Authors: Ellen Jones
Except the scene being played before her eyes was hardly entertaining. It was terrifying.
Though this fit was no less violent than the one in Poitiers, it was over far sooner. With the aid of the knights, Henry was helped to his feet. After swaying back and forth, he recovered sufficiently to down a goblet of wine before staggering out of the pavilion. Eleanor could hear him shout that the walls of Limoges must be destroyed. Aghast, she did not know how to stop him. The refusal to provide food
an affront to her authority, this could not be denied. But, left to herself, she would have handled the matter with tact and diplomacy, charming the abbot and leading citizens into giving her whatever she wanted. Her grandfather had done it his whole life as a matter of course. That was the way the more successful dukes of Aquitaine handled their unruly subjects.
“Now we are no longer outside the town,” Henry said cheerfully, when the walls were razed. “The townsfolk must provide food. This will teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget.”
Indeed it would. If her vassals had been hostile before, what would they be once news of the incident spread? Eleanor wondered. Since their arrival in Aquitaine she had been the center of attention; the adoring southerners making a great to-do over her, and paying little heed to Henry. He had initially appeared to take this in good humor, but after Limoges Eleanor was less certain.
“I will see you are recompensed for the walls,” she told the abbot privately. “The duke is truly a good man but hasty of temper.”
The abbot gave her an incredulous look. “ ‘Hasty of temper’? Is that how you see it, Madam? May God forgive me, but what I see is that you have liberated us from one tyrant only to yoke us to another. He intends to be master here. Take care that this firebrand who so readily kindles others does not torch you as well.”
Was the abbot right? Did Henry basically resent her power in the duchy—as Louis had? Was the show of force against her subjects a foreshadowing of the future? The prospect was so unconfrontable that Eleanor immediately dismissed it. The abbot had spoken in the heat of the moment. She loved Henry beyond reason. Surely, surely, she would, over time, imbue him with the same love, the same understanding of her people that she possessed.
Henry slowly opened his eyes. For a long moment he gazed up at her. “Nell.” His fingers closed weakly round her hand. “I thought mayhap I was dead and a beautiful angel was ministering to me.”
Eleanor, her dark thoughts banished in the instant, blinked back tears of relief and moved his hand to her lips.
From that moment on Henry’s strength began to return, although he was still too weak to leave his bed or even sit up. Eleanor was hard put trying to keep him entertained. He wanted her with him constantly and complained every time she left the chamber. She spent hours telling him stories, massaging his back, feeding him tempting dishes to stimulate his weak appetite. At first he lay quietly, his hands frequently on her stomach so he could feel the baby move.
“That was a lusty kick. I’m sure it’s another boy. Bring William to me,” he said, a few days after the fever had broken.
A wet nurse brought in the baby, now over a year old and still ailing, and laid him beside Henry.
“He looks like me, don’t you think?”
Eleanor smiled. “I’ve always thought he resembled your mother far more than you.”
“Thomas Becket said he was the very image of me.” Henry watched the baby’s dimpled fist close round his finger.
The name sent a tingle of resentment through Eleanor. Henry talked frequently of Thomas Becket since returning from England. Why he was so taken with this cleric, who had all the charm of a cold trout, she could not imagine. Henry had told her that the archbishop of Canterbury suggested Becket would make an excellent chancellor when he became king. To Eleanor’s amazement, Henry had given his agreement. Even the Empress Maud had voiced her doubts about that, but Henry, who usually listened to her advice—if he listened to anyone’s—had ignored her. He seemed determined to elevate this Norman of low birth into a position of power—which, in Eleanor’s view, the archdeacon had neither earned nor deserved. With a shrug she thrust the unwelcome thought of Becket aside. Now she had Henry to herself—sharing him with the empress, of course—although sometimes their relationship reminded her more of two kings joined in a common campaign than a mother and son.
think he looks like me.”
“William is well-membered,” Eleanor said in a dry voice. “He certainly resembles you in that respect.”
“Hah!” Henry beamed, and over the protests of both Eleanor and the nurses, unwound all the swaddling bands to examine the evidence with his own eyes.
“What a son this will be, Nell! As heir to the throne he must, of necessity, be educated primarily in England, of course. It won’t hurt to engage his tutors now. One from Normandy and one from Anjou, to start with at any rate. Send to the bishops of Rouen and Angers for suggestions.”
“No tutor from Aquitaine?”
“Really, Nell, he isn’t going to be a poet or a minstrel, heaven forfend.”
“Let us hope they can teach him to be more civilized than the average Norman I’ve seen,” Eleanor said. “All Aquitainians are born civilized.”
“This uncivilized Norman is creating an empire, have you thought of that?” Henry sat the baby on his stomach, dandled him in his arms, and played with his downy patch of russet hair. “This Norman is also bored. Amuse me.”
“What would you like to do?”
“Surely such a civilized creature as yourself can think of something.”
Eleanor was perplexed. In Aquitaine, if a member of the family was ill, he or she immediately called for a troubadour to soothe their spirits. Her grandfather had actually believed that the sound of lute and voice helped exorcise the body’s foul humours. Perhaps this would work for Henry. Eleanor knew she did not dare recall Bernart de Ventadour. In England, Henry had intercepted a letter the troubadour had written to Eleanor, claiming that he hated the northern clime and wished he was a swallow who could fly back to her “across the wild, deep sea.” Bernart was now back in Aquitaine seeking a new patroness to worship.
She missed him. There was no denying that he appealed to the wildly romantic side of her nature that loved to be adored.
Eleanor sent for another, less gifted troubadour she had brought with her from Aquitaine. After he had played and sang all her grandfather’s songs, Henry yawned.
“I’m more scholarly than musical, Nell,” he said in a peevish voice. “Read to me. Something I haven’t heard before.”
At her wit’s end, Eleanor sent for the bishop of Rouen, who suggested she call for a particular reading clerk from the cathedral at Caen. The clerk, a Master Wace, was in the midst of translating into Latin an old Welsh manuscript about the ancient kings of Britain.
When Eleanor finally received the Latin portions of the manuscript, she began reading the book aloud. Henry was entranced by the tale of King Arthur, but all too soon it was finished.
As Henry grew strong enough to sit, his demands increased. “Get into bed with me, Nell.”
“I don’t think you’re well enough.”
“Perhaps not for everything but for some things. Like this.”
He insisted she remove her gown and sit with him in her chemise so that he could pull it down over her shoulders and caress her breasts. He never tired of looking at them, squeezing them together, taking her nipples into his mouth and sucking on them. By this time they were both so aroused that Eleanor forced herself to get up and put on her gown.
“This is the last time I let you start something you can’t finish.”
Henry made a face at her. “All right, bring over the chessboard. I haven’t beaten you at chess in a long time.”
“You’ve never beaten me at chess.”
“We’ve never played before.”
Eleanor looked around for the chessboard, praying her mother-in-law would not return home in the immediate future. The empress’s well-appointed, immaculate solar now looked as if a storm had swept through it leaving vast amounts of debris in its wake.
In addition to the usual presence of William, his nurses, and various attendants who came and went, extra tables had been brought in and were littered with food, pitchers of wine, and rare books bound in wood and ivory. There were candleholders perched everywhere and the wax had dripped onto the polished tables, over the rushes, even staining the scarlet wool coverlet the empress had had especially woven by Flemish weavers in Arras. As if all this weren’t enough, Henry’s favorite greyhound bitch had chosen to whelp her pups at the foot of his bed.
Every day now, Henry insisted on conducting all the business of Normandy and Anjou, so rolls of parchment, sheets of vellum, wax tablets, and styli were strewn over the bed. Each morning Eleanor read aloud all the documents and relayed the pertinent news. Henry, aided by subtle suggestions she added from time to time, would then make the decisions which two clerks recorded on wax tablets.
In truth, Eleanor enjoyed doing this activity almost more than anything else, and not only because she was actually sharing in Henry’s work; it also gave her a far greater understanding of how Henry’s mind functioned, the scope of Normandy and Anjou’s problems, and how he proposed to deal with them. Eleanor had thought herself a good administrator. But listening to Henry’s incisive decisions on how to increase revenues, conserve expenses, what to look for in appointing bailiffs, measures to take with rebellious nobles, or, particularly impressive, how to dispense justice to lawbreakers, she was awed by the caliber of the man she had married. So vastly different from poor ineffectual Louis.
And also vastly different from how he had behaved in Aquitaine. This Henry and that one, like devil and angel, were virtually impossible to reconcile.
When a servitor placed the empress’s prized chessboard of inlaid wood covered with squares of gilt and silver upon the bed, Eleanor picked up the ivory figures and turned them over in her hands, marveling at their workmanship.
“This was given to my mother by her first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, who taught her the game when she was only a child,” Henry said. “I think I told you that my father always beat my mother at chess. She let him win to make up for the incident at hawking where he felt so humiliated.”
“I remember. Well, I give no quarter,” said Eleanor. “Skill will triumph.”
“Which is why I’ll win. Prepare yourself for a bloodbath, Nell.”
“You’ll eat those words. I’ve told you, you can’t expect me to pander to male pride.”
“Of course I expect it—if I weren’t naturally superior to you.”
Eleanor stuck out her tongue at him.
For several hours they matched wits until she made a move with her queen that she knew would win her the game. While Henry alternately gazed at the board with suspicious eyes, glowered at her, and tapped his teeth with an angry forefinger, Eleanor sat back on her stool with a complacent smile.
Suddenly Henry threw back the scarlet coverlet and sent chessmen and board tumbling to the floor.
“Henry! Why did you do that?” Eleanor could not keep the note of irritation out of her voice.
He gave her an innocent smile. “Do what? It was an accident.”
“Accident? You know perfectly well you did it because I was about to beat you! Sweet St. Radegonde, you’re such a child.”
Henry put his thumb in his mouth and made a gurgling sound. He looked so comical Eleanor could not help laughing. Suddenly there was an urgent knock on the door and the steward burst into the solar.
“My lord, a herald has just arrived from Canterbury. King Stephen is dead.”
Eleanor leapt up like a startled hare; Henry, open-mouthed, looked at the steward then at her.
As Eleanor watched him, she fell prey to a tumult of feelings—satisfaction, excitement, and others less easily defined. Whether for good or ill Henry had diligently pursued that star which was now within his grasp, and she was happy for him—and for herself. But how vastly their lives would change, she realized with a sudden pang of regret that surprised her. Not that this would make the slightest difference. To reach for that which you sought, to finally attain it, for an instant or through all eternity, whether it brought joy or bitter pain—surely that was all that mattered?
“Jesu, Nell! Sweet Jesu! I am King of England! King of England!” He grabbed his head with both hands. “I cannot believe it.” Suddenly he looked so terribly young, so vulnerable, so astounded that Eleanor’s heart melted within her breast. She sank down on the bed and gathered him into her arms.
“Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, the father of one son, with another on the way; husband of an adoring wife. Now King of England. You’ve achieved it all, my lord.”
Henry drew back and gave her a tremulous smile. When Eleanor gazed deeply into his pewter eyes she saw, for the first time since she had known him, that they sparkled with tears.
LEANOR’S FIRST IMPRESSION OF
England was not at all what she expected. Hearing about the state of a realm was a far cry from seeing it for yourself.
First there had been the wild crossing from Normandy, with the convoy of ships being blown like a feather across the unruly Channel. Quite as bad as her voyage from the Holy Land to Sicily, and then she hadn’t been seven months gone with child. Mercifully, the voyage lasted only two days. When Eleanor believed she could not endure one more moment, her ship suddenly pitched forward on the brow of a towering green wave, crashed down, then—there it was. A white ridge of coast surmounted by hanging gray clouds that overlooked a large harbor thronged with ships.
“Dover’s cliffs,” said Henry beside her, unruffled by the voyage. He put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
Eleanor, who had several times voided the contents of her stomach into the sea and feared a too early birth, smiled weakly as she clung to the wooden railing.
“Let us hope the other vessels have found safe harbor somewhere along the coast,” said the captain, trotting past them. “By me faith, a voyage to put the fear of God into you, my lord.”