Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  When she entered the princes’ lodgings hand in hand with Henry, three young men and a young woman rose at once and bowed low. For a confused moment Eleanor hardly recognized any of them, and then she knew them all for her own—much older, of course, and grown to adulthood, but still her children, those she had left to her, and still inestimably loved.

  In an instant they were embracing and kissing her, overjoyed to be reunited with their mother, and there were, inevitably, more tears, but happy ones this time. How, she thought, could she ever have doubted their love for her?

  “Let me look at you all!” Eleanor cried in delight, as Henry watched them, a wry smile on his face. With the conversation flowing excitedly, she could not take her eyes off Richard, now a magnificent golden giant of almost twenty-six who towered above everyone else. “My great one!” she breathed, all his cruelties and depredations forgotten; she had long since convinced herself that reports of them had been greatly exaggerated, and that it was his father who had really been to blame. She was thrilled to find that in manhood, Richard had such natural authority and presence, and seeing him so powerfully built and charismatic, she did not doubt that his reputation as a warrior equal to Mars was well deserved. He was a born leader, who clearly had the ability to prove himself superior to all others.

  Geoffrey, a year older, had not fulfilled his earlier promise of maturing into a handsome man. The only dark-haired one of her sons, he was short of stature and blunt of feature, and his bearing lacked a certain princely grace. But his fair words to his mother belied his appearance; she had always known that this son was blessed with acute intelligence and mental agility, and yet … and yet, she also had a stronger impression than ever that there was a darker Geoffrey, a devilish Geoffrey that lurked only a little way beneath the clever and urbane front that he presented to the world.

  She could not believe that John, the youngest of her children, was the young man who had now grown as tall as his brothers, who seemed still to treat him as a child to be humored, while Henry behaved toward John with affectionate indulgence. Indeed, the light seemed to shine from his eyes whenever he looked on the youth, an obvious irritation to Richard and Geoffrey. Eleanor could detect a certain jealousy … It was evident that despite their outward bonhomie, these three sons of hers would always be rivals.

  John was courteous to her, yet held himself more aloof than the rest. She could not blame him for that. She suspected that he resented her for having effectively abandoned him at Fontevrault in his infancy; she perceived in his conversation—the diffident conversation of a young man who thinks he knows everything—a certain antipathy toward the Church, which she guessed might have had its roots in his early experiences. Yet she knew that she could never explain to John why she had left him in the care of the nuns. Such things were better put firmly behind them all and consigned to the past. If we allow the past to blight our lives, we will never make a success of this reunion, she told herself again. At least she could look on John, with his dark red curls and his strongly built body, which so favored his father’s, with warmth now, and actually care about what happened to him, as became a natural mother. That was a significant blessing.

  She rejoiced to see Matilda; it was a special delight to be reunited with this daughter she had thought never to set eyes on again, although nothing—nothing—could equal the joy she felt at seeing Richard after all the hard, cruel years of separation; and her cup was full when Matilda summoned a nurse, who escorted into the room a procession of seven little Saxon children to greet their grandmother—the first of her grandchildren that Eleanor had ever seen. One of the girls, she was touched to hear, had been named in her honor. She bent and hugged the sturdy little boys, Otto and Henry, lifted the baby Lothar into her arms, and made much of the pretty daughters, especially Richenza—who told an amused Eleanor that she would really rather be called Matilda while she was in England—then there was Gertrude, Ingibiorg, and tiny Nell, her namesake.

  She looked on Matilda’s brood with pride, while reflecting that it was sad that none of her other children had been similarly fruitful. The Young King’s son had died, as had Joanna’s and Eleanor’s firstborn. So far there was no whisper that Geoffrey’s Constance, who had now joined the gathering and was fawning possessively over her husband, might be enceinte, and Richard and John were as yet unmarried. Both were betrothed, of course, but, John being only sixteen, it was Richard’s situation that perturbed the Queen more than anything. So far she had encountered neither sight nor sound of the Princess Alys. Was it true that Henry had at one time meant to marry her himself? If so, he had abandoned the idea years since, for she had never heard any more of it. When the opportunity arose, she promised herself, she would tactfully raise the matter of Richard’s marriage with Henry. It must take place soon.

  But for now that could wait. There were more pleasant matters at hand, and so much news to catch up on. It was enough that, tonight, she was feasting her eyes at long last on her children, with Henry at her side. Lord Jesus, she prayed, let all our strife and troubles be firmly behind us. And with a radiant smile that captured all the love and hope in her heart, she raised her goblet in yet another toast to this wonderful reunion.

  58

  Normandy and Angers, 1183

  Once more Eleanor assumed her rightful place as Queen. When Henry led her out before the court the following evening, and they took their seats at the high table for a celebratory feast, there were cheers and applause as the company rose to its feet. It was all quite overwhelming. She had not imagined that her husband’s courtiers would have thought so kindly of her.

  She was pleased to find Hugh of Avalon seated at her right hand. Although she knew he did not approve of her marriage, she liked and respected him as a man of integrity and holiness, and she could sense that he was happy to see her here.

  “I am more than glad to see good relations restored between you and the King, my lady,” he told her warmly.

  “God has answered my prayers,” she said fervently, and then, with a touch of mischief, added, “I am to be on my best behavior now, if I am not to incur Henry’s hatred once more.”

  Hugh gave her a long look. “I think you have both learned wisdom, which means that something good has come out of this whole sorry business. And this reunion does not really surprise me. Those whom the King once loved, he rarely comes to hate. And he needs you, my lady, more than he realizes. God works in ways that are incomprehensible to us, but He has brought you together, and taught you both to forgive. Would that it could have been in happier circumstances. This has been a sad time for you both. I am deeply sorry for your loss.”

  Eleanor inclined her head, not wanting to go there. “What I want to achieve is a good working partnership with my lord the King.”

  “I believe he desires that too,” the prior told her. “He no longer wishes to give his sons cause to criticize him for treating you harshly.”

  “And did they so criticize him?”

  “Oh, indeed—constantly!” Hugh smiled. “Your children are very loyal to you. It is a happy day for them, to have their parents reconciled.”

  “Indeed it is,” said the Queen, her heart full. But we are not fully reconciled, she thought. She should not have expected it, of course, yet she had wondered, briefly, last night, if Henry, having poured his heart out to her earlier, would come to her bed and cement their reunion with his poor, aging body, in which she suspected the old Adam doubtless still lurked. Despite everything, she would very much have liked him to, for she desperately needed the comfort of that unique close union with another human being—and to prove to herself that she could still experience sexual pleasure, which would have enabled her briefly to distance herself from her grief. But he had not come, and she had lain there—blissfully alone for the first night in years—thinking how foolish she had been even to imagine it.

  Overjoyed to be at liberty and free to ride where she would at will, Eleanor set off on her travels to the disputed fiefs. She
was received everywhere with honor and acclaim, and found herself slipping back effortlessly into the queenly role that had once been a way of life for her. It was very gratifying, and moving, and she was proud to find that she had not lost her common touch, and that the efforts she was making on Henry’s behalf were going a long way toward restoring her own popularity.

  Then came the summons to Angers, preceded by rumors that trouble had broken out yet again between the King and his sons. Immediately she hastened south, determined to do all in her power to put things right; but almost as soon as she had dismounted in the castle bailey, Richard was there at her elbow, his handsome face dark with anger.

  “Father is out hunting. I need to speak with you urgently,” he muttered.

  “At least let me get my breath back,” she chided, then beckoned him to follow her to her lodgings. As Amaria—an Amaria whose bulky figure was now encased in a stylish green bliaut—bustled about in the inner chamber unpacking her gear, a job she had to do by herself, as Henry had demurred about recalling Eleanor’s other ladies (no doubt they were tainted with suspicion too, and he thought they incited me to rebellion, she told herself), she poured some wine and bade Richard sit down with her in the solar.

  “Now, tell me what is going on,” she ordered.

  Richard eased his long body onto a settle and looked at his mother, frowning, as if weighing up how much to reveal to her. “It’s about Alys, my betrothed,” he said at last. “Father is keeping her under guard at Winchester. I have asked time and again for him to let us be married, but he will not. Now Philip is insisting that Father honor the betrothal treaty and arrange the wedding without further delay, but still he stalls.”

  The door opened and Henry walked in. “Plotting rebellion again?” he asked his son nastily.

  “That’s unfair, my lord!” Eleanor protested. “I know nothing of what has been going on. Richard was acquainting me with the facts.”

  “You mean, he’s been telling you his one-sided view of affairs,” Henry growled, sitting down heavily and rubbing his lame leg, which Eleanor now knew was the casualty of a well-aimed kick from a horse. “Richard, would you leave us, please.” Richard glared at his father mutinously, but bit back the protest and stalked out, slamming the door. Henry’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing.

  “Philip wants to divide my empire and weaken it,” he told Eleanor. “To that end, he seeks to drive a wedge between me and my sons. If I marry Richard to Alys, Philip will almost certainly use that alliance to bind Richard closer to him and turn him against me.”

  “That’s a fair argument,” Eleanor observed. “By all accounts, Philip is a slippery character, not like his father at all.”

  “He’s crafty and greedy, and suspicious too—they say he sees an assassin hiding behind every tree. But never underestimate him: he’s as shrewd and calculating as they come. Dangerous too. An enemy to reckon with, and believe me, I’ve seen off a few in my time.”

  “Can you not break the betrothal?”

  “And lose the county of Berry, Alys’s dowry?”

  Eleanor remembered Henry’s glee at having secured that rich prize, all those years ago. But what of Alys herself? she wondered. Is it because he still lusts after marrying her himself and cannot bear to send her back to Paris?

  “No,” Henry was saying, “I have enough to deal with just now with Richard and John quarreling, and I don’t want Philip exploiting it.”

  This was news to their mother. “Richard and John?” Was there no end to this family strife?

  “Yes,” Henry sighed. “Richard is now my heir.” They were both silent for a moment, remembering why. “And yet,” he continued, with an effort, “it seems unfair that he should get England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine, while John has only a few scattered estates and Ireland. The Irish don’t like the idea, but it might be helpful to have a royal presence in Dublin and the Pale surrounding it to keep their native kings in order. What I was saying was that John will inherit very little, and I want to redress that, if people are not to call him ‘John Lackland’.” He laughed grimly at his own joke, then got up and began pacing restlessly around the room. Eleanor could sense his discomfort, and that what he was about to say might not be what she would want to hear.

  Henry turned to face her. “I have called both Richard and John to make peace between them, and a settlement that is fairer to John—and I’ve brought you in because I want your approval.” It concerns Aquitaine, she thought, in alarm.

  “I want Richard to cede Aquitaine to John, and have John swear fealty to him as his overlord,” Henry said.

  “No!” Eleanor said unhesitatingly.

  “Be reasonable,” Henry wheedled. “What does it matter if Richard or John has Aquitaine?”

  “It matters to me!” she retorted, rising to face him. “I nurtured Richard as my heir. The South is in his blood. John neither knows nor cares about Aquitaine.”

  “He would quickly learn to, if he were its duke. Eleanor, you’re not very good at concealing the fact that Richard is your favorite and that you have very little love for John. That blinds you to all other considerations.” Henry’s gaze was challenging.

  “Ask Richard what he thinks of this plan, then!” she flared. “You know you will dispose of Aquitaine regardless of what I think—but he is the one most nearly concerned. And, I warn you, Henry: alienate him over this—and you will drive him into the arms of Philip!”

  “Very well, we will have him here!” Henry said, and shouted down the stairwell for someone to go and fetch the Duke of Aquitaine.

  Richard could not speak, he was so enraged. A look of thunder clouded his chiseled features.

  “Well?” Henry prompted.

  “Are you going to ride roughshod over us both?” Eleanor asked him.

  “Richard?” his father barked. “My son, you must see that this is an altogether fairer disposition of my domains.”

  Richard thrust his furious face into the King’s. “I am a southerner. My Lady Mother raised me from my infancy to be her heir. I love that land of Aquitaine. I have spent years fighting to hold and keep it, and you ask me to relinquish it to John? To that light-minded, lazy, greedy wastrel who has barely set foot in Aquitaine, let alone learned how to govern it? Pshaw! The place will be a bloodbath within a week without a firm hand in control of it!”

  “I will give you Alys—now,” Henry said, as if he were dangling a carrot before a donkey. Richard threw him a strange look that Eleanor could not quite interpret.

  “Leave her out of it for now!” he snapped. “Tell me, Father—do you mean to make John your heir? Will it be Aquitaine now, and Normandy next, and then Anjou, Maine, and England—the whole bloody empire for the son you love best?” Eleanor caught her breath—that had not occurred to her.

  Henry’s face darkened. “No,” he spat. “How could you think that? Has Philip been whispering treason in your ear?”

  “He has good cause, with my marriage being continually postponed!” Richard was beside himself with rage. “He thinks you delay the wedding because you mean to marry Alys yourself, so that she can bear you sons and dispossess us.”

  Eleanor’s hand flew to her mouth. “Is this true, Henry?” she cried, appalled at the terrible prospect opened up by her son’s harsh words.

  “Of course not,” Henry answered, a shade too quickly. “It’s some nonsense that Philip has fed him. Besides, have I not just said he can marry Alys now?”

  “He has said that several times and retracted it,” Richard said, his tone bitter. “I wish I could believe him this time.”

  “You can have Alys if you surrender Aquitaine to John,” Henry offered brightly.

  “No!” said Eleanor.

  “I should have her anyway!” Richard roared. “We’ve been betrothed since we were children.”

  “Go away and think it over,” Henry told him.

  “I’ll go to Hell first!” his son riposted. “And I’ll appeal to the Church to support me, see if I don’t
!”

  “If you won’t marry her, I’ll give Alys to John,” Henry threatened.

  “You are plotting my ruin!” Richard yelled, and stormed to the door. “I knew it. Well, you won’t have to endure the sight of me any longer. I am off for Poitiers. Don’t think to see me back!”

  Eleanor looked coldly upon Henry. “And you think I caused the divisions in this family?” she asked scathingly. “You say you want peace between your sons, but it’s always only on your own terms. Do you want them to resent you? Do you want the years of your age to be overshadowed by endless discord and strife, so that you can find no abiding happiness or enjoy any peace and security?”

  “Peace, woman,” Henry growled. “Had you supported me, this would not have happened.”

  “Oh, I think Richard spoke for himself—he does not need his mother’s approval!” she retorted.

  59

  Berkhamstead, Woodstock, and Winchester, 1184

  Henry sent her back to England in the custody of Ralph FitzStephen. She knew he feared she might stir up more trouble in Richard’s defense, and smarted with the unfairness of it all. Although she had been promised her freedom, she was effectively a prisoner once more, presumed guilty until time should prove her innocent. The cage would be gilded, but it was a cage no less.

  She was forced to brave the turbulent January seas, then a hard ride to Berkhamstead Castle, Becket’s former luxurious residence, which was looking a little worn and frayed after years of neglect. Here, in company with the ghosts and remembrances of the past, she kept Easter with her daughter Matilda, who was pregnant yet again. Afterward, Matilda returned to the lodgings that had been assigned her in Winchester Castle, and Eleanor was removed to Woodstock.

 
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