her freedom. He understood, of course—he had even forgiven her for her dalliance (he hoped fervently it had been nothing more) with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, during the crusade—but he could only deplore her craving for sensual pleasures. It was what had always repelled the saintly Abbot Bernard, and Louis’s old tutor and counselor, Abbot Suger. If only Eleanor would think more on the things of the spirit rather than of the flesh …

  “I will weigh everything carefully before committing myself to marriage again,” she was saying in a noncommittal tone.

  “You cannot seriously be thinking of ruling alone?” Louis asked, shocked. “You will need a protector, a strong man who will govern in your name. And one, I might remind you, who is loyal to me and would not seek to abuse his power.” Which, he thought to himself, is probably asking for the moon.

  “I had thought of that,” she said evenly, “which is why I am making no hasty decision. This has to be resolved in everyone’s best interests.”

  There was an uncomfortable silence. Eleanor was holding her breath, waiting.

  “Then it seems I must grant your wish,” Louis capitulated. She tried to look suitably sorrowful.

  “I wish it could have been otherwise,” she said gently, reaching across to lay her hand on his.

  “You cannot know how deeply I wish that,” her husband replied, removing his hand and pushing his plate away, sickened at the sight of the uneaten meat congealing in its thick sauce. “There is but one thing I ask of you, for the sake of my pride, as a king and as a man.”

  “Yes?” Eleanor responded warily.

  “That you allow me to initiate proceedings. Never let it be said that the King of France was abandoned by his wife.”

  “I agree,” Eleanor said, biting back the retort that she was not really his wife. There was no point in making matters worse by sparring. She had gotten what she wanted.

  “There is another thing,” Louis went on. “I take it you have thought of our daughters.”

  Eleanor had thought. Those two beautiful little girls with their blond curls and wide blue eyes. Every time she looked at Marie and Alix, she marveled that she herself had helped to create them. She loved them, of course, yet had been constrained to do so from a distance. They had never seemed like hers anyway. As the daughters of France, they were given over at birth to a gaggle of nurses and servants, and she had not been involved in their daily care. They were far closer to Thomasine, their Lady Mistress, than they ever had been to their mother. She had rarely seen her children, and consequently established no close bond with them.

  Yet there had been precious moments, as when her daughters twined their soft arms around her neck, resting their downy little heads against her cheek as she told them stories of fairies and demons, or sang them lays of the South, learned in her girlhood; but these came rarely. And of course it was better that way, for one day, not far distant, those little girls would leave France forever, to be married to great lords or princes. It was the way of the world, and she had known from the first that it would not do to allow herself to become too attached to them, for she might never see them again afterward.

  For all that, she was hoping she might have a chance to enjoy many more sweet moments with her daughters before that inevitable parting, and the opportunity to forge a closer bond with them.

  “Yes, I have given them much thought,” she told Louis. “How could I not? Marie and Alix are flesh of my flesh, and very dear to me. How will it be if I take them with me to Aquitaine, then send them back to you in a few years when you have found husbands for them?”

  Louis frowned. “Eleanor,” he said, his voice cold, “have you forgotten that Marie and Alix are princesses of France? Their place is here, in France, with me, the King their father. My barons would never agree to them going with you.”

  Eleanor blanched. “Louis, they are but six years and one year in age. I am their mother.”

  “You should have thought of that when you pressed for an annulment!” Louis said reprovingly.

  “I did think of it, constantly! Is it my fault that we are too near in blood? Louis, I beg of you …”

  “Is it not enough that I am to be deserted by the wife I love? Should I lose my children too? I tell you, Eleanor, no court in Christendom would award you custody of them, and it would kill me to have you take them away.” There were tears in Louis’s eyes, his pain not all on account of his daughters.

  “So you would deprive them of their mother?” Eleanor persisted.

  “They will have a stepmother before long. You said that I must remarry, remember? And I will be expected to, for the sake of the succession.”

  “I realize that, but they are my children too!” Eleanor cried. “Do not deprive me of them, I beg of you.”

  “Eleanor, you know, as do I, that this is not about consanguinity,” Louis replied sadly. “You want your freedom, I have long been aware of that. Who is doing the depriving here?”

  “I never intended that, God knows,” she sobbed, sinking to her knees. “I know you love our girls.” They were both weeping now.

  “As usual, you never think things through, Eleanor,” Louis said, resisting the urge to kneel down and comfort her. “You just act impetuously, causing a lot of grief. I loved you—God help me, I love you still—and I feel for you. But on this issue I will not—nay, I cannot—bend. Princesses of France must be reared in France. The people would expect it. Besides, you left Marie for more than two years to go on the crusade. You insisted on coming with me, as I recall.”

  “It grieved me to leave her, you must believe that. But I had to accompany you, Louis. My vassals would not accept you as their leader. Besides, I rarel
y saw Marie anyway. She did not need me. Neither of my daughters needs me. It is I who need time to get to know them, to make up to them for what I have not been.”

  “Alas, I cannot grant you that,” Louis said. “Be realistic, and understand my position.” There was a pause, a heartbeat as his gaze held hers. “You could always reconsider.”

  “You know that I cannot,” Eleanor told him. She was trembling. The prospects of her freedom, her return to Aquitaine, and a life with Henry of Anjou, not to mention the manifold benefits their marriage would bring, were too precious to her to give them up, but she had now been made devastatingly aware of just how high a price she was to pay for them. Desperately, she conjured up Henry’s leonine face in her mind, trying to blot out the plaintive image of those two sweet, fair-haired little girls.

  Louis shook his head. “What a mess. We made our marriage with such high hopes.”

  “We did our best,” Eleanor consoled, her mind still fixed fervently on Henry. “But God’s law must prevail.”

  “I will speak to my bishops,” Louis said wearily. “Then we must attend to the practicalities.”

  “You mean the transfer of Aquitaine to me?” Eleanor snapped.

  “Yes. There will be a peaceful withdrawal of my royal officials and French garrisons. We will go there together and oversee it. Your vassals shall attend you.”

  “All those defenses you built must be dismantled,” Eleanor insisted. “My people resent them.”

  “It shall be done,” Louis agreed.

  Eleanor rose and went to look out of the narrow window—barely more than an arrow slit—across the broad Seine and the huddled rooftops of Paris. Above them, the inky sky was studded with stars—those same stars under which Henry of Anjou was living, breathing, waiting … She caught her breath suddenly, certain she had made the right decision. She must suppress her sadness, for there was no other way for her. Her daughters were well cared for and would barely miss her; she must love them from a distance, as she always had—except the distance would be farther. Her own future was mapped out by destiny, and there was no escaping it, even if she wanted to. She had only to contain herself in patience for some while longer, and in the meantime she would be returning to Aquitaine, to reclaim her great inheritance. She was going home, home to the sweet, lush lands of the South, the lands of mighty rivers and verdant hills, of rich wines and fields of sunflowers; where people spoke her native tongue, the langue d’oc, which would sound as music after the clumsy, outlandish dialect they spoke in the North. She could not wait to be once more among her own people, quarrelsome and often violent though they were. It meant more to her to be Duchess of Aquitaine than it ever had to be Queen of France, or queen of the whole world, for that matter.

  4

  Beaugency-sur-Loire, 1152

  The whispering was hushed in the vaulted hall as the princes of the Church took their seats on the stone benches, their rich robes settling in swathes of purple and black around them.

  Eleanor, enthroned above them on the dais, glanced at Louis, who was staring straight ahead, his handsome features set in stern resolution. He would betray by no frown or grimace what he was feeling inside, she knew. His pride would not allow it.

  It was ten days since this synod of archbishops had first assembled. The King and Queen had attended on the first day, to plead their case and present genealogical charts showing how they were related within the forbidden degrees. Witnesses had been summoned by Louis to attest to this, and the venerable Archbishop Hugh of Sens, Primate of France, who had convened this ecclesiastical court, questioned them all at some length, and Louis and Eleanor too, to determine whether they were seeking an annulment for pure motives and no other cause. That was certainly the case with the King, the Archbishop had decided—as for the Queen, who knew? Like most churchmen, he neither liked nor approved of her. She was willful, flighty, and headstrong, and France would be well rid of her. Archbishop Hugh had been mightily relieved when the Pope’s decision, solicited by Abbot Bernard some weeks earlier, had arrived this morning, and he had been able to reconvene the court. Now he was rising to his feet and unraveling the scroll of parchment in his hands.

  “By the authority invested in me by His Holiness Pope Eugenius,” he intoned in his softly moderated voice, “I pronounce that the plea of consanguinity laid by our lord, King Louis, and the Lady Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, be upheld, and that the marriage between them be deemed null and void.”

  As the archbishops murmured their assent, and Abbot Bernard—come here specially to show his support for the annulment—looked on approvingly, Eleanor felt her heart bursting with joy and elation welling within her. She was free, at last, after all these long years of bondage! She was liberated. In vain, she struggled to keep her face impassive, for it would not be seemly to betray the exultation seething within her. Aquitaine was hers once more. Henry FitzEmpress would be hers … She was free.

  Bernard of Clairvaux, catching the fleeting smile of triumph on her face, frowned. Heaven only knew what this wanton woman would do now that she had her release. He thanked God that Louis had put her away, yet trembled at the realization that she was now at liberty to wreak havoc on the rest of Christendom.

  Archbishop Samson of Rheims, whom Louis had appointed to represent Eleanor at the synod and look to her interests, was now standing. He bowed in her direction, cleared his throat, and declared, “My Lord King has given me assurances that the Lady Eleanor’s lands will now be restored to her as she possessed them prior to her marriage. Because this union was entered into in good faith, its issue, the Princesses Marie and Alix, are to be held legitimate, and custody of them is granted to King Louis.”

  Eleanor swallowed. She could hardly bear to remember the day, weeks before, when she had said farewell to her daughters. They had been playing with a puppy in their nursery, tying ribbons around his neck, feeding him morsels of meat saved from their dinner, and throwing a woolen ball for him to fetch. They had been impatient of their mother’s needy embraces, anxious to get back to the game, and while Marie looked at Eleanor with a puzzled expression when told that it might be a while before they would see her again, plump little Alix lost interest and toddled back to the puppy. Eleanor had briefly dropped one final kiss on each blond head, then resolutely walked out of the chamber, her eyes blind with tears. That was her worst moment, and she had briefly wavered in her resolve—but not for long. Now, she forced herself to think of the present, and heard Archbishop Samson conclude: “Both parties are free to remarry without hindrance, so long as the Lady Eleanor remains faithful in her allegiance to King Louis as her overlord.”

  “I am gratified to see that agreements have been so amicably reached on all issues,” Archbishop Hugh said. “That being so, I grant the parties a decree of separation.” Eleanor bowed her head, again not wanting the world to see the elation in her face. There had been rumors aplenty that Louis was putting her aside because of her adultery, or that she had pushed for this divorce for lascivious reasons. Well, that at least was true, she admitted, but her scruples about the marriage had been long-held, and if Bernard shared them, then she had been right to press for an end to it.

  Beside her, Louis was sitting motionless, gripping the arms of his chair. He would not look her way. The court was rising, the archbishops departing in a sedate flurry of purple and furs, making their obeisances to the King as they left, the lawyers and clerks gathering parchments while murmuring to each other of the verdict. It was not every day that a royal marriage was dissolved.

  Suddenly, Louis stood up and, without a word, strode after Archbishop Hugh.

  “Madame the Duchess!” It was her own Archbishop of Bordeaux, stepping into the breach. “Might I be of service to you in any way?”

  Eleanor beamed at him. “Your Grace, I am grateful for your tender care of me, and for coming all this way to attend the synod.”

  “What will you do now?” the Archbishop inquired.

  “I am bound for Poitiers,”
Eleanor told him.

  “Immediately?”

  “Yes. Aquitaine needs a ruler, there is much to be done, and I need to be there without delay.” She had not, of course, confided to him the most important thing she intended to accomplish in Poitiers. For that, she knew she must wait until she was safely back in her domains.

  “Then I beg of you, madame, allow me to escort you there. My men-at-arms will offer you protection. These are dangerous times, and the greatest heiress in Christendom should not be traveling unguarded.”

  “Nor will I be,” Eleanor smiled. “My uncle, the Count of Châtellerault, and my good Count of Angoulême, who makes up in loyalty for what he lacks in years, are come with their retinues to bring their duchess home. For your kindness, you are welcome to join forces and travel with us.”

  “Thank you, madame, I will,” the Archbishop said, bowing. He had seen King Louis returning, and diplomatically backed away.

  Louis faced her, his gray eyes clouded with sorrow. Eleanor took his hands.

  “This is adieu, my lord,” she said briskly. “Not farewell, for I know we will meet again, as overlord and liege. And as friends, I trust and hope.”

  Louis could barely speak.

  “Forgive me,” he said humbly. “If I had been a better husband to you, we would not now be taking our leave of each other.”

  “Nay,” Eleanor protested, “it is I who have failed as a wife. I lack the necessary meekness. I know my own faults.” She could afford to be generous now that she was no longer bound in wedlock to this man.

  “I wish you well; I want you to know that,” Louis said. “If ever I can extend good lordship to you, you have only to ask.”

  “I thank you.” Eleanor smiled. “And now I must depart. I have a long journey ahead of me, and wish to cross the Loire by nightfall. Adieu, my lord. God keep you.”

  “And may He have you in His keeping also,” Louis whispered, loosing his hands from Eleanor’s. Then he watched as she stepped from the dais, sank before him in a deep curtsey, and walked out of the hall, her two damsels following.

 
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