Sarum, Wiltshire, spring 1176
Alienor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, Countess of Anjou and Queen to King Henry the second of England stood alone in the bare, cold room that had been her prison for almost two years. The hearth had been swept clean of ashes and her portable furnishings such as they were had been carried out and placed in the baggage cart.
Pale spring sunlight shone through the window arches, and pooled in tepid gold on the floor boards. A chill breeze off the Downs brushed her face and hands. All winter the wind had howled around the white-washed palace buildings like a hungry wolf pack. Her joints had grown stiff, and her thoughts had become as sluggish and unclear as the mud at the bottom of a frozen pond.
It was difficult to stir, to wake up and face the world. When a cramped limb returned to life there was always an agonising tingle. Holding out her hands she noticed the first soft fawn mottles of ageing upon them, but that bothered her less than the way they trembled.
Her wedding ring glinted at her. Despite all she had suffered at Henry’s behest, she had never removed it, because while it adorned her finger, she was his queen and duchess. Even incarcerated on this exposed wind-scoured hilltop, her titles remained potent. Henry in his usual ruthless way had isolated her here, out of sight, although she doubted out of his mind. The world moved and she had been banished from moving with it, her sin that of defying his will in rebellion and interfering with his policies. He accused her of betraying him, but the greater betrayal had always been his.
What news she received was filtered through her gaolers, who were disposed to tell her little, and then only details that brought her low while exalting her husband. Now he had summoned her to attend his Easter court at Winchester, but for what reason? Forgiveness in the season of Christ’s rising? She doubted it. Further punishment? He must want something from her, even if it was only to parade her before his nobles and prove he had not had her murdered. He couldn’t afford to have another such accusation on his hands - not after his Archbishop of Canterbury had been hacked to death on the altar steps of his own cathedral by four knights of the royal household.
Footsteps sounded in the chamber beyond and she lowered her hands, raised her head and faced the door with regal hauteur that concealed stomach-churning anxiety. Much as she desired to leave this place, the thought of stepping into the world filled her with trepidation; she did not know what she would find, or how long her reprieve from isolation would last.
She was expecting her gaoler Robert Maudit to enter and escort her to the courtyard, but instead, her eldest son opened the door and stood dazzled in spring sunlight, his golden hair wind-tussled. A white gyrfalcon gripped his gloved right fist with steel-grey talons.
‘Mama,’ he said with a broad smile. ‘Is she not beautiful?’
Alienor felt as if her heart had stopped and all the breath had been snatched from her body. ‘Harry,’ she said faintly and her knees buckled.
Immediately he was beside her, holding her up with a firm grip beneath her arm and escorting her to the bare stone window seat. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, his voice full of tender concern. ‘I thought they would have told you…shall I summon your women?’
She made a swift gesture of negation and somehow dragged air into her lungs. ‘They tell me nothing,’ she said in a fractured voice. ‘I am blind and this is too much.’ She lifted a trembling hand and covered her eyes.
He set his arm around her shoulders and she pressed into him, inhaling the vigorous scent of his healthy young body, and feeling his strength and vitality - qualities sapped from her own store by years of strife and then imprisonment.
The gyrfalcon bated her wings, jingling the silver bells on the jesses holding her captive on Harry’s wrist. ‘Gently,’ he said in a low, soft voice that might have been either for her or the hawk. ‘Go gently.’
When she recovered enough to raise her head, the bird had settled down and was preening her flight feathers with diligent care.
‘My father has sent me to bring you to Winchester,’ he said.
She gazed at the falcon, trapped on his glove. The bird could not fly until those shackles were released, no matter the strength in her wings. ‘Did he say what he wants of me – other than to prove to the court that I am not dead?’
His smile diminished. ‘He says he wishes to speak with you – and make peace.’
‘Is that so?’ Bleak laughter lodged in Alienor’s chest and almost choked her. ‘And what will that entail?’
‘He did not say.’
She looked round the empty room again. What would she give to be free? More importantly, what would she not give? ‘No, I do not suppose he would.’ She struggled to contain her emotion as she thought of what might have been had Harry succeeded in overthrowing his father’s rule three years ago. ‘I have so many regrets about what happened, and none of them about reconciliation. Most of all I am sorry about being caught; I should have made better plans.’
‘I hesitated to act and I lost the impetus. I have had little to do here but think and my cup has been one of bitter remorse that I ever dallied.’ She rose to her feet in an abrupt movement, causing the gyrfalcon to flap again. ‘If your father has sent you to bring me to Winchester, then you are reconciled and we must go on from this. Truly, I am overjoyed to see you.’ A grown man in his twenty first year, the age at which his father had become England’s king. ‘Who else is at Winchester?’
‘Everyone.’ He stroked the bird until she resettled. ‘Richard, Geoffrey, John, Joanna.’ He gave a flippant smile. ‘Wives, bastards, kith and kin. We’re all living cheek by jowl. No fights as yet, but plenty of time for that to happen.’
Alienor’s anxiety increased. It would be like going from starvation to glut in a single step. No time for adjustment. She drew another deep breath and turned toward the open doorway of the room that was both her cage and her sanctuary. To have any kind of adjustment she must leave this space. ‘Well then,’ she said with a blind, britte smile, ‘Let us go and join the fray.’
In the courtyard her small baggage train awaited. Life’s luxuries at Sarum were few and it only needed a single cart and two sumpter horses to bear her belongings the twenty miles to Winchester. Harry had come to Sarum with a full complement of knights – mostly of Henry’s household, but with a few of his own among them, including his tutor in weapons and chivalry, William Marshal who stood at the bridle of a handsome dappled palfrey with a mane and tail of raven silk.
‘Madam,’ he said, and went on one knee to her, head bowed.
The sight of him, the gesture, warmed her heart. ‘William.’ She touched his shoulder, signalling him to rise, and as he did so their eyes met in acknowledgement. Several years ago he had saved her from ambush and been taken prisoner while fighting off her attackers. She had purchased his liberty and entrusted him with the task of protecting her eldest son as well as raising him to knighthood. She and William had been allies through thick and thin.
‘You look well Madam,’ he said. Behind him, Harry was smiling as he mounted his glossy chestnut palfrey.
Alienor raised her brows. ‘I find you guilty of flattery,’ she replied. ‘I know what I must look like after two years walled up in this place.’
‘Never less than a queen,’ he said gallantly, and assisted her to mount the grey. The saddle was a lady’s and faced the side with a padded back support and footrest, a genteel style she had always eschewed in favour of riding astride. Chair seats made for a slower pace and she always felt vulnerable and less in control. Typical of Henry that he would send one of these, thus putting her in her place before all.
‘At court it is said you have been resting, Madam,’ William said with tactful neutrality.
‘Indeed?’ She gathered the reins, her mouth twisting with contempt. ‘I suppose it serves as a bandage of concealment.’
He said nothing, but again his look was eloquent before he turned to his mount. She had given him the dun stallion eight years ago when he entered her service and the horse was now in its full prime, well-muscled and glossy-gold.
Harry joined her, his chestnut prancing and arching its neck. ‘Papa thought it better you travelled this way because it is a long time since you have ridden,’ he said, but had the grace to look chagrined.
‘And because it suits his purpose, Harry. I have not lost my wits or my ability to ride, only my freedom,’ she retorted.
For an instant Harry’s countenance became that of a scolded child, but he swiftly brightened and fixed her again with his disarming smile. ‘Even so the sun is shining,’ he said, ‘And it is a fine day for a ride - whatever the harness.’
Alienor bit back the retort that it would be finer still to have a choice. Harry had the ability to live on the surface which she did not - to be a butterfly and enjoy a fine moment for as long as it lasted.
With a few adroit movements he transferred his hawking glove and the white gyrfalcon to her wrist. ‘Now you look like a great queen and duchess going about her business,’ he said with an approving nod.
Tears pricked her eyes. The white gyrfalcons were greatly prized by the dukes of Aquitaine and were birds of high royalty. Until her incarceration at Sarum one had always perched in her chamber and she had taken fierce joy in flying her to hunt. Always the females for they were larger and stronger than the males. She had given Henry one at their marriage and every day she wished that gift undone.
‘What is her name?’ she asked.
Harry looked at her. ‘Alienor,’ he said.
She bit her lip and strove not to break her heart. ‘I will think of her soaring,’ she said when she could manage to speak.
As the cavalcade rode out from Sarum, the wind herded fresh white clouds across a sky of pale April-blue. Skylarks were singing, the wind hissed through the new grass, and the pain in Alienor’s heart was exquisite.
By the time they reached Winchester, night had fallen and Alienor was reeling with exhaustion. Henry’s doubts about her riding abilities after two years were borne out; all her muscles were screaming with pain. Confined for so long behind Sarum’s walls, deprived of visitors, she was both physically and mentally overwhelmed. The gyrfalcon had been returned to her carrying box several miles back and the symbolism of being shut away had not been lost on Alienor. Even more worrisome to her, she almost envied the bird.
Drawing on her reserves, she maintained a façade of regal aloofness to carry her under archways and through gateways until they eventually drew rein in a courtyard dark with shadows even though servants arrived with horn lanterns to illuminate the area. William Marshal was immediately at her side to help her dismount and steady her while she found her feet. She resisted the urge to cling to his solid strength. To onlookers she thought it must appear that she was indeed frail and in need of rest and quiet. Her arrival at night would only serve to compound that impression. No fanfares, no colourful parade through the street, but something subdued and muted to greet a tired shadow-woman, not a great and vibrant queen.
She turned to Harry who had been talking to his mesnie as he dismissed them, joking, slapping shoulders and horse rumps with equal bonhomie. ‘It is late,’ she said, and there was almost a wobble in her voice. ‘I would retire immediately.’
‘Of course Mama, I should have realised.’ Immediately he was attentive, issuing swift commands and in moments she was being escorted by the light and shadow of lanterns to the apartments she had always kept as queen when staying at Winchester.
She had to swallow tears as she gazed upon walls clad in colourful hangings and a bed made up with covers of silk and fur. A smell of incense hung delicately in the air and the chamber was lit by lamps of thick glass and warmed by charcoal braziers. Two books bound in leather and panelled in ivory stood on a bench with a lift up seat beneath which more books were stored. A chess set stood on a small table with a rock crystal flagon and cups of pale green glass to hand. All the luxuries she had taken for granted before her imprisonment. After two years of privation, this unsubtle statement by Henry about what he could give and what he could take away, juxtaposed feelings within her of rage and antipathy that were almost paralysing.
She sat on the bed as servants arrived with bread, cheese and wine. Attendants brought her baggage into the chamber, watched over intently by her maid Amira. The girl was the youngest sister of Welsh border baron Hugh Pantulf of Wem, and Henry had honoured the family by assigning the girl as Alienor’s attendant. Amira was just fifteen years old, helpful, swift and intelligent, but also ignorant of the world, its stratagems and politics – which was as Henry intended. No servant of Alienor’s was to have the remotest capacity for subterfuge.
Amira fetched some soft sheepskin shoes from a baggage chest and knelt at Alienor’s feet to remove the cowhide ankle boots she had worn for riding.
Harry sauntered into the room on the heels of the baggage and glanced round. ‘Does this suit you Mama?’ he asked. ‘Is there anything more you need?’
‘Only that which I cannot have.’
‘I would give it if I could.’
She drew in her feet as Amira finished securing the second slipper. ‘I know you would, my son. We are each constrained in our different ways.’
He poured wine into one of the delicate glasses and handed it to her. ‘It’s all right,’ he reassured her when she hesitated. ‘It’s from one of my barrels, not papa’s.
She took a cautious sip. Henry never kept his wine well and the usual state of the wine at court was half way to vinegar. However, this was smooth and rich, tasting of her Poitevan homeland and bittersweet because of that fact.
‘Shall I summon the rest of us?’
Alienor shook her head and again felt that unsettling jolt of apprehension. ‘I do not want to see anyone tonight,’ she said emphatically. ‘Let me sleep first.’ She desperately desired to embrace her other offspring, but they could not see her like this, tired tearful, and overwhelmed - especially not Richard. Never. Henry she could not bring herself to think about because her hatred curdled her stomach, or perhaps it was the wine, laced as it was with the poisonous knowledge of loss. ‘You should go too.’
His look of relief was similar to the expression she had seen children bestow on ageing relatives to whom they owed a duty, and she did not blame him.
‘I will make sure you are not disturbed, mama,’ he said.
She gave him a knowing, sour smile. ‘I am sure the guards outside my door will do the same.’
When he had gone she lay down and had Amira draw the bedcurtains. Curling in upon herself, she sought the oblivion of sleep, too worn out to bother disrobing.
Winchester Castle April 1176
The morning brought an initial sense of disorientation and it took Alienor a moment to remember where she was. Her body was stiff and sore from yesterday’s ride, and the inside of her mouth tasted parched and stale. She lay gazing at the canopy above her head, painted with silver stars while she sought the wherewithal to rise and face the world. Outside the curtains she could hear Amira whispering to another maid and suspected that the hour was late. Why bother to rise at all? Why not just lie here in passivity and let the time slide away?
Another woman’s voice joined those of the maids, the tone gently enquiring, yet firm with authority. The bed curtains parted and Alienor’s sister by marriage, Isabel de Warenne stood in the rectangle of light, holding a jewelled cup.
‘I’ve sent away last night’s wine and brought you fresh spring water,’ she said. ‘There is new bread and honey and I have taken the liberty of sending for a bath.’
A little bemused, Alienor took the cup and drank. The water was clear, cold and refreshing and the sight of Isabel herself comforted Alienor’s sore heart because here was a true and stalwart friend.
‘Harry told me last night you had arrived but insisted you did not want to be disturbed,’ Isabel said, ‘otherwise I would have come to you straight away. Indeed, I had my cloak on ready.’
Alienor set the cup to one side and held out her arms. Isabel flung herself into them and clasping Alienor to her heart, started to weep. That immediately made Alienor cry too, but somehow these were bearable tears and she even found the semblance of a smile.
‘You foolish woman,’ she sniffed, wiping her eyes as at last she pulled away. ‘Look what you have made me do.’
‘I cannot help it.’ Isabel dabbed her face on the cuff of her undergown.
‘Your heart is too tender; that is why I could not have borne to see you last night. I am not sure I can bear it even now.’ Alienor steadied herself and took another drink of water. ‘Ah Isabel, it is so hard, to leave the grey and return to colour. You cannot begin to know what he has done to me.’
Servants arrived carrying a tub between them and maids followed bearing pails of hot and cold water. Isabel had a vial of rose attar and she tipped some precious drops into the steaming tub. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but even so I want to help you.’
Alienor gave a wry grimace. Isabel had a penchant for doing good deeds to better the lives of the afflicted. She suspected she had become one of them in her eyes. ‘Do not dare pity me,’ she said.
Isabel’s hazel-brown eyes widened with a tinge of hurt. ‘I would never do that!’
‘You cannot help yourself,’ Alienor retorted but softened the comment with a rueful smile.
Amira helped her to undress from yesterday’s garments and Alienor stepped into the tub and sank down into the blood-hot rose-scented water with a soft sound half way between pain and pleasure. An attendant set a board across the tub and placed a small loaf on it, still warm from the ovens and sticky with honey.
Isabel refeshed Alienor’s cup with wine this time. ‘John and Joanna were so excited to know you were coming.’
Alienor struggled to swallow the piece of bread she had been chewing as her throat tightened with emotion. When Henry had shut her away from the world for rebelling against him, he had denied her access to her children too. Isabel, who was wed to Henry’s half-brother Hamelin had taken them into her household to raise with their de Warenne cousins, which had been one small grace in a devastated wasteland. ‘How are they faring?’
‘Well indeed – as you will see. Joanna is becoming a fine young lady and John and Will are firm friends.’
‘I am glad you have had care of them,’ Alienor said in a careful voice. ‘It has been a great comfort to me knowing they are in your hands.’
Isabel blushed. ‘It has been my privilege. They are both so clever. I have never seen anyone so adept at working an exchequer board as John, and Joanna reads aloud with never a stumble!’
Isabel’s acclaim made Alienor want to cry again. She should be the one praising such intelligence instead of hearing about it from the lips of another.
She ate the bread and honey and finished her bath. A short while ago she had been reluctant to rise from her bed, but a new mood began to sweep her the other way like sun burning through mist and she was suddenly impatient to move on. She had been shaken back to life and there was no turning back.
‘Do you know why Henry has brought me to Winchester?’ she asked as Amira together with Isabel’s, maid Sarah dressed her in a clean chemise, and a gown of scarlet wool. ‘Harry says Henry wants to make peace between us, but I fear his motives if so, because they will not be to my advantage.’
Isabel shook her head. ‘Hamelin has said nothing.’
‘He does not know, or he will not tell you?’
Isabel dropped her gaze. ‘I do not know that either.’
And would not venture to ask. Alienor loved Isabel dearly but knew her propensity for hiding her head from life’s harsher realities.
‘I hope you can make peace,’ Isabel said with concern. ‘It is no life for you at Sarum.’
Alienor curled her lip. ‘I expect Henry will use life at Sarum as one of his levers. He imprisons me there for nigh on two years, denying me all contact with the world and my children - taking from me all things of grace and luxury. Now he brings me to Winchester and showers me with everything that I lack.’ She checked her impatience while the maids braided her hair and covered it with a mesh net and a silk wimple. ‘I tell you this Isabel, I will never yield him Aquitaine, if that is his price. I would rather return to Sarum - indeed I would rather be dead.’
‘Do not look at me like that,’ she said. ‘I bless you for waking me up.’ She drew a deep breath up through her body, filling herself with life. ‘I may not be ready to speak to Henry, but I want to see my children.’
With alacrity and obvious relief Isabel sent a maid to fetch John and Joanna.
They arrived with a couple of nurses and Isabel’s own four offspring in tow - their cousins. Alienor’s heart turned over and threatened to crack. In the time since she had bidden her youngest son and daughter farewell at the gates of Sarum, they had grown and changed to the point that they were almost strangers. At ten and nine they were still children, but already wearing the bones of the adults they would become.
John was first to come forward, smoothly bending one knee to her. ‘My lady mother,’ he said. Joanna curtseyed, murmuring the same words. Her hair was plaited in a gleaming braid, the light brown shot with distinct auburn glints.
The constraints binding the situation were like taut, heavy rope. In a sudden flurry, Alienor slashed through the formality and pushed forward to gather John and Joanna in her arms. ‘How you have grown!’ She fought back her tears. ‘Ah it has been far too long! I have thought about you every day and prayed to see you again!’
‘We prayed too mama,’ John said, his eyes wide and clear and his expression cherubic.
‘Yes, they did,’ Isabel confirmed with a tremulous smile. ‘Every morning and evening; I did not have to remind them.’
Wiping her eyes on the back of her wrist, Alienor took them to sit in the embrasure with her, and holding them close, strove to recover her balance. After a while she was able to greet Isabel’s son and three daughters in a normal manner, and was astonished at how they too were no longer soft, babes in arms but thriving youngsters on the swift path to adolescence. Isabel’s son William was the same age as John and the pair had plainly bonded, continuously nudging and testing each other in cub-play, but united against the world. Isabel’s eldest daughter, Belle, was a similar age to Joanna and already a beauty with her mother’s shining brunette hair, and the alabaster skin and striking green-blue eyes of her grandfather Geoffrey le Bel, Count of Anjou. ‘I can tell this one is going to strew the road with broken hearts,’ Alienor said, smiling ‘Have you betrothed her yet?’
Belle preened at the compliment but kept her gaze modestly lowered. She knew she was pretty and she exploited it with demure cunning.
Isabel shook her head. ‘We want her to be older, and to have a say in her choice.’
Alienor raised her brows. ‘But what if she sets her heart on a kitchen boy or a minstrel with pretty words in his mouth and nothing in his purse?’ For a conventional woman, Isabel could be wayward in matters of the heart and home. Some might call her brave and truthful, others indulgent and foolish.
Isabel set her chin. ‘Obviously there are limits, but within them she shall have a choice.’
‘What does Hamelin say?’
‘He agrees we should wait awhile. There is plenty of time, and no one has made an offer we are unable to refuse.’
Alienor said nothing. Hamelin would agree with Isabel because he was besotted by his wife and daughters. He was the head of the household and ruled it with benign but firm patronage. He was not about to change that state of affairs by giving his daughters in marriage and subjecting them to the influence of other men. Alienor’s own daughters had made matches before puberty in order to secure binding political ties, but there was no such onus on Isabel and Hamelin.
Alienor heard the approach of male voices raised in jovial banter, the door flung open and her older sons surged into the room with their father. . The fresh scent of outdoors swirled around them, stirring the atmosphere with vibrant energy. The four of them were laughing and back-slapping over some jest about one of the terriers that had absconded with the earl of Leicester’s fur hat and murdered it at the back of the stables
Alienor’s gaze was drawn inexorably to Richard, the tallest the brightest, and heir to her duchy. Count of Poitou, future Duke of Aquitaine. His red-gold hair gleamed with vitality, his eyes were the rich summer blue of cornflowers, and his features bore the bold strength of manhood. Her heart was open for all of her sons but Richard was its light.
He came and knelt to her in formality to receive the kiss of peace and give her greeting. Alienor used the ritual to maintain her dignity, although inside her emotions were spiralling like a whirlwind as she touched him. Their eyes met, filled with things that could not be said in public before Henry.
Richard rose and yielded his place to his brother Geoffrey, a year younger, brown-haired and slighter of build. Still waters in Geoffrey ran deep and the open expression on his face was not necessarily indicative of the thoughts going on beneath. He was the third son, the minor cog in the wheel, but the bigger cogs could not turn without the smaller one.
Harry kissed her warmly and squeezed her hand in encouragement. ‘Are you feeling better now Mama?’
‘I have my armour on,’ she replied with bleak humour. Was she feeling better? Different perhaps. Ready again to fight.
‘These are for you.’ He poured a handful of darkly glittering jewels into her hand, including a large oval amethyst drilled with two fine holes, one of them decorated with a scrap of thread and fluff to show that it had recently been attached to a garment. ‘Spoils from the kill; don’t tell the bishop.’ His eyes gleamed with laughter.
Alienor closed her fingers over the stones, knowing their value and how they could be put to good use. Henry might see fit to confiscate them, but she thought not when there were so many witnesses and it was all part of the jest. Harry winked, flourished a salute and stepped back.
And then it was Henry’s turn, for he had deliberately let his sons go first, and had narrowly observed the interaction between them and their mother.
Alienor handed the jewels to Amira to put away, and turned to him, her body taut with revulsion. She did not curtsey and he did not bow.
His expression was guardedly amused but his eyes were as hard as chips of polished flint. ‘Madam,’ he said. ‘I trust your sojourn in peace and solitude has been of benefit?’
‘Indeed, sire,’ she replied. ‘I have had time to think on many matters and to see them more clearly than I did before.’
‘I am pleased to hear it. He gestured to the side. ‘As you see I have come to an understanding with our sons and there is no reason why we cannot all be at peace together.’
Alienor thought there were many reasons for the opposite but she bit her tongue. If Henry was offering an olive branch, it was conditional and she had yet to discover those conditions.
He held out his arm. ‘The court awaits us in the hall, if it please you, Madam.’
She did not want to touch him, but she forced herself to set her hand on his and walk with him, and knew he had no desire for this contact either, except as a means of exerting his power. This was a game she had perforce to play until she found out what precisely what he was up to, and then they would see.