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WESTMINSTER ABBEY, LONDON, DECEMBER 1154

At the moment when Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury placed the golden weight of a crown on Alienor’s brow, the child in her womb give a vigorous kick that resonated throughout her body. Clear winter light rayed from the abbey’s Romanesque windows to illuminate the Confessor’s tomb in the sacrarium and cast pale radiance upon the dais where she sat beside her husband, the newly anointed King Henry II of England.

Henry gripped the jewelled orb and the sword of sovereignty with confident possession. His mouth was a firm, straight line and his grey gaze purposeful. In the mingling of gloom and light, his beard glinted copper-red and he exuded all the glow and vigour of his twenty one years. He was already Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and consort Duke of Aquitaine and had been a force to be reckoned with ever since leading his first battle campaign at the age of fourteen.

The Archbishop stepped to one side and Alienor felt the full focus of the congregation strike her with the intensity of a fixed ray of light.  Every bishop, magnate and English baron was gathered here to bear witness, to pay homage, and to usher in an era of peace and prosperity where the wounds suffered by decades of civil war, might be healed by the young king and his fertile queen. An air of anxious optimism filled the air. Everyone was eager to seek favour and advantage from their new sovereign.  In the months to come she and Henry would have to pluck the jewels from the piles of common stones and discard the dross.

This was the second time Alienor had worn a crown. For more than fifteen years she had been queen of France until her marriage to Louis had been annulled on grounds of consanguinity. The latter had been a convenient box in which to conceal the true reasons for parting; not least that she had only borne Louis two daughters of their union and not the all-important sons.  That she was more closely related to Henry than to Louis gave Alienor cause for sardonic amusement. Money, influence and human imperatives always spoke more loudly than conscience and God.  In two years of marriage with Henry, she had produced one healthy son and expected another child before winter’s end.

Henry rose from King Edward’s carved throne and all knelt to him and bowed their heads. He extended his hand to Alienor who sank in a curtsey, her silk skirts a flood of gold around her feet. Henry raised her up by their clasped fingers, and they exchanged glances bright with exultation and a mutual awareness of how significant this moment was.

Cloaked in ermine, hand in hand, they paced down the abbey’s great nave, following the Archbishop’s jewelled processional cross. Frankincense-perfumed smoke and the vapour of icy breath swirled heavenwards. Alienor held her head high, and walked with a stately tread and straight spine in order to balance the weight of the jewelled crown and the swollen curve of her womb. Her gown shone and flared with each step, and the choir sang triumphant praise, their voices soaring to twine with the smoke and carry all to God.  Within her the child tumbled joyously, flexing and testing his limbs. It would be another boy; all the signs were auspicious. Their firstborn son, sixteen months old, was being cared for at the Tower with his nurse, but one day, God willing, he too would be anointed king in this church.

Outside the abbey, crowds had gathered in the sharp December cold to watch the spectacle and to fete England’s new king and queen.  Ushers and marshals held the  throng at a distance, but the mood was cheerful, the more so when servants of the royal household showered the gathering with fistfuls of silver pennies and small loaves of bread. Alienor watched the scramble, heard the cries of blessing and approbation and although she barely understood a word of English, the sentiments were clear and made her smile.

‘We have made an auspicious beginning,’ she said to Henry.

‘Given what has gone before, it would be impossible not to do so.’ His own smile was wide, but Alienor saw his glance flick across from the abbey to the palace of Westminster and harden for an instant. Once a grand residence, it had become ruinous during the later years of King Stephen and needed urgent repairs to make it habitable.  For now he had set up his administration at the Tower and his domestic quarters across the river at the manor of Bermondsey.

‘But you are right,’ he said, ‘we have made a favourable start, long may it flourish.’  He placed his hand on her rounded womb, deliberately displayed to their subjects through the parting in her cloak. Being fruitful was a vital part of queenship and never more than now at the start of their reign. He gave a delighted chuckle to feel the baby’s firm kick against his palm.  ‘This is our time. We should make the most of every moment.’ Taking a handful of coins from an attendant, he flipped them into the crowd.  A young woman standing near the front with a small child caught one in mid-air and sent him a dazzling smile.

Alienor was tired but still bright with excitement as the barge bumped against the jetty on the river entrance to the Tower.  A crewman cast a rope around a mooring stake and hauled the vessel closer in to the steps. Attendants hastened with lanterns to illuminate the winter night and escort the royal party from landing stage to apartment. Splintered gold reflections spilled across the dark waters of the Thames, heavy with the salt-scent of the estuary.  Alienor’s teeth chattered despite her fur-lined cloak. She had to step carefully on the frost-rimed paths, wary of slipping in her thin, kidskin shoes.

Talking animatedly to a group of courtiers, including his half-brother, Hamelin, Vicomte of Touraine, Henry strode ahead, his voice ringing out in the clear night. He had risen long before dawn and Alienor knew he would not retire until the small hours. Their domestic use of candles and lamps was a major point of expenditure in winter; no one could keep up with him.

Entering the Tower keep, she slowly climbed more stairs to their chambers, pausing for a moment to rest her hand on her womb.  A swift peek into a partitioned alcove reassured her that the heir to the new throne was sound asleep in his crib tucked under soft fleeces and blankets, his hair a burnished gold flicker in the light of a single lamp. The nurse smiled at her with an expression that said all was well, and Alienor turned to the main chamber where she and Henry would spend the night before crossing the river to Bermondsey next day.

The shutters were secured against the bitter winter’s night and a fine red fire blazed in the hearth.  Alienor went to stand within the arc of heat and let the comforting warmth envelop her and banish the chill left by the icy gusts from the river. The reflection of the flames danced hypnotically on the surface of her gown, inscribing stories in the silk.

Her senior maid, Marchisa, came to disrobe her but Alienor shook her head.  ‘No,’ she said, smiling. ‘I want to savour the day for a little longer; there will never be another like it.’

Henry’s half-sister Emma handed Alienor a cup of wine, her hazel eyes shining. ‘I shall remember this all my life.’

Until Alienor’s marriage to Henry three years ago, she had dwelt at the abbey of Fontevraud in the hall for lay women. She and her brother Hamelin were Henry’s illegitimate half-siblings, and both had places in the household.

‘We all shall,’ Alienor said, and kissed her.  She was fond of Emma, valuing both her gentle company and her embroidery skills.

Henry arrived, his energy still bubbling like a cauldron over a hot fire. He had exchanged his coronation robes for a tunic of everyday wool and donned a favourite pair of boots that were worn to the shape of his feet.

‘You look as if you are ready to spit on your hands and begin work.’ Giving him a knowing look, Alienor eased carefully down in a chair before the hearth and arranged her gown in a full sweep around her feet.

‘I am.’ Henry went to fiddle with an ivory chess set arranged ready for play on a small bench near the window. ‘Unfortunately I am constrained by the sleeping habits of others.  If I don’t let them rest they become as dull as blunt knives.’ He shifted the pieces about to create a scenario of checkmate.

‘Perhaps you should take the opportunity to sleep for a few hours too.’

‘What use is there in being dead to the world?’ Abandoning the board he sat on the bench facing her and purloined her goblet for a swallow of wine. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury will attend me at first light.  He has a candidate to put forward for the position of chancellor.’

Alienor raised her brows. The business of bargaining for favour and position was hard apace. She had already deduced from their brief exchanges before the coronation that Theobald of Canterbury was a wily one. His benign, myopic expression concealed the fact that the man himself was as strong as sword steel.  He had defied King Stephen and prevented Stephen’s eldest son Eustace from being acknowledged heir to England, for which he had been exiled for a time. His stand had kept Henry’s cause afloat and favours were owed. Theobald’s reputation for gathering around him men of rare and keen intellect was renowned.

‘Thomas Becket, his archdeacon and protégé,’ Henry said. ‘London born, but educated in Paris and eager to demonstrate his skills as a fiscal genius.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Thirties, so not in his dotage like half of them. I have spoken to him in passing but have not garnered any particular impression yet.’

‘Theobald must have a reason for putting him forward.’ She leaned forward to retrieve her wine from him.

‘Naturally he does. He wants one of his own in my household because he thinks to influence the way I govern and promote the interests of the Church. And the man will have a keen brain, I am certain.’  He gave a taut smile. ‘But if I choose this Thomas Becket, he will have to change allegiance.  I do not mind men in my service seeking advancement, but never at my expense.’

Hearing the edge in his voice, she gave him a searching look.

He stood up, restless as a dog in a strange place. ‘Loyalty is a virtue rarer than hens’ teeth. My mother told me to trust no one and she is right.’

‘Ah, but you trust her do you not?’

He sent her an evaluating glance. ‘I trust her with my life, and I trust that she always has my best interests at heart, but I do not always trust her judgement.’

There was a small, difficult silence. Alienor did not ask if he trusted his wife’s judgement, because she suspected his reply would disappoint her.

The child kicked again and she stroked her womb. ‘Quiet little one,’ she murmured and gave Henry a rueful smile. ‘He is like you ‘- barely sleeps and is always restless especially in church.  I think he was running a race during the coronation!

Henry chuckled. ‘Doubtless he was excited at the notion of being born the son of a king.  What children we shall make between us.’ He came to crouch at her side and took her smooth hands in his calloused ones, bridging the gap that had briefly opened between them. He strengthened the repair by sitting on the floor at her feet like a squire, while he shared her wine and asked her opinion upon matters pertaining to the appointment of other court officials.  It was mostly him talking while she listened, because these were English affairs, and concerned men she barely knew, but she was pleased to be asked and ventured opinions here and there. They agreed that Nigel Bishop of Ely, a former royal treasurer, should be persuaded out of retirement and his expertise used to set the exchequer to rights and start revenues flowing again. Richard de Lucy, a former official of King Stephen’s would take up a senior administrative role together with Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.

‘It does not matter to me where men have sided in the past,’ Henry said. ‘It is their abilities I seek and their good service now. I said I trust no one, but I am willing to give men of backbone and intelligence, a chance to prove their loyalty. Both de Lucy and Beaumont know where their best interests lie.’

Alienor gently ruffled his hair with her fingertips, loving the way firelight played over the red-gold waves. She must cultivate these men too. When Henry was absent from England, she would have to deal with them, and better as allies than enemies.

‘Stephen’s son I shall keep where I can see him,’ Henry continued. ‘Even though he has rescinded his claim to the crown, he may still prove a rallying point for dissent.’

Alienor cast her mind over the courtiers she had met in recent weeks.  King Stephen’s surviving son, William of Boulogne was a pleasant, unremarkable young man a couple of years younger than Henry. He walked with a limp from a broken leg and was hardly the stuff of which great leaders were made. The only threat, as Henry said, was from those who might use him as a spear on which to nail their banners. ‘That seems prudent,’ she agreed, her words ending on a stifled a yawn.  The long day was catching up with her; the fire was warm and the wine had gone pleasantly to her head.

Henry rose to his feet. ‘Time to bid you good night my love.’

‘Are you not coming to bed for a while?’ she asked with a note of entreaty.  She wanted to end this glorious day wrapped in his arms.

‘Later. I still have business to attend to.  He kissed her tenderly on the mouth and briefly laid his palm over her womb. ‘You are everything a queen should be. I have never seen a woman look as beautiful and regal as you did today.’

His words softened her disappointment and filled her with a warm glow. She watched him go to the door, his tread still as buoyant as it had been that morning. On the threshold he turned and gave her a melting smile, and then he was gone in a draught of cold air.

After a moment Alienor summoned her ladies and prepared to retire for the night, regretful to be alone, but still with a deep contentment in her heart.

Henry’s squire tapped softly on the door of the rented house in Eastcheap, a short walk from the Tower. The bolt slid back and a maidservant quietly admitted the young man and his royal master before closing the door and kneeling.

Henry ignored her and fixed his gaze on the young woman who had dropped in a curtsey as he entered the room. Her head was bowed and all he could see was the heavy ripple of her ash-brown hair against the pale linen of her chemise.  He went to her and lifted her chin on his forefinger so that he could look into her face.

‘My King,’ she said, and her full lips parted in a smile that stole his heart. ‘Henry.’

He raised her to her feet, crushed her against him, and kissed her passionately. She circled her arms about his neck and made a soft kitten sound.  Feeling all the warm points of her body against his, he buried his face in her abundant hair, inhaling scents of new grass and sage. ‘Ah, Aelburgh.’ His voice caught. ‘You’re sweet as a meadow.’

She nuzzled his throat. ‘I did not think you would come to me tonight. I thought you would be too busy.’

‘Hah, I am busy, but I have time for this.’

‘Are you hungry?  I have bread and wine.’

He shook his head and cupped her breast. ‘I have eaten a surfeit today. There is only one appetite I need to sate just now.’

Aelburgh gave a soft laugh and eased from his embrace. Taking a lamp from a trestle, she led Henry up the steep stairs to the sleeping loft.

The lamp was guttering by the time Henry reached for his clothes and prepared to leave.

‘You could stay.’ Aelburgh stroked his naked back with languid fingers.

He gave a regretful sigh.  ‘I have too much business to attend to my love.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting me in a few hours’ time, and it would not be fitting to greet him still warm from the bed of my mistress, no matter how enticing that bed might be.’ He raised her hand to his lips. ‘I will come again soon, I promise.’

‘The Queen looked very beautiful today,’ she said quietly.

‘She did indeed – but she is not you.’

Aelburgh sat up a little straighter and preened.

‘My love, you are a different part of my life.’ He tucked a tress of her hair behind her year. ‘There are duties…and then there are pleasures, and you are surely of the second sort.’ Especially while Alienor was great with child and he could not bed her.

From a small curtained off section beyond the bed came the soft wail of a child waking from slumber. Aelburgh donned her shift and disappeared behind the hanging, returning a moment later with a red-haired infant boy cuddled in her arms. ‘Hush little man, hush now,’ she crooned. ‘See your papa is here.’

The child stared at Henry and his chin wobbled, but when Henry made a face at him he giggled and hid his face against his mother’s soft white neck, before turning to peep at Henry again out of round blue eyes.  Henry was amused and delighted.  There was nothing worse than a screaming child that kept on screaming.

‘I will provide for him,’ he said. ‘He will have everything he needs to make his way in the world as the son of a king.’

Fear flashed in Aelburgh’s eyes.  ‘You will not take him from me? I could not bear that.’

‘Don’t be a foolish wench.’ Henry ducked around their son to kiss her again. ‘A child belongs with its mother in the early years.’ Of course, once intellect, reason and physical strength had progressed sufficiently for his son to be educated, then the maternal ties would be severed, but he was not going to say that now. ‘I must go.’ He tugged a strand of her hair, kissed his son, and on his way out, deposited a fat pouch of silver pennies on the table in the main room to join the silver piece she had caught outside the cathedral earlier.

The dark winter morning was nowhere near dawn and he thought he might doze in a chair for a couple of hours, and then preparing for the Archbishop’s visit. As he set out for the Tower, his thoughts were all on the business of government and Aelburgh already pushed to the back of his mind.

 

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