25. Sep, 2016

The 3 Queens of Richard the Lionheart

Only available on pre-order for a few weeks, but here´s a sneak preview of the first chapter, together with the briefiest of brief synopsis of the contents....

"It was said that the very angels wept with envy at his coronation. That there had never been a king of England of such magnificence;  so tall, so handsome. Surely, born to rule!

But the people of England – neither at Richard the Lionheart´s first coronation, nor at his second – knew nothing of the women who had shaped this amazing ruler. His mother; Eleanor of Aquitaine. Queen of France and England. Johanna Plantagenet, his sister. Queen of Sicily.  And above all, his only wife. Berengaria of Navarre; Queen of England and Cyprus. The only Queen of England never to set foot in the country she ruled.

Between them, these three queens took the man and turned him into a king. A king of England.

Everybody knows of the Lionheart, but this is the story of his women. The three queens who ruled the king. A tale of love, found and lost. Of  adventure and tragedy. Of joy and despair. Of intrigue and the triumph of hope over adversity.  Of friendship that began in prejudice and ended in the meeting of true hearts.

A tale that began 800 years ago, and might have been written yesterday.            

There is an old Nordic proverb that says, “Inside every woman is a queen.  Talk to the woman, and the queen will answer.” Truly, this is so of the Three Queens of Richard the Lionheart."

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

“Mother, I´m not going to marry that woman.  She is no more than a whore – the whole world knows and would laugh at me.  Me!  A cuckold even before I´m wed!  A man whose own father has put the horns on his head!  It´s 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.  The dainty Genoese greyhound cowering in Eleanor’s skirts shivered, tail between its legs, as he brushed past, almost knocking the timid dog aside in his fury.

 

“My son.” Her voice was calm but its familiar authority cut through his rage like a sharp knife.  He paused before her in automatic obedience.  “My son, for heaven´s sake. Calm yourself.  Sit, we must talk about this.  Sit.”

 

Sulkily, he slouched on 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 still, gathering her thoughts, 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 don´t think, my dear Richard, that fate is laughing at your expense?”

 

“Laughter?” His voice rose, quick to anger. “What´s so funny 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 told by the whole court? By the whole world, come to that?”

 

“Shush, my dear.  Listen to me. For once. The irony in the situation is one you cannot miss; you deposed your father from his throne; now it appears he´s 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. If we leave aside the insult to me, think what he did to 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.  Fifteen years away from your own throne, for a provincial 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 slowly “And you´re 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 underneath 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. I even believed the slut was in love with me.  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 has defiled her!  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. I´m not going to have my solar stinking like the great hall. Isabel,” the door opened so quickly the girl who entered must have been hovering outside, waiting. “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 glared at her silently.

 

“You still have that Jewish thing around you, then” He complained. “I thought she´d perished with all the rest of her vile clan.  You should exhibit her, Mama, for she´s surely a rare thing – the only Jew left in London!”

 

“I´ve told you before, Richard, but you choose not to listen.  Isabel is no longer a Jew.  She embraced our Lord years ago.  She´s 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´ve been told that even the curs wouldn´t 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 wasn´t for the fact that I had need of the services of the rest of the Jews left in the kingdom.  As they say, one does not bite the hand that feeds you - or lends to you, in my case! But 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´s useful to me.” Eleanor said patiently. “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 and not a farthing to do it with.  So I did what every other good, 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´s never asked, and I´m well content with my bargain.  She´s both quiet and discreet.  The nobles talk freely in front of her, because they don´t even notice her.  The servants gossip to her, because she´s as much beneath anybody's notice as they are.”

 

“You mean she spies for you?”  Richard spat incredulously.

 

“That she does.  And well.  She´s my eyes and ears about the court.  Her English is, of course, perfect, and her Frankish more than passable.  What Isabel hears, I hear.”

 

“A pity she didn´t tell you about my father earlier, then!  Mama,” he moaned, recalled to self pity “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 you must marry.  You must have an heir, and soon, before your Crusade commence if at all possible. If anything happened to you, then John would inherit the throne. I know he´s my son, just as much as you are, but I also know that dear John is the greediest man in the kingdom.  He thinks of nothing but himself. If he was King, then he´d sell England if he thought it would do him any good.  You must marry, you must get a son for England’s sake, but not Alice, no.  You could not countenance that conniving whore for a wife, and nor could I. In any event, the Pope wouldn´t allow it.  The Holy Laws forbid it, and rightly so. In Christ’s name, if her bastard had lived, it would have been your half- sister!”

 

“Then if not Alice, who? Mama, you´re smiling.  Tell me!”  Richard jerked to his feet and began to prowl the room again.

 

“Did you really think I´ve 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.  So I made certain plans, 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.  “Put me out of my misery and tell me!”

 

“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.  Blanche!  That was it, Blanche.  As fair skinned and fair haired as her name, I recall.”

 

“Richard, no.  Not Blanche.  Blanche is Sancho´s younger daughter.  I´m talking about Berengaria, his elder daughter.  Not as quite as beautiful as her sister, but a divinely pretty child with great brown eyes and a sweet, retiring manner.  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 she?  But Mama, I´ve 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´s still unmarried, then, after all these years?  What’s wrong with her?  Has she got 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´m assured that Berengaria is as pretty today as she was last time you saw her.  She carries as good a dowry as could be expected, and she´s 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.”

 

“Aye? Sure are you, Mama?  Lies are always told about prospective brides, it’s only to be expected.”

 

“My very good friend Sancho assures me it’s all true.  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 didn´t come to fruition.  I´ve kept in contact with Sancho for these many years, and we have whispered together in our letters across the miles.  Now, if could  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 come entirely as a surprise to him.”

 

“Mama, you are amazing.” Richard grinned. “But …. Berengaria.  How old is she?  She must have been – what – thirteen? Fourteen?  When I last saw her all those years ago.  Is she 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!” Eleanor said sharply. “I´m offering 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.  She´ll make an excellent queen for you.  She is, admittedly, not young – all the more reason for you to marry quickly.”  Richard grunted and she continued quickly, “I think you forget 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 pouted.

 

“I´m 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 his hand on her arm. 

 

“Perhaps it runs in the family.” He said slyly.  Eleanor frowned and he added quickly, “There was so 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´ll welcome this daughter of Spain with open arms.  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 can´t put my own plans before the defence of God’s realm, Mama.”  He glanced at her stony face and shrugged.  “You know I intend to leave at the end of next month.  But I´m 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 to England from the Holy Land.”

 

“No.”  The word was 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 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.

 

“So? Mother, I haven’t got time to go to Navarre to bring her to England.  She must wait.  God knows,” he added spitefully “She´s waited long enough already for a husband, another year or so won´t 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’re ready. You’ll 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’s past time that that wretch Tancred learned that it’s extremely silly to hold a Queen – a poor, newly widowed queen at that – to ransom, and to steal all she has in the world.”

 

“I’m not entirely sure that I would describe my sister as “poor”, Mama.”  Richard frowned. “Spirited, perhaps, if you’re feeling polite about it.  A damned bitch if you’re not!” 

 

Eleanor wagged her finger as if she was chastising a naughty child.

 

“Don’t 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’m relying on you to put him in his place.  It´ll hardly slow you down; you’ll 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’s not wise to trifle with Richard of England's sister.  Now that I will enjoy.  As you say Mama, it’s an insult to all of us, and I can’t 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 don’t take kindly to him treating your sister in this disgraceful manner, and retrieve Johanna and her treasure both.  What you do with Tancred is your own business.  And after that, why everything is arranged.”  Eleanor shrugged. “I have done it all for you.  Sancho expects me in Navarre as soon as I can undertake the journey.  I’ll leave England as soon as possible, certainly before you sail, and I’ll escort your bride to Sicily where we´ll meet you.”

 

Richard’s good humour vanished instantly. He retorted angrily:

 

“Mama!  You can’t mean that!  This marriage must wait. I will not have you put at risk. You’re too old for such a journey – it will take months.  And the discomfort, the danger!”  She shot him a look that could have fried snow.  “No Mama, for once I will not be quiet.  You´re still the greatest queen in the world, but you´re nearly seventy.  The journey will kill you.  I will not have it.  I´m the king of England, and I forbid it.  Forbid it, I say.”

 

“Aye, and I, my son, am Queen of England.  I remind you; I have married two kings;   birthed ten children; been queen of two countries; sailed on Crusade with a King of France.  And I´m not nearly seventy; I´m little more than sixty.  And I´m going 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 and relaxed.  Richard glared; she smiled sweetly.  Admitting 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´re hot, child.”  Eleanor rubbed his forehead tenderly.  “When were you last bled?  You´re 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 wasn´t bled, my surgeon prefers to leech.  He says it gives him greater control.  Perhaps you´re right, Mama.  It is time I was leeched again.  I have a terrible headache, and that’s always the result of bad humours in the blood, it’s 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.