Chapter 1 – August 1151
In the great hall of the Cite Palace, the King and Queen of France were on their gilded thrones, under blue canopies sprinkled with fleur-de-lys. Henry Duke of Normandy and his father, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, moved toward them, into the midst of a susurration of whispers and titters behind hands. Every eye turned their way with a sly glance. The two Angevins were not of the type to be overawed by a parcel of overdressed eager-eyed courtiers. They strode confidently forward, leaving their entourages at the back of the hall, in a little cluster, apart.
As reported, the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a most beautiful woman. Her eyes passed over Henry without interest and came to rest on Geoffrey with a look that revealed nothing except that she knew how to arrange her face in the mask of regal composure. Henry expected them to linger there, for Geoffrey’s face was an altogether pleasant place for a woman’s eyes to rest. But, after just a moment, they returned to Henry, and subjected him to a look such as he had never encountered before, as if she was thinking: Now, this is interesting. Nor did she make any attempt to disguise her bold scrutiny.
Geoffrey paused and Henry went forward alone to kneel before the King’s throne. Louis Capet was a pale wisp of a man, as insubstantial as smoke. Henry wondered how he managed the ravishing Eleanor in bed. He was eighteen years-old and could not help such thoughts. They came unbidden, like early-morning erections, like summer fevers. He put his hands between those of the King. Geoffrey, as Count of Anjou, had done this before – this act of homage – but it was a first for Henry and it would be the hardest thing he had to do in his young life.
Geoffrey had plucked Normandy from the feeble grasp of King Stephen of England and those barons who possessed lands on both sides of the Narrow Sea. He had given the duchy to Henry, knowing his son, as a great grandson of the Conqueror, would be more acceptable to English and Norman alike than himself, an Angevin. The history of Norman/Angevin relations had been a bloody one. Each was mistrustful of the other and regarded him as barely civilized. Henry was half Angevin and half Norman.
It was important to Henry at this time to have his right to the ducal title recognized, to enable him to focus his attention on England without Louis attacking Normandy when his back was turned. Abbe Bernard of Clairvaux brokered the peace. Louis agreed to recognize Henry as duke and Henry would do homage to Louis as his overlord and yield up the Norman Vexin. The Vexin was a strip of land that straddled the border where Normandy met the Capetian lands, sundered along its length by the River Epte, a tributary of the Seine. The territory had been fought over for many years, but traditionally the Normans held the northern half, the Capetians the southern half.
This agreement left Henry feeling cheated. The Vexin was invaluable to the defence of Normandy.
It was not in the Angevin nature to give up anything. Even as the words of earthly fidelity mumbled between his stiff lips, Henry was determined to have the Vexin back one day.
The courtiers watched and murmured their pleasure. Louis’s solemn face was wreathed in smiles. Henry withdrew and Geoffrey strode forward, flicking his mantle aside as he went down on one knee. Henry noticed how the queen’s gaze drifted down to rest almost tenderly on that fair face, with its piercing blue eyes, golden skin and full-lipped sensual mouth. Perhaps she was reminiscing about their shared past. Henry mused sometimes about where he came from. He had inherited few of his parents’ traits: neither his father’s good looks, grace and effortless charm, nor his mother’s inexorable pride and dignity. One thing he had in common with both though: tenacity. He had a grip of steel.
Geoffrey was one of those men with plenty of muscle but no bulk. Henry lacked his father’s tall elegance, being of medium height, and his body was stocky. He had a broad chest and a thick neck. He looked somewhat like a labourer. Unlike his father he had no grace – or perhaps it was that he was too restless, seldom still long enough for anyone to measure his grace. His grey eyes looked out into the world directly and fearlessly. They were sharp and missed little even when he appeared not to be watching. Mirrors of his moods, sometimes they were like the clear light of a summer sky before the sun rises, sometimes like a moorland mist or dark as wet ashes, and sometimes frighteningly black, when the temper was on him. His hair was a reddish-brown, like the coat of a bay horse, but shorter than the current fashion, his beard tender, and his nose was freckled. In the sun, his skin turned an alarming shade of red before tanning.
Henry knew how to watch and listen and learn. He listened to the talk around him and watched Queen Eleanor. She had often been the subject of sordid rumours, fascinating to a young man. The latest, the most interesting as far as he was concerned, was that she and Louis were talking about divorce. In that event, who would get the fair Eleanor, for such a prize would not be allowed to languish? He could foresee a queue forming as long as the Seine. But he heard nothing about divorce. It still belonged in the realm of rumours. What he heard was only what he expected to hear on an occasion like this: the promise of future good relations between France, Normandy and Anjou.
This was what the King spoke to him about. Louis Capet had a thin and tired face. He was thirty or so, but sorrow and disappointment were hurtling him into middle age. Geoffrey had told Henry that after Vitry Louis cut his silky blond hair off as a penance. Vitry was where the church burned with fifteen hundred Christian souls inside. It was not Louis’s fault, really. The houses were fired by his soldiers and spread to other buildings, but he took the burden of guilt on himself. Now his hair was thin and receding and the bald spot on top reminded Henry of a tonsure, which he thought exceedingly apt. Once the smoke cleared at Vitry, after the burned bodies had been shoveled out, Louis took to his knees with increasing fervor and frequency.
He was not intended to succeed his father, but his elder brother was tossed from his startled horse when a stray pig ran across his path. The accident was generally considered an act of divine benevolence, for he was an arrogant and unpleasant youth. Louis, who had been educated and prepared for the church, found himself instead heir to the throne and, while still in his mid-teens, King. It was said of him that he resembled more a monk than a king and paid heed to churchmen more than his advisers. One of those to whom he bent the ear was Bernard of Clairvaux.
Henry was presented to Abbe Bernard, who was already known to him by repute. The abbe was a small man, so unprepossessing one was not prepared for the force of his will. His brown eyes were quick to spot a nascent sin, a human weakness, and his wrinkled ears obtruded like jug handles, the better to hear when God spoke to him.
Bernard asked all the right questions: Do you pray daily? Do you give thanks to God for the blessings He has showered on you that He may continue to do so? Are you chaste in your habits? Do you confess regularly? Do you uphold the rights of the church in your lands? Henry gave all the right answers: Yes, yes and yes, and some of it was even true. He did pray daily, although he might not always remember to thank God for his blessings. He was definitely not chaste, having plunged into the sins of the flesh before the first sprouting of chin hairs, and discovered a diversion every bit as gratifying as hunting. As to whether he confessed regularly, that depended upon one’s interpretation of ‘regularly’. He thought Abbe Bernard’s view of that would be vastly different than his own. But certainly he would uphold the rights of the church always. He could see no reward in engaging the abbe in a discussion of his failings and so gave the answers most pleasing, while covertly watching the queen. His eyes were drawn to her as if he had no control over them.
She was the most magnificent woman he had ever seen. Dress her in rags and she would still turn heads: that presence, that face, not merely beautiful but strong and possessing the arrogance of expression that came with vanity. She exuded a powerful allure with every lift of a delicate pointed brow, with every gesture of her slender hands.
He was attracted to her, this queen of bad repute, this sovereign duchess, this incomparable beauty. She must have been thirty, or nearly so, with a questionable past, but that did not make her less attractive to a lad of eighteen. Perhaps more so. Their eyes met and she moved toward him with all the sinuous grace of a dancer, as if her feet barely touched the ground. He wanted her, and if Louis was foolish enough to let her go, he felt sure he would have her.
“So…divorce? Is it true?” he asked bluntly, because he was a blunt man.
“Hush, my lord. It is premature to speak of such matters,” she said in a sultry voice, a sound that filled his soul with heat.
“Oh, of course,” he concurred, and added slyly: “But if we were to speak of it, which some are doing already, covertly, would you favor me?”
“Impudent boy,” she murmured and moved away with a backward look over her shoulder.
Henry could feel the blood rushing to his head, the first sign of temper. To be called ‘boy’ by his goddess was a severe blow to his young manhood. He simmered for a good hour. It was only when one of her women intercepted and flirted with him, and told him that Eleanor often walked in the gardens in the hour before supper, that he forgave her.
He was curious about her and his father, especially since she had awakened his interest. He had long known there was no harmony in his parents’ marriage. It was a marriage founded on mutual loathing, punctuated by fierce quarrels, screams and slaps, but with adequate interludes in bed to result in the births of three boys. Henry didn’t blame his father for seeking solace with other women, even as he comforted his mother after the slaps. But was the queen one of them?
He would not trespass on Geoffrey’s privacy to ask where he had put his prick. It was his own business, and he asked himself if he really wanted to know. Would it change how he felt about Eleanor or, more precisely, what he intended for her? He thought not. If she had been unfaithful to Louis, perhaps she had good reason. If, however, she was wed to him and strayed, he would bring the wrath of God down about her head.
His own prick had been busy in the last five years. He thought of the first time: a hayloft, the heavy earthy smell of beasts, spangles of dust caught and held in shafts of golden sunlight shining through gaps in the boards. Technically, he was still a virgin and he had pimples. He could remember those things but had no memory of what the girl looked like. She was seventeen and had only to crook her finger and he went panting after her like a dog. Sometimes she sent him on errands, as if he was her personal servant, and sometimes she disparaged him, but only enough to encourage him to win back her favor.
They were discovered in the end. The girl was sent away in disgrace, and he – well, it was strange, or perhaps not so strange, he thought now, that he was treated by the male denizens of the castle, even his father, as if he had passed unscathed through some kind of initiation, or received a coveted accolade like knighthood.
‘Rutting like a young bullock, eh lad?’ Geoffrey had said, with what could only be described as fatherly pride. ‘Well, it’s man’s nature. Go see one of the chaplains and get yourself absolved.’
He was in his father’s chamber, ambling around, while Geoffrey, one of those gregarious souls who could not stand their own company for long, sat with some of his knights. The talk was all of the day’s ceremonies.
“So, Eleanor,” Henry said at the first opportunity, “is it true she has been unchaste?”
The question gave rise to laughter and a few crude remarks from some of the others but Geoffrey measured out his words. “There are rumours of an incident while she was on crusade, something to do with her uncle, the Prince of Antioch. When Louis found out he had her whisked away, which she didn’t take kindly to. The prince was killed shortly after and the Turks took his head. The crusade was over in any case – it had been a disaster. On the way home the King and queen stopped in to see Pope Eugenius, who did his best to reconcile them and popped them into bed together.”
“I suppose even the pope can’t stitch over a gaping wound.”
“True, his blessing had little lasting effect. Except that it produced the little Alix.”
The queen had given birth to two girls in fourteen years of marriage, leading to a great deal of speculation about the frequency of Louis’s visits to her bed and Eleanor’s fertility. Henry, who already had a bastard son, thought if she were his wife, she would be busy in the nursery.
“Do you think it’s true?”
Geoffrey shrugged. “I didn’t join the crusade. I had fighting enough in Normandy.”
A server came among them with a tray of wine goblets. Henry refused. He was abstemious with food and drink. Few things disgusted him more than a man out of his senses with drink.
“Anyone other than Raymond?” he asked, and saw the cup halt halfway to Geoffrey’s mouth. Their eyes met and they shared a moment of quiet laughter.
Henry was reminded of a camp in Normandy on one of the occasions he accompanied his father on campaign. He was about seven at the time. Geoffrey raised him to be a soldier, knowing those were the skills needed to hold what was his. Sometimes in the evenings he would sit with the men around the campfires, listening to their stories, their bawdy jokes, curled up next to his father, feeling the most wonderful sense of well-being. And the next thing he knew would be the clangor of pots, the sound of muted voices as he awoke in his father’s bed, or sometimes on the floor next to it if there was a woman in his place. His father would wink and say: ‘We soldiers keep each other’s secrets, eh lad?’ Even when he was small he understood intuitively that his mother must never find out about him sleeping on the floor.
“Will Louis divorce her for unchastity though?” he wondered. “He’ll make himself a laughing stock if he does.”
“He already is,” one of Geoffrey’s companions said.
Geoffrey snorted with amusement. “They say when he’s given her a poke he must run to his confessor for absolution. She, poor woman, is probably unaware she’s been poked.”
At this, the men in the chamber roared with laughter. It was the sort of joke often made about Louis.
“But the word I hear,” Geoffrey went on, “is that it is Eleanor who has her heart set on divorce and Louis resists the idea. Everyone else thinks it’s a grand idea. The barons of France have never taken to her. She is foreign to them, too independent-minded and pleasure loving and inclined to tempt Louis down paths that lead far from their own objectives.”
“What does Abbe Bernard say?”
“He harangues the King at every opportunity, the substance of which is that the royal marriage ought to be terminated, and never mind that the Lord Pope blessed their union not two years past. The Lord Pope was not in possession of a particular salient fact: consanguinity.”
“Ah! So that will be the reason.”
“The pretext. It is the only inducement likely to move Louis to give her up. Bernard says the marriage is invalid due to fourth degree kinship and the proof is that God has made His displeasure clear by withholding the blessing of a son.”
“He loves her truly then, does he?”
“Beyond reason. It is not a good thing for a man to be besotted with his wife. But he also loves Aquitaine and he will be reluctant to part with those fair fields and valleys.”
“So there will be no divorce? What do you think?”
“I think she’ll have her way, because she’s the kind of woman who gets what she wants.” Geoffrey smiled a little and leaned toward his son. “Now you may tell me what is your interest in the matter.”
Henry shrugged. He was not ready to reveal in this company of scoffers how high his ambitions flew. They would think he was being too presumptuous. And he wondered if he wanted an unchaste wife with her best breeding years behind her.
“Louis’s advisers are trying to persuade him that when she’s free he will still be her overlord and able to keep her lands in safe hands and under French control by arranging a match for her with one of his vassals. Someone manageable.” Geoffrey grinned. “Plato says, of all the animals the most unmanageable is a boy. I add, of all the boys the most unmanageable is my eldest son.”
Henry wondered how his father knew him so well.
“If you’re thinking of wedding her yourself, forget it,” Geoffrey said then. “You’ll never be accepted.”
Henry nodded. This he understood. But he was eighteen. Everything was possible.
Stone walls and trellised vines enclosed the gardens of the Cite Palace. Its paths were shaded by fig, willow, cypress and pear trees, and bordered by beds of roses and sweet violets. Henry waded through a sea of multicolored blooms to where an herb garden perfumed the air with the fragrance of mint, rue and thyme. Queen Eleanor sat in an arbor of acanthus. He had hoped to find her alone and was dismayed to see her ladies clustered around her.
“My lord of Normandy,” she said warmly.
He was of an age when his blood quickened at the slightest provocation, and Eleanor’s smile was the cause of some testicular distress. With a flick of a slender wrist, she sent her women skipping away. Not far away. He could hear them giggling, probably watching as he went down on one knee. This was a role he was unaccustomed to and he wasn’t sure how to begin or how to proceed. After kissing her scented hand – de rigueur he was quite sure – he did what came naturally by plunging right to the heart of the matter.
“Everywhere I hear talk of divorce. You must tell me if it’s true.”
Henry knew he lacked the polished manners and elegant speech of her other admirers. Even his dress sense left something to be desired and his voice, he had been told, sounded like gravel sliding downhill. What men found admirable in him was his energy, his ambition, his confidence, his clear-sighted way of assessing a situation. Women liked his raw sexuality, even the edge of roughness they sensed in him. And although his dealings with women had been generally confined to request, acceptance, a quick thrust and no emotional entanglements, he was quite sure he could persuade this beautiful queen that she could find no better match than himself – once he had brought her to admit that a divorce was pending.
“If we were able to speak freely of such matters, my lord,” she said reprovingly, “I should feel compelled to point out that having been a queen, to become a duchess would require that I descend a significant degree in dignity.”
“That is no impediment. I will have England one day. I will be able to offer you a crown and a kingdom vaster by far than Louis’s. England, Normandy, Anjou and Maine, add Aquitaine and we shall rule an empire. You deserve nothing less and only I can give it to you.”
“Your mother, whom I honour, has been trying to wrest England from Stephen’s grasp for nigh on two decades without success. When he goes to his Maker his son will succeed him.”
“Stephen is a usurper and a poor King,” he said fiercely. “His reign has been a disaster because he is weak and vacillating and his barons flout him. The only thing that kept my mother from the throne was her gender. I have the right gender and I will be King.”
This was not just wishful thinking, not just a vigorous hope on Henry’s part, but a certainty. It was an idea that lodged in his mind at quite a young age and, in spite of reverses and losses, it took firm root. Nothing could dislodge it now, nothing could shake it. He knew without a shade of doubt that he was made to fit into this place in history.
“You are very sure of yourself for one so young,” Eleanor said in the soft breathy whisper of a lover. Her eyes sparkled even more brightly. Her breath quickened.
Henry leapt to his feet and sat beside her on the carved stone bench. His eyes, intense as a touch, moved over her luscious curves beneath the clinging silk gown. He was smitten, as much by her voluptuous body and fair face as her wide and sunny acres, her rich towns and markets, her mighty towers and fast-flowing waters. Or… perhaps not quite as much.
“Stephen is a poor king because he wants to be liked. I do not care if I’m liked, only that I am obeyed. I will do what has to be done.”
“I believe you will.”
“With you by my side I can achieve anything.”
Eleanor demurely lowered her eyes. “But we may not speak of such things yet.”
He jumped angrily to his feet. “Louis is not the man for you!”
For Louis he had nothing but contempt, fueled by his being forced to cede the Vexin to a man he knew was his inferior in every way that mattered. Louis was in his prime, in good health and wielding kingly power. He had the most beautiful woman in France, if not the world, by his side and in his bed whenever he wanted her. Yet he had no son to succeed him, and where did he expect to get a son? On his knees, begging God and the Saints to provide one? Meanwhile, his beautiful wife, the mother of his two daughters, was forlorn and neglected.
What Louis needed, what Louis would be content with, was a bovine-faced drab with empty dugs and plenty of piety and a preference for swiving in the dark – if swive they must – draped in yards of linen from neck to toe. He, Henry, deserved this incomparable woman.
His lips curved in a suggestive smile. “I intend to have you, and I give you warning, you will not be neglected.”
“You do have a novel way of wooing, my lord.” They smiled at one another like long time lovers who knew each other’s thoughts without need of words.
He rose to go. Taking her hand, he bestowed a chaste kiss on it. After two steps he turned back as if he had just thought of something. “One more thing.” Taking her face between his two callused hands, he covered her mouth with his own. Eleanor was startled, then overcome. He ravished her mouth. He plundered it with his tongue as if to extort every drop of sweetness it contained.
“Do you think,” she murmured when he released her, “that I am of such shameless disposition as to be swayed by a kiss?”
“Can’t hurt,” he said, and swaggered away.
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