Lady of the English - By Elizabeth Chadwick


Speyer, Germany, Summer 1125

H olding her dead husband’s imperial crown, Matilda felt the cold pressure of gemstones and hard gold against her fingertips and palms. The light from the window arch embossed the metal’s soft patina with sharper glints of radiance. Heinrich had worn this crown on feast days and official occasions. She had an equivalent one of gold and sapphires, fashioned for her by the greatest goldsmiths in the empire, and in the course of their eleven-year marriage had learned to bear its weight with grace and dignity.

Her people called her “Matilda the Good.” They had not always been her people, but it was how she thought of them now, and they of her, and for a moment grief squeezed her heart so tightly she caught her breath. Heinrich would never wear this diadem again, nor smile at her with that small curl of amused gravity. They would never sit together in the bedchamber companionably discussing state matters, nor share the same golden cup at banquets. No offspring born of his loins and her womb would occupy the imperial throne. The cradle was empty because God had not seen fit to let their son live beyond the hour of his birth, and now Heinrich himself lay entombed in the great red stone cathedral here and another man ruled over what had been theirs.

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Matilda the Good. Matilda the Empress. Matilda the childless widow. The words crept through her mind like footfalls in a crypt. If she stayed, she would have to add Matilda the nun to her list of titles, and she had no intention of retiring to the cloister. She was twenty-three, young, vigorous, and strong, and a new life awaited in Normandy and England, the latter her birthplace, but now barely remembered.

Turning, she gave the crown to her chamberlain so that he could dismantle and pack it safely in its leather travelling case.

“Domina, if it please you, your escort is ready.” Matilda faced the white-haired knight bowing in the doorway. Like her, he was dressed for travel in a thick riding cloak and stout calf-hide boots. His left hand rested lightly on his sword pommel.

“Thank you, Drogo.”

As the servants removed the last of her baggage, she paced slowly around the chamber, studying the pale walls stripped of their bright hangings, the bare benches around the hearth, the dying fire. Soon there would be nothing left to say she had ever dwelt here.

“It is difficult to bid farewell, domina,” Drogo said with sympathy.

Still looking around, as if her gaze were caught in a web of invisible threads, Matilda paused at the door. She remembered being eight years old, standing in the great hall at Liège, trembling with exhaustion at the end of her long journey from England. She could still recall the fear she had felt and all the pressure of being sent out of the nest to a foreign land and a betrothal with a grown man. The match had been arranged to suit her father’s political purpose and she had known she must do her duty and not incur his displeasure by failing him, because he was a great king and she was a princess of high and royal blood. It could have been a disaster but, instead, it had 2

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Lady of the English

been the making of her: the frightened, studious little girl had been moulded into a regal woman and an able consort for the Emperor of Germany.

“I have been happy here.” She touched the carved doorpost in a gesture that clung and bade farewell at the same time.

“Your lord father will be pleased to have you home.” Matilda dropped her hand and straightened her cloak. “I do not need to be cajoled like a skittish horse.”

“That was not my intent, domina.”

“Then what was your intent?” Drogo had been with her since that first long journey to her betrothal. He was her bodyguard and leader of her household knights: strong, dour, dependable. As a child she had thought him ancient because even then his hair had been white, although he had only been thirty years old. He looked little different now, except for a few new lines and the deepening of older ones.

“To say that an open door awaits you.”

“And that I should close this one?”

“No, domina, it has made you who and what you are—and that is also why your father has summoned you.”

“It is but one of his reasons and driven by necessity,” she replied shortly. “I may