Authors: Ellen Jones
“I fear neither God, man, nor the Devil,” Henry shouted at his retreating back.
“Only women. Very wise.” Eleanor groaned as the ship plunged once more, and his answer was lost in the sound of the rigging thrashing in the wind.
The vessel was moored in the shallows. Burley sailors carried Eleanor ashore and sat her upon unsteady feet just as the bells from Dover Church rang the hour of Sext. The air was wet and freezing cold. A cruel wind pierced everything it touched. She shivered.
They spent two days at Dover, then, after hearing that the missing vessels had washed safely ashore further up the coast, took the road to London. The weather was still inhospitable, but the ride gave Eleanor a chance to catch her breath for the first time since hearing of Stephen’s death. It had taken Henry another six weeks to fully recover from his illness and set his affairs in order in Rouen, while she and the empress organized the travel arrangements, did all the packing, oversaw the loading of the carts and horses, and the subsequent unloading onto the ships. Then violent Channel storms had prevented an immediate crossing, until Henry had had enough.
“Tomorrow,” he announced, “is the sixth day of December, the feast of St. Nicholas. As he is the protector of sailors and travelers, we sail, regardless of the weather.”
Defying the elements, they had sailed. As always, Henry’s fortune held.
Now, riding a palfrey, fourteen-month-old William in a litter with his nurse and grandmother behind her, Eleanor looked about her eagerly.
Several leagues out of Dover, she gave a little cry, as the ruins of a church and half-burned manor house came suddenly into view. Circling hawks overhead indicated the dead bodies of man or beast somewhere in the vicinity.
“Yes, I know,” Henry said with a grim look on his face. “I saw it all when I was here last year. When the monks at Peterborough said Christ and all His Saints slept during Stephen’s reign, you can understand why.”
Despite everything Henry had told her, Eleanor was still not prepared. Having known only the gaiety and affluence of Aquitaine, the intellectual stimulation of Paris, the exotic beauty of the East, the mellow ease of Anjou, and the rugged security of Normandy, she could not believe the savage evidence of her own eyes. One ravaged field followed another. Towns and villages were burned to the ground, some still smoking. Bodies of slaughtered beasts were strewn everywhere.
“You never told me this violence is still going on.”
“Over all, it isn’t,” Henry said. “Just pockets of resistance here and there. As soon as I’m officially crowned something will be done, I promise you.”
Glimpsed in passing, the castles perched on hills looked either deserted or like shuttered fortresses. What inhabitants they met were hostile and wary; some ran for refuge when they sighted mounted knights. Eleanor could have wept for the devastation of what once had been, by all accounts, a great and prosperous land.
It began to snow. Henry, riding beside her, reached out and squeezed her hand.
The next day as they drew closer to London matters improved. Their procession was joined by local barons and prelates, even townsfolk, obviously curious to see this new king who had braved the winter storms to become their sovereign.
When they rode through London it was obvious the city had fared far better than the outlying areas—until they came to Westminster, the official royal residence. Before they could dismount, Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester, appeared in the snow-covered courtyard and prevented them from doing so.
“My lord,” he said to Henry with a bow, before turning to Eleanor. “Lady, you must forgive your poor welcome. But the legacy of the strife that has beset this land for nineteen years has reached into Westminster itself. The place has been so desecrated by Stephen’s men that it is not fit for habitation. Even the abbey is in lamentable condition, although every effort will be made to render it suitable for the coronation.”
Henry did not respond but his face began to turn red. Eleanor, concealing her shock, could see he was trying to get control of himself. For once, if he fell into a fit of rage, she could not blame him. The looming gray structure in front of her looked more like a prison than the seat of royal power in England. Whatever she had expected it was certainly not this dingy excuse for a palace. Even France …She crushed the disloyal thought.
“It doesn’t matter, Henry,” she said gently. “There is so much to be done here—we must take it one step at a time.” She turned to the earl, a crippled, fair-haired man, with discerning blue eyes and a sensitive mouth. “What arrangements have been made for us? We have our son and Henry’s mother—the empress—with us, and I am to deliver another babe in two months time. We must be quartered in reasonable comfort.”
“Of course. We have arranged for you to stay in an old Saxon castle across the river in Bermondsey. Not a sumputous dwelling but it must serve for the moment.”
“I am sure it will,” Eleanor said, so tired now that she would welcome any place to lay her head.
Henry, who had swallowed his spleen, sent her a look of passionate gratitude.
“I am sure you did your best, de Beaumont. Thank you.”
Hardly a castle, Bermondsey turned out to be an ancient manor house with very few amenities. Quite primitive, in fact, by her standards, Eleanor thought in dismay.
An anxious steward, apologizing for the meanness of the manor house, showed them over the modest quarters. When he came to a large chamber, obviously hastily refurnished and cleaned, a look of pride came over his face.
“The Conqueror himself slept in this very chamber I have prepared for you, my lord.” He looked at them expectantly. “I hope this will make up for any other—inconveniences.”
Eleanor, repressing a desire to laugh like a madwoman, assumed a reverential expression. “What an honor.”
Henry, the corners of his mouth twitching, nodded gravely. “Indeed. By God’s splendor, you have done well.”
The steward visibly relaxed and hurried away to see that their supper was prepared. When he was gone, Eleanor sank down on the bed and fingered the moth-eaten, faded blue coverlet.
“Probably the Conqueror’s bed and coverlet as well.”
Henry flung himself down beside her, took her in his arms, and they rocked back and forth, overcome with exhaustion and laughter.
“Sweet St. Radegonde, what a country this will be to rule,” Eleanor said.
Eight days later it was another tale entirely.
On the morning of December 19,1154, an English chamberlain, silver wand in hand, conducted Eleanor slowly down the short flight of stairs to the courtyard of Westminster Abbey. Three pages carried the heavy folds of her gold-embroidered train. Two Aquitainian ladies and four English noblewomen brought up the rear.
A column of knights walking in pairs led them across the cheering, crowd-filled courtyard to the west entrance of the abbey. Inside, the sound of a choir of monks echoed sweetly from the vaulted ceilings. Eleanor, her heart thumping, knew that every eye was fixed upon her, the new queen. Her coifed head held high, she glided up the center aisle to the choice pews facing the altar. Settling in the seat that had been saved for her, she rearranged the folds of her purple fur-trimmed pelisson and looked cautiously around her. The abbey was filled to bursting with knights, barons, and their ladies, shimmering in a vast array of vermillion, green, and sapphire, their velvet mantles lined with ermine, vair, or fox. Gold and silver chains, jewel-studded clasps and brooches reflected the light of hundreds of glowing tapers. The effect was dazzling.
What would these English and Normans, her new subjects, think of her? Would they hate her, as the Franks had done? Or love her as the Aquitainians did? And how would she feel about them?
There was a rising murmur of expectation. Eleanor turned. A procession entered, led by the archbishop of Canterbury. Eleanor had not yet met the worthy Theobald but knew Henry thought most highly of him. In the two months between Stephen’s death and their arrival on English soil, the archbishop had ruled the land in Henry’s name.
“Do you know, Nell, that this is the first time in ninety years, since the Conqueror in fact—excepting William Rufus—that the crown will devolve peacefully?” Henry had said this morning. “No protests, no armed demonstrations, no plots to supplant me with another candidate. That’s quite an achievement on the archbishop’s part.”
“You do realize the implications of what you’ve just told me?” At his questioning look, she explained: “At this moment the Church is the most powerful force in the country.”
He gave her a penetrating glance then shrugged. “That will change. I know how you feel about the Church, Nell, but I do expect you to get on with old Theobald.”
“Of course. After all I get on very well with some ecclesiastics.”
“The abbess of Fontevrault, the archbishop of Bordeaux—some of the time … let me see—my old tutor in Poitiers, most of the time … hmm.”
“Not a very impressive list, is it? Be that as it may, you’re to make a special effort with old Theobald, just remember that.”
The archbishop was clad in a gold-embroidered chasuble, wearing his gold-encrusted miter and carrying a gold crosier winking with jewels. His head shifted slightly in her direction; Eleanor held his gaze for an instant before he moved on. Behind him, led by the archbishop of York, paced a score of bishops and abbots, crimson, gold, and blue robes brushed with fire from the candle-glow. Behind them she caught a brief glimpse of the tall figure of Thomas Becket.
Next came Henry, striding beneath a canopy of purple silk held on the gilded points of four lances borne by those peers of the realm whose hereditary right permitted them to perform this function. Henry stopped at the chancel and the service began.
A screen was raised when the time came for him to be anointed with the consecrated chrism from a crystal bowl. When Eleanor saw him again, he was led to the throne clad in silken tunic, embroidered robe, and a scarlet cloak edged with ermine. The archbishop administered the coronation oath and the Conqueror’s golden crown was formally placed upon Henry’s head. The Lord Marshal of England made a sign to Eleanor. She rose heavily and moved toward the throne, taking her place beside Henry. The archbishop placed another crown upon her head. She and Henry were now king and queen of England.
The great bells in the tower rang with lusty abandon; a swelling roar of approval echoed both inside and outside the abbey. She caught a quick glimpse of the Empress Maud, her eyes bright with tears. Henry turned and with a broad smile winked at her. His dream for so many years was now fulfilled. But for how long? Eleanor knew that Henry’s appetite for more land, more power was not appeased, only lying dormant like some sleeping giant. Had he not told her only last night that the entire world was but a paltry prize for a brave and powerful ruler?
And for herself? More than fulfilled, Eleanor was ecstatic with what she had achieved: She had rid herself of an unsuitable husband; survived two formidable enemies, Abbé Suger and Bernard of Clairvaux, the latter’s demise last year having stilled the most influential voice in Europe. Oddly enough, Bernard’s death had not brought her the same sense of satisfaction she had felt when Abbé Suger died, or her first marriage had been annulled. On the contrary, she had experienced a sense of emptiness—Bernard had been … what was it about that charismatic holy man whom she had so intensely disliked? Yes, a worthy opponent; extraordinary, for she had never admired an enemy before. She would actually miss him. Strange, but the links created by hate could be almost as strong as those created by love.
Most important, though, she had kept Aquitaine inviolate, safe from harm. Not only that, she had brought—or so Eleanor hoped—the spirit of her pleasure-loving sunlit duchy to this bleak and desolate country. England would never be the same again; in time, she would see to that.
Henry and Eleanor followed the archbishop out of the abbey. Outside, a splendid litter drawn by four white horses waited for them. They rode out of Westminster and moved slowly along the Strand, surrounded by the approving cries of their subjects. While she waved and smiled, Eleanor caught sight of a young girl, big with child, standing in the forefront of the crowd. The litter paused for a moment against the surging throng. The girl was now close enough for Eleanor to reach out and touch her.
Her beauty was so arresting, it was impossible not to stare at the gleaming raven curls, milky skin, and huge dark-blue eyes that blazed with something close to adoration. There was a quality so heartfelt, so passionately admiring in her glance that Henry, who never missed a pretty face if he could help it, must be returning the girl’s attention. Eleanor looked at him but his gaze was studiously fastened in another direction.
Who was this lovely creature staring at? After a moment, with a shock of recognition, Eleanor realized that it was herself. Oddly moved, she impulsively stretched out her hand in a gesture of acknowledgment. The girl seized her fingers and brought them briefly to her lips. The litter moved on. When Eleanor looked back, the girl had tears running down her face.
Henry, who had not witnessed the incident, now turned and squeezed her hand. Their eyes met and Eleanor felt the familiar jolt of blood rush through her body. Giddy with joy she wanted to weep, to laugh, to sing, to cry aloud for the sheer wonder of being in this place, at this rapturous moment in time. She was on the threshold of a glorious future, about to help rule an empire with a man she loved more than anything or anyone in the whole world. Twice a queen, mother of a son and heir, was woman ever so blessed?
Heir to thy grandfather’s name and high reknown Thy England calls thee, Henry, to her throne.
Henry of Huntingdon
HERE WAS THE FAR-OFF
murmur of voices. Someone was shaking Eleanor’s shoulder. Henry. “You’re insatiable, my lord,” she said drowsily.
“I beg pardon?”
Eleanor opened her eyes. A torch flared, blinding her.