This child of benediction was the ninth of his name, among the kings of France. He was the son of Louis VIII and Queen Blanche of Castile, a pious and saintly woman, who was untiring in her efforts to train him in the practice of every virtue. It was her custom to say to him, “My son, I would rather see you dead at my feet, than guilty of a single mortal sin.” It was not strange that Louis, while still very young, displayed great piety and zeal for religion, combined with a horror of sin, the natural result of his good mother’s early training. Queen Blanche was regent of France during the long minority of her son, and she directed the affairs of the government with so much wisdom and prudence, that Louis, after assuming the reins of government, often sought her advice and deferred to her judgment in the management of his kingdom.
In the wars conducted by Louis’ ancestors, many innocent persons had lost their estates, which became, by right of victory, the property of the crown. The young king’s first care, after attaining his majority, was to seek out the former owners of these estates, or their descendants, and to restore to them all their property which had reverted to the crown. In the instructions left by him to his son, Philippe, he says, “If thou art given to understand that thou boldest anything wrongfully, either in thy own time, or, in that of thy ancestors, quickly restore it, no matter how great the thing may be, either in land, or money, or otherwise.”
Louis had not long been crowned, when Christendom, and, indeed, not only Christendom, but the entire civilized world was suddenly called upon to defend itself from total destruction. The Mongols, a barbarian tribe from the north of China had become so strong and so numerous, that they left the sterile plains, which had been their home, spread over the whole of Asia and marked their path with the ashes of ruined buildings and the bones of murdered men. It was the ambition of these savages to reduce the whole known world to a plain, or free prairie, where they could roam at will on their small shaggy ponies. So much were these Mongols feared and dreaded, that the people of Europe said they would one day descend upon Rome, and feed their horses on the high-altar of Saint Peter’s. The Emperor of Constantinople sent to ask Louis’ aid against the invaders, and promised to give him a precious relic – the crown of thorns worn by Our Blessed Lord during his passion. Louis was overjoyed, and directed that a chapel, the Sainte Chapelle should be built at Vincennes for its reception. When the precious relic arrived, Louis walked after it, barefoot from Paris to Vincennes, where it was installed in the Sainte Chapelle, with many pious ceremonies. Louis wished to show his gratitude to the Emperor of Constantinople, by starting at once to his assistance, but was detained at home by a war with England. This war finally ended in a truce brought about through the efforts of Richard Coeur de Lion, whom Louis revered for the part he had taken in the last crusade. Our saint detested war, and always tried to avoid it, if at all possible. It was his custom to arbitrate quarrels between his nobles, in order to prevent the duels which were commonly regarded, at that time, as the only way of settling a dispute.
The kingdom being at peace, Louis prepared to put into execution his darling project, the rescue of Jerusalem, but, once more, the saint had need of exercising the virtue of patience. He fell ill, and was almost at the point of death, when the news reached France, that the Mongols had swept down upon the city of Bagdad, which they had left almost entirely In ruins. Then, pushing on towards the Holy Land, they gained a victory at Gaza, where a large number of Christians were slain. The Mongols next entered Jerusalem, which had been deserted by its inhabitants, and lured them back by a cunningly-contrived plan. They displayed crosses on the walls, and when the inhabitants returned, massacred them without mercy.
The tidings of all these disasters reached Paris, when the king was thought to be at the point of death. In fact, one of the watchers by Louis , bed-side, had already covered his face, thinking that he had breathed his last. He rallied, however, and, as soon as he could speak, directed that the red cross of the crusader be placed upon his bed, and upon his tunic. His mother begged him to renounce his intention of going to the Holy Land. She represented to him, that, in his feeble condition, the trying climate of Syria would probably prove fatal. But Louis was firm in his resolve. When told that Queen Blanche had said her son might not have been in full possession of his senses, when, during his illness, he took the vow of the crusader, he sent for her and for the bishop of Paris, and said to them, u Since you believe I was not perfectly myself when I took my vows, I now pluck my cross off my shoulders and give it into your hands. But now, since you see that I am in full possession of all my faculties, then give me back my cross, for He who knows all things, also knows that no food shall enter my mouth until I have been marked with this sign.”
“It is the finger of God,” said his mother, “Let us no longer oppose his will.”
As soon as Saint Louis had recovered his strength, he set sail for Cyprus, where he spent several months, stocking his ships with provisions, and training himself and his soldiers to resist the ill-effects of the severe Eastern climate. While Louis was in Cyprus, he received envoys from several Asiatic princes, who wished to make the acquaintance of the great French king. One Mussulman ruler, called the Old Man of the Mountain, afforded great amusement to the Frenchmen. He sent to beg of Louis, exemption from a certain tribute which he had hitherto been forced to pay to the templars. Behind the ambassador presenting the petition, stood two envoys, one bearing three swords, cunningly fitted together. These swords would have been presented, in token of defiance, with the points towards the French king, had he refused the request. The other envoy held on his arm a white cotton cloth which would have been handed to the king as his winding-sheet had he not granted the petition of the Old Man of the Mountain.
Louis sailed from Cyprus for Egypt, and, being undecided where to land, was driven by a storm towards Damietta. He was so eager to disembark, that he leaped into the water, sword in hand, before his boat touched shore. The troops of Saracens drawn up to oppose the landing of the French, fled, after a slight skirmish, and Louis found himself in possession of the city of Damietta. He then pushed on, with his army towards Cairo, but ignorance of the roads caused the Frenchmen to take a round-about route, and fifty days were consumed in making a journey which should have occupied only ten. During this terrible march, the French suffered severely, in their heavy armor, from the Greek fire rained on them by the enemy. When Louis saw the sufferings of his troops, he knelt down, and raising his hands toward heaven prayed fervently, saying “O gracious God, preserve my people to me.”
At length, the minarets and domes of Cairo were seen in the distance, by the weary Frenchmen, and soon the vanguard of the army reached the city gates. The king’s brother, Robert, was so impatient to enter, that he refused to wait for the main body of the army and, setting spurs to his horse, dashed in at the open gate. The templars who were with him, followed, and immediately upon entering the city, were slain by the Saracens. The king fought valiantly when he learned of this disaster. One of his knights writes of him, “Where I was on foot with my men, the king came with all his army, and with great noise and sound of trumpets, halted on a raised place. Never was so goodly a man-at-arms seen, for he topped all his people from the shoulders upward, and had a golden helmet on his head, and a German sword in his hand.”
In the evening, some one came to inquire about the king’s brother. “All that I know,” said he, “is that my brother is now in Paradise.”
The battle raged until after nightfall, Louis performing prodigies of valor. When the Count of Anjou was surrounded and attacked by two bodies of Saracens, one on horseback, the other on foot, the king saved him by dashing through the ranks of the enemy, his horse’s mane afire. The Saracens finally retreated and Louis said aloud, before the whole army, a prayer of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the victory. It was considered almost miraculous to have defeated with infantry, most of whom were wounded, a powerful body of cavalry.
Louis had not escaped unhurt, from the conflict, and wished to retire with the armv to Damietta. So many were disabled, however, that this plan had to be abandoned for a time. Soon sickness added to the sufferings of the French, who, breathing the unwholesome mists and drinking the polluted water of the Nile, were soon attacked with strange and terrible diseases. The deaths grew daily more numerous. One day, a knight of the king’s household named Joinville, who was ill, was hearing Mass in bed, when he noticed that the priest was on the point of fainting. Rising from his couch, he supported him until the holy sacrifice was ended, when the priest breathed his last.
The people, panic-stricken, and fearing the contagion, had a dread and horror of touching the dead, or of burying them. Ring Louis had recovered from his wound, and he set the example of Christian charity, to the army, by digging the graves and burying with his own hands those who had fallen victims to the pestilence. But the work was too great for his strength, Louis fell ill, and it was then determined to move the army to Damietta. Some of the troops were embarked on boats on the Rile, others went by land. Louis was so weak that he had to be carried on a litter. The march was soon stopped by the Saracens, and a fearful massacre of the Christians took place. Louis was taken prisoner, and the French, anxious to ransom their beloved king, desired to make terms with the enemy. The sultan finally consented to deliver the royal prisoner to the French, taking in return the city of Damietta and a large sum of money, but before the terms of the agreement could be carried out, the Saracen ruler was killed by his own subjects, who then attacked the French prisoners. The king escaped and finally returned to France with the remnant of his army which had escaped the pestilence and the Saracen prison. His wife, Margaret, who had bravely accompanied him to Egypt, also returned home taking with her the little prince John, who was born in the Holy Land while his father was the prisoner of the sultan.
Queen Blanche had died during the absence of Louis, who was thus deprived of the melancholy, satisfaction of soothing her last hours on earth, by his presence.
Soon after the return home of the French from Egypt, reports began to reach Europe that the Mongols were committing terrible ravages in Syria. These savages had been joined by the Mamelukes, a band of Turkish outlaws; and one Christian stronghold after another fell into their hands. Thousands of Christians were slaughtered for refusing to deny the Faith. In Antioch alone, seventeen thousand of these martyrs were put to the sword, and one hundred thousand sold into slavery.
The terrible tidings of these events set on fire the ardent and pious spirit of Louis. At night, while at prayer in the Sainte Chapelle, his imagination pictured the sufferings of the helpless Christians in Svria, and he fancied he could hear their cries for deliverance. On May 25, 1267, he assembled his barons in the great hall of the Louvre. Louis entered, bearing in his hands the holy crown of thorns from the Sainte Chapelle. Then, in the presence of all the court, he solemnly took the cross of the crusader, his example being followed by his two brothers, his sons and many barons. A second time, the brave king prepared for the dangerous expedition to the Holy Land. It was decided to land the army at Tunis, because the ruler of that country was friendly to the French. A Jew from Tunis had been converted and baptized in Paris. Louis invited the Tunisian ambassadors to the ceremony, and said to them; “Tell your master, that so strong is my longing for his conversion, that I would be willing to enter a Saracen prison for the rest of my life, and never again see the light of day, if, by so doing, I could make your king and his people Christians.” This kind message was so pleasing to the ruler of Tunis, that he resolved to serve the French king whenever it should be in his power to do so. His friendship proved most valuable, for the French landed in Tunis without opposition, and started on the trying march across the desert. The fierce summer sun of that tropical climate beat down pitilessly on the soldiers in their heavy armor. No shade, no trees nor grass, nothing but the burning yellow sands of the desert into which their struggling horses plunged deep at every step. The only water obtainable was taken from stagnant pools, or cisterns full of insects. In a few days, the plague broke out. The king and his sons fell ill, the youngest died. As this prince was Louis’ favorite child, his confessor dared not acquaint the bereaved father with the sad news for one entire week, and by that time, Louis was himself preparing to go to his eternal reward. The saintly king, in the midst of his pains, dictated a beautiful instruction to his son and successor, and even received an ambassador of the Greek king, who sent to beg a favor of the king of France.
On the ninth day of his illness, in the evening, Louis felt that his end was near, and ordered his attendants to lift him from his bed and place him upon a cross of ashes on the floor. He was heard to pray for his people, begging Almighty God to grant them a safe return to France. Several times he murmured “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem!” On August 25, 1270, Louis breathed his last, an exile from his native land for the love of God.
Saint Louis was canonized twenty-seven years after his death, and his feast is celebrated by the church on the twenty-fifth of August
The character of this holy king is one of the most attractive and lovable among the saints of the Church. We delight to think of him, walking in the early morning after mass, in the forest of Vincennes, reading the office of the church – a devotion which was often interrupted, perhaps to arbitrate between two quarreling barons, or to settle the claim of a poor peasant, for all his subjects were allowed to appear before the good king, whenever it suited them. He punished infringement of the law, when necessary, but always preferred to deal leniently with offenders. He gave orders to his soldiers in Syria, that all Saracen captives should be kindly treated, and that the children should be brought to the priest for baptism. Even among those infidels he was called the “Saint King”. Louis was a member of the third order of Saint Francis, to whom he had a great devotion, and whose ardent love of God he imitated. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “My dear daughter, the measure in which we should love God, is to love him beyond measure.”
If you ever travel in France, you will see, at Vincennes, the Sainte Chapelle, which the good king built, and where he was wont to retire for his devotions. The dim little chapel in the forest is filled with memories of the great King Louis, and, as we think of him, there comes to our mind a verse of his favorite psalm which fittingly describes this holy saint of God, “Happy are they who observe justice and who execute it at all times.”