At thirteen years old, I almost died.
I had gone riding with the court and ventured out too far. The forests outside of Paris are lovely in the spring, carpeted with bluebells, sunlight weaving between the oaks; but as night fell that day, and the clouds roiled, the trees became a labyrinth of clawing fingers. Stumbling between them, the flowers tugged at my feet, pulling me into the mud. I could do little but sit curled-up amongst the roots of a wizened beech, praying I would survive the storm. I remained lost in the darkness with only the torrential rain to keep me company; and when they found me in the morning I was coughing and shivering, clinging to consciousness.
I was only half formed at that age, and the sickness came quickly. I was laid out upon my bed, flushed and trembling, sprawled like a prisoner on the rack. I spent most of my childhood swaddled in luxuries—furs, tutors, vellum—but when I think of my youth, the first thing I remember is the tang of my sweat in the air, my mother digging her nails into my forearm as she chanted prayers, the bitter taste of herbs and the fog of fever.
I made the perfect picture of a martyr. Outside the wind shrieked and rattled at the windows in zealous accusation; the foundations of the castle groaned with me. Physicians came and went like visiting pilgrims. They bled me until my pallor became corpselike, and they argued incessantly over courses of treatment; they all wanted to be the one to save the life of a future king. One recommended my head be shaved; another thought I ought to be as warm as possible, to draw the fever out; and a third, hardly a doctor at all, loomed over me murmuring in funereal Latin. In my delirium, the layer of sweat on my skin became a horde of insects. I scratched and clawed at myself, scoring scarlet lines over my arms. I was slathered in a paste of stinking moss, which soon dried to a thick green crust. I must have looked like a leper.
My father never once came to my room to see me. Instead, he departed on a pilgrimage to beg God for my recovery. Of all places, he went to a shrine in England. He was aging and infirm, but still, he went. He was never the same when he came back, remaining silent for hours upon hours. I think the strain of the journey pushed his addled mind a step too far. And yet it worked; by the time he returned, I had improved. Whether by grace of God or blind luck, my fever broke. I awoke one morning frail, half starved, but blessedly alive.
It took another week before I could leave the bed. I had lost so much weight it was almost comical; when I walked, I wobbled awkwardly, like a dancing bear. I should have been relieved, but the world I returned to seemed dull and underwhelming. The experience left me bone-weary and afraid. It felt as if time distended around me, and I aged years in the weeks I had been away.
I went to visit my father soon after my bedrest ended. He had been taking private Mass ever since his homecoming. When I first saw him, I wondered if he had been eating nothing but communion bread; his wrists were even leaner than mine, his bones bursting from their skin. The fire in his chamber had been stoked to heaving, and the scent of the smoke mingled with incense. The dim light cast his cheekbones into disturbing relief. His breaths were so shallow they seemed entirely absent; only the languid, occasional movements of his eyelashes were proof of his living. I watched him from the doorway, unable to step into the room. But he soon noticed my presence, and he outstretched his hand to greet me, fingers trembling.
I knelt before him to receive his blessing.
“My son,” he said, and I rose. He was sitting in his wooden chair, the one with wide, high arms that forced his shoulders beside his ears. He was clutching a cup of wine in his other hand, and I could see the liquid quivering in his grasp. I had to stoop to look him in the eye.
“Father,” I said. “Are you well?”
“I am well,” he replied, perhaps believing it, “and you are well also. Praise be to God.”
“Yes, father?” I asked.
“You must give thanks, Philip. Give thanks to God.”
“I shall,” I replied. “I have.”
As much as I wish it were different, this is what I remember most about my father: how desperately he clung to his saints and his epistles, like a hanged man scrabbling at the noose. Louis the Monk, some called him. I saw more of his back as he knelt to pray than I ever did the front of him. When I was very young, I idolized him, fancying him a someday-saint. As I spoke to him, I would imagine the relics his bones would make. That evening he whispered to me in the soft rasp of a dying man, and all I could do was stare at his skeletal fingers, imagining them shut in a reliquary box.
“You are a good boy, Philip,” he said, offering me a faint, papery smile. “No, not a boy. You are a man. My son.” He dropped his wine to the floor—the warm liquid splashed the front of my slippers—and he surged forward, grasping my hands with sudden strength. “You will be king, soon enough,” he told me.
“We have no choice. You know as well as I.”
“Know what, Father?”
“We must—” His grasp became more insistent, his upper lip curling back to reveal a row of shrunken gum. “We must—I am not as I was. Our lands are not as they were. England has diminished us.”
“England,” I echoed. I imagined England as an enormous, gaping maw, making its slow, interminable gulp towards us: closing its teeth around the entire continent, Calais to the Pyrenees. “What shall we do?”
“You must be crowned.”
When I thought of kings, I thought of the man sitting before me. I wanted nothing less than to become as he was. Louis was only a half person. The soul was gone, and the rest was skin and muscle and bone.
I could do nothing except kneel and bow my head in expectation of his blessing. He did not bless me. Instead he stooped over, clutching my head in his hands. His eyes were welling with tears. He had black eyes, glazed matte, like ink. My own were blue and glasslike, and I had spent years learning to lower my lids, knowing their transparency; but at that age—surely, Louis must have seen how afraid I was. He pressed his thumbs into my cheekbones. His grip was weak, but his fingers seemed to threaten some sudden surge of strength, to press my skull so tightly it might rupture into shards. I was trapped there, on the floor of his chamber, with the roar of the fire behind me.
“My son,” he said. He closed in, pressing his forehead against my own. “You are already a king.”
“I am?” I asked.
“You are. What makes a monarch, Philip?”
“Blood,” he said, satisfied. “Royal blood. My blood. With it, you will become a great king. A pious king. A new Augustus.”
“I shall try, Father.”
“You were born for this. Remember that.”
Louis withdrew. He reached down to take the cup from the floor, cradling it in his palms. His gaze skittered across me, and he peered into the empty cup, frowning.
“Shall I give you leave?” I asked, still on my knees.
“Yes,” he murmured. “I have need of more wine. Fetch some wine, boy. Fetch Eleanor.”
Eleanor was his first wife. He was now on his third.
I stood. He did not look at me as I left him there, hunched and vacant, clutching his cup, in the same position as when I’d arrived.
The year passed. Medicine holds that those who are cold and dry in the body are melancholic, an affliction I was treated for numerous times during my childhood. The physicians would placate my parents by listing all the great leaders of history who suffered a similar malady: Charlemagne and Julius Caesar both had such temperaments, they would say, as they ground me pastes of astringent herbs to swallow each morning. Silent and sullen, I spent evenings wrapped in coarse wool to promote heat. I was served only foods deemed warm and wet: meaty stews, fennel-seed teas, wine spiced with sage.
Nothing helped, and the months after my illness, my melancholy grew more and more pronounced. Cinnamon is worth its weight in gold, and yet it became a daily medicine. It coated every bite of food I took. My tongue became thick with it. My little sister Agnes was light and merry, she ran hot. She spun around the corridors like silk on a loom. Every day we met in the same hall on the way to Mass. “Have you had a good morning, Philip?” she would ask me.
“My morning was good if yours was, Agnes,” I would respond.
“Then mine was the best morning in the world.”
She would laugh and grasp my arm. And when she did, I would always have the same hope: that perhaps some of that heat would run from her hand and into my blood.