Saint King Louis IX, jewel of the Capetian Dynasty, was the model Christian king. Living a life of chivalry and piety, his adventurous life culminated in his leadership of the 7th Crusade. The incredible, yet tragic, excursion would forever influence Christendom’s view of holy war.
Many admirers regard Louis as the ideal Christian ruler – a valiant knight, a skilled administrator, and a strict adherent to his faith. His reign ushered in what can only be described as a golden age for the Kingdom of France. Louis gained admiration not only in his own kingdom, but across all of Europe. The king was so universally admired, in fact, that he often arbitrated between rival powers when asked.
Today, the king might be described as a “zealot”, often partaking in radical ascetic practices like wearing a coarse hair shirt. Louis’ charity was generally revered, however – he often visited the poor and tended to the sick. He also had a penchant for religious relics, taking a special interest in the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, purchasing these from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II.
It was this zeal that would rouse Louis to holy war. Upon hearing pleas from the Frankish Kingdoms of the East, Louis answered the call, fulfilling a vow he had taken while sick – suffering from a near-fatal illness, Louis had sworn to go on crusade if he healed. He would not pass on the opportunity to prove himself for Christ’s sake.
In 1249, the king set out with a force 10,000 strong – an ensemble of characters accompanying him, including the fearsome Templars and Hospitallers. The crusaders made their way across the Mediterranean to Egypt, their sights set on the flourishing cultural capital of Cairo.
Aboard his flagship the Montjoie, Louis beat the rest of his fleet to Damietta, a coastal stronghold that would serve as a launching pad for inland conquests. His advisers urged a delay until the remaining ships arrived, but the eager king yearned for action.
Fierce fighting commenced at the edge of the sea, the valiant king leading from the front. By nightfall, the crusaders forced a retreat into the fortress, but finding the garrison in disarray, Fakhr fled the city, setting fire to the bazaars behind him. The crusaders swept into Damietta unimpeded, and, counting their losses the following morning, discovered they had sustained only a single casualty.
The Nile’s seasonal flooding left the crusaders trapped in Damietta, impatiently waiting for their opportunity to venture toward Cairo. The humid heat, short supplies, and illness sweeping camp bore down on the fair-weather crusaders.
Finally, in October 1249 the flooding receded, allowing the crusaders to press on toward their target. As they navigated the tricky canals of the Nile delta, Fakhr’s cavalry harassed the disheveled band, inflicting heavy casualties. A confrontation outside the town of Mansurah proved the crusaders victorious, driving the remainder of the Mamluks inside the walls and killing Fakhr; however, Louis’ losses were significant. Only 5 of the original 290 Templars remained; their Grand Master, Guillaume de Sonnac, lost an eye; Louis’ brother Robert was counted among the dead.
Left with a battered and demoralized remnant of his former army, Louis understood that Cairo was no longer an option. The king’s best hope was to press for a favorable negotiation with the stubborn Egyptians, now led by Rukn ad-Din Baibars, Fakhr’s former second in command. For a grueling eight weeks, little progress was made.
The “Disaster at Furiskur” would commence in early April 1250 and would be the decisive battle ending the crusaders’ dreams of a successful holy war. Though Louis pleaded for terms, Turanshah recognized the king’s powerless position and denied him, leaving the crusaders no option but to hasten back to Damietta in full retreat. Turanshah, smelling blood, pounced on the fleeing army relentlessly, surrounding them as they passed through the town of Furiskar, a mere 10 miles southwest of Damietta .
Though the Christian warriors fought valiantly, they stood little chance against the energetic, well-equipped, and vengeful Turks. It was a slaughter.
Louis would fall ill during the fighting, so peace was negotiated between Philip of Montfort and the Sultan. Subsequently, the Mamluks chained and seized the king his entire army – an embarrassment the Franks wouldn’t soon forget.
A lamenting Templar survivor wrote of the debacle:
“Rage and sorrow are seated in my heart … so firmly that I scarce dare to stay alive…. alas, the realm of the East has lost so much that it will never be able to rise up again… They have conquered, they will conquer. For every day they drive us down, knowing that God, who was awake, sleeps now, and Muhammad waxes powerful.
Louis would eventually be freed for an enormous ransom which included returning Damietta back to the Egyptians, leaving his crusade fruitless. The heavy losses left a bitter taste in the mouths of Latin rulers, and many realized that the costs and devotion required to expand (and maintain) Outremer had become too high. The luster of holy war had dulled. There would be subsequent crusades, but none as fervent as the last, until the crusading spirit was gone completely. The deeds of the brave Christian warriors would fade into memory and legend.
Despite the failure of the 7th Crusade, many still admired Louis for his courageous leadership during the odyssey. Tales of the righteous Christian king were passed down in song:
“King Louis has convoked, All the barons and knights. King Louis asked, ‘Who wants to follow me wherever I will go?’ The most ardent have prepared themselves, Have sworn faith, fidelity. The more cautious have guessed, Where the King wanted to lead them.”
“Thus spoke the Duke of Baume, ‘I will fight for the kingdom.’ The King said to him, ‘It’s not enough: We will defend Christendom.’ Thus spoke the Lord of Estienne: ‘I defend the land of Christendom, But I do not want to go, To sow death beyond the sea.’”
“‘Ah’ said the King, ‘Our domain, Extends to the African shores, Until the furthest deserts. It’s our fief, and the price of blood.’ So, King Louis went away. The most faithful have followed him. They have gone far away, far away, To conquer the divine fief.”
The song posted above is called Le Rois Louis and can be listened to below. The lyrics come to life with the repetitive chanted melody:
Thanks for reading!
This post originated as a twitter thread and can be accessed here: