Stories from the Crusades - Janet Kelman

How Louis Thought Death a Little Thing

Before the first Crusade, the Turks had poured westward to Palestine. Now before the last Crusade, another wild and fierce race swept down from China on Europe. They were called Tartars, and the terror of them spread to far countries. Villagers in France and Italy pointed to curious clouds in the sky, and turned pale; they thought them a sign that the monsters called Tartars were coming. Men and women cowered away in terror at the sight of a forest fire; they thought the Tartars had kindled it.

Tartar charge

A wild and fierce race called Tartars

Such a tribe swept over the Holy Land and Moslem and Christian joined together to fight the terrible foe. But even though they fought side by side, they could not turn the fierce warriors back. On and on they came till their horses dashed up the streets of Jerusalem. The city was empty. Every one had fled. But the victors were cruel men, they wished to kill their foes as well as to take the city. They flung the banner of the cross out against the sky, and rang glad peals on the bells of the Christian churches. In the caves and amongst the rocks round Jerusalem hundreds of people were hiding. They heard the bells, and peered out to see what had happened. They saw no foeman's flag, but their own banner waving. The news spread from rock to rock and from cave to cave. Crowds of joyful people hurried back to their city and to their homes. But the pealing bells and the floating banners drew them on only to death. The enemy waited till all were either within the gates or close to them. Then they fell on them and killed them.

At this time King Louis of France was a young man of twenty-six. His father had died when he was ten. Since that time, his mother, Queen Blanche, had guarded his lands and had trained him to be a good and true man. She was a wise woman, and strong and beautiful. She was kind too, and she charmed those whom she ruled.

Louis was a handsome young king, fair and slight. His long hair flowed over his shoulders. He did not care to wear gay clothes, for he was prouder of the coarse hair shirt which he wore under his armour than of all his royal robes. To all who met him, he was gentle and courteous.

Once he was very ill. His nobles stood round his bed. They thought he was dead. Suddenly he spoke in a hollow voice. He bade the Bishop of Paris fasten the cross of the Holy War on his shoulder.

When he was well again many of his people wished him to stay in France and rule them, for Louis thought of many things that would help the people of his land. He made good laws, and he was just and kind. Those who wished him to stay at home said that he need not keep the promise he had made to go to fight in Palestine, because he was so ill when he made it that perhaps he did not know what he said. When this was said to Louis, the Bishop of Paris chanced to be beside him again. The king snatched the cross from his shoulder and gave it to the bishop. Then he said:

'Now at least, I am in my senses, and I vow that no food shall enter my lips till the cross is again on my shoulder.'

So they knew that they need not urge him again to stay.

It was Christmas Eve. The king sat in a dimly lighted hall. The nobles of the court were called to him that he might fulfil an old French custom of mantle-giving. It was an honour to be called, and each man went up gladly to the king and felt a thrill of pleasure as the folds of the mantle fell from his shoulders. The nobles went from the king's presence into the chapel for the Christmas Eve service. As the bright light fell on the new cloaks, the knights started in surprise. The Cross of the Holy War had been fastened to each mantle. Each man saw it on his neighbour. Then he looked at his own robe and saw it there. Some smiled; some shrank from the vow; but the king's will was law, and his nobles made ready to sail.

In this crusade there were no gay robes nor jewelled bridles. Nor were there any ragged camp followers. Louis's army was made up of strong workmen and nobles.

The wild warrior tribe that had so cruelly killed the people of Jerusalem had left the land again and once more the Holy City was in the hands of the Sultan of Egypt. Louis hoped to surprise him and to attack him at the mouth of the Nile, but the Egyptian heard that he was coming and was ready to meet him. He brought a fleet of ships down the Nile and he lined the shores with armies.

When the two fleets met, the ships spread over miles of water. Close to the shore the fleet of Egypt lay. In a half-circle round it the crusading vessels gleamed in the sunshine, and the banner of the Cross waved from each topmast. Away out to sea one ship lay alone. From it, Queen Marguerite, the wife of Louis, watched the battle.

In the morning, the knights who were to fight on shore led their horses on planks from the great warships to the barges that lay alongside. The horses lurched and plunged in the unsteady boats, and the clang of their armour rang out across the water. All was noise and clamour. Hundreds of rowers bent to the oars. The barges bounded forward. Suddenly the sunlight was darkened. Spears and arrows from the Egyptian army flew so thick around the Crusaders that they could not see the sky. The rowers flagged. But the voice of Louis rang out to cheer them, and they bent to the oars with greater strength than ever. As the boat that bore the king touched the ground, Louis leapt into the water though it reached to his shoulder, and dashed through it sword in hand. Nobles and men followed him. The army that lined the shore broke its ranks and fled. But almost before the Crusaders could form in line, the horse soldiers of the Moslem army swept down on them from the desert.

St. Louis

Louis sprang into the water.

Louis was so calm that he knelt for a moment on the sand. 'Thy will be done!' he murmured. Then he sprang up and rushed into the fight. As the day wore on, Queen Marguerite as she watched, saw the oriflamme of France push slowly up the beach. Ship after ship that had guarded the river mouth sank. They were pierced by the prows of the French vessels. Ere night the victory was won. The crusading camp rang with shouts of joy.

In the morning a blaze of fire was seen in the south. Damietta, the town that Louis hoped to take for his own, was in flames. The foe had burned the city. No riches were left to tempt the army, so the burning of the city both helped and hindered Louis. Queen Marguerite landed and formed her court within the charred and ruined walls of Damietta. The army waited for more ships and men. But while they waited, bands of Arabs came whirling down on the camp. They came to any part of it that seemed less guarded, entered the tents, killed those they found there, and carried off the heads of all they killed. These wild men took the heads of the Crusaders to the sultan, who gave a golden coin for each one. Their horses were so swift and light that they could always escape from the heavy chargers of the knights. While the troops led by Louis were waiting here, the sultan was busy. The town of Mansourah stands at the place where the great river Nile breaks into many channels and forms the delta at its mouth. There the Moslem leader made ready to fight the French king. He built walls and towers, and made the town strong against the armies of the Cross.

At last the Crusaders marched, but when they reached Mansourah they found a great stream of water between them and the city. They could not fight the foe until they had crossed the channel. Then Louis bade his men build a causeway across the stream. But even as they built, the enemy on the other side dug away the sandy bank, and the stream flowed on as broad as before.

A shout was heard 'A ford, a ford.' It was not a good ford that had been found, still it was possible to cross by it, and the eager armies hastened to it. Robert, the king's brother, begged to be allowed to cross first with his men. He said he would wait on the other bank and guard the ford till the rest of the army had crossed over. A band of Moslems tried to keep him from landing. He drove them back. They fled across the sand.

Then Robert forgot his promise to stay by the ford. The masters of the knights of Jerusalem who rode with him begged him to think. They knew that it was a great mistake to break away from the other warriors. But Robert was too eager to listen. He said bitter things to them and seemed to think that they wished to keep all the power in their own hands. They were very angry at this, and the master of the Templars, to show that he was neither a coward nor wilful, shouted out:

'Raise then the standard.'

But William Longsword of England still tried to keep Robert from his folly.

'What cowards these English are!' said Robert.

But Longsword was no coward. Robert had his way. He swept on with his followers, and chased the Moslems into their fortress of Mansourah. But it was only one part of the Moslem army that he defeated. Bibars, a Saracen leader, saw what had happened. He gathered his forces, and ere Robert knew what was going on, his foes were at Mansourah, shutting it in on every side, and he and his men were prisoners in the town they had won. They fought all day long. Very few of them lived to see the next morning's sun. William Longsword, whom Robert had called a coward, fought so bravely that even his foes noted where he fell, and after the fight was over gave back his body to his friends.

But long ere nightfall, Louis had crossed the ford with the other part of the crusading army. Instead of comrades waiting to guard their landing, they found only the track of fighting, and foes on every side. They broke into bands. Instead of one great attack a hundred battles were fought. The orders Louis gave could not be heard, for his voice was drowned in the noise and clamour of armour and of hoofs. No one knew what to do next. It seemed that all must be lost.

Then Louis dashed forward with a small bodyguard. His haste was so great that he left his guard behind him, and found himself alone in the midst of six Moslem warriors. They knew he was the king by his armour. It seemed as if he must yield. But Louis was a great fighter, and he did not know what fear was. He held the six at bay until his guards joined him; then with them he led his army on in one wild charge, and won the day. But though they were victors they had suffered so greatly that it would have been wise if they had gone back to Damietta. This they would not do. They camped by the battle-field, and there very many of them grew ill and died. There was little food, and the air was evil-smelling and deadly. Louis went in and out amongst his men. As a nurse to them he was as tender and patient as he had been bold and fearless in war. At length he too fell ill.

He knew that something must be done to make peace with the sultan, for no help could come to Jerusalem from a host of Christian soldiers who were dying on the sands of Egypt. So he sent a message to say he would leave Egypt if the Moslems would give Jerusalem back to the Christians. The sultan said:

'Yes, if the king himself will be my prisoner until the last Crusader has left Egypt.'

Louis wished to agree to this, but his nobles would not hear of it. Since there could not be peace between the armies, there was no escape for the Crusaders but by flight. Even that seemed hopeless. Still it was all that could be done. Only a few of the boats which had followed them up the Nile were left. On these they placed the sick men and all the women and children. Then by night they set them afloat down the stream towards Damietta. The nobles begged Louis to go on board one of these vessels.

'Nay, I march with the last man of mine who lives,' said Louis. As the army left the camp, it was attacked. Louis turned and fought wildly for his men.

'Wait for the king! Wait for the king!' rang from the banks. The vessels were stayed, but Louis signed to them to go on. At length Louis and his men left the camp. The king was on horseback, but without helmet or cuirass. But all their efforts were in vain. Both ships and soldiers fell into the hands of the enemy. The king was weak and ill, but still free. His knights saw that he could go no further. They sought to hide him in a house in an Egyptian town, where a humble woman from France tended him gladly. But in spite of the knights who guarded the door, the Moslems burst into the house and loaded King Louis with chains. They carried him to Mansourah in a vessel gaily decked in honour of the great prisoner they had taken. As he sailed southwards up the stream, he saw his men driven along the banks in chains.

Louis in prison was as great a man as Louis in battle. He wore a coarse robe, because he would not deign to wear the gay clothing the sultan sent to him, nor would he feast with the Moslems, though they wished him to join them.

Each day he saw some of his followers led out from prison. They were asked if they would cease to be Christians and accept the faith of the prophet. They refused. No sooner had they done so than they fell dead before the eyes of their captive king. It was a terrible thing for him to sit thus day after day and watch the men who had fought by his side, and whom he loved, slain in this barbarous way.

When the sultan thought he had tried the king so long and so greatly that he would be glad to agree to any terms, he offered him freedom if he would give to him Damietta and the cities of Palestine. Louis had won Damietta in battle, but he had no right to the cities of the Holy Land.

'The cities do not belong to me but to God,' he said.

Then the sultan threatened to torture Louis to make him yield.

'I am the sultan's prisoner,' said the king; 'he can do with me as he will.'

He was so calm and firm that a Moslem who stood by said: 'You treat us, sire, as if you had us in prison instead of our holding you.'

But though the sultan spoke of torturing King Louis, he did not do it except by making him watch the men of his army as they died before him. When he found that the king would not yield he gave in himself, and agreed to accept Damietta in return for the king, and a large sum of money for those of the army who still lived.

But the knights would not let Louis wait to see the men set free. A vessel lay waiting at the mouth of the Nile. As soon as he and his queen were on board, it sped out to sea, and ere long King Louis was once more in France.

He was a great ruler as well as a great fighter, and he thought of the needs and duties of those whose king he was, as none in that land had ever done before. While he made France strong and its people happy, Bibars, who had so cleverly trapped Robert at Mansourah, became sultan, and laid waste the Holy Land. The news of this reached the northern lands from which the crusading armies had gone forth in former days, and once more the great longing to save Jerusalem took hold of Louis. His nobles sat in council. He came to them bearing a crown of thorns in his hands. Again he fastened the cross of war on his shoulder. He had heard that a great king in Africa was willing to become a Christian, and as he thought of this he dreamed bright dreams. He thought that he might bring this desert king and his dark followers to join his faith and his army, and that with them to aid him, he might even yet conquer the Moslem armies and win Jerusalem and Palestine.

His fleet sailed for the African coast. The army landed and marched into the desert. The hot sand blew about them and choked them. They found no friendly welcome, but only messages of blood and war from the king whom Louis had hoped would join him in battle against the Moslems. Illness and death swept through the army. One of the first to die was a son of King Louis. Soon the king himself lay dying in his tent in the hot desert camp.

'Jerusalem, Jerusalem,' he cried, 'we will go to Jerusalem!' His couch was very comfortless, but it was not so humble as Louis wished it to be. He bade them spread ashes on the ground and lay him there. When they had done this, they saw his lips more. They bent to listen, and heard these words:

'Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.'

Then he fell asleep. The sleep grew deeper and deeper, and soon the men who watched him there knew that he would never wake on earth again.

In the dim light of the tent, on a bed of ashes, lay all that was left of good King Louis. His beautiful face still kept the grandeur men had loved to see all his life long. He lay there in the sad, plague-stricken camp, and around him there seemed to linger the light of heaven.

Louis was the last of the heroes of the Crusades, but for years after his death the Christian forces held cities in the Holy Land. At last they were driven from all their strongholds, and the Moslem rule was unbroken.

To-day there is no kingdom of Jerusalem. There are ruins of churches and of castles, and the broken walls show how great was once the power of the armies of the Cross.

But though the dream of the Crusaders never came true, and though all their efforts left little mark on the life of the East, yet the lands from which the knights went out have been changed, and all their history has been different, because of those wars to which their armies went.

Over the door of an old house in a close in Edinburgh a scallop-shell, like the shells that were brought by pilgrims from the Holy Land, was cut in stone. In that house those who had made the long journey to the East, and had come back weary or ill, were welcomed and cared for. The shell above the door stood for hundreds of years to tell of the olden days. It is so in the history of Europe. Those who know it best can see the mark of the Crusades cut into the life of the nations whose knights led the armies of the Holy War, as clearly as the scallop-shell was cut into the old wall in Edinburgh.