Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

ST. LOUIS IS TAKEN PRISONER

[115] IN the summer of 1248 Louis unfurled the Oriflamme, gathered together his army, and set sail for the east.

Queen Blanche was to rule the country in her son's absence.

"Most sweet, fair son," she said as she bade him farewell, "fair, tender son, I shall never see thee more, full well my heart assures me." Queen Margaret sailed with Louis, for she had refused to be parted from her dear lord.

When Richard the Lion-hearted left Jerusalem, the city, you remember, was in the hands of the Sultan of Egypt.

It was still in the hands of a Sultan of Egypt, though the one with whom Richard made a truce must long have passed away.

King Louis therefore determined to go, not to Jerusalem, but to Egypt, to attack the sultan where he was strongest. Then after crushing his power in Egypt, he hoped to go on to Palestine.

After spending nearly eight months at Cyprus, and laying in a supply of provisions, the French ships sailed to Damietta, a town at the mouth of the Nile.

In June 1249 the crusaders at length caught sight of the coast of Egypt. There before them, too, was the town of Damietta. But between them and the town, drawn up on the beach, were the sultan's armies. He had heard that the crusaders were approaching, and he was ready to receive them.

The king was in the foremost ship, from whose prow waved [116] the Oriflamme. As the boat neared the shore Louis leaped into the sea, though it reached to his shoulder, and holding his shield high in one hand, his lance in the other, he struggled to the shore, followed by his whole army.

Only one ship lay out at sea. In it was Queen Margaret, eagerly watching how the battle would go, anxiously praying that her lord might be safe.

Followed by his army the king dashed upon the sultan's troops, and drove them back upon the town of Damietta. The Saracens were without a leader, for the sultan was ill A panic seized them and they fled, leaving Damietta with its strong walls and stores of provisions in the hands of the crusaders. Queen Margaret then came with her ladies and her guard to join the king, and to hold her court in the conquered town.

And now Louis, instead of marching on, lingered at Damietta, while the waters of the Nile rose and overflowed its banks, as it does each year. For five weary months it was impossible for the army to leave the town.

While the crusaders were shut up in Damietta, the sultan had recovered from his illness, and was at a town called Mansourah, strengthening the walls of the city against the crusaders.

When the waters of the Nile had gone down, the crusading army at length set out on their march to Cairo, the capital of Egypt. To reach Cairo they must pass the town of Mansourah, where the sultan awaited them.

After a difficult march the army approached the city, only to find that a stream of water separated them from their enemies. Before they could cross they must build a causeway over which to pass and attack the Saracens. But while the crusaders tried to build the causeway, the Saracens were attacking them from the walls and towers of Mansourah, and also sallying out and destroying their work. King Louis saw that it would be impossible ever to finish the causeway. As he gave the order for the soldiers [117] to withdraw from their difficult task, an Egyptian stole into the camp and offered to show the crusaders a ford, if they would give him money as a reward.

The offer was accepted, Robert, Count of Artois, the king's brother, begging to be allowed to pass over first with his men. He promised to guard the ford on the farther side until the whole army had crossed.

But having crossed the ford, the count saw a band of Saracens ready to flee at his approach. At the sight he forgot his promise to guard the ford, stuck spurs to his horse, and, followed by his men, pursued the enemy into the town of Mansourah.

Robert thought the town was his. But he was yet to pay for his rash deed. It was only a small part of the sultan's army that had fled before the count and his followers. The other now came up, surrounded the town, and before Robert was aware, he and his men were fighting for their lives in the place they thought they had taken as easily as they took Damietta.

The king's brother was slain, and three hundred of his knights also perished within the walls of Mansourah.

Meanwhile Louis with the main body of his army had crossed the ford, to find the other bank unguarded by his brother Robert. The enemy fell upon them from every side, while the French army, unable to keep its ranks, fought in small bands. Louis's orders were unheard in the clashing of arms and dire confusion that had overtaken the army. The king himself fought as only a gallant knight could fight, always at the point of danger.

Joinville, a famous chronicler of the times, says, "Never have I seen a knight of so great worth; he towered above all his battle by the head and shoulders."

At one time it seemed that Louis would be taken prisoner. Dashing upon the enemy with only a small bodyguard, in his haste he outstripped his men, and found himself alone in the midst of six fierce Saracens. But Louis did [118] not know what fear meant. He fought so bravely that the six fierce Saracens found it impossible to take him, and before long his bodyguard rode up and rescued their king from his perilous position.

One charge more, one wild determined charge, and the French had won the day, but at terrible cost, for many men were slain, many wounded.

Three days later the Saracens returned in great force, and attacked the king's camp. Again the French were victorious, but there was scarcely a knight that was not wounded, while the numbers of the slain were not to be counted.

Instead of now retreating to Damietta, the king lingered on the battlefield until the army had buried its dead. Meanwhile, fever broke out in the camp, and while the French let the weeks slip by, the enemy watched the river, so that it was wellnigh impossible for Louis to get provisions for his army.

During these sad days the king proved utterly unselfish. No one ever heard him complain, no one ever saw him provide for his own comfort. Though ill himself, he went in and out of the camp among his fever-stricken soldiers, tending them with his own hands, speaking so kindly to them that they were content to die were he but by their side.

One of his own-servants, as he lay dying, was heard to murmur,"I am waiting for my lord, our saintly king, to come. I will not depart this life until I have seen him and spoken to him, and then will I die."

After six week's had passed, the king gave the order to retreat to Damietta. The ships were prepared to receive the sick and wounded, but Louis himself, though now attacked by fever, refused to go on board. "Please God, I will rather die than desert my people," said Louis the Saint, and he placed himself in the rearguard of his army.

[119] The king was too ill to bear the weight of his armour, or to ride his battle-horse, so his servants helped him to mount a little Arab steed covered with silken trappings. The retreat began, but before they had gone far the king grew worse. He could no longer ride the little Arab steed. His knights carried him to an Egyptian house, and sought to guard him from the enemy. But the Saracens burst into the house, and the brave, unselfish king was captured, while the whole army was either slain or taken captive.

Louis was thrown into prison, and from the window he could see his soldiers as they were led out one by one, and asked if they would give up their faith in Christ and become followers of the prophet Mahomet. If they refused they were slain before the eyes of their king, and this to Louis was the hardest part of his captivity.

But he was so fearless, so patient, never flinching even when the sultan threatened to torture him, answering only, "I am your prisoner, you can do with me what you will," that his captor was touched, and offered to give him up on the payment of a heavy ransom. Unselfish as ever, Louis refused to be set free unless the soldiers who still remained in prison were also allowed to return to France.

At length terms were arranged. Damietta was given up as a ransom for the king, an enormous sum of money was paid to the sultan that the French soldiers might also be set free, and a truce was made for ten years.

Then Louis being free went back to Damietta, where Queen Margaret awaited her lord. Her courage alone had kept the soldiers, who held the town, from forsaking their posts when the king was taken prisoner. While the queen had looked with tear-stained eyes for Louis's return a little son was born, whom she named John Tristan, in memory of her sorrow. For Tristan comes from the French word triste, which is the same as our word "sad."

The king was now urged by his knights to go home to France, but bidding those return who wished, Louis him- [120] self set out for Palestine. Here he laboured for four years, setting free the Christians who had been taken captive by the Turks, and strengthening the towns which were still Christian strongholds.

Then, in 1258, Louis heard that his mother, Queen Blanche, had died. and he knew that it was his duty to go home. In September 1254, six years from the time he had set out, the king was once again in his own country. The joy of his people knew no bounds. They lighted bonfires, they danced, they sang in the streets to show their delight, until at length the good king, "who was pained to see the expense, the dances, and the vanities indulged in . . . put a stop to them."

For sixteen years King Louis stayed at home, ruling his realm so wisely that his people loved him more and more. The poor, the sick, the sad, were his special care. Every day, in whatever town the king might be, six score, that is, one hundred and twenty poor people, were fed at his table. And often the good king was to be seen cutting bread, pouring out wine, and himself giving food and drink to the folk who gathered around his palace doors.


[Illustration]

"THE GOOD KING WAS TO BE SEEN GIVING FOOD AND DRINK TO THE FOLK."

But alas! neither Louis's love for his people, nor theirs for him, could keep the king at home. The Cross of the crusader was still fastened to his cloak, nay more, it was branded on his heart.

In the spring of 1270 the king determined to go on another crusade.

Joinville tells us that when Louis set out he was so weak that he was able neither to ride nor walk. The chronicler himself sometimes carried the king in his arms from one place to another, while at other times he was placed in a Utter. It was little wonder that the people mourned when they heard of the new crusade. They feared that never more would they see their beloved king.

With his three sons and his army, Louis sailed this time for Africa, landing at Tunis, under the rays of a burning [121] sun. Here he halted for reinforcements, which Charles of Aniou, his brother, had promised to bring.

While the crusaders waited, fever and disease attacked the army. The king himself, already weak, was smitten with fever.

In his illness Louis did not forget his people. Calling his eldest son Philip to his side he said. "Fair son I pray thee win the love of the people of thy kingdom. For truly I would rather that a Scot should come out of Scotland and rule the people well and justly, than that thou shouldest govern them ill-advisedly."

Then, lying back in bed, he murmured, "Fair Sir God, have mercy on this people that bideth here, and bring them hack to their own land."

The day before he died he bade his knights lay him on a bed of ashes, and thus "this most loyal man" passed away.

St Louis's body was brought to a church in Pans which he himself had built, and his tomb is still to be seen in this church, which is called Saint Chapelle.

Louis was the last of the heroes of the crusades. After his death the Christians were gradually driven out of Palestine, and the land was then left in the hands of the Saracens.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: The Vow of St. Louis  |  Next: The Sicilian Vespers
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.