In Louis IX of France were united the qualities of a just and upright sovereign, a fearless warrior, and a saint. This crusading king was a living embodiment of the Christianity of the time: he lived for the welfare of his subjects and the glory of God. His father was Louis VIII, of the Capet line, and his mother was the redoubtable Queen Blanche, daughter of King Alfonso of Castile and Eleanor of England. Louis, the oldest son, was born at Poissy on the Seine, a little below Paris, on April 25,1214, and there was christened.
Much of his virtue is attributed to his mother’s care, for the Queen devoted herself to her children’s education. Louis had tutors who made him a master of Latin, taught him to speak easily in public and write with dignity and grace. He was instructed in the arts of war and government and all other kingly accomplishments. But Blanche’s primary concern was to implant in him a deep regard and awe for everything related to religion. She used often to say to him as he was growing up, “I love you my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should commit a mortal sin.”
Louis never forgot his upbringing. His friend and biographer, the Sieur de Joinville, who accompanied him on his first crusade to the Holy Land, relates that the King once asked him, “What is God?” Joinville replied, “Sire, it is that which is so good that there can be nothing better.” “Well,” said the King, “now tell me, would You rather be a leper or commit a mortal sin?” The spectacle of the wretched lepers who wandered along the highways of medieval Europe might well have prompted a sensitive conscience to ask such a question. “I would rather commit thirty mortal sins,” answered Joinville, in all candor, “than be a leper.” Louis expostulated with him earnestly for making such a reply. “When a man dies,” he said, “he is healed of leprosy in his body; but when a man who has committed a mortal sin dies he cannot know of a certainty that he has in his lifetime repented in such sort that God has forgiven him; wherefore he must stand in great fear lest that leprosy of sin last as long as God is in Paradise.”
After a reign of only three years, Louis VIII died, and Queen Blanche was declared regent for her eleven-year-old son. To forestall an uprising of restless nobles, she hastened the ceremony of Louis’ coronation, which took place at Rheims on the first Sunday of Advent, 1226. The boy was tall, and mature for his age, yet he trembled as he took the solemn oath; he asked of God courage, light, and strength to use his authority well, to uphold the divine honor, defend the Church, and serve the good of his people. The ambitious barons, who were not present at the coronation, were soon making extravagant demands for more privileges and lands, thinking to take advantage of the King’s youth. But they reckoned without the Queen; by making clever alliances, she succeeded in overcoming them on the battlefield, so that when Louis assumed control some years later, his position was strong.
In May, 1234, Louis, then twenty, married Margaret, the oldest daughter of Raymond Beranger, Count of Provence. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters. This line continued in power in France for five hundred years. In 1793, as the guillotine fell on Louis XVI, it will be recalled that the Abbe Edgeworth murmured: “Son of St. Louis, ascend to Heaven!”
After taking the government of the realm into his hands, one of the young King’s first acts was to build the famous monastery of Royaumont, with funds left for the purpose by his father. Louis gave encouragement to the religious orders, installing the Carthusians in the palace of Vauvert in Paris, and assisting his mother in founding the convent of Maubuisson. Ambitious to make France foremost among Christian nations, Louis was overjoyed at the opportunity to buy the Crown of Thorns and other holy relics from the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople. He sent two Dominican friars to bring these sacred objects to France, and, attended by an impressive train, he met them at Sens on their return. To house the relics, he built on the island in the Seine named for him, the shrine of Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most beautiful examples of Gothic architecture in existence. Since the French Revolution it stands empty of its treasure.
Louis loved sermons, heard two Masses daily, and was surrounded, even while traveling, with priests chanting the hours. Though he was happy in the company of priests and other men of wisdom and experience, he did not hesitate to oppose churchmen when they proved unworthy. The usual tourneys and festivities at the creation of new knights were magnificently celebrated, but Louis forbade at his court any diversion dangerous to morals. He allowed no obscenity or profanity. “I was a good twenty-two years in the King’s company,” writes Joinville, “and never once did I hear him swear, either by God, or His Mother, or His saints. I did not even hear him name the Devil, except if he met the word when reading aloud, or when discussing what had been read.” A Dominican who knew Louis well declared that he had never heard him speak ill of anyone. When urged to put to death the rebel son of Hugh de la Marche, he would not do so, saying, “A son cannot refuse to obey his father’s orders.”
In 1230 the King forbade all forms of usury, in accordance with the teachings of the Christian religion. Where the profits of the Jewish and Lombard money-lenders had been exorbitant, and the original borrowers could not be found, Louis exacted from the usurers a contribution towards the crusade which Pope Gregory was then trying to launch. He issued an edict that any man guilty of blasphemy should be branded. Even the clergy objected to the harshness of this penalty, and later, on the advice of Pope Clement IV, it was reduced to a fine, or flogging, or imprisonment, depending on circumstances. Louis protected vassals and tenants from cruel lords. When a Flemish count hanged three children for hunting rabbits in his woods, he had the man imprisoned, and tried, not by his peers, as was the custom, but by ordinary civil judges, who condemned him to death. Louis spared the count’s life, but fined him heavily and ordered the money spent on religious and charitable works. He forbade private wars between his feudal vassals. In his dealings with other great princes, he was careful not to be drawn into their quarrels. If, when putting down a rebellion, he heard of damage inflicted on innocent people, by his or the enemy’s forces, he invariably had the matter examined and full restitution paid. Barons, prelates, and foreign princes often chose him to arbitrate their disputes. A rising of the nobles in the southwest occurred in 1242, but the King’s armies quickly put it down, although Henry III of England had come to their aid.
After recovering from a violent fever in 1244, Louis announced his long-cherished intention of undertaking a crusade to the East. Although his advisers urged him to abandon the idea, he was not to be moved from his decision. Elaborate preparations for the journey and settling certain disturbances in the kingdom caused him to postpone his departure for three and a half years. All benefices in Christendom were ordered taxed a twentieth of their income for three years for the relief of the Holy Land. Blanche was to be regent during the King’s absence. On June 12, 1248, Louis left Paris, accompanied by his wife and three brothers. Their immediate objective was Egypt, whose Sultan, Melek Selah, had been overrunning Palestine. Damietta, at the mouth of one of the branches of the Nile, was easily taken. Louis and the Queen, accompanied by his brothers, the nobles, and prelates, made a solemn entry into the city, singing <Te Deum>. The King issued orders that all acts of violence committed by his soldiers should be punished and restitution made to the persons injured. He forbade the killing of any infidel taken prisoner, and gave directions that all who might desire to embrace the Christian faith should be given instruction, and, if they wished it, baptized. Yet as long as the army was quartered around Damietta, many of his soldiers fell into debauchery and lawlessness. The rising of the Nile and the summer heat made it impossible for them to advance and follow up their success. After six months they moved forward to attack the Saracens on the opposite side of the river, in Mansourah. The ranks of the crusaders were thinned more by disease than by combat. In April, 1250, Louis himself, weakened by dysentery, was taken prisoner, and his army was routed.
During his captivity. the King recited the Divine Office every day with two chaplains and had the prayers of the Mass read to him. He met insults with an air of majesty which awed his guards. In the course of negotiations for his liberation, the Sultan was murdered by his emirs. The King and his fellow prisoners were released, though the sick and wounded crusaders left in Damietta were slain. With the remnant of his army Louis then sailed to the Syrian coast and remained in that region until 1254, fortifying the cities of Acre, Jaffa, Caesarea, and Tyre, which as yet remained in Christian hands. He visited the Holy Places that were in the possession of Christians, encouraging their garrisons, and doing what he could to strengthen their defenses. Not until news was brought him of the death of his mother did he feel that he must return to France. He had now been away almost six years, and even after his return, he continued to wear the cross on his shoulder to show his intention of going back to succor the Eastern Christians. Their position worsened, and within a few years Nazareth, Caesarea, Jaffa, and Antioch had been captured.
The foundations for the famous college of theology which was later known as the Sorbonne were laid in Paris about the year 1257 Its head, Master Robert de Sorbon, a learned canon and doctor, was the King’s friend and sometimes his confessor. Louis helped to endow the college and obtained for it the approval of Pope Clement IV. It was perhaps the most famous theological school of Europe. The King himself founded in Paris the hospital of Quinze-vingt, so named because it had beds for three hundred patients. He also received indigent persons daily and saw that they were fed; in Lent and Advent he cared for all who came, often waiting on them in person. He had, as we have said, a passion for justice, and changed the “King’s court” of his ancestors into a popular court, where, seated in his palace or under a spreading oak in the forest of Vincennes, he listened to any of his subjects who came with grievances and gave what seemed to them wise and impartial judgments. The feudal method of settling disputes by combat he tried to replace by peaceful arbitration or the judicial process of trial, with the presentation of testimony. In later times, whenever the French complained of oppression, their cry was for justice to be meted out impartially, as it had been in the reign of St. Louis.
In I258 Louis concluded the Peace of Paris with his old enemy Henry III of England. Though Louis had been victorious in most of the battles, he now voluntarily surrendered to England the provinces of Limousin, Quercy, and Perigord, while Henry renounced all claim to recover Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and Poitou. The French nobility were outraged by their King’s concessions, but Louis explained that he hoped thus to cement a lasting friendship between the two nations. Unfortunately, peace did not ensue; the Hundred Years’ War was still to come. A similar compromise was made with the King of-Aragon, by which France secured Provence and most of Languedoc, and gave up claims to Roussillon and Barcelona.
One day, after standing godfather to a Jewish convert who had been baptized at St. Denis, Louis remarked to an ambassador from the emir of Tunis that to see the emir baptized he would himself joyfully spend the rest of his life in Saracen chains. The King was determined to go on another crusade, and in 1267 he announced his intention. His people objected, fearing they would lose their excellent and revered ruler, who, though only fifty-two years old, was worn with toil, illness, and austerities. The Pope supported the crusade, and granted Louis one-tenth of all Church revenues to help meet the expense. A toll-tax was also levied on the French people. Louis appointed the abbot of St. Denis and Simon de Clermont as regents. His three eldest sons, Philip, John, and Peter, accompanied him. The worthy Joinville disapproved the enterprise and stayed at home.
Louis sailed with his forces from Aigues-Mortes, at the mouth of the Rhone, on July 1, 1270, heading for Tunis, where, he had been told, the emir was ready to be converted and join the expedition to win back the Holy Places. The crusade was a dismal failure. On landing at Carthage, Louis learned to his dismay that the information about the emir was false. He decided to wait there for reinforcements from the King of Sicily. Dysentery and other diseases broke out among the crusaders, and Louis’ second son, who had been born at Damietta during the earlier crusade, died. That same day the King and his eldest son, Philip, sickened, and it was soon apparent that Louis would not recover. He was speechless all the next morning, but at three in the afternoon he said, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” and quickly breathed his last. His bones and heart were taken back to France and kept enshrined in the abbey-church of St. Denis, until they were scattered at the time of the Revolution. Louis was strong, idealistic, austere, just; his charities and foundations were notable, and he went on two crusades. Little wonder that a quarter of a century after his death the process of canonization was started and quickly completed the man who was “every inch a king” became a saint of the Church in 1297, twenty-seven years after his death.