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The night after Thomas Becket returned the chancellor's seal, Henry lay shaking in Eleanor's arms. The physicians assured her that he had been bled of his foul humors and would have a quiet night. Now, at last, they were alone in their private chamber in the ducal palace at Rouen. The room was in shadow, lit only by a single ivory taper in a silver holder. Although he made no sound, Henry was weeping, his tears drenching Eleanor's neck and shoulder. He wept until his grief spent itself and his body no longer trembled.
"I do not understand," he whispered. "How could Thomas betray me so? I gave him the sun, the moon, and stars and he throws them into my face as if they were gall and wormwood. I loved him more than anyone, except you and my mother—even more than my own brothers when they were alive—and trusted him to serve me with the same loyalty I showed him."
Wisely, Eleanor kept silent. Recrimination and reminders would serve no purpose.
"Thank God I have you, Nell." Henry butted his head between her breasts, not like a lover, but a child seeking reassurance. "You, my mother, and my children. Faithful counselors like Leicester, the marshal, and my cousin William." His eyes closed. "And others, too, of course." Within moments he was asleep.
Lying quietly so as not to wake him, Eleanor stared up at the crimson canopy covering the bed. Yes, Henry had loved Thomas Becket, and Thomas loved him. She had never been entirely comfortable with Henry's dependence on Thomas, and neither had she herself liked or trusted the chancellor. Still, she would never have expected Thomas to go so far. He must have known from the start that he could not serve both God and Mammon. Why had he not spoken out? What could he hope to gain by antagonizing his king?
On the other hand, the scope of the problem that Henry had hoped to solve by appointing Thomas archbishop was enormous and grew worse with each passing year. There were two separate systems of jurisdiction in England: the royal courts and the ecclesiastical courts. The church courts were in charge of all men in holy orders as well as marriage contracts, wills, oaths, and church property. If a minor clerk, even a deacon, committed an offense, he was tried in the church courts. Eleanor had seen the result of church "justice." In the king's courts a layman found guilty of murder would be heavily fined, mutilated, or imprisoned. A clerk found guilty of a similar offense could be deprived of his orders—defrocking was the heaviest punishment the ecclesiastical court could impose—and set at liberty or given a penance which might include a pilgrimage to Rome at some later date. Henry had once told her that he reckoned that one man in thirty was a cleric, so the magnitude of the problem was obvious.
The only grain of comfort to be derived from this whole sorry coil was that Henry had returned to her as a confidante once more. Selfishly, Eleanor was glad that Thomas was no longer a rival for her husband's affections. But as far as the weal of the realm was concerned, a rift between king and archbishop was potentially disastrous.
Eleanor carefully withdrew her arm, which had gone numb, and glanced at Henry. Sound asleep he looked so young and untroubled. But she knew what would happen when he awakened: the grief and heartache would bury itself beneath the armor of pride and the shield of anger. He would find ways and means to pay Thomas back—all legal, of course. The teaching of the Gospel was sometimes lost on Henry, who served a God of justice, not mercy. He did not know how to turn the other cheek, only how to gouge an eye. Eleanor sighed, knowing she would have a sleepless night. As she stared up at the bed canopy the deep crimson color reminded her of blood.
By early November the atmosphere in the ducal palace at Rouen crackled with as much tension as a stroke of lightning. Even the elements contributed to a sense of doom. The weather grew damp and unseasonably cold. Gray skies loomed over Normandy; heavy rain fell intermittently. Imprisoned by the weather, Henry prowled the castle like a caged wolf, a fierce expression on his face. He fired off one missive after another to the archbishop, to his co-justiciar Richard de Lucy, to various bishops, the pope in Rome, and many other magnates and prelates.
Unfortunately, Henry had so many affairs to attend to in Normandy and Anjou that he was prevented from leaving immediately for England to confront the object of his rage. Instead, a constant stream of couriers sailed back and forth across the channel bearing with them the evidence of his increasing displeasure.
One afternoon, Eleanor, accompanied by Henry's mother, walked into his council chamber as the cathedral bells rang for nones. Henry was pacing while dictating a letter to one of four clerks perched on stools around an oak table. He held up his hand before Eleanor could speak.
"... to inform Your Holiness of the latest in the series of intolerable events that have occurred in England as a result of Thomas Becket's highhandedness. The most recent is the uncalled-for excommunication of Sir William Eynsford of Kent, my tenant in chief, who was never even informed of the matter. Not to mention that—"
"It is a custom of the realm that no tenant in chief of the king may be excommunicated without the king being consulted first," interjected Maud, appalled. "Thus it is a—"
"Gross miscarriage of justice," finished Eleanor.
"Perhaps you would like to write to the pope for me, mesdames?" Henry gave them an arch smile then rubbed his hands together. "I've got him. As I was about to write the Holy Father."
Eleanor exchanged a glance with her mother-in-law. "Got him how?"
"I just received word that he is trying to retrieve lands belonging to Canterbury—so he says—from before the Conquest. Have you ever heard the like? And most outrageous of all, Thomas is trying cases in his own courts that clearly belong in the royal courts!"
"Is it to be total war, then?" his wife asked with a frown.
Henry stuck his thumbs in his black belt and rocked back and forth on his heels. "He's gone too far this time. What would you have me do? Lick his boots? Pardon, sandals now, I hear, like the humblest monk. How dare he try lay cases in his own courts and call it justice!"
"No one expects you to grovel," retorted the empress, "merely to behave with circumspection and wisdom, not your usual impetuosity."
"It might behoove you, madam, to remember who started this quarrel." Henry fixed his mother with piercing gray eyes.
"And you seem determined to fight it to a roaring finish. All I ask, my son, is that you think before acting. Thomas has power now, the power of Canterbury." She paused. "Which you gave him."
Henry's face swelled and grew red. How alike they were, Eleanor noted. Attack and counterattack. Feint and counterfeint. Like distorted reflections in a silver mirror.
"Am I right, Eleanor?" The empress raised her brows, obviously seeking support.
How she hated being dragged into one of their battles. It was impossible to please everyone. "As they say in Rome, revenge is better served cold than hot."
"I prefer my food hot to cold." Henry turned his stony glare toward Eleanor. "In any case, did I ask either of you for advice?" He kicked at the rushes that carpeted the floor.
"I intend to give it anyway," said the empress coolly. "This is a grave situation and must be handled with the very greatest of care—"
"God's splendor! I was weaned twenty-eight years ago." His face grew redder and his eyes darkened like thunderclouds. "I expect loyalty from my own family! Support! Not unasked-for advice and warnings. Out, both of you." He turned on his heel and stomped furiously back to the table.
The empress sighed and followed Eleanor out of the chamber into the passageway.
"Where will it end?" The empress gave her a concerned look. "How will it end?"
Eleanor did not reply. It was a question to which she had no answer.
Southampton, England, 1163
When Henry approached the shore at Southampton in February of the New Year, he had not expected Thomas to be there to greet him. The sight of the tall figure waiting on the beach filled him with such a tumult of emotions—pain, distress, anger—it took his breath away.
The three small hoys anchored in the shallows. Several burly sailors, smocks tied above their waists, hoisted Henry on one pair of shoulders while the others gripped a whining bloodhound under each arm, then splashed through the icy green water and deposited them on the wet sand. The rest of Henry's men climbed overboard and sloshed their way to shore. Henry and the dogs shook themselves, brushing off droplets of water. The hounds, delighted to be on solid ground, frolicked up and down the beach.
It was a storm-filled morning, the air wild with wind, the skies covered with banks of menacing black clouds. Across the expanse of sand Henry could see the archbishop observing him. Thomas took a hesitating step, then stopped. Was the former chancellor waiting for him to make the first move? A king submit to an archbishop? Henry smiled grimly to himself. Thomas would wait until hell froze over. He crossed his arms and held his ground. Around him the beach swarmed with sailors and men carrying roped bundles and boxes from the ships.
He watched as Thomas conferred with several prelates in his entourage. Then the archbishop started walking slowly across the sand. Henry knew that his old friend had heard a tale or two about his violent reaction to the return of the chancellor's seal and the excommunication of his tenant in chief, William Eynsford; Thomas would already have seen ample evidence of the king's displeasure. A wary stiffness about the shoulders, the magisterial pace, all indicated that Thomas was anxious about his reception. As he well might be. This is only the beginning, my friend, Henry said to himself.
Since receiving his chancellor's seal in July, Henry's initial rage had cooled into a firm resolve. In order to spare himself the continued entreaties and pleas of his womenfolk, he had allowed them to think their wisdom had prevailed: that he had accepted the inevitable and would let bygones be bygones. It never ceased to amaze him how easily women—even highly intelligent women—deceived themselves into believing what they wanted to.
When he judged that Thomas had covered more than half the distance, Henry began walking toward him. He reminded himself of Nell's Roman proverb about revenge being a cold dish. Yes. Let the archbishop think that his former master's anger was under control; that he was even restored to favor in the king's affections. On no account must Henry reveal his intention: to make Thomas grovel or face ruin.
"Well met, Thomas—or would 'Your Grace' be more apt?"
Henry held out his hands and set an anticipatory smile upon his face, a smile that quickly disappeared when the former chancellor was standing directly in front of him.
It was virtually impossible to conceal his shock. Although Henry had heard tales of how drastically changed was the archbishop since he had last seen him, he was unprepared for the reality. Thomas's black cowled robe hung like sackcloth on a frame gaunt to the point of emaciation. His grayish hollow-cheeked face appeared to have aged ten years in the last seven months. What with his long feet blue with cold in their thong sandals, he looked like a fasting anchorite. The tales of excessive efforts to mortify his flesh were obviously true.
"Well met, Sire—" Thomas's whole body, quivering like a taut bowstring, suddenly went lax. His relief was palpable.
The mellifluous voice was the same, as were the deep-set dark eyes and the hawk nose. The elegant hands that reached out were icy cold, yet the clasp was strongly familiar. A wave of his old affection overcame Henry. It was all he could do to resist the treacherous impulse to give in to it, to throw his arms around his old friend whom he had sorely missed, to weep at the sight of the frightening apparition standing before him.
"I feared you might—" Thomas did not finish his sentence; his eyes were eloquent as they met Henry's.
"Indulge in a display of the famous Angevin temper? I did, Thomas, I did. As I'm sure you have heard. Well, you know how I am—indeed, none better, eh? But when have I ever taken back a love once given?" Or forgiven an injury, Henry silently reminded himself. "That madness has passed, and I am delighted to see you."
"And I you, Sire." Thomas pointed a finger farther up the shore. "I've brought horses for you and your men."
"As always, you think of everything."
They were walking across the sand when Henry became aware of an unpleasant odor coming from the archbishop. Certainly Thomas had never offended in this manner before. On the contrary, his fastidious habits were well known. Had he given up cleansing himself altogether in an effort to mortify his flesh? Then widespread rumors of the hair shirt he never removed were probably correct as well.
Henry was even more shocked when instead of mounting a magnificent Arab stallion—he had possessed one of the most noteworthy stables in all England—Thomas climbed onto the back of a poor cob.
"Is it true you have given up all recreation, even chess?" Henry asked suddenly.
"But you were the best chess player in all England," he said inanely. "Well, my equal certainly."
"'Vanity of vanity, all is vanity,' sayeth Holy Writ. All my time is devoted to the business of God."
"Your time would be better spent as my chancellor," Henry blurted out, although he had not intended to say anything of the kind.
"'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out ...'" Thomas intoned.
What was that supposed to mean? Henry hardly knew how to answer such a non sequitur, so he held his tongue. In silence he rode to Westminster, Thomas a black shadow beside him. How he wished Nell were with him; he had hardly left Rouen and already he missed her reassuring presence. In truth, he did not know how, exactly, to handle the crisis of a defiant archbishop on his own. Once he would have turned to Thomas for advice on such matters. Again he wished Eleanor were there, although he already knew what she would advise.
When they arrived at Westminster it was growing dark and the vespers bell was ringing. The archbishop went immediately into the chapel—"to pray for him," he told Henry. Morose, Henry decided to avoid the service and sat down to supper in the great hall surrounded by a few attendant lords. He picked at slices of smoked venison and roast partridge, and sipped indifferently from a goblet of red wine from a cask that, the steward said, was newly arrived from Gascony. He could not escape the emptiness in his heart. Nor the uncomfortable feeling that if he turned his head he would see his former chancellor, dressed in his favorite scarlet robes with the silver seal of his office around his neck, seated beside him at the high table rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the wine.
"The finest vintages come from Gascony and Bordeaux," Thomas would say as he had so often before. "Whatever else one may say of your wife, her duchy of Aquitaine produces the best wines in Europe."
Henry knew very well that Eleanor and Thomas had always disliked each other, and they frequently gave him conflicting views on a similar subject. The result of this opposition had led to some of his wisest decisions. What action should he take now that would best serve the realm?
"If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out," Henry said aloud to no one in particular.
Was that the answer? It seemed to be Thomas's. Perhaps, yes, perhaps it should be his as well.
Excerpted from Gilded Cages by Ellen Jones. Copyright © 2013 Ellen Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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