The Death of a King

It is early October in the year of Our Lord 1285. To the north lies the immense and ever-expanding realm of the king of France; to the west Gascony, last remnant of the mighty Duchy of Aquitaine controlled by the English Crown; and to the south, beyond the forested slopes and rocky snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees, lies Aragon and the vast Iberian peninsula. Sandwiched between these is Perpignan, capital of this part of the little kingdom of Majorca and the County of Roussillon. Some six hundred miles north-east and twenty-one days journey away lies Paris.

In the small hours of the morning on the 5th October nobody in the city is stirring; the citizens, from the wealthiest goldsmith to the humblest apprentice, are all still in bed; even the dogs are asleep, lying in the dusty pebble-paved streets. But in an upstairs chamber of the palace high on the hill, twelve men, the greatest men of the kingdom of France, are awake and waiting as they have been since early the previous day. They are waiting for a man to die.

In the narrow window embrasure staring out at the night sky stands a handsome young man. This is Philip, called ‘The Fair’, seventeen year-old heir to the French Crown, eldest of the king’s five surviving children. Philip is not thinking of his father, he stopped thinking of him days ago, even weeks ago, when realisation came that the glorious holy crusade into Aragon was doomed. Nor are any of those present in the chamber thinking of the king for his days of power and patronage are past. What is now of importance is their standing with the seventeen-year-old son.

The man in the bed tries to speak.

‘Philip!’

His son leans closer. The dying man’s lips are moving in a vain attempt to speak but nothing can be heard. In one final effort of will the king says very softly, almost in a whisper, a single name – ‘Isabelle!’

Philip smiles to himself. What could be more rewarding than this last royal word? How pleasant it will be to inform his hated stepmother that her husband’s final thoughts were not for her but for Philip’s own mother, dead these eleven years. Yes indeed, he will enjoy telling the bitch.  

As the eastern sky begins to flush with the pale pink light of a new day the king enters at last into the darkness beyond the boundaries of his mortal life, believing he leaves behind what every ruler would wish for at his life’s end: a safe kingdom, a grieving widow, strong sons to secure the succession, beautiful daughters for bargaining in the royal marriage market, and most important of all, the guarantee of sufficient masses to be said for the easing of his soul’s passage through purgatory .

In this belief he is largely justified. He has paid the Church well to ensure the safety of his immortal soul and, even if his recent crusade into Aragon has come to nought, the influence of the Capetian kings over the Christian lands north of the Pyrenees is still to be feared. The royal widow, his second wife Marie de Brabant, an ambitious woman, is grieving, but her grief is not for the loss of her pious and feeble husband but rather for the loss of power, the loss of influence and the loss of opportunity. Three strong and healthy sons are left to continue the dynasty: Philip and Charles, surviving sons of his first marriage to Isabelle of Aragon, and Louis, his young son by Marie. And then there are the daughters: two small girls, the babies of the royal family, left behind far away in the safety of his beloved manor at Vincennes – Marguerite and Blanche.

Unpublished excerpt from The Pearl of France by Caroline Neark

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