Voltaire, sworn enemy of Catholicism, who had once ranted: “Ecrasons l’infame!” (“Let us crush the Infamous One!” – meaning the Catholic religion) wrote these honest words describing King Louis IX:
“Louis IX appeared to be a prince destined to reform Europe, if she could have been reformed, to render France triumphant and civilized, and to be in all things a pattern for men. His piety, which was that of an anchorite, did not deprive him of any kingly virtue. A profound policy was combined with strict justice and he is perhaps the only sovereign who is entitled to this praise; prudent and firm in counsel, intrepid without rashness in his wars, he was as compassionate as if he had always been unhappy. No man could have carried virtue further.”
Louis IX, St. Louis, was not an egalitarian. Yet no one could have cared more for the poor, nor been more practical, as we shall see, in demonstrating his care. As Voltaire said, he was always compassionate “as if he had always been unhappy.”
Let us not be misled by that phrase. St. Louis was not an unhappy man. He enjoyed a good laugh. Other of his greatest enjoyments might seem peculiar in an age like ours when pleasure often equates with nothing but “fun.” For instance, when at home he would invite guests to walk with him in his gardens after dinner. All members of the company were free to speak on any subject they wished. Louis delighted in such relaxed conversation.
We are going to consider him here as king, crusader and saint. As we do, we must not lose sight of him as we just saw him: as a man. This is because Louis, like every saint, was an integral Catholic.
This is to say, he was not holy only at Mass, while kneeling before the tabernacle for a visit with Our Lord, or engaged in some pious devotion. With saints, there is some sign of holiness in all the circumstances to which life can expose a man or woman. In our day, that could be while treating a patient, correcting a child, teaching a class, consulting with a client, talking with a fellow traveler, drafting a tax code, dealing with a sales clerk, dealing with a customer, or simply enjoying a glass of wine with friends. There is always a sign, or they are not saints. It is the difference between them and everybody else. It is not to say there are not times when they are less than completely holy. It is to say that they never stop trying, in this life, to become what we all must be in order to get into Heaven. We see this in the life of St. Louis.
It is the first of three things we want to keep in mind about him as we consider everything else. In everything he did, he must have asked himself if it would be pleasing to God.
The second thing to keep in mind has to do with Louis’ kingship. A hundred years before his birth, the Kingdom of France existed (it was called the Royal Domain), but the monarch of the day, Louis VI (known less than gloriously in French history as Louis the Fat) effectively ruled over no more than the countryside around Paris. His kingdom was surrounded by such lands as Burgundy, Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine, and others. Nominally, the lords of these lands were vassals of the king, but in actuality nearly all were wealthier and more powerful. In a word, the backbone of the political structure of France was not yet royal. It was feudal, as it still was in all the kingdoms of Christendom at that time. Kings ruled, but only through intermediaries: All the dukes, counts and other nobles constituted the feudal pyramid of which the king was simply the apex. As long as many of these nobles were wealthier and more powerful than the king, he could not always rule as he wished.
St. Louis’ immediate predecessor, his father Louis VIII, had succeeded somewhat in reducing the French nobles’ power from what it was in the days of Louis the Fat, but not to the same degree or by the same means as would St. Louis. Indeed, the nobles were on the verge of revolt when Louis came to the throne. The power of these nobles was the overarching political reality with which Louis had to deal as king.
As to the third thing to keep in mind about Louis: We ought to think of him as being at all times a crusader. It was not simply on the two occasions he took the cross and during the total of six years he spent away from his kingdom on actual Crusade, or even beginning in 1239 when he had the Crown of Thorns brought to Paris and first conceived of going to the Holy Land. In a deep sense, he was always filled with the crusading spirit.
That was natural. First of all, in terms of the actual Crusades, they could fairly be described as a national enterprise of France. The first one, the 900th anniversary of whose triumph was commemorated last July, was called by Pope Urban II, a Frenchman. He came into his native land, to Clermont in France, to issue his call. The Second Crusade was preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and led by King Louis VII. That it ended in disaster is beside the point. The French vision of the Faith and European Christian civilization taking root and flowering in the Mohammedan Middle East persisted right into the 19th century when the liberal Louis-Philippe I colonized Algeria in the 1830s and the Bonaparte Napoleon III sent French troops into Lebanon to protect the native Christians in the 1860s. Indeed, it has still existed in the 20th century. Charles de Foucauld was its martyr; and so, many would say, were the patriotic French officers who sacrificed their careers to oppose Charles de Gaulle for abandoning the vision scant years ago. The point is that the spirit of the Crusades, this Faith-filled civilizing vision, is also exactly what inspired St Louis IX at home. He was filled with it when he undertook the reform of his own kingdom along the strictest lines of justice possible.
What was the result? It was not simply that the despicable Voltaire would laud him for it. It is Frenchmen growing up, still today, after two centuries of republican propaganda, with a mental picture of St. Louis sitting beneath an oak tree in the Forest of Vincennes, dispensing justice.
Louis was born on April 25, 1214, in a place called Poissy. That is also where he was baptized. He was his parents’ fourth child, but the first three would die at an early age, making him heir. (He had seven more brothers and sisters who lived.)
On November 8, 1226, his father, Louis VIII, died. Our saint was then anointed king on November 29, at Rheims, where all French monarchs were anointed and crowned.
The two events, his baptism and coronation, should be underlined because St. Louis was heard to say more than once during his life that his baptism at Poissy was more important than his anointing at Rheims.
In 1228, the great monastery of Royaumont was founded.
The next year, 1229, Louis took personal command of troops in the field for the first time. He was 15.
On May 27, 1234, St. Louis was married. His wife was Marguerite, daughter of the Count of Provence. Louis was an ardent husband. The couple would have eleven children.
On October 19, 1235, Royaumont was dedicated. Four years later, in August, 1239, the Crown of Thorns was received by Louis in Paris. Construction of the Sainte Chapelle, where it would be enshrined, was begun soon thereafter.
In December, 1244, Louis was gravely ill with a form of malaria and vowed to go on a Crusade if he recovered. That same month, Pope Innocent IV arrived at Lyon to preside over a general council that would begin the following June. (The main business of this council was to depose the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.)
On April 26, 1248, the Sainte Chapelle was consecrated. Two months later, on June 12, Louis left Paris on Crusade.
Nearly a year later, after wintering in Cyprus, Louis and his knights arrived at Damietta in the Nile Delta and took the city. This was on June 5, 1249.
On February 9, 1250, the Crusaders fought and won the Battle of Mansurah. However, on April 7, 1250, Louis was captured by the Mohammedans and his army crushed. As God would have it, the Sultan of Egypt was then overthrown and instead of being put to death, St. Louis was ransomed on May 6. He proceeded into the Holy Land, where he stayed until April 24, 1254. Meantime, his mother, Blanche of Castile, died in November, 1252.
On December 4, 1254, Louis was back in Paris. The years that immediately followed marked the period during which Louis worked the most intensely at the political, economic and social reform of his kingdom.
On March 24, 1267, he took the cross again, and on March 15, 1270, once more left on Crusade.
He arrived in Tunisia on July 17 with two of his sons, Jean-Tristan and Philippe. A typhoid epidemic was raging in the area. On August 3, Jean-Tristan died. Our saint followed him on August 25.
In May, 1271, his remains were laid to rest at the Abbey of St. Denis, burial place of the Kings of France.
On August 9, 1297, Louis was canonized after the Church examined 65 miracles attesting to his sanctity.
When his father died and he assumed the throne, Louis was a boy of only 12 years. That is an age when a father’s influence normally becomes most necessary in the life of a son. That this influence was lacking over Louis doubtless helps explain the fits of temper into which he sometimes fell as an adolescent. He fought to control this tendency all his life.
Because of the premature death of his father, Louis’ mother, Blanche of Castile, played a larger role in his life, and for a longer time than would have been the case had the father lived. This was still more so since it was she who acted as regent during his minority. Even when he took the reins of government into his own hands in 1234, she remained active in the affairs of the kingdom, to the degree that it was she whom Louis named to rule in his place when he went on Crusade in 1248.
Today, Blanche is best known, at least among Catholics, for once saying that she would rather see Louis dead at her feet than guilty of a mortal sin.
It was as monarch that he would become known, even in his lifetime, as “the most Christian king.”
If that was how he became known, it is because of actions he undertook based on his belief that a ruler must do all he can to assure the salvation of his subjects, as well as of his own soul.
Such a belief may seem surpassingly strange and even bizarre to most persons nowadays. It should not, even if men and women nearly everywhere in the formerly Christian West now live in a liberal democracy. Why do we raise the matter of liberal democracy? Being democrats, Prince Charles of Great Britain and President Clinton in the United States would say (if Charles and Clinton thought in such terms) that it is up to the individual to see to his own salvation. Ultimately, that is correct, but nobody should have to run a more than ordinary risk of losing his soul simply because he lives in a particular society. What is the effect on souls when Charles goes on television to admit his adultery and Clinton does the same to lie about his? Is not everyone debased simply hearing about it? The society is already decadent. It would be bad enough if our rulers were hypocrites. What is the effect when they advertise their sins? Are they not promoting further decadence?
Louis’ conviction that authority exists precisely as a means to promote the salvation of souls is the teaching of the Church as expressed, for instance, by St. Augustine. Given his education, Louis may well have been familiar with these words of the great Doctor of the Church:
“How do kings serve the Lord with fear, except by forbidding and punishing with a religious severity all acts contrary to the commands of the Lord? In his twofold character as man and as prince, the king must serve God: as man, he serves Him by the fidelity of his life; as king, by framing or maintaining laws which command good and forbid evil. He must act like Ezechias and Josias, destroying the temples of the false gods and the high places that had been constructed contrary to the command of the Lord; like the king of Ninive obliging his city to appease the Lord; like Darius giving up the idol to Daniel to be broken, and casting Daniel’s enemies to the lions; like Nabuchodonosor forbidding blasphemy throughout his kingdom by a terrible law. It is thus that kings serve the Lord as kings — when they do in His service those things which only kings can do.”
Whether or not Louis was familiar with those words, he practiced what Augustine preached. The years between his return from the East and departure on his second Crusade saw him enact very many measures showing that there was no division in him between the private man trying to serve Christ, and the ruler — because, as ruler, he tried to do the same.
To conclude an account of so great a saint as King St. Louis there is no way more fitting than to quote the saint’s own words — his last ones. They were addressed to his son and heir, Philippe.
Louis knew he was dying and had the young man brought to his side. As with so much else, we owe to Joinville the record of these words. Various translations of them exist. The one quoted here is drawn from the great Dom Gueranger‘s monumental work, The Liturgical Year:
“Dear son, the first thing I admonish thee is that thou set thy heart to love God, for without that nothing else is of any worth. Beware of doing what displeases God, that is to say mortal sin; yea, rather oughtest thou to suffer all manner of torments. If God send thee adversity, receive it in patience, and give thanks for it to our Lord, and think that thou hast done Him ill service. If He give thee prosperity, thank Him humbly for the same and be not the worse, either by pride or in any other manner, for that very thing that ought to make thee better; for we must not use God’s gifts against Himself. Have a kind and pitiful heart towards the poor and the unfortunate, and comfort and assist them as much as thou canst. Keep up the good customs of thy kingdom, and put down all bad ones. Love all that is good and hate all that is evil of any sort. Suffer no ill word about God or our Lady or the saints to be spoken in thy presence, that thou dost not straightway punish. In the administering of justice be loyal to thy subjects, without turning aside to the right hand or to the left; but help the right, and take the part of the poor until the whole truth be cleared up. Honor and love all ecclesiastical persons, and take care that they be not deprived of the gifts and alms that thy predecessors may have given them. Dear son, I admonish thee that thou be ever devoted to the Church of Rome, and to the sovereign Bishop our father, that is the Pope, and that thou bear him reverence and honor as thou oughtest to do to thy spiritual father. Exert thyself that every vile sin be abolished from thy land; especially to the best of thy power put down all wicked oaths and heresy. Fair son, I give thee all the blessings that a good father can give to a son; may the blessed Trinity and all the saints guard thee and protect thee from all evils; may God give thee grace to do His will always, and may He be honored by thee, and may thou and I, after this mortal life, be together in His company and praise Him without end.”
Having said to his son all he wished to say, Louis asked for the Sacraments, and then, in a kind of delirium, was heard to call on various saints to help him in his final hour. He died at three in the afternoon, the same hour as Our Lord’s death.