Louis IX and the Great Crusade

For most historically aware folks living in the Western nations, the date of June 6 recalls the undertaking of the invasion of France, the initiation of the Anglo-American campaign to liberate France from German Nazi occupation, an effort General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade.”

Another Great Crusade took place on another June 6, in an earlier time, and in a more exotic place. In 1244, a Turkish army allied to the sultan of Egypt attacked and took Jerusalem from Christian forces. Louis IX, the king of France, had raised a great crusading army to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. His plan for the liberation of Jerusalem began with an attack on Egypt. Just as Anglo-American forces leaped from their landing craft into the beaches at Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches, Louis jumped from the deck of his galley opposite Damietta, a strategically significant city in the Nile delta. His army took the city, and the Cross preceded the column of crusaders who entered the city.

Few men have combined political skill with Christian charity as did St. Louis IX, king of France between 1226 and 1270. His enemies admired his commitment to peace between the crowned heads of Christian Europe. His councilors often found that commitment a source of puzzlement.

Yet his reign could easily never have been. Louis was born on April 25, 1214, while his grandfather Philip II Augustus (1180-1223) was still king. His father, Louis VIII (1223-1226), ruled only three years, leaving the eleven-year-old boy and his mother, the Spanish princess Blanche of Castile, vulnerable to the designs of the turbulent barons of France, who remembered that not long ago the Crown had been weak and vulnerable. Philip II (1180-1223) had in a series of wars defeated the greatest of the French barons and exerted his domination over them. They sensed that Louis’s minority might serve as the opportunity to wrest concessions from the Crown. However, the counts of Brittany and Champagne hastened to Louis’s defense (rumor had it that Thibaut, the count of Champagne, was in love with Blanche), and after a short war between the barons, Louis’s reign was assured, with the formidable Blanche serving in the meantime as regent.

Louis’s chief concern as king was that justice be administered fairly to all his subjects, whether peers or peasants. He famously held an informal court under an oak tree in the forest of Vincennes, to which of his subjects could bring grievances. To ensure that local royal officials, such as the bailiffs and seneschals, did not oppress the commoners, Louis appointed officials known as enqueteurs to monitor their administration of justice and collection of taxation. The honesty and even-handedness of royal justice under Louis encouraged many more subjects to seek out royal courts. Since Louis traveled about his realm, and was twice absent on crusade, he established a royal court to sit permanently in Paris, so that plaintiffs would not have to chase him down all over France. This court ultimately became the Parlement, the highest-ranking court in all of France, and over the years the self-appointed defender of French liberties.

From early boyhood Louis followed a daily regime of prayer and charitable works, which would commence with morning Mass in the royal chapel. Beggars regularly ate at his table, and he washed the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday. Each day he heard the Hours sung by a full choir and a requiem Mass. He sometimes heard another Mass as well—low Mass, or high Mass on saints’ days. He sometimes wore a hairshirt, and while on crusade in North Africa, often toiled along with the ordinary soldiers, carrying heavy building materials for fortresses.

Louis also served as arbiter of international disputes. He mediated the long conflict between  Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) and the German Emperor Frederick II (1215-1250). Innocent narrowly escaped capture by Frederick’s men in Italy, and fled to Lyons, a Francophone town on the frontier between France and the Empire. Louis’s intervention saved the pope from Frederick’s subsequent plots to arrest him. At the same time, Louis tried to soften Innocent’s stance towards Frederick, convinced as he was that a humiliation of Christendom’s most powerful prince would undermine good international order. Despite Louis’s efforts to mediate between Innocent and Frederick, the emperor died at odds with the pope, and a quarter-century interregnum followed in the empire, during which imperial authority withered and the princes and free cities consolidated their hold on regional power.

Louis also made peace with the English, France’s traditional enemy. He brokered a deal wherein France recognized the claim of England’s King Henry III as duke of Gascony in exchange for Henry’s concession of Plantagenet claims to the duchy of Normandy and the counties of Maine and Anjou. The royal councilors grumbled at the terms of the peace, since the French had conquered Gascony at great cost. Louis, however, was convinced first that the conquest of Gascony had been unjustly undertaken, and second, that since the French and English royal families had intermarried, there should be peace between them; for that matter, he thought that all Christian princes should live together in peace and brotherhood.

During his long reign, Louis never ceased to be a crusader, if a failed one. After his stunning capture of Damietta, his armies lost their way in the delta of the Nile, and were defeated one by one. Louis himself was captured and released only after the payment of a large ransom. Louis raised another crusading army in 1270, which he landed in North Africa. He died soon thereafter, near the city of Tunis. Pope Boniface VIII canonized him in 1297; his feast day is August 25.


Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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