Biography of Saint Louis IX, King of France (1214-1270) - Church of Saint Louis

Article written by Ellen Louise Delmore, MLS

Who is Saint Louis IX, King of France?

St. Louis IX, King of France is the patron of the Church of St. Louis, King of France, known as “The Little French Church” in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As patron of this Church, St. Louis is a model of virtue to all as well as a saint of great holiness who will intercede for those who pray to him. St. Louis’ feast day is August 25 coinciding with the date of his death and birth into the glorious kingdom of heaven.

St. Louis IX, King of France was born at Poissy on April 25, 1214. His parents were Louis VIII, King of France and Queen Blanche of Castile. He was Capetian king of France from 1226 to 1270. He led the seventh Crusade to the Holy Land in 1248-50. Louis died on August 25, 1270, near Tunis on the eighth Crusade to Tunisia.1

All the aspects of this king, his holiness, his reforms, his treatment of the poor, his chivalry, his diplomacy, his fatherhood of all, his patronage of the arts are part of who he was as king.2

Formation of a King – Early Life

King Louis VIII died on November 7, 1226, and Queen Blanche was declared Regent for her eleven-year old son. Queen Blanche was a person of exceptional beauty and wisdom with zeal for religion as well as brilliance in government.1 It was her husband’s wish that Queen Blanche serve as Regent and rule France on behalf of Louis until he became of age. Louis IX was crowned King of France at the age of twelve and ruled from 1226 to 1270.1

Queen Blanche arranged for the ceremony of Louis’s coronation at Reims when Louis reached the age of thirteen. Louis IX prayed to God for strength and light that he might rule with honor in defense of the Church, and for his people. “The young King was crowned on the day fixed, the first Sunday in Advent, by the Bishop of Soissons, the See of Rheims being at the time vacant. In his right hand was placed a royal scepter, the emblem of protection and government; in his left a wand, signifying mercy, with a hand at the top to typify justice. His head was anointed with sacred oil from the vial kept in the abbey of Saint Remy.”3

Many of the powerful barons of the time did not participate in the ceremony of the coronation. They had another idea in mind to present to the Regent unreasonable demands even while bearing arms in order to take advantage of the situation. They underestimated the keen mind and courage of Queen Blanche who defeated them at every turn with the help of allies. When the rebellious barons tried to block Queen Blanche and St. Louis from returning to Paris after the coronation, the people of Paris marched out with banners flying to protect the King. Thus, “Louis passed to his capital along a road lined the whole way with shouting crowds, armed and unarmed, crying on God to give the King long life and save him from his enemies.”3

St. Louis had the qualities of a great king and a saint. He was skilled in diplomacy as well as in war. He was courageous and possessed of a great mind. He kept before his mind the glory of God and the well- being of his subjects.

The years of his kingship in France were generally peaceful and prosperous and he presided over a growing consolidation and strengthening of the French monarchy.1

The King’s Family

Queen Blanche kept her son close to her accepting much of the responsibility for his education, especially his religious education. She chose tutors to teach St. Louis subjects suited to the upbringing of a king. He learned to speak Latin, to write with dignity and grace, to speak in public, the arts of government and the military. He learned riding and hunting, biblical history, geography and ancient literature.

Queen Blanche took St. Louis to recite the services of the Divine Office and to attend two Masses each day. She took special care to instill in her young son the highest reverence for matters of virtue and religion. She impressed this on him in a particular manner with her statement: “I love you, my dear son, with all the tenderness a mother is capable of; but I would infinitely rather see you fall down dead at my feet, than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”1

When St. Louis reached the age of twenty he married Margaret, a daughter of the Count of Provence. Blanche chose this bride for her son. “Margaret was as noble as any lady between the seas, and as beautiful, if the poets can be trusted.”3 St. Louis admired his bride, not only for her beauty, but for her goodness and spirituality and they shared a loving marriage. It was said that “These two walked in the house of God in fellowship and in harmony and engendered most noble offspring, whom this saintly man greatly desired to educate religiously and instruct very often in the love of God…”4

St. Louis was a loving husband and father who passed on the spiritual legacy he received from his parents and particularly his mother, Blanche of Castille, to his own children. Their marriage was blessed with eleven children – six daughters and five sons.

St. Louis told his children to have hearts of tenderness and pity to those who are poor and afflicted and to comfort and help them as much as they could.5

King of Justice – Peace and Reforms

“The human ideal of St. Louis was prud’homie, which can perhaps best be defined as conduct which conformed to the code of the honorable man as conceived by the thirteenth century. Among the elements composing it figured courtesy, the spirit of justice, moderation, frankness and a concern to observe the proprieties.”6

Louis developed fame by making himself available to hear cases at Vincennes seating himself beneath an oak tree in the park. He would invite anyone with a case to settle to come forward and be heard. Should a case involve a dispute between a rich and poor person, Louis would give special attention to the concerns of the poor person.3

St. Louis became known near at home and even in foreign countries for his diplomacy and sense of justice and fairness. He resolved feuding between nobles and vassals respecting equally the rights of all parties regardless of rank. “Louis was present regularly at the sessions of Parliament. In addition, he occupied himself continually in hearing and deciding cases and complaints, in which he was assisted by the men of experience and integrity whom he kept near him.”3

St. Louis reformed the courts and the system of taxation to allow all to have a better chance at being treated justly. He addressed the underlying causes of war in order to work toward peace. He encouraged the writing down of laws for sake of clarity for all and introduced the presumption of innocence in criminal procedure. He eliminated trial by combat as well as trial by ordeal replacing them with trial by jury. He served as supreme judge in case of appeals.5

When St. Louis defeated King Henry III of England in a battle at Taillebourg, he was so fair in his consideration of the king, Henry came back later and asked Louis for his assistance in administering justice in his behalf. This victory and others gave Louis renown as a valiant warrior and skilled military leader. Eventually foreign monarchs often asked St. Louis to arbitrate their disputes.5

Peace for all was the great desire of St. Louis. He “endeavoured constantly to appease the disputes of other rulers with their subjects or with one another.”3

King of Holiness – Royal Sanctity

St. Louis acquired his religious devotion and habit of personal and liturgical prayer from the teaching and example of his mother. “He heard Mass daily and communicated at the six main festivals, with so much devotion that he went on his knees to receive the Eucharist.”6

The veneration of relics was known to be a form of devotion greatly cherished in the Middle Ages. St. Louis would often visit the sanctuaries of holy relics in his travels. St. Louis became known for his exceptional holiness. Consider this account of being presented with the crown of thorns of Christ by the Emperor of Constantine.

St. Louis went “with this whole court and all the clergy, five miles to meet it, and then accompanied it with great devotion to Paris. He carried the holy treasure, barefoot and with uncovered head, to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and thence into the chapel of St. Nicholas, where it was deposited with all due reverence.”7

This acquisition of the Crown of Thorns inspired St. Louis’ construction of the Sainte-Chapelle. This architectural jewel in the Gothic style was for the purpose of housing the great relic of the Crown of Thorns.

King of Chivalry – Valor in War – Crusades

St. Louis combined great Christian faith with valor in war and his many victories. He gained a decisive victory over the Albigenses who were enemies of both Church and State. “Some of the rebellious nobles who had made war against him when he ascended the throne were defeated.”5

John of Joinville, a friend and biographer of St. Louis provides a vivid description of him in the battle outside Mansurah following the deaths of Robert of Artois and the Templars:

“While I was on foot with my knights, wounded, as I have already told you, up came the King with his own division; there was a great shouting and a tremendous noise of trumpets and kettledrums; he halted on a raised roadway. Never have I seen so fine a man in arms; he towered head and shoulders over his people, a gilded helmet on his head, and in his hand a sword of German steel. When he had halted there, the good knights of his household of whom I spoke before, with some of the brave knights of the King’s division, hurled themselves into the midst of the Turks. You must know that this was a great feat of arms; for there was no shooting of arrows nor bolts; on both sides it was a fight with mace and sword, in a mixed mass of our men and the Turks.”8

St. Louis expressed his greatest zeal for the Church in the crusades that he engaged in to recover the Holy Land and to aid the Christians living there under conditions of oppression. Louis saw the “crusades as a sacred duty to do the work of Christendom and the church in this context represented a preeminent obligation of kingship and emblematic of the duty of a most Christian king.”8

The crusades were an important factor in religious thinking in the Middle Ages. They were seen as a duty owed to God and an “opportunity for a reconciliation with God at the price of a heroic act of penance.”6

St. Louis led two crusades inspired by a sense of calling from Christ. These crusades did not meet with military success. Yet St. Louis felt that in defeat he was following the life of Christ as a suffering servant and in that attained moral victories and conversions to Christianity.

His first Crusade appeared to go well initially but many of his army fell victim to diseases and St. Louis was taken prisoner. Louis showed such heroic patience that even his enemies admired him. He continued with his pious practices and was eventually released on payment of a ransom. As he did this he obtained a truce of 10 years with the Saracens. Given these new conditions he remained in the Holy Land, visiting sacred places where Jesus had walked. He ransomed prisoners and fortified Christian cities. When the news reached him that his mother Blanche had died, he returned to France.7

The outcome of the first crusade undertaken by Louis did not cause him to ignore the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Therefore, he declared, over protest from those close to him, that he would take the cross again setting out on another crusade.

Some of the king’s brothers and his three eldest sons (Philip, John and Peter) accompanied him on this venture. When in Tunis, a disease swept through the crusaders and St. Louis’ son John died. Then both Louis and his son fell ill. While Philip recovered, the king was not able to regain his health and died there in Tunis.5

“Those returning to Paris brought with them the bones of the dead king, which were subsequently buried, along with Louis’ forbears, at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Denis, north of Paris. Miracles had begun to occur on the trip home from North Africa, and these multiplied in Paris, at the court, and particularly at St. Denis.”4

King as Patron of Sacred Arts – Builder

During the reign of St. Louis, architecture was in the spring of its strength and beauty. The patronage of Louis allowed cathedrals, churches and abbeys to spring up all over the kingdom. Many rich barons moved to imitate their pious sovereign built even more religious buildings. “There was a general activity in religious building; the cathedrals of Amiens, Rheims, and Beauvais, to name a few out of many, were partly or wholly constructed in this reign.”3

St. Louis built the exquisite Sainte Chappelle, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture to house the precious relic of the Crown of Thorns of Jesus Christ. Besides the architectural gem of Sainte Chappelle, St. Louis is known for his patronage of the College of Sorbonne which became the seat of the theological faculty of the University of Paris.5

Louis built many monasteries, convents, hospitals and schools during his reign. His hospital for the blind included a chapel for those who stayed there. He also established a hostel outside of Paris for poor women entitled the House of the Daughters of God.5

Religious Foundations

The abbey of Royaumont was the first of the religious foundations established by St. Louis. This had been ordered by his father, Louis VIII in his will and Louis IX added to this legacy with his own resources. It is said that Louis wanted to participate personally in the construction of this monastery. “When stones for a wall had to be carried on stretchers, Louis took one end, with a monk at the other, and obliged his brothers to do likewise.”6

The king loved to behave at Royaumont as if he were one of the monks singing, praying and eating. “He often ate with them and, no doubt, listened to the monk who read aloud from a pulpit throughout the meal.”6

“Louis even formed the idea of abdicating the crown to his son and retiring to a monastery. He was dissuaded with difficulty by the Queen, to whom first he disclosed his purpose.”3 Although St. Louis did not become a monk, he lived a life just as austere marked by prayer, fasting and penance. Some of the other nobles complained that Louis was wasting time with all the Masses and sermons. He replied that if he spent twice as much time playing dice or hunting and fouling, nothing would be said about it.

Charity to the Poor

St. Louis had great love for the poor and cared for them with much compassion He served the poor in their own houses inviting some to eat at his own table. He fed over 100 people daily in his palace.

He washed the feet of some of the poor every Saturday. When some of his nobles suggested these practices unsuitable for a king, Louis IX advised them that in the poor, he recognized and honored Christ himself.

Louis made many visits to hospitals and would not avoid those with the worst afflictions. Instead he would kneel down tending them, cherishing them with love.5

Instructions to his Son at Time of his Death

Louis IX gave final instructions to his eldest son before he died. The opening paragraphs are as follows:

“Fair son, the first thing I would teach thee is to set thine heart to love God; for unless he love God none can be saved. Keep thyself from doing aught that is displeasing to God, that is to say, from mortal sin. Contrariwise thou shouldst suffer every manner of torment rather than commit a mortal sin.”

“If God send thee adversity, receive it in patience and give thanks to our Saviour and bethink thee that thou hast deserved it, and that He will make it turn to thine advantage. If He send thee prosperity, then thank Him humbly, so that thou becomest not worse from pride or any other cause, when thou oughtest to be better. For we should not fight against God with his own gifts.”7

On August 24, Louis received the last sacraments. On the 25th, he was unable to speak from nine till noon. Then he raised his eyes and repeated the words of the psalm: “Lord, I will enter into Thine house; I will adore in Thy holy temple, and will give glory to Thy name.” At three, he spoke again — “Into Thy hands I commend my soul” — and died.5

St. Louis was 56 at the time of his death, worn out with work and hardships. Many of his accomplishments lived after him, serving as beacons of light, revealing the best of the Middle Ages.”5 It is interesting to note that St. Louis died at the same hour Jesus Christ died.

The teachings of St. Louis to his son as he approached death clearly show that he viewed his royal mission as a religious vocation directly accountable to God. “The king enjoins his son to also play the role of savior to his people. All vile sins are to be exterminated and all heresy erased in the kingdom.” St. Louis closes his precepts for his son, Philippe, giving him his father’s blessing and commending him to God and God’s service as king.2

It was written in a text on the life of Blessed Louis regarding a miracle on the news of his death. “Even before the news of his death was known in France, a certain noted lady of Paris, whose husband was a familiar of and dear to the lord king, warned from heaven in her sleep, saw blessed Louis splendidly and gloriously dressed in a purple cape, his hands joined, at the altar of the palace’s royal chapel in Paris, approaching as if about to offer a sacrifice upon it, surrounded by a great crowd of bystanders.”4

The funeral of St. Louis was solemnly performed at Notre-Dame de Paris and the coffin went to rest in the abbey of Saint-Denis, the tomb of the kings of France. Even before the judgment of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Louis was considered to be a saint and many people came to pray at his tomb and miracles occurred.5

Miracles of Saint Louis and his Canonization

“Louis IX of France (b.1214, r.1226, d.1270) was canonized in 1297, twenty-seven years after his death in Tunisia while on crusade. Louis was undoubtedly one of the most significant kings of his era, the only king canonized in the thirteenth century and the last saint-king of the Middle Ages.”1

There were many miracles attributed to King Louis starting at the time of his death and continuing on. Miracles were the sign of special holiness and relationship to God and the ability of the saint to intercede on behalf of those who prayed to him. These miracles were often of healing. A particularly poignant example of a miracle of healing is as follows.

“Not long after, Master Dudo, the doctor of the lord king (Philip III), who, while Louis was still living, had also been his familial doctor and attended him in the infirmity by which he died, suffered so badly from a very high fever in Paris that he himself and all other doctors despaired for him. On the night on the fourth day of his illness, with a great pain of his head, he was wrested from sleep, and he saw blessed Louis, to whom he had made a vow, attending him and having an extremely joyful and glorious countenance. And it seemed to him, who was asking Louis for help and relief in such great adversity, that blessed Louis sweetly exercised the duties of a surgeon on his behalf. Immediately the said patient was raised up after the strongest stiffness and sweat, by divine power and the merits of the pious king, having been fully liberated. The doctors said that at such a time this could not have happened by any obvious natural process of healing.”4

Pope Boniface VIII canonized Louis IX, the only king of France to be numbered by the Roman Catholic Church among its saints, in 1297.5

“Louis’ hand of innocence
To him a pure heart endowed,
For he had earned the recompense,
God’s kingdom in the clouds.”4

Notes:

  1. Butler FA. 2013. “Saint Lewis, King of France.” Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints. CatholicSaintsInfo http://catholicsaints.info/butlers-lives-of-the-saints-saint-lewis-king-of-france/
  2. Slattery M. 1985. Myth, Man and Sovereign Saint: King Louis IX in Jean de Joinville’s Sources. New York. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
  3. Perry F. 1901. Saint Louis (Louis IX of France): The Most Christian King. New York: AMS Press.
  4. Gaposchkin MC. 2012. Blessed Louis, the Most Glorious of Kings. Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press.
  5. Levron J. 2014. Louis IX. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [accessed July 27, 2017] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-IX
  6. Richard J. 1992. Saint Louis: Crusader King of France. Birrell J, translator; Lloyd S, editor. Cambridge, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Weninger FFX. St. Louis, King of France. http://catholicharboroffaithandmorals.com/
  8. Gaposchkin MC. 2008. The Making of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity, and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.