Louis IX

Louis IX (1214-1270), or St. Louis, was king of France from 1226 to 1270. One of the greatest French kings, he consolidated the Crown's control over the great lords, proved his passion for justice, and went on two crusades.

Born on April 25, 1214, the oldest of the 12 children of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile, the half-Spanish Louis IX grew up to be a tall, handsome, blond, and jovial prince. By temperament nervous and energetic, Louis disciplined himself with fasting. His deeply religious mother raised him to be a truly Christian king and, as such, he applied Christian principles to his public acts as well as his private life. Louis was only 12 when he became king; his Spanish mother, in France since she was 12, became regent until Louis could accept active rule at 21.

Louis IX accepted his responsibilities as king with dedication and detachment. He worked to make peace and justice prevail. His detachment came from his conviction that kingship was not an opportunity to conquer others, or to exploit them for personal enrichment, or to use power to satisfy one's vanity. He believed that his obligations were to serve the Church and to lead his people to eternal salvation.

In 1247 Louis sent investigators throughout his realm to hear complaints against royal officials. He then issued ordinances, which became a moral code to guide his officials. Louis banned prostitution, gambling, blasphemy, and judicial duels. In an age when coinage varied widely in value, he issued gold and silver coins which quickly became accepted and helped to establish a uniform coinage throughout the realm.

His efforts to assure justice and to be accessible to all made Louis not only widely loved but frequently asked by foreign princes to arbitrate their disputes. Thus Louis was called to arbitrate a quarrel between Henry III of England and his barons in 1264. He was firm with pope and emperor in defense of his royal rights. By identifying his passion for justice with the Crown, his subjects outside the royal domain appealed to him. This helped to extend royal authority throughout the realm and to make him the most powerful king in western Europe. His charity was as widely known as his sense of justice, for he founded abbeys, convents, hospitals, and almshouses for the poor. His interest in art can be seen in his building of the beautiful Gothic Ste-Chapelle in Paris for the Crown of Thorns.

Louis's foreign policy of peace with his neighbors enabled him to go on two crusades. After a serious illness in 1244 he decided to lead a crusade to recover Jerusalem. Divided by internal or foreign problems, other rulers did not participate. Louis's crusade was largely French, the best organized and financed of all crusades. His plan was to damage Egypt so much that it would surrender Jerusalem to him. His army captured Damietta on June 5, 1249, the day after landing in Egypt. The courageous king was one of the first off his ship to establish a beachhead. But he was persuaded by his brother Robert of Artois to head for Cairo rather than Alexandria, and his army of about 15, 000 was trapped on the way at EI Mansûra. Supplies coming up the Nile were cut off, and his army was weakened by death and sickness. Louis therefore had to fall back on Damietta. On the way Louis and his army were captured and held for ransom. Once freed, Louis spent 4 years in Palestine, where he built fortifications and tried to salvage the kingdom of Jerusalem. He returned to France in 1254.

The failure of the crusade prompted Louis to make another effort. The original plan of going to Syria or Egypt was diverted to an attack on Tunisia by Louis's brother Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, who had interests in Tunisia. About 10, 000 crusaders landed in July 1270. When Louis took sick and died there in August, Charles of Anjou made a profitable peace and returned bearing the remains of the beloved king, who was universally mourned in Europe. He was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297.

Further Reading on Louis IX

The best and most famous life of Louis was written by Jean, Sire de Joinville, who accompanied the King on his first crusade, The Life of St. Louis (trans. 1955). One of the best modern biographies in English is Margaret Wade Labarge, Saint Louis: Louis IX, Most Christian King of France (1968). A summary of Louis's life is in The Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1911-1936). Louis IX and the other rulers of the Capetian dynasty are covered in Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France: Monarchy and Nation, 987-1328 (trans. 1960). The best account of his two crusades is in Kenneth M. Setton, ed., A History of the Crusades, vol. 2 (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Richard, Jean, Saint Louis: Crusader King of France, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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