by Sharon Kay Penman
Theirs was a story that would rival the legend of
King Arthur and Guinevere, his faithless queen. He was Henry, firstborn son
of the Count of Anjou and the Empress Maude, and from an early age, he’d
seemed to be one of Fortune’s favorites. Whilst still Duke of Normandy, he’d
dared to steal a queen, and by the time he was twenty-one, he’d claimed the
crown that had eluded the Empress Maude. She was Eleanor, Duchess of
Aquitaine, a great heiress and a great beauty who trailed scandal in her
wake, her tragedy that she was a woman born in an age in which power was the
preserve of men. The French king Louis had rejected Eleanor for her failure
to give him a male heir. She gave Henry five, four of whom survived to
manhood. They ruled over an empire that stretched from Scotland to the
Mediterranean Sea, and for a time, their union seemed blessed.
Henry loved his sons, but not enough to share power
with them. Nor would he give Eleanor a say in the governance of her beloved
Aquitaine. The result would be the Great Rebellion of 1173, in which Henry’s
three eldest sons rose up against him, urged on by their mother, his own
queen, an act of betrayal unheard-of in their world. Henry won the war, but
at great cost. His sons, he could forgive. Eleanor, he could not, for she’d
inflicted a wound that would never fully heal.
Henry sought to make peace with his sons, but they
were bitter that he continued to hold their mother prisoner and resentful
that he kept them under a tight rein. Because he felt he could no longer
trust them, he tried to bribe or coerce them into staying loyal. A great
king, he would prove to be a failure as a father, for he was unable to learn
from his mistakes.
His eldest and best-loved son, Hal—beguiling and
handsome and utterly irresponsible—died in another rebellion against his
sire, repenting when he was on his deathbed, when it was too late.
Upon Hal’s death, the heir-apparent was his brother
Richard, who’d been raised in Eleanor’s Aquitaine, meant from birth to rule
over her duchy. Geoffrey, the third brother, had been wed to a great heiress
of his own, Constance, the Duchess of Brittany. And then there was John,
called John Lackland by his father in jest, for by the time he was born,
there was little left for a younger fourth son. Henry was bound and
determined to provide for John, too, and he unwittingly unleashed the furies
that would bring about his ruin.
Henry demanded that Richard yield up Aquitaine to
John, reasoning that Richard no longer needed the duchy now that he was to
inherit an empire. But Richard loved Aquitaine, as he loved his imprisoned
mother, and he would never forgive Henry for trying to take the duchy from
Henry made the same mistake with Geoffrey,
withholding a large portion of his wife’s Breton inheritance to ensure
Geoffrey’s good behavior. He only succeeded in driving Geoffrey into
rebellion, too, and he’d allied himself with Philippe, the young French
king, when he was killed in a tournament outside Paris.
The king who’d once jested about his surfeit of sons
now had only two. When he stubbornly refused to recognize Richard as his
heir, his son began to suspect that he meant to disinherit him in favor of
John. Following in the footsteps of his brothers Hal and Geoffrey, Richard
turned to the French king for aid, and it eventually came to war. By then
Henry was ailing and did not want to fight his own son. Richard no longer
trusted him, though, and Henry was forced to make a humiliating surrender.
But the worst was still to come. As Henry lay, feverish and wretched, at
Chinon Castle, he learned that John, the son for whom he’d sacrificed so
much, had betrayed him, making a private peace with Richard and King
Philippe. Henry died two days later, crying, “Shame upon a conquered king.”
Few mourned. As was the way of their world, eyes were already turning from
the sunset to the rising sun, to the man acclaimed as one of the best battle
commanders in all of Christendom, Richard, first of that name to rule
England since the Conquest.
Copyright © Sharon Kay Penman