Saintly king of France
—Louis IX’s dying words
He didn’t act like a king. He wore hair shirts and visited hospitals, sometimes emptying the bedpans. He collected relics and built a chapel to house them.
Such unkingly behavior was one reason Louis IX developed the reputation as the most Christian of rulers.
Born the fourth of 11 children to King Louis VIII and Queen Blanche, Louis became heir to the throne after his three older siblings died. Blanche raised her son to be strictly religious: “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child,” she once said to him, “but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” At age 12, prepubescent Louis found himself king, with a devout but smothering mother at his side.
At 20 he married Margaret of Provence (“a girl of pretty face, but prettier faith”), to whom he quickly became devoted. She bore him 11 children. When he left on a crusade, he took his wife and children along.
Louis lived his faith, and his reputation spread. The Latin emperor of Constantinople gave Louis the Crown of Thorns in 1238, and Louis built the magnificent Sainte Chapelle to house this relic of Christ’s crucifixion.
In 1242 Henry III of England invaded Angevin. Louis managed to drive off the English king but contracted an infection that almost killed him. He vowed if he got well, he would do what men of nearly every generation in his family had done for 150 years: he would lead a crusade.
With 36 ships loaded with 15,000 men, their horses, and supplies, Louis headed for Egypt, the center of Muslim power and the doorway to Jerusalem. After capturing Damietta, he led his army inland toward Cairo. But an epidemic forced Louis to retreat. The king suffered so badly from dysentery that he cut a hole in the back of his pants and marched with the rear guard.
Louis and part of the army were captured before making it back to the ships. Their ransom was so high, it reportedly took two days to count the gold. When one of Louis’s officials bragged about cheating the Muslims, the king angrily ordered the ransom paid in full.
The defeat plunged him into despair and deeper piety. He blamed himself for the loss, believing God was punishing him for his sins. He began dressing plainly, eating simply, and helping the poor. Instead of going home, Louis took his army to Palestine, where they built walls and towers around several coastal cities. He stayed four years, returning to France only upon hearing of the death of his mother, who had been ruling in his absence.
Back home, Louis redoubled his penance and his efforts to create a holy nation. He systematized customary law, recorded cases as precedents, and replaced trial by combat with the examination of witnesses under oath. He outlawed usury (lending money at an excessively high rate), ordered blasphemers to be branded on the lips, and forbade feudal lords to make private war on one another.
All feudal lords made a show of charity and good works. What made Louis different was his humility and perseverance. Every year, he went to the abbey of Saint Denis barefoot and bareheaded. Louis not only served the poor at his table, but he and his sons washed the feet of the beggars. He was especially generous to the widows of crusaders. Louis had a special passion for sermons, then just coming into vogue, and he encouraged the preaching friars, repeating his favorite homilies to those at his table. Queen Marguerite’s confessor records that she would often get up at night and cover the king with a cloak while he was at his lengthy prayers, because he did not notice the cold.
Twenty-two years after his first crusade, Louis tried to redeem himself with another.
He landed in Tunis, in northern Africa, in the heat of the summer of 1270. Dysentery or typhoid quickly swept through the unsanitary camp. Louis fell ill and died while lying penitently on a bed of ashes, whispering the name of the city he never won: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” He soon became the only king of France named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
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