St Louis, the ‘king over the water’


Louis IX became king of France as a boy of seven in 1226, but the regency of his mother Blanche, and the early years of his personal rule, were shaped by internal upheavals arising from the acquisition of vast new territories by the crown since 1204. Louis may have taken the cross after hearing the news of the devastation of Jerusalem by the Kharismians, but the defeat at La Forbie was not yet known in the West, and it seems equally likely that his vow, taken in December 1244, was the result of his recovery from serious illness. In hindsight the crusade looks like the obvious means by which Louis could enact his ideology of Christian kingship. Already known for a singular piety, Louis had in 1239 acquired the crown of thorns, a relic symbolising Christ’s kingship.

Despite the awful situation in the kingdom of Jerusalem, it was by no means easy to recruit for a new crusade after 1244. The pope, while approving Louis’ vow, tried to persuade him to fulfil it by joining the crusade he preached against Frederick II at the Council of Lyons in 1245, rather than in recovering Jerusalem. Rather petulantly, Henry III of England at first refused to allow the crusade to be preached in England, before giving way in the face of baronial enthusiasm – Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, himself the grandson of a crusader, and Henry’s two half-brothers (both of them, confusingly, with identical names to twelfth-century crusaders, William Longsword and Guy of Lusignan!) took the cross (Tyerman 1988: 108–10). Elsewhere in Europe there was less enthusiasm: Haakon of Norway, despite having already taken the cross, declined to join Louis, and neither Frederick II himself nor the pope was keen for German barons to enlist (Richard 1999: 340).

The result was that Louis’ crusade was largely a French affair, in which the organisation and financing was undertaken by the French royal government (Jordan 1979: passim). Louis was given authority to tax ecclesiastical revenues to pay for the crusade, and in addition he imposed a tax of his own on the French towns. A new port, Aigues-Mortes, was built on the south coast specifically for embarkation, to obviate the need to rely on Italian interests. The material preparations for the crusade, based on a successful governmental machine, were thorough enough to ensure that Louis could afford to take into his household nobles and their retinues who, like Jean de Joinville, seneschal of Champagne, had run out of their own money (Shaw 1963: 198).

Louis sailed in August 1248 and arrived in Cyprus in September. One of the puzzles in his strategy is why, instead of making straight for the Holy Land, he delayed so long that he had to over-winter on the island. Not all of his forces had been able to leave at the same time; his brother Alphonse of Poitiers, who had encountered difficulties in recruiting, did not leave France until August 1249. It is also possible that he was as yet undecided about the best strategy to adopt; certainly his preferred option of a frontal assault on Egypt was only one of a number offered by the Cypriot and Palestinian barons (Richard 1992: 117–19). But Ayyubid power was still, as in 1218, based in the heartland of Egypt. Louis realised, moreover, that there were many ways in which his forces could be frittered away in alliances with this or other rulers in Syria, but that the best hope of lasting success lay in inflicting a single decisive military blow to the rulers in whose control the Holy Land lay. If this coincided with Louis’ own traditional view of what a crusade ought to be, it was still first of all a strategically sound policy.

The seizure of Damietta, which thirty years earlier had taken fourteen months, was accomplished in 1249 in a single beachhead landing. Joinville, whose autobiographical memoir of his king provides the fullest and most vivid account of the campaign, captures the excitement and intensity of the occasion. The arrival of John of Ibelin, count of Jaffa, evidently impressed him. As for Louis, at his first sight of the enemy on disembarking, he was fully prepared to charge at them (Shaw 1963: 202–5). In the event, there was scarcely any need for a fight, for the Egyptians simply abandoned Damietta. News had spread of the sultan’s illness, and it was assumed that he was already dead. The crusade could scarcely have had a more auspicious beginning.

Because it was already June, there was no time to continue towards Cairo before the Nile flooded. Louis consolidated his position in Damietta, first beating off an attempt to recapture it, then securing its future as a French conquest. Louis seems to have regarded it as a personal – or perhaps a national – conquest; there was certainly no thought either of annexing it to the kingdom of Jerusalem or of using it as a bargaining counter with the sultan for the return of Jerusalem. A Frenchman was appointed archbishop and the cathedral, founded in 1220, was restored. Joinville was troubled by the king’s insistence on retaining control over all captured property, including food, rather than dividing it up according to crusading custom among the army (Shaw 1963: 206–7). Louis was adopting the same fundamental view as Pelagius had in 1219, that territories conquered by crusaders were within the gift of crusaders. But because he was the undisputed leader of his crusade, there was no repetition of the infighting that had followed the capture in 1219. This makes it easy to miss the significance of what he was doing. Throughout crusading, a fault-line ran through crusaders’ perceptions of the status of conquered territories. On the Second Crusade, Louis VII’s intention to enfeoff his own vassal with Damascus lost him the support of the Palestinian barons; the proposed conquest of Egypt in 1177 may have foundered for the same reasons, and the disagreements between Richard I and his followers and the native barons over the fate of restored territory jeopardised the success of the Third Crusade.

It was still not decided whether Louis would follow the exact route of the Fifth Crusade. The more cautious strategy of first seizing Alexandria, the other Ayyubid access to the Mediterranean, was favoured by most of the barons. But the king’s brother Robert of Artois attacked this plan on the grounds that it was better to attack the head rather than the tail of the serpent (Shaw 1963: 210), and Louis favoured this advice. Joinville leaves little doubt that fraternal affection played a role in the decision, but in fact Robert’s advice was sound: it made sense to attack Cairo while the sultan was still ailing, and besides, the route south from Alexandria led through desert, so the army would have had to return to Damietta in any case before marching south. Louis’ decision was consistent with his preference for as immediate a confrontation as possible with an Ayyubid army.

The problem with such a strategy, however, is that it required for success not only a measure of luck but good generalship. Louis’ previous campaigning experience in Poitou had been largely successful, but there he was up against the inept Henry III and on his own ground; he may have been a competent soldier but he was certainly no Lionheart in his grasp of tactics. The route south to Cairo led first to the fortress of Mansurah, built by al-Kamil in 1219. Before they could attack it, in February 1250, the crusaders had first to cross a branch of the Nile. Louis, who must have known this, had his engineers build a rampart to cross the river, but this had to be abandoned in the face of fierce resistance. The fording place eventually chosen for the crossing was not ideal, because it entailed splitting the army. Instead of waiting for the king with the bulk of his troops, Robert, leading the vanguard, stormed the Egyptian camp outside Mansurah and, emboldened by easy success, blundered into the town itself. Neither the Grand Master of the Templars – who was incensed that Robert, rather than he, had been given the honour of leading the army across the ford – nor the king could stop him. In the narrow streets of Mansurah, Robert, with William Longsword and many of the English, were slaughtered.

At this point the crusade might yet have achieved something, for as-Salih had died in November 1249, and the new sultan, not yet secure in his inheritance, was clearly unnerved by the presence of a Frankish army in the Delta. While negotiations with the sultan stalled, however, the Egyptians outmanoeuvred the crusaders by navigating the lower reaches of the Nile and depriving them of fresh supplies from Damietta. Disease, according to Joinville caused by eating the river fish that had themselves fed off corpses, spread rapidly through the camp, until perhaps only a few hundred knights remained in fighting condition. The retreat, in early April, was hampered both by the illness of the king himself and by simple mistakes – the failure to cut bridges behind them, for example, made the Egyptians’ pursuit easier. A day short of Damietta, the crusaders capitulated. Louis himself was captured. The humiliation of the crusade was complete. Damietta was given up as ransom for Louis himself, and the figure of 800,000 bezants set for the army.

Louis’ failure was all the more disappointing because the preparation had been so meticulous and the conditions so generally favourable. Despite superficial similarities with the Fifth Crusade, the military campaign failed for different reasons. There was no precipitate dash for Mansurah ahead of the floods, no division in the leadership. Louis’ strategic decisions were eminently sensible. It was at the tactical level, rather, that mistakes were made. Joinville, out of loyalty for his lord, declined to blame the one figure whom the ample evidence of his chronicle accuses for the débâcle at Mansurah, Robert of Artois. As a soldier, Joinville knew that a commander was only as good as his subordinates, and the ultimate blame for failure to control his army must rest with Louis himself. But the assault on Mansurah had been compromised even before Robert had forded the Nile, by the failure to cross in a position where the whole army could operate together. Despite his foresight in bringing engineers to build a dyke, Louis was defeated by the geography and topography of the Nile: the Egyptians simply dug away the bank on their side to widen the river. The final defeat was the result of being trapped without supplies between an army in Mansurah and a fleet between themselves and the safety of Damietta.

The great irony of Louis’ failure was that the final débâcle took place against the background of the collapse of the Ayyubid régime in Egypt. As-Salih’s successor, Turanshah, was murdered by his own Mamluks just days before the king was released from captivity, probably because they resented the fact that he had brought advisers with him from Baghdad. The political union between Egypt and Syria forged by Saladin in the last quarter of the twelfth century was broken; the Ayyubids were limited to Syria, while the Mamluks kept Egypt. This situation naturally benefited the kingdom of Jerusalem, and Louis remained in the East for a further four years in order to guide its affairs. To an extent this was forced on him by the need to extricate something from the crusade; he had left most of his army in captivity when he sailed to Acre in May 1250, and only managed to arrange their release by a new treaty with the Mamluks in 1252. His presence in Acre made him de facto ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem; that he was recognised as such by neighbouring states is evidenced by the Ayyubid invitation that he should join them in the reconquest of Egypt in July 1250. At one point it looked as though Louis might have been able to restore Jerusalem as the price of his alliance with the new Mamluk régime against Ayyubid Damascus. But he was understandably cautious, and the chance was lost when the Khalif patched up the Mamluk/Ayyubid division in 1253. Louis spent his time in refortifying the kingdom’s towns, notably Jaffa, Caesarea, Sidon and Acre. A further ten-year-and-ten-month truce was agreed for most of the kingdom, excluding Jaffa, before Louis returned to France in 1254. One of the most significant results of the crusade was the permanent presence of a small force of knights paid by the French crown, under the command of Geoffrey de Sergines, who became seneschal of the kingdom. This was to be a commitment maintained until Louis’ death in 1270.

Crusading resources between the Fourth Lateran Council and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) were overwhelmingly directed against Egypt. There were good strategic reasons for this, both in the long and the short term. Egypt, though subject to violent changes of régime in 1171 and 1250, was fundamentally a politically stable country. Its geographical isolation from the other centres of power in the Islamic world meant that its conquest would not necessarily involve the defence of difficult frontiers: if it was difficult to conquer, it would also be comparatively easy to defend. Moreover it was agriculturally self-sufficient, because of the natural fertility of the Nile Delta. The spice trade from the Indian Ocean fetched up in Alexandria and Damietta before being filtered through the Syrian markets. Economically, Egypt was a rich prize. In both 1218 and 1248 Egyptian campaigns also made political sense. Al-‘Adil’s refusal to give battle in Palestine in 1217–18 forced the crusaders into a diversionary attack. In 1248, as-Salih’s war with Aleppo offered the prospect of stretched Ayyubid resources, and the sultan’s decline and death in 1249 only confirmed this judgement.

It should not be forgotten, however, that during the period up to 1274 crusades were still launched to other destinations than Egypt. Frederick II’s crusade and that of 1239–41, which was a natural consequence of the treaty of 1229, showed that a role was evolving in crusading policy for a balance of defensive warfare and diplomacy in Palestine. In the 1260s Sultan Baibars’ assault on the Crusader States returned the Holy Land to the forefront of crusade policy. James I of Aragon set sail for Acre with high hopes in 1269, but turned back when he fell sick, and the few hundred of his knights who reached the Holy Land were able to do little more than help in the defence of Acre against Baibars. Edward, the heir to Henry III of England, also landed in Acre in 1271, but his force was so small that he dared not risk battle and contented himself with a raid or two and the repair of Acre’s walls. Both James’ and Edward’s campaigns were intended to form part of a much larger crusade, led again by Louis IX. A combination of Louis’ own misjudgement and the self-interest of his brother Charles of Anjou diverted the major part of the crusade to Tunis, where in August 1270 Louis died. The crusade splintered into ineffective smaller operations, the anticipated alliance with the Mongols failed, and the opportunity to recover what Baibars had conquered was squandered. It was to be the last chance before the final sunset fell over the mainland Crusader States.

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