“While it is possible for a king to wish very much to be a saint,” wrote Chesterton, “it is not possible for a saint to wish very much to be a king.” Such was the dilemma of Louis IX of France (1214-70).
Succeeding to the throne in 1226, at 11, he at first seemed as dedicated to pleasure as to religion. The influence of his mother, though, proved decisive. She was Blanche of Castile, who acted as Regent until 1234 and remained a formidable force long after that.
“I would rather see you dead at my feet,” she told her son, “than guilty of mortal sin.”
At 19 Louis married Margaret of Provence, whose sister Eleanor became queen to Henry III of England. Louis and Margaret would have 11 children.
While Louis always remained cheerful and jovial in company, in private he gave himself up to prayer and fasting. Moreover, he saw good works as one of the prime duties of kingship, believing that they would be the best means of calling down blessings upon France.
Louis founded many institutions for the care of the poor and infirm, and always looked for opportunities to protect the weak from the strong.
In Paris he built La Sainte Chapelle to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns. He founded several monasteries and helped to create La Sorbonne. Thomas Aquinas was invited to his table.
A capable soldier, Louis achieved peace in France by holding his feudatories in check. When Henry III of England allied himself with Louis’ rebellious vassals, Louis IX beat back the English at the battles of Taillebourg and Saintes (1242).
Yet in 1259, to the disgust of his advisers, he imposed a settlement which returned some territories to the English. For a while the enmity between the two kingdoms was stilled. (And King Henry, who rebuilt Westminster Abbey, was the most pious of medieval English monarchs.)
Louis might have achieved even more in France had he not early become obsessed by the notion of leading a Crusade to the Holy Land. The consequences were disastrous. In 1249 he managed to capture Damietta, in the Nile delta, but was unable to prevent his army running amok.
The next year, after disease had enfeebled the crusaders, Louis was taken prisoner at Fariskur, some 100 miles north of Cairo. Threatened with torture by the Saracens, he stubbornly refused concessions which he considered blasphemous denials of the kingdom of Christ.
Eventually Louis was able to buy his freedom and visit Palestine, where he remained for three years, only returning to France in 1254 after hearing of his mother’s death.
Yet the plight of the Christians in the East still haunted Louis. In 1270 he embarked on another crusade, only to die of typhus in Tunis. His body was returned to France and buried in St Denis.