Geoffrey’s servant knocked again. Matilda closed her eyes and endured the contractions, pushing down with her all her might, grunting and straining. Vaguely she heard the midwife’s attendant telling the man that the babe was almost born. Within the hour, if all continued well.
Matilda gave a humourless laugh. ‘He is afraid I will birth a girl child,’ she gasped. ‘Before I entered my confinement he was constantly worrying at the possibility like a dog with fleas. He says I would do such a thing just to spite him and my father because I am contrary. It would serve them both right if I bore a daughter.’ She bit back a cry as the next contraction started to build. ‘The books say that a woman is a vessel in which the man plants his seed, so how can a woman be to blame for the sex of a child?’
‘Sometimes a woman’s seed is stronger than the man’s, and then the baby is a girl,’ said the senior midwife. ‘That is the lore.’
‘In that case, all my children will be daughters!’ Matilda panted.
On the next contraction the baby’s head crowned at the entrance to the birth passage and emerged, followed by slippery little shoulders and crossed arms. Matilda closed her eyes, pushed again and felt a warm, wet slither between her parted thighs.
‘A boy!’ The midwife, beamed from ear to ear. ‘Madam, you have a son, and he’s perfect.’
An infant’s thready wail filled the chamber as the woman lifted up the bawling, mucus-streaked baby for his mother to see. Matilda felt no immediate burst of maternal love, but there was satisfaction at a task accomplished, and enormous relief that she had borne a living baby this time, whole of limb and wailing with lusty lungs. That was what brought a sob to her throat.
Two women cut the cord and took the infant aside to bathe him in a bowl of warm water, while two more stayed with Matilda to attend to the delivery of the afterbirth. She was so tired that it was difficult to raise the strength to expel the dark, liverish mass, but she managed. The women made her comfortable, removing the soiled bedstraw on which she had laboured, binding soft linen rags between her thighs to absorb the bleeding, and making up the bed with clean linen sheets. Matilda drank a small cup of hot wine infused with fortifying herbs and closed her eyes. She heard the soft splash of water as the women bathed the newborn in a large brass bowl, and the senior midwife cooing to him as she wrapped him in swaddling bands.
The peace of the moment was broken by a commotion at the door and Geoffrey burst into the room like a storm. ‘Where is the child?’ he demanded. ‘Let me see him. Where is my son?’
The midwives gasped and clucked at the unseemly intrusion, but Geoffrey ignored them and strode over to the freshly swaddled baby lying on his fire-warmed blanket. ‘Unwrap him,’ he commanded. ‘Let me see that he is a boy with my own eyes.
Through her exhaustion, Matilda was filled with amused scorn and indignation. ‘Where would be the advantage in lying to you?’ she said. ‘Do you really think we would say you have a son if it was a daughter?’
‘I would put nothing past you,’ he growled, his complexion high.
‘I have laboured long to bring him into the world,’ she said. ‘And before that, I carried him inside my body. I am glad to have borne a boy because he will have an immediate advantage in this world. Why should I bear a girl to spite you, when I would be spiting her too because of her very sex?’
Geoffrey looked at the unwrapped baby, taking in the evidence with his own eyes. He reached a forefinger and touched his son’s soft cheek. The infant turned his head in a rooting motion that made him smile. ‘I own him as mine,’ he said. ‘He is indeed a fine boy. Now we can begin to make real plans for the future. Name him Henry.’ With a brief nod in Matilda’s direction, he left the room as briskly as he had arrived.
Matilda slumped against the pillows and fought not to cry as a maid closed the door behind him. ‘Bring my son to me,’ she said. ‘Let me see him.’
The midwife re-wrapped the baby in his swaddling and carried him gently to Matilda. She rested him in the crook of her arm and gazed down at this child whom she had not wanted to conceive because of fear, because of anger, because her life was a battleground over which she had so little control. Now the field had changed. Her fight was for him now, and she felt as if a part of her that had been hollow and hungry for a long, long time was full and warm and satisfied. You have done well little one,’ she whispered to him. ‘Henry.’ Although Geoffrey had spoken as if the naming was his sole prerogative, their son could have been called no other, and she was content.’ You will be a great king one day,’ she said. ‘Greater even than your grandsire.’
Here are a couple of extracts from Lady of the English.
The first features Matilda and Adeliza. The second, the young Henry II
To set the scene. Empress Matilda's father King Henry I has told her she must marry a youth called Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda, widow of the German Emperor and in her mid 20's has refused and after a volatile argument has retired to her chamber.
Matilda was roused by the sound of Adeliza talking to her maids, and the waft of savoury food smells. Moments later, the bed curtains parted and Adeliza stood in the space between them with a tray bearing a bowl of broth, steam curling on its surface, a small crusty loaf and a portion of saffron-glazed chicken. The maids bustled about, lighting candles and closing the shutters against a lavender spring dusk. As Matilda sat up, Adeliza set down the tray on the coffer. She had brought a folded napkin and a small fingerbowl of scented water.
end of extract 1
Henry FitzEmpress, almost eight years old, was testing the paces of his new mount Denier. The dam’s Spanish breeding had given the little chestnut fire in his feet. Henry loved the feel of the wind streaming past his face, even though it was cold enough to sting his eyes, because it gave him a feeling of speed. On a swift horse, he was invincible.
His father had started taking him hunting, and Henry had also begun his military training, fighting with a shield made to suit his size, and a wooden sword. He loved every minute. Indeed, the only thing he ever found difficult was staying still. It was always a trial when he was in church and expected not to fidget in the presence of God. By contrast, flying on a horse was easy.
His father was waiting in the stable yard to greet him when he returned from his ride, his groom following several paces behind. Henry showed off by drawing rein in a dramatic slide of hooves, and leaped from the saddle almost before the pony had stopped. He flashed his father a broad smile, exposing gaps at the front where new teeth were growing in.
Geoffrey’s lips twitched. ‘That was fine riding, my son.’ He plucked a burr out of Henry’s cloak.
Henry flushed with pleasure. ‘Yes, sire.’ Much as he was enthralled by the swiftness and grace of Denier, what he really wanted to ride was a destrier like his father. His new pony was just another point on the road towards that accomplishment. ‘I could have made him go faster, but Alain wouldn’t let me.’ He scowled over his shoulder at the groom.
‘Alain was wise, you should listen to him,’ Geoffrey said. ‘And to your horse. Always be bold; never be heedless.’
Henry pursed his lips and said nothing.
His father folded his arms. ‘I have been waiting for you because I have received some great news from England, from your mother. Stephen the usurper has been defeated in battle and captured by your uncle Robert and others of your mother’s kin and allies. Your mother is to become Queen.’
Henry stared at his father while his stomach gave the same kind of swoop that it had done while he was galloping Denier. He had not seen his mother in almost a year and a half and memory of her features had blurred at the edges, but she wrote to him often and sent him things from England: a writing tablet with an interlaced design on the ivory cover, and a fine penknife. Things she had sewn, which held her scent. Bells for his harness. Numerous books. And always the promise that one day he would be a king because England was his.
‘Can we go there?’ He was suddenly consumed with eager impatience. Had a ship been present in the courtyard, he would have boarded it there and then.
‘No, no, no,’ his father laughed. ‘Rein back your horse a little. It is early days yet. Your mother will send for you when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Soon,’ his father said. ‘But not quite yet.’ He ruffled Henry’s hair. ‘One battle does not a victory make, even when the enemy has been captured. Once your mother has been crowned, she will send for you.’
Henry frowned and wondered how close ‘soon’ actually was. When adults said such things, it was usually simply to pacify – and it was always a long time. He did not see why he could not go immediately. He knew he could help, and it was his destiny.
His father said, ‘My first task now your mother has succeeded is to go into Normandy and secure the duchy. Many barons will want to pay homage to the winning side.’ He looked at Henry. ‘And no, you cannot come there either for the time being. Your task is to stay safe and learn and become a man.’
Henry grimaced, but knew better than to protest. As far as he was concerned, he was a man, and years were only numbers.