Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  Richard, she later heard, had achieved great victories in Aquitaine.

  “He is now acknowledged one of the great generals of our age,” Ranulf told her proudly.

  Yes, she thought, but at what cost? What violence and bloodshed has he committed, at Henry’s behest, to earn that reputation? Her heart bled for Aquitaine, and she could take little joy in Richard’s fame, although she was gratified to hear that he, like the Young King before him, had been received with honor by his father. Please God, matters were now mended between them.

  “My lady, the King of France is dead,” announced Amaria, coming into the royal lodgings with a basket of autumn herbs for the simples she liked to make, swearing by her own remedies for aching joints and blistered heels.

  A great wave of sadness engulfed Eleanor. Whatever his failings, Louis had once, many years in the past, been her husband. She had done him many wrongs, and there had been some bitterness between them, but he’d been a good and devout man who stood by her and her sons in their hour of need, and done many good deeds in his days—and now he was no more.

  She went to her chapel and sank to her knees to pray for Louis; he had been a saintly man, and surely his soul was even now on its winged flight to Heaven. She had known he was ill. The year before, he came to England on a pilgrimage to St. Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury, in company with the thousands who now flocked to keep vigil at Becket’s tomb, hoping for one of the miracles that the saintly Archbishop was widely reputed to work. Louis had needed such a miracle. He was in poor health and not really fit enough to make the journey. But Henry afforded him a splendid reception, and they went together in procession to the cathedral, where Louis made offerings of a great ruby ring and other precious gifts.

  Then he had hastened back to France to prepare for the crowning of his heir, Philip Augustus, now grown almost to manhood. Louis had not been there to see it. A massive apoplexy suddenly struck him down and effectively ended his reign. He had lingered for more than a year, as his crafty and ambitious son seized the reins of government—and now, poor shadow of his former self, he had gone to his much-deserved rest. His former wife paid him the compliment of her tears as she looked back on his virtues and tried to forget that he had once been a timorous young man who drove her to distraction because he was better suited to the cloister than to wielding a scepter and doing his duty by her in bed.

  “It’s odd that all that talk of divorce suddenly died down,” Eleanor reflected as she and Amaria sat at their embroidery in a window embrasure, enjoying an unseasonably warm breeze. Over the years, she had painstakingly taught her maid the art of plying her needle to decorative effect, and Amaria proved a willing pupil. They were now working on an altar frontal for the chapel.

  Amaria remained silent, but that was nothing unusual. She had the peasant’s way of few words.

  “The last I heard, Henry had appealed to the Pope, but that was years ago,” Eleanor went on. “He must have thought better of it. Nevertheless, being thwarted by His Holiness should not stop him from marrying Richard to Alys. They should have been wed long since.” She rethreaded some red silk through her needle, then looked up. To her consternation, she saw that Amaria’s eyes were filled with tears.

  “What’s the matter?” she asked.

  “Nothing,” muttered the woman.

  “No one weeps for nothing,” Eleanor said. “Have you had bad news?”

  Amaria shook her head. “Really, my lady, ’tis nothing.”

  “Now you have me worried!” her mistress declared. “Tell me what troubles you. I command it!”

  “You won’t like it,” Amaria said in a low voice.

  “Tell me!” ordered Eleanor, really worried now. “Has someone died?” Her heart was instantly pounding. If it was one of her children, she did not think she could bear it.

  Amaria braced herself. “There be rumors that the King has got the Princess Alys with child.” She omitted to mention that these rumors had been fueling the public imagination for years now, and that they alleged far more than she’d revealed.

  Eleanor caught her breath. So … Everything suddenly became clear. She instinctively knew that rumor spoke truth—or something like it. How could Henry have stooped so low? To compromise the honor of a princess of France was bad enough, but when that princess was his son’s betrothed—that was another matter entirely! Disgust consumed her.

  When she regained her composure, another thought struck home. How long had this been going on? Was it the reason why she had heard no more of a divorce? And had she been the only person left in ignorance of what was going on? If Amaria had heard these rumors, then it was a certainty that most of England had too.

  She wondered if Louis had known, if he had spoken out. But surely not. He would hardly have gone to Becket’s shrine with Henry in the circumstances. And Richard—where did he stand in all this? She was outraged on Richard’s behalf, and incensed against Henry.

  She turned to Amaria, who was concentrating furiously on her sewing.

  “What more do you know of this matter?” she probed.

  “Only what that rumor said, lady,” Amaria lied. She was not about to repeat the gossip that accused Alys of having borne the King at least three children that died, or the shocked expletives of people scandalized to hear of Henry’s vile behavior. Nor would she say anything of those other rumors … Had it been the King who had put them about, perhaps seeking yet another pretext to put Eleanor away—this time for good?

  But Eleanor was ahead of her. “Talking of rumors,” she said, resolutely moving on from the horrible gossip about Henry, “I overheard Fulcold”—the chamberlain—“talking with Master FitzStephen the other day. They were in the outer chamber, but the door had been left open. I could not catch everything they said, but I am sure that I heard Fulcold say, ‘All the world knows that Queen Eleanor murdered Rosamund.’ And Master FitzStephen, dour old fellow that he is, actually laughed, so I supposed the remark to have been made in jest. But what an odd thing to say. How could I murder Rosamund, shut up as I have been these seven years?”

  Amaria mentally girded her loins; Eleanor could almost see her doing it.

  “There have been tales to that effect,” she said at length.

  “What tales? How could there be?” She could not credit it. Why should people always believe ill of her, especially when there was not the slightest justification for it? This really was too much!

  “Aye, there be all kinds of silly stories. I took little notice of them, they was so far-fetched, and as I knew them to be false—and I said so often, mark ye, my lady! But folks likes to believe such things.”

  Eleanor knew that. They livened up the daily round of ordinary people’s lives, provided the excitement that was lacking elsewhere. But she hated the idea of herself being the focus of such stupid and unjust calumnies.

  “Tell me what they say of me!” she demanded, her anger rising.

  “They say the King kept the Lady Rosamund—the Fair Rosamund, they call her—”

  “Putrid by now, I should think!” Eleanor interrupted.

  “They say you hated her, my lady, and that the King kept her shut up in a tower at Woodstock, for fear you would discover her, and had a maze put around the tower, so that you could never find the way in.”

  “There was a maze, but it was built for her pleasure,” Eleanor said. “This is just nonsense.”

  “Aye, it is nonsense, I know. Then you are supposed to have found a clue of thread or silk from the lady’s sewing basket, and followed it through the maze until you discovered her in her tower.”

  “And then I supposedly murdered her!” Eleanor sniffed furiously. “I should like to know how!”

  “Saving your pardon, but there are lots of gruesome stories,” Amaria admitted. “Some say you stripped her naked and roasted her between two fires, with venomous toads on her breasts; some say you let her bleed to death in a hot bath, some that you poisoned her, and others that you stabbed her with a dagger after
putting out her eyes. I say some people have a vivid imagination.”

  Eleanor had been listening to all this in mounting horror. “How could people think these things of me?” she cried. “It is all lies, vile lies. Yet they believe it, against all logic. I dare say some think this supposed murder is the cause for which I am still shut up.”

  “A few do,” Amaria confirmed. “Although I have heard other people scoff at the rumors. Not everyone believes them, mark me.”

  “But some do, and that is what offends me!” Eleanor cried. “How am I to defend myself against such slanders? I am powerless. Surely people realize that I could not possibly have had anything to do with Rosamund’s death.”

  As the words were spoken, a salutary inner voice reminded her that she had once taken pleasure in imagining herself doing vengeful violence on Rosamund’s body—and that she had rejoiced in the most un-Christian manner on hearing news of her rival’s death. But I would never actually have done her harm, she told herself; God knows, I shrink from bloodshed. And when I was told of her sufferings before she died, I realized that what is written in Scripture is true: Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I will repay. And then I felt remorse for my unseemly joy in her death, and a belated pity for her.

  “I will write to the King,” she vowed. “I will acquaint him of these terrible calumnies and demand that he publicly refute them. He must know that, even had I had the opportunity, I do not have it in me to do such a thing.”

  Ralph FitzStephen looked dubious when the Queen asked for writing materials so she could send a letter to the King. She had never ventured to write to Henry before, and he wasn’t sure if it was permitted or not; but, in the absence of specific instructions, he grudgingly gave his consent.

  Eleanor’s message was to the point:

  “Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England, to her Lord Henry, King of England, greetings,” she began. Then she simply said it had come to her notice that rumor unjustly accused her of murdering Rosamund de Clifford, and asked him to issue a public proclamation declaring her innocence. Left like that, it looked a bit abrupt, so she added two short sentences: “I trust you are in health. The Lord have you in His keeping.” Then she signed her name, showed it to a suspicious FitzStephen, and sealed it.

  There was no response.


  Winchester, 1181

  Geoffrey and Constance were married—it had been a summer wedding—and Henry had gone straight back to England afterward and made his bastard son, the other Geoffrey, Lord Chancellor of England. Eleanor shook her head in dismay at both pieces of news. Devious her Geoffrey might be, but Constance was worse, and was probably running rings around him. As for the bastard, the King was heaping far too many rewards on him: he was Archdeacon of Rouen, treasurer of York Minster, and the proud owner of two castles in Anjou. She could foresee jealousy poisoning his relations with his legitimate siblings, and of course there was no telling where the young man’s ambition might lead him. Henry, she feared, was making a rod for his own back.

  Recent news from over the sea was not good. Joanna had borne, with great difficulty, a son who died at birth. And Matilda was in exile with her husband, who had quarreled with the Emperor and fled from Germany; the word was that the couple might seek refuge in England. Eleanor wept for her daughters, and prayed for Matilda to come home, that she might comfort her. It had been thirteen years since she had set eyes on her, and she hungered to see her. She longed to see all her children. Her heart quailed at the thought of another lonely, unhappy Christmas.

  She would have thought that eight years of imprisonment had taught her patience and resignation, but it had not. She’d relived the events leading up to her sons’ rebellion a thousand times and still felt, deep within her, that she had been right to support them. She knew that if she had her chance again, she would make the same choice, because it had been the only, the right, choice. A mother’s instinct was to defend her children. Yet what a terrible price she had paid for it. Never hearing from them, by Henry’s express order, she wondered if they still cherished the same affection for her—or if she was now but a distant memory in their young minds.

  Thank God her spirit was still strong, unquenched by adversity, even if her body was aging. She had lost weight, and her mirror reflected a haunted face with the skin stretched lightly over the bones beneath; it was too pale from her long confinement, even if she was allowed to take the air in the garden these days. And there was always a yearning look in her eyes.

  Of Henry, she rarely thought these days, unless it was with sadness or in passing. There was no room left in her for bitterness. She had prayed often for the grace to forgive, and with the long passage of time, found that such grace had been accorded her.

  Occasionally, at night, when she lay awake with Amaria snoring peacefully beside her—she’d gotten used to that, but God knew it had taken all her patience—she would imagine that it was her husband who lay there in the darkness, and would remember his hand reaching across to claim her, and the weight of his body as he mounted hers. Those were the worst moments, for even now she could feel the surge of desire, almost to the point where she feared she might go mad if she could not assuage it. Henry had been such an exceptional lover that she could never forget the joy and sense of liberation that she’d experienced in his arms. But then she would find herself back on the old treadmill, remembering that he had never been faithful to her, and that all the love they shared had not counted for much in the long run. Her memories were forever tainted; it was best not to think of the past, but to dwell on the mundane round of her daily life and the things of the spirit. But oh, how she yearned for a man to warm her bed in the darkest reaches of the night!


  Caen, 1182

  Henry’s eyes swept over the packed hall of the Norman Exchequer in the castle of Caen with satisfaction. They had come in response to his summons. His sons were here, and together, in this fine new building, they would preside over a glittering Yuletide court that had been deliberately arranged to rival any that ambitious puppy, Philip of France, might hold in Paris.

  The festivities were in full swing, the hall smoky from the fire that blazed merrily in the central hearth, and lit by a giant circular iron candelabra, suspended from the roof between the high arched windows. It was the early hours of Christmas morning, and the court, having attended Midnight Mass, was in high spirits, tucking into the traditional feast known in the duchy as Le Réveillon.

  Henry was keeping a wary eye on his sons, who were ranged on either side of him at the high table. It was not going to be a happy gathering. The Young King had arrived in the company of Bertran de Born, whom Henry did not like or trust, and was in a foul mood; the King watched him sitting there sulking and pointedly ignoring his wife, whose homely face bore a strained, troubled expression. Henry thought it odd that for once his eldest son had not brought William Marshal with him; the two were normally inseparable, and the King approved of William’s influence on his hothead of an heir.

  For Young Henry had not only upset Queen Marguerite, but had fallen out spectacularly with Richard, who was glowering heatedly at him down the table—their father had to ensure that they were seated as far apart as possible. The quarrel had erupted back in spring, in Aquitaine, where the young Duke Richard’s harsh rule finally provoked his volatile vassals to open rebellion. The evil genius behind this was the malicious adventurer Bertran de Born, who saw Richard’s oppression as the rape of his land, and had incited the Young King to join the rebels. Resentful of his brother having more power than himself, that rash young man had been easy to persuade. Not to be left out, Geoffrey, greedily anticipating the spoils of fighting, hastened to join him. Aquitaine had been abruptly plunged into war, with one brother against the other two.

  For some months, Henry had no choice but to let them get on with it, having his hands full in Normandy, but as soon as the campaigning season came to an end in the autumn, and he summoned the Young King north, meanin
g to divert him from the bloodbath in the South, the arrogant young fool loudly demanded that he cede to him Normandy and Anjou. When Henry angrily refused, the Young King stormed off in a temper to Paris, where that puppy Philip—who would soon need to be firmly muzzled—had welcomed him with sympathetic arms and fallen to plotting with him.

  Young Henry had stormed back to Rouen, demanding to be given the power that should be his. He would take the Cross and go on crusade, he threatened, if the King refused his reasonable demand. Indeed, he would prefer banishment to being treated like a subordinate. He was a king, was he not? Or had he imagined those coronations at Westminster and Winchester?

  Henry had ignored the sarcasm. He had also ignored his heir’s demands, which left the young fool threatening suicide. In the end, worn down by the pressure, the King bought his son off with a generous allowance and sent him to live with his sister Matilda at Argentan Castle, where Henry had offered her and her husband and children refuge during their exile. Having given his oath not to make further demands, the Young King, with Queen Marguerite in tow, went off to join her household. Henry hoped that Matilda might talk some sense into him; she had a lot of her wise grandmother and namesake in her. But it seemed that his hopes had been in vain.

  Henry had insisted, in the interests of restoring peace, that all his sons attend the Christmas court. Matilda was present too; she had grown into a handsome matron of twenty-four, and was now the mother of a large brood, of whom Henry was inordinately proud.

  Dark-haired Geoffrey was exerting his usual charm, his ready flow of words smoother than oil, but Henry knew him to be slippery, grasping, and dangerous. He had few scruples—there had been disturbing reports of him plundering abbeys and churches at will—and although he was of tireless endeavor, he was a hypocrite in nearly everything that mattered, and certainly not to be trusted.

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