THE TWO WEEKS WHICH followed my wedding were the most exciting, surprising and revealing I had ever known. I was idyllically happy. I had the man I wanted. But it became clear to me during the days after our wedding that I had a great deal to learn about my husband. When there is such an all-consuming physical passion as there was with Henry and myself, although one seems to grasp in an instant that there is complete sexual harmony, one can be quite ignorant about the person involved. Blinded by physical demands, one ignores characteristics which would be obvious in others.
When I looked at him, with his square, thick-set figure made for agility rather than grace, his bow legs, his wide, thick feet, his close-cropped sandy-colored hair, his bullet-shaped head and his rough red hands, I marveled that I, who had been brought up in the most elegant of Courts, could have this feeling for him. His eyes were gray and rather prominent but they were quite beautiful in repose; but I was to see them raging in fury, and then they had quite a different aspect.
He was different from anyone I had ever known. He conformed to no pattern. He hardly ever sat still. He would wander about a room as he talked; there was no refinement in his speech; he never couched his expression in soft words; what he meant to convey came out bluntly, right to the point. He did not care to sit and eat in a civilized manner. He seemed to think it a waste of time. Food did not greatly interest him. It was something one must take for nourishment, and that was all it meant to him. I did not then ask myself why he had captivated me; during those two weeks when we were together every minute of the night and day I was obsessed by him.
He was well educated—his parents had taken care of that—and he was fond of learning. He had read a great deal, which amazed me in one so active. But as long as he was doing something which seemed to him worthwhile he was contented; and reading must have seemed that.
He had little admiration for poets and minstrels and regarded them with a certain contempt. When I look back, it seems to me that, if I could have chosen someone as completely different from myself as possible, I might have chosen Henry.
How we talked during those blissful days. He told me a great deal about his parents. There was no doubt that he had a great affection and admiration for his mother, the forceful Empress Matilda. He was proud of her although she did fail so dismally to regain her kingdom.
“It was hers by right,” he said. “Was she not the daughter of the King? Stephen had no right to take England from her. She should have been Queen.”
“I should have thought the people would have rallied to her,” I replied. “Was it because she was a woman that they turned to Stephen?”
“No. Stephen is as weak as water . . . but he has charm. He is affable. He is approachable. He smiles on them and they like him, in spite of the fact that he is ruining their country. Matilda . . . well, she is a haughty woman. She cannot forget that she was Empress of Germany. The English do not like her manner.”
“Did she not see that she was spoiling her chances?”
“My mother is not a woman to take advice. Her life has not been easy. She was five years old when she was sent to Germany to marry the Emperor. He was thirty years older than she. There she was made much of, spoiled for discipline forevermore: She was unprepared for what was to follow; and when he died and she was brought home, she was twenty-three years old. She clung to the title of Empress—indeed, she still calls herself Empress now and insists that others do. She is a very forceful woman, my mother; and when at the age of twenty-five she was married to my father, she considered him far beneath her. She was ten years older than he, and she despised the boy of fifteen who was descended from the Counts of Anjou—who in their turn were descended from the Devil. Imagine it. Poor Mother.”
“Since she is so forceful, the daughter of a King and the widow of an Emperor, I wonder she did not refuse to marry him.”
“Her father was even more forceful. Matilda wanted the throne, so she was obliged to submit. For years she would have little to do with my father. She despised him and let him know it. Then after about six years she decided to do her duty and I was born. A year after me there was Geoffrey and after him William. So at length she produced the three of us.”
“You are fond of her and were fond of your father too.”
“They both did their best for me, but we boys were brought up in a Court where there was continual strife. I have never known two people to hate each other as they did.”
“Perhaps it has made you strong.”
In turn I told him of my childhood, of those first five years spent in my grandfather’s Court. I told of the jongleurs and their songs which enlivened the long evenings while the fires glowed and the light was dim. I told him of my bold grandfather and Dangerosa, and the miracle which Bernard had conjured up to show my father the error of his ways.
He told me of the beautiful woman who had wandered into his ancestor’s castle and so charmed him that he married her, and how sons were born to her, how she always made excuses why she could not go to church and one day when she was prevailed upon to do so, she was confronted by the Host and suddenly disappeared and was never seen again.
“This is the story which gives rise to the legend,” he said. “They say the woman came from Satan and that we Angevins are the spawn of the Devil.”
“Am I to believe that?”
“You will discover,” he replied.
They were wonderful days which I wanted to go on forever, but of course they could not. He was restless; he had lands to conquer. I should have to wait for these periods when we could be together. I told myself that they would be the more precious because I had to wait for them.
Henry had placed people all over France and England. He said that if one was going to take the right action one must know what the enemy planned. He must have as much information as possible. It was from one of his men that we heard about the reaction to our marriage at the French Court.
Louis had rarely been so startled.
How blind he was! He had seen me with Henry. Had he not noticed that overwhelming attraction between us? Of course he had not. What did Louis know of such emotion?
He was incensed. He and I had been divorced because of the closeness of our relationship and I had immediately married someone who was even closer. It was a blatant disregard for decency, the Church and the crown of France. Why, when it had been suggested that my elder daughter should marry Henry Plantagenet, this had been rejected because of the closeness of their blood, and now I, the mother, had the effrontery to marry the man myself.
The marriage must be dissolved at once.
Henry and I laughed at the idea. In our eyes, we were ideally suited and nothing on Earth was going to separate us.
We heard that, shocked beyond measure by this “incestuous union,” many of the French nobles were assembling at Court. Naturally, rejected suitors such as Geoffrey of Blois and Geoffrey Plantagenet raged in their indignation—although why the latter should complain of the blood tie between his brother and me when he was ready to commit the incestuous sin himself needs a little explanation.
The fact remained that they were gathering against Henry.
A messenger arrived at Poitiers. As Louis’s vassals, Henry and I were to present ourselves to him to answer the charges against us.
Henry snapped his fingers at that. “Louis will have to stop thinking of me as a vassal,” he said.
But when he had news from his spies that Louis was planning an attack, he was alert. He was not sure where the attack would come from. Aquitaine would be faithful, we knew; but Normandy was less secure. His brother Geoffrey was a traitor and there was nothing he would like better than to see Normandy wrested from Henry, of whom he had always been intensely jealous.
“I must go to Normandy without delay,” said Henry. “You will be able to hold Aquitaine.”
I knew he was right. The honeymoon was over.
This was the kind of life to which I must become accustomed. I must not complain. Now it was my task and great desire to prove to him that he really could rely on me in all things.
So we said goodbye and Henry rode away. I must fortify my castle and make my people aware of the French threat.
They were loyal to me—the more so because Henry was not here. They made it clear that they would fight for me, their Duchess, for I was their ruler, but they did not owe the loyalty to my consort that they owed to me.
I accepted that. In a way I was pleased by it. I had learned enough of Henry to know that he considered himself the master of all about him, and that included me. That was something I should have to teach him was not the case. I would do it gently, of course, but no man, not even Henry, was going to subdue me.
In our passionate moments he had murmured that he had never known a woman like me. He would have to remember that. No matter what power he had had over members of my sex in the past, no matter if it was the way of the world that men should rule, it should not happen with Eleanor of Aquitaine.
So in my fortress I waited while a watch was kept for the approach of the French.
Nothing happened. I knew Louis’s reluctance to go to war and I am sure that a war against me would have an even greater repugnance for him. I heard he had turned his forces toward Normandy and there was no sign of hostility toward Aquitaine.
I thought a great deal about Louis’s campaigns. Had there ever been one which was successful? It was hard to remember. Poor Louis, doomed to failure. What hope had he against a shrewd strategist like Henry?
News came of the progress of the battle. Henry was winning everywhere. I was amused to hear that his truculent little brother Geoffrey had now lost the three castles which had been left to him and caused such a grievance.
It was not long before Louis and his pathetic attempts at war were completely routed. Henry was victorious: Normandy was safe; and Henry returned to Poitou.
How happy we were to be together!
“It is good that this happened,” said Henry. “It will teach Louis a lesson. He will not wish to meddle in my affairs again in a hurry.”
He was delighted with all I had done. I could see that he thought our marriage a real success since we could work so well in unison.
I told him that Aquitaine must be wooed. The people were completely loyal to me, but they had never taken kindly to Louis and I wanted them to feel differently about Henry. He saw that I was right.
I said: “We should make a tour of the country. We should stay in the castles. You must get to know them and let them see that this marriage of ours is a good one for them as well as us.”
He told me that England was very much on his mind. Stephen might not live much longer and when the time came he must be ready.
“Eustace will not meekly stand aside.”
“I do not think the people will want him.”
“Let us talk of these things while we are making our journey through my country.”
And this was what we did.
My people were wary of him, but it was heartening to see the enthusiasm with which they greeted me. They loved me. When I rode among them in my silk and velvet gown, with my hair flowing about my shoulders, they were enchanted. Henry, however, square and stocky, somewhat inelegant, was not their idea of the romantic lover; he did not match the heroes of the ballads they loved to sing; he was not the kind for whom lovesick maidens sigh.
Moreover, he was impatient. The nights we spent at the various castles brought no joy to him. He found it irksome to have to sit still so long. I was disturbed because I knew that, in spite of our passionate relationship, he wanted to be away in England.
The fact was that my people did not take to this uncouth man who had married their Duchess, but I did not know how greatly they resented him until we came to Limoges, where I saw a side to his nature which gave me twinges of alarm. We did not go into the town but encamped outside. This was a pity for if we had not done this, the trouble might not have arisen.
We had had a long day and were hungry. The cook came to me and told me in great distress that the town would provide no food for us.
Henry was present. “And pray why not?” he demanded. “And who has said this?”
“It was one of the servants of the castellan, my lord.”
“Bring him here to me this moment.”
The man was brought and stood trembling before Henry’s wrath.
Henry had changed. His eyes were bulging; they were wild. I had never seen him like that before.
“What does this mean?” he demanded.
“My lord,” stammered the man, “my master has said that the town of Limoges is not obliged to supply food to those encamped outside its walls.”
“Does your master know who comes?”
“Yes. It is the Duchess and her husband.”
That added to Henry’s rage. Not the Duke and the Duchess, but the Duchess and her husband. It was how they regarded him. He thought this a slight to him—which it was probably intended to be.
I could well believe in that moment that he had the Devil’s blood in him. His face was purple, his bulging eyes blazing with fury.
He strode out of the tent. I heard him shouting orders. I did not know at once what those orders were but when I did I was appalled.
The walls of the town were to be razed to the ground and the newly built bridge destroyed. In future when the Duke and the Duchess of Aquitaine visited the town of Limoges there would he no insolent men to deny them hospitality because they had encampedoutside their walls.
I suppose I could have countermanded the order. What if I had? What would have happened? What would he have ordered me to do? I was too stunned to act. I did nothing to stop the orders being carried out.
I thought afterward: Suppose I had given orders that it was not to be done. There would have been war, I was sure . . . war between my people and my husband, and I should have stood with them.
It was the first time I was aware of those black rages of his. This was when I knew that there was a great deal to learn about my husband.
We left Limoges and continued our journey. It was not the same.
The news of what had happened spread through the duchy, and I noticed some sullen looks. My people would accept me and all my sins, for they were the sort of peccadilloes which they understood. The burning of the walls of Limoges was quite another matter.
Henry was very shrewd. He quickly assessed the people’s attitude toward me and he was too clever to resent it. I realized that he was planning to leave me in control of Aquitaine while he looked after Anjou and Normandy—and of course his eyes were on England. There was nothing petty about his feelings. Everything about him was larger than life—even his rages.
During those first months of our marriage he endured those evenings when we sat and listened to the minstrels, but I knew he thought it all a waste of time. He was, though, studying those about us, deciding whom he could trust and of whom he would have to be wary. He was assessing the value of my property, considering what would be wanted for its defense if need be; and all the time he was noting the people’s love and loyalty to me.
If I had ever thought of him as a malleable boy, I was rapidly learning my mistake. I might be eleven years older than he and that must give me some advantage, but it also meant that I had the understanding to know this man I had married and how I must act if I wished to keep him. An uneasy thought had occurred to me: that my feelings for him were stronger than his for me. I was as deeply sensual as he was; we were matched in that; but it did occur to me to wonder what happened when he was far away from me. He was hardly the man to put himself under restraint. I learned in those first few months that it was not going to be easy to keep such a man entirely mine. He had always had a reputation for promiscuity before marriage. He was lusty, looking all the time for conquest, no matter in what direction. I was beginning to feel a little uneasy as I emerged from my first flush of passion.
But I was no weak woman. I was sure I would be able to deal with any situation which presented itself to me. In the meantime this wandering life had to come to an end. He was thinking of England.
I knew that he had to go and that I had to let him go. It seemed to be my fate to marry men who were absent from my bed. Louis had stayed away from choice; it was different with Henry. He was lusty, but ambition came first—so I thought then. I had to learn that this husband of mine was the sort of man who did not set great store by love when lust would suffice. For him the parting would not be such a wrench for he would casually indulge in sexual relationships whenever the opportunity arose—and such opportunities were strewn in his path. That had always been a way of life, and his marriage would not alter that. This I had yet to discover, and fury possessed me when I did.
I should have known, of course. I should have been more worldly. He did care for me in a way. He admired me as he did his mother, recognizing that both of us were exceptional women of intelligence and experience. He was not one of those men who thought of women as naturally inferior. Only when they were did he think so. He respected me as he did his mother, but I was to discover that the idea of remaining faithful to me had never occurred to him.
At this time I was still living in a romantic glow, although the affair at Limoges had opened my eyes a little and set warning bells ringing in my mind. I had begun to understand that he was not quite what I had thought him.
He talked to me glowingly of his plans. He could not rest idly anywhere, and there was a task to be completed. He had to wrest his heritage from the supine Stephen and his useless Eustace, as he called them. For this he needed an army, and armies cost money. He needed a great deal of money. I could supply some but not all that was necessary. He had to set about finding it without delay.
He was going to Normandy, from where he would doubtless cross the Channel. His mother would do all she could to help, and she would guard Normandy while he was in England. My task was to keep Anjou, with Aquitaine, safe for him during his absence.
He discussed this at length when I should have preferred to hear his protestations of fidelity and undying love, and his sorrow because of our enforced parting. But Henry would not waste time on such trivialities. The preliminaries to love-making did not appeal to him. They were a waste of time. We both knew what we wanted; there was no need for wooing. He wanted to talk of plans.
I was to go to Anjou, for my presence would be needed there more than in Aquitaine, where I could rely on the loyalty of my subjects.
I agreed with all this. I did suggest that it might be better if he tarried until the spring, for if he went now he would arrive in England in the winter. Would that be wise?
He said he would have preferred the spring but must perforce make do with the winter. And that was an end of the matter.
So he went to Normandy and I to the castle of Angers, where I settled down to wait for his return, praying that it would be a triumphant one.
To my joy I found that I was pregnant. I laughed inwardly, thinking of all the barren years with Louis. So it was his fault. I had always suspected that it was; there was bound to be something less than a man about Louis. But a woman does get uneasy feelings when she wants desperately to conceive and cannot; and it is only natural that she begins to wonder whether the lack of fertility is in some way due to herself.
I was happy; this was the best time for pregnancy, with Henry absent, and it brought with it a certain serenity which made life very pleasant.
I filled the castle with troubadours so that it resembled the Court of my grandfather. Petronilla, a widow now, came to join me and we were as close as ever. A mother herself, she had a great deal in common with me; and we both loved those evenings of song. We would sing together and talk of the old days.
I was very interested in one of the troubadours, Bernard de Ventadour, who reminded me so much of the old days. He was a fine poet and had a wonderful singing voice. I was very glad that he had come to the Court—and his coming itself had been quite romantic.
He had been wandering through the country looking for a castle where he might rest for a while and ply his profession of poet and musician. I supposed he had heard that I was in residence, and so, knowing how I cared for poetry and music, he presented himself at the castle. He had a certain arrogance which I found not displeasing. He dared to ask if he might see me.
Always interested in musicians I allowed him to be brought to me. He behaved in a manner to which I had become accustomed in my father’s Court and which I had missed since I married Louis. He prostrated himself and when I bade him rise he gazed at me, his eyes blinking as though he were in a very bright light.
I was amused.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he said. “I am dazzled.”
He was implying by my beauty, of course. I smiled. It was so reminiscent of the old days.
“You wish to sing for us here?” I asked.
“It is my great desire to do so.”
“Are you a good musician?”
“I have been told so, my lady.”
“How is it that you have no place to go to?”
“I had, my lady, until I was turned adrift.”
“Did you displease your master?”
He put his hand to his heart. “It was a misunderstanding, my lady.”
“Between you . . . and a lady?”
“Between me and a lady’s husband.”
I could not help smiling at the audacity of the man. “Let me hear you sing,” I said.
His voice was exquisite, and the words of the song were romantic and poetic. I was enchanted.
“Your own words?” I asked.
“My lady, I write my own songs. Then only can I express what I feel.”
He was one of those troubadours who would have been welcomed at my grandfather’s Court, and I made him welcome in mine.
How glad I was. He fulfilled a need in my life. All through those months while I was awaiting the birth of my child I listened to his songs—and they were all written for me. Every word, every gesture expressed his admiration for me. I liked it. It comforted me and in a way compensated for Henry’s absence.
It amazed me how a man of such humble beginnings—he was said to be the result of a liaison between a soldier and a serving maid—could be endowed with the soul of a poet; but Bernard de Ventadour undoubtedly was. There was an exquisite refinement about his verses which was the very essence of romance. They made me feel precious, cherished, high above all other women.
There was no question of physical love between us. I just luxuriated in his admiration and the beautiful use of words which soothed the longing for Henry; and I thought the perfect existence would be with two men close to me—one to satisfy my physical needs, the other to assuage that inherent longing for romantic and unattainable love. So I dreamed of Henry’s return and listened nightly to the songs of Bernard de Ventadour.
In August my child was born—a son. I was delighted—not that I would denigrate my own sex in any way but I did know that Henry would want a son, and when all was said and done, it did please the people to have a male heir. When I thought of all those wasted years with Louis, and Suger’s eagerness and certainty that if we went on trying we would succeed, and St. Bernard’s grim disapproval, I laughed out loud. And here I was soon after my marriage with Henry producing the longed-for boy. St. Bernard had died a short time ago. It was a pity that neither he nor Suger would know what had happened.
I was devoted to the child, more so than I had been to Louis’s girls. I suppose it was because this one was Henry’s and when Marie was born I was already heartily tired of Louis. I had had no joy in my marriage. But this was different. I longed for the news to reach Henry that he had a son.
There was some news of Henry during that winter. Occasionally someone would arrive at the castle who had a little to tell. I knew he was in England. I heard of some success, but there was nothing definite.
It was spring before I saw him. Little William was then eight months old, not as sturdy as I should have liked him to be, but I was assured that children were often frail for the first months of their lives.
Henry went first to Normandy and then came on to Anjou.
It was wonderful to see him. We embraced fiercely and gave way to all the longing of the past months. Our desire for each other had not abated; rather had it intensified after our absence.
He was delighted with little William. Here was another side to his nature. I was amazed to see how tenderly he picked up the child and lifted him high in the air . . . laughing happily. It was wonderful to see him thus.
He was very eager to tell me what was happening. That was really what was uppermost in his mind.
He had had the most amazing good fortune. It really did seem as though God were on his side.
“I landed at Wareham,” he said, “which is on the coast of England, with 140 men-at-arms and 3,000 infantry. I went straight to Bristol. Farsighted men have seen that Stephen is not good for the country. He is affable and charming, but affability and charm do not necessarily make good rule. A king has to be strong . . . and it is being seen what is happening to the country over the years of this man’s rule.”
“There must have been a great deal of disruption when your mother was at war with Stephen,” I said.
“It is not good for the country. In my grandfather’s day, England prospered. The English are seeing what a difference a strong ruler makes. My great-grandfather, the Conqueror, and my grandfather, King Henry, were strong; they introduced good laws which the people obeyed. There is anarchy throughout the country now because of Stephen’s soft rule. And there are those who believe in me. They know that I am made of the same stuff as the Conqueror and King Henry, and they are right, by God. So they acclaimed me at Bristol. They were for ousting Stephen and making me their King.”
“This is most heartening.”
“You have not heard all. We marched to Malmesbury and laid siege to the castle. We took the outer fortifications with speed, but the keep was too strong so we had to fall back on the siege. Stephen was by this time alerted and he came with his army to the relief of Malmesbury Castle. Now listen to this. This is like Divine Providence. There is a little river there, the Avon. It became so swollen that Stephen could not cross it. The rain started to fall in torrents; the wind was strong and it drove the rain right into the faces of Stephen’s men while we had it on our backs. They simply could not march forward or even stay where they were. Stephen is not the most resourceful of commanders. To him there was only one thing to do. He turned his army around and marched back to London. So the castle fell into our hands.”
“What great good fortune.”
“It was a sign.”
“I did not know you believed in such things.”
“I do when they are in my favor.”
I laughed with him. It was so good to have him back.
“What then?” I asked.
“We had to go to Wallingford. That was one of the main purposes of our visit to England. Brian FitzCount of Wallingford has been a loyal supporter of mine for years. He was my mother’s, and when she retired and left the field to Stephen and there was comparative peace in the country, he carried on the war . . . he and a few others. He has been doing good work for me, and Stephen’s men had reached the stage when they were besieging him in his castle. He sent word to me that he needed help; I had to go to his aid. So after our success at Malmesbury we marched to Wallingford.”
“Looking for further help from Heaven?”
“If we needed it, yes. I knew that on equal terms we were a good match for Stephen. He might have an army but an army needs a commander, and I did not think Stephen had much heart for the battle.”
“He sounds like Louis.”
“Not quite like that, but nevertheless he is not a man designed for war. The two armies faced each other. Our men were ready for the fight. But to my amazement word was brought to my camp that Stephen wished to parley with me. So we met face to face. He had his advisers with him and I had mine. There was a strong feeling that a battle when we might be killed and our armies decimated could do no good to the country. We were both being rash. It might well be that some compromise could be worked out. Why did we not agree to a truce while we both considered our rival claims, and perhaps some solution could be found? To tell the truth, I was not averse to a little respite, and I certainly got the best of the bargain, for Stephen agreed to withdraw his garrison from Wallingford and raise the siege. So I had achieved what I wanted without a battle.
“Now this is where he had another sign from Heaven. Eustace has always been a fool. As ineffectual as his father, he lacked his charm and his goodness. That is something for which we have to be grateful. He was furious when he heard of the truce. He thought his father was playing into my hands. He has always been jealous of me. I am sorry for Stephen. He has two sons—Eustace one of them and the other young William who is without ambition and would not take the crown if it were handed to him. Eustace is—or was—the only bar to the throne. But for him it could have come to me naturally.
“Now listen. Eustace went off on a little war of his own, ravaging the countryside and the castles of all those whom he suspected of being favorable to me. His little adventure took him to Cambridgeshire, where he began plundering the lands which belonged to the monastery at Bury St. Edmunds. The monks naturally protested. He then went to the monastery itself and demanded that the monks give him the treasure that he might pay his soldiers. They replied that they would offer him hospitality, as it was the rule of the monastery to give that to all travelers, but they had no intention of parting with their treasure. Eustace demanded of them whether they knew who he was. He was the son of the King—their King-to-be. If they did not hand over the treasure he would plunder their harvest and the corn should be taken to his castle. The monks quietly bowed their heads and he believed they would give up their treasure. They said they would prepare a meal for him which they did.
“But scarcely had Eustace taken a mouthful of the dish of eels which they set before him than he fell writhing to the floor. He was dead within an hour.”
“It does look like Providence.”
“Those monks have done a great service to their country. Eustace is no more. William does not want the crown. You see?”
“I could find it in my heart to be sorry for him. He is a mild man. He lost his wife recently and she meant a good deal to him. And now he has lost his elder son and heir. Perhaps the reason why he felt he must go on fighting was to retain the throne for Eustace.”
“So the way is clear. But there is still Stephen.”
“We have had a meeting. This is an end of war. He has named me his heir and is very affectionate toward me. He is to be King of England until his death, and then I shall be accepted as his natural heir.”
“It is wonderful . . . but he could live for ten years.” He nodded gloomily. “Heaven has been kind to you so far.”
“There is a great deal to be done in England. It has been ill-governed since the death of my grandfather. I am to have a say in affairs while Stephen lives. He will listen to me.”
“A great task awaits you. Let us hope you will not have to wait too long. And now you will stay here with your wife and son?”
“I must go to Rouen,” he said. “I have business there.”
“You are surely not going away again!”
“I must. I shall shortly be going back. Why do you not join me in Rouen? My mother wishes to know you. She will want to see the child.”
I was overjoyed. So we were not to be parted so soon. And one day I should be beside him when he claimed the crown of England.
Henry had gone to Rouen and I was to follow as soon as I could make arrangements to do so. I was very excited and faintly apprehensive at the prospect of meeting my notorious mother-in-law, Matilda. I remembered another mother-in-law, Adelaide of Savoy. I had been only a very young girl when I had first been confronted by her and she had greatly resented me. She had deplored the influence I had had over Louis and we had been enemies from the day we met. It was true the final victory had been mine and she was the one who had found it expedient to leave Court. Matilda, I felt, would be quite a different proposition.
I both longed and dreaded to meet her.
I was very much aware of the strong bond between Henry and Matilda. He admired her immensely; he liked to hear her opinions, and I knew he took her advice now and then. I felt she would be almost like a rival, and if I was prepared to resent her, how did she feel about me?
I was extremely anxious when we stood face to face, but almost immediately I began to feel more at ease. She was very handsome still; she must have been about fifty at this time; and there was great dignity about her. I drew myself up to my full height, determined to let her see that I was a match for her. I need not have done so. Her shrewd eyes surveyed me with approval, and suddenly it struck me that we were two of a kind. We understood each other, and that meant we appreciated each other.
A certain hauteur disappeared and she took my hands and smiled at me.
She said: “You are a beautiful woman. I am glad for Henry.”
Then she kissed me.
Henry was watching us and I was delighted to see how pleased he was by the rapport between his mother and me.
She had arranged that there should be a great welcome for us at the castle.
Those were happy days with Henry, basking in his approval because his mother liked me, showing my son to his grandmother and enjoying the delights of family life. It would not be for long though. Henry would never stay in one place. His dominions were too far flung. There was trouble from one of the vassals. There were always rebels seizing opportunities for making trouble.
Henry was at this time deeply immersed in the affairs of England, for when Stephen had sworn that he should have the throne after him, he had made him co-ruler, so that Henry needed to know exactly what was going on, and was indeed preparing for the time when he would be King. Stephen knew that his own rule had been weak, and Henry was trying to remedy that. Not that he could do a great deal until the crown was actually his, but his mind teemed with possibilities. Messengers were constantly going back and forth between Henry and Stephen. Therefore to hear of trouble in those dominions over which he already had sway infuriated him.
It was at this time that I saw him in one of those rages which amazed and alarmed me and which later I was to dread. I really believed the story of the devil woman who was the ancestress of the Counts of Anjou when I saw him writhing on the floor, his ruddy face purple, his eyes bulging, shouting blasphemies and rolling about biting the rushes. He was like a man possessed.
I really thought he had gone mad.
Fortunately Matilda explained to me.
“He has these fits of temper,” she said. “He always has had. He is so enraged that he has to give vent to his feelings.”
“He is wasting his energy.”
“He has plenty to spare. He will recover quickly and take action. Then he will give all his energy to teaching these men a lesson.”
I remembered the walls of Limoges. There was yet something else I had to learn of him.
Matilda was right. In a short time the fit was over; his energy was unimpaired. Within a few hours he had gathered together his men and was riding off to deal with the recalcitrant rebel.
Matilda and I were often together. She heartily approved of the marriage. She was without sentimentality and I doubted she would have welcomed me into the family circle but for my possessions. But she liked my good looks and good health.
“You will have many children,” she prophesied.
“One needs opportunities,” I reminded her. “I have never had a surfeit of those.”
“Henry has the energy of ten men and you, my dear, are no frail flower. There will come a time when you and he will be together more often, although of course a king is always roaming far and wide if he looks after his country as he should. There is lusty blood on both sides of Henry’s family and on yours too if I have heard aright. It will be one of the happiest days of my life when I see Henry on the throne of England.”
“There may be many years before that comes to pass.”
“Who knows?” said Matilda.
I was very amused to hear that Louis had married again. His bride was Constance of Castile. Poor Louis, one thing I could be sure of—he would be a reluctant bridegroom.
I wished him luck and I wondered what Constance would be like, and how she would relish those nights in a cold bed while he was on his knees praying . . . for what? Courage to approach his wife? I could never feel anything but a mild and slightly contemptuous affection for Louis.
Matilda and I grew close during that period. She liked to talk of the past. I recalled mine, too—life at the Courts of Love, marriage with Louis, my adventures in the Holy Land. We had both lived dangerously.
I learned much about her and grew fond of her, but I could see clearly why the people of England had rejected her. Her life was a lesson to us all—but then I suppose most people’s lives are.
She talked vividly of herself and I think she was glad to have an audience of a kindred spirit. She made me see how alarmed she must have been when, at the age of five, she was told that she was going to Germany. What effect would that have had on a child of her age to be told that she was going to be sent away from her home and all that was familiar to her, to be the wife of a great man—an Emperor who was thirty years older than she?
“I was lucky,” she said. “Like you, I had good looks. What a boon they can be! Henry, my husband, was a kindly man and he liked the look of me from the start. But he sent all my English attendants away—they always do. They want to make you one of them.So I was German, my upbringing, my outlook. I spoke in German; I thought in German; I was the little German my husband intended me to be. But the English do not like the German ways, it seems. I was crowned almost as soon as I arrived—that was when I was betrothed to Henry. I remember how the Archbishop of Trier held me reverently in his arms while the Archbishop of Cologne put the crown on my head. And when I was twelve years old Henry married me and once again I was crowned. He was kind to me; he seemed to me a very old man. Thirty years is a great deal—particularly when one is very young. But I was happy with him, and it was a great blow when he died.”
“Were you with him when he died?”
“Yes, I was. It was in Utrecht. He wanted me at his bedside when he was dying and he put the scepter in my hands. He wanted everyone to know that he left his dominions to me. How strange it is that one is so greatly loved at certain times of one’s life and then . . . the whole world turns cold toward one.”
“You have your son Henry,” I reminded her.
“Yes, we are close, my son and I. I want for him all that I have missed.”
“And it seems he is going to get it.”
“I have never doubted that he would succeed. He is made for distinction.”
We could agree on that.
“Tell me of your marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou,” I said.
Her face hardened. “How I hated him! And he hated me, too. How different he was from my Emperor. I thought I should be loved in England as I had been in Germany. My father made the barons swear fealty to me. He was afraid, of course, that as I was a woman there might be a dispute about my taking the throne when he was gone.”
“And he was right.”
“I was furious when he married me to Geoffrey of Anjou.”
“Could you not have refused?”
“You did not know my father.” A gleam of admiration came into her eyes. “He was quite different from Stephen. That is why Stephen shows up as such a weakling. There was nothing weak about King Henry. He was determined to have a law-abiding country and he had one. He made stern rules. He had to, after Rufus who was no good at all and undid a good deal of the work which his father, the Conqueror, had set in motion. It is very important for a country to have a strong King.”
I nodded vigorously, thinking what had happened in France because of a mischievous pig.
“I protested,” she went on. “But it was no good. And they sent me to Anjou. I hated him on sight. He was a boy of fifteen.”
“He was exceptionally handsome.”
“I did not care if he were Adonis. I had no wish to marry a foolish boy. It was an indignity. Ten years younger than I. I was not a little girl anymore. I was a young woman. I had been an Empress. I had been treated with the utmost respect by my husband and all those about me. In fact, they had implored me not to leave Germany. I could have stayed there. I was their Empress.”
“I think I should have done so.”
“My father would have insisted that I return. You cannot know the power of that man. But even he realized the marriage was a mistake. He might have made Geoffrey marry me but he could not make us live together. We quarreled all the time. He hated me as much as I hated him. He drove me out of Anjou and I went to Rouen and then to England, but for political reasons we had to be together again. I realized the need for heirs and so did he, and in spite of our dislike for each other we lived together, quarreling incessantly, of course, but at least giving us the chance to produce a child. I have never regretted that.”
“It gave you Henry.”
“And he has been the most important person in my life ever since.”
“What of the other children?”
“Geoffrey was born a year after Henry. You have already heard of him.”
“Yes, it was his idea to capture me and force me to marry him, but that was just after my divorce from Louis.”
“He will never succeed in anything. And then there is William. But for me, Henry is the one.”
“For us both,” I said.
“I realize that he has married a woman who is worthy of him.”
“It makes me happy that you should approve of the match,” I said honestly.
“I could do no other. I would not be so foolish as to say that your lands do not count. They do . . . enormously. You have made him mightier. He now owns more of France than the King of that country. That is through you. And now, of course, there is England.”
“You must regret after all your efforts that you did not succeed in taking it from Stephen.”
She nodded. “It was mine by right. I was the daughter of the King . . . his only legitimate direct heir.”
“It is this infuriating prejudice against women.”
“Which we have both had to overcome. Never mind, my dear, it is a fact that we rule far more than is generally realized. But people will always choose a man rather than a woman. When my father died and I heard they had chosen Stephen, I was mad with rage. I appealed to Rome . . . but like everyone else the Pope decided in favor of a man. I did have my half-brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester—one of my father’s illegitimate sons and a good brother to me—to help me. He came to Anjou and later, with him, I landed in England, with 140 knights who were ready to support my cause. People began to rally to my banner.” Her eyes shone at the memory.
“And you were successful?”
“Oh yes, I was successful for a while. They accepted me as the true heiress. The late King was my father. I was the closest to the throne. They had to admit this was so, so I captured him. Eleanor, Stephen was my prisoner! I sent him in chains to Bristol Castle. How well I remember that triumphant progress through England. The people acclaimed me. They wanted me then.”
I looked at her steadily. She was staring ahead, reliving it all. I saw the haughtiness in her face: Matilda, Queen of England.
“I came to London. I did not wait for my coronation. I declared myself Queen. I was determined to rule as my father had. I told myself that I must show no weakness. The very fact that I was a woman meant that I must display my strength at every turn. I must not allow any one of them to take advantage of me. I know now that I was too proud. They did not like me and I did not understand them. They are not disciplined like the Germans . . . and I was a German.
“I did not know these people whom I planned to rule. They did not protest. They appeared to accept what I did. And then suddenly they rose against me as one. They turned me out of London. There was only one thing I could do . . . hasten to Oxford. I reached there in safety but I did not stay there. I had to get to Winchester to talk with the Bishop there. He had supported me but I had heard he was considering turning back to Stephen as the people had shown so clearly their rejection of me.”
She turned to me and gripped my hands.
I said: “Would you rather not speak of it?”
She shook her head, and a look of scorn came into her eyes. She was a woman who would always despise weakness, most of all in herself.
“I think that stay in Winchester was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. I had forced my way into the city, and no sooner had I taken possession of it than it was stormed by Stephen’s followers. He was still a prisoner in Bristol Castle but his wife—another Matilda—had rallied an army to fight for his cause. She was one of those good, gentle women who surprise everyone by their strength when it is necessary to show it. Sometimes I think they are really the strong ones. She was with the army which besieged the city.
“Have you ever thought what it would be like to be within the walls of a city when the foodstocks are dwindling daily and everywhere people are dying of sickness and starvation? I hope, my dear, that you never experience it. I knew that we could not continue much longer, and when the city was taken I should fall into the enemy’s hands. I should take Stephen’s place. I should be their prisoner. I would rather face death than that. Humiliation . . . indignity . . . they are something I could never endure.
“Stephen’s wife, Matilda, was a humane woman. All she wanted was our surrender and the release of her husband. She did not want revenge. I thought then what a fool she was, for out of the kindness of her heart she allowed us to take our dead out at night, passing freely through the guards, so that the corpses might be given a Christian burial. One day I was watching one of these sad ceremonies—the bier, the rough coffin, the body wrapped in a winding sheet—and an idea came to me.”
She smiled at me, her eyes sparkling. She was a woman whose face betrayed her feelings. I could well imagine that she had not been able to hide her contempt for her humble subjects, and this was the main reason why she had lost her throne.
“I saw my way out. I should be a corpse. I should be wrapped in a winding sheet and placed in a coffin, and so I should be borne out of the city gates and through the guards to safety.”
“What a daring plan! And it worked?”
“I remember it clearly . . . even now. I awake at night thinking of it. It seemed an unending journey through those guards. I could hear their voices and I lay, still as Death, in my rough-hewn coffin, the sheet over my head, scarcely daring to breathe, and I thought what a fool the saintly Matilda was, to have made such a procedure possible.”
“And when you had passed the guards were there horses waiting for you?”
She shook her head. “No, there could not be. All I knew was that I could get help at Wallingford, so there was nothing to do but make our way there on foot.”
“And you did that?”
“It is surprising what one can do when one has to.”
“But what a triumph!”
“Shortlived. From Wallingford I went to Oxford. There I hoped to rally help and continue the fight. Unfortunately, in attempting to escape from Winchester my half-brother Robert of Gloucester was captured by the Queen’s men. This was a bitter blow to me because he was my greatest general, one of the few in whom I could have complete trust. Queen Matilda bargained with me. The release of Stephen for Robert. I stood out for a long time, but at length I saw that I had to have Robert back and I gave way, so Stephen was freed.”
“And so was Robert.”
“Oh, my good brother! He came to Oxford. He said we could not continue without help. I had sent messengers to Anjou asking Geoffrey to come to my aid, but my husband ignored my request. Robert said he would go to Anjou himself. He would impress on Geoffrey the urgency of the situation and see if he could induce him to come to my assistance. I was loath to lose Robert but at length I agreed, and he went. It was then that Stephen—now freed—came against me and the castle was besieged. Can you imagine my feelings?”
“Indeed I can. You had escaped in a shroud only to find yourself in a similar position.”
“And there is nothing more depressing. Moreover, it was winter, for the siege had lasted three months. It was the same as it had been before . . . lack of food, sickness and what looked like inevitable surrender. ‘I will not fall into Stephen’s hands,’ I said. ‘I will not. I will not.’ And those about me just looked at me sadly and shook their heads. They did not understand my fierce determination.
“I sat at my window. The wind was blowing a blizzard, and the river below my window was one thick sheet of ice. It would be weeks before it melted even though the weather changed tomorrow. Then I had an idea. There was no moon. Clad in white, one would not be distinguished from the scenery . . . and on the other side of the river was freedom.”
I caught my breath in admiration for this woman. I was not surprised that Henry admired her so fervently. She was indomitable.
“I sent for a dozen men I trusted,” she went on. “I told them the plan. We should wrap ourselves in white furs and let ourselves down from the window onto the ice, and silently we would cross it to the bank. And that, my dear daughter, is what we did.”
“And when you had crossed the river?”
“Then we walked . . . in that bitter wind, we walked. But my spirits were lifted because once more I had had a miraculous escape. It was six miles to Abingdon. It seemed more like forty. But at last we arrived. There we found horses and made our way to Wallingford.”
“I suffered great hardship during our crusade, but I think you suffered more.”
“I had a cause to fight for and that buoys up the spirit. It carries one through adversity.”
“But you had so many defeats.”
“Yes, but I always thought that in the end I should succeed. I was not sure how, but I was the rightful heiress of England and I believed that justice would be done in the end.”
“Tell me what happened at Wallingford.”
“We were exhausted. We took food first, I think, and then we slept and slept . . . and I had the most wonderful awakening. When I opened my eyes, standing by my bed was the one I loved best in the world: my boy Henry. I thought I was dreaming. I struggled up and stared at him. He flung himself into my arms. ‘I am here, Mother,’ he said. ‘Uncle Robert brought me. I am here to fight for you.’ It took me some time to realize that he was actually beside me. But there also was my good brother Robert. He had been to Anjou. He had not been able to bring Geoffrey, that wastrel husband of mine, but he had brought my beloved son.
“What a joyful reunion that was! What a day! After that night of adventure to come to this. I shall never forget that descent on ropes down to the cold ice; and then to come here and find my boy waiting for me . . . it was wonderful.” She smiled and the softening of her face was remarkable. “Just a boy . . . but ready to fight. You know the power of him. He only has to appear to make you feel that because he has come all will be well. Do you feel that too, my dear?”
I nodded, feeling too moved to speak.
“I think you know the rest. It is common knowledge. Robert brought up my boy to be a soldier, but my cause was a lost one. The people of England had rejected me . . . and they would continue to do so. I might be the King’s daughter, but to them I was a German and they do not like Germans. Stephen, for all his weaknesses, was preferable.
“My brother Robert was very wise. He knew that further fighting could only bring us defeat, and I could not hope for more miraculous escapes. I had been lucky to have achieved that twice. It would be tempting fate, said Robert, to hope for more. But he had great belief in Henry. ‘One day,’ he said, ‘he will take what is his but we must wait for that day.’ I knew he was right and I believed that although the people of England would not accept me, when the time came they would take Henry.
“There was nothing vindictive about Stephen . . . nor about his wife. They wanted peace. She was a deeply religious woman; he was easy-going. That was well for us. I stayed in England for five years after that, living mostly at Gloucester or Bristol. And meanwhile Henry was growing up . . . learning to become a soldier. Robert took charge of his education, too. I have Robert to thank, in part, that Henry is the man he is today.”
“And it has all worked out well. England will one day be Henry’s.”
“With no more fighting. When Stephen dies . . .”
“That cannot be very long now,” I said.
“Five years . . . ten years. In the meantime Henry has a great deal to look after here. There will always be vassals ready to seize opportunities to rebel. But I thank God that in time he will be King of England.”
The bond between us was growing stronger. She had shown me a vulnerable side to her nature which few saw. In her turn she understood my feelings for Henry, and each day she let me know in many ways how contented she was with the match.
She was delighted when I was able to tell her that I was pregnant once more.
“You will be the mother of many sons,” she said, and she embraced me warmly. “Sons,” she went on. “Although I deplore this denigration of our sex, what power they bring to a family.”
“I wish William’s health was better.”
She nodded gravely. “You will soon have others, my dear. The only way to guard against sorrow in one’s children is to have a quiverful.”
Now our talk was all of babies. I often smiled to think of two women such as we completely absorbed in this domestic talk.
It was October. Henry had not yet returned when a messenger arrived at the castle. He came from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Stephen had died unexpectedly of a flux. Henry, Duke of Normandy, was now King of England; and it was imperative that he cross the sea at once and lay claim to his kingdom.
Messages were immediately sent to Henry. He came to Rouen without delay. There was no time for anything but intensive preparation. He was taking an army with him, for how did he know what he would find on the other side of the Channel?
“You must come with me,” he said. “You must be crowned with me. A king is not a king until he has been crowned.”
Matilda’s eyes were shining with triumph.
“It is the moment I have been waiting for,” she said. “Everything will be worthwhile now.”
“You must come with us,” cried Henry. “You must see me crowned.”
“And what of Normandy? Because of this great prize, are you going to forget your lesser possessions?”
He threw back his head and laughed.
“Is not my mother a great general? Let me tell you this: there is not one that I value as I do her.”
So she must remain in Normandy and we should set sail.
It was with emotion that I bade her farewell.
“Alas that you are not with us,” I said.
“My place is here,” she answered.
“It is sad that after all you have done you cannot see him anointed.”
“I shall be happier here knowing that Normandy is safe.”
So we left, my baby William with us and the other in my womb. Petronilla was in my suite. It was comforting to have my family around me.
And so to Barfleur to embark for England.