Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  “Stop!” Eleanor cried. “You’re making those names up!”

  “Well, I really can’t remember them all,” Henry said ruefully, playing with her hair. “And talking to them wasn’t really called for!”

  “You’re impossible,” Eleanor told him.

  He raised himself up on one elbow to look into her face. “There, I’ve told you what you wanted to know. Now you keep your part of the bargain.”

  “Very well,” Eleanor said. “It was a brief affair with a troubadour called Marcabru.”

  “A troubadour?” Henry echoed, surprised, and not a little jolted. “A lowborn varlet? You might have looked higher than that!”

  “You forget, I had looked higher,” Eleanor shot back. “I was married to the King of France, no less, and much satisfaction I got from him!” She snapped her fingers. “Marcabru showed me how to make love, and for that I will always be grateful—and so should you, for you benefit from it.”

  “Did Louis ever find out?”

  “He knew that Marcabru had written verses to me. He considered them overfamiliar and banished him. He assumed I shared his outrage, and I did not disabuse him of that notion—in fact, I played along with it.”

  “You lied to him?” Henry asked uneasily.

  “I had no cause—he never asked if I had been unfaithful. It would never have occurred to him that I would actually permit a troubadour to make love to me. You princes of the North are all alike in dismissing troubadours as being of little account, but may I remind you, Henry, that in Aquitaine they are accorded a proper respect for their talents.”

  “This one certainly seems to have had talents beyond the ordinary,” Henry threw at her, not quite reassured. “What was he like as a poet?”

  “Terrible!” Eleanor replied, and suddenly they were both heaving with laughter, and the awkward moment had passed.

  “I will recite you some really good troubadour poems,” she said later, when they had calmed down and were once more lying peacefully against each other. “It would be fitting to speak of love on this precious night.” And she began telling him about her celebrated grandfather, the talented Duke William the Ninth.

  “They call him the first of the troubadours,” she said, “and indeed, he did have a wondrous way with words. Some of his works are very bawdy, some very moving. I particularly like the one in which he says, ‘All the joy of the world is ours, if you and I were to love one another.’ And elsewhere, ‘Without you I cannot live, so thirsty am I for your love.’”

  “He could have written those lines for us, that good duke,” Henry observed, his callused fingers caressing her bare arm. He bent forward and kissed her. “What of his bawdy lyrics? I should like to hear some of them!”

  “He was always chasing women in his verse, to one purpose of course, and he wrote that he usually ended up with his hands inside their cloaks.” Henry guffawed, as Eleanor went on: “He wrote of women as horses to be mounted, yet at the same time he believed that they should be free to bestow their love freely, and not be forced into marriage.”

  “That’s all very well for the lower orders,” Henry opined, “but I can’t imagine my barons approving of it! We cannot have our highborn ladies sleeping with whom they please—no man could be certain that his heir was his own!”

  “Yet you yourself did not object when I bestowed my love freely upon you?” Eleanor reminded him archly. “I do not recall my holding out for marriage.”

  “We are not ordinary mortals,” Henry told her, only half joking. “We can defy custom and tradition, and break all the rules. We’ve proved that already, haven’t we?” His lips were again on hers, his tongue inside her mouth. For the third time, they gave themselves up to the sweet pleasures of love, knowing it would be long before they tasted them again.


  Angers and Poitiers, 1153

  Eleanor was at Angers, Henry’s capital of Anjou, when she discovered that she was to have a child, conceived on that glorious night. She regarded her pregnancy as proof that God looked with favor upon her irregular marriage, and bore the discomforts of morning sickness and fatigue with triumphant fortitude.

  Her heart still ached for those dear little girls she had left behind in Paris. It pained her to think there was barely the remotest chance of her seeing them now, for Louis must surely still hate her for marrying Henry, his enemy, behind his back. Yet she consoled herself with the knowledge that this new baby would compensate in some way for the loss of her daughters, and promised herself that never again would she allow any child of hers to be denied a close bond with its mother.

  She missed Henry appallingly. Despite the strange changes that pregnancy wrought, she wanted him, needed him. At night her longing for his caresses and his body inside hers was so acute that she had to bite on the sheet to stifle her unwitting moans. Yet the news from England was good. He had landed safely and been rapturously received. Sermons were preached, proclaiming: “Behold, the ruler cometh, and the kingdom is in his hand.” It was all stirring tidings that portended well.

  His objective was to march on a place called Wallingford, where his supporters were under siege in the castle, and relieve them and as he made his jubilant progress toward that place, town after town fell to him. All this Eleanor learned joyfully from the messengers Henry sent to her fairly regularly. They told her he had been jubilant at the news that she was carrying his child and exhorted her to take good care of herself. Eleanor smiled at his thoughtfulness. She was strong and healthy, she had borne her previous children with ease, and she bade the messengers to tell Henry so.

  After the tedious and tiring early weeks, she bloomed. Her skin was soft as a blossom, her hair silky and lustrous, her breasts full. Thus did an ambitious young troubadour, Bernard de Ventadour, behold her when he presented himself at her court, looking for patronage.

  “Madame the Duchess,” he declared, bowing elaborately low, “your fame is without parallel. I have made so bold as to come here in the hope that you will not turn away one of your subjects who would entertain you with his humble lays and verses.”

  Eleanor warmed to his florid praise. She saw that he was a young man to whom a happy combination of wavy chestnut locks, green eyes, and chiseled features lent exquisite manly beauty. Were she not so contented with her lord, she thought to herself, she might well have had seduction on her mind at this moment.

  “Messire Bernard, tell us about yourself,” she invited, waving a languid hand to encompass the watching courtiers.

  The young man’s eyes were mellow. He was looking at her with open admiration. “Madame, my fortune is in my songs, not my birth. I am merely the son of a kitchen maid in the household of the Viscount of Ventadour in the Limousin.”

  “I know the viscount.” Eleanor smiled. “He and his family have long been patrons of troubadours like yourself.”

  “Indeed, madame,” Bernard agreed, looking at her a touch shiftily, she thought. “He was kind enough to say that I had talent, and to tutor me himself in writing poetry and lyrics.”

  “Then you are much indebted to him,” Eleanor observed, to a murmur of assent from the company. Again, there was that fleeting shifty look on the young troubadour’s face. “But tell me, messire, why have you left his castle? Is it just to seek greater fame in the wider world?”

  “Yes,” Bernard de Ventadour said, not now meeting her gaze. She knew he was lying. No matter, it was no concern of hers, although she was curious as to why he had left such a kind lord’s service.

  He was looking at her again, his green eyes eager.

  “Well, let us hear how talented you are,” Eleanor said. “Play for us.”

  The troubadour produced his stringed vielle and sang an amusing sirvente, a satire on gluttonous monks, which prompted much mirth among Eleanor and her courtiers.

  Clapping, Eleanor asked, “Do you know any songs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere?”

  “Alas, my lady, I do not, although I have read the tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
I do know some lines from the ancient poet Ovid that might please you. They come from his work, Ars Amatoria—The Art of Love.” His eyes twinkled mischievously. “Mayhap you would not understand how bold they are …”

  “I know my Latin,” Eleanor reproved him gently. “But play, please. We would all like to hear your naughty song!”

  The troubadour, blushing, laid down his vielle and took a cithara from his pack. He began strumming an introduction, then with a smile sang in his rich voice:

  First then believe, all women may be won;

  Attempt with confidence, the work is done!

  The grasshopper shall first forbear to sing

  In summer season, or the birds in spring,

  Than woman can resist your flattering skill:

  Even she will yield, who swears she never will!

  This is the sex: they will not first begin,

  But when compelled, are pleased to suffer sin.

  Ask, that thou may enjoy; she waits for this,

  And on thy first advance depends thy bliss.

  Bernard looked directly at Eleanor as he sang those last words, his meaning unmistakable. She returned his gaze reprovingly.

  “You are bold, messire!”

  “You did not like Ovid’s poem, madame?”

  “I did.” She knew he was flirting with her in the accepted courtly manner: such games had become customary in this land of troubadours. It was all quite harmless, of course—or was supposed to be. A lowly squire or poet might pay his ardent addresses to the highborn lady of his choice, and she could accept—and even encourage—his adoration without tarnishing her reputation, but it rarely went further than that.

  In Paris, when Eleanor had tried to introduce these conceits, Louis and his clerics were shocked: they had condemned this game of courtly love as merely an excuse for committing adultery. But in Aquitaine, as Eleanor knew well, for she had grown up in the relaxed culture of the South, it was regarded as merely a sophisticated and enjoyable pastime. She thought nothing of accepting the homage and flattery of the troubadours and young men who frequented her court, for everyone understood it was all part of an elaborate and exciting game.

  Eleanor’s ladies were asking for more.

  “I like this Master Ovid!” declared frivolous Faydide de Toulouse.

  “I have heard he is much disapproved of by some,” said beautiful Torqueri de Bouillon.

  Mamille de Roucy, plump as a partridge, giggled. “That makes him all the more interesting!”

  “Well, Messire Bernard, can you sing some more of Ovid’s verse?” Eleanor asked.

  “With pleasure, madame,” he replied warmly, and took up his cithara again. There was a wicked glint in his eyes as he sang:

  In Love’s rite

  Should man and woman equally delight.

  I hate a union that exhausts not both!

  I like to hear a voice of rapture shrill

  That bids me linger and prolongs the thrill;

  Love’s climax never should be rushed, I say,

  But worked up softly, lingering all the way!

  He was looking at Eleanor again as his voice died and his strumming ceased. She felt the heat rise in her cheeks at his lewd song, which conjured up so vividly the wild, erotic nights when she had lain with Henry. Striving to control the rising ache in her loins, she joined in the applause with her ladies, all of whom were pink with excitement.

  “That is a very lewd song, messire,” she reproved, but her eyes were kind. “I think, however, that we have all enjoyed it. You shall play for us again soon.”

  And he did. Suddenly, he was always there, in the dining hall, or the great chamber, or the gardens, watching her, begging permission to play for her, singing his songs of lust and dalliance. She sensed there was more to his devotion than courtly convention.

  “I have written a song for you, madame,” he announced one day, coming upon her seated under a magnolia tree, abandoned by her ladies, who were a little way off, gathering early April flowers. “Shall you hear it?”

  “I am listening,” Eleanor told him. She was gentle with him, knowing that he could hope for nothing more from her. His voice was strong and ardent:

  When the sweet breeze

  Blows hither from your dwelling,

  Methinks I feel

  A breath of Paradise!

  When he finished, he was visibly shaking. Eleanor took pity on him.

  “No one has ever written a song like that for me,” she told him.

  “Your beauty has inspired me, madame,” Bernard said fervently. “You are gracious, lovely—the embodiment of all charm! With your lovely eyes and noble countenance, you are fit to crown the state of any king! Yet alas, it is I, a humble troubadour, who loves you.”

  “You know you may not aspire to me,” Eleanor chided him sweetly. It was the correct, the only, response.

  “Say I may hope, madame, I beg of you,” Bernard pleaded. “Or if you will not extend to me such kindness, then give me leave to sing your praises in my verse. I swear I will not reveal the object of my adoration.” As if, she thought, suppressing a smile, it was not obvious to anyone with eyes in their head.

  “Why, of course, messire,” she said aloud, giving him her hand to kiss to show that he was dismissed. He pressed his lips to it joyfully.

  After that the court was regaled with song after song dedicated—without her name being mentioned—to the duchess. Only a fool would have failed to realize for whom they were meant. Eleanor found such flattery irresistible. It was balm to her lonely heart to hear herself described as noble and sweet, faithful and loyal, gracious and lovely. She only wished that Henry were with her to hear it. No, she just wished Henry were with her. All she craved was his presence. But since she could not have that, there was no harm in enjoying this pleasurable little diversion and the homage of her adoring troubadour.

  “When you look at me with your eyes full of fire and eloquence, I feel the kind of joy one only experiences at Christmas or other great festivals,” Bernard effused to her, after she had graciously permitted him to walk with her on the massive castle ramparts that overlooked the River Maine, keeping her damsels at a discreet distance, yet within earshot. The wind was chilly and whipping her veil in every direction, but she had gathered her heavy mantle about her and stepped out briskly, enjoying the invigorating air. Walking, she had been told, was good for her condition.

  “What have I done to deserve such devotion?” she teased.

  Bernard looked at her with reproach. “You exist, divine lady! You have been the first among my joys, and you shall be the last, so long as there is life in me.”

  “Then what of Alaiz, the wife of the Viscount of Ventadour?” Eleanor teased him. At his stricken look, she smiled. “I am well informed, as you see!” In fact, she’d had inquiries made at Ventadour.

  The young man continued to look crestfallen. “It was a passing fancy, no more, madame, I swear it …”

  “You seduced her!” she accused him, still smiling. “Do not deny it! It was serious enough for the viscount to throw you out of his house and lock up his wife, whom he has now repudiated.” She frowned.

  “Do not condemn me, I beg of you, my dear lady,” Bernard pleaded. “I was young and foolish—and she was not worth the trouble. I see that clearly now that I have beheld your face. I swear by all that is holy that I never loved her as I love you, and that from now on I will be true to you, fair queen of my heart.”

  Eleanor shot him a look of disdain and strode on. He hastened to keep up with her.

  “I swear it!” he cried.

  She relented. “Very well, we will speak no more of it.”

  Bernard was on his knees, kissing the hem of her mantle. “Of all women, you are the most kind and beautiful, madame, and I would not trade your charms for even the wealthy city of Paris!”

  “I should hope not,” she chided, “for beauty, although it lies only in the eyes of the beholder, is surely priceless! Now please get up. You are ma
king a spectacle of us both!”

  They were almost at the tower door that led to the royal lodgings.

  “Accept this, madame, with my devotion,” Bernard said breathlessly, thrusting a scroll into Eleanor’s hands.

  “What is it?” she asked.

  “Poems I have written for you,” he breathed. “Read them, please, for they contain secret messages that only you will understand.”

  Later, when she read them, she found them to be no more than further outpourings of his devotion. He declared that Tristan had never suffered such woe for the fair Yseult as he, Bernard, now suffered for his chosen lady. Eleanor smiled when she read that in her presence he was so overcome by love, his wits fled and he had no more sense than a child. “All I write and sing,” he vowed, “is meant for your delight.” Poor man, she thought: he can never have what he craves. Yet it is fortunate that the rules of the game permit no mention of husbands, for I cannot be cruel and tell him that all I see is my Henry.

  “God Himself has appeared to be fighting for me,” Henry had sent to tell her. He was before Wallingford at last, ready to confront the forces of King Stephen. “But the bishops and barons are urging us to negotiate; many are of the opinion that Stephen should acknowledge me as his heir.”

  “And will he, think you?” Eleanor asked the messenger.

  “He might, left to himself, lady,” the man replied, “but the Lord Eustace, his son, is determined to stand up for his rights, so there may yet be bloodshed.”

  Eleanor shivered. “Pray God there will not,” she said sharply. She could not bear the thought of anything happening to Henry, not just for her own sake (although the Lord knew that would be bad enough), but also for the sake of the kingdom that was nearly—but not quite—within his grasp.

  It was high summer, glorious August, with the golden countryside basking in the hot, unforgiving rays of the sun. She had returned to Poitiers, her capital, to give birth to her heir—and Henry’s. The babe had long since quickened in her womb, and she was heavy and listless, longing for her ordeal to be over.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]