The Saint and the Seventh Crusade, 1248-50

Of course, the Pope called a new crusade. But Europe was in bad shape for a Crusade. In the Sixth Crusade, the King of Hungary had led, but now Hungary was in ruins. Europe’s bad boy Frederick was not only excommunicated but deposed by the Pope (not that he really lost power). The only king who was interested was Louis IX of France, who had recently vowed to go on Crusade if he survived a serious illness.

In fact, France as a state was stronger than ever, thanks to the Crusade against Cathars. The final settlement of that business left Provence and Toulouse as part of the French crown. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis to house the Crown of Thorns, a stolen relic he purchased from bankrupt Crusaders. (Side note: there was no stigma to stolen relics, since they presumed that the saint permitted the theft to punish the last owners.) The King was outstandingly devout and had enormous riches at his disposal.

We know a lot about the Seventh Crusade because a young knight, Jean de Joinville, traveled with the king and later published a biography of the king based on his Crusade journals. One of the surprising choices Louis made was to bring his wife Margaret.

Margaret was one of four sisters who grew up in Provence just as the Cathar Crusade was winding down. Although their father the Count of Provence was impoverished by the wars, his status was high enough that after the King of France chose the oldest daughter, Margaret, the King of England chose the second daughter, Eleanor. Then both kings’ brothers married the remaining two daughters. At one point in time, between 1257 and 1261, all four of them were crowned queens due to the Pope’s attempts to break up Frederick’s lands. One was Queen of Sicily, the other Queen of Germany. But in 1249, the younger two were just Countesses. The brother of the King of England had already been involved in the Barons’ Crusade. For this Crusade, the Count of Anjou and his wife would sail with their brother and sister of France.

Another surprising choice was to send a Papal embassy to the Mongols, trying out whether an alliance could be formed. Güyük Khan was not impressed. He invited the Europeans to submit to the Mongol yoke, instead.

Louis IX considered pleas from Latin Constantinople for help against the government-in-exile Byzantines; he also heard pleas from Templars in Syria. But by this time, the Egyptian campaign discussed in the Third Crusade and tried in the Fifth seemed the only logical way to go. France raised a large sum of money so its king could set out by ship for Damietta. The Crusade was officially launched in July 1248, sailing for Cyprus, where they wintered over and rested. In May 1259, the French flotilla set sail for Egypt.

Damietta was probably still very shaky since its Fifth Crusade starvation and ruins. But Sultan as-Salih now had ample warning of the Crusader invasion, so he had troops on shore and ships in the harbor, ready to defend. The Crusaders had to make an amphibious landing in shallow-draft longboats, in full view of the defenders. As they established beach-heads with shield walls thrust into the sand, King Louis himself came ashore. The Muslim forces began losing. As the day ended, they abandoned Damietta. The Crusaders were able to move in directly.

It was easy for the French to take that city, but then THIS happened, as the click-baiters say. The Nile flooded, right on time! Who could have seen that coming? The Crusaders were perched on a safe part of the Delta with floodwaters all around them streaming into the Mediterranean Sea, and this went on for six months. Six months is plenty of time to eat up the food you brought while spending your gold on food and wages for soldiers and sailors to just stay put.

In November, Louis set out for Cairo, the target of previous Crusades. Once he held Cairo, he could use Egypt as the breadbasket while his army headed for Ascalon and Jerusalem. The Ayyubid dynasty had its power drained away by constant extended-family rebellions in Syria, and Sultan as-Salih had been gravely ill, carried about on a stretcher, for much of the last year. When he retreated to the town of al-Mansurah, the Crusaders followed him. Louis was now surrounded by three brothers, one who had just arrived with more fresh troops. They marched near the Nile with supply ships moving in parallel, as Richard Lion-Heart had done. The Crusaders camped at the same place the Fifth Crusade had camped when the floods rose, but this time it was winter, so they felt safe.

A Muslim deserter told them about a nearby ford over the Tanis River, permitting an attack. They had tried other crossing methods but nothing was working, and the Muslim defenses were ferocious enough that they should have realized something had changed. But Louis led a select force to the ford, with one of his brothers, before dawn on February 8. As the force was still straggling over the crossing, Louis’ brother started a premature attack on the Muslim camp. Emir Fakr al-Din was killed in this assault. Muslim survivors ran for the town of al-Mansurah, and Count Robert followed them, still leaving behind the main force in the crossing. They rode into the unlocked town. But in the town, the Crusaders faced the Mamluks. In house to house fighting, most of the Templars and Count Robert were killed. Then the Mamluks poured out of the town toward the remaining French troops under King Louis. There a ferocious battle took place on the Tanis riverbank. Louis and his men hung on under the assault and at nightfall, the King was still alive and they had not retreated.

Obviously, the Crusaders would have to retreat, since their losses had been so heavy. However, Louis did not want to go straight back to Damietta, squandering what little gain they had made. He fortified the camp and stayed. The Mamluks assaulted again. Again, with great losses, the Crusaders held their ground.

Louis hoped to negotiate: Damietta for Jerusalem. He sent envoys with this idea, but the political situation in Egypt was changing more rapidly than he could know (more about that soon). Now the Sultan’s death was announced, with the Sultan’s son ready to take charge, having come from Syria with reinforcements. These new forces rolled ships overland, dropping them into the Nile between Damietta and the Crusaders so that they were cut off. Supplies could not get through. The whole Frankish army began to starve and lose hope of ever returning home. Their wounds were infected, they had scurvy, and unburied corpses were spreading disease.

On April 5, Louis and his men tried to retreat at night, but the Egyptians forced battle, and on April 6, the king and his two brothers were captured, with other commanders. Thousands of French soldiers went into a POW camp while the royals were locked in a house. Then, in Muslim captivity, many of them fell ill with dysentery, including the king. It seemed likely that King Louis would never make it back to Damietta, let alone Paris. The new Sultan Turanshah set a high price for ransom of the King and his brothers: it would certainly take all the Crusade’s remaining funds to buy them back.

Queen Margaret in Damietta had to begin the process of raising ransom money, but she was in desperate straits too. On April 8 she gave birth to her sixth child, a boy named Jean Tristan (“sorrow”). The Genoese sailors who manned their ships very nearly abandoned her; she had to bring them into her bedchamber within hours of the birth and plead with them, promising them gold. The Queen could not collect a large enough sum.

News of the King’s capture reached France and caused an uproar. The King was thought of as a saint, and many common people thought the official Church (which was very wealthy) was abandoning by not rescuing or ransoming him. A new mob of common people, again led by a shepherd, converged on Paris to demand action. Queen Regent Blanche, Louis’ mother, tried to break them up. Their march turned into anti-clergy riots in Rouen, Tours, and Orleans, lasting into 1251. As they straggled farther into central France, they also began attacking Jews. The Queen Regent had to send forces to arrest them, and many were executed. We know this episode as the Shepherds’ Crusade.

King Louis IX was ransomed and allowed to leave on May 8, 1250, long before the shepherds had spent their fury. He was not sent back to Damietta, but to Acre. What about the other prisoners? By then, many of lower rank had been executed. From the original 20,000, only about 12,000 still lived. Louis was able to ransom most of them, and this effort became his main project in Acre.

The royal family stayed in Acre for a few years. It wasn’t clear to them if they could perhaps restart their Crusade, although Louis had vowed not to return to Egypt. Would Frederick commit any troops to retaking Jerusalem? Would any other kings find resources to join? The Damietta baby, Jean Tristan, was joined in Acre by babies Pierre in 1252 and Blanche in 1253. The king acted as head of state and strengthened fortresses.

In 1254, the family sailed home. In France, King Louis IX became austere as penance for his failures. He wore a hair shirt and ate only a fast-day diet. This is when the really became “Saint Louis” to the common people, although of course it was not until after his death that the Pope made him an official saint. He ruled his kingdom as his mother died and his family increased. He never gave up the hope of going on Crusade again, and before his death, he did. We’ll get there.

Queen Margaret de Provence


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