Post-classical history

With Blanca in Castile

WHAT DID I WANT to do now? Return to Fontevrault? To nurse my wretchedness? To shut out all memory of his bright presence?

On Palm Sunday Richard was buried in the church of Fontevrault. The journey from the Limousin had been a slow one and from cottages and mansions people had come out to stand in awe as the cortge passed, knowing that there lay the corpse of the man whose name was known throughout the world: the greatest of warriors, Coeur de Lion.

There was no real peace for me. I had to turn my mind from grief and think of what might happen now. Richard had said that John should be King; but it would be a matter for the barons and the justiciars to decide. It was Arthur who was, in fact, the true heir. Geoffrey, his father, had come before John. I could see that it was a weighty problem: Arthur just twelve years old. An unsuitable age! And the only alternative: John.

William Marshal would be one of those who helped to decide, and he was a wise man who would put the needs of his country before everything else. Then there was Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. Men I could trust, both of them.

John arrived at Fontevrault. He overacted as usual. He expressed great sorrow at his brother’s death and assumed an attitude of piety.

John was acclaimed as the next King, not because of the high opinion anyone had of him but as the lesser of two evils.

As soon as he was sure of this, his attitude changed and we had a glimpse of what he would be like when he assumed power.

It was during High Mass. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who was officiating, could not resist the opportunity of reminding John, during his sermon, of his duty, telling him frankly what sacrifices were expected of a king. I must admit I found it all a little tedious and wished the man would stop moralizing, but I resigned myself to the fact that the sermon must soon come to an end. John was less patient. He interrupted the Bishop.

“Cut it short,” he ordered. “I have had enough.”

There was a brief silence before the Bishop went on as though there had been no interruption.

But John, proud of his newly acquired kingship, wanted to show his authority. He shouted: “I said cut it short. I want my dinner.”

Once more the Bishop ignored him. John took some gold coins from his pocket which he threw up and caught, and then he jangled them in his hands.

The Bishop stopped his sermon and asked what John was doing.

“I am looking at these gold coins,” replied John, “and thinking that a few days ago, if I had had them, I would have kept them for myself rather than give them to you.”

“Put them into the offering box,” said the Bishop, “and go to your dinner.”

If this was an example of what we were to expect from John, I wondered if the bishops were already regretting their choice.

My mind was taken from apprehensive contemplation of the future by the arrival of Joanna at Fontevrault.

My daughter was in a very sad state. She was pregnant and had been on her way to Rouen to see Richard. Her husband needed help and she had known that she would not appeal to Richard in vain. He had always been a good brother to her and she would never forget how he had come to her aid when she had been Tancred’s prisoner in Sicily.

When she heard that he was dead, she was prostrate with grief.

I was delighted to see her but horrified at her condition. But caring for her did something to assuage my grief. None could take the place of Richard in my heart but I was deeply fond of all my children, and for Joanna to be in need of my love and care at such a time brought me solace.

I often wondered as I sat by her bedside whether she realized that this marriage of hers had been a mistake. She had been sent to Sicily to marry the King when she was twelve years old, and there she had found a kindly and faithful husband; that had been a happy marriage. It seemed ironic that the man chosen for her had been a better husband than the one she had chosen for herself. Of course, she never said a word against Raymond but, in view of his past record with wives, I did not believe for a moment that he would turn into a faithful husband.

Now Raymond was in great difficulties and needed help. Richard was dead; John was unreliable; and she herself was suffering from illness and a difficult pregnancy.

I was very worried about her and grew more so. I insisted on nursing her myself. We talked together of the long-ago days when the children had all been in the nursery together         .         .         .         all dead and gone now, except Eleanor, who was married to the King of Castile. Matilda was dead         .         .         .         William, Henry, Geoffrey and now Richard         .         .         . all my sons, dead         .         .         .         with the exception of John.

We wept together. How sad and ironic, I thought, that I, an old woman, should have outlived all those young and vital people.

And now it seemed that I was going to lose Joanna.

I felt so bowed down with grief that I was expecting the worst, so it was no surprise to me when she became very ill indeed. Perhaps, had it not been for her pregnancy, I might have nursed her through that illness. But she was sinking fast. She had one great desire and that was to be a nun of Fontevrault. It seemed a strange request to make, but I feared it would be the last one she ever would, so I wanted it granted.

The Archbishops were against it, declaring that it could not be done without the consent of her husband.

I said: “Her husband is far away fighting for his lands. Can you not see that my daughter is dying? What do rules matter if she can have a little contentment in her last hours?”

She would never take up the life of a nun, for she would never leave her bed, and I was determined that her last request should be granted. And in the end I had my way.

Just before she died, my daughter Joanna was received into the Order of Fontevrault. The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Rouen at that time and I sent for him. It was he who gave her the veil. Then the Abbot of Tarpigny and the monks offered her to God and the Order of Fontevrault.

It must have been the first time a pregnant woman had been received into a convent.

It brought great comfort to Joanna; she changed and seemed to come to peace. She gave birth to her child and died; and in a short time the infant followed her.

I wondered what fresh blows Fate could bestow on me. Of all my children there were only two now living: John and Eleanor.

What followed was scarcely unexpected. Constance of Brittany might not have wanted her son to come to England but she was determined to fight for his inheritance.

There were many who said he was the true heir to the throne. The Bretons under Arthur and Constance were on the march. Angers had fallen into their hands; and Maine, Touraine and Anjou had accepted Arthur as their ruler.

John was worried. He must have wondered whether he had gained his kingdom only to lose it. Philip Augustus had decided to back Arthur. So the position looked dangerous.

John immediately went to Normandy, where he was to be proclaimed Duke at Rouen.

Here again he showed his complete unsuitability for the position which had come to him. In the church were a number of his ribald friends, and during the solemn religious service they were laughing at the ritual and ridiculing the ceremony in audible terms. John kept turning to look at his friends and at one most solemn moment was seen to wink at them; when the lance was handed to him, he was paying such attention to them that he let it slip to the floor. What a foolish young man he was! Did he not know that the people were always looking for omens?

I could see that the peace to which I had looked forward was not to be mine. I had to rouse myself. I had to forget my age. I could see the Plantagenet Empire slipping away. John would have to grow up quickly. He had so much to learn.

In the meantime I sent for Mercadier, the chief of the mercenaries, who was always eager to serve if the price was good.

I had remonstrated with him about his actions when Richard had died. He had seized Bertrand de Gurdun and had him flayed alive. So Richard’s last benevolent act came to nothing. I hoped the boy knew that Richard had had nothing to do with his death and that if the King had lived he would not have suffered that terrible end.

But Mercadier, for all his cruelty, was one of the best soldiers of his day, and fighting was his business. He gathered together his army of mercenaries and I went with the army for I was determined that what had been lost must be won back without delay.

Arthur was only a boy and Constance a woman, but after Geoffrey’s death she had married a Poitevin nobleman, Guy de Thouars, and together they were not to be thought of lightly, particularly as they had the help—though intermittently—of Philip Augustus.

Mercadier soon put them to flight.

John brought out an army and took Le Mans. Alas, he did not capture Arthur as he had hoped to, and the boy escaped and put himself under the protection of Philip Augustus.

I was so tired. I kept telling myself that a woman of my age should be at peace, not in the midst of conflict, but there was so much at stake, and who would act if I did not? There was one thing I could do. I had done it before and it had been successful. I must show myself to my people.

I returned to Fontevrault and gathered together a retinue of bishops and nobles; and then I began a tour of my estates.

I did not this time attempt to promote my son John as I had Richard. I just wanted to show myself as their own Duchess, the one whom they had always loved and only rejected because of husbands brought in to govern them.

I was no longer the beautiful young woman, but they seemed to respect my age. They cheered me and extolled me because I was so old; and though exhausting, it was well worthwhile. They were as loyal to the old woman as they had been to the young.

Brittany might be lost to us but at least I had saved my native country.

Having now established the fact that I was the ruler, I must perform the painful duty of doing homage for my land to my suzerain. It was unfortunate that he should be the King of France.

In Tours we came face to face. He received me with courtesy and spoke of Richard with emotion. He had loved him, I know, while he had worked to destroy him. I had seen such emotion once between Henry and Becket.

We looked at each other steadily and with respect. I knew that he would be a formidable enemy, and John would be no match for him. It was for this reason that I was undergoing this humiliating ceremony. My lands belonged to me, I was telling him, not to my son John         .         .         .         although, of course, he would be my heir. But old as I was, I was very much alive.

I believed there was something which was of the utmost importance. That was an alliance between our countries, and what could bring that about better than a marriage?

Philip Augustus had a son; my daughter Eleanor had a daughter. There should be a marriage between them, and to bring this about would be my next task.


There was no one else I could trust to do this. I must see my granddaughter and assure myself that she was prepared for what lay ahead. I must bring her to her bridegroom.

To undertake the journey to Castile was a little daunting, but I knew it must be done, so, having assured myself that Philip Augustus saw the advantage of this alliance and was agreeable to it, I immediately set about making my preparations.

My pleasure at the prospect of seeing my daughter outweighed my apprehension at the thought of the rigors of the journey. People would say I was not of an age for such arduous travel but I saw through this match a means of making peace in Europe. My family would be allied with that of Philip Augustus, and I was very anxious that the bride I should bring to him would be acceptable.

I had not seen my daughter Eleanor since she was nine years old, and she was now thirty-eight and had borne Alfonso of Castile eleven children. I wanted to spend a few months at her Court grooming the granddaughter I should choose to be the future Queen of France. So my journey was necessary, and discomforts must be forgotten once more. Perhaps, once I had brought this to the desired conclusion I could settle down to the peace of Fontevrault.

I left Poitiers and traveled down to Bordeaux. Unfortunately my way led through the land which belonged to the Lusignan brothers. I remembered passing this way once before, when Henry and I were about to part. It all came back to me so vividly         .         .         .         how I had been riding with Earl Patrick when we had been waylaid by Guy and Geoffrey de Lusignan who had killed Patrick and tried to make me their captive. I had escaped but it had been one of those alarming incidents which one never forgets. And as I was thinking of this I noticed a party of horsemen riding toward us. They surrounded us, and to my horror I saw that what had happened before was about to be repeated.

I demanded to know in whose name they dared obstruct us. Then a man rode up to me. He was obviously the leader—a very handsome, elegant person. He bowed low and said that he was Hugh le Brun de Lusignan and he would offer me hospitality for the night.

I thanked him and said I had a long journey before me and I must ride on.

He smiled at me in a rather impish fashion and said: “My lady, I am afraid you have no choice. I shall insist on giving you the comforts due to your royal person.”

With horror I realized that he intended to abduct me.

This would be for a different motive than in the past. They were not now attempting to force me into marriage. This would doubtless mean ransom. I looked around at my retinue. We were in no position to repulse them. We had been foolish to ride into Lusignan country without sufficient protection. I saw there was no help for it. To my fury I was forced to ride beside my abductor, Hugh le Brun, to his castle.

There I was housed in the finest apartments. He was determined to treat me with the utmost respect. At the table he insisted on serving me himself.

I said: “You are a bold man, Hugh le Brun. Has it occurred to you that, though you have the advantage now, it will not always be so?”

“I wish your ladyship no harm.”

“Then why behave in this uncouth manner?”

“Because I wish myself much good.”

“You mean you will demand a ransom. Since King Richard was held by his jealous enemies there have been those who have developed a taste for this sort of thing. Do you intend to ask a ransom from my son the King?”

“No, my lady, from you.”

“Then you had better tell me.”

“What I want is the county of La Marche.”

I was astounded by his impudence. Henry had seized La Marche from the Lusignans some years earlier. Richard had fortified it. It was an important stretch of land.

“You are talking nonsense.”

Hugh le Brun lifted his shoulders and smiled. “It seems that Your Ladyship likes my castle.”

“I find little to admire in its owner.”

“Perhaps time will change my lady’s views.”

“I believe that would only strengthen my dislike.”

“Then it is a pity, for if you do not give me La Marche you will be here a very long time.”

I was dismayed. I lay awake at night thinking of the implication of this. How should I reach Castile? What would happen to the match I so desired? One must settle this matter quickly for when matrimonial arrangements are allowed to hang fire they have a way of evaporating.

I was frustrated and angry. For two days I fumed against Hugh while he remained charming and unmoved.

At length I saw that I could be here for a very long time unless I gave way to his demands. So, cursing the fate which had brought me into Lusignan country, deploring the wily tactics of my kidnappers, while admiring them, I began to see that the difficulties of freeing me in the long run would be more costly than giving up La Marche.

So at length I agreed.

Hugh le Brun took, as he said, a reluctant farewell of me when the transaction was made; and thinking regretfully of what the incident had cost me, I continued my journey.

Everything seemed worthwhile when I arrived in Castile. I was enchanted with my daughter Eleanor. She was beautiful still, even though she had borne eleven children. Hers had been a successful marriage. She was one of those women almost certain to enjoy a happy marriage providing her husband is not a monster. Her nature was gentle, kindly, while she herself was highly intelligent and accomplished. She was the perfect wife and mother.

When I had spent a few moments with her, I thought what a tragedy it was that we had lived so much of our lives apart.

The Court of Castile reminded me of that long-ago one over which my grandfather and father had reigned. Everything was comfortable and elegant. It was wonderful to hear the troubadours again; to be with my daughter was such a pleasure that I felt happy as I had not thought to be ever again after Richard’s death.

We talked of the old days when she with the others had been in the nursery. She told me how the children had looked forward to my visits. They had all sought to win my favor, she told me, for they had loved me dearly even though they were a little afraid of me. They had not loved their father and as soon as they sensed—as children do—that there was trouble between us they were all prepared to defend me, and hated him the more         .         .         .         all except Geoffrey the Bastard, who thought his father was the most wonderful being on Earth.

It brought it all back         .         .         .         incidents which I had forgotten. I was back there in the nurseries when they were all about me         .         .         .         my dear children         .         .         .         and towering above them all, my golden boy, my Richard, whom I should never see again.

Then there were my granddaughters—the purpose of my visit. The eldest, Berengaria, was already spoken for. She was affianced to the King of Leon. The next was Urraca and then came Blanca.

I studied them intently—two beautiful and enchanting girls.

I said to my daughter: “This is a great opportunity. There could scarcely be a better match than the future King of France.”

My daughter replied: “I have spoken to Urraca and told her what a wonderful match this is and that she is the luckiest girl in the world for one day she will be Queen of France.”

“You have a family to be proud of,” I told my daughter. “What great good children can bring us         .         .         .         and what sorrow.”

“Dearest Mother, life has been cruel to you.”

“When Richard went, I thought I had nothing to live for.”

“I know he was always your favorite. In the nursery we thought it was natural that this should be so. There was something magnificent about Richard.”

I could scarcely bear to speak his name, and she knew it and reproached herself for reminding me, but I told her she was not the one who had reminded me, for he was always in my thoughts.

“I am so happy to be with you, my dear,” I said. “I think of all my children you have been the most fortunate.”

“I have a good husband. We live happily here in Castile. And then there are the children, of course.”

“I want to get to know them well while I am here. It might be that I shall never see them again.”

“Dear Mother, you must visit us and next time stay         .         .         .         stay a long time.”

“The years are creeping up on me. Sometimes it is hard to remember how old I am.”

“Then forget it, for, dear Mother, you can never be old.”

“Ah, if only that were true.”

So the days passed and I spent hours with my granddaughters.

Urraca was a charming girl, but it was Blanca in whom I was more interested.

Blanca was beautiful—not more so than her sister, but she glowed with an inner light. Was it intelligence or character? I was not sure. All I knew was that Blanca had some special quality. There was a determination in her nature, an alertness; she loved music, and she was quick to reply in discussion and very often right on the point. Perhaps I am a vain old woman but I thought I saw something of myself in Blanca; and as the days passed I began to realize that she was the one I must take with me as the future Queen of France.

It was difficult explaining to her parents. They had planned that it should be Urraca. They had prepared her for the part she must play. They had impressed on her what a great honor it was to be chosen. There could be few such grand titles as Queen of France in the whole world.

But in my heart I knew it had to be Blanca.

I broached the matter with my daughter.

“It will have to be Blanca, you know,” I said. Eleanor looked at me in astonishment.

“She has all the qualities,” I went on.

“For what, dear Mother?”

“For marriage with Louis of France.” My daughter was silent with shock.

“I know,” I went on, “that we have thought of Urraca, but I am convinced it will have to be Blanca.”

“But we cannot change now.”

“Why not? I am to take back one of my granddaughters, and I say that one must be Blanca.”

“What of Urraca? She is the elder.”

“You will find a good husband for her, particularly if her sister is to be the future Queen of France.”

“Dear Mother, for what reason?”

It was difficult to explain. I supposed she loved both her daughters dearly and perhaps could not see the bright jewel she had in Blanca.

I sought to explain. It was not that there was anything wrong with Urraca. It was just that Blanca was endowed with very special qualities         .         .         .         a strength which I recognized clearly, as I had it myself, courage, resourcefulness. I said: “The French would never like a woman called Urraca.” My daughter looked at me disbelievingly.

I elaborated the theme. “No. They would never get used to it. She would be a foreigner to them all her life.”

“You mean because of her name         .         .         .”

“Whereas Blanca,” I said, “.         .         .         that will become Blanche. That is a very beautiful name. The French will love it. My dear, don’t look so taken aback. One of your daughters will be Queen of France. What does it matter which one?”

“Blanca,” she murmured. “I hadn’t thought of Blanca. She is younger than Urraca.”

“That is no obstacle. She is twelve, is she not? Old enough to go to her future husband. I shall take Blanca.”

My daughter was silent. She remembered from the old days that people did not argue with me. When I said something should be so, it was.

The girls were amazed, of course. Urraca, who had been very apprehensive about going to France, was now dismayed because she was not going. Blanca was surprised, but she took the announcement as I knew she would. She hated to displace her sister but could not fail to be excited by the brilliant prospect which was opening before her.

We spent a good deal of time together. I talked a great deal about the Court of France as it had been when I had been its Queen.

“You will mold it to your ways,” I told her. “I am going to call you Blanche from now on. That is the name by which you will be known in France. It is merely a version of your own name and this one is prettier, don’t you think, Blanche? It suits you.”

So we were often together and played the lute and sang. I was delighted by her elegant manners, her quiet wit and her budding beauty. I was glad I had made the journey. Otherwise they would have sent Urraca instead; and my instinct told me that Blanca—Blanche as she now was—was the one destined to be Queen of France.

After the initial surprise at the substitution, there was no resistance to my suggestion, and the time came to say goodbye to the pleasant Court of Castile. I traveled in a litter for quite long stages of the journey, for I grew very tired if I stayed too long in the saddle.

My granddaughter rode beside the litter. I always liked to have her in sight. She was a great joy to me. I gloried in her beauty and her intelligence and love grew quickly between us. We stayed at castles and inns on our journey and I would always have her sleeping in my room or even in my bed. I talked to her a great deal. I wanted her to be prepared. The fact that I, too, had traveled from my home to become a Queen of France had made a great bond between us. I drew myself back into those long-ago days and as I talked of them memories came flooding back.

I told her of my grandfather’s Court and the manner in which he had abducted Dangerosa and carried her off to his castle. I remembered the legends sung in ballads by the jongleurs. I would often sing them to her. It was amazing how the memories of them came flooding back and I could remember the words of romanticized adventure as well as the music.

“How strange,” I said, “that my husband was Louis VII of France and yours will be Louis VIII. My Louis was a good, religious man, but good men at times can be tiresome         .         .         .         and so can the other kind. I had a taste of both, so I am well qualified to judge.” And I would tell her about Henry, the great Plantagenet, her own grandfather who had been so different from Louis. “We should have been good together,” I said wistfully. “But he could never be faithful. Women were his weakness.” I did not add that I thought it odd that his son Richard should have been so different.

I realized how much my granddaughter had done for me. There had been hours when I had forgotten to grieve for Richard.

We came to Bordeaux. It was comforting to be in my own castle. Here our ways divided: there was one road to Paris, the other to Fontevrault. I was feeling exhausted. Even the exhilaration I drew from my granddaughter could not disguise it. Fontevrault offered complete peace; there I could rest my weary limbs for a short time and shut myself away from all the burdens which I knew were waiting to fall upon my shoulders.

I sent for the Archbishop of Bordeaux. I told him that I had brought my granddaughter from the kingdom of Castile, and I wished him to take her to Paris and present her to the King, who was expecting her. I had just undertaken a long journey and I thought I could not go much farther. I would entrust him with the task of taking the future Queen of France to her prospective husband.

I was touched to see Blanche’s dismay when she knew I was not going with her to Paris.

“All will be well,” I assured her. “They will welcome you in Paris. The Archbishop will take good care of you.”

“Oh dearest Grandmother, I shall miss you so much.”

“We have been so happy together, have we not?” She nodded, her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Dear child, one of the saddest things in my life has been that I have not been able to stay long with those I loved.”

“I don’t know how I could have done all this without you,” she said. “I should have been terrified of going to the Court of France         .         .         .         but I am not now. You have explained so much. You have done so much for me.”

“And you will never know what you have done for me, my child. You have helped me over the first stile, and I have put a little of my grief behind me.”

I took a sad farewell of Blanche and she left Bordeaux in the retinue of the Archbishop. Soon she would be in Paris and my mission accomplished.

I intended to rest a few days in Bordeaux to strengthen myself for the last lap of my journey.

Mercadier had joined me. I was rather moved. He had in fact had his own mercenary army, but when the news of my abduction by Hugh de Lusignan had come to him, he asked to be attached to my entourage because he wanted to make sure I was protected from any more such villainous attempts. I was delighted to receive him into my service.

It was Easter time. There were processions in the streets. I would sit at a window looking down. It was so comforting to wake in the morning and to know that I had not to hurry down and start another day’s long journey.

But soon I was ready to go on.

This time I should have the doughty Mercadier to look after me, which was as well, for we had to pass through the valley of the Charente where I might meet with dissatisfied vassals like the Lusignans.

A shock awaited me.

There had been a brawl in the streets. Two men had drawn their swords and fought and one of them had been killed. To my sorrow and dismay, I learned that one of them was Mercadier.

So I had lost my protector.

This further disaster made me realize afresh how I longed to be shut away from conflict.

I just wanted to be alone, to meditate, to rest my weary limbs, to write of the past, to relive it all again and to ask myself whether what had happened to me had been due largely to myself.

I wanted to go back to Fontevrault.

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