Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  Eleanor’s heart was heavy, therefore, and her mood resentful when Henry arrived, limping pronouncedly, on a wet July day. But she was shocked out of her ill will by the change in him, a change that a mere year and a half had wrought. He had aged dreadfully and become grossly corpulent, and he seemed to be in some pain and physical distress, which was evident from the taut unease with which he carried himself.

  “I came to bid you farewell, my lady,” he told her, after kissing her hand briefly on greeting. “I am bound for France, to make an attack on the French and trounce that cub Philip once and for all.”

  Fear gripped her. “But what of Richard? You will not take up arms against him too?” she cried. “That would be terrible.”

  Henry’s eyes narrowed. “Once, you did not think so,” he reminded her. He could never forget her treachery. “Yet calm yourself. Richard and Philip have quarreled.”

  Thank God, she thought. That was one less thing to worry about.

  “Richard has risen against him and driven the French out of Berry,” Henry was saying.

  “Then, if Richard is for you, why are you keeping me here?” she blurted.

  “I do not trust Richard,” Henry stated, “and, forgive me, Eleanor, but I do not trust you either. When this thing is settled to my satisfaction, I will set you at liberty. Until then you stay here. I have given orders that you are to be afforded every comfort.”

  “I wish, for once and forever, that you could put the past behind us!” she burst out. Henry regarded her warily.

  “If I cannot, you have only yourself to blame,” he said heavily.

  “Henry, it’s been fifteen years, and in all that time, I have done nothing to your detriment or my dishonor! Doesn’t that prove to you that you need no longer fear me?”

  “I can’t help it,” he told her. “I dare not trust anyone now. I am suspicious of my own shadow. You, and our sons, I hold responsible for that. I was betrayed by those whom I trusted most. I cannot forget it.”

  “Then there is no help for us,” Eleanor said sadly, rising and walking over to the window, standing with her back to him so he would not see how deeply his words had affected her. “At least say you have forgiven me, even if you cannot forget.” So saying, she turned around and slowly stretched out a tentative hand to him. Henry stood there for a moment, hesitating, then he too reached out, and clasped it in his familiar callused grip.

  “I do forgive you, Eleanor,” he said simply. “Forgive me if I cannot forget. I thought I would never be able to forgive even, but I find myself growing old and not in the best of health, and I cannot risk going to my judgment without granting you the absolution that Our Lord enjoins in regard to those who have wronged us.” His grasp on her hand tightened. “I want you to say you forgive me too. I have not been the best of husbands.”

  Eleanor was filled with a sudden sense of foreboding, as if this might be her last chance to make things right with Henry—or as right as they could ever be now. “I forgive you, truly I do,” she said, meaning it wholeheartedly.

  “My lady,” he answered in a choked voice, and, bowing his head, raised her hand to his lips and kissed it again. The thought came unbidden to her that here they were, two people who had once worshipped each other passionately with their bodies, now reduced to the chaste contact of hands and lips. It was an unbearably poignant moment. What was it about this man, she asked herself, that tied her to him against all reason, when he had done so much to destroy the love she had cherished for him, and she had tried again and again to liberate herself from her thralldom?

  Henry recovered himself first, raising sick gray eyes to her. “I will free you as soon as I can,” he said gruffly. “All that remains now is for me to resolve my differences with Philip, by force, if necessary,” he said, swallowing.

  Eleanor looked at him fearfully. Having established this new, forgiving rapport with him, with the dawning hope of perhaps a happier reconciliation to come, she could not bear the thought of anything evil befalling him. “You are in no fit state to go to war!” she told him. “Have you looked at yourself in a mirror recently? Henry, what exactly is wrong with you? I know you are not well. Tell me!”

  “It’s nothing. A trifle.” He shrugged.

  “I’m not blind,” she persisted. “You are in pain.”

  Henry sighed. “I have a tear in my back passage,” he admitted. “It bleeds all the time, and festers, as I cannot keep it clean.”

  “Then you should not be riding a horse, still less going on long marches,” Eleanor reproved. “Can the doctors do nothing for you?”

  “No, they’re useless,” he said, frowning. “I’m sorry, Eleanor, but I have to settle matters with Philip. Then I can rest and give myself time to get better. Don’t look at me like that! I’ll be all right!”

  “Then may I at least give you one piece of advice, Henry?” she asked gently. “If you would keep Richard on your side, let him marry Alys without any further delays.”

  Henry frowned. “I cannot,” he said at length.

  “Why?” she persisted. “Is it because she is your leman?”

  He looked like a trapped animal, furtive and wanting to bolt. “You know?” he asked incredulously.

  “I have known for some time. Alys told me. I noticed that she was pregnant.” Eleanor paused.

  “You knew, and you never said anything?”

  “What was there to say, beyond warning you of your great folly and the magnitude of your sin, but I doubt you would have heeded me, of all people.” Her eyes, clear with sincerity, met his. “Henry, we were finished. The days when I lay with you wondering if another woman had enjoyed your body were long gone. I was shocked, yes, but mainly for Richard’s sake—and that silly girl’s. Alys did not come between us.”

  “Richard knows,” Henry said.

  “The whole world will have to know, if he marries her,” Eleanor warned. “Their union will be incestuous without a dispensation.”

  “As ours was,” Henry reminded her. “You had known my father. I often ask myself if we were cursed as a result. What else could explain all the evils that have befallen us and our issue?”

  “The fact that you are descended from the Devil might have something to do with it!” Eleanor smiled. “But Henry, not everything has been touched with evil. Look at the great empire that our marriage created!”

  “That too, Eleanor,” Henry said, shaking his head. “It’s been well nigh impossible holding it together; I have worn myself out trying to do so. It has caused nothing but strife and jealousies, and it will go on doing so, mark my words, maybe for hundreds of years even. Any fool should have seen that trying to unite such large domains would bring unique problems of its own, even without a cat like Philip waiting to pounce.”

  He looked at the hourglass. “I must go, if I’m to get to Southampton by nightfall.”

  “God go with you then, my lord,” Eleanor prayed, knowing that further protests about his health would fall on deaf ears.

  “And with you, my lady,” Henry said briskly, and, planting a brief kiss on her lips this time, was gone.


  Winchester, 1188–1189

  At first the reports that filtered through to England were encouraging. The King was winning—a great victory over the French was almost a certainty! And hot on the heels of that news came Henry’s order for Eleanor to move to the greater comfort of Winchester; yet no sooner had she gratefully settled into her lodgings there, with Henry Berneval fussing about to make sure she had everything she needed, as the King had commanded him, there came the news she had dreaded to hear. Richard had succumbed to Philip’s blandishments and deserted his father.

  She wept, she raged at her son’s perfidy. But then she learned of the peace conference at Bonmoulins, where Richard, backed by the French king, had demanded that Henry name him as his heir, give him Anjou and Maine now, and let him marry Alys forthwith, without further prevarication. All reasonable requests, of course, and naturally it made sense fo
r Richard to shoulder the burden of governing some of Henry’s domains, given the King’s state of health. But the stumbling block was, and always would be, Alys.

  When Henry had refused, Richard defiantly knelt before Philip and did homage to him for Anjou and Maine; and the French, incensed at the old King’s obstinacy, attacked him and his men and drove them away from the negotiations, against all the laws of chivalry and diplomacy.

  Eleanor wept again, this time for Henry’s shame and ignominy, picturing him being forced to take refuge in some crumbling, godforsaken castle, which was what appeared to have happened. Fortunately, the winter rains had set in, drawing the campaigning season to a close, and a truce had been agreed upon until Easter. Henry wrote to say that he was at Le Mans and in good health, but Ranulf Glanville, who was with him, wrote Eleanor privately to warn her that his master was ill and in low spirits.

  Concerned, she wrote to Henry, pleading to be allowed to join him for Christmas, but he refused, saying that he was not planning any great festival. That was unusual in itself, for Henry had always observed the major feasts of the Church with all due ceremony and revelry, and she perceived by his answer that he was indeed unwell. She considered going to him unbidden, but that would mean evading the vigilance of the conscientious Henry Berneval and finding sufficient money and means for her journey in the depths of winter, which might prove a virtual impossibility. No, all she could do was pray for Henry’s recovery. So she spent hours on her knees before the statue of the Virgin in the castle chapel, almost bullying the Holy Mother into interceding for the King; and, for a few quiet weeks, it seemed that her prayers had been heeded.

  Easter came, and with it news of another peace conference. Clearly the princes did not want all-out war if they could help it. Eleanor was on her knees again, praying for a peaceful settlement, when another letter from Ranulf Glanville was brought to her, in which she read, to her dismay, that the conference had to be postponed because the King was too ill to attend. After that, it was back to hectoring the Virgin Mary, often with tears and bribes of masses and manifold good deeds.

  June, and the King was better. Eleanor’s heart rejoiced when she heard that he had met with Philip and Richard, but it plummeted again when she was told that Henry had persisted in his determination to marry Alys to John, and that Richard, maintaining that this was the first step in a sinister plot to disinherit him, threw in his lot with Philip and declared war on his father.

  War. A dreadful thing in any circumstances, but when son was fighting against father, it was especially terrible. Eleanor lived her days in horrible suspense, for there could be no praying that one side would win, because there could be no winners in this conflict. It was either her husband or her son. Once, she had made that choice. She would not do so again. She gave up going to the chapel, could not constrain herself to pray. God, the protector of the just, would surely show the way to a peaceable solution. She could not believe that He had abandoned the House of Anjou entirely.

  But God, it seemed, had His attention elsewhere. Philip and Richard had advanced inexorably into Angevin territory, taking castle after castle; so fearful was their might that Henry’s vassals, long alienated by his oppressive rule, had deserted him one by one. The King, meanwhile, withdrew again to the city of Le Mans, his birthplace, and when the French army appeared before its walls, gave orders that a suburb be torched to create a diversion and give him the chance to attack when the enemy’s attention was elsewhere; but he had not reckoned with the wind, which fanned the flames until much of his favored city was ablaze and Philip was able to breach its defenses. Once again Henry and his knights were forced ignominiously to flee. In yet another letter, Ranulf Glanville disclosed to Eleanor how Henry had railed bitterly against the God who abandoned him: “He warned that he would pay Him back as best he could, and that he would rob Him of the thing that He loved best in him—his immortal soul. He said a lot more besides, which I refrain from repeating.”

  Eleanor could imagine it all, could see Henry seated painfully on his horse, silhouetted against the burning city, crying out his impotent anger to an unheeding deity. Her soul bled for his—and yet she could do nothing to ease his sufferings of mind or body. How could it be worth praying, she wondered, when God had turned His face from the King? Was it worth appealing to Richard? But that could—and probably would—be misconstrued. She shuddered to think what might happen if Henry found out. It might be better to get back on her knees and constrain herself to prayer.

  Waiting for news was agonizing. She would wonder, a hundred times a day, if Henry and Richard might even now be confronting each other in battle. A letter from William Marshal, whom she had always accounted her champion, brought her a little relief. The King had gone north to Normandy, he informed her, and had deputed him to take a force and guard his back. Not far behind had come marching Richard at the head of a French army, and he, Marshal, had leveled his lance in readiness for battle. “The duke cried out to me not to kill him, for he wore no hauberk. I answered that I would leave the killing of him to the Devil, and had the pleasure of unseating him instead. That gave me the chance to ride away and warn the King of his approach, and thus I enabled him to avoid a direct clash of arms with the duke his son.”

  Maybe it could be avoided for good if only each side would give a little, Eleanor thought as the horrendous waiting went relentlessly on, and June dragged itself into July.

  It was unbearably hot. Within the sun-baked walls of Winchester Castle, Eleanor and Amaria wore their lightest silk bliauts and avoided walking in the gardens until the heat of the day had subsided. In the lands of France, it was reported, the armies on both sides were suffering miseries from sunburn, fatigue, or dysentery. Henry wrote privately to Eleanor, complaining that he was enduring torture from an abscess, and that sitting in the saddle would soon be beyond him if those damned fool physicians didn’t do something to remedy it quickly.

  Hard on the heels of this came another missive from Marshal. The King had been forced to retreat to Chinon to rest, and had gone alone, with only his bastard Geoffrey for company; traveling by back roads to evade the enemy forces. “He can neither walk nor stand or sit without intense discomfort,” William wrote. “We are all worried about John, who has disappeared. It is feared that he may have been taken for a hostage by Duke Richard or King Philip. If so, Heaven help the King.” Reading this, Eleanor redoubled her prayers, beseeching God and His Mother to hear her. Let there be peace, was her earnest cry.

  She was listless, not knowing how to fill the hours of waiting for the next letter or report. It took a fast courier up to five days to cover the distance from Chinon, depending on the Channel winds, so anything could have happened. Amaria tried to entice her to games of chess or thinking up riddles; she went to market and bought embroidery silks in the brightest hues, hoping to inspire Eleanor to make new cushions or an altar frontal; she had Henry Berneval send for minstrels, to while away the evenings, and she spent hours herself in the kitchens baking exquisite little cakes to tempt her mistress. But none of these pleasant distractions could alleviate the Queen’s fears or anxieties.

  Having little appetite, Eleanor lost weight. She looked drawn and her skin took on an ethereal quality. She was sixty-seven, but she knew without vanity, when she peered in her mirror, that she appeared and felt younger; her graying hair was hidden beneath her headdress and veil, her fine-boned face was only delicately etched with lines, and she had the energy of a woman half her age. That restless energy was pent-up now, surging within her breast; she was desperate to be at the center of affairs, not cut off from them here at Winchester. If she had her way, she would be riding into battle with the rest of them, like the Amazon that she had once pretended to be, long ago, on that distant plain of Vézelay, when they had preached the fatal crusade that ended in disaster for both the Christian hordes and her marriage to Louis. She had been young and reckless then, and afire to show off her crusading zeal in the most attention-seeking way possible; and
she would unhesitatingly take the field again, for real this time, if given the slightest chance. But, of course, it could not be: she was a woman, and a prisoner, and all she could do was wait here for news. Wait, wait, wait! They could carve those words on her tomb: She waited.

  There had been another summit meeting between the chief combatants. Eleanor had the news from both William Marshal and Ranulf Glanville. The King, she learned, had dragged himself from his sickbed toward Colombières, near Tours. On the way, complaining that his whole body felt as if it were on fire, he had been forced to rest at a preceptory of the Knights Templar, and sent his knights ahead to tell Richard and Philip that he was detained on account of his illness. But Richard had not believed it. His father was feigning, he insisted; he was up to no good, plotting some new villainy; they should not trust his word.

  When news of this was carried back to the King, ill as he was, he had had his men prop him up on his horse, then rode in agony through a thunderstorm to the place where his enemies waited. King Philip had actually blanched at the sight of him, and, moved by pity, offered his own cloak for him to sit on. But Henry refused it; he had come not to sit, he declared, but to pay any price they named for making peace. And so he remained on his horse, his knights holding him upright. He had looked ghastly.

  Philip’s compassion had ended there. He laid down the harshest terms. Henry must pay homage to him for all his lands. He must leave his domains—even England, which Philip had no right to dispose of—to Richard. He was to pardon all those who had fought for Richard. He was to give Alys up to Philip at once, and agree to Richard marrying her immediately after the planned crusade. And, as further tokens of his good faith, he was to pay a crippling indemnity and surrender three of his chief castles to Philip.

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