Louis IX of France, who, as Gibbon says, united the virtues of a king, a hero, and a man, was born at Poissy on April 25, 1214. Guizot names him as one of the two princes "who on every occasion formed the first rule of their conduct from their moral creed"—the other prince being Marcus Aurelius.
Voltaire, and we may remember that Voltaire is not given to erring in the direction of exaggerated enthusiasm for kings, said of him:
"Louis IX appeared to be a prince destined to reform Europe, if she could have been reformed, to render France triumphant and civilized, and to be in all things a pattern for men. His piety, which was that of an anchorite, did not deprive him of any kingly virtue. A wise economy took nothing from his liberality. A profound policy was combined with strict justice, and he is perhaps the only sovereign entitled to this praise; prudent and firm in counsel, intrepid without rashness in his wars, he was as compassionate as if he had always been unfortunate. No man could have carried virtue further."
Louis, through the sudden early death of his father, Louis VIII, inherited the throne when he was only twelve years old, but during his entire minority his mother, the remarkable Blanche of Castille, reigned in his stead, as indeed she did to a certain extent to the end of her days, more particularly during Louis' six years' absence at the time of his first Crusade, for even after she had handed over the reins of government to her son, she remained his chief adviser, and one might say his associate on the throne. She was herself a child of Alfonso IX and Eleanor of England, daughter of King John.
"His youth," as one biographer says, "was not spent in vain, but in a very saintly manner. The Queen, whom he obeyed in all things, caused him to be carefully educated, and herself watched over him. She made him go about in grand and noble attire such as befitted a great king. At times he went hunting, or on the river, or indulged in pastimes of that character, such as were seemly and proper. His master was, however, always with him, teaching and instructing him in letters, and as the pious King admitted, this master did not fail to chastise him for disciplinary reason. He heard Mass and Vespers daily, and all the Canonical Hours. He avoided all improper games and kept himself from all unseemly and dishonourable things. He injured no one by word or deed, and always addressed those to whom he spoke with respect."
Louis was of beautiful countenance, with light hair and delicate features. He was tall, slender, and by no means robust. He was so far from strong that one can only wonder that he should have reached even the age of fifty-six, when one considers the hardships both self-imposed and accidental to which he was subjected.
He married when he was nineteen years old the beautiful and pious Margaret of Provence, a princess whom his mother had chosen for him, whom he loved and to whom he was unswervingly faithful all his days. His love was returned; Margaret was to him always a devoted and adoring wife, and she bore him no fewer than eleven children.
One of the most picturesque details in the life of St Louis was his acquisition of the Holy Crown of Thorns, and a piece of the True Cross. He received these from Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, in 1239. This monarch, having borrowed large sums of money from the Venetians, had offered them the Holy Relics as pledge. Louis eagerly redeemed this pledge, and upon Baldwin's surrendering them to him, carried the Relics himself from Sens to Paris, walking barefoot and bareheaded all the way. He eventually placed his treasures in the Sainte-Chapelle, which he had caused to be built to receive them—the Sainte-Chapelle, which itself has remained among the most precious treasures of art on the earth.
But the great event of Louis' life was the Crusade which he undertook in 1249.
He had been ill of a fever a few years before, that is to say, in 1244. The entire nation was alarmed by the danger of losing its revered sovereign. Long processions were to be seen in the streets, and Masses were solemnized in Paris, wherein all besought God for the recovery of the King.
But the fever raged on unabated until his life was despaired of. He at last fainted and it was believed that he had died. The country was filled with wailing and lamentations. Blanche, Margaret, and all Louis' brothers and friends had never ceased praying to God, for days and nights, that their beloved might be spared to them. At last He listened to their prayers and those of the people, for when the watchers all thought Louis dead, he suddenly drew up his arms and then extended them, and spoke in the strange voice of one returning from the grave: "The Grace of God has visited me from on high, and has recalled me from the dead."
As soon as he was sufficiently restored he called for the Bishop of Paris, and when the latter had arrived at his beside, said to him: "My Lord Bishop, I beg you to place the Cross of the Crusader upon my shoulder."
The Bishop tried to dissuade him; his mother and his wife on their knees implored him to wait until he should have recovered from his illness; his friends remonstrated; he insisted but the more vehemently to be given the cross, until the Bishop not daring to refuse further, attached it, though with sobs and tears, to his garments. All who were witnesses, likewise, and all the inmates of the palace now wept again as if he had indeed died. But Louis was filled with joy. He took the cross, laid it upon his breast, and declared that he was entirely cured.
On his complete return to health, in spite of all remonstrance, Louis fulfilled his vow. As soon as so great an undertaking could be compassed, he set sail with his wife, children, brothers, and friends, his knights and followers, and an army of 50,000 in a fleet of 1800 ships. He took the Oriflamme, the flame-coloured standard of the kings of France, at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, and sailed from Aigues-Mortes.
After a prolonged stay at the island of Cyprus, he landed near Damietta on the coast of Egypt.
Before landing he called his leaders together on his ship, and said to them:
"My faithful friends, we shall be invincible if we are inseparable in love. . . . Happen what may, the better part is ours. If we are conquered we shall go to Heaven as martyrs; if we triumph the glory of our Lord will be made manifest, and that of all France, or rather of all Christendom, will be increased. God Who sees all has not called me in vain. This is His cause; let us fight for Jesus Christ, and He will triumph in us; and He will give glory, honour, and blessing not to us, but to His name."
It would seem that an enthusiasm so exalted might carry sovereign and followers inevitably on to victory, but adversaries even more deadly than the Saracens were lying in wait for the devoted band. Famine and pestilence succeeded where strength of arms and skill in military operations might have failed. After a disastrous campaign—during which the King's energy, patience, faith, and devotion to his cause never for one moment flagged, even as his courage, endurance, self-forgetful and tender care of his stricken subjects were unfailing, although he himself was also seriously ill—after long and valiant struggle, eventual massacres, and final rout, Louis was taken prisoner.
His heroism and calmness during his captivity won the awed respect and admiration of his conquerors.
When there was question of his being ransomed by certain rich Christians who were taking measures for his deliverance, he expressly forbade this to be done, fearing that his poor followers would suffer by it. He insisted upon remaining in captivity until he himself had negotiated for the release of all, down to the last and least of his followers.
"I wish to remain," he said, "and wait until payment is made, and the others are set free."
After four long years he felt himself at liberty to return. Having paid his own ransom by the surrender of Damietta (the stronghold he had seized upon his first landing), he set sail for France.
On the homeward journey he gave another of the countless proofs of his selfless devotion to his subjects. When his ship was off the island of Cyprus it struck upon a rock, and the keel was so seriously damaged that the ship was in danger of sinking. Every one advised him to land at Cyprus, leave his ship, enter one of those composing his homeward-bound fleet, and leaving its passengers (about 500 souls) on the island, sail away without them. He refused, saying: "There is no one who does not value his life as much as I do mine. If I leave the ship there are five hundred people who will remain on the island of Cyprus, and who, as it may chance, will never return to their country. Therefore, I would rather trust my person and my wife and children to the hand of God than to do so much hurt to this large number of people."
In course of time he arrived safely in France.
Following the Crusade came a period during which Louis reigned in peace. He brought his kingdom to the most perfect state of order, of method, and of prosperity, by the wisdom, equity, and charity of his rule. "To every man his right" was the maxim of the holy King's government.
His care of the sick, the weak, the poor, and the afflicted knew no bounds, yet his stern justice toward all evil-doers showed him to be every inch a king while yet a Saint.
The deplorable Second Crusade which he undertook in 1270, when he was already in a sad state of health, was the last of Louis' acts of religious enthusiasm and self-denial.
He landed in Tunis this time, but his troops as well as he suffered from the first with a malady almost unescapable in that climate, and it was not long before it became evident that the King's last hour had come.
He died at noon on August 25, 1270, wearing the Franciscan monk's habit. He had himself laid at the last moment upon ashes on the ground as a penitent; then, crossing his arms upon his breast, he murmured with an air of beatified serenity the words of the Psalm:
"I shall enter into Thy mansion. I shall worship in Thy holy temple, and trust in Thy name"—and expired. His heart was carried to Sicily, the kingdom of his brother, Charles of Anjou, and placed in the sumptuous Abbey of Monreale in Palermo. The remainder of his relics were carried back from Tunis, and buried in the Church of Saint-Denis. Later, a part of these was transferred to the Sainte-Chapelle.
In 1297 Louis was canonized by Pope Benedict VIII.