Montjoie! Saint Denis!
“O Jerusalem… Far from your gates, I cry to Thee!” This was the agonizing cry of a warrior, Lord of the Frankish kingdom. Twice he had taken the pilgrim’s staff and the cross to climb the holy mountain. On that fateful summer of 1270, on a bed of ashes in Tunis, Louis IX was dying of a fatal epidemic which claimed many of his men, unable to fulfill his wish of reconquest of the Holy Sepulcher.
Born to Be a Warrior King
King Louis was born on the feast of St. Mark, April 25, 1214, the day of the Great Litanies where black penitents process through the streets of the City. “Nothing happens by chance,” Blanche of Castile used to explain to her royal son, and she augured that this birthday coinciding with the black crossed presaged the trials of his life.
In his veins on his father’s side ran the blood of the two most prestigious dynasties ever seen: the Capetians and Carolingians. Blanche was also grand-daughter of Alfonso VIII, the victorious warrior of the Navas de Tolosa against the Moors.
All too soon, the child born to be king was to enter history. Three years only had his father Louis VIII held the scepter when he suddenly died, leaving Queen Blanche regent of the country for her oldest son, then twelve years old. Soon enough, this unusual state of affairs gave rise to the revolt of the barons, who wanted to profit by the vacuum to offer the crown to Albion in the person of Henry III Plantagenet, king of England. Hence, Blanche following her Council’s advice, had the child king swiftly crowned and proclaimed king at Rheims. Civil struggles ensued, but the queen, both spirited and prudent, dealt a fatal blow to her enemies and placed all as the king’s vassal. These were the first wars the teenage king was witnessing. He would be waging many more in his lifetime for God and country. At home, he would have to contend with the betrayal of powerful vassals, the duke of Brittany and that of Poitou, all too prone to offer support to the English.
The child was taught from an early age his royal duties. Queen Blanche encouraged him thus: “Louis, it were better for you to perish than to commit willingly a mortal sin! It is no sin to become the stronger so as to better defend oneself. Violence alone is sin; fortitude is a virtue. But what does it profit to be the strongest if it is not to relieve the weak? When you believe you are set above men, remember that God is above you. Between a king and a beggar, there is only a line of distance; but between God and a king, there is the infinite.”
Brother Guerin reminded Louis: “The attributes of the king are three: potentia, benignitas and sapientia. But these must coexist: goodness without justice ceases to be a virtue.” As a Christian king, Louis IX took it to heart to respect and have his subjects respect the ideals necessary for salvation: justice and peace. And so he made it his business to establish order in all things so as to stave off any source of conflict.
His loyalty was legendary. Typical is the example of the lord of Trie, who sent the saint some letters, which stated that the King had granted the county of Danmartin to the heirs of the Countess of Boulogne, recently dead. But the seal of the letter was broken, so that there was nothing left of the King’s seal but half the legs of the figure and the stool. Louis asked his counsel’s advice and they all declared that he was in no wise bound to carry out the terms of the letter. Then he had his chamberlain bring him the duplicate letter at court. When he had the letter in his hand, he said to us: “Sirs, look at this seal which I used before I went overseas: it is plain to see, that the impress of the broken seal is exactly like the perfect seal, so that I could not venture in all conscience to withhold the county in question.”
Famous was his way of delivering justice under the oak tree of Vincennes. He would cause a carpet to be spread, that his counsel might sit round him; and all the people who had business before him stood round about, and then he caused their suits to be dispatched by his judges and he would interject to offer some pertinent insight on the case at hand. Often he would directly ask the parties: “Why do you not accept what our officers offer you?” and they would say: “It is very little, Sir.” And he would talk to them as follows: “You ought really to take what people are ready to concede.” Thus, King Louis labored with all his might to bring them into the right and reasonable course.
The Peacemaker and Diplomat
His prestige was such that his arbitration was sought by small and great to solve their conflicts. Two of the greatest Western powers, Emperor Frederick II and the Pope were at war. St. Louis kept a strict neutrality in their dealings. Being the most powerful monarch of Christendom, he gave to each his due: a great and obedient respect to the Pope and a formal acceptance of the symbolic pre-eminence to the emperor. But to both, he forbade them from meddling in the temporal affairs of his royal domain.
In 1240, as the Pope wished to dethrone the emperor and replace him with Louis’s brother, Robert of Artois, King Louis rejected the proposal. The next year, Italian prelates on their way to Rome were taken by Frederick’s fleet. The saint, thinking highly of the emperor’s good will, requested their liberation. The emperor answered haughtily: “Cesar is holding in anguish those who had come to put Cesar in anguish.” The French king responded quickly to this injunction: “The kingdom of France is not so weakened that it will be led by spurs.” Frederick, unwilling to lose his friendship, quickly released the prelates.
In England, the barons rebelled against the king, which led to the Magna Charta of 1215, and then to the two Provisions of Oxford (1258), and of Westminster (1259). The English King was set free from the provisions by the Popes, but the barons rejected this pontifical decision. By 1263, both parties requested the arbitration of Louis IX and promised to follow his decision. Louis rendered the verdict “said of Amiens,” which ratified the pontifical bull and restored the fullness of sovereignty to Henry Plantagenet. The barons, who regarded him as lord over the king of England and indirectly their own sovereign, surrendered to his judgment.
The Last Crusader
Having returned sick from his Poitou campaign, King Louis was at death’s throes in 1244 when his mother brought to his bedchamber the relics from the Chapelle Royale. His rapid cure was perceived as a miracle. Having recovered the use of speech, Louis used it to make the vow of taking the cross. His entourage tried to dissuade him by saying that, when he made the vow, he was ill and not in fully compos mentis. Hearing this, the king decided to renew his vow to go on crusade now that he was well in body and mind!
Leaving the queen mother in charge of the realm, Louis IX landed in Egypt with a large army of 25,000 men and 8,000 horses. There, they launched into their battle cry: “Montjoie, Saint Denis!” That very same cry had been uttered 150 years earlier by the crusaders as they gazed first at the walls of Jerusalem. But why did the king choose Damietta of Egypt and not Caesarea of Palestine? Because Egypt was the gateway to the Holy Land, and Louis had the daring hope of striking at Cairo, the heart of the Egyptian Sultan, the Emir who reigned over the Middle East. What little gains the Christians had at first were soon offset by the enemies. The crusaders’ victory of Mansoura, dearly paid, was followed by famine and dysentery. The last chapter written was the disaster of Fariskur in 1250 on the Nile where the king and a great part of the army are made prisoners.
The defeated king was recalling to mind the early lessons of Brother Guerin: “Sire, although a king, misfortune awaits you. Be valiant enough to deserve to become unfortunate with dignity.” The Sultan having been traitorously killed by his Mamelukes, his wife, the Sultana, spoke thus to the royal prisoner:
“What? Why are you sad?”
“I am. I have not conquered the thing I wanted most, the reason for which I left my sweet kingdom and my dear mother, that for which I exposed myself to all perils of sea and war.”
“And what is, Lord king, this thing which you so desire?”
“Your soul, Madam. As well as that of all your people!”
“This enterprise was most adventurous and perilous.”
“I am a Christian king. I cannot abandon the land of the Incarnation, the cradle which gave us the Light of the world. This is dictated by our Law, born in Jerusalem.”
“And what is the Generous Koran for you, Lord king Nazarean?”
“Madam, a Christian cannot acknowledge himself in the Alkoran. This Book does not come from God since it contradicts the foundations of the Christian Revelation and even the entire Biblical Revelation.”
“And Mohammed—may God bless and greet him—what is he for you?”
“A Christian cannot see in him a prophet. And his life is far from edifying…”
“If the Koran does not come from God and if Mohammed is a false prophet, would not Islam only be some type of heresy for you Christians?”
“Assuredly! It contains traces of Nestorianism and Arianism. It is a mixture of heresies simplified for the sake of Bedouin shepherds.”
“And why do you think that you could not be a good Sultan?”
“This is because of the Oumma, which defines the limits of the land of Islam. Where would my territory end? Presently the Oumma is Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, but tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, the entire world… since the Oumma is the best of communities wished by God.”
“I will never agree that the Egyptian sultan impose on the King of France to subject his kingdom before Mohammed the prophet.”
The Last Crusade
Louis IX and his fellow army prisoners were soon released thanks to his wife, Margaret of Provence. The king exchanged the armor for the pilgrim’s cloth and spent close to four years visiting the holy places where the Franks still had many strongholds. His return home was prompted by the sad news of Queen Blanche’s death. His arrival in France was a glorious one, as all his vassals could guess the halo of sainthood in this noble figure.
But Saint Louis always interpreted the failure of the seventh crusade as a divine punishment. By 1266, he made the secret vow of taking the cross again. The date was fixed for 1270. The political situation in the Mediterranean guided his decision. His brother Charles of Anjou was now king of Sicily, a strategic base of operations. Also, Louis entertained hopes of converting the Sultan of Tunis and wished to use that city as the land base for attacking the Egyptian Sultan.
Alas, as the departure date approached, the great powers declined to attend. The Pope had died and the vacancy was indefinitely prolonged. The Aragonese king James was caught in a sea tempest and gave up the enterprise altogether. The crusaders, however diminished, finally set foot near Tunis. Yet the Sultan was anything but willing to convert and had readied his city for the siege. Saint Louis stormed the nearby city of Carthage awaiting the reinforcements of his brother Charles of Anjou. But again, the army suffered the epidemic of dysentery or typhus which claimed firstly the prince heir. Soon enough, the King was at the agony, and died August 25, 1270. His last words were “Good-bye, my France… Beautiful Sire, God, have mercy on this people… Let it never defect, I beg of Thee… I commend my spirit to Thy safe keep.”