Stories from French History - Lena Dalkeith

A Story in Praise of St. Louis the Ninth, King of France

Taken for the most part from the Chronicles of the Sieur John of Joinville, his Seneschal.

In the name of the all-powerful God, the good King Louis was born on the feast-day of St. Mark, the twenty-fifth day of April, in the year 1215.

He was crowned in his twelfth year on the first Sunday in Advent, when the Mass begins thus: "Good God, I have raised my heart and soul toward Thee; I put my trust in Thee!"

It was needful that God should help the good King in his youth, for his mother, Queen Blanche of Castile, was a Spanish woman and a foreigner. And at first, the barons of France took but little heed either of her or of little Louis. Instead, they made the King's great-uncle, the Count of Boulogne, their leader, and obeyed him as their true lord.

It happened at the coronation of the little King that the barons, by way of beginning their rebellion, commanded Blanche, the Queen-Dowager, to deliver up to them all the lands that belonged to the Crown of France.

She refused to obey so unjust a demand. These noblemen, then consulting together, agreed to set the Count of Brittany against the king. When, therefore, this same Count of Brittany began to make war on the domain of Louis, the nobles (having privily decided on their actions) brought no more than two knights each with them to battle in defence of King Louis. By this means they hoped to give the victory to the King's enemy.

But their treacherous plan failed, for by God's will the loyal Count of Thibaut was moved to bring out all his forces—a goodly number of gallant knights, who did such marvellous deeds in the King's defence that the Count of Brittany was forced to retreat in discomfiture. Afterwards he surrendered himself to the mercy of the King, who graciously pardoned him.

Thenceforward Louis travelled through his kingdom in security. The Queen Blanche ordered all matters pertaining to the education of her son, showing such care and wisdom in her task, that when the Prince came to his full manhood he was right well prepared for his royal duties.

Indeed, no King of France can ever equal him in sobriety, justice, and mercy. He was beloved of all his subjects from the greatest noble even to the most wretched serf.

In good sooth, he was adored and worshipped as a saint by the beggars and the sick folks, for these he cherished above all others, giving alms and administering to their wants every day of his life.

And not only was he the gentlest and the sweetest-mannered King that sat on the throne, but he was a brave and valiant soldier. This he quickly proved when the Count de la Marche and the King of England joined together to make war on France. He attacked them and forced them to such disadvantages that they were glad to retire. The King of England returned discomfited to Saxony whence he had come, while the Count de la Marche surrendered his person to King Louis, together with his wife, his children, and his lands, and a great sum of money.

Some little while after this victory, St. Louis fell grievously sick. So ill was he that all those who loved him feared he would die. Crowds of people stood outside the palace waiting to hear how he fared. Great processions walked the streets on their way to the churches where they prayed for his speedy recovery. The richest nobles, the poorest beggars, knelt there side by side, eager to show their love and their sorrow.

Despite their prayers, the King grew worse. Believing death to be near, he bade farewell to all his household and to his family; then he swooned. One of the ladies who watched by the bedside, began to cover up the King's face, believing him dead; but another, staying her hand, cried: "No! no! Not yet! The King still lives!"

But many thought him dead. The palace was filled with the noise of weeping and lamentation. The terrible news spread. The people left their homes to throng the churches, weeping and praying. In the palace, the King's mother, his brothers, and Queen Margaret, his fair wife, still hoped.

While they knelt about his bed praying silently, of a sudden the King stirred and began to sigh. Afterwards he stretched out his arms and legs, and spoke, but in so dull and hollow a voice that they who heard him trembled. It sounded like the voice of one newly returned from the grave.

"The grace of God hath visited me from on high and reached me from the dead," said King Louis. Then, when he had quite come to himself, he commanded that the Bishop of Paris should be brought before him.

When the Bishop and another priest stood beside the bed, the King said: "My Lord Bishop, I beg you to place the cross of foreign pilgrimages upon my shoulders."

"Sire and master, bethink you what you do," cried the Bishop in distress. "Methinks "tis more needful to keep peace in your own kingdom than it is to make war on another."

"O my dear lord, have a care," cried Queen Margaret, holding fast to the King's hand. "Put not thy sacred person in such dire peril for our love's dear sake."

"Sweet son, wait, I pray thee, until thy sickness is altogether healed before pledging thy word," the Queen Mother said.

"Not a morsel of bread, not a drop of wine shall pass my lips until you have given me the cross," Louis repeated over and over again, and with such unusual anger and force that at last the good Bishop, in much sorrow, obeyed his sire and master.

When it was known over the land that Louis had taken the cross, many more sorrowed for the King, weeping bitterly, as if he were already dead.

But Louis ever rejoiced. "Now am I healed of my grievous sickness" said he, and taking the cross, kissed it and laid it on his heart.

By causing the cross of foreign pilgrimages to be put on his shoulder, Louis had pledged himself to go and fight the Infidels in the Holy Land.

For a hundred and fifty years the fierce Turks and Saracens had inhabited Palestine and all the Blessed Country where our Lord Jesus Christ had lived when upon this earth, and no pious pilgrim, no good Christian, could visit the holy shrines for fear of these cruel unbelievers. There came a time when the Pope called on all those who loved to fight in a good cause to join together to free Jerusalem from the Infidels.

Priests, monks, soldiers, knights, princes and kings gathered together from all parts of Europe at his word, and thus began the first Crusade.

There had been six Crusades in all before Louis IX. bound the Holy Cross on his arm, and still Palestine and the surrounding country was in the hands of the Saracens. The Infidels had even begun to threaten Europe, swarming over the frontier of Germany. This made Louis uneasy lest France too should be in danger, and most likely this thought helped to keep his purpose firm.

Yet four years passed before he was ready to start for the Crusades. When he went, he left his kingdom safe under the wise rule of the Queen Mother, Blanche of Castile. Queen Margaret went with him, also his three brothers and their wives, besides nearly all the great nobles and barons of France.

St. Louis Crusading


Before going, the good King caused a proclamation to be made, in which he asked all the people who had been unjustly dealt with in any way to come forth and declare their wrongs, so they might have redress.

In these days, much of the land belonged to the Crown—that is, to the King. The King would divide these great estates among his high nobles and counts, and they in return paid him homage and fought for him in battle.

The nobles and counts then divided up triumphed. The town of Damietta was captured, and there Queen Margaret, her ladies, and her guard took up their abode, while the King and his great army marched towards Cairo, the capital of Egypt.

But the way up the Delta of the Nile, threaded by the many branches and canals of the great river, was a difficult way for an army to go. The march was slow. Bridges and dams had to be built and fords discovered by which to cross the rivers, and before the Christians could reach Cairo the town of Mansourah must be won.

It was on the twenty-first of December that the army came before the high-sided, deep-watered canal, which formed a triangle with the Nile. Over across the canal the Saracens were encamped.

The Crusaders busied themselves in making a causeway over which they might march to fight the Saracens; but the cunning Saracens never ceased attacking them from their high towers. King Louis saw at last that it would be well-nigh impossible to finish the causeway, for whatever work the Crusaders did was speedily ruined by the Saracens. Therefore he called his barons to consider what should be done.

Sir Hubert Beaujours, Constable of France, then addressing the King, said: "Sire, a Bedouin has lately come to say that if we will give him five hundred gold besants he will show a safe ford, which may be easily crossed on horseback."

"I will cheerfully give him the money if he speak truth," cried the King.

It was then determined that Louis, with his three brothers, the Counts of Poitiers, Artois, and Anjou, should lead the men over the ford, and this they did on Shrove Tuesday.

The Saracens, seeing the gallant company advancing on them, fled in terror, but the moment the Count D"Artois had crossed the ford and saw the Saracens fleeing, he stuck spurs to his horse and galloped after them. So also did the Knights Templars; and they followed the enemy into the city of Mansourah, and there, alas! the King's brother, for his rashness, was slain, and three hundred of his knights with him.

This caused much confusion among the French, yet was King Louis himself not dismayed. He came with all his attendants and a terrible noise of trumpets and clarions and horns. Never was there seen so noble a knight, for he seemed to tower among his fellows, taller by head and shoulders, a gilded helmet on his head, a great sword in his hand. I would have you know that in this engagement were performed on both sides gallant deeds that were ever done, for none made use of the bow, crossbow, or other artillery. The battle consisted of blows given by battle-axes, swords, and butts of spears all mingled together.

It was also said that, but for King Louis, the French would have altogether lost the day; for six Turks seized his horse's rein in order to take him prisoner, and he was delivered by himself alone; and when the Christian soldiers, who had been weakening, saw how the King defended himself, they took courage; some of them ceased to cross the stream and came to the King's aid.

By night, the Christian army occupied the Saracen camp. Nevertheless this victory failed to discourage the Infidels, who attacked the French again that same week. They were beaten back, but at the cost of such loss of life among the Christians that henceforward Louis kept his army on the defensive; and not only did the King lose men in battle, but by sickness also and starvation. St. Louis himself fell sick, and it was not long before he had to retreat across the canal again.

Matters grew worse and worse; men died by hundreds of the fever, and thousands were too weak to walk; it was pitiful to hear their cries of pain. The good King Louis then saw that he could not remain where he was without perishing, and he gave the order to retire, commanding the masters of the galleys to have their ships ready to receive the sick on board and carry them to Damietta. Likewise the engineers were ordered to cut the ropes which held the bridges between his army and the Saracens; but this they neglected to do, which was the cause of much evil.

When the army at last set forth on their march, King Louis rode with the rearguard. He was mounted on a small Arab horse with only a housing of silk on him, he being too weak to bear armour; and of all his men-at-arms one only rode with him, a good knight, Sir Geoffroy by name.

Now, when they reached a certain village, King Louis found himself too weak to proceed further. Moreover, the Saracens, having crossed the uncut bridges, attacked and harassed the Christians at each step of the way. Sir Geoffroy, fearing the King was sick unto death, gave him into the care of a woman who happened to be there.

Presently, up came Sir Philip de Montfort, who offered to go to the Sultan to make treaty with him. King Louis bade him god-speed, and all would have been well, for Sir Philip was about to make honourable terms with the Sultan when a stupid and treacherous sergeant set up a loud shout among the French, crying: "Sir Knights, surrender yourselves! The King orders you through me to do so, and not cause yourselves to be slain." At these words all were thunderstruck, but thinking the King had indeed sent such orders, they gave up their arms and staves to the Saracens.

The Commander of the Sultan's army beholding this, said at once that he could not agree to make truce with an army which had already been made prisoner; and now our gracious King was captured by the Saracens, and many nobles and knights with him.

There was much talk among the rich Christians about the money which they were willing to pay for the release of their friends; but the King, when he heard it, commanded that no one should pay a single piece of gold in ransom for any of his army. He feared that only the nobles with rich friends would be rescued, while the poor, common folk might be left to their fate and be prisoners among the Infidels for ever.

The Saracens, having threatened the King with torture because he would not give what they asked, now demanded of him how much money he was willing to pay for his own ransom and that of his army. King Louis answered that he would willingly pay five hundred thousand pounds for the deliverance of his army, and he would surrender to them the town of Damietta for the deliverance of his person, since he was not such an one as ought to be ransomed with money.

After a long delay, the Saracens consented, the money was paid, Damietta delivered to the Infidels, and the King, with his army, was free to return to France again if he would. But the good King was not willing to give up all hope of ever conquering the Saracens, and winning the Holy Land from them at last.

He sent back one of his brothers with many other noble knights to France, in order that they should return bringing him more money and soldiers. While awaiting them, Louis betook himself to Acre, where he worked hard to rescue all the French soldiers whom the Saracens, breaking the treaty, had treacherously refused to set free.

Thus for four long years he waited, hoping from month to month to be able to begin another campaign against the Saracens. But neither soldiers nor money came to him from France; and no chance did he ever have given him. Moreover, the wise Queen Blanche, his mother, the Queen-Regent, died, so King Louis had to set sail again for France, where he was much needed.

He reigned over his kingdom many a good year afterward until twenty-two years had passed. Then he set forth upon a second Crusade, but hardly had the attempt begun when this most worshipful King fell sick and died.

After his death he was made a saint, and his name written in the Calendar of the Holy Church, while his body was buried with much honour in a beautiful church in Paris, which is called the Saint Chapelle, and which he himself had caused to be built; and there his tomb may be seen even unto this day.