Hazel McHaffie

The Captive Queen

Having devoured the two Tudor novels by Alison Weir (reviewed in recent posts), I was keen to read her third excursion into fiction: The Captive Queen.

This one goes back four hundred years earlier, to the twelfth century, a time of which, I confess, I knew very little. And it tells the tumultuous story of the making of a nation, of passionate personal and international conflicts, of a high-profile royal marriage in meltdown. Records that far back are incomplete but, as an historian and novelist of integrity, Weir has extended great efforts to fill in the gaps as authentically as its possible to do, as her end note explains.

At the core of this tale is the beautiful, fabulously wealthy, young  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). As the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. She’s also a formidably wise and firm governor, a trustworthy leader, and a woman who inspires passion, famed for her fairness, generosity and humanity.

But her own powerful emotions lead her into tumultuous situations. After fifteen years as Queen consort of France, she turns her back on a shattered marriage to King Louis VII, her crown, and two young daughters, to pursue the love of her life.

Louis VII has been more monk than either king or lover, and Eleanor is a sensuous woman with strong dsires. As soon as she can persuade Louis to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity within the forbidden degrees dictated by the Church, she launches into marriage with Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, who combines youth (he’s ten years younger than her) and handsome looks with voracious carnal appetites, conveniently drawing a veil over her adulterous liaison with his father Geoffrey. Their union represents not just the fulfillment of their love and lust for each other, but the founding of one of ‘the greatest empires in Christendom’, spanning vast territories on both sides of the channel. Henry becomes Henry II of England and they produce a further eight children together, three of whom later become kings themselves.

But in time Henry reveals his true nature: cruel, overbearing, jealous, self-important, serially unfaithful. Eleanor is forced to acknowledge that her own beloved subjects reject and dislike him and his dictatorial ways, and that she personally has gone from one disastrous marriage to a weak and inadequate man, into one where she is a captive wife to a very aggressive husband. When she remonstrates with him, he betrays his patronising view of women: ‘… a wife’s duty is to obey her husband, to rear his children, and to warm his bed when he so desires. And there it ends.‘ Never mind that she was a ruler in her own right as well as Queen of France before he ever met her! He increasingly sidelines her. By now Eleanor can see that he is utterly incapable of appreciating her point of view, and once his mind is made up, nothing will move him. ‘I am determined to have my way’ extends beyond ruling despotically, taking territories and insisting on absolute obedience; it includes deflowering innocent well-born girls as well as taking many other beautiful and available women.

When she discovers the extent of his unfaithfulness, in spite of the passion within their marriage, Eleanor feels totally betrayed. But when she confronts him, Henry is brutal: ‘We are a partnership, Eleanor. You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.’ Political gain and advantage is his sole driving force. But even in her worst nightmares, Eleanor could not have envisaged just how vengeful this man she had once loved so passionately could be.

It is, however, his obsessive relationship with Thomas Becket, that proves Henry’s greatest preoccupation for years. Initially Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, is his best friend and companion, so much so indeed that Henry entrusts his own eldest living son and heir, Henry, to his care and guidance. But when King Henry insists on making him Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changes completely, becoming a hair-shirt self-flagellating ascetic, and in defence of the Church, turning against his King, and openly defying him. Henry’s rage, born of pain and betrayal, knows no bounds. In his desperate search for absolute power, he is even prepared to use his own infant daughters to score points against his enemies! Afraid for his life, Becket seeks refuge on the continent, further fuelling Henry’s impotent fury. When the King eventually extends an olive branch, Becket returns to England, but shortly afterwards he is brutally murdered in his own cathedral by knights who believe they are fulfilling the King’s wishes. Henry however, is wracked with guilt and remorse; this was never his intention.

Things go from bad to worse for him when Eleanor, disgusted by the extent of his domination and unfaithfulness, turns her back on him and, with her endorsement, his sons all rebel against his tyranny. He has her imprisoned, first in a single barren room in a tower in Rouen, later in a bleak wind-ravaged stone keep in Wiltshire, demoralised, starved of civilised company, cut off from the rest of humanity, with no news of her children – a terrible punishment for such a free spirit with sunny Aquitaine a constant ache in her heart. Only by degrees does he eventually relax the strictures and grant her more comfort and luxury, although she remains closely guarded.

A bitter decade follows. Henry seeks to have the marriage annulled. His newest paramour dies of cancer. He impregnates his son Richard’s betrothed, King Louis’s daughter, Princess Alys. Vile rumours discrediting Eleanor abound. The young King Henry dies.

It’s their shared parental grief that finally persuades Henry to release Eleanor, reunite her with her children, introduce her to her grandchildren, and free her to visit all her disputed fiefdoms  to re-establish her – and thence his – sovereignty. But good intentions only take them so far. Eleanor is increasingly appalled by the behaviour of her husband and her sons, and bowed down by the death of yet another of her boys.

Henry consigns Eleanor once more to captivity, in the same stone keep, and this time it is only his own death that releases her – after sixteen years captivity.  Now at last, Eleanor is appointed to rule England as its regent on behalf of her favourite son, King Richard. She rules wisely and well, puts many wrongs right, upholds the rights and interests of her people. But her success is dulled by the haunting tragedy and sadness of both her tortured marriages, all the mistakes and misjudgements, the enmities and betrayals, the loss of nine of her eleven children. She dies aged 82, amidst the peace and tranquillity of her sisters the nuns of Fontevrault, in the heartlands of the River Loire.

Apologies for such a long resume, but almost 500 pages of galloping story about such an exceptional, colourful and passionate woman and Queen, justified more than a bald summary. I’d highly commend this romping tale to anyone interested in a period of history that is so often shrouded in the mists of time.

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