Legend has made of Arthur of Britain the ideal king. King Arthur of Camelot is largely, if not completely, a fictitious hero. But King Louis IX of France was just as romantic, an able ruler, a saint and a real person. Louis was the son of Louis VIII Capet of France. As heir to the throne he was brought up in a way befitting a ruler-to-be. That he learned his role so well was due chiefly to his mother, Queen Blanche. Herself the daughter of a king, Alfonso VIII of Castile, Blanche saw to it that her son was educated in government. But she also trained his conscience. The remark of hers that he most remembered and always strove to observe was: “I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”
Louis VIII died when his heir was only 12. Blanche took over as regent until the little king reached his majority. She ruled forthrightly but competently thereby giving her son a further internship in political science. When he did take over the reins of office, he showed himself a just monarch. He punished the guilty, but knew when to show mercy. If war was necessary, he waged war; but he was also a peacemaker whom nobles, prelates and even foreign kings sought out as an arbitrator. Louis helped found the Sorbonne; he established a hospital for the blind; he made provision for the chronically poor; and he daily fed the hungry, often waiting on them himself. Although he would not countenance injustice in churchmen, Louis enjoyed the company of priests and the learned, and often invited such people as St. Thomas Aquinas to be his guests. Personally, he set for his not-always-genteel courtiers the very best example. Thus, his famous biographer Joinville testified that in 22 years of companionship, he never heard the king swear; and he would not abide obscenities. Nor did he ever speak ill-naturedly of others. Louis was also a man of faithful prayer.
King Louis lived in the days of the crusades; and for him, chivalrous as he was by nature, there was no nobler quest than to wrest from the hands of unbelievers the Holy Land sanctified by Jesus’ death. In 1239, Baldwin II, the crusader emperor of Constantinople, as a gesture of thanks for Louis’ aid to the crusader kingdoms, sent him as a gift the crown of thorns of Jesus. The king, beside himself with joy, built in Paris the beautiful Sainte Chapelle to enshrine the relic.
After recovering from an illness in 1244, Louis made a vow to take the crusaders’ cross himself. Since Muslims had recaptured Jerusalem, he set out for Egypt, hoping to approach Palestine by the land route. But all went wrong. The king himself was captured and released only after paying a large ransom. But at least he had a good chance, before returning home, to visit the Holy Land and pray at its sacred places.
St. Louis continued to wear the crusaders’ cross when he got back to France, for he fully intended to undertake another expedition. His people urged him not to. They wanted him at home, and he was now 52 and sickly. Nevertheless, he did set sail with another army in 1270. This time they stopped at Tunisia, North Africa. But before they could move further east, the king caught typhus. Knowing his end was near, he made a good preparation for death, and urged the Greek ambassadors to work for the reunion of the Greek Orthodox with the Holy See. One of the king’s last prayers drew on the psalms: “Lord, I will enter into thine house; I will worship in thy holy temple and will give glory to thy name.” However, the temple that awaited him was not that of Jerusalem, but of heaven. St. Louis IX had ruled his kingdom well because he had first learned to rule himself. Whether rulers or citizens, we can all profit by that example.
–Father Robert F. McNamara