Post-classical history

Louis IX of France (1214-1270)

King of France (1226-1270) and leader of crusades in 1248-1254 and 1270, both of which were intended to relieve the Holy Land.

The son of King Louis VIII of France (d. 1226) and Blanche of Castile (d. 1252), Louis IX came to the throne on his father’s premature death, his mother acting as regent. Louis had reached his majority by the time he first decided to take the cross in 1244. Some chroniclers report that while the king was seriously ill at Pontoise, he vowed to go on crusade to the Holy Land if God cured him. Others state that it was the king’s mother, Blanche, who made the oath on her son’s behalf, and that Louis then took the vow as his own. The decision was in part a response to a steady deterioration in the position of the Frankish states in Outremer, but Louis was also motivated by more personal reasons. He had been brought up in an atmosphere of religious devotion and was himself a pious man. He heard Mass daily, frequently listened to sermons and lessons, and developed close relations with the mendicant orders. He endowed many religious foundations, was generous in the distribution of alms, and venerated relics: in 1239 he purchased the relics of the Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, from Baldwin II, Latin emperor of Constantinople, and had the Sainte-Chapelle constructed in Paris in order to house them.

Four years elapsed between Louis’s assumption of the cross in 1244 and his departure for the East in 1248. This delay was not the result of any hesitation on Louis’s part, but of his concern to create the conditions in which the crusade would succeed. He endeavored to achieve peace in the West and unite Christendom in the interests of the expedition and sought to gain spiritual support by righting injustices, soliciting the prayers of the religious orders, and prohibiting those activities that might inspire the wrath of God. He also made meticulous logistical preparations, which included raising money, stockpiling food and arms, and engaging ships to transport the army.

The crusade attacked Egypt and in May 1249 captured the city of Damietta. In April 1250, however, the expedition ended in defeat, and the king and much of his army were captured. After a month of imprisonment, the king was released and made his way to the Holy Land, where he spent four years rebuilding and refortifying its defenses. Recognizing the Franks’ lack of manpower, he left behind a contingent of knights, crossbowmen, and sergeants led by a trusted lieutenant, Geoffrey of Sergines (d. 1269). Louis continued to fund this force until his death in 1270 at a cost of approximately 4,000 livres per year to the royal treasury.

It is unclear to what extent Louis was affected by his experiences of defeat and imprisonment at the hands of the Muslims. Some historians have argued that he was preoccupied by the failure of the expedition and the need to redeem it and that he was convinced that it was his own sins or those of his soldiers that had provoked God’s displeasure and thus led to defeat. There is no indication that Louis immediately turned to the organization of a new crusade on his return, but he did adopt a more austere lifestyle and was still concerned by the plight of the holy places. He wore plainer dress, ate simply, and increased his personal devotions. He founded, endowed, or made grants to the religious orders and hospitals that looked after the poor and sick and fostered the presence of Dominicans and Franciscans in his entourage. Louis even considered giving up the crown and entering a monastery. In a wider context, the king sought to eliminate sin from within his realm by legislating against blasphemy and usury, reformed the administration of the kingdom, and strengthened royal justice. On the international stage Louis tried to secure peace, both by reaching territorial settlements with Aragon and England and by acting as an arbiter in the disputes of others. His actions enhanced his personal prestige and that of the French Crown, and both France and Europe as a whole benefited from his efforts.

From the early 1260s the consolidation of Mamlûk power under the sultan Baybars I (d. 1277) posed a new threat to Outremer, though only relatively small contingents left the West to assist the Franks. In 1267 Louis decided to take the cross once more, recognizing that many would follow his example. The crusade did not attract the same numbers as his first crusade had done, but again, Louis made meticulous spiritual and practical preparations to ensure that the army would be both morally and physically well prepared and therefore have every possibility of success. The crusade was intended to relieve the Holy Land, but it was diverted to the Muslim city of Tunis in North Africa (July 1270). Disease soon broke out in the Christian army, and Louis himself was struck down; he died on 25 August 1270, having failed to restore the holy places or to secure the Holy Land.

The king’s death was described as saintly and devout by contemporaries, and the procession that accompanied his remains on their journey back to France was attended by miracles. Louis was revered for his political achievements, his personal virtues, and his unparalleled attempts to assist the Holy Land. His life and crusades are well known from the biographical account written by his contemporary, John of Joinville. Louis was canonized in 1297.

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