“Mother, I am not going to marry that woman. I shall not, I cannot! She is no more than a whore – the whole world knows and would laugh at me. Me! A cuckold even before I am wed! A man whose own father has put the horns on his head! It is insufferable, I tell you. Not to be thought of.”
He paused for breath, but continued pacing angrily, measuring the length of the room and back in his fury. The dainty Genoese greyhound cowering in her skirts shivered, tail between its legs, as he brushed past, almost knocking the timid dog aside with the fury of his motion.
“My son.” Her voice was calm but its familial authority cut through his rage like a sharp knife. He paused before her, thrown off balance by the abruptness of his own stop. “My son, for heaven´s sake, be calm. Sit, we must talk about this. Sit! You fill the room with your anger.”
Sulkily, he subsided to the stool drawn up beside her. Even perched on the little stool, he was head and shoulders taller than the old woman. For a moment she remained motionless, then reached out and drew his head against her shoulder as she might to a child. He sighed and rubbed his face against her cheek.
“Your beard tickles,” she complained, but allowed him to stay. “You do not think, my dear Richard, that there is a rich irony in this situation?”
“Irony?” His voice rose, quick to anger. “Irony, mother? What is so ironic about the fact that the King of England is about to be made a fool of? And a public fool at that! Would you have your favourite son made the butt of every joke in the land? Nay, throughout Christendom!”
“Shush, my dear. Your face becomes a very unattractive colour when you are angry – you look like a beetroot, which is my least favourite wort. The irony in the situation is one you cannot miss; you deposed your father from his throne; now it appears he has deposed you from your marriage bed. Tit for tat, it may be said. No?”
“Aye, I suppose so. If you say so.” He muttered grudgingly. “But he deserved it, mother, you know he did. You took my side throughout. Only think what he has done to you – you, Eleanor, queen of England and France; Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest, most beautiful queen the world has ever known.” She purred under his praise, stroking his face tenderly. “How did you feel, Mama, when he flaunted Rosamund of Clifford before you? When he ran after that bitch and didn´t even bother to cover his tracks? Rosa Mundi, Rose of the World indeed!” He sniggered. “Or Rosa the Unchaste, as some have named her! And he put you away from the world for her – how long did he keep you close in the convent, Mama? Or at best, only let you appear under close guard? Fifteen years – fifteen years for a nothing, for a nobody. And where is she now, the beautiful Rosamund? Saintly and shriven in some nunnery, while dear father rots in his grave.”
“But we, my love, are alive and well and free.” She smiled wolfishly “And you are crowned King of England whilst dearest Henry, as you say, rots in the grave. Strange you know – I believe he actually loved Rosamund, as much as he ever loved anybody other than himself, and she him. But Alice now, she was just one of many. Do you know, if he had been anybody but my own husband I could almost understand the silly little bitch´s head being turned by his attentions – he was the King, after all, and many thought him an exceptionally attractive man. Damn it, I thought him an attractive man, before he turned against me, but I will never, ever forgive her for giving way to him. I bought her to the court. I treated her like my own daughter for years, and she betrayed me with my own husband. The pair of them – fornicating in my own bed, rutting like animals beneath my very eyes and I never even suspected!”
“She betrayed you, Mama, and me – you of all people know how long she and I were betrothed, the dowry was settled years ago; I even believed the slut was in love with me, or at least deeply in lust. I was prepared to marry my dearest Alice as soon as the fuss over my coronation was settled. And now I find my own father was before me in the marriage bed! She went from court in a hurry, Mama, and the rumours say she was with child – Henry’s bastard! Is it true?”
“Henry’s babe or some other knight’s. Who knows? If she’ll lift her skirts for one man, she could do it for another. But aye, the gossip named my dear husband and I have no reason to disbelieve it. I believe a child was born, a maiden, but it died soon after birth, thank God. Alice Capet, princess of France, is tainted goods, my son. And as you say, the world knows it.” The greyhound whined, and she comforted it with a stroke. “I believe Juliet wants to go out.”
“Can´t it piss in the rushes like every other dog in the place?”
“Certainly not – would you have my solar stinking like the great hall? Isabel,” the door opened so quickly the girl who entered must have been hovering outside, listening. “Isabel, take Juliet out. And be careful as you go through the hall – I think she’s coming on heat and if one of those slobbering great hounds has her, she’ll surely perish from the consequences”.
The greyhound capered out at once at sight of the girl, and pranced around her skirts as she left the room as silently as she had entered. Richard drew a deep breath and sat away from Eleanor.
“You still have that Jewish thing around you, then? I thought she had perished with all the rest of her vile clan. You should exhibit her, Mama, for she is surely a rare thing – the only Jew left in London!”
“I have told you before, Richard, but you choose not to listen. Isabel is no longer a Jew. She embraced our Lord years ago. She takes the host with me each Sunday; she is as Christian as you or I, these days.”
“Aye? So you say, but born a Jew, always a Jew. She should have died with the rest of them in London as God’s greatest celebration of my coronation. I tell you, Mama, my people could have given me no greater tribute than rising up and slaughtering those beasts that killed our Lord. The streets were sticky with their blood, but I have been told that even the curs would not lick it up, as if they knew it would poison them. I would have shouted my thanks to the mob from the bottom of my heart, if it was not for the fact that I had need of the services of the rest of the Jews in the kingdom. As they say, one does not bite the hand that feeds you - or lends to you, in my case! As it was, I presented a face of seemly sorrow to the world. But you! You managed to preserve your pet, didn´t you? How you can tolerate her near you, I don´t know. She reeks of the ghetto, like all the rest of them. I tell you Mama, one day, when I have enough gold myself, I shall cleanse my kingdom of the rest of them, and when that day comes even you will not be able to protect your dear Isabel.”
“She is useful to me. I took her in payment of a debt of mine – oh, don´t look at me like that. You know full well every penny your father had went on the Crusade, and rightly so. But there were times when I had to look for every groat. I got her when we were in York – that cursed time when Henry first laid eyes on Rosamund of Clifford. He was besotted with her from the first, and nothing I could do or say would distract him – every time I asked him for money, he brushed me aside with false promises. I had hospitality to repay, for the good burghers of York were nothing if not lavish, and appearances to maintain, and not a farthing to do it with. So I did what every other good, if impoverished, citizen does, and turned to the Jew King instead of the King who should have been by my side. Isaac of York was generous; instead of his money back and a usurious rate of interest beside, he put it to me that he was afraid for the safety of his family and asked nothing of me but that I take his daughter and keep her safe until he asked for her back. He has never asked, and I am well content with my bargain. She is neither noble nor servant, and she is both quiet and discreet. The nobles talk freely in front of her, because they do not even notice her. The servants gossip to her, because she is as much beneath anybody’s notice as they are. And she has … other uses.”
“You mean she spies for you?” Richard spat incredulously.
“That she does. And well. She is my eyes and ears about the court. Her English is far better than yours, and her L´angue D´Oc more than passable. What Isabel hears, I hear.”
“A pity she didn´t tell you about my father earlier, then! Mama,” he wailed, recalled to his grievances. “What am I to do? Tell me! Philip of France is insisting on the marriage to his half-sister going ahead. He says that he refuses to believe the rumours about Alice and – insult upon injury! – points out that I have no other choice of bride anyway. But I cannot marry Alice. I will not!”
“But even you must admit my dearest son, you must marry. You must have an heir, and soon, before your Crusade commences. I am not trying to ill-wish you; I, of all people, pray for your continued health and well-being, but there is great danger in the Holy Land and England cannot be left with an insecure throne. If anything happened to you, then John would inherit, and I fear that, Richard, for – although he is my son, just as much as you are – I know in my heart he is not a good man, but has all the makings of a weak and greedy tyrant. You must marry, you must get a son for England, but not Alice, no. You could not countenance that conniving whore for a wife, and nor could I. In any event, the Pope would not allow it. The Laws of Propinquity forbid it, and rightly so.”
“Then if not Alice, whom? Mama, you are smiling. Tell me!” Richard jerked to his feet and began to prowl the room again, his fingers twitching with his impatience.
“Did you really think I have been idle, Richard? I may have been put away, but I still heard and saw through my friends, who are many. I knew of the rumours surrounding Alice Capet, before you did, and I saw the way the wind was blowing. So I made certain … provisions, should this terrible time come to pass. Richard, do sit down – you are like some great beast roaring about my chamber!”
“Your pardon, Mama.” Immediately contrite, he resumed his place on the low stool. “But I beg of you, put me out of my misery and tell me all!”
“Do you remember Pamplona?” Seeing his blank look, she prompted, “In Navarre?”
“Of course I know Pamplona is in Navarre, but it must be – Lord! – ten years since I was there. They held a splendid tournament in my honour, or rather, it should have been splendid but the whole thing was ruined by the mud. It chose to rain for the first time in months just before I got to the outskirts, and it was like riding through quicksand. My horse nearly threw me at my first joust when it got mired, and I wrenched my shoulder badly. It hurt for weeks.” He added piteously.
“If you remember the tournament so well, then you must remember King Sancho´s daughter.”
Richard stuck out his tongue the better to concentrate. Suddenly, his face cleared.
“Yes, of course! A delicious little creature – face like an angel and a voice that could have soothed the Devil himself. Blanche! That was it, Blanche. As fair skinned and fair haired as her name, I recall.”
“Richard, no. Not Blanche. Blanche was Sancho´s younger daughter. I am speaking of Berengaria, his elder daughter. Not as beautiful as Blanche, admittedly, I must acknowledge that would be difficult, but a divinely pretty child with great brown eyes and a sweet, retiring manner. Bright, as well. Richard, you must remember her! You declared yourself in love with her, and paid her so many compliments she was at your feet and followed you around like a puppy all the time you were in Navarre.”
“Did I? But Mama, I have paid compliments to every princess in Christendom, and no doubt meant it at the time. Berengaria, Berengaria. Ah, yes, I do remember her. A pretty girl, as you say, slim as a boy and tiny, but with a quick wit.” Richard patted his mouth thoughtfully, unwilling to admit that all he could really remember of Berengaria was a full lower lip, a determined chin and a body as slim and sinuous as a fish. “I recall she carried her copy of the Roman de la Rose everywhere with her – I remember teasing her that it was time she found her own lover instead of looking to an old book for consolation. She is still unmarried, then, after all these years? What’s wrong with her? Is she brown as a peasant from too much sun? Has she grown fat since I saw her? Turned to religion as a consolation for lack of a man, or taken a lover or two? Or has Sancho been mean with her dowry? God help us, all of them?”
“Not at all. I am assured that Berengaria is as pretty today as she was last time you saw her. She carries as good a dowry as one could expect or want, and she is still a virgin – trust my good friend Sancho to see to that! She is, of course, observant as a good Christian should be, but has none of the makings of a nun.”
“Your good friend Sancho, Mama?” Richard latched on to the words that were important, and chose to ignore the rest. Lies were always told about prospective brides, it was only to be expected.
“My very good friend Sancho, Richard. Berengaria has met with ill luck; it had been planned that she was to marry but her suitor preferred Blanche, and would not be persuaded otherwise. I believe there have been others, but for one reason and another, the betrothals did not come to fruition. I have kept in contact with Sancho for these many years, and we have whispered together in our letters across the miles. Were I able to say to Sancho that my dearest son, Richard of England, wished to take his daughter as his bride, there would, I assure you, be great rejoicing at the court of Navarre, and it would not, shall we say, come entirely as a surprise to him.”
“Mama, you are a wonder! I am quite lost in admiration – I cast myself at your feet. But …. Berengaria. How old is she? She must have been – what – thirteen? Fourteen? When I last saw her all those years ago. She is not an old maid, left to whither on the shelf? I want a young bride, not an old woman.”
“My son, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride! I offer you a princess of Spain; pretty, witty and well educated. She comes with a good dowry and powerful relatives; Sancho has already pledged his support for the Crusade. And – I assure you, for I have asked – she should be fertile. Her courses are regular, her sisters all have children. She will make an excellent queen for you. She is, admittedly, not young – all the more reason, then, for you to marry quickly.” Richard grunted and she continued quickly, “I think you forget my dearest one that you are now thirty-one, and about to depart for a holy Crusade. Trust me, Berengaria will suit, I promise. Or would you prefer Alice, after all?”
Richard puffed out his cheeks and raised hopeless eyes to the heavens.
“I am between a rock and a hard place!” He complained.
“A place of your own making,” she responded acidly. “If you had married Alice years ago, instead of whoring and fornicating throughout the continent, Henry would have been forced to look elsewhere to relieve his itch.”
Richard pouted and rubbed a supplicant hand on to her arm.
“I am my father’s son, Mama.” He protested. “And there was much to do for my kingdom before I could even consider marrying. But to business; you wish me to marry before I depart for Acre. I have no objection to Berengaria as a bride; I suppose I must marry somebody and she seems suitable enough.” His face brightened. “Her dowry will help finance my Crusade, and if Sancho is willing to send men and money as well, then I shall welcome this daughter of Spain with open arms. An alliance with Navarre, a strong alliance, would be useful. But I have no time to marry before I leave, Mama, you must see that. My arrangements are made – my army is ready, my ships poised, my allies gathering!” His chin jutted and his eyes narrowed as if he could see the noble fleet already assembled before him. “The Holy Land awaits me! I cannot put my own plans before the defence of God’s realm, Mama.” He glanced at her stony face and spoke hurriedly. “You know that I intend to leave at the end of next month. However, I am perfectly happy for you to send a messenger to Sancho to confirm the betrothal. We can send a proxy if you like, and we can be wed in name if nothing else. She can travel here at her leisure, and we will marry formally as soon as I return, triumphant, from the Holy Land.”
“No.” The word was flat, final. “No, my son. It will not do. England must have an heir, and quickly. So you must have a bride, and quickly. The devil only knows how long you might be away in the Holy Land. One year? Two? More? No. I tell you now that I have already written to Sancho in anticipation of your happiness at my plans; by now he will have spoken to Berengaria and she will be overjoyed at the news of her betrothal.”
Richard scowled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Mother, I cannot travel to Navarre to bring her to England. She cannot be expected to travel here alone either, and there is no time in any event. It will not do, I tell you. She must wait. God knows,” he added spitefully “She has waited long enough already for a husband, another year or so will not hurt her.”
“My son, my son. How foolish you are. Gather your army and make your plans and sail for Acre as soon as you are ready. Sail by all means. You will make land at Sicily, en route for Acre?” Richard nodded, watching her warily, suspicious of this sudden agreement with his plans. “Excellent. Apart from anything else, you know full well how the land lies with Johanna in Sicily. It is past time that that wretch Tancred learned that it is foolish to hold a Queen – a poor, newly widowed queen at that – to ransom, and to steal all she has in the world.”
“I am not entirely sure that I would describe my sister as “poor”, Mama.” Richard frowned. “Spirited, perhaps, if you are feeling polite about it. A damned virago if you are not!”
Eleanor frowned at him and wagged her finger as if she was chastising a naughty child.
“Do not speak ill of Johanna, Richard. You may have always have argued like cat and dog, but she is your sister, and she is – or rather was – Queen of Sicily. Tancred´s insolence is a personal affront to us, to the whole family, and I am relying on you to put him in his place. It will hardly slow you down; you will need the time to gather your army together. You meet Philip of France in Sicily?”
Richard’s eyes gleamed.
“I do. And I daresay I can take the time to ensure that Tancred realizes that it is not wise to trifle with Richard of England’s sister. Now that I will enjoy. As you say Mama, it is an insult to all of us, and I cannot let my poor sister linger in captivity another day.” A thought struck him and he paused. “Is she actually in captivity, by the way? Last I heard, she wanted to travel to Rome, to petition the Pope on her behalf.”
“Well, she might not actually be imprisoned, but Tancred has all her money, all her treasures, and he holds the throne, so she might just as well be behind bars. No matter. Explain to Tancred that you do not take kindly to him treating your sister in this manner, and retrieve Johanna and her treasure both. What you do with Tancred is your own business. And after that, why it is all arranged.” Eleanor shrugged. “I have done all for you. Sancho expects me in Navarre as soon as I can undertake the journey. I will leave England as soon as possible, certainly before you sail, and I will escort your bride to Sicily where we will meet you.”
Richard gawped, his mouth opened and closed like a gaffed fish. His good humour vanished instantly and finding breath, he gasped:
“Mama! You cannot! This marriage must wait.” He cast around for excuses and pounced. “I will not have you put in danger. You are too old for such a journey – it will take months! And the discomfort, the risk!” She shot him a look that could have fried snow. “No Mama, for once I will not be silenced. You are still the most beautiful woman in the whole of Christendom, but you are nearly seventy. The journey will kill you. I will not have it. I am the king of England, and I forbid it. Forbid it, I say.”
“Aye, and I, my son, am Queen of England, lest you forget. I remind you; I have married two kings; birthed ten children; been queen of two countries; made the pilgrimage to Compostella twice; sailed on Crusade with a King of France. And I am not nearly seventy; I am little more than sixty. And I will go to Navarre, and I will bring your bride to you in Sicily.”
He stood, towering over her. The sun slipping through the arrow slit behind him turned his hair and beard to a golden halo. Eleanor remained seated; comfortable, relaxed. Unmoved and unconcerned by his anger. Richard glared; she smiled sweetly. Recognizing defeat, he blew out his breath in a long sigh.
“As you wish, Mother. As you wish. Bring me my bride to Sicily, then, but bring yourself safely, above all.”
She smiled and held out her arms in invitation. Richard slid down beside her and allowed his hair to be stroked rhythmically.
“You are hot, child.” Eleanor rubbed his forehead tenderly. “When were you last cupped? You are choleric by nature; a true Angevin. You have too much blood for comfort.”
“Oh, I don´t know. About six weeks ago, I think. But I was not cupped, my surgeon prefers to leech. He says it gives him greater control. Perhaps you are right, Mama. It is time I was bled again. I have a terrible headache, and that is always the result of bad humours in the blood, it is well known.”
“Indeed, my son, indeed.” She patted his head softly. Encouraged, he turned his head towards her breast and fastened his lips hungrily on her nipple, sucking at her through the cloth of her bodice. She allowed him to nurse for a moment or two then detached her breast gently. Richard pouted in disappointment, looking longingly at the wet patch he had left on the cloth. She spoke softly, “We must have you well, my dear one, for great things are coming. Great things.”