The Vow of St. Louis
"The Hammer," "the Fat," "the Young," "the Wide-awake "—these are some of the names by which the French people called their kings, and they may at times have made you smile.
But now you have come to a king whom his people named "the Saint," and that is a title so great that you will hold in reverence the king to whom it was given. As you read of the reign of Louis ix. , you will find that the name became him well.
Louis ix. , or St. Louis, lost his father, as you know, when he was only twelve years old. But his mother, Blanche of Castile, trained him so wisely, that when he became a man he was well able to be a king of men.
Blanche taught her son to be kind, "unselfish, true, and as soon as he was able to understand, he knew that his mother would rather have him die than that he should say words or do deeds that were unworthy of a king.
The mother of Louis was a brave woman, and she had need of all her courage while her boy was young. For the nobles banded themselves together against the young king and his mother, thinking that now was the time, while the government was in the hands of a woman, to win back the lands and the privileges that had been wrested from them by Philip Augustus.
So when the barons were summoned to Rheims in 1226 to attend the coronation of the little prince, only a few of them obeyed the call. The others assembled an army, hoping to subdue the queen and get possession of the young king.
But Blanche was a clever woman, and she determined to win to her side Theobald, Count of Champagne, the leader of the rebel lords. And so successful was she that before long he became her staunch friend. "By my faith, madame," she had the joy of hearing the count say, "my heart, my body, my life and all my lands are at your command, and there is nothing to please you which I would not do, and against you and yours, please God, I will never go." This was a victory for Queen Blanche greater than the victory of a pitched battle.
Two years after he had been crowned the rebel lords still hoped to seize King Louis. For when Blanche had halted with her son at the town of Montlhery on their way to Paris, she found that the rebel troops were between her and the capital. Undismayed, the queen-mother despatched messengers to the citizens of Paris to ask for help, and right royally did they answer her appeal.
For they went forth all under arms and took the road to Montlhery, where they found the king and escorted him to Paris, all in their ranks and in order of battle.' Indeed, the road to Paris was lined with men-at-arms, 'who besought the Lord that He would grant the king long life and prosperity, and that He would defend him against all his enemies. And this God did.'
As Louis grew older, the people learned to love their king, so gentle he was and kind, yet at the same time so brave and strong. Of his love for his people there was no doubt.
When Louis was twenty years old his mother found him a little bride. Her name was Margaret, and she was only twelve years of age.
Good as Queen Blanche was, her love for her son was so great that she forgot that Margaret would sometimes like to be alone with her lord.
Even when the little bride was ill, the queen-mother made so many demands on Louis's time that at length Margaret rebelled, crying indignantly, "Alas, madame, neither dead nor alive will you let me see my lord." After that the king refused to leave the little queen until she was well.
In 1242 Henry iii. , King of England, came to France with a small army, hoping to win Normandy once again for England. He was joined by Count de la Marche, one of the French king's rebel lords.
But Louis showed the mettle of which he was made. He gathered together a large army, and entering Poitou he took town after town before Henry was ready to fight.
He then marched to Taillebourg on the river Charente. The English, with Count de la Marche, were on the opposite bank, but they had left the bridge across the river unguarded. The French at once began to cross it, and to attack the English. But the enemy was too strong for them, and their ranks began to waver. King Louis, seeing just where he was needed, dashed into the forefront of the fight. The English were forced to give way and retreat to Saintes. Here another battle was fought, and the English were totally defeated. The rebel Count de la Marche surrendered to King Louis, who pardoned him, but kept all the lands which he had won from the Count in battle.
Henry iii . fled to Bordeaux, and there he spent his time in pleasure, until in 1243 he made peace with Louis, and returned to England "with as much bravery as if he had conquered France."
But there had been sickness in the French camp, and Louis went back to Paris ill, smitten by the fever which had carried off many of his soldiers.
Day after day the king grew worse, until all over France the people wept, lest they should lose the king they loved so well.
Louis himself believed that he was dying, and said farewell to his household, bidding them be good servants of God.
His wife, his mother, his brothers lingered m his room, praying that God would spare him whom they loved. But the king lay so still that one of his nurses thought he was dead.
Soon, however, he rallied, and asked to see the Bishop of Paris. When the holy man arrived, Louis, in a feeble voice, begged him to place on his shoulder "the Cross of the voyage over the sea." This could only mean that Louis had made a vow to go as a crusader to the Holy Land.
In vain did Queen Margaret and Queen Blanche entreat the king to make no vow until he was stronger, in vain did the bishop plead with him to wait.
"I will neither eat nor drink," said the king, "until the Cross is laid upon my shoulder." Then the bishop, not daring to refuse, did as the king desired, while his mother, seeing that he had taken the Cross, sorrowed as though her son were dead.
From that day Louis grew better, and there was joy and thanksgiving throughout France.
For three years the king stayed at home, his barons doing all they could to shake his purpose to go to Palestine. But Louis was still determined to go.
The bishop and his mother made one last effort to shake the king's resolve. "My lord king," said the bishop, "bethink you that when you received the Cross you were so weak you scarce knew what you did."
"My son," said the queen-mother, "remember that God loves obedient children." Then, as the king was silent, she added that she would herself send troops to Palestine if he would but stay at home and rule his kingdom.
So quietly did the king listen that for a moment his mother and the bishop believed that they had won the day. Even when he spoke they were not at first undeceived.
"You say that weakness of mind was the cause of my taking the Cross," said Louis, smiling. "So, then, since you desire it, here I lay down the Cross and resign it to you," and
tearing the sign from his shoulder he handed it to the bishop.
Then before either his mother or the holy man could speak, Louis continued, his face grave, his voice firm: " My friends, now I lack not sense and reason, I am neither weak nor wandering of mind. Give me back, then, my Cross. For He who knows all things knows that no food shall pass my lips until my Cross is restored to me."
From that day no one ever again dared to plead with King Louis to give up the crusade.
Some of Louis's knights also took the Cross, but the number was not large enough to content the king, and he determined that many more should follow him to Palestine. If others would not take it of their own will, then they must be persuaded by one means or another.
Grave as King Louis was, I think he must have smiled to himself as he planned to entrap his laggard knights.
It was the custom in those days for each courtier to receive a new cloak at Christmastide. On Christmas Eve, therefore, the king bade them be present next morning at early mass.
As each knight entered the chapel on Christmas morning, his new cloak was thrown around his shoulders by one of the king's officers.
There was nothing unusual in this, and it was only when the service was over, and the knights came out of the dimly lighted chapel into the dawning light of day, that each saw on the new cloak of his neighbour the Cross, the sign of the Holy War.
"At first the knights laughed, seeing that their lord king had taken them piously, preaching by deeds not words," but they soon grew grave, knowing well that they could not tear off the sacred sign which the king had fastened to their cloaks. They must even follow him to the Holy Land.