Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  5

  Blois and Port-de-Piles, 1152

  “Free at last,” Eleanor kept saying to herself, spurring on her horse and cantering southwest across the lush wide valley of the Loire, now lit by the rising moon. She had been saying it for several hours now, ever since they had set off from Beaugency that morning. “Free. I am free!”

  The Archbishop, her lords, and her women were following close behind her, huddled in their thick cloaks; and on either side, carrying lighted torches, rode the helmeted men-at-arms who made up her escort. They had long ago lost sight of the sumpter mules and the carts, heavily laden with her personal possessions, so urgent was the need to move ever southward and put a great distance between her and her party and the kingdom of France. If King Louis got wind of what she was planning, he would certainly send a force to seize her and bring her back. It was unlikely that he would get wind of it, of course—she had always been better than he at subterfuge—but even so, she was aware of the pressing need to make haste. And, of course, every league brought her closer to a reunion with Henry.

  She had already dispatched a messenger to him with the summons he had been waiting for. Now it was imperative that they both get safely and speedily to Poitiers, before the world heard of their intentions. Her lords and the Archbishop were in her confidence: they knew of her bold and daring plan.

  Her standard-bearer galloped ahead, his fluttering pennant announcing to all who saw it that this way came Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou, and—until this morning—Queen of France. The counts had shaken their heads at her boldness in thus proclaiming her identity to the world.

  “Madame, you are no longer queen, no longer under royal protection, and therefore at the mercy of any chance adventurer,” they had urged.

  “They would not dare,” she had challenged, her green eyes flashing.

  “Madame,” they had protested, “you are no ordinary heiress. You own half this land of the Franks, and there are many, make no doubt, who would risk much to match with you.”

  “I am already spoken for,” she declared, in a tone that brooked no further argument. “He who would lay hands on the future wife of Henry FitzEmpress would be a fool indeed.” As she said it, she felt a thrill of lust at the memory of Henry’s strong hands on her body, hands that would take what they wanted and hold onto it, be it a woman, a duchy, even a kingdom. So she had prevailed, and there it flew, always in her sights, the silk banner embroidered with the lion of Poitou. Her own emblem. She had insisted on it.

  “It will be a blessed relief not to have to sleep in that gloomy barn of a bedchamber in Paris.” She smiled at her noble lady-in-waiting, Torqueri de Bouillon, thankful that she would never again have to lie frigidly beside Louis in that great bed, both of them striving to keep as far apart as possible. “Or with that monk I was married to!” Her smile was impish. She felt like a girl once more, for all her thirty years. And yet, she thought, smiling again and recalling the image that had gazed back at her that very morning from the burnished mirror, she still wore those years lightly: they had barely touched her. She knew she was beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful. Enough courtiers and troubadours had told her so, without flattery. And Louis, of course. He had taken pride in her loveliness, despite himself. She knew she had been his prize possession.

  But not prized enough. The smile faded to a frown. She stretched in her saddle, rubbing her aching back and smoothing down her gown, fingers splayed over her tiny waist and slender hips; she could feel her flesh taut beneath the rich samite, unslackened by her two pregnancies. She turned to her lords.

  “How far to the river?” she asked.

  “A mile at most,” the Count of Châtellerault told her. He pointed ahead. “Look, that is Blois in the distance.” Eleanor could see tiny pinpoints of light in the darkness, and realized that they must be flares on the château ramparts. There was a bridge across the Loire at Blois, and that was the place they were making for.

  “God grant we may cross the bridge unobserved,” Eleanor muttered.

  “Madame,” Torqueri said fearfully, her soft voice barely audible on the night wind, “none of us will rest easy until you are safely back in Poitiers.”

  Poitiers! Eleanor thrilled again at the name. Home. To be home at last would be bliss indeed. And when Henry kept his promise … She shuddered, seized with another tremor of unbidden desire. She did not fear the dangers of the journey. She would get home safely, she must get home … She felt herself invincible.

  They had brought food to eat on the road. Some hours ago she had feasted by the wayside on cold capon, white bread, and the rich, sweet wine of the region. A simple meal, but delicious fare, appreciated all the more because she was in such a good mood. She was hungry at this moment, but willing to ignore the emptiness in her belly. Food was not her priority just now; they could buy more on the morrow. For the present, they must make all speed.

  They were nearing Blois. Above them loomed the dark outline of the Tour de Foix, standing sentinel above the River Loire. There was a horseman galloping toward them in the dim light. It was one of the scouts who had been sent ahead to spy out the land. His mount was lathered with sweat.

  “Lady,” he said breathlessly, bowing low in the saddle. “Go no farther! There is a band of armed men riding this way. They bear the device of Count Thibaut of Blois.”

  “Perchance my Lord Count wishes to pay his respects and offer us hospitality,” Eleanor replied, a mischievous smile playing about her lips, since she knew that to be most unlikely, for there was bad blood between their families. But that was in the past, and supposedly forgiven and forgotten. They were all meant to be friends now.

  “Nay, lady, by their words, which I overheard, they are planning to lie in wait for us. They were saying something about Count Thibaut having plans for you.”

  “Does he indeed?” she replied grimly. “Of course, he is a widower, so I can well imagine what they are. You have done gallantly to warn me.”

  The lords and the captains were eager to be gone; their taut faces betrayed their alarm. This was what they had feared. “Madame, we cannot risk the bridge. We must go by another way,” the Count of Angoulême urged.

  “À moi!” Eleanor cried, as her forebears had done many times in the field of battle, and spurred her horse, knowing they must hurry and get away from this place if they wished to avoid disaster. She had no mind to end her days as the Countess of Blois.

  Moving by stealth along the river banks, one of Eleanor’s captains came upon a barge tethered to a jetty, which he gleefully appropriated. Huddled together in the sanctuary it offered, and almost crushed by such baggage as they could squeeze into the remaining space, Eleanor and her companions uttered not a word as the craft glided swiftly along the river, making its silent way toward Tours. Only when dawn broke did they relax enough to begin a debate as to which way they should now take.

  “Let us make south for the Vienne, and cross the Creuse at Port-de-Piles,” Eleanor decided. On the other bank, the men-at-arms were waiting with the Archbishop, having been permitted to cross the bridge at Blois after convincing the guards they were merely escorting His Grace back to his diocese.

  The further south they rode from the Loire, the safer Eleanor felt. But as they neared Port-de-Piles, another scout came hastening toward them.

  “Go no farther, lady!” he cried. “There is an ambush lying in wait for you ahead.”

  “God’s teeth!” Eleanor swore, as the Archbishop winced. “Another fortune hunter! Who is it this time?”

  “I fear it is young Geoffrey of Anjou, lady, Duke Henry’s brother.”

  “That young idiot? He’s still wet behind the ears, surely. Well, my good angel, for that you certainly are, we will disappoint him of his quarry. My lords!” Eleanor turned to the two counts, who were waiting grim-faced in their saddles. “What do you suggest?”

  “We should swing south, madame, to where we can ford the Vienne, and then make a dash across country for
Poitiers.”

  “That makes sense,” Eleanor agreed, as the others voiced their approval of the plan, and the weary Archbishop craved leave to make his own way to Bordeaux. Having bidden the old man a quick, affectionate farewell, she wheeled around her horse and spurred it on, smiling to herself as she imagined young Geoffrey’s fury when he discovered that she had eluded him. How enraged Henry would be when he learned that his little brother had plotted to supplant him!

  6

  Poitiers, 1152

  As the flat swaths of the Loire Valley had given way to the great plain of Poitou with its lush countryside, scattered castles, solid Romanesque churches, and stone longhouses with red-tiled roofs, Eleanor’s sense of elation burgeoned. It was the sight of those red tiles that had first moved her. You never saw such things in the dreary North. Soon, she would be home!

  She had loosed her hair, as a gesture to her newly unwed status, and luxuriated in it streaming behind her in the warm wind that blew across from the Atlantic sea, which lay some miles to the west. Straight-backed she rode, her eager eyes on the road ahead, the road that led to her city of Poitiers. It could not be far now. She had donned her crimson bliaut with its fitted bodice and sweeping, gold-embroidered skirts and topped it off with a splendid blue mantle for her homecoming. And yes, there it was ahead, majestic on its promontory above the River Clain, her fair city! Here, the Romans had come in ancient times; here, Charles Martel had vanquished the Saracens long centuries before; here, in a fine church within the walls, lay the blessed relics of St. Radegonde, the queenly patron saint of Poitiers. And there were her people, bursting through the gates, clamoring to greet her, their duchess come back to her own.

  How they cheered as she trotted at the head of her escort through the packed streets, her standard going before her! They called down blessings on her for her beauty, because she was one of them, and because she had booted out the hated French. As she was carried into the great cathedral of St. Pierre, there to give thanks for her safe homecoming, Eleanor vowed to herself that, with God’s help, she would henceforth dedicate her life to her people, and never again subject them to the hateful rule of a foreigner.

  After mass on Easter Sunday, the duchess made her way in procession to the spacious ducal apartments in the Maubergeonne Tower of the palace of Poitiers, and took her place in the high chair of her ancestors in the circular council chamber. Colorful banners hung high on the sandy stone walls, which had been crudely painted with scenes of long-past battles. The chief vassals of Aquitaine, who had gathered for the festival at the duchess’s summons, seated themselves at the long table before her.

  Their eyes were on her, their newly returned duchess; they were waiting to find out what she would be like as their liege lady, and—more importantly—whom she would marry. None of them had even considered the possibility of her ruling alone: she was a woman, and women were weak creatures, not fit to wield dominion over men. Yet she was her father’s daughter and they were loyal to her, most of them after their fashion, and would remain so provided she did not take a husband who would subvert their autonomy and interfere too much in the affairs of the duchy. Having just gotten rid of the hated French, they were unwilling to stomach another foreign interloper. But the duchess must marry and bear heirs, of course, and she must have a strong man as her protector: they accepted that. They had all been told of her plans to marry Henry of Anjou, and were agreed that the young Duke of Normandy—now also Count of Anjou and Maine after his father’s death—did not pose too much of a threat to them, however formidable his reputation. He would more than likely be preoccupied with this northern kingdom of England, which looked set to be his too one day—and he was young enough to be molded to their will.

  Eleanor was surveying them all as they waited for the feasting to begin. She knew, from her father, and from bitter experience, that her vassals were all but ungovernable. Away from the courts of her chief cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux, entrenched in their remote castles and hilltop fastnesses, they could thumb their noses at ducal jurisdiction. So it was best to sweeten them now by clever diplomacy and gifts—and the Lord knew she had been generous enough with those already—to keep them friendly.

  “Sirs,” she began, her voice low and mellifluous, “I have asked you here formally to inform you of the annulment of my union with King Louis, and to approve my coming marriage. You all know that I have consented to wed the Duke of Normandy, and that I must do so without the sanction of King Louis, who is overlord of us both, for he would surely refuse it.” A mischievous smile played around her lips. The lords looked at her approvingly: they understood such underhand dealings, and their resentment of the French was such that they were more than happy to overlook this blatant breach of feudal etiquette.

  “Our wedding must be arranged without delay, or it might never take place at all,” Eleanor told them. “This marriage will seriously undermine the power of France, and if King Louis discovered my plans, even he, weakling that he is, might fight. Once Henry and I are wedded and bedded, he can do nothing about it.”

  “You must send again to the duke, madame,” her uncle, Hugh of Châtellerault, urged. “What if your messenger has been intercepted?”

  “I will dispatch envoys today,” Eleanor promised, inwardly willing Henry to come soon, and wondering why he had not responded to her first message. “And now to other business. I am resolved to cancel and annul all acts and decrees made by King Louis in Aquitaine.” The lords looked at her approvingly. So far she was doing well. “And,” she went on, “I intend to replace them by charters issued in my own name, and to renew all grants and privileges. My lieges, there is much work to be done, but before we get down to business, you are my guests, and we have much to celebrate.”

  At her signal, the servitors entered the chamber in a line, each bearing succulent-smelling dishes: mussels and eels in garlic and wine, salty mutton, fat chickens, the tasty local beans known as mojettes, ripe goat’s cheeses, and figs. All were offered in turn to the duchess and her lords, as the ewerers came around with tall flagons of red wine. Then a toast was drunk to the happy conclusion of the marriage negotiations and the future prosperity of Poitou. Tomorrow might bring war, but for now they would enjoy the feast!

  It was May, with the palace gardens in colorful bloom, when Henry FitzEmpress rode proudly into Poitiers to claim his bride. Word of his coming had been brought ahead to Eleanor, and she was waiting with her chief vassals to greet him in the Grande Salle of the palace, the magnificent arcaded Hall of Lost Footsteps, as it was popularly known, because the chamber was so long and the beamed roof so high that the sound of a footfall barely carried at all.

  Eleanor knew she looked her most beautiful: she had donned a vivid blue trailing bliaut of the finest silk tissue, patterned all over with gold fleurs-de-lis, and so cunningly cut and girdled that it revealed every seductive curve of her voluptuous figure. Over it she wore a shimmering sleeveless mantle of gold, banded with exquisite embroidery. Shining gold bracelets adorned her arms, and from her ears hung pendants of glittering precious stones. Still defying the convention that constrained matrons to wear wimples covering their hair, she had on her head just a delicate circlet of wrought gold encrusted with pearls and tiny rubies, which left her copper tresses cascading freely over her shoulders and down her back. Her eyes were shining with excitement, her lips parted in anticipation … This marriage that she had dreamed of, with its endless, exciting possibilities, was soon to be a reality; and tonight she would lie with Henry. At last! Her body trembled at the prospect.

  And here he was, striding purposefully into the vast hall, attired in his habitual riding clothes—she was already aware that he cared little for fashion or rich robes—and wearing a jubilant smile. The sight of his face suffused her with joy. She would always remember this moment as one of the happiest of her life.

  “My lady!” Henry bowed courteously, then came briskly toward Eleanor as she rose from her throne, and jumped eagerly up the step to the
dais. The touch of his flesh as he took hold of her hands set her senses on fire. She had become anxious, as the weeks since their trysts in Paris turned into months, that imagining the attraction between them to have seemed greater than it was, that it would turn out to have been an illusion. That was of no moment, of course, in the making of marriages for policy, for there were powerfully compelling political reasons for this union, regardless of how she or Henry felt. But having known the sweetest passion in his arms, and pleasure that she could not have imagined possible, she thought she would die if she were to be cheated of it. Now, however, her fears were gone, for there was everything she had hoped there would be in Henry’s ardent gaze and the firm, possessive grasp of his hands—and in her own response to him.

  “I must apologize for my tardiness in coming to you,” he told her as she gestured to him to sit beside her; already, a second throne had been set ready for Aquitaine’s future duke. “A delegation of nobles arrived from England, begging me to delay no longer in making good my claim to the throne. My supporters there are apparently losing patience. Well, I sent to tell them they will have to wait just a while yet. I have more important things to do.” He smiled at her. “You did wonderfully well!” he said. “I never looked to marry you so soon.”

  “Louis was more amenable than I had expected,” Eleanor told him, her eyes devouring every line of his face.

  “He won’t be when he knows what we are plotting!” Henry laughed. “But we can deal with that.”

  “Now my lords are waiting to be presented to you,” Eleanor said, and beckoned them to come forward, one by one. They approached warily, eyeing the young Duke of Normandy with speculation. Foremost among them were Hugh, Count of Châtellerault, and Raoul de Faye, her mother’s brothers: Hugh, serious, stammering, and earnest: and the younger Raoul, witty, able, and prepared—to a point—to charm his new master. Then came eighteen-year-old William Taillefer, the handsome Count of Angoulême, so eager to prove himself to the renowned Duke of Normandy in the field and in matters of state; and after him, the loyal and chivalrous Geoffrey de Rancon, Lord of Taillebourg, whom Eleanor had long forgiven for his rash but well-meant actions during the crusade, which had led to the slaughter of seven thousand soldiers and his being sent back home in disgrace by King Louis. Henry had evidently heard of this too, for he was regarding Geoffrey warily as the man made his obeisance.

 
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