Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Four

Harbour of Barfleur, Normandy, September 1126

W atching the gap widen between the quay at Barfleur and the deck on which she stood, Matilda shivered and huddled inside her cloak. Waves chopped and surged, frilled with small whitecaps, and beyond the harbour mouth, the sea was a heaving grey swell. Spume burst at the prow of the royal galley and wind bellied the square canvas sail so that the great red lion painted on it seemed to roar and flex its claws.

She had not been aboard a ship to cross the sea since she was eight years old. Inevitably she thought of her brother’s last voyage from this port, ended like his life before it had properly begun as the ship struck a rock in the harbour mouth and sank in the black November night. It was daylight now and circumstances different, but although she lifted her chin and tried to look imperious, she was still afraid.

Brian FitzCount joined her. “England will be upon us before sunset,” he remarked, “especially if the wind continues to blow this strongly.”

“You must be accustomed to crossing the sea, my lord.”

“Indeed, but I am nevertheless always glad to reach the shore. It is not so bad when there’s a fair wind like this.” A smile entered his voice. “And we have the extra protection of the hand of Saint James today.”

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“I hope you are not humouring me.”

“Domina, I would not dare,” he replied, his dark eyes alight.

Matilda arched her brow and said nothing. Since their first meeting, she had grown accustomed to his company and enjoyed it. He was a mainstay of her father’s government and a close friend of her brother Robert. She had often sat up with them and others talking long into the night on all manner of subjects, from the best way to skin a hare to intricate aspects of papal policy and points of English common law and custom in which Brian was well versed. She loved to hear him in debate.

“This is the next stage on your voyage, domina.” Brian’s face was straight now, and there was an intensity in his gaze that made her look down before a spark could strike between them.

“And who knows where landfall will be.”

“I am certain your father does.”

“It is a pity only he knows the location and he will not share it.” She glanced at her father, standing on the opposite side of the vessel with a group of courtiers. She had attended on him in Rouen when he made judgements and spun policy.

He had included her in the proceedings by having her at his side, but even so, he seldom sought her opinion. Last month, without consulting her, he had rejected marriage offers for her from Lombardy and Lotharingia. She had dwelt at court now for almost a year, but time seemed to hang in suspension like a spider’s web between two twigs, waiting for something beyond dust to alight on the strands. He had summoned her to join him and then done nothing about it, as if she were a valuable surety to be held in reserve.

“Matters will move apace once we reach England.” Brian’s placatory tone set her teeth on edge. “You know something that I do not?”

“Domina, I do not, except that there are people there your 29

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father needs to consult on all manner of things. Your uncle King David for one and the bishop of Salisbury for another.” Matilda shot him an exasperated look. “More talk between men. I am the king’s daughter, and my father’s lords have sworn allegiance to me, but it is still as if I have neither place nor voice in the world.”

“But you will have one day,” Brian said quietly. “Now is the time to gather your resources and prepare the soil.” The sound of retching made them both turn to regard a green-faced young nobleman heaving over the side of the ship.

Brian grunted. “I doubt he’s really that sick,” he muttered,

“unless it is with vexation.”

Matilda considered Waleran de Meulan. He had been an instigator of a failed rebellion in support of her cousin William le Clito and had been held prisoner in Normandy for the past two years. That he was not currently in fetters was because he had no means of escape. Her father had deemed it unwise to leave him behind and Waleran was set to continue his captivity in England in the custody of her father’s justiciar, the bishop of Salisbury. He was the son of one of her father’s most trusted servants and had a twin brother, Robert, who had not been involved in the uprising. Matilda was well aware that preparing her soil would involve deciding how to deal with men such as this from powerful families, who preferred to back le Clito as rightful ruler of Normandy and England, rather than her father’s line. Waleran de Meulan might look pathetic and ineffectual just now, but he was still a dangerous man.

Leaving Brian, Matilda joined Adeliza, who was sitting against the side of the ship wrapped in warm furs and buffered from the strakes by thick fleece-stuffed cushions. Against the deep colours of squirrel and sable, Adeliza’s face was a wan oval and she was biting her lip. Matilda wondered if she was worried about the sea crossing, but surely she had made it often, and 30

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she was not naturally timorous. Perhaps like Waleran she was suffering from the effects of the heavy swell. Several people were ill, although none were making quite as much noise as the lord of Meulan. Then Matilda realised that her stepmother was crying.

“Madam?” Matilda looked round to call for help, but Adeliza gripped her arm.

“It is nothing,” she said.

Matilda sat beside her and tucked some of the fur coverlets over the top of her own cloak. “What is wrong?” Adeliza swallowed and wiped her eyes on her mantle.

“My flux is upon me,” she said in a low voice. “I thought…I thought this time I might have held on to the child. It has been forty days since last I bled…but it has come. It always comes.” She rocked back and forth with her head bent. “Why can I not fulfil this duty? What have I done wrong for God to deny me?”

Matilda set a comforting arm around Adeliza’s shoulders. “I am so sorry. I grieved the same when I was married to Heinrich.”

“I would be a good mother,” Adeliza whispered. “I know I would. If only I had one chance. Just one. Is it too much to ask?” She compressed her lips as William D’Albini picked his way over to them, his balance steady despite the freshening wind. Stooping, he handed a flask to the women.

“Honey-sweetened wine and ginger, madam,” he said to Adeliza. “It is a good remedy if you are feeling unwell. My aunt Olivia swears by it. The waves are heavy today.” Matilda eyed him suspiciously, but his expression was open and he seemed to genuinely think Adeliza was suffering from mal de mer. She thanked him on Adeliza’s behalf in a voice that encouraged him not to linger. He took the hint, his complexion flushing, and, with a bow, moved off.

Adeliza sniffed and raised her chin. “I will not feel sorry for 31

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myself,” she said. “If God has other plans, then I must trust to His judgement. He will let me know what He wants of me when He is ready.” Removing the stopper from the flask, she took a sip, and then passed the drink to Matilda.

“Indeed,” said Matilda, and thought that sometimes God worked in very mysterious ways and she was not sure that she could wait on His will with the same patience as Adeliza.

ttt

Standing in pride of place upon the high altar of Reading Abbey, the hand of Saint James pointed towards heaven in a spire of burnished gold and precious stones. The Abbey of the Virgin Mary and Saint John was in its sixth year since consecration and still under construction. Henry intended it to be the most magnificent foundation in Christendom.

It would house his tomb when the time came, and it was already a shrine to the son he had lost on the White Ship, whose mortal remains lay at the bottom of the sea. Monks from the great abbey at Cluny performed the offices, said the prayers, and cared for the relics, which included the blood and water from the side of our Lord Jesus Christ, a piece of his shoe, and the foreskin from his circumcision. There was also a lock of the Virgin’s hair. The impressive collection of intimate items from the Holy Family bestowed importance and sanctity upon the abbey, and assured a place in heaven for its founder and benefactor.

Now that the hand of Saint James had been safely delivered to the abbey custodians, Henry retired to the guest house with Matilda, Adeliza, and a few close advisers and family members, including Matilda’s uncle, David, king of Scotland, Robert of Gloucester, and Brian FitzCount.

Matilda drew a lungful of the crisp autumn air before entering the lodging, then exhaled hard to release her tension.

She had almost cried during the mass when the hand had 32

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been gifted to the abbey because the memories of herself and Heinrich on their wedding day had been both too close and too far away. If only she could have that time back, to relive it with the knowledge she had now as a mature woman, instead of being an overawed child.

Her father’s servants arranged chairs and benches around the hearth with wine and titbits to hand. Her uncle David gave her one of his laconic smiles as an attendant took her cloak.

“You did well to bring such a fine gift to the abbey, niece.

Your mother would have been proud of you.” He spoke the Norman French of the court with a soft Scottish burr.

“She would have seen it as my duty,” Matilda replied wryly.

“And you have fulfilled it.” Her uncle’s expression held encouragement and a twinkle of humour. “You are her daughter, but there is more to you than that, and I would see you smile.” He gave her an irreverent but avuncular chuck under the chin. “I hope you are my niece too.” Matilda managed to oblige him. She was very fond of her uncle. He had played with her when she was a child and sent letters and gifts to her in Germany more cheering than her mother’s dry exhortations to duty and copies of religious works in Latin. He had sent her dolls and sweetmeats and a necklace set with Lothian garnets that she still had in her jewel casket.

“Good, then we are of a mind.” He kissed her cheek and led her to sit down by the fire.

Once everyone was settled, her father called for silence.

“Now we are all gathered, I wish to talk of the future.” He studied each person in turn. “I had hoped in the fullness of time that the Queen and I would be blessed with a male heir, but thus far God has not seen fit to grant us that blessing.” Adeliza gazed down at her hands and toyed with her wedding ring.

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“That being the case, I must consider the matter of the succession. My choices are clear. Lacking a legitimate male heir, I must look to either my nephews of Blois, or to my daughter and the eventual fruit of her womb.” Matilda raised her chin and met his stare, matching it with her own.

Her brother Robert said, “Certain factions would also have you consider William le Clito, sire.”

“No.” The king dismissed the suggestion with a swift chop of his hand. “Le Clito has neither the brain nor the experience to rule England and Normandy.”

“But others do have experience in his stead,” her uncle David said shrewdly. “The king of France supports him in order to discomfort you, and what about that young man you brought with you in chains?”

“Waleran de Meulan is a hot-headed young fool,” Henry snapped.

“With some close and powerful relatives.”

“Indeed, but imprisoning Waleran shows them just how far they can tread on my goodwill without suffering the consequences.” He leaned forward in his chair and extended one thick, powerful hand. “I have a clear choice before me. Here is my daughter, the widow of an emperor. She has great connec-tions by marriage and by birth. She is the fruit of my loins and through her runs the blood of the ancient English royal house.

Moreover, she is the only child born to parents who were crowned sovereigns at her conception. She has experience of ruling and of being a royal consort.” Matilda’s heart constricted with a mingling of pride and apprehension. She firmed her lips and strove to look as regal and dignified as his words described.

Robert said, “Few men will bow the knee to a woman, sire, no matter how competent and fitted by blood she is to the 34

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task—and I say this as someone who will gladly swear allegiance to my sister.” He glanced round and received nods of approba-tion from the others.

“And I say to you that all men will bow to my resolve, by one means or another.” Henry’s hand clenched into a fist. “I am no fool. I know when a man is dead and gone, his word is no longer the law. Therefore I must make all watertight while I am still in good health. If no son is to come to me through my queen, I must look to grandsons born of my daughter.” Matilda held her father’s hard grey stare. “And what man will provide those grandsons, my father? You have not said.”

“Because I must still think on this business. It matters only that your husband should be of good stock and gives you sons.

He will never be a king, but the advantage for him is that his son will wear England’s crown. And you, my daughter, will be the vessel that brings this royal child into the world. You will be the power behind the throne until he is old enough to take that power for himself. In this you will have the backing of your kin and my committed vassals. As the mother of a future sovereign, your authority will be great, and all these men will support you.” He gestured around the firelit circle and the air almost crackled with sparks of tension. “And if God is merciful, he will grant me the years to watch my grandson become a man.”

And to hold on to power, Matilda thought, and knew it must be in everyone else’s mind too. If her father could live that long, they might never have to deal with the threat of a woman on the throne. She said, with her hand at her slender waistline,

“I am willing to do my duty, sire, and I am glad you have such trust in me, but what if you die before I bear a child? And what if I do not conceive?”

He gave her a dark look, as if he thought she was deliberately setting out to be awkward. “Those are bridges to cross in later 35

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discussions. For now I hold to the premise that my own blood in direct line shall inherit the throne, and that all of my barons shall swear allegiance to you as my heir.” There was a long, tense silence, broken by Brian FitzCount, who rose, walked round the fire and knelt at Matilda’s feet.

“Willingly I do so swear,” he said, and bowed his head.

Her heart filled at his action and she hoped she did not look as flustered as she felt. Clasping his hands between hers, she gave him the kiss of peace on either cheek, and felt the soft burr of his stubble against her lips. His garments smelled of cedar wood and the scent took her breath.

“A noble gesture,” her father said with amused tolerance, as if watching the antics of a precocious child, “but I am already certain of those gathered here. I know you will give your allegiance in public before all. It is my intent to hold an oath-taking ceremony at the Christmas court with every magnate present as a witness and participant.” Robert cupped his chin. “What of Stephen and Theobald of Blois?” His upper lip curled as he mentioned his cousin. “From his behaviour, Stephen seems to think you are grooming him for a greater part than just being the Count of Boulogne.”

“I have never spoken to him in such terms,” Henry said shortly. “I am fond of him; he is my nephew, and he will do very well where he is. He owes his power to me and he will obey and implement my policies.”

Robert gave his father a long look. “Will you discuss this oath in council with the other lords?” Henry tapped his fingers on the arms of his chair. “I see no need for the present.”

“But men may demand to know whom my sister will wed before they swear.”

“All will be done in its due time and course,” Henry growled.

Matilda said, “The bishop of Salisbury is not here tonight.” 36

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“It is not a matter for him.” Her father’s face began to redden and Adeliza stroked his arm in a soothing gesture.

“But you assign him England’s rule in your absence.

Supposedly he is the most trusted man at your councils,” she persisted. “What does it say for the future that he is not here now?” Matilda was aware of everyone staring at her, as if a tame hawk had turned to rend its owner with its beak. She firmed her lips and sat erect.

Her father’s chest expanded. “The bishop of Salisbury is a statesman I hold in great respect,” he said, his voice gritty with anger. “He will be told in due course—when I am ready to do so.”

Doggedly, Matilda held her ground. “But he has been sympathetic to le Clito in the past. Might it not be prudent to give custody of the lord of Meulan to someone else—to my lord FitzCount, for example, who is indeed present tonight, and who has sworn allegiance.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed.

Brian cleared his throat. “It is true that Wallingford is more secure, sire. I grew up with Waleran and I know him well.

Perhaps I could sit with him over a flagon of wine and talk him round.”

“I agree, sire,” said Robert, hastening to smooth the path.

“I am not saying the bishop of Salisbury would do anything untoward and I know you trust him, but Wallingford is more secure than Devizes.”

Henry continued to look irritated. “Brian, you could talk rings around Waleran de Meulan and any man you chose, but that is not the same as making him change his mind. I know and trust my justiciar, and I am not blind to the fact that he has a soft spot for Meulan and would willingly sponsor le Clito as my successor.” He made a brusque gesture. “Very well, let us err on the side of caution. I will give the order to have Meulan 37

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transferred to Wallingford, but I expect every cooperation with my lord the bishop of Salisbury, is that clear?” ttt

Dismissed by her father with the evening’s business completed, Matilda entered the guest chamber allotted to herself and Adeliza and breathed deeply, trying to release her tension.

Adeliza followed her quietly into the room and directed her women about their business: folding back the bedclothes; warming the sheets with hot stones wrapped in cloths; preparing a tray of wine and honey cakes.

“They call women weak reeds,” Matilda said with a short laugh, “but it isn’t true, because otherwise how would we bear the duties and burdens that are set upon us by men?” Adeliza gave a small shake of her head. “I think you are courageous. I could not do this.”

“If you had to, you could.” Matilda fixed her young stepmother with a fierce glance.

Adeliza gestured. “But it would not suit me, whereas I can see the fire inside you.”

“I do it because my father asks it of me.”

“But for yourself too, I think.”

Matilda wandered to the coffer that held her trinkets and picked up an ornate ivory pot of rose-scented salve. She removed the lid and inhaled the delicate scent of summer petals. She did desire to hold power in her own right, but it was so difficult when a forthright woman was considered to possess masculine tendencies and therefore suspected of being a virago and flouting the natural law. “Am I wrong about the bishop of Salisbury?” she asked Adeliza sat down on her bed. “The bishop has long been one of your father’s closest advisers,” she replied with diplomacy.

“He knows how to spin straw into gold.”

“And how much of it does he keep for himself? How much does he take to keep his mistresses and children, his palaces and 38

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castles? How much goes to buy him a portion of every dish in the land?”

“I suspect only Roger of Salisbury knows the sums, and that they change from one moment to the next, but since he keeps your father’s coffers full to the brim, he is permitted a certain leeway. Do not make him your enemy,” Adeliza cautioned.

“He has the power to do you great harm as well as great good.”

“A bishop exists to serve God and the king, not his own interests,” Matilda said. “But thank you for your advice.” Taking a dab of the salve on her forefinger, she worked it into her hands. If, in the fullness of time, she were to rule England, she would need the support and goodwill of the Church, and prelates such as Roger of Salisbury needed to be either persuaded to her side, or put in their place.

ttt

In the morning, the court made ready to travel from Reading to Windsor. As Matilda waited for her groom to bring her mare, she narrowed her eyes to study the bishop of Salisbury from across the courtyard. Surrounded by his entourage, he was deep in conversation with her cousin Stephen. Bishop Roger was not tall, but he was thickset and his bejewelled regalia increased his breadth and his presence. The head of his crosier glowed with Limoges work in blue enamel and his robes sparkled with so much metallic thread that he resembled a frosty morning at dawn. His white palfrey was trapped out in glittering harness, the fringed saddle cloth reaching almost to the ground. She had spoken to him on their first arrival in the courtyard, but the greeting, although courteous, had been brief and remote on both sides. The good bishop was being considerably more affable towards her cousin Stephen, she noted.

Brian FitzCount’s groom brought Sable into the yard, and Brian arrived from his business and took the reins with a brief word. His dark glance flickered over the bishop and Stephen 39

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as he walked the horse over to Matilda and bowed. “Domina, I thought you would want to know that your father has transferred Waleran de Meulan into my keeping to be held at Wallingford as we discussed.”

John FitzGilbert, one of the marshals, arrived with her mare.

Brian took the horse and helped Matilda into the saddle before mounting Sable.

As she gathered her reins, she said, “I heard a tale that my father raised Salisbury on high because he could say mass faster than any other priest of his acquaintance, and that it was useful when shriving men before a battle.” Brian gave a mordant smile. “Roger of Salisbury is indeed a man of expedience, but that is not the whole story. He is a very clever administrator; some might say too clever for his own good, but only time will tell.”

“The Queen told me he can spin straw into gold. He is certainly wearing enough on his back for that to be a possibility.”

“Roger of Salisbury is not the only churchman with a taste for the finer things in life. Your cousin the abbot of Glastonbury will bear watching too.”

Matilda followed his gaze to another bearded cleric, who was setting his foot to the stirrup of a magnificent dappled stallion trapped out in elaborate black leather harness studded with silver sunbursts. Stephen’s brother, her cousin Henry, had recently been summoned from the abbey at Cluny to take up an appointment at Glastonbury but he was ambitious for a bishopric or even higher—Canterbury, she suspected. “Yes.” She returned his knowing look. “I had noticed.” 40

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