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The Knight Who Made Louis IX a Saint

Whatever we know about Louis IX, we know it in large part thanks to the biography written by his dear friend, the knight Jean de Joinville

Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) declared King Louis IX of France a saint in 1297, a mere twenty-seven years after the king’s death on his second crusade. A year later, at the royal abbey church of St. Denis, the king’s body was raised from its tomb for the distribution of relics. The Dominican preacher at the event enthralled the crowd with stories of the king’s life and sanctity. The preacher spotted among the crowd of dignitaries Jean de Joinville, an old knight, who had been a close friend of the saintly king and had contributed testimony during the canonization inquiry.

A few years after the ceremony at St. Denis, Jeanne de Navarre, wife of King Philip IV, asked the aged knight to write a book about the saintly king. The octogenarian complied with the request and dedicated the subsequent Histoire de Saint Louis to her son Louis, the future king of 4rance (as Louis X in 1314). Joinville’s biography of his friend recounts intimate details of the king’s life and activities. The first work about a saint’s life written by a layman, it provides a detailed portrait of one of the most important figures of the medieval period.

Jean de Joinville was born in 1225 to Simon and Beatrix. The young Jean was educated in the military arts, learned to read and write, and studied Latin. Jean was devoted to his faith and made a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain. Jean’s devotion to the Church and his military skills were put to the test during the First Crusade of King St. Louis IX (1248-1254).

Jean came from a crusading family. His grandfather fought and died on the Third Crusade, two uncles participated in the Fourth Crusade, and his father fought in the Albigensian and Fifth Crusades. So when the royal campaign was announced, he took the cross. Jean received the pilgrim staff from the Cistercians and made his spiritual preparation by walking barefoot as a penitent, touring local shrines, before his departure.  Jean, along with ten other warriors, including his cousin, Jean d’Apremont, traveled independently of the royal army and arrived at Cyprus, where the main French army assembled in preparation for the invasion of Egypt.

Although participating in the king’s crusade, Jean did not place himself initially in the service of King Louis, but planned an independent journey free of fealty. Jean heavily mortgaged his lands to finance his crusade, but he ran out of money while in Cyprus. Although a desperate situation, the lack of resources proved providential, as it led Jean to seek royal assistance, which eventually resulted in royal friendship. Jean entered royal service and received the necessary funds (800 livres tournois) to continue his armed pilgrimage.

Louis’s generosity was not unique to de Joinville. The king subsidized many warriors on campaign, which contributed to his immense expenditures (estimated at 1.5 million livres tournois, or six times the annual royal income) during the Crusade.

Louis IX’s first crusade was a repeat of the Fifth Crusade (1218-1221), which achieved initial success but ended in abject failure. The king’s army easily captured the port city of Damietta, and hopes were high that the campaign would succeed in capturing Cairo and eventually Jerusalem. After a period of rest and refit during the summer, the Crusade army marched on Cairo in late November 1249. The march to Cairo was slow (it averaged only two miles per day), but eventually, the army reached the outskirts of Mansourah in December. Capturing Mansourah, a necessary objective on the way to Cairo, required fording the Bahr as-Saghir river. Initially, the Crusaders tried to build a ramp across the water but were repulsed by Muslim troops. An informant provided a valuable piece of intelligence that a ford upriver offered an opportunity to surprise and outflank the Muslim force guarding the town. The king and his commanders developed a coordinated plan that relied on a small group of knights, under the command of Robert of Artois (the king’s brother), capturing the ford during a surprise attack. Once the main army crossed the river, both groups would advance on Mansourah.

The raid on the ford occurred on February 7, 1250 and succeeded in capturing the crossing. But Robert, buoyed by the easy victory, ignored the order to await the main army and advanced on the town with his small force. Robert’s unit advanced into Mansourah, where it was annihilated. The main Crusade army crossed the river while Robert’s recklessness reaped disaster in the city. After defeating the advance Crusader unit, the Muslim army attacked the main force. The fighting was intense and lasted all day as hand-to-hand mêlées broke out across the battlefield. Joinville participated in this battle and vividly described its horrors as he was hit by five arrows and his horse by fifteen during the combat. In his later book on the king’s life, Jean described the valor of Louis, who was recognizable on the battlefield by his entourage and equipment:

The king came with his battle group with great screams and the din of trumpets and bells, and he stopped on a raised path. I never saw such a beautiful knight, because he appeared above all his people by a shoulder’s length with a golden helm on his head and a German sword in his hand.

The Muslim attack was repulsed, but the Crusader army suffered enough casualties, due to Robert’s ill advised and unapproved foray, to weaken its ability to capture the city. The hope of capturing Cairo was also lost.

Louis IX grieved deeply the death of his beloved brother, but the fate of the Crusade hung in the balance and demanded the king’s attention. Eventually, Louis recognized that a tactical withdrawal to Damietta was in order, but, haggard and unable to overcome significant logistical hurdles, the king surrendered to the Egyptian sultan.

Louis spent several weeks in Muslim captivity, along with Joinville, but after paying a king’s ransom, he was released. The king spent several years in the Latin East, and it was during this time that Louis’s and Jean’s friendship blossomed.

Louis rewarded Jean’s heroic actions during the Crusade with the command of fifty knights and the title and responsibility of seneschal of Champagne. Over the next several years, Jean focused his time on his landholdings and attended the royal court.

When the king decided once more to go on crusade, his friend argued against the expedition and refused to participate. King Louis IX left on his ill fated North African campaign in July 1270 and died of disease a month later.

Jean de Joinville grieved the death of his king and friend but never forgot his Christian witness and royal reign. His testimony during the canonization investigation ensured that the Church and the world would not also forget the saintly King Louis IX of France. As for Louis’s beloved and heroic friend, he lived a long life and received his eternal reward at the age of 93.

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