Heroes Every Child Should Know – Saint Louis

[Saint Louis IX]King Louis sailing from Cyprus about the 24th day of May, 1249, came with a fair wind to Egypt in some four days, having a great fleet of ships, numbering in all, it was said, some eighteen hundred, great and small. And now there fell upon him the first stroke of misfortune. There arose a strong wind from the south which scattered the fleet, so that not more than a third part remained with the King. As for the others, they were blown far to the north, even to the town of Acre, and, though none were cast away, it was many days before they could return. Now the King’s purpose was to lay siege to the town of Damietta, a town which is built on the midmost of the seven mouths of the Nile. It was commonly agreed that whoever should hold possession of this said town of Damietta might go whithersoever he would in the whole land of Egypt, and further, that whosoever should be master of Egypt could do what he would in the land of Palestine.

When the King came with what was left to him over against the city of Damietta there was much debate between him and his counsellors as to what might best be done. “I have no mind,” said he, “to turn back, having, by the grace of God, come so far. Say you that I should do well to wait for those who have been separated from us? That I would gladly do, for it grieves me much that they lose, so far, their share in this great enterprise. But two reasons constrain me to do otherwise. First, it would put the infidel in great heart if they should see me so delay to make trial of them; and, second, there is here no harbour or safe anchorage where I might wait. Nay, my lords, it is my purpose to attack the enemy without delay, for the Lord our God can save by few or by many.”

The King being thus steadfastly resolved to have no more delay, his nobles and knights could not choose but obey him. This being so, they strove among themselves who should be the first to come to blows with the enemy. There were small boats with the larger of the ships, and these were filled with men and rowed to the shore. This was not done wholly without loss, for some slipped as they descended from the ships, or missed their feet, the boat moving from under them with the motion of the waves, so that some were drowned and others hardly saved.

Meanwhile they took the great flag of Saint Denys, from the ship in which it was, and carried it to the shore. But when the King saw the flag on the shore he would tarry no longer, but leapt into the sea, accoutred as he was, and the water came up to his armpits. When he saw the Saracens, he said to the knight that followed him, “Who are these?” And the knight answered, “These, sir, are the Saracens.” When he heard this he put his lance in rest, and held his shield before him, and would have charged them, but his counsellors would not suffer it.

When the enemy saw that the King and his men had landed, they sent a message to the Sultan by carrier-pigeons; this they did three times. But it so chanced that the Sultan was in a fit of the fever which troubled him in the summer time, and he sent no answer. Then his men, thinking that he was dead, for they knew already that he was sick, fled straightway from the town of Damietta. When the King knew this for certain, the bishops that were in the army sang the Te Deum with great joy. The army which King Louis brought with him numbered thirty thousand men.

The army being thus established in the town of Damietta, there was much debate as to what should be done. The King was set upon assailing the enemy without delay. “It is by delay,” he said, and said truly, “that these enterprises have been ruined heretofore, for not only does an army grow less and less with every day by sickness- -keep it as carefully as you will, such loss must needs happen—but the first fire of zeal begins to burn low.” To such purpose the King spoke to his counsellors, nor could they gainsay his words. Yet they had to urge on the other part reasons so weighty that they could not be resisted.

The truth is that there could not have been chosen a worse time for the waging of war in Egypt than that at which the King arrived. Whereas other rivers overflow their banks in the winier season, the Nile overflows his in summer, and this he does because his stream is swollen, not by rains that fall in the land of Egypt, for such rains are more scanty than in any other country of the world, but by those that fall in countries far inland and, haply, by the melting of snows. So it is that in that part of Egypt which is nearest to the sea the river begins to rise in the month of June, and for a quarter of a year or so thereafter an army must rest perforce. The King was very ill served in his ministers when he was suffered to remain in ignorance of these things. Nevertheless, the case being so, he had no choice but to accept the counsel of delay. It was agreed, therefore, that the army should tarry in Damietta till the floods of the river should have ceased.

In the beginning of the month of December the King set out for Cairo with his army. Now the Sultan had sent five hundred of his knights, the bravest warriors and the best mounted that he could find in his whole army, to the end that they should harass the King’s army as much as might be. Now the King being very careful of the lives of his men, as knowing that a soldier lost could not be replaced, had given a strict commandment that no one should presume to leave the line of march and charge the enemy. When the Turks saw this, or, haply, had learnt from their spies that the King had given this commandment, they grew bolder and bolder, till one of them, riding up to the line, overthrew one of the Knights Templar. This was done under the very eyes of the Master of the Temple, who, when he saw it, could no longer endure to be quiet. So he cried to his brethren, “At them, good sirs, for this is more than can be borne.” So he spurred his horse, and the other Templars with him, and charged the Turks. And because their horses were fresh and the horses of the Turks weary, they bore them down. It was said that not one of the five hundred escaped, many being ridden down, and the rest being drowned in the river.

After this the King encamped between the two branches of the Nile, that which flows by Damietta and that which is the next to it toward the sunsetting. On the other side of this branch was ranged the army of the Sultan, to hinder the Christians from passing, an easy thing seeing that there was no ford, nor any place where a man might cross save by swimming.

While they were in this strait there came a Bedouin to the camp, who said that for five hundred pieces of gold he would show them a good ford. When the Constable Imbert, to whom the Bedouin had spoken of this ford, told the matter to the King, the King said, “I will give the gold right willingly; only be sure that the man perform his part of the bargain.” So the constable parleyed with the man; but the Bedouin would not depart from his purpose. “Give me the gold,” said he, “and I will show you the ford.” And because the King was in a strait, he consented; so the man received the five hundred pieces, and he showed the ford to certain that were sent with him.

It was agreed that the Duke of Burgundy and other nobles who were not of France should keep guard in the camp, and that the King with his brothers should ford the river at the place which the Arab should show. So, all being ready, at daybreak they came down to the water. A ford there was, but not such as a man would choose save in the greatest need.

The King, having with him the main body of the army, crossed amidst a great sounding of horns and trumpets. It was a noble sight to see, and nothing in it nobler and more admirable than the King himself. A fairer knight there never was, and he stood with a gilded helmet on his head, and a long German sword in his hand, being by his head and shoulders taller than the crowd. Then he and his knights charged the Saracens, who by this time had taken a stand again on the river bank. It was a great feat of arms. No man drew long-bow that day or plied cross-bow. The Crusaders and the Saracens fought with mace and sword, neither keeping their ranks, but all being confused together.

But the Crusaders, for all their valour, could scarce hold their own, because the enemy outnumbered them by much. Also there was a division of counsel among them. Also there came a messenger from them that were shut up in Mansoura, telling the King how hard pressed they were, and in what instant need of succour.

And now the Sacarens grew more and more confident, for they were greatly the better in numbers; and if, man for man and in the matter of arms and armour, they were scarce equal to the Crusaders, yet the difference was not so great. They pushed on, therefore, and drove the Christians back to the river. These were very hard pressed, and some were for swimming across the river to the camp, but by this time their horses were weary, and not a few perished by drowning.

Nevertheless as time passed the Crusaders fared somewhat better, for they drew more together, and the enemy, seeing that they still held their ground, and being themselves not a little weary, drew back. In the end the King and such of the chiefs as were left got back into the camp. Right glad they were to rest, for the battle had been long and fierce.

But they had but little peace, for that very night the Saracens made an attack upon the camp. A great disturbance they made, and most unwelcome to men who had been fighting all the day. But they did not work much harm. Many valiant deeds were done by the Christians.

But the Saracens were making ready for attacking the camp with more force than before. And their leader could be seen from the camp, taking account of the Crusaders, and strengthening his battalions where he thought that the King’s camp might be most conveniently assailed.

The first attack was made on the Count of Anjou. He held that part of the camp that was nearest to the city of Cairo. Some of the enemy were on horseback and some on foot; there were some also that threw Greek fire among the count’s men. Between them they pressed the count so sorely that he was fain to send to the King for help. This the King gave without loss of time; he led the men himself, and it was not long before they chased the Saracens from this part of the field.

When the battle was over the King called the barons to his tent, and thanked them for all that they had done, and gave them great encouragement, saying that as they had driven back the Saracens over and again, it would, beyond doubt, go well with them in the end.

And now the army was sore distressed for want both of food and of water. In Damietta, indeed, there were yet stores of barley, rice, and other grains; but in the camp scarce anything that could be eaten. Some small fishes were caught in the river; but these were very ill savoured, and all the more so—so, at least, it seemed to such as eat them under constraint of hunger—because they fed on dead bodies, of which many were thrown into the river. For a while some portion of the stores that were in the city were carried across the river to the camp. But this the Saracens hindered, for by this time their ships had the mastery over the ships of the Christians. They kept, therefore, the river, suffering nothing to pass. If anything was carried across, it was but a trifle. Some things the country people brought into the camp, but these were not to be purchased save for large sums of money, and money was by this time scarce even among the richer sort. And when it was judged expedient that the King’s army should cross the river again and return to the camp, things were worse rather than better, so far as victuals were concerned. It was well that the army should be brought together, both for attack and for defence, but with the greater multitude the famine grew worse and worse.

After a while there was a treating for peace between the King and the Saracens; and for a while it seemed as if they might come to an agreement, and this not without advantage to the King. But the matter came to naught, because the Saracens would have the King himself as a hostage for the due performance of the treaty. The Christians would have given the King’s brothers, and these were willing to go; but the King they could not give. “It would be better,” said one of the bravest knights in the army, and in this matter he spake the mind of all, “that we should all be taken captive or slain, than that we should leave the King in pledge.”

The King, seeing that the condition of the army still grew from bad to worse, and that if they tarried they would all be dead men, commanded that they should make their way into the town of Damietta. And this the army began to do the very next night. Now the first thing to be cared for was the taking of the sick, of whom there was a great multitude, on board the ships. But while this was being done, the Saracens entered the camp on the other side. When the sailors who were busy in embarking the sick saw this, they loosed the cables by which they were moored to the shore, and made as if they would fly. Now the King was on the bank of the river, and there was a galley in waiting for him, whereon, if he had been so minded, he might easily have escaped. Nor could he have been blamed therefor, because he was afflicted with the dysentery that prevailed in the camp. But this he would not do; “Nay,” he said, “I will stay with my people.” But when there was now no hope of safety, one of his officers took him, mounted as he was on a pony, to a village hard by, defending him all the way from such as chanced to fall in with him—but none knew that he was the King. When he was come to the village they took him into a house that there was, and laid him down almost dead. A good woman of Paris that was there took his head upon her lap, and there was no one but thought that he would die before nightfall. Then one of the nobles coming in asked the King whether he should not go to the chief of the Saracens, and see whether a treaty might not yet be made on such terms as they would. The King said yes; so he went. Now there was a company of the Saracens round the house, whither by this time not a few of the Christians had assembled. And one of the King’s officers cried- whether from fear or with traitorous intent cannot be said—”Sir knights, surrender yourselves! The King will have it so; if you do not, the King will perish.” So the knights gave up their swords, and the Saracens took them as prisoners. When the chief of the Saracens, with whom the noble aforesaid was talking, saw them, he said, “There can be no talk of truce and agreement with these men; they are prisoners.”

And now the question was not of a treaty but a ransom. About this there was no little debate between the Sultan and the King. First the Sultan required that the King should surrender to him the castles of the Knights Templars and of the Hospitallers of Saint John. “Nay,” said the King, “that I cannot do, for they are not mine to give.” This answer greatly provoked the Sultan, and he threatened to put the King to the torture, to which the King answered this only, that he was a prisoner in their hands, and that they could do with him as they would.

When they saw that they could not turn him from his purpose by threats or by fear, they asked him how much money he was willing to pay to the Sultan for his ransom, such money being over and above the rendering up of the town of Damietta. Then the King made answer: “If the Sultan will take a reasonable sum in money for ransom, I will recommend it to the Queen that she should pay the same.” “Nay,” said the envoy of the Sultan, “why do you not say outright that you will have it so?” “Because,” answered the King, “in this matter it is for the Queen to say yea or nay. I am a prisoner, and my royal power is gone from me.” So it was agreed that if the Queen would pay a thousand thousand gold pieces by way of ransom, the King should go free. Said the King, “Will the Sultan swear to this bargain?” They said that he would. So it was agreed that the King should pay for the ransom of his army a thousand thousand gold pieces, and for his own ransom the town of Damietta, “for,” said he, “a King cannot be bought and sold for money.” When the Sultan heard this, he said, “On my word, this is a noble thing of the Frenchman that he makes no bargaining concerning so great a thing. Tell him that I give him as a free gift the fifth part of the sum which he has covenanted to pay.”

All things were now settled, and there were but four days before the fulfilling of the treaty, when the King should give up Damietta to the Sultan, and the Sultan, on his part, should suffer the King and his people to go free. But lo! there came to pass that which was like to bring the whole matter to nothing. The emirs of the Sultan made a conspiracy against him. “Know this,” they said one to another, “that so soon as he shall find himself master of Damietta, he will slay us. Let us therefore be beforehand with him.” And it was agreed that this should be done. First, when the Sultan was going to his chamber after a banquet which he had given to the emirs, one, who was, indeed, his sword-bearer, dealt him a blow and struck off his hand. But the Sultan, being young and nimble, escaped into a strong tower that was hard by his chamber, and three of his priests were with him. The emirs called upon him to give himself up. “That,” said he, “I will do, if you will give me a promise of my life.” “Nay,” they answered, “we will give you no promises. If you surrender not of your own free will, then will we compel you.” Then they threw Greek fire at the tower, and the tower, which was built of pine-wood, caught fire on the instant. When the Sultan saw this he ran down with all the speed that he could, seeking to reach the river, if so be he could find a ship. But the emirs and their men were ranged along the way, nor was it long before they slew him. And he that dealt him the last blow came to the King, his hand yet dripping with blood, and said, “What will you give me? I have slain your enemy, who would assuredly have done you to death had he lived.” But the King answered him not a word.

Now the covenant between the King and the Saracen chiefs was renewed, nor was any change made in the conditions; only the payment was differently ordered; that is to say, one-half of the ransom was to be paid before the King left the place where he was, and the other half in the town of Acre.

Then the emirs on the one part and the King on the other took the oaths that were held to be the most binding on them. The King indeed held staunchly by his faith, and when the emirs would have had him swear in a way that he thought to be unseemly to him as a Christian man he would not. And the emirs paid him the more honour and reverence for this very cause. It was said, indeed, that they would have made him Sultan of Cairo, if he had been minded to receive that dignity at their hands; furthermore, some that knew the King affirmed that he was not altogether set against it. But none knew for certain the truth in the matter. Yet it was well said by one of the emirs, “There surely never was better or more steadfast Christian than this King Louis. Verily if he had been made our sultan he would never have been content till he had either made us all Christians, or, failing this, had put us all to the sword.”

And now there came a time of great peril to the prisoners. First the town of Damietta was given up to the Saracens, the gates being opened and their flag hoisted On the towers.

On the next day the paying of the ransom was begun. When the money was counted it was found to be short by some thirty thousand pieces. These were taken from the treasury of the Templars much against their will, but the necessities of the prisoners prevailed.

As for the King, there could not have been a man more loyal in the fulfilling of his promise. When one of those that counted the money said that the Saracens had received less than their due by some ten thousand pieces, the King would not suffer but that the whole matter should be looked into, lest the Saracens should have wrong. The counter, indeed, averred that this thing was said in jest; but the King answered that such a jest was out of season, and that above all things it was necessary that a Christian should show good faith.

Not many days after the paying of the ransom the King sent for his chief counsellors and opened his mind to them in the matter of his return to France. He said, “The Queen, my mother, begs me to come back to France, saying that my kingdom is in great peril seeing, that I have no peace, nor even a truce, with England. Tell me, then, what you think. And because it is a great matter, I give you eight days to consider it.”

After this the King went to Acre, where he tarried till what was left over of the ransom was paid.

On the day appointed the counsellors came before the King, who said to them, “What do you advise? Shall I go, or shall I stay?” They said that they had chosen one from among them, a certain Guy Malvoisin, to speak for them. Thereupon this Guy said, “These lords have taken counsel together, and are agreed that you cannot tarry in this country without damage to yourself and your kingdom. For think how that of all the knights whom you had in Cyprus, two thousand eight hundred in number, there remain with you here in Acre scarce one hundred. Our counsel, therefore, is that you return to France, and there gather another army, with which you may come hither again and take vengeance on your enemies for their trespasses against God and against you.”

Then the King turned to a certain John, who was Count of Jaffa, and asked him for his judgment. Count John answered: “Ask me not, sire; my domain is here, and if I bid you stay, then it will be said that I did this for my own profit.” But when the King was urgent for his advice he said, “If you stay for a year it will be for your honour.” And one other of the counsellors gave the same judgment; but all the rest were urgent for the King’s return. Then the King said, “I will tell you eight days hence what it is my pleasure to do.”

On the day appointed they all came together again, and the King said, “I thank you, my lords, for your counsel—both those who have advised my going back and those who have advised my staying. Now I hold that if I stay, my kingdom of France will be in no peril, seeing that the Queen, my mother, is well able to keep it in charge; but that if I depart, then the kingdom of Jerusalem will most certainly be lost, because no man will be bold enough to stay after I am gone. Now, it was for the sake of this same kingdom of Jerusalem that I have come hither. My purpose, therefore, is to stay.” There was no little trouble among the barons when they heard these words. There were some among them who could not hold back their tears. But though the King resolved himself to stay, yet he commanded his brothers to depart. And this they did before many days.

While the King tarried at Acre there came to him messengers from the Old Man of the Mountain. One of the messengers was the spokesman, and had his place in front; the second had in his hand three daggers, to signify what danger threatened him who should not listen to the message; the third carried a shroud of buckram for him who should be smitten with the daggers. The King said to the first envoy, “Speak on.” Then the envoy said, “My master says, ‘Know you me?'” The King answered, “I know him not, for I have never seen him; yet I have often heard others talk of him.” “Why, then,” went on the envoy, “have you not sent him such gifts as would have gained his friendship, even as the Emperor of Germany and the King of Hungary and other princes have done, yea, and do now year after year, knowing well that they cannot live save by my lord’s pleasure?” The King made no answer, but bade the envoys come again in the afternoon. When they came they found the King sitting with the Master of the Templars on one side and the Master of the Hospitallers on the other. Now the Old Man is in great awe of these two, for he knows that if he slay them there will be put in their place other two as good or better. The envoys were not a little disturbed when they saw the two. And the Master of the Templars said, “Your lord is over bold to send you with such a message for the King. Now be sure that we would have drowned you in the sea, but that so doing might be a wrong to him. Go now to your lord, and come again in fourteen days with such a token and such gifts as may suffice for the making of peace.”

So the envoys departed, and came again in the time appointed, and they brought with them the shirt of the Old Man and his ring, which was of the finest gold, and with these things this message: “As man wears no garment that is nearer to him than his shirt, so the Old Man would have the King nearer to him than any other King upon earth; and as a ring is the sign of marriage by which two are made one, so the Old Man would have himself and the King to be one.” Other gifts there were, an elephant of crystal, very cunningly wrought, and a monster which they call a giraffe, also of crystal, and draughts and chessmen, all finely made. The King, on his part, sent to the Old Man a great store of newels, and scarlet cloth, and dishes of gold and bridles of silver.

While the King was at Jaffa it was told him that if he desired to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the Sultan of Damascus would give him a safe-conduct. The King consulted his nobles on the matter, and both he and they were of one mind in the matter, to wit, that he should not go. “For,” said they, “if the King should go as a pilgrim, when he has not been able to take the Holy City itself out of the hands of the infidel, then will other Kings in time to come do the same. They will be content to go as pilgrims, but will take no thought as to the city, whether it be held by Christian or infidel.”

After these things the King went to the city of Sidon and fortified it with strong walls, for he was greatly unwilling to give up his hope of winning the whole land out of the hands of the infidel. But when he had brought this work to an end, there came news to him from his own country that the Queen his mother, who was charged with the government thereof, was dead. Then he took counsel with his nobles what he should do, and it seemed to them that he must of necessity return to France. One among them put the case before the King as follows:

“Sire, we see that it will not profit the kingdom of Jerusalem that you tarry longer here. You have done what was in your power. You have fortified the city of Sidon, and Cassarea, and Jaffa, and you have made the city of Acre much stronger than it was. And now for your own kingdom’s sake, you must needs depart.” And to this the King gave his consent, though with an unwilling heart. So he departed, and this, as it chanced, on his birthday. As the ship went forth from the harbour he said to the Lord of Joinville, who stood by him, “On this day I was born.” And the Lord of Joinville said to him, “Truly, sire, I should say that you are beginning another life, now that you are safely quit of this land of death.”

Some seventeen years after the things last recorded, I took a journey to the Island of Sardinia, and made my abode at a town on the west coast, called Neapolis. When I had sojourned there two months there came in sight on a certain day a great fleet of ships, which those who were acquainted with such things declared to be from the land of France. As for the crowd that came ashore that day, it were best to say little. It is more to the purpose to say that I met with one whom I knew, having consorted with him in time past, and this the more constantly because he followed the same occupation as I. I asked him, “How came you hither? If you are bound for Palestine, this is but a short stage in your journey.” He answered me with something of a smile in his eye, though his mouth was set, “Where could we more conveniently halt than here, for we are bound for Tunis?” “For Tunis?” said I; “but how shall this help you for the taking of Jerusalem?” “That,” said he, “you must ask of some one that has more wisdom than I. But this I know that the King was told, by whom I know not, that the Bey of Tunis desired to be baptised. This, then, is cause sufficient for him. Are you minded to come with me? If so, I can find you a place in the King’s ship, for it is in it that I sail.”

When I heard that, I consented without delay. So that night I gave my friend the shelter of my lodging; and the next day he took me with him, and commended me to one of the chief officers of the ship, bearing witness to my skill as a physician. On the fourth day we sailed, and came in two days, the wind blowing from the north, to the harbour of Tunis. As for the King, I saw him but once. His valets carried him up on the deck; and, to tell the truth, he looked as little fit for doing feats of arms as man could look. But I thought that the sickness which takes many men upon the sea might be the cause.

Scarce had the army landed than there began a most grievous sickness. In truth the place for the camp had been ill chosen, for there was a little stream into which much of the filth of the city was wont to run. From this there came a most evil smell. Many also, for want of good water, would drink of the stream, than which there could be no more deadly thing.

On the very day after he landed from his ship the King fell sick. His physician being disabled by the same malady, I was called in to the King’s help; and from the first I saw that, save by a miracle, he could not live. On the fourth day he died, making as good and devout an end as any that I have ever seen. He would know the truth, for he was not one of those who buoy themselves up with false hopes. And when he knew it, then first with the help of the priests that attended him he prepared his soul, and afterward he gave what time remained to teaching the son who should be King after him how he should best do his duty to God and man.

I heard much from him who had put it in my mind to come from the island of Sardinia concerning King Louis. Never, he told me, was a King more bent on doing justice and judgment. These he maintained with his whole heart and strength, not having any respect of persons, or having regard to his own profit. Though he held bishops and priests in great reverence, being most careful of all the offices of religion, yet he would withstand even these when they seemed to seek that which was not fair and just. He was a lover of peace far beyond the wont of Kings, who indeed, for the most part, care but little for it, so that men say in a proverb, “War is the game of Kings.” Of the poor he was a great and constant favourer. Every day he had a multitude of them fed at his cost in his palace, and sometimes he would serve himself, and it was his custom on a certain day to wash the feet of poor men. In his eating and drinking he was as temperate as man could be, drinking, for example, but one cup of wine, and that largely mingled with water. In all things wherein great men ofttimes offend he was wholly blameless and beyond reproach. Of all men that I had any knowledge of, whether by sight or by hearing, in this business of the Crusades there was not one who could be so much as named in comparison with King Louis. To King Louis religion was as life itself. It filled, as it were, his whole soul; he judged of all things by it; he hungered and thirsted after it. And yet of all who bore the cross this man, being, as he was, so much the most faithful to his vow, by far the truest cross-bearer of all, yet failed the most utterly. Of such things I have not the wit to judge; yet this, methinks, is manifest, that the Kingdom of God is not set forward by the power of armies. I do believe that if King Louis, being what he was, a man after God’s own heart, had come, not with the sword, but preaching the truth by his life, he had done more for the cause that he had at heart. As it was, he furthered it not at all, so far as I can discern, but rather set it back. That he did not gain for Christendom so much as a single foot of earth is not so much to be lamented, as that he made wider the breach between Christian men and the followers of Mahomet. And this he did, though he was in very truth the most Christlike of all the men that I have ever seen.