Each morning I bind my hair with strands of hemp and take my seat here in the temple precinct, among the other women. It has become a matter of habit now and some of the others recognise me and greet me, though all are careful not to sit too close, in case the sight of me should deter a likely suitor. I watch the men threading their way along the paths roped off between the blocks of seated women, studying, choosing. Some of the girls, the pretty ones, have scarcely taken their places before a man throws a piece of silver into their lap, repeats the invocation to the goddess and takes them off outside the sacred ground. Some of them weep and tremble. They do not realise how lucky they are. Some of the girls are from wealthy families. They arrive with their handmaidens and a nice, well-brought-up young man following hard on their heels, ready to spare them the indignity of waiting to be chosen. For some of us the wait is longer, but no one else has waited as long as I have. I used to feel bitter and curse the day that my mother left me unguarded close to that fire. It was only for a second, and then the trip, the tumble, the searing pain in the side of my face … Sometimes I sit with my head lowered so that my hair falls forward, hoping that some stranger will throw his piece of silver in my lap before I have to look up. But they are all too cautious, and there are plenty of girls to choose from. My family bring me food each day and I know they are trying to save enough money to bribe someone, anyone. A man will close his eyes if you make it worth his while. But we are poor, and already I am a drain on them, sitting here day after day, unproductive, unmarriageable. Four years is a long time…
THE LAMENT OF BERENGARIA
At least it’s cooler here, perched in this eagle’s nest of a castle. I thought I understood heat, growing up in Navarre, but I have never known the sun as merciless as it is down there on that plain they call the Mesaoria. Here the breeze comes from the west and I can smell orange blossom and the sea, and imagine I am back in my father’s summer palace in the mountains. Why did he send me here, chasing after this surly prince who hardly deigns to acknowledge my existence? I understand the political necessity that persuaded Richard to propose the match. He needs strong allies to protect the borders of Aquitaine while he is away on the Crusade. But why the urgency? It would have been enough for us to be betrothed and then I could have remained in my father’s palace until Richard returned – if he ever returns. But no, he insists I must follow him to Sicily. Yet when I arrive there I am told the wedding cannot take place because it is Lent. We could have waited there for Easter and married then, but my new lord is too impatient to be off. I must needs follow him further, and if it were not for the storm that drove us onto these shores who knows on what heathen coast our nuptials might have taken place. Perhaps, but for this accident, the marriage would never have been solemnised. Perhaps that is what he intended, for I have never heard of a bridegroom less eager for his wedding day. And yet he must marry. Richard needs an heir if England and Aquitaine and Anjou are not to pass into the hands of his brother John, he whom they call Lackland. Willing or not, he must breed. He came to our wedding like a beast to the sacrificial altar. Yet even then he could not force himself to my bed. Why? Granted I am no beauty. I do not need my glass to tell me that. I have read it in men’s eyes since I was ten years old. But I have a womb, and a man can close his eyes long enough to perform the necessary act, can he not? Richard, it seems, cannot. And now he is gone to fight the Saracen and I am left here, with his gloomy sister, to await his pleasure. Meanwhile, the throne remains without an heir. They call this castle Dieudamour! If my womb is to quicken then I think the God of Love himself must come down and plant the seed! It would suit Richard very well if I could become a mother while yet remaining a virgin. Holy Jesus, into what blasphemy have my idle thoughts strayed? Holy Mary, Blessed Virgin, forgive me! Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women ….
My Noble Lord and Father,
I entreat you to come immediately to Cyprus to adjudicate between my noble husband and myself. As God is my witness, I have been to him a chaste and faithful wife but he, by some strange misprision, has convinced himself that I am false. I know not wherein my offence may lie, or what reason I can have given him for so distrusting me, but he keeps me close in my chamber and gives no one access to me save my waiting woman. It is to her that I shall entrust this letter, in the hope that she may find some means of dispatching it to Venice.
It is a cruel irony that I should be so accused, of all women in this city. I believe there is no other place in the world more notorious for idle luxury and lascivious pursuits. The whores of the town display themselves without shame, going about decked out in the latest finery, and men even of high degree have resort to them – those who do not keep a mistress for their exclusive pleasure. The women are no better. Ladies of good family flaunt their wealth in the richest silks and velvets, and jewels a princess might be proud to wear, and receive their admirers openly, while their husbands turn a blind eye. Truly in this city the ancient goddess Aphrodite is more honoured than Our Virgin Lady! Yet I, who have kept myself chaste and beyond the breath of scandal, am suspected.
My noble father, hasten, I beseech you, to speak on my behalf. My husband is abused, though I know not by whom or for what motive. He is a good man, but hasty tempered and his pride cannot brook any disgrace. If you do not come to my aid I cannot tell what my fate may be.
I pray that the Good Lord will bless you, and commend myself to the protection of His Holy Mother.
Your obedient and loving daughter,