IN 1244 Louis fell very ill, and made a vow that if he recovered, he would go to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage and crusade. His mother and counselors vainly tried to dissuade him from undertaking this perilous expedition, which they dreaded on account of his delicate health; but Louis insisted upon taking part in the sixth crusade, and persuaded many of his noble to join him. Leaving his mother officially regent of the realm during his absence, he sailed from a port in southern France, accompanied by his wife, his brother, and most of his court.
Believing that Jerusalem could best be taken by first conquering Egypt, Louis directed his course thither, and landed at Damietta. The Saracens, drawn up on shore and waiting for him, were so amazed at the impetuosity of this king—who sprang overboard and waded ashore to encounter them sooner—that they turned and fled. Their panic enabled the crusaders to secure the city of Damietta, where they found great stores and much plunder.
The French army remained here nearly five months without pursuing its advantage, thereby giving the enemy plenty of time to rally and make preparations for defense. Starting out then to capture Cairo, the French were hindered by the overflowing fo the Nile, and at the Ford of Mansura (1250) suffered a great defeat. Such was the number of dead that the air became infected, and the army, vainly trying to retreat, was attacked by a plague.
The king himself, weakened by illness, was overtaken by the enemy who slew most of his followers and made him prisoner. He now began to bargain with the Saracens for his release, offering a large sum to free his men at arms, and the town of Damietta for his own ransom.
While these negotiations were taking place, Queen Margaret had remained in Damietta, where the news of her husband's defeat captivity reached her just as she had given birth to a little prince. Fearing lest the enemy might take possession of the city before she was able to leave it, she called an aged knight to her bedside, and bade him keep guard over her, saying, "Sir knight, I request on the oath you have sworn, that, should the Saracens storm this town and take it, you will cut off my head before you will allow them to seize my person." The loyal knight simply answered, "Madam, I had already decided to do so." He kept guard over her so faithfully that no harm came to her.
After recovering his freedom, Louis IX. embarked with the remnant of his army for the maritime cities in the Holy Land, which he now placed in a good state of defense. There he remained four years, doing all he could to protect the Christians in the East, although his mother kept constantly writing, begging him to come home.
During his absence, Queen Blanche had many troubles to contend against. Not only were the noblemen restive, but the peasants, hearing that their beloved king was in danger, took it into their heads to fly to his rescue. Forming what is known as the "Crusade of the Shepherds," they started out without means, and without any knowledge of the difficulties of the journey. Although Queen Blanche took prompt measures to stop them, she succeeded only after great numbers had perished.
Only the news of Queen Blanche's death could determine Louis to leave Palestine. On his way home his ship ran against a rock; and it seemed for a while as if all on board would perish. The king was urged to leave the vessel with his family, but nobly replied that the lives of the five hundred people with him were as precious in the sight of the Lord as his own, and that if he left, a panic would surely seize the remainder of the passengers, while if he remained everything would be done to save them all. Thanks to his steadfastness, the ship was saved from its perilous position, and all on board were rescued.
During another storm, which threatened to sink the vessel, Queen Margaret, who was as brave as her husband, was asked whether the royal children should be awakened, and answered firmly, "No, let them go to God sleeping." In spite of these and many other perils, the royal family reached home safely, where the king now turned all his attention to governing his kingdom in the wisest way.