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Eleanor is a young, high-spirited, supremely intelligent, heiress to the vast Duchy of Aquitaine - at a time when a woman's value was measured in terms of wealth. Her vivid leadership inspired and dazzled those about her. And yet, born to rule, she was continually repressed and threatened by the men who overshadowed her life. This is the story of a brilliant, medieval figure - of a princess who led her own knights to the Crusades, who was bride to two kings and mother of Richard the Lion Heart. it is the rich, incredible story of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
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Norah Lofts was one of the best-known and best-loved of all historical novelists, known for her authentic application of period detail to all her books. She was a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic, was born in Norfolk. She taught English and History at at girls' school before turning to writing full time in 1936. Her passion for old houses and their continuing history sparked of her much praised Suffolk trilogy, The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset. These were followed by the bestselling The Concubine, The King's Pleasure, a novel about the life of Katharine of Aragon and Eleanor the Queen, a novel about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Lofts wrote more than 50 books, including historical non-fiction and short stories.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
JUST BEFORE THE MOON ROSE to full glory over the city of Bordeaux in that June of 1137, a young man who had been moving swiftly and secretively through the deserted streets came to the end of his journey at the foot of a tall round tower. There he stood for a moment in the shadow and then, emerging cautiously, moved away a little, took in his right hand one of three small stones which he carried in his left palm, and aimed it at the narrow, unglazed arrow-slit near the tower’s top. His aim was accurate and the stone disappeared into the opening. He stepped back into the shadow and waited while a man might have counted, with deliberation, to fifty. He was fingering a second stone when a door close beside him opened silently and a voice whispered,
In his excitement he momentarily forgot to be cautious and said, “Eleanor . . .” in a loud, normal voice. The girl who had been waiting for him said,
“Sh! Danger everywhere!” She drew him into the complete black darkness of the tower and guided his hand to the wall. “Keep to this side,” she whispered. “There are eighty-four steps; be careful.” She closed the door, which swung silently on its well-oiled hinges, but she did not replace its heavy iron bar.
The eighty-four steps were worn hollow and smooth and dangerous, for they were part of the original castle and in the fardistant times of the Roman occupation of Aquitaine had formed the main approach to the lookout turret at the top of the tower; for the past two hundred and fifty years they had been used only by those on secret errands, by lovers and assassins, by grave men on worthy but unadvertised business, by hurried men carrying secret messages from popes and kings and sultans to successive Dukes of Aquitaine. The staircase ended at a doorway, always locked and concealed by a hanging tapestry within arm’s reach of the bed in the Duke’s own sleeping chamber. Tonight this door stood open and, as young Richard de Vaux rounded the last curve of the spiral staircase, he could see the glimmer of light ahead. Moving more swiftly, he gained the room and stood aside as Eleanor, who had been hard on his heels, entered and half closed the door behind her.
“It might be necessary for you to leave quickly,” she said, “so I will leave it ajar. If anyone should come to that door”—she nodded towards the door on the other side of the room, a heavy, bolted door—“waste no time. Run. For once you know the secret, your life will be in real danger!”
“What secret?” he asked. “Oh, Eleanor, what is all this? Why did you send for me so secretly? And it’s been so long . . .” He took her hand and brushed it with his lips as he realized that, after so long a separation, they had hardly greeted one another, that her first words to him had been a warning of danger. “What has happened?” he asked again.
“So many things,” she said heavily. “Terrible things, Richard. Perhaps it was wrong of me to send for you . . . but I couldn’t bear for you to hear it all from the lips of a casual gossip. And I’ve been virtually a prisoner ever since . . . ever since . . .” Her voice broke and Richard reached out a comforting arm which she ignored. “Sit down, dear heart, and I’ll try to tell you everything. You would do well to drink some wine . . . pour for me, too. Richard, the first thing is . . . my father is dead. He died six weeks or more ago, in Compostella.”
Richard set back the flagon he had lifted.
“My sweet!” he said and, taking both her hands, began to blurt out some muddled words of sympathy. Words never came easily to him, and now shock and bewilderment made him less than usually vocal. Eleanor listened for a moment and then drew away.
“Yes, you were fond of him, too; and he of you, Richard. And I’ve hardly had time to realize or grieve for him properly . . .” She steadied herself. “I didn’t send for you to tell you that only, there is so much more to say, and perhaps not much time.” She looked at the barred door, and as Richard began to speak she went on hurriedly, “Let me tell you first about how the news came and then you’ll understand why I am frightened for you. You know that, when my father left to go to Spain on this pilgrimage, he put Sir Godfroi of Blaye in charge here. Sir Godfroi behaved, as usual, very kindly to me and we enjoyed one another’s company; we had actually been out hawking together one morning six weeks ago when a man on a half-dead horse arrived at the gate just as we were entering. He gasped out that he had news from Spain, and Sir Godfroi immediately dismounted and dragged him into the guardhouse and turned the guards out. I stayed outside and I was worried; I knew that my father had set out a very sick man and I was afraid that he was worse. Presently Sir Godfroi came out and took my arm and said there was news which he would tell me later. Something made me suspicious and I asked to speak to the man. Sir Godfroi said that was impossible, the man was dead. That I didn’t believe. I’d seen the fellow on his feet only five minutes before, so I pulled myself free and pushed into the guardhouse. There the man was, very blue and swollen in the face, and dead. No, don’t interrupt me . . . Sir Godfroi had choked him, I am sure of that, but he gave out that the man had died of plague and, within the day, he had men posted on every road that leads to Spain, with orders to turn back, or if necessary kill, anyone who attempted to enter Aquitaine. He said it was to prevent the plague being brought in again. Very reasonable and very clever.”
“To hide the fact that our Duke is dead? Our dear liege lord dead in a distant land and we, who should be saying Masses for his soul, kept in ignorance, what is clever about that?”
“Wait,” she said. “That is what I have to tell you. Drink some wine, Richard.” She lifted her own cup and drank. “That same day Sir Godfroi took me aside and told me what I already knew—that I am now my father’s heir, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou. He said also what I did not know, but which I see might well be true, that the moment the news was out there would be at least six ambitious, ruthless nobles ready to take and marry me—by force if needs be.”
The young man’s face hardened and his eyes narrowed as, without speaking, he nodded his head in understanding and agreement. Heiresses, the world over, were regarded as fair game, prizes to be won by trickery or by violence. Even when the women themselves were old, or ugly, or of known ill temper, men would squabble and fight to marry them and rule their lands . . . even small estates. And Eleanor . . .
As though answering his thought she went on, in a deliberately steady voice, “This heritage of mine is very tempting, Richard; so wide: even I hardly realized, until Sir Godfroi showed me the map of its bounds, how wide it is. From east to west it runs from Auvergne to the sea, north and south it stretches from the Loire to the Pyrenees, and its cornfields and vineyards and orchards are the richest in the world, as is well known. A prize indeed for any man . . .” Her voice changed, became brisker. “I pointed out to Sir Godfroi that in the marriage ceremony the bride is asked for her consent and if any man used force to me I should scream and protest up to the very altar; but he laughed and said that I was not the first to think of that device. With such a prize to gain, any man, he said, could find a priest who, for a bribe, would go on with the ceremony even with the bride screaming.
“He gave me instances where such a thing had happened. Once the news was out, it would be merely a question of who could get here first with a strong force; and, once that one had married me, there would be no lack of others, wildly jealous, to set about him and start bloody civil war in Aquitaine. You know as well as I, Richard, how turbulent our nobles are, how ready to seize on an excuse for war. In the end he convinced me and I agreed to his plan—which was to stay in my own apartments, pleading a slight indisposition, to conceal my grief, and to keep the news secret until he had decided what was best to do and had made a plan which would settle my future peaceably, in seemly fashion and with dignity.”
She checked the headlong rush of her story and looked half shyly at the young man’s face, and then away. He did not speak, but she knew that they were both remembering the same thing. Richard’s father had been killed in one of the Duke’s minor wars, and the boy had come, years ago, into the castle, to be trained in the arts of knighthood. He had been first her chosen playfellow and then her tutor in all the unfeminine pursuits which appealed to her and which her indulgent father allowed. The affection between them had ripened, had been on the point of change, when, a year ago, Richard had returned to his own estate at Paullac. There had been then a half-understanding that when she was sixteen; when Richard had won his spurs, when her father had returned, in restored health, from his pilgrimage to Compostella, a formal betrothal between the pair was not unlikely. The Duke, as well as Sir Godfroi, had realized that whoever married her would become extremely powerful, and he had decided it might be better to take as his son-in-law a simple, well-bred knight of small estate than a great lord who might become too great and whose luck would lead to jealousy among the others. Nor had he, as a kind father, been blind to Eleanor’s liking for the boy.
Now all was altered . . . the half-promise, the unspoken understanding, was all part of a past which suddenly seemed very far away; her father was dead in distant Spain; she was alone, doomed to pick a careful path through a quagmire of shifting policies, threatening schemes, dark intrigues.
And time was short; she must say what had to be said, and Richard must go.
“I made a grave mistake, Richard,” she said, beginning to speak more rapidly. “I told Sir Godfroi that, although no fuss had been made because of my father’s illness, you and I were betrothed, with my father’s consent, before he left for Spain. It was nearly true! And I said, ‘If I marry Richard de Vaux, I shall be safe from other suitors, however ambitious; and there will be no cause for jealousy between the great nobles, since he is not of their number.’ I urged him to send for you and to let us be married immediately.”
Still Richard said nothing. The secret message, the furtive way he had been admitted by the secret stair, was proof enough that this plan had found no favor in Sir Godfroi’s eyes.
“All that I did by that speech, Richard, was to put you in danger—such danger that it is wrong of me to have you here tonight. But I wanted so much to see you again, and to tell you myself. And I have been careful. I asked Sir Godfroi’s permission to make a little vigil and say my prayers in this, my father’s own room. That door is locked and no one but I knows about the secret stair. We are safe enough, I think, for a little time. But we must be quick.”
He reached out and took one of her hands in his. Her long slim fingers, icily cold, closed over his warm ones with a force and strength which reminded him of how often in the past he had been astonished by the vigor and vitality concealed in her apparently delicate frame, and how those hands, which looked fit only for handling a needle or a lily, had proved themselves so apt and skillful at archery and horsemanship.
“Go on,” he said, “tell me what has been decided.”
“It all sounds so complicated, and so far removed from us, standing here hand in hand, with so many things to remember. Capet and Plantagenet, France and England, what have they to do with us? But Sir Godfroi made it clear to me; alas, very clear. Stephen is King of England now, but many men think that the Empress Matilda should, of right, be Queen, and it seems likely that when Stephen dies, Matilda’s son, Henry, is to have the throne. Henry will then be King of England as well as Duke of Normandy, Duke of Anjou, and Count of Brittany; he’ll be far more rich and powerful than the King of France . . . unless the King of France can add to his domains. The rivalry between the two houses is very strong and the King of France would stop at nothing, Sir Godfroi says, that would strengthen his position. Aquitaine would do that and, unless it goes to the French by means of a peaceful marriage, France will attempt to take it by force. I would hate to be the cause of a war, Richard.” She released his hand and turned away, making a great show of snuffing one of the guttering candles and though, when she turned back to him, she kept at a distance, he could see that tears had brimmed her eyes and were only kept from falling by a supreme effort of will.
“I can’t marry you —Sir Godfroi would have no hesitation in killing you to prevent it; and, if he failed in that, the Capets, hungry for Aquitaine, would never rest until they had persuaded the Pope to grant an annulment . . . and they would have grounds; my father never publicly acknowledged our betrothal and the King of France could claim his rights as overlord. I have thought and thought about it all and I can see that Sir Godfroi’s plan is the only way out of the muddle which can be followed with peace and dignity. So it is done. He sent a secret message to the King of France, and Prince Louis set out, as though on a hunting trip, and has moved quietly southward. Yesterday he reached Larmont. As soon as he arrives we shall be married and, before any Aquitainian noble or Plantagenet duke knows that I am for sale, I shall be sold to a bidder whose claim cannot lightly be disputed.”
She spoke the last words bitterly, but Richard hardly noticed. He was thinking how rapidly, how thoroughly, she had mastered all the facts, the rules of the political game. It seemed only yesterday that they had played together and he, by virtue of two years or so seniority and his superior sex, had been her mentor, devoted but patronizing. And now . . .
But it was not only for his good looks, his gaiety, and his skill with weapons and horses that she had chosen him long ago from the rabble of youngsters in her father’s castle. Faced now with all this talk of kings and princes and power politics, he hooked his thumbs into his belt and said diffidently but with spirit and firmness:
“There is an alternative. A strange alternative to being Queen of France, my sweeting . . . you could come away with me, now. My horse could carry us both back to Paullac, where I could get fresh ones and what money I could lay hands on; then we could ride to La Rochelle and take ship. The world would be open to us. King Stephen in England could find use for a good swordsman, so could the Emperor of Germany, or the Emperor of Byzantium. We’d find a place and I would see to it that you did not want. It’d be a life without luxuries; but if you come with me and leave them to hammer out who shall have Aquitaine, we’d be together and I’d . . . I’d hack you out a place with my sword and serve you with my whole heart as long as I lived.”
Color came to her face; her eyes sparkled as she cried:
“How like we are. It was my first thought! I remembered my uncle Raymond in Antioch; he’d welcome a good swordsman, and he’d stand by an action that was bold and free. Oh, I would do it with such a glad heart. The whole world . . . wide open. I thought of that . . . but it is impossible.” She swung away from him as she spoke the last word and began to pace up and down the long room. “And don’t think, never, never think, that my decision has been influenced by the prospect of being Queen of France. I am Duchess of Aquitaine and that is enough for me; and if I could leave Aquitaine...
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