was born in 1214, the second son of Louis VIII and his wife, Blanche of Castile. In 1226, Louis VIII, only twenty-eight, died of dysentery on his way back from fighting heretics in the south of France, leaving Louis IX, a boy of nine, as heir to the kingdom.1
Luckily, the regency was held by the dowager queen, Blanche. At twenty-seven years old, she had been married more than half her life and had borne twelve children, of whom seven survived. And, like her redoubtable grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche was good at ruling. Not only that, but unlike Queen Melisande of Jerusalem, all her children were apparently devoted to her. She kept the country in hand until Louis came of age and then, carefully, let him take the reins of government.
The entire family was pious, Louis especially so. He arranged for relics of the Passion of Christ to be brought from Constantinople to Paris: the crown of thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and the sponge soaked in vinegar that the Roman soldiers held to Jesus’ lips at the crucifixion. He then built a special church to hold them. The exquisite Sainte Chapelle still stands on the Île de la Cité in Paris.
Then, in 1244, Louis was struck down with an illness that no medicine was able to cure. Sure that he was going to die, Louis “put his affairs in order, and earnestly begged his brothers to take care of his wife and children, who were very young and helpless.”2
At one point, those caring for him thought he had died, but he rallied. According to the chroniclers, Louis’ first words were to the bishop of Paris, William of Auvergne. “I want to take the cross!” he croaked.3
When Louis had completely recovered, both his mother, Blanche, and the bishop tried to talk him out of going; “When you took the cross . . . you were ill. . . . Blood had rushed to your brain so that you were not of sound mind,” they insisted.4
But Louis would not be dissuaded. Word had come of the conquest of Jerusalem in July 1244, by the Khorezmian Turks, who were being pushed west by the advancing Mongols, and the defeat of the Christian forces at Gaza. It seemed to Louis that he had been called to save the Holy Land.
He also convinced his three younger brothers, Robert, Alphonse, and Charles, to come with him along with many of the great lords of the kingdom. The only holdout was Thibaud, count of Champagne and king of Navarre, who had just returned from his own totally disastrous crusade and felt that he’d had enough of foreign travel.5
Louis also took his wife, Marguerite of Provence. For the good of the succession, they left behind their two young sons, Louis and Philip, in the care of their grandmother.6
The rest of the family set sail from France in August 1248, except for Alphonse, who stayed behind to watch out for the kingdom and to take care of Robert’s wife, who was too pregnant for a sea voyage.7 Both of them followed later.
The family was smart enough not to have all three brothers take the same ship, but each one arrived safely. Louis and his party went first to Cyprus, landing there on September 17. They were greeted by William of Sonnac, the Grand Master of the Templars, who had come from Acre to accompany the king on his crusade.
It was decided to spend the winter in Cyprus. While planning for the campaign in the spring, Louis took time to settle a dispute between the Hospitallers and the Templars.8
William accompanied Louis and the army when they shipped out the next summer. It had been decided that Egypt held the keys to Jerusalem and so Louis planned to attack the town of Damietta in Egypt first, thereby cutting off the supply routes north.
The landing was a little tricky. The French army was fired upon as they came ashore in small boats. “It was a sight to enchant the eyes,” the chronicler, Jean de Joinville, remembered. “For the sultan’s arms were all of gold and where the sun caught them they shone resplendent.” 9Joinville, who seems to have been cousin to almost everyone, including King Louis, was in his early twenties at the time and the crusade was the big adventure of what was to be a very long life.
As they approached Damietta, the French discovered that the gates were wide open and the town deserted. The people of the town had remembered the last time Damietta was besieged by the Franks and they decided they would rather abandon it than go through that again. Even the garrison, under Fakr ad-Din, chose to flee. When the Sultan, on his deathbed, heard of this, he ordered the soldiers hanged.10
Louis was delighted. He settled in to the town with his army and his wife. Damietta was a good place to wait out the annual flooding of the Nile and a good base for raids into Egypt.
As winter neared, the army began to move through the Nile Delta toward the town of Mansourah. On December 7 they were attacked by the Egyptian Turks. “But the Templars and the others of ours in the vanguard were not in the least startled or dismayed,” Joinville assures his readers.11
Of the many things said about the Templars, no one who saw them in battle ever said they were cowards.
But all too soon came the first disaster for the French and the price the Templars paid for it was high.
On February 8, the king’s brother Robert, count of Artois, was in the vanguard of the army along with the Templars. They had crossed a river and Louis had told them to wait for the rest of the force before moving on. Instead, Robert and his men raced ahead and began attacking the Saracen camp. They slaughtered everyone they found there, regardless of age or sex.12
William of Sonnac, the Grand Master of the Temple, “a good knight, valiant, hardy, wise in war and clear-sighted in such matters, advised the Count of Artois to wait and rally his men.”13 Robert apparently sneered at him and set out. The Templars couldn’t let him go off and be killed on his own so they rode with him, perhaps still hoping to convince him to turn back.
Count Robert and the vanguard entered the town of Mansourah and were soon caught in the twisting streets where they became easy targets for the defenders. “At the moment of supreme danger, the Turkish battalion of the Mamluks . . . lions in war and mighty in battle . . . drove them back. The Franks were massacred one and all.”14
It was said that the Templars lost 280 men at Mansourah.15
Louis hoped for a few days that his brother had only been captured and was being held for ransom, but at last he was told that Robert had died. “‘May God be worshiped for all he has given me,’ replied the king and then big tears began to fall from his eyes.”16
The few Templars that were left continued to fight for Louis. Although he had lost the use of one eye previously, William of Sonnac was still at the front of every fight. On February 11 he was at a barricade that he had made out of parts of captured siege machines. The Turks threw Greek fire at the tinder-dry barricade and it caught at once. “The Turks . . . did not wait for the fire to burn itself out, but rushed in and attacked the Templars amidst the flames.”17
In the course of the battle, William’s other eye was put out. He soon died from his wounds.
Until a new Grand Master could be chosen, the marshal of the order, Renaud of Vichiers, took charge.
But there were to be no more glorious battles in Egypt. Louis’ army was trapped in the delta, surrounded by enemy soldiers and attacked daily by flies, fleas, and disease. Supply ships sent from Damietta were taken and plundered before they could reach the French. Scurvy broke out among the men. Even the king’s diet wasn’t enough to protect against it. Louis tried to arrange a truce but it was clear that they were defeated.
Louis sick in Captivity (The British Library)
The Turks attacked on April 7. By this point Louis not only had scurvy but also dysentery so constant that “they had to cut away the lower part of his underwear.”18If the king was this bad off, you can imagine the state of the rest of the army. They were routed.
Louis and his two remaining brothers were among those taken prisoner.
Queen Marguerite was at that time in Damietta and close to the end of a pregnancy. It was she who had to decide what to do. Her main goal was the release of the prisoners.
After some haggling, the sultan agreed that the ransom for Louis and his men was the surrender of Damietta and the payment of five hundred thousand livres, or one million gold bezants. It was later reduced to four hundred thousand livres, which was still more than Louis made in a year.
Unfortunately, the next day, the sultan was killed by his body-guard. This was a setback for the negotiations and the French thought they might be killed, but the new government was willing to accept the terms of the ransom.19
An interesting note in Joinville’s memoir is that, according to him, Louis was asked to swear an oath that he would deliver the ransom. Part of the oath was, “if the king did not keep faith with the emirs he should be dishonored as a Christian who denies God and his law and in contempt of Him, spits on a cross and tramples it underfoot.”20
Now, these were two of the main charges against the Templars at their arrest and trials. The question is, was this something that really happened and perhaps was spoken of by Louis’ family? He refused to take that oath and might have told this to his children proudly. Then Philip IV, Louis’ grandson, might have already known about it and thought it a good thing to charge those infidel-loving Templars with.
On the other hand, Joinville lived until 1317, ten years after the arrest of the Templars. He began writing his memoir in 1305, or perhaps earlier, but it wasn’t finished until just before his death at the age of ninety-one. Could he have confused the oath Louis refused to take with what he had heard about the Templars?
The Templars had another role to play in the finding of Louis’ ransom. When all the money in Damietta was counted up, they were still thirty thousand livres short. The first thought at the court was to get a short-term loan from the Templars. The master having died, Jean de Joinville, the seneschal of Champagne, went to the Templar commander, Étienne d’Orricourt. He refused to give the loan, saying, “You know that all the money placed in our charge is left with us on condition of our swearing never to hand it over except to those who entrusted it to us.”21 The Templars did not have money of their own with them at Damietta.
Joinville was not going to stand for that and the two men were arguing loudly when the marshal of the temple and acting Grand Master, Renaud of Vichiers, came by and suggested that, while the Templars couldn’t make a loan of the money, if it were stolen from them there wasn’t much they could do about it. He did point out that Louis could repay them from his account in Acre.22
And so, thanks to the creative thinking of Renaud of Vichiers, the ransom was paid. Louis handed over Damietta and took his wife and newborn son to Acre.23 Most of the lords, including Louis’ two remaining brothers, went home.
Louis stayed in the East until 1254. His crusade had cost a king’s ransom and thousands of lives. The most that he accomplished was the rebuilding and fortifying of some towns in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
He seems to have felt that this wasn’t enough, for ten years later he began to plan another crusade. This was in response to the arrival of a Templar messenger from Acre, telling of the ongoing conquests of the Mongols.24
Again Louis’ two brothers went with him, as well as his sons, Philip, who had missed the last crusade, along with Jean Tristan and Peter, who had both been born while on it. He also took his daughter, Isobel, and her husband, another Thibaud of Champagne. This time, Marguerite decided to stay home. Prince Edward of England also agreed to go, but he arrived too late and eventually went to Acre to fulfill his crusading vow.25
For Louis did not go to Acre again, nor to Egypt, but to Tunis. He apparently didn’t tell anyone about this until his ships had put to sea. The logic behind this is still being debated. Some say that Louis believed that the emir there was willing to convert to Christianity but needed military backing.26At one time it was thought that the king’s brother, Charles of Anjou, who had since become king of Sicily, suggested the invasion as a means of getting a foothold in Africa.27However, it has since been proven that Charles wasn’t aware that Louis was planning on going to Tunis and had to change his own plans to accommodate him.28
For whatever reason, the crusade was again a dismal failure. The army wasn’t defeated by the Moslems, but by the summer heat. They landed in August in North Africa. There was little water and no shelter from the sun. Sickness filled the camp. The first of Louis’ family to die was his son Jean Tristan. Then Philip, the eldest son, became sick. Louis, who had never really recovered from his suffering in Egypt, became ill next. Soon he realized that he was dying and so he had himself laid out on a bed of ashes, arms outstretched in the form of a cross. He died August 25, 1270.29
Charles of Anjou arrived shortly afterward. He arranged for his brother’s body to be rendered and his bones taken home for burial.30 Charles conducted the business side of the crusade and arranged a treaty with the emir that was very favorable to Sicily.31
That was the last major crusade ever launched by a European king.
Louis’ son Philip III survived, but Philip’s wife, Jeanne, died from a fall from a horse followed by a stillbirth. One wonders if their son, Philip the Fair, would have been a warmer person if his mother had lived. As a result of the crusade, Louis’ brother Peter and his wife also died, as did Louis’ daughter and son-in-law.32
Almost immediately miracles were reported at Louis’ grave. His remaining brother, Charles, built a shrine to him in his palace.
It may be said that the only thing the Templars had to do with Louis’ last journey is that they transferred the funds for it.
By all accounts, Louis was almost always on good terms with the Temple. Hundreds of Templars were killed or enslaved in the Egyptian campaign. Their courage and military wisdom were praised. So that doesn’t seem a likely reason why Louis’ grandson, Philip the Fair, would want to condemn them.
However, the popular feeling that the Templars and the Hospitallers should have fought harder to protect the Holy Land was only increased by the debacles of Saint Louis.
Margaret Wade Labarge, Saint Louis: Louis IX Most Christian King of France (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968) p. 25.
The Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, in Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century, tr. Janet Shirley (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999) p. 66.
Jean de Joinville, “Life of St. Louis,” in Chronicles of the Crusades tr. M. R. B. Shaw (Penguin, 1963) p. 191; Matthew Paris, Chronica tr. Richard Vaughn ( New York, 1984) p. 131; Rothelin, p. 66.
Matthew Paris, p. 131. Matthew wasn’t there but Joinville also says that Queen Blanche and Bishop William were upset so this may be the gist of their argument.
Rothelin, p. 67. For the details of that crusade see the section on Armand of Périgord in chapter 22.
Philip was born on May 1, 1245, and so was only three years old when his parents set off on crusade.
Guillaume de Nangis, Chronique tr. M Guizot (Paris, 1825) p. 156.
Joinville, p. 201.
Jamal ad-Din Ibn Wasil, Mufarrij al-Kurub fi akhbar Bani Ayyub in Arab Historians of the Crusades tr. Francesco Gabrieli (Dorset, 1982) p. 286.
Rothelin, p. 91.
Ibid., p. 95.
Ibn Wasil, p. 290.
Joinville, p. 219.
Ibid., p. 226.
Ibid., p. 232.
Ibid., p. 240.
Ibn Wasil, p. 298.
Joinville, p. 254.
Ibid., p. 258.
Ibid., p. 259.
Marguerite gave birth three days after she learned of Louis’ capture. She named the boy Jean Tristan, “triste” meaning sadness. By the time she returned to France, she had had another child and was pregnant again. I think her story is fascinating but, since no Templars were involved, it will have to wait for another time.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) p. 208.
Labarge, pp. 227-44.
Riley-Smith, p. 210.
Labarge, pp. 239-40.
Hans Mayer, The Crusades tr. John Gillingham (Oxford University Press, 1988) p. 282.
Labarge, p. 243.
Nangis, p. 187.