Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

How King Louis Came to Egypt

When I came to Egypt, returning from Baghdad, I found the country in no small commotion. Report travels fast from the West to Egypt, and things of which I had not heard at all, or by the very faintest rumour, while I tarried at Baghdad, were commonly spoken of as established beyond all doubt in Egypt. Now the substance of what I now heard was this. The taking of Jerusalem by the barbarians from the North of which I have spoken above had so greatly moved the hearts of the people of the West, that at a council of the bishops of Italy, Germany, and other lands it had been resolved that there should be made yet another Crusade.

Preachers of this Crusade had gone through all the kingdoms of the West, and, by common consent, King Louis, ninth of the name, had been chosen to the command. It was told also how this Louis had bound himself in the most solemn way to service of the Cross. He and his brothers with him, had gone to the Church of St. Denys (whom they call the patron saint of the land of France), and there had received from the hand of one sent for that purpose by the Pope of Rome, the Banner of the Golden Fire, and the two things which pilgrims are wont to carry, namely, the purse for alms and the wayfarer's staff. All the nations of the West were bound under great curses to keep the peace among themselves, that no one might take advantage for his own profit of his neighbour's absence.

St. Louis


So much I heard on my first coming, and those who talked with me, men of experience, doubted not that these were true tidings. A few days after there came a galley of the Sultan's, with all sails set, and this though the wind was over-strong for so much canvas, but the captain thought that he could not make too much haste when he was bringing news of so great moment. And the news was this, that the ships that carried the army of the King of France had come to the island of Cyprus. It is true that the man judged rightly; yet, as it fell out, there was no need of haste, for the King tarried many months in Cyprus. He came there when the summer was about to end, but departed not till it had well-nigh come again. I am no soldier; for though I have followed many occupations, that of the soldier is wholly unknown to me; nevertheless I have a certain power of judging gained from the experience of many years. The leaders of expeditions who tarry over-long ere they begin their work, lose thereby no small part of their strength. It is with them even as it is with an arrow from the bow, which flies the fastest when it is first loosed from the string.

But now I will tell how King Louis and his army fared in this expedition. Some of the things which I shall relate I saw with my own eyes; some I heard from others, among whom I make special mention of two, the Lord of Joinville, a noble of no small renown, and a learned man withal, whom the King held in high honour, and Sir Pierre Chevetier, a priest. A priest he was, as might be known from the shaving of his crown, for this is the custom among priests in the West, but to see how he bore himself both in the tent and the field, no one had taken him for ought but a man-at-arms, and one who had followed the camp from his youth. Never a soldier have I seen that was more ready with a blow, or more rough of tongue. And before I go farther I will tell this man's story, and how, priest as he was, he came to be serving in the King's army. I myself heard it from the Lord of Joinville, and I will relate it, as near as may be, in his own words.

"I went to the King on a certain day when his great nobles took an oath that they would be true and loyal to his children, if any mischance should befall him on the way. He would have had me also take the oath, but I would not, for he had not the right to demand it"—it is passing strange how these nobles hold by their rights; a king is but half a king with them.

"As I went I saw on a cart three dead men, officers of the King all of them, and it was told me that they had been all slain by the same clerk, and that their bodies were being carried to the King. It was said, and I doubt not, that these men, for all that they were royal officers, were villains and thieves, who were wont to lurk in lonely places to rob the passers by. This they had often done unpunished, but when they came to try their villainies on this clerk, it cost them dear. They stripped him, indeed, of his clothes, leaving him but his shirt, for they took him unawares and when he carried no arms. The clerk ran to his lodging, and took his cross-bow from the place where it hung, and gave his hanger to a lad that he might bear it for him. Now the officers were yet in the lane where they had robbed him, waiting, maybe, for others whom they might serve in the same fashion. When the clerk saw them he cried, ` Ho! villains, you shall die for your misdoings!' But they took no heed of him. Then he let fly a bolt from his cross-bow, and smote one of the three to the heart—I have never seen man that had a more deadly aim. When the man fell to the ground, the two others, his companions, fled on foot as fast as they could. But the clerk, taking the hanger from the lad, pursued them—and verily if he was sure of aim so was he also swift of foot. One of them, seeing that he was like to be overtaken, sought to climb over a hedge into a garden hard by; but the clerk caught him as he climbed, and dealt him such a blow with the hanger on the leg that but for the boot it had fallen to the ground. As for the other, he thought to hide himself in a house, which was open to the street, for the people of the house had not shut it up. But it availed not. The clerk smote him on the head, and clave it to the teeth. This done, the clerk gave himself up to the provost, and the provost brought him to the King and told him all that had come to pass. ` Sir clerk,' said the King, ` you are a good man-at-arms, but an ill priest; for priests may not do such deeds as these. Come, therefore, with me over the sea, and do your duty in the way that is best befitted to you. But know this, that I will not suffer any man in my army to behave himself amiss.' "It was then from this priest and from the Lord Joinville, with whom I became acquainted as will be told hereafter, that I heard many things which did not come within my own knowledge. But in the telling of them again I shall not distinguish between things seen and things heard.

King Louis sailing from Cyprus about the 24th day of May came with a fair wind to Egypt in some four days, having a great fleet of ships, numbering in all, it was said, some eighteen hundred, great and small. And now there fell upon him the first stroke of misfortune. There arose a strong wind from the south which scattered the fleet, so that not more than a third part remained with the King. As for the others, they were blown far to the north, even to the town of Acre, and, though none were cast away, it was many days before they could return. Now the King's purpose was to lay siege to the town of Damietta, a town which is built on the midmost of the seven mouths of the Nile. It was commonly agreed that whoever should hold possession of this said town of Damietta might go whithersoever he would in the whole land of Egypt, and further, that whosoever should be master of Egypt could do what he would in the land of Palestine.

When the King came with what was left to him over against the city of Damietta there was much debate between him and his counsellors as to what might best be done. The counsellors, for the most part, would have had him delay his landing till they that had been separated from him should return. Nor did this counsel seem to be devoid of reason. The army of the Sultan was drawn up on the sea-shore, a very great array of men, most nobly equipped with gilded arms, and with such a din of drums and trumpets that even those used to battle might well have been amazed. But the King would have none of such advice. "Nay," said he, "I have no mind to turn back, having, by the grace of God, come so far. Say you that I should do well to wait for those who have been separated from us? That I would gladly do, for it grieves me much that they lose, so far, their share in this great enterprise. But two reasons constrain me to do otherwise. Firstly, it would put the infidel in great heart if they should see me so delay to make trial of them; and, secondly, there is no harbour here or safe anchorage where I might wait to good purpose. Nay, my lords, it is my purpose to attack the enemy without delay, for the Lord our God can save by few or by many."

The King being thus steadfastly resolved to have no more delay, his nobles and knights could not choose but obey him. This being so, they strove among themselves who should be the first to come to blows with the enemy. There were small boats with the larger of the ships, and these were filled with men and rowed to the shore. This was not done wholly without loss, for some slipped as they descended from the ships, or missed their feet, the boat moving from under them with the motion of the waves, so that some were drowned and others hardly saved.

Among the first to reach the shore was the Lord of Joinville. When the Turks saw him and his companions they spurred their horses and charged. But the Christians made a barricade, fixing their shields in the sand, and by the shields their lances, with the points towards the enemy. The horsemen came so far that they were well-nigh pierced with the spear-points. Then they turned and fled.

Meanwhile they took the great flag of Saint Denys, of which mention has been made above, from the ship in which it was, and carried it to the shore. But when the King saw the flag on the shore he would tarry no longer, but leapt into the sea, accoutred as he was, and the water came up to his armpits. So he made his way, not without difficulty, to the place where the Lord of Joinville and his companions stood. When he saw the Saracens, he said to the knight that followed him, "Who are these?" And the knight answered, "These, sir, are the Saracens." When he heard this he put his lance in rest, and held his shield before him, and would have charged them, but his counsellors would not suffer it.

When the enemy saw that the King and his men had landed, they sent a message to the Sultan by carrier-pigeons; this they did three times. But it so chanced that the Sultan was in a fit of the fever which troubled him in the summer time, and he sent no answer. Then his men, thinking that he was dead, for they knew already that he was sick, fled straightway from the town of Damietta. When the King knew this for certain, the bishops that were in the army sang the Te Deum  with great joy.

It was ill done of the Saracens to leave the town of Damietta in this fashion. Even the bridge of boats by which they passed over the river they left unhurt. Had they broken it they had done much damage to the Christians. One thing they did, but whether by chance or of set purpose cannot be said; they burned the market where were gathered all the provision of food and the stores; and from this there came no small trouble.

It should be said that the army which King Louis brought with him numbered thirty thousand men.