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Authors: Elizabeth Chadwick

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BOOK: Lady of the English
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Leaving Brian, Matilda joined Adeliza, who was sitting against the side of the ship wrapped in warm furs and buffered from the strakes by thick fleece-stuffed cushions. Against the deep colours of squirrel and sable, Adeliza’s face was a wan oval and she was biting her lip. Matilda wondered if she was worried about the sea crossing, but surely she had made it often, and 30

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she was not naturally timorous. Perhaps like Waleran she was suffering from the effects of the heavy swell. Several people were ill, although none were making quite as much noise as the lord of Meulan. Then Matilda realised that her stepmother was crying.

“Madam?” Matilda looked round to call for help, but Adeliza gripped her arm.

“It is nothing,” she said.

Matilda sat beside her and tucked some of the fur coverlets over the top of her own cloak. “What is wrong?”

Adeliza swallowed and wiped her eyes on her mantle.

“My flux is upon me,” she said in a low voice. “I thought…I thought this time I might have held on to the child. It has been forty days since last I bled…but it has come. It always comes.” She rocked back and forth with her head bent. “Why can I not fulfil this duty? What have I done wrong for God to deny me?”

Matilda set a comforting arm around Adeliza’s shoulders. “I am so sorry. I grieved the same when I was married to Heinrich.”

“I would be a good mother,” Adeliza whispered. “I know I would. If only I had one chance. Just one. Is it too much to ask?” She compressed her lips as William D’Albini picked his way over to them, his balance steady despite the freshening wind. Stooping, he handed a flask to the women.

“Honey-sweetened wine and ginger, madam,” he said to Adeliza. “It is a good remedy if you are feeling unwell. My aunt Olivia swears by it. The waves are heavy today.”

Matilda eyed him suspiciously, but his expression was open and he seemed to genuinely think Adeliza was suffering from
mal de mer
. She thanked him on Adeliza’s behalf in a voice that encouraged him not to linger. He took the hint, his complexion flushing, and, with a bow, moved off.

Adeliza sniffed and raised her chin. “I will not feel sorry for 31

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Elizabeth Chadwick

myself,” she said. “If God has other plans, then I must trust to His judgement. He will let me know what He wants of me when He is ready.” Removing the stopper from the flask, she took a sip, and then passed the drink to Matilda.

“Indeed,” said Matilda, and thought that sometimes God worked in very mysterious ways and she was not sure that she could wait on His will with the same patience as Adeliza.

ttt

Standing in pride of place upon the high altar of Reading Abbey, the hand of Saint James pointed towards heaven in a spire of burnished gold and precious stones. The Abbey of the Virgin Mary and Saint John was in its sixth year since consecration and still under construction. Henry intended it to be the most magnificent foundation in Christendom.

It would house his tomb when the time came, and it was already a shrine to the son he had lost on the
White Ship
, whose mortal remains lay at the bottom of the sea. Monks from the great abbey at Cluny performed the offices, said the prayers, and cared for the relics, which included the blood and water from the side of our Lord Jesus Christ, a piece of his shoe, and the foreskin from his circumcision. There was also a lock of the Virgin’s hair. The impressive collection of intimate items from the Holy Family bestowed importance and sanctity upon the abbey, and assured a place in heaven for its founder and benefactor.

Now that the hand of Saint James had been safely delivered to the abbey custodians, Henry retired to the guest house with Matilda, Adeliza, and a few close advisers and family members, including Matilda’s uncle, David, king of Scotland, Robert of Gloucester, and Brian FitzCount.

Matilda drew a lungful of the crisp autumn air before entering the lodging, then exhaled hard to release her tension.

She had almost cried during the mass when the hand had 32

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been gifted to the abbey because the memories of herself and Heinrich on their wedding day had been both too close and too far away. If only she could have that time back, to relive it with the knowledge she had now as a mature woman, instead of being an overawed child.

Her father’s servants arranged chairs and benches around the hearth with wine and titbits to hand. Her uncle David gave her one of his laconic smiles as an attendant took her cloak.

“You did well to bring such a fine gift to the abbey, niece.

Your mother would have been proud of you.” He spoke the Norman French of the court with a soft Scottish burr.

“She would have seen it as my duty,” Matilda replied wryly.

“And you have fulfilled it.” Her uncle’s expression held encouragement and a twinkle of humour. “You are her daughter, but there is more to you than that, and I would see you smile.” He gave her an irreverent but avuncular chuck under the chin. “I hope you are my niece too.”

Matilda managed to oblige him. She was very fond of her uncle. He had played with her when she was a child and sent letters and gifts to her in Germany more cheering than her mother’s dry exhortations to duty and copies of religious works in Latin. He had sent her dolls and sweetmeats and a necklace set with Lothian garnets that she still had in her jewel casket.

“Good, then we are of a mind.” He kissed her cheek and led her to sit down by the fire.

Once everyone was settled, her father called for silence.

“Now we are all gathered, I wish to talk of the future.” He studied each person in turn. “I had hoped in the fullness of time that the Queen and I would be blessed with a male heir, but thus far God has not seen fit to grant us that blessing.”

Adeliza gazed down at her hands and toyed with her wedding ring.

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“That being the case, I must consider the matter of the succession. My choices are clear. Lacking a legitimate male heir, I must look to either my nephews of Blois, or to my daughter and the eventual fruit of her womb.”

Matilda raised her chin and met his stare, matching it with her own.

Her brother Robert said, “Certain factions would also have you consider William le Clito, sire.”

“No.” The king dismissed the suggestion with a swift chop of his hand. “Le Clito has neither the brain nor the experience to rule England and Normandy.”

“But others do have experience in his stead,” her uncle David said shrewdly. “The king of France supports him in order to discomfort you, and what about that young man you brought with you in chains?”

“Waleran de Meulan is a hot-headed young fool,” Henry snapped.

“With some close and powerful relatives.”

“Indeed, but imprisoning Waleran shows them just how far they can tread on my goodwill without suffering the consequences.” He leaned forward in his chair and extended one thick, powerful hand. “I have a clear choice before me. Here is my daughter, the widow of an emperor. She has great connec-tions by marriage and by birth. She is the fruit of my loins and through her runs the blood of the ancient English royal house.

Moreover, she is the only child born to parents who were crowned sovereigns at her conception. She has experience of ruling and of being a royal consort.”

Matilda’s heart constricted with a mingling of pride and apprehension. She firmed her lips and strove to look as regal and dignified as his words described.

Robert said, “Few men will bow the knee to a woman, sire, no matter how competent and fitted by blood she is to the 34

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task—and I say this as someone who will gladly swear allegiance to my sister.” He glanced round and received nods of approba-tion from the others.

“And I say to you that all men will bow to my resolve, by one means or another.” Henry’s hand clenched into a fist. “I am no fool. I know when a man is dead and gone, his word is no longer the law. Therefore I must make all watertight while I am still in good health. If no son is to come to me through my queen, I must look to grandsons born of my daughter.”

Matilda held her father’s hard grey stare. “And what man will provide those grandsons, my father? You have not said.”

“Because I must still think on this business. It matters only that your husband should be of good stock and gives you sons.

He will never be a king, but the advantage for him is that his son will wear England’s crown. And you, my daughter, will be the vessel that brings this royal child into the world. You will be the power behind the throne until he is old enough to take that power for himself. In this you will have the backing of your kin and my committed vassals. As the mother of a future sovereign, your authority will be great, and all these men will support you.” He gestured around the firelit circle and the air almost crackled with sparks of tension. “And if God is merciful, he will grant me the years to watch my grandson become a man.”

And to hold on to power, Matilda thought, and knew it must be in everyone else’s mind too. If her father could live that long, they might never have to deal with the threat of a woman on the throne. She said, with her hand at her slender waistline,

“I am willing to do my duty, sire, and I am glad you have such trust in me, but what if you die before I bear a child? And what if I do not conceive?”

He gave her a dark look, as if he thought she was deliberately setting out to be awkward. “Those are bridges to cross in later 35

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discussions. For now I hold to the premise that my own blood in direct line shall inherit the throne, and that all of my barons shall swear allegiance to you as my heir.”

There was a long, tense silence, broken by Brian FitzCount, who rose, walked round the fire and knelt at Matilda’s feet.

“Willingly I do so swear,” he said, and bowed his head.

Her heart filled at his action and she hoped she did not look as flustered as she felt. Clasping his hands between hers, she gave him the kiss of peace on either cheek, and felt the soft burr of his stubble against her lips. His garments smelled of cedar wood and the scent took her breath.

“A noble gesture,” her father said with amused tolerance, as if watching the antics of a precocious child, “but I am already certain of those gathered here. I know you will give your allegiance in public before all. It is my intent to hold an oath-taking ceremony at the Christmas court with every magnate present as a witness and participant.”

Robert cupped his chin. “What of Stephen and Theobald of Blois?” His upper lip curled as he mentioned his cousin. “From his behaviour, Stephen seems to think you are grooming him for a greater part than just being the Count of Boulogne.”

“I have never spoken to him in such terms,” Henry said shortly. “I am fond of him; he is my nephew, and he will do very well where he is. He owes his power to me and he will obey and implement my policies.”

Robert gave his father a long look. “Will you discuss this oath in council with the other lords?”

Henry tapped his fingers on the arms of his chair. “I see no need for the present.”

“But men may demand to know whom my sister will wed before they swear.”

“All will be done in its due time and course,” Henry growled.

Matilda said, “The bishop of Salisbury is not here tonight.”

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“It is not a matter for him.” Her father’s face began to redden and Adeliza stroked his arm in a soothing gesture.

“But you assign him England’s rule in your absence.

Supposedly he is the most trusted man at your councils,” she persisted. “What does it say for the future that he is not here now?” Matilda was aware of everyone staring at her, as if a tame hawk had turned to rend its owner with its beak. She firmed her lips and sat erect.

Her father’s chest expanded. “The bishop of Salisbury is a statesman I hold in great respect,” he said, his voice gritty with anger. “He will be told in due course—when I am ready to do so.”

Doggedly, Matilda held her ground. “But he has been sympathetic to le Clito in the past. Might it not be prudent to give custody of the lord of Meulan to someone else—to my lord FitzCount, for example, who is indeed present tonight, and who has sworn allegiance.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed.

Brian cleared his throat. “It is true that Wallingford is more secure, sire. I grew up with Waleran and I know him well.

Perhaps I could sit with him over a flagon of wine and talk him round.”

“I agree, sire,” said Robert, hastening to smooth the path.

“I am not saying the bishop of Salisbury would do anything untoward and I know you trust him, but Wallingford is more secure than Devizes.”

Henry continued to look irritated. “Brian, you could talk rings around Waleran de Meulan and any man you chose, but that is not the same as making him change his mind. I know and trust my justiciar, and I am not blind to the fact that he has a soft spot for Meulan and would willingly sponsor le Clito as my successor.” He made a brusque gesture. “Very well, let us err on the side of caution. I will give the order to have Meulan 37

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transferred to Wallingford, but I expect every cooperation with my lord the bishop of Salisbury, is that clear?”

ttt

Dismissed by her father with the evening’s business completed, Matilda entered the guest chamber allotted to herself and Adeliza and breathed deeply, trying to release her tension.

Adeliza followed her quietly into the room and directed her women about their business: folding back the bedclothes; warming the sheets with hot stones wrapped in cloths; preparing a tray of wine and honey cakes.

BOOK: Lady of the English
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