Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  Eleanor let out a long sigh of relief, but her gratification in the legate’s rejection of Henry’s plea was tempered by the awareness that even though she remained entrenched as his lawful wife, Henry did not want her, and would almost certainly feel even more resentment toward her now, regardless of the fact that she had not actually opposed him—although that was not to say that she would not have done so had she been pushed to it.

  “I am content, of course, but I suppose the King is angry,” she said.

  The prior gave her another of his sweet smiles. “Need you ask? He does not like to be thwarted.”

  “He will not give up,” she observed lightly. “He will find another way to be rid of me.”

  “He may appeal to the Pope, but I fear it will be a waste of time.”

  “You do not approve of the Pope’s decision, do you, Father Prior?” she challenged.

  “Our Lord speaks through His Holiness. Who am I to question that?”

  “It’s not easy for you, is it, acting as mediator between Henry and me?” Eleanor smiled at the prior.

  “I do not look for ease in worldly affairs,” he told her. “I hope I have dealt with you fairly and with humanity.”

  “I wish the King my lord had been as considerate,” Eleanor told him as he rose to take his leave. “No doubt we shall meet again.”

  “I would it could be in happier circumstances,” he told her kindly.


  Sarum, 1175–1176

  It was a terrible winter. The crops had failed and famine bestrode the land, resulting in a dearth of good food even on Eleanor’s table, for everyone in the castle was on short rations. The cost of a bushel of wheat had gone through the roof, and bread, that staple of the diets of rich and poor, was scarce. The destitute had been reduced to eating roots, nuts, grasses, and even bark stripped from the trees. There was meat, for most farm animals had been slaughtered and their carcasses salted for winter fare, but the hungry folk in humble cottages saw little of that. People were dying of starvation in the streets, or of plague. It was only the onset of bitterly cold weather that lessened the pestilence.

  Eleanor sent what food she could spare from her table to succor the needy.

  “I am no longer able to dispense charity as a queen should,” she told Ranulf Glanville, “but this little I can do for them.” And went hungry herself. It was freezing in her chamber, and she and Amaria spent their days huddled in furs, their gloved hands icy at the fingertips, their noses pink with cold. Christmas was a dismal affair, with no festive fare or revelry, and Eleanor spent much of it confined to bed with a cold.

  She was surprised, therefore, early in the new year, to hear Glanville announce the arrival of Hugh of Avalon. She guessed, with a sinking feeling, that if the prior had braved the snow and ice to see her, he must bring news of some import, and wondered wearily what it might be. Something to do with the divorce, she wagered to herself.

  He greeted her with his gentle smile, giving her his blessing as she went on her knees before him, then came straight to the point.

  “My lady, the King has sent me to ask if you would consider retiring from the world and taking the veil at Fontevrault, a house for which he knows you have much love.”

  Retire from the world? When her heart cried out for freedom and she was bursting with life, body, and soul?

  “He has offered to appoint you Abbess of Fontevrault, which, as you are aware, is a most prestigious and respected office.”

  “And what does he ask in return?” Eleanor replied, knowing that this was just another clever ploy on Henry’s part to get rid of her—and retain her lands.

  “Nothing, my lady. If you expressed the desire to take the veil, the Pope would assuredly annul your marriage. He would see it as a happy solution.”

  She walked to the window and stared out unseeing at the narrow, limited view of snow-covered hills. What prestige was there in being an abbess when one had been a queen? And there was another thing …

  “I have no vocation,” she said.

  “I had not imagined that you had,” Prior Hugh told her, with wry humor. “In my experience, large numbers of those who enter religion have no vocation. They are dedicated to God by their families. In time, they learn acceptance in the cloister. Some make a great success of their lives and become shining examples of the monastic rule.”

  “Can you see me as a shining example of the rule?” Eleanor asked.

  The prior had to smile. “No, my lady. But an abbess’s role is not merely spiritual. She is a governor, a leader, an administrator, with her opinion sought by great men. In charge of such a house as Fontevrault, you would have status, autonomy, and the opportunity to use your considerable talents and your experience of statecraft. Think on it. Fontevrault is a peaceful place, a powerful house of prayer, and your family has enjoyed a long association with it.”

  Eleanor was silent as she thought. Maybe Hugh was right. It was better to enjoy a degree of power and independence than none at all, certainly. And as Abbess of Fontevrault, she would enjoy many freedoms. She knew she could make a success of it. But there was the longer-term future to consider. Not only were the stakes higher, but she wanted more, far more, than Fontevrault could offer her.

  “Do not think I am not tempted,” she told him. “Believe me, I would do much to get out of this prison. But I am certain that I still have much to do in the world. I have no intention of retiring from it, or giving up my crown—or my inheritance. Because, Father Prior, that is what this is all about. It’s the only way Henry can divorce me and retain possession of my lands.”

  “Are you sure you wouldn’t like time to think more on this?” Hugh asked.

  “No. Please tell the King my lord that I have no vocation for the religious life.”

  “Very well, my lady,” the prior said, and made to depart, but Eleanor persuaded him to stay for dinner and overnight before he embarked on his long, cold, and difficult journey.

  It was something he said over the rather spartan meal that gave her cause for alarm.

  “Henry cannot force me to become a nun?” she had asked.

  “I should like to be able to say no, but there have been cases of husbands immuring unwanted wives in convents, and intimidating the communities into keeping them confined. Knowing him, I do not think the King would go as far, but there is much at stake in this case.”

  “And just one aging, obstinate woman standing in the way,” she added.

  She fretted, she worried. At length, she thought of approaching the Archbishop of Rouen, Rotrou, who, on the brink of the fatal rebellion, had exhorted her to return to Henry. Unlike Hugh of Avalon, he believed that her marriage was valid. A plea to him might help. So she wrote, appealing to him against being forced to enter the cloister against her will, and gave the unsealed parchment to Ranulf Glanville for inspection. He looked a little troubled at its contents, but agreed to dispatch it. She wondered if he would really do so.

  But Glanville was as good as his word, and presently, a reply came from the Archbishop assuring her that he would refuse to consent to her becoming a nun at Fontevrault against her wishes. Rotrou added that he had made his position known to the King, and warned her that Henry had said he would appeal again to the Pope to have their marriage dissolved. Ah, she thought, but that way, he won’t get my lands! She might, she dared to think, have her freedom yet.


  Winchester, 1176

  “Make ready, my lady,” beamed Glanville, entering Eleanor’s chamber one blazing August morning. “You are summoned to Winchester.” It was clear that he was pleased to have some good tidings to impart at last.

  Eleanor looked at him blankly. She could not take this in. Had Henry at last relented and granted her her liberty?

  Glanville seemed to have read her thoughts. “The Lord King has betrothed your daughter, the Lady Joanna, to the King of Sicily. She is staying in Winchester, where preparations are being made for her departure from this realm, and the King
has given leave for you to visit her there and make your farewells. You will, of course, travel under guard.”

  This unexpected kindness on Henry’s part nearly took Eleanor’s breath away. Was he finally thawing toward her? Was this the first step toward a reconciliation? For three years now she had been cruelly cut off from her children, deprived of the pleasure of watching them grow to maturity and playing her proper maternal role in their lives. Heaven only knew what effect this deprivation could have had on the younger ones, those poor, innocent victims; Henry hadn’t thought of that, had he, in his need to exact vengeance on her? Yet in the wake of this one kind gesture from him, she was willing to put all that behind her. In the joyful anticipation of seeing Joanna, she was prepared to meet him more than halfway on anything.

  The royal apartments in Winchester Castle were abuzz with activity, with damsels scurrying about with armfuls of rich garments and chests full of jewels, merchants displaying their luxurious fabrics, and seamstresses stitching away furiously at the eleven-year-old bride’s trousseau. In the midst of it all sat Joanna, a slightly less brilliant mirror image of the young Eleanor, her fresh young face rosy with excitement. At the sight of her mother appearing in the doorway, she rose and swept a deep curtsey, her pearl brocade skirts fanning over the floor.

  “My dear child!” Eleanor cried, unable to contain her emotion, and suddenly mother and daughter were in each other’s arms, formality and the intervening years forgotten as they embraced each other with tears and laughter.

  “So you are going to be married,” Eleanor said when she had managed to compose herself. It did not do for this girl to be burdened with the undamming of the floodgates of her own sorrows.

  “I am to take ship for Palermo and marry King William, my lady. My lord my father says he is a great prince, and that Sicily is a fair land.”

  Eleanor’s heart almost bled for her daughter’s innocent hopes. She prayed fervently that this marriage would turn out to be far happier than her own had been. Then she noticed Joanna looking at her blue bliaut. It was fine but old; all her gowns were old, for Henry had not thought fit to replace them, and the hem of this one was looking frayed. She could tell what Joanna was thinking, that it was unseemly for a queen to be clothed so meanly. But her daughter was prattling on happily about the wondrous wedding robes that Henry had provided for her, at enormous cost to himself. Clearly it mattered to him that his daughter impressed the world.

  “I will ask him if he will purchase some fine robes for you too, my lady,” the girl said touchingly.

  “No matter,” Eleanor said. “He has been kind enough in allowing me to visit you here.”

  “Oh, but I shall!” cried Joanna, her eyes shining. “And I will make him let you come and visit me in Sicily. Have you ever been there, Mother?”

  Eleanor’s heart sank. Had Henry not seen fit to instruct anyone to break it to this poor child that her parting from her parents might be final? Joanna was going a long way off, to a distant kingdom, and there was no guarantee that they might ever meet again. Such was the fate of princesses who were married off to foreign princes. Look at Matilda, in far-off Germany; Eleanor had no idea when, or if, she might see her eldest daughter again; she missed her still, and always would—it was a sadness that would never leave her. It was always easier for the one going away, for they were embarking on their life’s adventure; it was those left behind who felt the loss most keenly.

  “I went to Sicily when I was Queen of France,” she said lightly. “It is a beautiful country, with wondrous scenery and many ancient ruins, and Palermo is a fair town. King William is Norman by descent, as you are. But, daughter, do not look to have me visit you there. As you know, your father is displeased with me. It is a miracle that he has let me come here. I should not like you to look for my coming in Palermo and then be disappointed. But we can write to each other,” she added quickly, seeing the sweet face about to crumple. “Now, are you going to show me your wedding gown?”

  The days spent with Joanna were precious, golden days that passed all too soon. The imminent parting lent them piquancy and brilliance. It was tragic to be restored to her daughter’s company just when she might be separated from that daughter forever, but Eleanor did her best to keep happy and cheerful. Why waste this gift of time with lamentations? Joanna should take with her a joyful image of her mother, one she could cherish and hold in her heart.

  “Will Father send you back to Sarum?” the child asked one day, as they took the air in the castle garden, two guards hovering discreetly in the background, as they always did. Eleanor had long since learned to get used to that, but she sensed that Joanna found it disconcerting.

  “Yes, I’m sure he will,” she said lightly.

  “Why did he lock you up?” The naive question gave her a jolt.

  “We had a difference of opinion as to the amount of power that the King should allow your brothers,” she answered carefully. “Unfortunately, it led to war, and although I never intended that, your father holds me partly to blame.”

  “I heard him say he can never love or trust you again,” Joanna said innocently, her little voice mournful.

  Eleanor was shocked. No child should ever have to listen to one parent saying such things of the other!

  “Were you to blame, Mother?” Joanna’s look was searching.

  Eleanor sighed. “I did not think so at the time. I thought I was right. But now I’m no longer sure. I just want the wounds to be healed.”

  “I want that too,” the child declared, “but I don’t think my brother the Young King does.”

  “Oh?” This was news indeed. She thought Henry and their sons had reconciled, and imagined the boys living in subjection to their father’s heavy hand.

  “The King my father kept his Easter court here. My brothers came too, but they were arguing all the time. Young Henry was angry about being kept idle in England, while Richard and Geoffrey were allowed to rule Aquitaine and Brittany. He accused the King of trying to oust him from the succession, but Father wouldn’t listen, so he asked leave to go to Spain, to visit the shrine of St. James at Compostela, although I think he just wanted to go and meet his friends and cause trouble, or so Father said. He wouldn’t let him go. Since then he has let Young Henry go to Aquitaine, but I think he has been stirring up the people there against Richard. Oh, and I heard he was taking part in a lot of tournaments.”

  So, Eleanor realized, all was clearly not well between Henry and his heir. If anything, and Joanna had it right, matters were worse now than before the rebellion. Of course, Henry would find it impossible to trust his sons after what had happened.

  “What of Richard?” She asked. “Do you know anything of him?”

  “No. He went back to Aquitaine. The people there hate him. Geoffrey seems to be all right in Brittany, apart from having to live with Constance!” Mother and daughter exchanged knowing smiles, although Eleanor was disturbed to hear that her subjects hated Richard.

  “And Eleanor? And John?” she inquired.

  “Eleanor is still at Fontevrault, Mother. She is going to marry the Infante of Castile, but I don’t know when.” Another daughter lost, Eleanor thought sadly. “And John is betrothed again, to Hawise of Gloucester.”

  “But he was betrothed to Alice of Maurienne!”

  “She died of a fever,” Joanna told her. “He says this new marriage will make him even richer.” Another heiress, Eleanor thought, with a doleful pang for that sweet child Alice, dead before she had a chance to taste life’s joys. This new marriage seemed a godsend, a sensible solution to the problem of John’s lack of an inheritance.

  “My father keeps John with him,” Joanna was saying. “He calls him his favorite son. But actually, he likes Geoffrey best.”

  Geoffrey? Surely not! Then Eleanor realized that Joanna was talking about Henry’s bastard son. He had ever favored the boy, she thought sourly.

  “Geoffrey fought for him in the war,” Joanna was saying. “He was very brave. My father
said …” Her voice trailed off and she flushed a deep pink.

  “Yes? What did he say?” Eleanor prompted.

  “He said that Geoffrey alone had proved his true son, and that his other sons were really the bastards.”

  “I see,” said the Queen. She saw all too clearly.

  It was gratifying to have the freedom of the castle, even if there were guards posted at every door. One day, wandering through the deserted state apartments, Eleanor stepped into the famous Painted Chamber, so-called because of the wondrous murals that Henry had commissioned for its walls, and found herself gaping in surprise. For where there had been a panel left blank, there was now a new and disturbing picture of an eagle, freshly painted, and on its outstretched wings and back were three eaglets, with a fourth, the smallest, sitting on its neck, looking for all the world as if it might at any moment peck out its parent’s eyes.

  As Eleanor stared, she heard a footfall behind her. It was Ranulf Glanville.

  “Pardon me, my lady, but dinner is about to be served. Oh, I see you have noticed the painting.”

  “The King commissioned it?”

  “Yes, my lady.”

  “The eagle is himself, I gather, but what does it all mean?”

  The custodian spoke evenly, not relishing what he had to say. “When some of us asked the King the meaning of the picture, he said that the eaglets were his four sons, who ceased not to persecute him even unto death.”

  “But John is just a child! How can he include him in this?” The rest she could understand, but at this crass folly, she was aghast.

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