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Ruled by Faith: France's Sainted King

by Christopher Check


In a compromised age, rulers whose public policies align with their cherished beliefs are regarded with contempt. But nine centuries ago, one such ruler inspired a nation with his dedication to the cross of Christ. Though he failed to reclaim the Holy Lands for Christendom, King Louis IX's efforts to instill sanctity in the hearts of France's people won for him eternal glory.

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Catholic Answers, Inc., September-October 2009

For three weeks, King Louis IX of France lay dying in his tent in the shadow of the old Carthaginian wall. Hard by the plains of Zama, where Scipio Africanus had crushed the army of Hannibal Barca in one of the West's great victories, the fading 56-year-old monarch may have felt some sorrow over his own military record. Although a careful logistician and a brave soldier who always led from the front, the king had failed at two Crusades. On his face, however, there was no sign of regret, rather a quiet peace that reflected his understanding that for the Christian, failure meant only one thing: to lose his soul. With that truth in mind, King Louis sent for his son, Prince Phillip.

Handing him a letter penned "with his own saintly hand," Louis charged the next king of France first "to set his heart on love of God" and "to be ready to suffer every kind of torment rather than commit a mortal sin" (Joinville); to avail himself of the sacraments; to unburden his heart to his confessor; to attend to the needs of the poor; to avoid war with Christian princes; to surround himself with wise men; to honor his father and mother; and never to tolerate blasphemy in his presence.

When the letter had been read, the king was laid on a bed covered with ashes spread in the form of the cross. Folding his arms across his chest, the most Christian king of France called upon his country's patrons, St. Denis and St. Genevieve, and awaited deliverance from this vale of tears. It was not the first time that the king lay dying.

The King Takes the Cross
Some three decades earlier, on campaign against rebellious French barons, the 28-yearold Louis had contracted an infection and fever from which he had never fully recovered. Two years later, in 1244, the fever returned with a vengeance. The people of Paris feared Louis would die and they filled the city's churches in a perpetual vigil for his recovery. As the king lay motionless, two chambermaids argued over whether or not he had already passed. Both were startled when Louis interrupted their dispute and asked in a clear voice for a cross. When it was brought to him, he swore to lead an army to liberate the Holy Land if God would see him back to health. Within days he was on his feet, and preparations for the king's Crusade were underway. He had worn the crown of France for 18 years, governing with charity and justice. Now, his plan to lead an army to the Holy Land drove his mother, the redoubtable Blanche of Castile, to tears and wailing. Blanche had lost her husband on Crusade and her three other sons planned to join their brother—or maybe it was simply that she clung to her son too dearly. (See "A Formidable Queen Mother," page 22.)

She, with the help of the local bishop, persuaded Louis that a vow made while sick did not bind him. As the medieval historian Matthew Paris recounted, Louis, now in good health, renounced the old vow, took the bishop's cross in his hand and swore a new vow.

Louis the Logistician
A century and a half before Louis' reign, Pope Urban II, in declaring the First Crusade, had called for an end to wars within Christendom, which served man's interests, in favor of a war that served God's. Louis certainly regarded himself as the heir to this principle, but in practice, his success was limited to France, and even there political rivalries slowed his progress in the most fundamental ways, among them, securing a seaport from which to embark.

Marseilles and Montpellier were the obvious choices, but neither was in the king's control. His response to the problem was ingenious: He converted the unlikely backwater of Aigues-Mortes into a major port. A village named "dead waters" for its brackish lake and shortage of fresh water hardly seemed promising, but Louis built long canals to connect the town's lake with an outer harbor on the Mediterranean. Small craft were loaded by the city walls, also built by Louis, and then sent down the canals to the sea where their cargo was transferred to larger ships.

Detailed records of the preparations for the Crusade reveal Louis' head for logistics, an art that had not been given serious attention during earlier crusades. He wisely arranged for his fleet to rendezvous at a friendly port, Cyprus, where he had supplies and provisions staged in advance of his arrival.

Another measure of the king's commitment to the Crusade is revealed in its cost: six times his annual budget for domestic affairs. From where did the money come? The barons who joined him paid their own way, not a few borrowing money from the king. Nearly two-thirds of the sum came from the dioceses of France, and the balance from the king's own fortune.

Call for Crusaders
Shipping, supplies, provisions, and money, however, were of no use without Crusaders, and Louis faced a major recruiting challenge: He called for a Crusade when the situation in Outremer looked quite bleak. A century and a half of crusading with little more than a coastline to show for it meant many Christians in the West were beginning to doubt the cause.Yet Louis assembled an army of 15,000, five times the size of the standing army in the Holy Land, by encouraging the idea—one he certainly shared—that a number of factors had recently converged to offer hope to a new Crusade.

What were they? Various Muslim powers were quarreling. The West enjoyed naval superiority in the Mediterranean.There was also a dark horse: Mongols sweeping across the Middle East from the other direction. Louis believed that the Mongols could be allies in fighting Islam and could even be converted to Christianity.

The king toured France, and his crowd-thrilling public appearances instilled in the people of France confidence that victory in Outremer was coming. The crowning event, suitably, was an elaborate ceremony to dedicate the Sainte-Chapelle, the magnificent oratory he had built to house Passion relics, including the crown of thorns. Under a man of lesser devotion and charisma, the army might never have been raised, but Louis' vigorous piety made him the perfect Crusader. Led as it was by this most Christian king, so carefully had it been planned, so well had it been funded, that all France believed this expedition would succeed. (See "A Pole-Vault across Purgatory," page 23.)

The Christians Take Damietta
No harm came to Louis' fleet in the three-week voyage to Cyprus, but once there, the king had his first taste of the confused politics of Outremer. Louis reprimanded the Master of the Templars at Acre for attempting on his own authority to negotiate a peace with the sultan in Egypt. To the western knight who thought in terms of good Christians and evil Muslims, it must have been difficult to accept that alliances with one sect against another had helped to keep the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem alive.

After eight months on the island, Louis' army, equipped with small landing craft they had built over the winter, set sail for Egypt in the middle of May 1249.

Why Egypt and not Jerusalem? In the middle of the 13th century, the center of Islamic power was Cairo, where Sultan Ayub ruled. Until the Egyptian army was neutralized, there could be no serious hope of a stable and secure kingdom of Jerusalem. Before Cairo, however, the Crusaders had two choices, Alexandria or Damietta. Louis chose the latter. His decision, according to the correspondence of one of his knights, was influenced by a storm that blew the fleet off course. His biographer Jean of Joinville, however, reported that the Christians learned that Ayub had devoted the greater of his forces to the defense of Alexandria. So Damietta seemed the better choice. Indeed, the initial assault, though hard fought, took only a day.

On Saturday morning, July 5, after assisting at Mass and confessing their sins, Louis' knights hit the beach. Not even waiting for their horses, they leapt from their barges into waist-deep water and waded ashore. Louis himself eager to join the fray, jumped in when the water was up to his neck.

Met by the sultan's forces, the French knights fought hand-to-hand in the tide and on the sand for hours, Louis always in the thick of the fight. In time the Christians carried the day, and any Muslims not lying dead on the beach fled to seek safety within the walls of Damietta, defended, they hoped, by Bedouin tribesmen.They found instead a terrified garrison and a civilian population evacuating the city. Save the handful of Christians who lived there, Damietta was abandoned. By Sunday afternoon the king's banner flew over the palace of the sultan. In 48 hours, the French had taken a city that 30 years before had held Crusaders at bay for a year.

Within a few weeks, the mosque was consecrated as a Christian cathedral. A bishop was installed. The military orders established houses. Genovese, Pisans, and Venetians set up markets. Queen Marguerite moved into the sultan's former palace. For a brief summer, "Damietta became the capital of Outremer."

A Rough Crossing
But Louis now had to wait for two events: the arrival of reinforcements under his brother Alphonse, and the subsiding of the waters of the Nile from their annual flood. Louis stayed with his army encamped outside the city and saw to the camp's defenses, for the sultan had offered Bedouin raiders one gold bezant for each French head. Heat, flies, and fever plagued the camp. The barons distracted themselves with elaborate feasts, while common soldiers consorted with prostitutes, sometimes very close to the king's own pavilion. Months after the campaign, Louis discharged these men who acted so faithlessly when the French army was in such need of God's grace.

The barons of Outremer suggested taking Alexandria, whose port would secure control of the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. But the king's brother, Robert of Artois, argued for Cairo, declaring, "if you want to kill the serpent, crush its head." The image must have appealed to Louis, who chose Cairo, but he was badly in need of a decent intelligence officer. Damietta, as the Crusaders soon learned, was separated from Cairo by 100 miles of desert laced with a bewildering network of canals and Nile tributaries.

Alphonse arrived at the end of October with reinforcements, and Louis launched the campaign for Cairo at the beginning of Advent. The event was a complex combined-arms operation. River barges burdened with huge siege engines and supplies fought currents and contrary winds. Engineers dammed canals and built bridges. The army marched overland.

Mansurah, 45 miles southwest of Damietta, was the first objective. On December 21, the Christians drew close to Mansurah and met with the sultan's army, drawn up for battle on the opposite side of a wide canal. While the Christians worked to build a causeway, Egyptian engineers dug out the canal on the opposite bank and harassed the French with Greek fire—a medieval flamethrower of sorts. After six weeks without any progress, Louis sent a party to find a ford downstream. A place to cross was found, though hardly a ford: For much of the crossing, the horses had to swim. Louis' brother, Robert, was first across along with the Master of the Temple and his 290 knights. Robert had strict orders not to engage the enemy until the whole army could be drawn up on the opposite side, but wanting, perhaps, to exploit surprise, and certainly hoping for glory, Robert led an attack, against the counsel of the better-disciplined Templar Master.

The sudden attack caught many of the Saracens off guard as they were rising from sleep. The Grand Vizier was in his bathtub getting his grey beard died with henna. A great slaughter ensued, but Robert was not content with the success of one risk. Intoxicated with his success, he again disobeyed the king, ignored the Templar Master, and led his force in pursuit of the Saracens inside the city walls of Mansurah. There the tables turned. French knights, glorious on their warhorses in the open field, were suddenly trapped in narrow streets, contending with blind corners and rooftop archers. Arrows and ambushes destroyed Robert's army, and Robert himself perished in the fray. A crusading victory became a Christian rout. Only five Templars escaped with their lives.

The French Fall Captive
Louis' army had at last taken the opposite bank, but at too great a cost. Weeping at the news of the death of his brother, the king refused to retreat to Damietta. When the Egyptian counterattack came, Louis' cavalry swept the Saracens back into the town.The Muslims regrouped and charged again, this time driving the king back to the banks of the canal, where he was saved only by his archers storming across a hastily built pontoon bridge.The French repelled attack after attack, but now three critical combat multipliers —time, climate, and geography—were on the side of the Muslims.

Throughout Lent the situation deteriorated. By dragging ships overland, the Egyptian army blockaded Crusader resupplies from Damietta, on one occasion capturing 80 Christian vessels and slaughtering every man aboard. Lack of fresh food and poor sanitation brought the standard Crusader plagues: dysentery and scurvy (Joinville described the latter in grisly terms, gangrened gums that had to be cut away by the army's barbers). When, at last, Louis decided to retreat to Damietta, he did so under constant harassment from Saracen skirmishers. Much of the army, including Louis, was too sick to march, but the king refused to abandon his soldiers in spite of his constant need to dismount from his horse because of dysentery. When his brother Charles complained that he was slowing their progress, Louis replied, "Count of Anjou, if I am a drag on you, get rid of me, but I will never rid myself of my people."

What followed was a tragic end to a sad story: Phillip of Montfort, one of Outremer's better barons, had nearly negotiated free passage out of Egypt for the French army in exchange for the surrender of Damietta. But before the deal could be sealed, a French sergeant—perhaps paid by the Saracens—persuaded the Christians at the battle of Fariskur to surrender or risk the death of the king. Before Louis understood what was happening, his army had surrendered. Every man was taken captive including Louis, who was led off in chains. For the next seven days, the Muslims beheaded 300 men a day, leaving their corpses to rot in the sun.

Back in Damietta, the courageous Queen Marguerite, who had only three days before delivered a son, John Tristan, found herself negotiating with feckless Genovese shipowners who wanted to sail for home. She bribed them to stay, using her own fortune, saving Damietta and the lives of many French prisoners, for the city was the only bargaining chip left to Louis as he negotiated his ransom and that of his army. Though so sick with dysentery that the bones of his back showed though his skin, he kept up his customary good cheer throughout his captivity, even when threatened with torture. He was not treated badly by the sultan, who sent him new clothes and Arab doctors, with whom Louis was impressed.

After a month in captivity, the king was released on payment of half the debt. To secure the other half, which would be paid when the king reached Acre (partly from Templar funds), the Saracens insisted on holding one of the king's brothers. Louis named Charles, but the Muslims insisted on Alphonse, whom they were certain Louis loved better.

Return of the King
For four years, Louis remained in Acre, governing what remained of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and negotiating the release of all of his soldiers. Though the Egyptians proved faithless and murdered the sick Christians left behind in Damietta, in time all of Louis' knights were released and a 15-year truce with Egypt set.

In 1253, the sultan of Aleppo led a massacre on the town of Sidon, killing 2,000 Christians. The king marched overland with his army to Sidon, where he saw to the burial of the dead. His men complained at having to handle the stinking corpses, so with his own hands, the king set about this corporal work of mercy before joining the priests in their prayers for the dead.

At Sidon, Louis heard the news of his mother's death. It reinforced his opinion that he needed to return to France, and the barons of Outremer agreed: He had done all that he could during four years in the Holy Land. He had rebuilt the defenses of Acre, Jaffa, and Sidon, but all agreed that Louis needed to return to France to inspire more men to take the cross.

But when he returned, the opinion was that if a man as devout and upright as King Louis IX had failed and even suffered the indignity of capture, then the prospects for another Crusade seemed hopeless. Louis' heart was burdened with the failure, and he feared that the capture and imprisonment of a Christian king had brought confusion to Christianity. Matthew Paris reported that the post-Crusade Louis set aside the joys of life small and great in which he had once delighted so much. Joinville, too, described a man more set than ever on flatters eternal.

The Noblest Knight of the Age
With greater personal asceticism, the man who once loved a good party or a stirring theological discussion with his friend Thomas Aquinas now devoted himself more than ever to making France a place where Christian holiness would flower. He labored for peace and justice with such drive that he became the most sought-after arbiter in Europe. In negotiating peace with England, his advisors believed he was far too generous to Henry III. He outlawed private war and judicial combat. He coined the realm's first gold coin in centuries, the ecu, replete with Crusader imagery. He gave generously to the poor, feeding them from his own table and washing their feet. He supported the Church, building monasteries and leper hospitals. He encouraged large-scale displays of public piety, participating in no fewer than nine translations of saints' relics. In Paris's words, he was "the pinnacle of the kings on Earth." In G.K Chesterton's, "the noblest knight of the Middle Ages."

His record as king justifies the praise. So vigorously did he pursue peace that from 1243 until 34 years after his death, there were no serious challenges to the authority of the French throne. During the same period, both England and Germany were troubled by rebellions and civil war. Louis united France and Languedoc, a region that only a generation before had been a hotbed of Albigensian heresy. He understood that peace that began in the heart of each Christian man would spread throughout Christendom. In looking after the needs of his people, especially the poor, he lent his office a tone rare in any age. His reign might be the stuff of a devotional guide for many politicians today, for whom ideals such as self-sacrifice are remote and the idea of a united Christian people working out their salvation together is impossible.

More impossible perhaps for the post-Christian politician is the idea of a particular people with a strong sense of its place and unique role in history. It is this self-understanding that Louis gave the French, an understanding confirmed and strengthened by another French saint—a girl who headed an army herself—a century and a half later.

Louis' second Crusade died with him. It was by military and political standards a worse failure than the first, but those who see his Crusades as mere failures miss altogether the central role these events played in his life. In the crucible of his first Crusade, the heart of a Christian king was forged. It is fitting that he died on the second. With Joinville, "Well may we, and with pity mourn the death of this holy prince who held his kingdom with such sanctity and truth."

Christopher Check is executive vice president of The Rockford Institute. He lectures on military and Church history. He served for seven years as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps, attaining the grade of captain. He and his wife, Jacqueline, have four sons.

A Formidable Queen Mother

Louis was more than assisted in ruling France by his mother, the remarkable Blanche of Castile. She served as regent of France from the time Louis was 12 until his 21st birthday, but this granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever remained her son's closest political counsel. With all of her grandmother's will, but none of her worldliness, the pious and devout Blanche saw to her son's formation. From his mother, the young Louis took his deep commitment to the sacra¬ments and to the Divine Office, and also his oft-repeated conviction that any bodily torment was infinitely preferable to mortal sin. From her he took his understanding that the duty of a Christian king was to govern a kingdom of Christians whose hearts were filled with, and whose actions were motivated by, love of Jesus Christ. Blanche gave Louis something else: a French throne more powerful than it had ever been. When her husband, the not-yet-40 Louis VIII died of fever on his way home from a Crusade against the Albigensian, the barons of France declared their independence from the throne. Blanche did not hesitate. She crushed the claim of one would-be usurper, an illegitimate son of Phillip Augustus, by swiftly arranging for the coronation of the 12-year-old Louis at Rheims. Dear as this traditional site of coronation of the French kings was to Louis, he often said that his native Poissy was dearer to him, for it was there that he received a gift and honor greater than the crown: baptism. ■

A Pole-Vault across Purgatory

Although a major Crusade had not been mounted since the disastrous siege of Damietta in 1219, the knighted class still believed that a Crusade to the Holy Land was something required of a Christian knight at least once. Lofty motives, to be sure, were sometimes diluted by dreams of high adventure in exotic lands and the prospect of great wealth (seldom realized). In France, warriors had less and less work as the law courts of King Louis began to resolve arguments once settled by armies in the field. Louis had outlawed trial by combat within the realm.

Of greatest importance in recruiting Crusaders, however, was the fact that the 13th century was still the Christian age, and the promise of spiritual benefits spoke directly to the hearts of even the most violent men. Colorful clerics preached the king's crusade with sermons about demons in the forest bewailing the growing number of Christians who had taken the cross. Others compared going on Crusade with the poles the men of Flanders used to vault the canals of their city: a Crusade was like pole-vaulting across purgatory. Men who were reluctant to take the cross were shamed with comparisons to barnyard hens or tethered cows.

Louis himself was not above some pious trickery to fill his ranks. Before dawn's light on Christmas morning, he invited all the knights of his household to Mass, where he gave them each a gift of new robe, made of especially fine material. When the sun rose, the happy surprise of receiving such a gift gave way to alarm when the knights saw that Louis had had crosses sewn on the shoulders.The knights realized they had been drafted, but far from resenting the trick, their reaction was to join in the rambunctious good nature that Louis exuded in gathering his army. They called the king a "hunter of Pilgrims and a new Fisher of Men." ■

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