Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  His wary look darkened to a frown when there knelt before him Hugh de Lusignan and Guy of Thouars, swarthy-skinned and black-haired, two of the most volatile of her vassals, whose notorious reputation was enough to send any overlord reaching for his sword; but they were on their best behavior today, and observing the courtesies in deference to the duchess’s presence. She knew, though—for Louis had had enough cause to grumble about it—that these men paid only lip service to their allegiance, and that their allegiance to her would go flying out of the window if it ever came between them and some land or fortress they coveted. And by the look on Henry’s face, as he bade Hugh and Guy rise and be merry, he needed no warning of their perfidy.

  Last, but by no means least, there came the staunch Saldebreuil of Sanzay, Constable of Aquitaine, whom she had appointed her seneschal in reward for his loyalty and staunch service. Henry smiled at him and slapped him heartily on the shoulder as the good man bent to receive the kiss of greeting.

  Eleanor was pleased to see Henry playing his part to perfection, doing his best to win over her lords by deferring to this one’s wisdom and experience, or praising that one’s renowned prowess in the field of battle or the tourney lists. She was amazed at his store of knowledge, especially of her domains. He had gone to a great deal of trouble to make himself accepted here. And most of them were responding in the proper manner and saying all the right things. It was the most promising of beginnings.

  Later, after the last vassal went back to his place and wine had been served, Eleanor led Henry and her courtiers into the gardens, where they could relax in the warm sunshine in the shade of apple and peach trees. As the nobles rested on turf benches and talked of politics and warfare, young gallants sought out the duchess’s damsels and sang songs to them, their eyes bright with the expectation of favors to come later, when the velvet summer night had stolen over the land.

  Henry walked with Eleanor beside a flower-filled lawn enclosed by low trellises.

  “Tell me, do you miss being a queen?” he inquired, taking her hand.

  “Need you ask?” Eleanor countered. “What I have now”—she waved her hand to indicate her throne, her lords, and her surroundings, then looked him directly in the face—“more than compensates.”

  “I will make it up to you a thousandfold,” Henry promised. “I will make you Queen of England, the greatest queen that godforsaken land has ever known, I swear it. And then I will make you the sovereign lady of half Europe!”

  “I have all my faith in you,” Eleanor told him, caught up in the heady excitement of this imperial vision, and exulting at the prospect of the glorious future, when all their hopes and ambitions would, God willing, be realized.

  “Think of it,” Henry enthused, visibly elated. “When England is mine, all Christendom from the Scottish border down to the Pyrenees will be under my hand! Louis will be raging with envy, but there will be nothing he can do about it. Our domains will dwarf his beggarly royal demesne.”

  Our domains. Those words should have thrilled Eleanor, but coming from Henry’s mouth, there was something about them that suddenly unsettled her. For all her need of him, she was suddenly aware that she did not know him well, and it was possible that, in marrying him, she might after all be surrendering her autonomy—and that of her people. Despite the warmth of the day, she felt a little chilled, but resolutely suppressed the thought, shocked at herself. They would be a partnership, she and Henry, from first to last, and their aims would be as one. That had been implicit from the first.

  “Greatness and power,” Henry was saying, “lie in land and a ruler’s strength. Louis has neither.”

  “Yet he is still our overlord,” she reminded him.

  “So the fiction goes!” Henry grinned.

  Eleanor smiled. “I should be scandalized.”

  “Oh, I am sure you are! But remember, my dear love, you are marrying into the Devil’s own family. Do not expect us Angevins to be virtuous.”

  “How could I, when your brother Geoffrey tried to abduct me on the way down here?”

  “What?” Henry almost roared. “That little rabbit? I’ll cut his balls off.”

  Eleanor could not suppress a giggle. “Surely you of all people don’t blame him for being an opportunist, my lord?”

  “It’s a family trait,” Henry muttered.

  “Does our marriage find favor with your Norman lords?” Eleanor asked.

  “Yes, and with those of Anjou and Maine. They know it will bring prestige to my domains, and trade too. They are all agog to see you. I sang your praises, never fear.”

  “And your mother, the Empress?” Eleanor had heard a lot about the formidable Matilda.

  “She is content,” Henry said shortly, with little conviction. “She thinks it makes sound political sense for us to marry. And you will charm her, I am sure.”

  “I look forward to meeting her,” Eleanor replied politely, with equally scant conviction. She wondered if Matilda was aware that her soon-to-be daughter-in-law had made the two-backed beast with her husband Geoffrey.

  “I didn’t come here to talk about my mother, you know.” Henry grinned. “I’d rather discuss our immediate plans.” He lowered his voice to a seductive murmur. “Will you bed with me tonight?”

  Eleanor smiled at him, her eyes dark with desire. “It is what I have been waiting for.”

  ——

  Henry withdrew from Eleanor and, panting heavily, rolled back on his side, his hand trembling as it sensuously traced the arching curve of her waist, hip, and thigh. His eyes held hers, warm in the flickering candlelight. He bent forward and kissed her gently on the lips.

  “I have dreamed of this,” he said breathlessly, “through all those dreadful months of waiting. God, I hated having to wait. You have been in my heart and in my loins. I ached for you.”

  “Did you ever have doubts?” Eleanor asked, resting her cheek against the curling hair that crested his broad chest, feeling his heart pounding beneath his skin.

  “Not for a moment. Did you?”

  “I did wonder if I had dreamed some of it,” she murmured. “It was so unbelievable, what happened between us.”

  “In the future, troubadours will sing of us and our love,” Henry predicted. Eleanor thrilled once more to hear him speak of love. She raised herself up on one elbow, her nipples teasing his ribs.

  “They certainly will!” She laughed. “Is it not quite shocking for a husband and wife to love each other? Marriage, according to our poets, sounds the death knell to love.”

  “It will not be so with us,” Henry vowed firmly.

  “How could it be?” Eleanor rejoined, leaning over to kiss him, and trailing her hair all over his body. Then she lay down on her side, gazing again into his eyes.

  “This is bliss after bedding Louis,” she told him. “I always had to beg him to make love to me, if only to get an heir, and then he was down on his knees praying both before and after he had done the dread deed. I feel as if I have come alive. I am free of all that! Oh, the joy of it!” She kissed Henry ardently, her tongue darting mischievously into his mouth. “In France, I was not free. They didn’t want me interfering, as they called it, in their politics. I was relegated to playing chess with my ladies, or embroidery, or telling riddles, for God’s sake. I have a brain, but they wouldn’t let me use it. Tell me that we won’t have a conventional marriage, Henry. I couldn’t bear that.”

  “How could we?” he replied lazily. “We are not conventional people.”

  “You are aware that I am giving up my newfound freedom to marry you,” Eleanor ventured. “I hope you won’t forget that I am sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine, even though you have the right to rule here as my husband? And to rule me—if I let you.” Her smile was full of mischief.

  Henry concealed his surprise at her words and regarded her wickedly. “That is any husband’s right, as well you know! Once we’re married, my fine beauty, I might shut you up in a tower or beat you if you prove to be disagreeable or d
eny me your bed!”

  “Then I’ll not go through with it!” Eleanor threatened, giggling. “I’ll be your mistress instead. You won’t get an inch of my domains!” For answer, Henry began tickling her until she squealed for mercy. Then he pinioned her down and kissed her hungrily.

  “At this moment, I wouldn’t really care, so long as I can have you,” he muttered. “Louis was mad to spurn you, or let you go,” he went on hoarsely, mounting her a second time, his purpose clearly urgent. “But his loss is my gain: you are the rarest and most beautiful woman I have ever known. Now say you’ll marry me, or I won’t give you what you so clearly want!” The tip of his penis was teasing her sex, sending her into spasms.

  “I’ll marry you, on condition you allow me my sovereignty,” Eleanor demanded breathlessly.

  “God, you drive a hard bargain,” Henry gasped, thrusting into her.

  “Say it!” she insisted, desire flooding through her: this sparring between them was decidedly erotic. But Henry was now too preoccupied to say anything, so pressing was his need, and when he was spent, they both drifted to sleep in each other’s arms, his promise ungiven.

  The sun’s dazzling rays were streaming through the tall windows of St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Poitiers. They bathed in golden light the man and woman kneeling before the high altar, receiving the Church’s benediction upon their marriage. Eleanor was fully aware, as Henry took her hand and raised her to her feet, that this was an important moment in history, and that she was a participant in a deed that would have far-reaching consequences for her, for her new husband, for their descendants, and for the world at large. For this day would see the founding of an empire that promised to be one of the greatest in Christendom. The prospect was breathtaking—and a little chastening. She knew that a heavy task lay ahead of them both.

  This day was also the start of a marriage—and of her cherished partnership of princes. Walking back through the nave of the cathedral with Henry, her vassals saluting and bowing as they passed, she knew she looked her radiant best, slim and seductive in her cornflower-blue bliaut, scarlet mantle, and gauzy white veil held in place by her richly chased ducal crown. Henry too was crowned, with the coronet of the Dukes of Normandy. He looked splendid in profile, straight-nosed, neatly bearded, his wavy red hair springing abundantly from his noble brow. His flushed, freckled face wore a triumphant look, and his hand was grasping hers possessively. She was his now, and since they were already one flesh, no one could divide them.

  It pleased her to know that, thanks to her, her magnificent Henry was now Duke of Aquitaine and—at just nineteen—the mightiest prince in Europe. Together, she knew, they would make a stir in the world, greater than any royal couple before them. And as they emerged from the cathedral to acknowledge the rapturous acclaim of her people, she was again convinced of the rightness of it all—that she had made her bargain with destiny.

  That night, Henry took her with even greater ardor than before, stripping away inhibitions and boundaries, and launching them on a long and sensual journey of ever-greater discovery.

  “Never hold back!” he demanded. “I want everything you can give me.”

  “I am my lord’s to command now,” Eleanor answered willingly, and in that moment meant it.

  “Ours is a marriage of lions,” he breathed in her ear. “Did it occur to you? You have a lion as the symbol of Poitou, and my symbol is also a lion, inherited from my grandfather, King Henry of England. They called him ‘the Lion of Justice,’ but he’s supposed to have thought up the idea after receiving the gift of a lion for his menagerie in the Tower of London.”

  “I like that,” Eleanor murmured, snuggling closer to him in the warmth of the feather mattress. “A marriage of lions. It has a chivalric ring to it.”

  “It is apt in more ways than one, I think,” her husband observed as his arms tightened about her. “Eh, my Eleanor? We are neither of us meek and mild, but strong, audacious characters, brave as lions ourselves.”

  “With you beside me, I will never know fear,” she told him, pressing her smooth cheek to his bearded one, reveling in the masculine scent of him.

  “We will do well together, my fair lioness!” Henry laughed, and drew her close to him once more.

  7

  Abbey of Fontevrault, 1152

  It was with a glad heart that Eleanor paid a visit to Fontevrault the month after her wedding.

  “This abbey is a place especially dear to me,” she told Henry. “It was founded at my grandmother’s behest, and is dedicated to Our Lady.”

  Henry nodded approvingly. He had heard of the fame of this double house of monks and nuns under the rule of an abbess, which had become a finishing school and retreat for royal and aristocratic ladies, and a haven of piety and contemplative prayer. It was a most unusual establishment in that its founder, a renowned Breton scholar called Robert d’Arbrissel, had wished to enhance the status of women, and even dared to assert that they were superior to men in many ways. Leaving that strange notion aside, Henry could understand why Eleanor thought highly of Fontevrault. He had a very good opinion of it himself. It was one of the greatest bastions of piety and faith in all Christendom.

  The abbey lay by a fountain, in lush woodland on the banks of the River Vienne in north Poitou, near the border with Anjou. As Eleanor entered its lofty white church, which was distinguished by a quality of light and space seen nowhere else on Earth, and which had been beautified with simple, soaring columns and elegant triforium arcades, she felt uplifted and suffused with thankfulness. The abbess, Isabella of Anjou, who was Henry’s aunt, kissed her warmly in welcome, conducted her through the tranquil cloisters and ushered her into her spacious house, which was attached to the adjoining convent of Le Grand Moutier, where the nuns lived. Almond milk, pears, and sweetmeats were brought, and the two women, who immediately felt a mutual respect and affection, sat down to enjoy some congenial conversation.

  “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit, my lady?” Abbess Isabella asked. She was a plump, motherly woman in her mid-forties with the florid Angevin coloring, and had ruled her community for four years.

  “It is a great joy to me to come to Fontevrault at this time, Mother,” Eleanor said. “I have much for which to be grateful to God. My heart is so full, and I wish to offer thanks for the great happiness He has bestowed on me in my marriage, and for making me the instrument through which unity and peace might be achieved in Christendom.”

  “We must all give thanks to God for that,” the abbess declared. Intelligent and perceptive woman that she was, she was well aware of the hoped-for outcome of the duchess’s union with Henry FitzEmpress. “You will join us for dinner in our refectory afterward?” the abbess invited.

  “Most certainly, I thank you.” Eleanor smiled. “But there is another purpose to my visit, Mother. After my marriage to my Lord Henry, I felt that divine inspiration was leading me to visit this sacred congregation. It feels as if I have been guided by God to Fontevrault, and while here, I intend to approve and confirm all the charters and gifts that my forefathers have given to this house. If you will have this drawn up on a parchment, Mother, I will affix my seal. It is a new one.” Proudly, she drew it from the embroidered purse hanging at her girdle and showed it to the abbess. It portrayed Eleanor as duchess of both Aquitaine and Normandy. “See, I am holding a bird perched upon a cross; it is a sacred symbol of sovereignty.”

  “If I may say so, madame, wedlock suits you: you are looking radiant,” the abbess observed. “I am delighted that you have found such joy in your union with my nephew. I hear that he has ambitions to be King of England.”

  “Which I have no doubt he will fulfill,” Eleanor said.

  “I was in England thirty years ago, before I entered religion,” Abbess Isabella recalled. “I was married to William, the son of King Henry, who was himself son to William the Conqueror, and grandfather to your husband. They called King Henry the ‘Lion of Justice.’ He was a lion indeed! Strong and respected
as a ruler, but a terrifying man, cruel and ruthless. I can never forget what he did to his grandchildren.”

  “What did he do?” Eleanor asked, thrusting away the unwelcome thought that the same violent blood ran in her own Henry.

  “One of his daughters defied him, with her husband, and he had the eyes of their two little girls put out as punishment.”

  Eleanor shivered. “How vile. That’s too awful to contemplate. What was his son like?”

  “William? They called him ‘the Atheling,’ after the old Saxon princes before the conquest. He was another like his father, proud, fierce, and hardhearted. Mercifully, I was not married to him for very long.”

  “Was he the prince who drowned when the White Ship sank?”

  “The very same.”

  “I have heard my lord speak of his death. He said King Henry never smiled again.”

  “For the King, it was a tragedy. He had no other son to succeed him. Not a legitimate one, at any rate. His bastards, of course, were legion.” The abbess’s lips twitched. “But God in His wisdom took unto himself my young lord, and King Henry forced his barons to swear allegiance to his daughter Matilda as his heir.”

  “The Empress, my mother-in-law,” Eleanor supplied. “Did you ever meet her?”

  “No, she was then married to the Holy Roman Emperor and living in Germany. He died later on, and she married my brother Geoffrey, but she never came to visit me. By all accounts she is a strong woman. She has certainly fought hard for the kingdom that was lawfully hers.”

 
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