By Gary Potter
François Marie Arouet, known to literature and history as Voltaire, a name he assumed while serving time in prison, was an enemy of the Faith who did much to generate the intellectual atmosphere in which the French Revolution, once it exploded politically in 1789, was almost bound to succeed.
Ecrasons l’infame, he famously ranted. “Let us crush the Infamous One.” By “Infamous One,” he meant the Catholic religion.
(Voltaire was also the author of a statement that has become in our time a cliché of the false philosophy of liberalism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”)
Yet, this man, who was wrong about nearly everything, was right on at least one occasion. That was when he wrote of the subject of the present essay: “Louis IX appeared to be a prince destined to reform Europe, if she could have been reformed, to render France triumphant and civilized, and to be in all things a pattern for men. His piety, which was that of an anchorite, did not deprive him of any kingly virtue. A profound policy was combined with strict justice and he is perhaps the only sovereign who is entitled to this praise; prudent and firm in counsel, intrepid without rashness in his wars, he was as compassionate as if he had always been unhappy. No man could have carried virtue further.”
What we want to do in the lines that follow is discover why even a committed enemy of Christianity and Christian social order like Voltaire would feel moved to pay such homage to the king and warrior who became a saint. We shall do this by a consideration of Louis’ life and exploits, about which more is known than is the case with numerous other personages famous in history. This, even though many, like Voltaire, have claimed that the age in which he lived was “dark.”
The claim is preposterous. Little of importance remains hidden today about the “Dark” Ages. Information abounds. To give an example, though it will not be done here because it would take too much space, a detailed accounting can be given of the financial cost of the two Crusades led by St. Louis. The records exist. Can as much be said about all the expenditures of the U.S. Defense Department?
Nor were those centuries “dark” in the sense of being intellectually, culturally or artistically benighted. Dante, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas were all contemporary with Louis, or nearly so. (Thomas was his personal friend.) This was also the period that gave us the architecture we call Gothic, the two greatest French examples of which are associated with Louis: Notre Dame de Chartres and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. (He was present at the dedication of the former, and built the latter.) Painting as we know it — painting with perspective — was also born at this time. So was part singing, out of which developed all the music now known as “classical.”
As great as were numerous of Louis’ contemporaries, and as high as were their achievements, the particular century in which he lived — The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, as James J. Walsh titled it and his admirable history of it — was more marked by him than by anyone else. As Walsh himself put it, “Louis must be considered as probably the greatest monarch who ever occupied an important throne… . If the century had produced nothing else but Louis, it would have to be considered as a great epoch in history…”
Though that be so, we must not proceed to examining his life without recalling that Louis certainly is not the only monarch to become a saint. His very own cousin, Ferdinand III, King of Leon and Castile in Spain, was one. Other canonized monarchs include Henry, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and his wife, the Empress Cunegund; Edward the Confessor of England; Stephen of Hungary; Olaf of Norway; Vladimir of Russia; Wenceslaus of Bohemia; Elizabeth of Portugal; and Margaret of Scotland. (The list is not complete.)
Neither is Louis the only warrior to become a saint. Virtually all the princes raised to the Church’s altars were warriors. Indeed, it is likely that more men in the calendar of saints soldiered than have followed any other secular profession. Even many saints who were priests or religious were soldiers earlier in life (Ignatius of Loyola is a well-known example).
By definition, what the soldier does is employ force to attain some temporal end, almost exclusively — at least in modern times — a political one: to defend the going political order or to extend it, as when the U.S. was said to wage World War I in order to make the world “safe for democracy.” In times past, when there was still unity between the secular and spiritual — between throne and altar, one would say in those days — the temporal end was often less purely political. For instance, when the Inquisition existed, the Church relied on the civil authorities (ultimately the military) to employ force, when necessary, to safeguard religious orthodoxy in society. (No heretic was ever burned at the stake by Church authorities, and the total number of those killed in that manner was small.)
This is why we should not be surprised to hear Louis IX declare, as he did on one occasion, “A Christian should argue with a blasphemer only by running his sword through his bowels as far as it will go.”
We should be no more surprised to learn that this same king added to the coronation oath of French monarchs a vow to “exterminate,” which is to say, purge or expel, heretics from the kingdom.
Centuries after our saint, another King of France omitted the vow when he swore his coronation oath. This was the fated Louis XVI.
It was this same king, Louis XVI, who signed the measure in February, 1788, that gave Protestants equality — that fundamental principle of Freemasonry — with Catholics. Evidently he did not understand what the champions of the principle were about. In little more than a year, it became supreme over all others in the minds of too many, and the Revolution began.
Louis IX, St. Louis, was not an egalitarian. Yet no one could have cared more for the poor, nor been more practical, as we shall see, in demonstrating his care. As Voltaire said, he was always compassionate “as if he had always been unhappy.”
Let us not be misled by that phrase. St. Louis was not an unhappy man. He enjoyed a good laugh. Other of his greatest enjoyments might seem peculiar in an age like ours when pleasure often equates with nothing but “fun.” For instance, when at home he would invite guests to walk with him in his gardens after dinner. All members of the company were free to speak on any subject they wished. Louis delighted in such relaxed conversation.
We are going to consider him here as king, crusader and saint. As we do, we must not lose sight of him as we just saw him: as a man. This is because Louis, like every saint, was an integral Catholic.
This is to say, he was not holy only at Mass, while kneeling before the tabernacle for a visit with Our Lord, or engaged in some pious devotion. With saints, there is some sign of holiness in all the circumstances to which life can expose a man or woman. In our day, that could be while treating a patient, correcting a child, teaching a class, consulting with a client, talking with a fellow traveler, drafting a tax code, dealing with a sales clerk, dealing with a customer, or simply enjoying a glass of wine with friends. There is always a sign, or they are not saints. It is the difference between them and everybody else. It is not to say there are not times when they are less than completely holy. It is to say that they never stop trying, in this life, to become what we all must be in order to get into Heaven. We see this in the life of St. Louis.
It is the first of three things we want to keep in mind about him as we consider everything else. In everything he did, he must have asked himself if it would be pleasing to God.
The second thing to keep in mind has to do with Louis’ kingship. A hundred years before his birth, the Kingdom of France existed (it was called the Royal Domain), but the monarch of the day, Louis VI (known less than gloriously in French history as Louis the Fat) effectively ruled over no more than the countryside around Paris. His kingdom was surrounded by such lands as Burgundy, Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine, and others. Nominally, the lords of these lands were vassals of the king, but in actuality nearly all were wealthier and more powerful. In a word, the backbone of the political structure of France was not yet royal. It was feudal, as it still was in all the kingdoms of Christendom at that time. Kings ruled, but only through intermediaries: All the dukes, counts and other nobles constituted the feudal pyramid of which the king was simply the apex. As long as many of these nobles were wealthier and more powerful than the king, he could not always rule as he wished.
St. Louis’ immediate predecessor, his father Louis VIII, had succeeded somewhat in reducing the French nobles’ power from what it was in the days of Louis the Fat, but not to the same degree or by the same means as would St. Louis. Indeed, the nobles were on the verge of revolt when Louis came to the throne. The power of these nobles was the overarching political reality with which Louis had to deal as king.
As to the third thing to keep in mind about Louis: We ought to think of him as being at all times a crusader. It was not simply on the two occasions he took the cross and during the total of six years he spent away from his kingdom on actual Crusade, or even beginning in 1239 when he had the Crown of Thorns brought to Paris and first conceived of going to the Holy Land. In a deep sense, he was always filled with the crusading spirit.
That was natural. First of all, in terms of the actual Crusades, they could fairly be described as a national enterprise of France. The first one, the 900th anniversary of whose triumph was commemorated last July, was called by Pope Urban II, a Frenchman. He came into his native land, to Clermont in France, to issue his call. The Second Crusade was preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and led by King Louis VII. That it ended in disaster is beside the point. The French vision of the Faith and European Christian civilization taking root and flowering in the Mohammedan Middle East persisted right into the 19th century when the liberal Louis-Philippe I colonized Algeria in the 1830s and the Bonaparte Napoleon III sent French troops into Lebanon to protect the native Christians in the 1860s. Indeed, it has still existed in this century. Charles de Foucauld was its martyr; and so, many would say, were the patriotic French officers who sacrificed their careers to oppose Charles de Gaulle for abandoning the vision a scant 40 years ago. The point is that the spirit of the Crusades, this Faith-filled civilizing vision, is also exactly what inspired Louis IX, St. Louis, at home. He was filled with it when he undertook the reform of his own kingdom along the strictest lines of justice possible.
What was the result? It was not simply that the despicable Voltaire would laud him for it. It is Frenchmen growing up, still today, after two centuries of republican propaganda, with a mental picture of St. Louis sitting beneath an oak tree in the Forest of Vincennes, dispensing justice.
Louis the Crusader in Palestine. He
appears to be protecting an old friar
from the Mohammedans, while his finger marks his place in the Breviary.
appears to be protecting an old friar
from the Mohammedans, while his finger marks his place in the Breviary.
This is in the same way that Americans grow up, or used to do, thinking of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge, as in a famous painting that depicts the scene. The difference is that in real life Washington was never seen to kneel even in his home church in Alexandria, Virginia. St. Louis really did dispense justice.
What we want to do now is outline his biography. When that is done, we shall return to certain of the outlined points in order to flesh them out.
Louis was born on April 25, 1214, in a place called Poissy. That is also where he was baptized. He was his parents’ fourth child, but the first three would die at an early age, making him heir. (He had seven more brothers and sisters who lived.)
On November 8, 1226, his father, Louis VIII, died. Our saint was then anointed king on November 29, at Rheims, where all French monarchs were anointed and crowned.
The two events, his baptism and coronation, should be underlined because St. Louis was heard to say more than once during his life that his baptism at Poissy was more important than his anointing at Rheims.
In 1228, the great monastery of Royaumont was founded.
The next year, 1229, Louis took personal command of troops in the field for the first time. He was 15.
On May 27, 1234, St. Louis was married. His wife was Marguerite, daughter of the Count of Provence. Louis was an ardent husband. The couple would have eleven children.
On October 19, 1235, Royaumont was dedicated. Four years later, in August, 1239, the Crown of Thorns was received by Louis in Paris. Construction of the Sainte Chapelle, where it would be enshrined, was begun soon thereafter.
In December, 1244, Louis was gravely ill with a form of malaria and vowed to go on a Crusade if he recovered. That same month, Pope Innocent IV arrived at Lyon to preside over a general council that would begin the following June. (The main business of this council was to depose the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.)
On April 26, 1248, the Sainte Chapelle was consecrated. Two months later, on June 12, Louis left Paris on Crusade.
Nearly a year later, after wintering in Cyprus, Louis and his knights arrived at Damietta in the Nile Delta and took the city. This was on June 5, 1249.
On February 9, 1250, the Crusaders fought and won the Battle of Mansurah. However, on April 7, 1250, Louis was captured by the Mohammedans and his army crushed. As God would have it, the Sultan of Egypt was then overthrown and instead of being put to death, St. Louis was ransomed on May 6. He proceeded into the Holy Land, where he stayed until April 24, 1254. Meantime, his mother, Blanche of Castile, died in November, 1252.
On December 4, 1254, Louis was back in Paris. The years that immediately followed marked the period during which Louis worked the most intensely at the political, economic and social reform of his kingdom.
On March 24, 1267, he took the cross again, and on March 15, 1270, once more left on Crusade.
He arrived in Tunisia on July 17 with two of his sons, Jean-Tristan and Philippe. A typhoid epidemic was raging in the area. On August 3, Jean-Tristan died. Our saint followed him on August 25.
In May, 1271, his remains were laid to rest at the Abbey of St. Denis, burial place of the Kings of France.
On August 9, 1297, Louis was canonized after the Church examined 65 miracles attesting to his sanctity.
Now, let us flesh out this summary of St. Louis’ life, as it was said we would do.
Readers will note, first of all, that when his father died and he assumed the throne, Louis was a boy of 12. That is an age when a father’s influence normally becomes most necessary in the life of a son. That this influence was lacking over Louis doubtless helps explain the fits of temper into which he sometimes fell as an adolescent. He fought to control this tendency, but even as a grown man was capable of outbursts that can only be described, and have been, as childish. These tantrums left him, as well as his courtiers, abashed.
His temper was not his only weakness in both youth and maturity. He was also what the French call a “good fork.” That is, he loved to eat, and he sometimes indulged his passion for food to the point of gluttony. He never became fat like his ancestor Louis VI, but pushing back from the table was a lifelong struggle he frequently lost. On the other hand, he regularly fasted and practiced other austerities.
Because of the premature death of his father, Louis’ mother played a larger role in his life, and for a longer time than would have been the case had the father lived. This was still more so since it was she who acted as regent during his minority. Even when he took the reins of government into his own hands in 1234, she remained active in the affairs of the kingdom, to the degree that it was she whom Louis named to rule in his place when he went on Crusade in 1248.
We have already identified the mother: Blanche of Castile. She was born a Spanish princess, but was half English on her mother’s side. (Her mother was a granddaughter of another formidable woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was Queen of France and then of England for a total of 67 years. A sister of Blanche, Berengaria, became the mother of King St. Ferdinand of Leon and Castile.)
Today, Blanche is best known, at least among Catholics, for once saying that she would rather see Louis dead at her feet than guilty of a mortal sin. That is a very edifying thing for her to have said, but it slights her memory if it is all that is remembered about her. Her son could have used the hand of a man to guide him as he grew up, but it is doubtful that Louis VIII could have governed the Kingdom of France more ably than Blanche as regent. Indeed, it is possible that under anyone else at the time, the kingdom might have ceased to exist, at least as a kingdom that was both French and Catholic. Why?
Besides rebellious nobles, Blanche had to contend with two other threats to her son’s throne. First, the Plantagenets — the ruling dynasty in England — were French in origin and still held lands in the country that the current king, Henry III, had no intention of giving up. On the contrary, his lordship of these lands was the basis of a claim to the throne of France, one supported by numerous French nobles.
Second, in the Languedoc region of the south of France the Albigensians were in armed revolt against Catholic government and Catholic religious orthodoxy. (Louis VIII had died while on campaign against them.) Their principal leader was Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse.
Without losing ourselves in the details, we must at least sketch the steps taken by Blanche, and then Louis, to meet and overcome these threats to the throne.
To begin, starting in 1223 there came a pause in the fighting between France and England that we know as the Hundred Years’ War. Since Henry III had not surrendered his French claims, it was no more than a pause, but Blanche took advantage of it to go on the offensive against the coalition of nobles who sought to win back what power they had lost during the reigns of Philippe II and Louis VIII. The two chief figures of the coalition were Hugh of Lusignan and Peter of Dreux, Duke of Brittany. Fortunately, with no support forthcoming from Henry III, Hugh and Peter could not withstand Blanche’s offensive and were compelled to sign with her a truce, the Treaty of Vendome. This was on March 16, 1227, less than four full months after the coronation of Louis.
Blanche turned immediately to completing the suppression begun by her late husband of the Albigensian revolt. She dispatched royal troops into Languedoc. By April 11, 1229, Raymond VII had no choice but to accept the terms of the Treaty of Paris. They were stiff. Under them, not simply had Raymond to accede to the marriage of his daughter to Louis’ younger brother Alphonse. He also had to agree to Languedoc becoming a part of the Royal Domain upon the death of Alphonse and his wife.
No sooner was the Treaty of Paris signed than Henry III landed in Brittany with an invasion force. This was with the support of Peter of Dreux, who was thus in violation of the truce established by the Treaty of Vendome. Henry moved into the west of France and set up a base in Nantes. This is when Louis, as we have already said he did, took personal command of troops in the field for the first time — at age 15. He marched on Nantes. His mere approach was enough to make Henry ride south for Bordeaux, from where he set sail back to England. Peter of Dreux was not punished for breaking the truce of the Treaty of Vendome, but he was obliged to submit once and for all to the authority of King Louis.
It is to skip ahead in time, but on Christmas Day, 1241, Hugh of Lusignan again rose in revolt. Henry III seized the moment and landed with a powerful force at Royans on May 12, 1242. A majority of the nobles of western France went over to him. Yet, at a bridge at Taillebourg on July 21, Louis’ army was able to win an almost bloodless victory over the English. Henry was allowed to depart in peace for London. Hugh was not left shamed by any punitive action on Louis’ part.
A picture ought to be emerging by now for the reader. Voltaire said Louis was not rash in his wars. Neither was he ever vindictive in victory. He never made a former foe grovel. In modern times, we are used to enemies being told they must surrender unconditionally, with the result that they fight to the bitter end because they have nothing to lose. Then, when they can no longer fight, they are left humiliated and thirsty for future revenge. Louis did not believe in modern “total” victory or “final” solutions. To him, magnanimity was not simply a virtue of the Christian warrior. It was a wise policy.
Indeed it was. When Louis left on his first Crusade in 1248, Hugh and Peter of Dreux were both among the knights who accompanied him.
Returning to the subject of his boyhood, a few words must be said about his education, which was overseen by Blanche even as she maneuvered to put down the threats to her son’s throne.
Learning the use of arms and to ride and hunt was an indispensable part of Louis’ education, as it was that of every young noble in those days. (As late as the 1960s, all officers of the French army were required to learn to ride with the aim that they become bienseant. The term literally translates as “well-seated,” as in “to sit a horse.” More broadly, it means to carry oneself with a noble, upright bearing.) Besides the manly arts, Louis had tutors who taught him ancient literature, geography and biblical history, among other subjects. His mother herself undertook his instruction in religion. Capable as she was of saying that she would rather see him dead than guilty of mortal sin, it can be believed that her son’s religious education was thorough, and thoroughly absorbed. According to the testimony collected by the Church during the process of his canonization from very many who knew him, no one who was close — friends, comrades-in-arms, even his servants and cooks — doubted the sincerity of Louis’ Catholic beliefs and the centrality of the Faith in his life.
He left two monuments that reflected in stone and glass the importance of the religion to him, as also, one senses, his character. They were mentioned in our outline of his life: the great Abbey of Royaumont and the Sainte Chapelle.
The former was built near Chantilly, an easy drive today from Paris. For five centuries it was one of the principal shrines of Europe. That was before much of it was destroyed in the aftermath of the Revolution at the end of the 18th century. In what remains in its setting, on the banks of the Oise River and amid what were once great forests running north and south, we see peace, devotion, and very great splendor — like that of the king who built the abbey, a man who lived in personal simplicity but knew how to put on the trappings of majesty when the occasion said that was needed.
Splendor is also certainly the word for the Sainte Chapelle, splendor and radiance. The Chapel lies today within the complex of the Ministry of Justice in downtown Paris. Its windows – they constitute veritable walls of glass — radiate beauty, as must Louis have radiated holiness. Many, including this writer, cannot take in so much beauty, at least not in one visit, no more than Louis’ radiance might have been identified as holiness by persons unaccustomed to that quality. It is like being used to the plainest cooking and suddenly being invited to choose from a variety of dishes prepared and presented by the world’s greatest chefs. With which ones do you begin? Where to fix your eyes amid the dazzling beauty of the Sainte Chapelle’s windows? How can we be anything but awkward and tongue-tied in the presence of holiness? Some will want simply to hide themselves, like St. Peter faced by the fact of Our Lord’s divinity.
As already stated, the Sainte Chapelle was built by St. Louis to enshrine the Crown of Thorns. The Crown had come into the possession of Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, after the Byzantine capital was occupied by knights of the West during the Fourth Crusade. Baldwin turned it over to Venetian bankers as security against a loan. In 1238, needing money again but with nothing to pawn, Baldwin offered the precious relic to St. Louis, who redeemed it from the Venetians and had it brought with great ceremony to Paris.
(Readers may wonder what has happened to the Crown of Thorns. There is a relic preserved in the treasury of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that is called the Crown of Thorns. However, the Crown enshrined by St. Louis, and which remained in the Sainte Chapelle until the Revolution, was helmet-shaped and would have inflicted wounds corresponding to those seen on the Shroud of Turin. What may be seen at Notre Dame is a circlet, not even of thorns, but made of rushes. Is this circlet the device that held the helmet-shaped Crown together? Many believe so. The rest of the Crown disappeared with the Revolution, like most of the Abbey of Royaumont and so much else, including even the remains of France’s monarchs — including St. Louis — when their tombs at St. Denis were broken open by the revolutionaries.
It is a footnote, but Mass is not celebrated at the Sainte Chapelle anymore. Like all church buildings in the French republic, it is property of the state. The state today maintains it as simply a museum. However, one Mass was allowed there in recent times. This was during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, when the French were happy to have a Mass said as a birthday present for JFK’s mother, Rose.)
Having glanced at Louis’ education and looked for signs of the man in two monuments he built, we want now to consider another aspect of him, that of husband. That is, we want to speak of his marriage. More exactly, we want to say something about his mother’s role in it.
It was Blanche who chose Marguerite of Provence to be Louis’ wife. The choice was as excellent as most of Blanche’s decisions, but as much as she loved her husband, there must have many moments when Marguerite regretted having been picked. This is because jealousy made Blanche a wife’s nightmare of a mother-in-law.
In this regard we are reminded that a person can be a sincere Christian, can be devout, can say something that seems very holy (like preferring to see a son dead than guilty of mortal sin), without being, in this life, holy. In the outside world, Louis had to contend with seditious nobles and the English, but it was also a constant struggle for him to keep peace in his household — peace between Blanche and Marguerite. Doubtless this was a test of his sanctity.
So poor were relations between the women that when Louis departed on his first Crusade, he took his wife and children with him rather than leave them with Blanche — even as he left the kingdom in his mother’s care.
When the royal couple lived in Pontoise, they had suites of rooms above and below each other in the chateau. It is documented that in order for them to talk privately, they had to meet on the stairway in between, with servants posted to warn them if Blanche was headed their way!
Blanche’s possessiveness can probably be explained in part by her having raised Louis as a single parent. Further, her very successes as regent and the role she continued to play in administering the kingdom probably fortified her in the view that if her son were to listen to any woman, it ought to be to her.
The successes continued for her and Louis. They might be seen to culminate with the victory, already here mentioned, that Louis won over the English at Taillebourg in 1242; but two years later, also as already told, he fell gravely ill and resolved to go on Crusade if he survived the illness.
Jerusalem, which had been liberated by the knights of the First Crusade in July, 1099, had again fallen to the Mohammedans in August, 1244. Damascus was also taken by the armies of the Sultan of Egypt. It seemed clear that if aid was not soon forthcoming from the West, the Christian position in the East would collapse. Louis was determined to provide the necessary relief.
What is important to grasp about him is that he did not simply take up and go. He could not. Though the wider interests of Christendom mattered much to him, as king he had obligations at home. A tension arose within him. The eyes of all Europe were turned in his direction as he strove at one and the same time to set the affairs of his kingdom in order and ready an expedition for the rescue of the Holy Land. Because he was a man of conscience, the tension he felt was heightened by his awareness of the expectations of both his subjects and his brothers and sisters in the Faith abroad. It was a tension he would feel for the rest of his life. His effort to resolve it goes a long way toward explaining the impact he finally had on his own land, and elsewhere. Not the least significant part of that impact was its spiritual and moral dimension.
Louis’ aim in going on Crusade was to recover Jerusalem for Christianity. He hoped he would be joined in the effort by the princes of other European lands. That is, he hoped the planned expedition to regain the Holy Land would be an international one representing a united Christendom. Beginning, then, in early 1245, he dispatched special envoys to various courts of Europe to enlist the participation of other rulers. The object of this diplomacy was practical as well as idealistic. On the one hand, a general peace on the Continent would allow him to leave France free of fear that the country would be attacked in his absence. On the other hand, if other princes joined him in the venture, it would help assure success.
At the same time he sought the participation of other rulers, Louis was filled with the conviction that this was God’s war he was planning. Accordingly, he felt it could not have a successful outcome, however many joined him, unless all who set out on the undertaking did so with pure hearts. That is how everyone would be worthy of Heaven’s support.
So it was that in 1247, he established a new corps of royal officials called enqueteurs from the French verb enquerir, meaning to inquire or investigate. These were Franciscan and Dominican friars (again, we see throne and altar working in harmony for the improvement of society) who operated somewhat like inspectors general in a modern government. Under royal mandate, the enqueteurs circulated throughout the kingdom with the power to investigate the doings of officials of the crown, and to remove from office any and all who were found to have acted corruptly or abusively. Louis’ intent was to purge the kingdom of all wrongdoing of which he was ultimately responsible, since the guilty officials acted in his name. The result, in the words of one historian, was a “wholesale transference of office between 1247 and 1249.”
Even as he cleaned house at home, Louis continued to try to recruit foreign princes and nobles for the planned Crusade. In this, he was less successful, especially in Germany and Italy. Those countries were too preoccupied by the fight for supremacy between the papacy and the emperor that followed the Council of Lyon’s declaration against Frederick II in 1245. Louis tried to mediate the dispute but got nowhere. Very few Germans and Italians would set forth with him when he finally departed on his first Crusade.
It was another story in France. Louis’ general policy of reconciling the nobles instead of simply smashing them militarily was having its effect. Further, the nobles were much impressed by the sincerity and vigor of Louis’ effort to rid his kingdom of corrupt and oppressive officials. They could see that it was paying off politically. Not simply were Louis’ subjects more loyal than ever. They were even willing to pay the higher taxes that had to be raised to finance the Crusade. The result was that the nobles were inclined more and more to emulate Louis, rather than challenge him. In sum, Louis IX showed real leadership — by example, instead of simply by command.
When magnates and former rebels like Hugh of Lusignan and Peter of Dreux agreed to accompany the King on Crusade, it was inevitable that others would do the same, and that lesser men, given the regional influence and power of the lords, would then follow. Three of Louis’ own brothers would go with him: Robert of Artois, Charles of Anjou and Alphonse of Poitiers.
Yet, one great lord remained alienated and disaffected. This was Raymond VII, the Count of Toulouse who had been the principal leader of the Albigensian revolt. Speaking dynastically, he had lost everything when the revolt was put down and Blanche of Castile dictated the eventual loss of his lands to the Royal Domain.
On his side, Louis understood that it would be dangerous to the peace and stability of his kingdom, even with his mother in charge, if he left France with Raymond still embittered. He set out to mollify him. The details of how he accomplished this are beyond the scope of this article, but Raymond did take the cross and was about to leave to join Louis in Egypt when he died unexpectedly in 1249.
Louis himself finally embarked at Aigues-Mortes on August 25, 1248. His strategic plan was sound. He would begin his campaign in Egypt instead of the Holy Land itself. This reflected the importance that Egypt now played in the East, compared to the days of the Third Crusade.
Louis has been criticized by some for electing to spend the winter in Cyprus, where he landed on September 17, since the Sultan of Egypt was just then in Syria with most of his troops, laying siege to Aleppo. However, Louis reasoned that if he captured the principal cities of Egypt, they could be held hostage for ones in Syria, making it much easier to restore the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. To accomplish this, he wanted available to him every man possible before moving on to Egypt, and troops were still straggling in from the European mainland. When he did set sail for Egypt at the end of May, 1249, he had about 15,000 men, including 2,500 knights. It was a large force for that time, but no more than would be necessary, even if everything went smoothly.
At first it did. Louis landed at Damietta on June 5, 1249. He was one of the first men to leap ashore from the boats. Once on land, he planted the Oriflamme of St. Denis, a banner that was the standard of the Kings of France when they personally led troops in the field. Within a day, Damietta was captured. The Crusaders sustained very few losses.
Military historians still debate whether Louis should have advanced immediately on Cairo. He did not, and seems to have had two considerations in mind. He knew the annual Nile flood was soon to begin, and he remembered that it had been largely responsible for the failure of the Fifth Crusade. He also wanted to wait for the last reinforcements expected from France. These were troops led by his brother, Alphonse, who had been left behind in case Henry III decided to take advantage of Louis’ absence to launch an invasion across the “English” Channel. Alphonse arrived in late October and the Crusaders headed up the Damietta branch of the Nile for Cairo on November 20.
The great river’s waters and estuaries, however, were still swollen from that year’s flooding, and this delayed the Crusaders. Eventually they reached a place called al-Bakr al Saglin opposite the city of Mansurah where most of the Egyptian troops not in Syria with the Sultan were deployed. At first, Louis and his men were stymied. How to cross the river? Then a native of the place disclosed the existence of an unguarded ford further downstream.
A body of Crusaders led by Louis’ brother, Robert of Artois, crossed over at dawn on February 8, 1250. Louis had ordered this vanguard to stay in place once the beachhead was secured. They were not to move on Mansurah until joined by the rest of the army, but Robert, perhaps looking for more glory than he should, disregarded his brother’s orders. He led his troops into Mansurah and in its streets was killed, together with most of his men. Thanks to his energy and tactical skills, Louis was able to save the situation once he got across the river and on the scene. Mansurah was a victory for the Crusaders. Too many men had been killed taking it, however, and the survivors were exhausted. Moreover, the banks of the Nile were now littered by thousands of corpses. Disease soon began to spread. The Crusaders hung on in captured Mansurah for eight weeks, but on April 5, his men dying and all provisions exhausted, Louis ordered a retreat back to Damietta. His army, harassed by the Egyptians as it withdrew, continued to disintegrate. Louis himself was now ill. On April 7, he surrendered. His Crusade was over.
We may say it was his brother Robert’s impetuosity that was cause of this disaster, but Louis never blamed him. Robert, after all, was not King, not the leader of this Crusade. Louis was. If God did not bless the venture with success, it was due to his own shortcomings, his own failings and sins. It was because of them he was now captive. Given his conviction, we are not surprised to learn that Louis was never heard to complain about being taken prisoner, but did lament that his breviary was lost in the fighting.
Louis was held prisoner for a month. It appeared that he faced execution. However, the Sultan, Turan Shah, was assassinated on May 2. In the turbulent days that followed, Louis was able to negotiate with his captors a ransom for himself and some of his leading barons still left alive. The agreement required the surrender of Damietta as well as that half the ransom be paid. When this was done, he departed by boat for Acre, the last major Latin outpost left in the East. Marguerite and his children awaited him there.
We have said that even as a grown man St. Louis was capable of childish outbursts of temper. An example of that can be offered at this juncture. We have the story of it from Jean de Joinville.
The latter was a close friend of the King in peace and a comrade-in-arms in war. He was one of the principal witnesses called by the Church during the process of St. Louis’ canonization. He was also the author of a memoir (Vie de St. Louis) that has been a source for all biographers of Louis ever since. Much of the information in the present article was gleaned from it.
The King with the Crown of Thorns
As embarrassingly childish as was the King’s outburst, Nemurs must have seen it coming. Joinville tells us: “It was Nemurs who had the best of it, since he seized the occasion for stuffing all the coins on the table into his pocket.”
Nemurs’ quick action probably produced a laugh for everyone who saw it, taking some of the edge off the moment. But that, of course, is not the point, no more than that Louis embarrassed himself.
We know the answer if we ask ourselves, “How many of us loose our temper on occasion?” What, however, is the answer if we ask, “How many of us will strive to the best of our ability, conscious that God is watching, to fulfill the duties of our state in life?”
Louis’ duties were those of a king. We are about to see how, after the crushing defeat in Egypt, he strove more than ever to fulfill them.
First, he would remain in the East a further four years. He began this period by effectively taking over the government of what remained of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Through negotiations with the Egyptians and other Mohammedans, he worked out a series of treaties and truces that buttressed the kingdom, thus transforming a military defeat into a diplomatic success. Then he launched a massive program to improve the kingdom’s defenses. Fortifications in Acre, Caesarea, Jaffa and Sidon were all strengthened. Only then, when he felt he could do no more, when the death of his mother required that he return home, and after finally securing the ransom of men left behind in Egypt in 1250, did he sail for France on April 24, 1254. That he left behind 100 knights to reinforce the garrison of Acre made it clear that he was intent on returning as soon as possible to try again, in person, to free the Holy Land.
By now, his prestige throughout Europe was immense. Louis made use of it by opening negotiations with Henry III for a lasting peace. Talks went on for several years, but a treaty was finally signed on May 28, 1258. Once again, Louis showed himself magnanimous. Under the terms of the treaty, Henry was allowed to keep possession of Aquitaine, a vast stretch of territory that extended from the Loire River in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, from the center of today’s France in the east, to the Atlantic in the west. In return, the treaty required that the King of England acknowledge himself to be Louis’ vassal.
We know — there is documentation — that when Louis did not simply strip Henry’s claimed holdings from him, he had an eye to the future. He wanted good will between his children and their descendants and those of the Plantagenets. That was the way to make the peace truly lasting.
Louis soon had an opportunity to cement the feeling of good will between France and England. This is when a dispute that threatened to become violent arose between Henry and his barons, and the two parties agreed to call on Louis to arbitrate the matter, which he did successfully. It was not the only trouble outside France that he was called upon to arbitrate. That he was testifies to the Continent-wide reputation he had gained for being impartial and just.
As to Louis’ rule within France during these years, we want to recall his conviction that his Crusade would succeed only if the Crusaders, beginning with himself as their leader, were right with God. Since he was defeated, captured, humiliated, he concluded that it must be on account of his sins. He became deeply penitential. He no longer wore silk, but rough cloth. At home he now slept on a board with a cotton mattress instead of in a feather bed. At one point, he even thought to abdicate and withdraw to a monastery. That was on the personal level. The world outside his household knew nothing of it.
It was as monarch that he would become known, even in his lifetime, as “the most Christian king.”
If that was how he became known, it is because of actions he undertook based on his belief that a ruler must do all he can to assure the salvation of his subjects, as well as of his own soul.
Such a belief may seem surpassingly strange and even bizarre to most persons nowadays. It should not, even if men and women nearly everywhere in the formerly Christian West now live in a liberal democracy. Why do we raise the matter of liberal democracy? Being democrats, Prince Charles of Great Britain and President Clinton in the United States would say (if Charles and Clinton thought in such terms) that it is up to the individual to see to his own salvation. Ultimately, that is correct, but nobody should have to run a more than ordinary risk of losing his soul simply because he lives in a particular society. What is the effect on souls when Charles goes on television to admit his adultery and Clinton does the same to lie about his? Is not everyone debased simply hearing about it? The society is already decadent. It would be bad enough if our rulers were hypocrites. What is the effect when they advertise their sins? Are they not promoting further decadence?
Louis’ conviction that authority exists precisely as a means to promote the salvation of souls is the teaching of the Church as expressed, for instance, by St. Augustine. Given his education, Louis may well have been familiar with these words of the great Doctor of the Church:
“How do kings serve the Lord with fear, except by forbidding and punishing with a religious severity all acts contrary to the commands of the Lord? In his twofold character as man and as prince, the king must serve God: as man, he serves Him by the fidelity of his life; as king, by framing or maintaining laws which command good and forbid evil. He must act like Ezechias and Josias, destroying the temples of the false gods and the high places that had been constructed contrary to the command of the Lord; like the king of Ninive obliging his city to appease the Lord; like Darius giving up the idol to Daniel to be broken, and casting Daniel’s enemies to the lions; like Nabuchodonosor forbidding blasphemy throughout his kingdom by a terrible law. It is thus that kings serve the Lord as kings — when they do in His service those things which only kings can do.”Whether or not Louis was familiar with those words, he practiced what Augustine preached. The years between his return from the East and departure on his second Crusade saw him enact very many measures showing that there was no division in him between the private man trying to serve Christ, and the ruler — because, as ruler, he tried to do the same.
Royal officials were prohibited from frequenting public drinking places and from gambling. Further, their purchase of land and other business dealings had to be approved by the king. Concepts of Roman law forgotten since the dissolution of the Western Empire in the 5th century were revived and made the basis of the rulings of the kingdom’s courts. Usury was forbidden. Prostitution was curbed, and homes built for the rehabilitation of the women. There were ordinances decreed against blasphemy, and a renewed effort was undertaken to “exterminate” heresy. The currency of the realm was stabilized and strict penalties enforced against counterfeiting the royal coinage. Because no “wall of separation” existed between throne and altar, Louis was also able to act against members of the clergy, including bishops, who abused the power of their offices for their own personal gain.
He did not neglect the arts and literature. Louis built much besides the Sainte Chapelle, and commissioned his chaplain, Vincent of Beauvais, to produce the first great encyclopedia, the Speculum majus. The University of Paris became Europe’s foremost seat of learning during his reign. (He put in charge of it his friend, Robert de Sorbon, from whose name is derived that of the modern institution, the Sorbonne.)
These are but some of the steps Louis took to make his kingdom Christian even as he strove “privately” to make himself heroically so. In this regard, there were entire nights sometimes spent in prayer. There was daily Mass. There was fasting — real fasting. There was daily reading of his breviary. There were pilgrimages, including that to Chartres. (Those who make the annual pilgrimage today — it has become the greatest manifestation of the Traditional Faith anywhere — follow in his footsteps.)
Then there was his treatment of the poor. Often he would send servants out to bring in unfortunates who could be found in the streets so that they might dine with him. He would serve them. “Many times,” Joinville writes, “I have seen him cut their bread for them and pour out their drink.” On Maundy Thursday, he would have his children join him in washing the feet of a dozen poor men to whom he would give large alms. The poorest of the poor in those days were lepers. Most persons were so afraid of them that the lepers were not allowed to approach even the vicinity of anyone who was healthy. When Louis encountered them on his journeys around the kingdom, he would order that alms be given to them. On several occasions, when members of his retinue were afraid to carry out this order, the King dismounted and did it himself. During his journeys he regularly stopped at monasteries. When there, he would follow monastic regulations regarding prayer and meals, much to the chagrin of some of his courtiers, who would have preferred more comfortable quarters and richer food.
Throughout these years, he never forgot the Latin East. In 1266 he informed Pope Clement IV of his intention to take the cross once again. He did so at an assembly of French nobles on March 24, 1267. It was the beginning of another effort to recruit the great men of France and other European lands to join him on Crusade. It succeeded to the extent that at least 10,000 embarked with him on 39 vessels at Aigues-Mortes on July 2, 1270. Standing beside him were his sons, Jean-Tristan and Philippe. Also in the company was Prince Edward of England — additional testimony to the fruitfulness of his effort to make peace with a nation that had been warring against France for decades.
Louis’ destination was supposed to be the Holy Land. It is not known for certain why he announced at a stop in Sardinia that he would land in Tunisia first. His brother, Charles of Anjou, was King of Sicily by then; the Emir Muhammad I of Tunis had given him trouble in the past, and some historians conjecture that Louis intended to help Charles by making a show of force. However, no one has uncovered evidence that Charles knew anything about Louis’ plan. We do know there was a rumor current at the time that Muhammad I was thinking about being baptized. The prospect of the conversion of a Mohammedan ruler would be enough for a man like Louis to divert a fleet and make a previously unscheduled stop.
In any event, he arrived in Tunisia on July 17. There quickly followed a series of easy victories. Carthage was taken and the Crusaders advanced on the capital, Tunis. Beneath the city’s walls, even as a siege was being prepared, a local typhoid epidemic overcame the Crusaders. They began to die. The victims included Jean-Tristan on August 3. Louis himself was carried away by the disease on August 25.
Without him, the army soon fell apart. Of the principal leaders, only Prince Edward proceeded to Acre with a small force.
Meantime, Louis’ remains were borne home. Through Italy as well as France, crowds gathered and knelt as the procession bearing his body passed by. It reached Paris on the eve of Pentecost in 1271. There was a solemn requiem at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and then the remains were laid to rest seven miles away at the royal necropolis at the Abbey of St. Denis.
Numerous of Louis’ successors in coming centuries would propose a Crusade. Some even took the cross. None ever actually set forth.
The process of Louis’ canonization was opened as early as 1272 by Pope Gregory X. In 1278, Pope Nicolas III ordered the proceedings continued, but he died before they were complete. Pope Martin IV, in 1282, had all the material so far collected brought together for review. The review was not yet done when Pope Boniface VIII assumed the Chair of Peter. By the time the material reached him, there was more of it, the pope said, than an ass could carry. In other words, few causes before then or since have been more exhaustively investigated by the Church.
When Louis’ canonization was finally proclaimed by Boniface on August 9, 1297, the people of France had long since shown he was already a saint to them by making pilgrimages to pray at his tomb.
How to conclude an account like this of so great a saint as King St. Louis? There is no way more fitting than to quote the saint’s own words — his last ones. They were addressed to his son and heir, Philippe.
Louis knew he was dying and had the young man brought to his side. As with so much else, we owe to Joinville the record of these words. Various translations of them exist. The one quoted here is drawn from the great Dom Gueranger‘s monumental work, The Liturgical Year:
“Dear son, the first thing I admonish thee is that thou set thy heart to love God, for without that nothing else is of any worth. Beware of doing what displeases God, that is to say mortal sin; yea, rather oughtest thou to suffer all manner of torments. If God send thee adversity, receive it in patience, and give thanks for it to our Lord, and think that thou hast done Him ill service. If He give thee prosperity, thank Him humbly for the same and be not the worse, either by pride or in any other manner, for that very thing that ought to make thee better; for we must not use God’s gifts against Himself. Have a kind and pitiful heart towards the poor and the unfortunate, and comfort and assist them as much as thou canst. Keep up the good customs of thy kingdom, and put down all bad ones. Love all that is good and hate all that is evil of any sort. Suffer no ill word about God or our Lady or the saints to be spoken in thy presence, that thou dost not straightway punish. In the administering of justice be loyal to thy subjects, without turning aside to the right hand or to the left; but help the right, and take the part of the poor until the whole truth be cleared up. Honor and love all ecclesiastical persons, and take care that they be not deprived of the gifts and alms that thy predecessors may have given them. Dear son, I admonish thee that thou be ever devoted to the Church of Rome, and to the sovereign Bishop our father, that is the Pope, and that thou bear him reverence and honor as thou oughtest to do to thy spiritual father. Exert thyself that every vile sin be abolished from thy land; especially to the best of thy power put down all wicked oaths and heresy. Fair son, I give thee all the blessings that a good father can give to a son; may the blessed Trinity and all the saints guard thee and protect thee from all evils; may God give thee grace to do His will always, and may He be honored by thee, and may thou and I, after this mortal life, be together in His company and praise Him without end.”
Having said to his son all he wished to say, Louis asked for the Sacraments, and then, in a kind of delirium, was heard to call on various saints to help him in his final hour. He died at three in the afternoon, the same hour as Our Lord’s death.
(POPE URBAN’S CALL FOR THE FIRST CRUSADE)
Pope Urban II, a native of Champagne, issued his call for the First Crusade at an assembly of French nobles in a field outside the town of Clermont in the Auvergne in November, 1095. What the Crusades were about can be heard in what he said. Here are some extracts from his sermon…
O ye men of the Franks, who live beyond the mountains. God hath favored you in many ways, in your happy land as in your steadfast faith, and valor. To you our words are spoken, and by you our message will be passed on. We wish you to know what grievous cause has brought us hither, to your land, and what need has led us not only to you but to all the faithful. I speak to you who are present; I announce it to those who are absent, and Christ ordains it.
So the Pope began. Now he speaks of news he has received…
From the borders of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople ominous tidings have gone forth. Often, before now, have they come to my ears. An accursed race, emerging from the kingdom of the Persians, a barbarous people, estranged from God, has invaded the lands of the Christians in the east and has depopulated them by fire and steel and ravage. These invaders are Turks and Arabs. They have advanced through the empire of Constantinople as far as the Mediterranean. The empire of Constantinople is now mutilated and has lost so much land that a voyager could not cross the dismembered part in two months. Until now, this empire has been our rampart. It is in dire straits.
The Pope is talking about helping brothers in the East, but he is also appealing to the Westerners’ self-interest. Eastern Christendom was the “rampart” of Western Christendom. It is threatened by unimaginable barbarity. The Pope explains…
These Turks have led away many Christians, captives, to their own country, they have torn down the churches of God everywhere, or used them for their own rites. What more shall I say to you? Listen. The invaders befoul the altars with the filth out of their bodies, they circumcise Christians and pour the blood of the circumcision upon the altars or into the baptismal fonts. They stable their horses in these churches, which are now withdrawn from the service of God. Yea, the churches are served, but not by holy men — for only the Turks may use them.
What the Pope relates gets worse…
Even now the Turks are torturing Christians, binding them and filling them with arrows, or making them kneel, bending their heads, to try if their swordsmen can cut through their necks with a single blow of a naked sword.
What shall I say of the ravishing of the women? To speak of this is worse than to be silent.
The Pope speaks of the plight of pilgrims going to the Holy Land. Then he demands…
On whom will fall the task of vengeance unless upon you, who have won glory in arms? You have the courage and the fitness of body to humble the hairy heads uplifted against you. I say this to you — and what more must be said? Listen!
The Pope has just praised the knights gathered before him. Now he excoriates them…
You are girdled knights, but you are arrogant with pride. You turn upon your brothers with fury, cutting down one the other. Is this the service of Christ? Let us hold to the truth, to our shame. This is not the way of life. Oppressors of children, despoilers of widows, man-slayers, wreakers of sacrilege, murderers, awaiting the payment of blood-you flock to battles like vultures that sight a corpse from afar. Verily, this is the worst way. Verily, if you would save your souls, lay down the girdles of such knighthood.
What is the Pope saying there except that these knights themselves need some civilizing. There is a means to it, he says…
Come forward to the defense of Christ. O ye who have carried on feuds, come to the war against the infidels. O ye who have been thieves, become soldiers. Fight a just war. Labor for everlasting reward, ye who were hirelings, serving for a few coins. Let no obstacle turn you aside, but when you have arranged your affairs and gathered together supplies — enter upon the journey when winter is ended and spring is here again, God guiding you…
At this point the Pope was interrupted. Someone in the crowd shouted, “God wills it!” Someone else repeated the cry. Soon it was arising from the entire company: “God wills it!” Pope Urban waited several minutes for the tumult to die down. Then he spoke again…
Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them. Unless the Lord God had been here in your minds, you would not have cried out thus, as one. And so I say to you that God has drawn this cry from you. Let it be your battle cry; when you go against the enemy let this shout be raised: “God wills it!” And more: whosoever shall offer himself to go upon this journey, and shall make his vow to go, shall wear the sign of the cross on his head or breast.
The Pope now speaks of who should go, who should not, and the preparations that should be made. Then he moves toward his conclusion…
Go, therefore, and fear not. Your possessions here will be safeguarded, and you will despoil the enemy of greater treasures. Do not fear death, where Christ laid down His life for you. If any should lose their lives, even on the way thither, by sea or land, or in strife with the pagans, their sins will be requited them. I grant this to all who go, by the power vested in me by God.
Fear not torture, for therein lies the crown of martyrdom. The way is short, the struggle brief, the reward everlasting. Yet, I speak now with the voice of the prophet,
“Arm thyself, O mighty one!” Take up your arms, valiant sons, and go. Better to fall in battle than live to see the sorrow of your people and the desecration of your holy places.
The Pope is there reminding the knights of that which we are supposed to forget today, that the Mohammedan, were bent on the destruction of all Christendom, here in the West as well as in the East. He concluded:
Go, with one who lacks not the power greater than wealth to aid you. Lo I see before you, leading you to His war, the standard-bearer who is invisible — Christ.)