Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  “And lost,” Eleanor put in. “But my lord will reclaim it in her name. She has ceded her rights to him. The portents are good.”

  “King Stephen still lives, though,” Isabella stated.

  “He is hated and despised, my lord says. Those barons who would not accept a woman as their ruler are far more amenable to Henry, especially now that he has proved himself a ruler to be reckoned with. Tell me, Mother, what is England like?”

  “They call it ‘the ringing isle’ because there are so many churches. It is green and lovely, and a lot like France in some parts, but the weather is unpredictable. The people are insular, but hospitable. And no, before you ask, they do not have tails, as is popularly bruited here!”

  Eleanor laughed. “I never heed such nonsense!” She accepted a tiny fig pastry. “I will look forward to seeing England someday. Oh, I wanted to tell you that my lord and I have commissioned a window commemorating our marriage in the new stained glass. It is to be set into the east window of the Poitiers cathedral, that all who see it will remember where we were made man and wife.”

  “A fitting gesture,” the abbess said. “And an enduring one.”

  “Yet more precious to God will be my thanks and praise,” Eleanor said, swallowing the last of the pastry and rising to her feet. “If you would excuse me, Mother, I shall go into the church now. Summon your scribes, if you would. We can have the charter written out later.”


  Aquitaine, 1152

  “Louis has summoned us,” Henry announced, bursting into Eleanor’s solar and thrusting a parchment into her hands. Briefly, she perused it.

  “This was addressed to both of us,” she said, anger rising, born of her fear of what Louis might do, and shock at Henry’s presumption. “You should not have broken the seal without my being there.”

  “I am the duke,” Henry stated uncompromisingly.

  “And I am the duchess!” she flared.

  “And my wife,” Henry shouted. His sudden anger excited her, despite her annoyance with him. This was not the first quarrel they had had, and it would certainly not be the last, she knew that well. The only compensation was that every time, without fail, they found themselves in bed, sealing their reconciliation with passionate lovemaking.

  “This is my duchy!” Eleanor insisted.

  “And mine in right of our marriage. I shouldn’t have to remind you that I am the ruler here now. I’ve told you before, Eleanor, governing is man’s work, and women should not interfere.”

  “You’re as bad as Abbot Bernard!” she flung at him. “You and I are meant to be a partnership. We agreed. I am no milksop farmwife to be cast aside: I am the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine, and I will be deferred to as such! Do you heed me?”

  For answer, Henry folded her in his arms and kissed her brutally. “This is your role now, my lady. I do not remember agreeing to anything.”

  “How dare you!” Eleanor cried, struggling free and slapping him on the cheek. “These are my domains, and my word is law here.”

  Henry recoiled. His face was thunderous, his voice menacing. “Enough, Eleanor. Leave that for now. There are more pressing matters to consider. I came to tell you that Louis has summoned us to his court”—he unscrolled the parchment and read—“‘to account for our treasonable misconduct in marrying.’”

  “It’s bluster,” Eleanor declared, still angry. “He cannot do anything to us.”

  Henry frowned. “I wouldn’t be so complacent. The envoys who brought this say that their master is shocked and angered. He accuses me of basely stealing his wife—”

  “As if I were a chattel to be taken against my will!” Eleanor interrupted, furious.

  Henry threw her a look. “Some of the French lords have even urged Louis to revoke the terms of your annulment,” he went on, “or even the annulment itself. Others want us excommunicated.”

  “Words!” fumed Eleanor.

  “Angry men often translate words into actions,” Henry said. “My enemies are uniting against us. Even my beloved little brother Geoffrey has declared his support for Louis. And Count Henry of Champagne, who is betrothed to your daughter Marie, is dashing off to Paris to join them. Of course, he knows very well that if you and I have a son, Marie will not get Aquitaine. His brother, Thibaut of Blois, that bastard who tried to abduct you, is also for Louis.”

  “He is to wed my little Alix when she is of age,” Eleanor said, a touch wistfully. “I could wish it otherwise. He could not win the mother, so he settled for the daughter, the bastard!”

  “It’s war, no less,” Henry declared. “I must leave for Normandy at once. The rumor is that Louis plans to attack it in my absence.”

  “Then this is our first farewell,” Eleanor said, the last traces of her rancor evaporating. She swallowed and put on a brave smile. “I suspect it will be the first of many, given how far-flung our domains are.”

  “You knew that when you took me for a husband,” Henry said gently, tilting her chin toward his face. He kissed her long and hard, all trace of annoyance gone. “It grieves me too, Eleanor, but it will not be for long. I will send Louis and all his cronies scuttling back to Paris with their tails between their legs. And mayhap I am leaving you with child …”

  “Then God will have smiled upon our union,” Eleanor pronounced. “I fear it is too early to tell.”

  Henry sighed. “I could have done without all this,” he growled. “I was planning to take an army across to England and settle matters there, but it will have to wait, yet again. At this rate, the English will get fed up with waiting and declare for the usurper Stephen after all.”

  He kissed her again, then broke away.

  “I must go,” he said briskly. “Speed is of the essence.”

  The news Henry sent Eleanor by his couriers was good. Louis had the temerity to invade Normandy, but Henry advanced with such speed that several horses dropped dead from exhaustion on the road; and with devastating compunction, he laid waste that land called the Vexin on the Norman-French border and the demesnes of Louis’s own brother, Robert of Dreux.

  Next she heard he had been in Touraine, taking some castles that his father left to the unfraternal Geoffrey. He was winning through. Then God Himself, it seemed, intervened. Louis, Henry wrote, had collapsed with a fever and was laid up at Geoffrey’s castle of Montsoreau. Eleanor smiled when she read that. It was typical of Louis to fall ill at such a crucial moment. She smiled even more broadly when she read on and learned that right now Henry was besieging the castle.

  “The Lord Geoffrey has submitted and begged for mercy and reconciliation,” the next messenger told her, “and the King of France has given up his cause for lost and sued for peace. He has gone back to Paris.”

  How ignominious, Eleanor thought. But again, typical.

  After six weeks, Henry was back in Poitiers, the magnificent victor. There was a new air of authority about him; he was now the dominant power in western Christendom, and he knew it.

  Wasting no time, the returning hero took his wife to bed and had his will of her vigorously and repeatedly, to her great and unbearable joy.

  “I swear to you, Eleanor,” he gasped, heaving and sweating in her eager arms, “no assault on a fortress was ever so pleasurable. You yield delightfully!”

  “Come again,” she breathed, raising her knees and clasping her ankles across his tight buttocks. He readily obliged, and soon had her crying out in ecstasy.

  “Hush!” he panted, kissing her lustily. “Your barons will think the war has broken out again!”

  Eleanor held herself in speechless stillness as waves of pleasure coursed through her. Feeling Henry inside her was sheer bliss. It had been so long … She had barely contained her need for him. But for all her delight in their joining, she was miserably aware that he was shortly to leave her again.

  “When do you depart for England?” she asked a little later, when they were lying peacefully together under the single sheet. It was a warm, balmy night, and the sky
glimpsed through the narrow window was indigo blue and bright with stars.

  “Not until the end of the year,” Henry said.

  “You’re planning a winter campaign?” she asked, surprised.

  “No, my lady, I intend to use diplomacy this time. Of course, an army at my back will help negotiations wonderfully, because the English will know that I mean to deploy it if necessary.”

  “This latest victory can only have enhanced your reputation, my brave Henry,” Eleanor murmured, kissing him. “The English now know what they have to reckon with.”

  “The English are no fools. They need a strong king, and I’m their man. The question now is how to topple Stephen and his son without causing too much unpleasantness.”

  “With any luck he will have wearied of the struggle and be eager to come to terms,” Eleanor said. “Then you can return speedily to me, my love.” She turned and twined her arms around him, rejoicing in the strength of his supine body.

  “I’ll be here for a while yet,” Henry said, biting her neck playfully between words. “It occurred to me that before the autumn sets in, we should make a leisurely progress through your domains, so that you can introduce me to your vassals. The ones who are speaking to you, anyway. Of course, I hope that meets with your approval, O sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine!” He was mocking her, she knew, but she did not leap to the bait. She was too overjoyed at his suggestion.

  “I should love that, Henry,” she enthused. “There are so many places I want to show you. We should start with the Limousin. It’s wild country in every respect, but so beautiful, and it will do its unruly lords a power of good to be brought face-to-face with their new suzerain. They will meet their match and more!”

  “Your faith in me is touching!” Henry murmured, nuzzling her ear.

  “We must go to my father’s hunting lodge at Talmont—he used to take us hawking there. It is where my gyrfalcons are bred. I will give you one, the prize of the mews. Nothing but the best for my lord! You must see Les Landes in Gascony—nothing but acres and acres of scrub, sand dunes, and pine forests, but so wild and bracing.”

  “We will ride out there together, alone,” Henry promised, catching her excitement.

  “The pearl of my domains is the Périgord,” Eleanor went on. “The valley of the Dordogne is unsurpassed for its beauty. There I will feed you on freshly dug truffles, which are glorious in omelettes, and confit of duck, and foie gras—the area is known for its wonderful food.”

  “Stop, you’ll have me running to fat!” Henry interrupted, laughing. “My forebears were enormous.” He paused and looked down at her. “So show me all, my love … apart from your lands!” And he ducked, choking with mirth, as Eleanor rose wrathfully up in the bed and began pounding him with her pillow.

  The tour had not gone well.

  “Your vassals do not like me!” Henry repeatedly complained. “You, they defer to, and treat with respect. I am regarded with suspicion!” His gray eyes were narrowed in anger.

  Eleanor could not refute what he said, for it was no less than the truth. Everywhere, without exception, there had been enthusiastic cheers for her and cool receptions and studied politeness for Henry. No one had actually said anything, and mercifully there were no demonstrations, but the hostility was palpable. It made a mockery of the glorious, spacious autumnal landscapes, the sunflowers browning drowsily in the fields, the majestic rivers and spectacular crags. Henry remarked upon none of these wonders; he had been simmering with rage.

  Early on there had been the awful day when several of Eleanor’s lords came to her privately after they had arrived in the Limousin. “Madame the Duchess,” one of them had said, grim-faced, “to you, we are devoted and loyal, never doubt it. But hear this: we owe Duke Henry no allegiance save as your husband.”

  “He is your lord now,” Eleanor had said sternly, knowing how badly Henry would take this; “and it is my will that you acknowledge him as such, and show him the customary fealty and obedience.”

  “Madame, he is a foreigner, like the French. His first loyalty is not to us, but to Normandy and Anjou, and his ambitions lie in England. Many believe he means to milk Aquitaine dry to achieve his crown.”

  “He does not need to,” she assured them, springing to Henry’s defense. “He has sufficient men and resources of his own! I give you my word on that.”

  She did not manage to convince them, however, and did not dare reveal this conversation to Henry. Things were bad enough, and the reluctance of her vassals to pay court to him all too plain. Inevitably, Henry’s temper had become increasingly foul throughout the progress. In vain she’d tried to distract him by pointing out ancient churches and mighty castles, and to tempt him with the fine food and abundant vintages of the region, which should have been the source of much mutual enjoyment. But it was a wasted effort. He was not going to say one good word about anything, on principle. In the end she gave up trying.

  Now, having reached gentler countryside, and traversed peaceful pastures, they were before Limoges, her chief city of the Limousin, their gaily striped tents pitched outside the massive new walls, the pride of its citizens. Henry looked up approvingly at the impressive fortifications, and his mood lightened further as he and Eleanor entered the city to the unexpectedly rapturous acclaim of the people. He expressed admiration for the great abbey and shrine of St. Martial, the city’s patron, and showed a genuine interest in the Romanesque splendor of the cathedral and the exquisite, richly colored enamel plaques that he and Eleanor were given as gifts by the burghers.

  That night, they were to dine in their silken pavilion beyond the walls, with the Abbot of St. Martial and the chief lords of the Limousin as guests. Eleanor’s damsels had dressed her in a beautiful green Byzantine robe that set off her red hair to perfection, and as she and Henry took their places at the high table, she’d begun to hope that her husband was feeling happier about the progress, and that things would be better from now on.

  Given their warm welcome, she happily anticipated a lavish feast, and waxed lyrical about the succulent truffles produced in the Limousin, the rich game, the roast ox drizzled with sweet chestnuts, and the violet mustard. But Henry took one look at the puny duck and scrawny goose that lay on the golden platters before him and barked, “Is this all there is to eat?”

  “It is all we have, lord,” the serving varlets stammered.

  “Ask Madame the Duchess’s cook to come here!” Henry demanded. “This is mean fare indeed!”

  Eleanor’s master cook came hastening into the pavilion, his lugubrious face crumpled with concern. He bowed ostentatiously to her, ignoring Henry.

  “Lady, I am very sorry, but this is all we have. The citizens did not send the usual supplies.”

  “And why was that?” Henry snarled.

  “Let me deal with this,” Eleanor murmured.

  “No, my lady, they will answer to me. Am I not the Duke of Aquitaine?” Henry’s cheeks were flushed with fury.

  “My lieges, allow me to explain what has happened,” the Abbot of St. Martial intervened smoothly. He was a haughty man with a chill in his manner, and for all his courtesy, barely concealed his resentment of his new overlord.

  Henry glared at him, while Eleanor shuddered inwardly. More trouble, she thought, and just when matters were improving.

  “It is customary, I fear,” the abbot went on in his high, reedy voice, “for food supplies to be delivered to the royal kitchens only when Madame the Duchess is lodging within the city walls.”

  Henry’s set expression suddenly changed dramatically. He went purple with anger. Eleanor had never seen him so enraged; was she at last going to witness the notorious Angevin temper at its worst? It seemed she was! Roaring curses on the abbot, the citizens, and—for good measure—St. Martial himself, Henry lost control and, throwing himself on the floor, rolled around yelling bloodcurdling oaths before finally falling quiet and grinding his teeth on the rushes strewn over the flagstones. The fit lasted a full three minutes, with E
leanor looking on open-mouthed, the abbot curling his lip in disgust at the prone, seething figure at his feet, and the aghast company craning their necks to get a better view.

  After the worst excesses of his rage had subsided, Henry got dazedly to his feet and stood glowering at the sea of faces staring at him.

  “Know this!” he cried in his cracked voice. “I, Henry FitzEmpress, your duke and liege lord, will not tolerate such blatant disrespect. Nor will my lady here.” He looked hard at Eleanor, challenging her to agree with him, and although she had been on the point of interrupting, she subsided, quelled by the menacing steel in his gaze.

  “Limoges will pay dearly for this insult,” Henry announced to the silent company. “Its walls shall be razed to the ground. No one, least of all you, my Lord Abbot, will be able in future to use them as an excuse for depriving me or your duchess of our just and reasonable dues. Now you had best get back to the city and convey my orders to your people—and see that they are obeyed! Demolition must begin tomorrow.”

  Eleanor watched, appalled, as the mighty abbot, who had up till now enjoyed great power and autonomy, was dismissed like an errant novice. She knew that Henry’s anger was justified, but also felt that his vengeance was overly harsh. Yet to appeal to him now would be disastrous—she must appear to be supporting him and show the world that they were united in their indignation.

  Later, though, in the privacy of their tent, she burned with the injustice of it all. After they had lain silent in bed for a while, she turned to him.

  “What on earth were you doing?” she asked. “People were looking at you as if you were possessed by devils.”

  “Sometimes, when these rages are upon me, I think I am,” Henry muttered.

  “Can you not control yourself?”

  “No. Something in me explodes, and I have no power over it. Anyway, I was right to be angry. I will not be slighted like that. I will not have you slighted like that.”

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