Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Six

Palace of Westminster, London, December 1126

Y ou will go to your grave with ink-stained fingers,” Robert of Gloucester told Brian with deep amusement.

Brian looked at his hands and gave a self-deprecating smile before concealing them beneath his cloak. “I think you are right.

The marks do come out, but by the time I get rid of one lot, more are waiting to take their place.” His expression sobered.

“There are worse stains in the world.” He glanced round.

Westminster’s great hall was packed with courtiers, all robed in their furs and finery. Snow had fallen earlier that morning and there was a light dusting on the ground, fine as flour. There had been much talk concerning the oath that the king was expecting everyone to swear to Matilda, accepting her as his heir, and there was an undercurrent of deep unease, although no one had voiced their intentions of refusing to swear. Brian’s gaze flickered over Stephen of Blois and Boulogne, who was talking to his brother the abbot of Glastonbury and Roger, bishop of Salisbury. Brian’s mathematician’s eye easily picked out patterns in the gathering. Knots of men. Factions attached to each other by strands of mutual interest and ambition. They were all so much yarn for the king’s weaving—or for his undoing.

A fanfare sounded throughout the hall and, along a path cleared through the kneeling crowd by the royal marshals, the LadyofEnglish.indd 48

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king arrived and swept to take his place on the middle throne of three set on a raised dais. He wore a hinged crown glittering with gemstones and was accompanied by Adeliza, also crowned and clad in shimmering cloth of silver. Brian watched Matilda walk to take the third throne on her father’s right hand. His chest tightened as he looked at her. She wore a close-fitting gown of blood-red wool with gold embroidery at throat, hem, and cuffs, and small jewels stitched in flower patterns all over the body of the dress. Her cloak was lined with ermines. She too wore a crown, set with gold flowers and sapphires, and her hair was loose, brushed down her back and shining like a dark waterfall. Her face was set in lines of ice-like purity and Brian caught his breath at the sight of such unattainable beauty.

Robert said softly, “We have just witnessed the entrance of a future queen.”

The words sent a shiver down Brian’s spine. Matilda looked straight in front of her as she took her seat with regal authority, and he thought that she resembled a figure from a stained-glass window come to life, shimmering and holy. “She is already an empress,” he replied.

Oaths were sworn to uphold her as her father’s heir. First the archbishop of Canterbury, then York, followed by all the bishops of the land. Roger of Salisbury approached and bent an arthritic knee, gripping his crosier for support. Nevertheless, his voice was clear and steady. Brian and Robert exchanged knowing glances. Roger of Salisbury was a superlative actor and politician. Matilda responded to him with such coolness and grace that Brian thought his heart would burst. She would be a great ruler, if only given the chance.

Stephen of Blois clenched his fists and hesitated when it came to his moment. Immediately, Robert rose from his place by his father’s feet and stepped forward, but Stephen recovered from his pause and the men arrived at the same time. “It is my 49

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turn to take the oath next, I believe, cousin,” Stephen said, smiling but hard-eyed.

Robert raised his brows. “What makes you think that…

cousin?”

Continuing to smile, Stephen said, “Is it not obvious? My mother was the daughter of a king.” Brian winced on Robert’s behalf. Like his own mother, Gloucester’s had been a concubine, and Stephen’s remark was almost an insult. There was a sudden tightening of the atmosphere around the men, but then Robert stepped back and bowed. “Now you point it out, my lord, I see that you should indeed go first, albeit that my father is a king. All will be glad of your eagerness to make your oath of allegiance to my sister the empress.”

The tension reached its zenith in an exchange of challenging stares. Stephen was the first to break eye contact and knelt to Matilda, putting his hands between hers and swearing that he would uphold her as her father’s heir. He made his vow firmly, but his jaw was taut and his voice lacked power and did not carry. Robert took his own oath in ringing tones that proclaimed his loyalty and intent to all. When it came to Brian’s turn, he knelt as he had done in the council room in September and pledged himself to her with every fibre of his being. He put his conviction into his voice and kept his heart out of his eyes, because too many people were watching too closely. The look she returned him was of lord to vassal, bright with approval, but cool with distance too, pointed up by the fact that she was on her feet and he was on his knees.

Following the oath-taking, the company sat to dine in formal magnificence. There was sturgeon and stuffed salmon; spicy meatballs studded with currants; swan and peacock; venison with numerous sauces. Sweetmeats of honey, rose water, and ginger. Conversations bubbled like a cauldron over a steady 50

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heat and under the influence of food and drink the atmosphere gradually became more convivial, although men were still on their guard.

Towards the end of the meal, there was a sudden bustle at the lower end of the hall and Brian watched John FitzGilbert, one of the marshals, leading a messenger along the side of the room behind the trestles. News that wouldn’t wait then, Brian thought. Henry took the message from the man’s hand, broke the seal, and read the contents. His face and throat began to flush and his expression grew thunderous. He bared his worn teeth at the gathered nobles. “It seems, my lords, that we have a marriage to toast this day.” He glared around the trestle, striking each person with his stare before moving on to the next. “William le Clito has wed the sister-in-law of the king of France and been granted lands in the Vexin on my borders.” Although he had spoken of a toast, he did not raise his cup and his words were thick with fury. “This is a ploy on the part of Louis to interfere with my policies. Well and good, he may do so, but he will not overturn my intent to see my daughter rule England.”

Brian felt renewed tension running through the gathering.

This news meant that William le Clito’s position was now a far greater threat to the succession than before. The Vexin would make it easy for him to strike into Normandy. Many here had taken the oath only to avoid Henry’s ire, and might well renege if circumstances played into le Clito’s hands. They would say that if it came to a war in Normandy, who in their right mind would want to follow a woman’s banner into battle? That would be a hard prejudice to shift.

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