Saint Louis, King of France


Man of the Middle Ages

The thirteenth century brought all that was best and all that was worst about the Middle Ages to a culmination. Magnificent cathedrals, monasteries, and universities drew some of God's people to the light of God's Word. But surrounding streets and countryside teemed with folk lost in the shadows of superstition and fear. Cords of a common faith united people from far flung lands. But ambition and greed ran riot in the many political divisions of those lands and in the Church as well. Still, it was that simple faith that dominated most people's lives. Life is brief, and at the end await judgment and eternity. It is how you live that matters, and, thank God, His grace is available to peasant and prince alike.

When Louis IX was born on April 25, 1214, France was only about a third of its present size, and his grandfather, Philip II Augustus, was sitting on the throne. Then, when Louis was eight, Philip died and Louis' father took the throne as Louis VIII. Obviously, that same throne loomed in little Louis' future and his mother, Blanche of Castile, did all she could to prepare him for it.

Instead of sending her baby out to a nurse, as many other royal mothers did, Blanche kept Louis with her and assumed almost total control over his life. Though he learned some principles from watching and listening to his father, tutors of Blanche's choosing taught him most of what a king must know -- Latin, public speaking, writing, military arts, and government. Even more important to Blanche was Louis' religious education. She taught him to love God and honor Poissy, the place of his baptism. She took him to all the services of the Divine Office each day and restricted his companions to men of the Church.

"I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child," Blanche once informed her little boy. "But I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin." Louis never forgot that.

The time for which Blanche was preparing arrived sooner than she had anticipated. Louis was only twelve when his father died on November 7, 1226. At once a group of barons joined forces to seize all they could from the situation. Louis, a mere child, and Blanche, a foreign woman with no friends or family near, would be easy prey, they thought.

But their reckoning had not considered Blanche's keen mind and determination. She promptly scheduled Louis' coronation for the earliest possible date, the first Sunday of Advent, 1226. In line with her husband's wishes, she would serve as regent and rule for Louis until he came of age.

After the coronation, which took place in the Cathedral at Rheims, the barons tried to prevent Louis and Blanche from returning to Paris. But the Parisians themselves marched out and lined the roads, some bearing arms and many praying for Louis' welfare. He never forgot that either.

As time passed, the barons continued their harassment, but Blanche was able to outwit them at every turn. Her only defeat came when Louis was twenty and married Margaret, daughter of the Count of Provence. Though Blanche realized that a king must marry and had even chosen Margaret for Louis, she simply could not control her jealousy. She had been the center of her son's life too long to share him, so she did all she could to keep the young couple apart.

However, Louis and Margaret genuinely loved one another and found their own ways around Blanche's interference. Sometimes they met in a stairway between their two rooms. Servants kept watch and, if Blanche approached, made warning noises, so Louis and Margaret could escape before she saw them. In spite of such obstacles, the marriage proved successful and resulted in six daughters and five sons.

In 1235 Louis came of age and began to rule France, though he still listened carefully to his mother's advice. Even in childhood, his compassion for the poor and suffering people had been obvious to all who knew him and when he became king, it burst into full flower. Over a hundred poor people ate in his house on ordinary days and many more on holidays. Often the king served these guests himself.

Such acts of charity, coupled with Louis' devout religious practices, gave rise to the legend that he joined the Third Order of St. Francis, people who lived simply in their own homes and devoted much time to prayer and service to the poor. Though it is unlikely that Louis did join the order, his life and actions certainly proclaimed him one of them in spirit.

Louis once asked his friend and biographer, John de Joinville, whether John had ever washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, a custom following the example of Jesus, who washed His disciples' feet. "God forbid, sir!" replied John, always a blunt and honest man. "No, I will not wash the feet of those brutes!"

That, said Louis, was a poor answer, and he urged John not to despise Jesus' lesson, but to begin the practice himself.

Louis also gave generous gifts of money to poor people whether others considered them worthy or not. Monks and nuns, widows and prostitutes, gentlefolk fallen on hard times and minstrels too old or sick to perform, Louis gave happily to them all.

He also built hospitals and homes for those who needed them. One hospital for blind people near Paris included a chapel so the three hundred men who stayed there could attend worship services. A hostel outside Paris became home to a large group of women who had been driven by poverty to prostitution. Louis called it the House of the Daughters of God.

Louis had a special place in his heart for people in religious orders and helped all those who asked for his support. His first great building was an abbey at Royaumont. He carried stones for its construction and later spent hours there, singing and eating with the monks, praying, and seeking God's peace.

Many more convents and monasteries followed Royaumont and sometimes people close to Louis scolded him for giving so much money away. Louis' reply was quick and sharp.

"I would rather my extravagance should be in almsgiving for the love of God than in the pomp and vainglory of this world."

Baldwin II, Latin emperor at Constantinople, felt deep gratitude to Louis for his generosity to Christians in the Middle East -- and, most likely, for settling some of Baldwin's own debts, too. In 1239, the emperor gave Louis the Crown of Thorns, said to be worn by Jesus on the Cross. Louis took his whole court with him to meet the Dominican brothers who brought the Crown to France. Then, to house this treasure, he tore down his chapel of St. Nicholas and built the lovely Sainte Chapelle.

Louis' wisdom and fairness in administering justice became a byword throughout Europe, both during his lifetime and after his death. In the summer, he would often go from church to a nearby park where he sat beneath an oak tree with some of his courtiers.

"Is there anyone here who has a case to settle?" he would ask, and whoever did could come and speak with him freely.

When faced with a problem between a rich person and a poor person, Louis always listened a little more carefully to the poor person. The rich, he said, had plenty of people ready to listen to them.

Once Louis heard about a count who had hanged three children for hunting rabbits in his woods. Louis had the count put in prison and when he demanded that other nobles serve as his judges, Louis refused. So the count stood before ordinary judges who condemned him to death. But Louis wasn't finished. He commuted the death sentence to a fine so large that it took most of the count's possessions. Then he ordered the fine to be used for charity.

In 1242, Louis defeated King Henry III of England in a battle at Taillebourg. He was so fair in his treatment of the king that years later, Henry would return to ask Louis once again to administer justice in his behalf.

In 1244, Louis became extremely ill with dysentery and fever. At one point, a nurse, certain he was dead, prepared to cover his face with a sheet. But another nurse insisted he was still alive and she was right. For a while, Louis could not speak, but the moment his speech returned, he announced that he wished to "take the cross."

When Blanche heard this, her heart fell. She knew that it meant Louis had decided to go on a crusade. The crusades had begun in 1096 with a holy war to take Jerusalem back from the Saracens. Though never successful, they had persisted for about two hundred years, at great personal and financial expense to many people.

But with the highest of motives and hopes, Louis set sail for Egypt in 1248, along with family members, John de Joinville, and others. Years of battle, sickness, and waiting followed until in 1250 Louis himself became a prisoner. His kingly bearing and open devotion to God seemed to offer him some protection and soon he was released.

Next he sailed to Palestine with the poor remnants of his army and visited as many holy places as he could. It was not until 1254 that sad news brought Louis back to France.

Blanche was dead. For two days grief so overwhelmed Louis that he would speak to no one. Then he sent for John and cried, "I have lost my mother!"

John also learned, much to his surprise, that Margaret was grieving too. She and some of the children had accompanied Louis on the crusade and though John thought the king was neglecting them, Margaret had apparently lost none of her love for him.

"The woman you most hated . . . is dead," John pointed out to her, "and yet you are making such a show of grief."

It was not for Blanche that she wept, said Margaret, but for Louis and the sorrow he was feeling.

After more adventures, well described by John in his biography the crusaders reached France, and Louis again assumed the rule of his country. If anything, he lived even more simply then, eating less, mixing water with his wine, and dressing in plain clothes. At the same time his reputation for justice and fairness only grew.

In 1254, again motivated by his love for the poor, Louis issued his Great Ordinance. His officials had to swear to give justice to all. They could accept no bribes and allow no gifts to their wives, children, or other close family members. Finally, they could not buy land in the territories they served.

Around 1257, Robert de Sorbon, a priest and man of great learning, told his friend, King Louis, about his plans to build a college for poor students in Paris. Louis liked the idea, obtained the approval of Pope Clement IV, and gave Robert the money to endow the project. Before long, the institute, known as the Sorbonne, served as the theological division of the University of Paris. Men such as St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas taught there and their work continues to influence Church teachings today.

Meanwhile, in England, Henry III and his barons had been fighting tooth and nail, much to the distress of their country. At last they decided to take their disputes to Louis. He was the fairest man in the world and both sides would abide by whatever he decreed.

So a large party of English nobility traveled to Amiens and all pleaded their cases. Louis listened and thought and then handed down his judgment. In some ways he judged in favor of Henry and in others for the barons. The nobles returned to England as satisfied as they could be.

Hard as Louis worked, he did know how to relax. He had a menagerie, which included some lions and a porcupine. He kept falcons, sparrow hawks, dogs and horses -- everything necessary for a royal hunt, although he may not himself have hunted.

Most of all, Louis seemed to enjoy the company of other people, especially his family and the guests he had to meals.

"Nothing," he said, "beats a free and friendly conversation."

But Louis could not put the plight of Christians in the Middle East out of his mind, and in 1267, he declared that he intended to set out on another crusade. John and others close to him protested strongly. France needed him, they said, and his health was poor. But Louis was determined.

Saint Louis - Man of the Middle Ages (Book Cover)Some of his brothers and his three eldest sons, Philip, John and Peter, accompanied him and summer of 1270 found them in Tunis. There disease swept through the crusaders and Louis' son John died. That same day both Louis and Philip felt ill. Philip recovered, but the king no longer had the strength to fight his way back to health.

On August 24, Louis received the last sacraments. On the 25th, he was unable to speak from nine till noon. Then he raised his eyes and repeated the words of the psalm: "Lord, I will enter into Thine house; I will adore in Thy holy temple, and will give glory to Thy name." At three, he spoke again -- "Into Thy hands I commend my soul" -- and died.

Louis was 56 at the time of his death, worn out with work and hardships. Many of his accomplishments lived after him, serving as beacons of light, revealing the best of the Middle Ages. Even his failures, most notably the two crusades, mark him as a man of his time. Louis wrote out his ideas of government in a set of precepts which he gave to his son, Philip. They say, in essence: "Love God, do justice, and serve the poor."