At age 12, on Nov. 29, 1226, Louis IX was anointed king of France. He became the most esteemed and effectual of all the French monarchs; arguably, of all monarchs in history. For the first eight years of Louis’ reign, Blanche of Castile, his mother and widow of King Louis VIII, governed on behalf of the young king. Blanche was not only a good administrator but also a mother who raised her son in the Christian faith. She told Louis, “Beloved child, I would rather see thee in thine innocence fall dead at my feet, than that thou shouldst ever commit a mortal sin.”
Historians call his time as king, from 1226 until 1270, the golden age of St. Louis. It was a period when France was a most powerful nation. The economy thrived and, combined with Louis’ legislative and judicial reforms, every Frenchman lived at the height of prestige. French artists garnered worldwide acclaim, and Paris became a cultural center.
King Louis regarded his service to France as service to God and concluded that any secular achievement of his administration was the result of God’s grace. Possessing an absolute abhorrence for sin, he established laws against gambling, prostitution and blasphemy. Louis never spoke ill of anyone, especially Jesus Christ, and during his rule any person caught blaspheming Jesus was “branded,” that is, a hot iron was pressed against the offender’s lips. “When his courtiers remonstrated with Louis about his law that blasphemers should be branded, he replied ‘I would willingly have my own lips branded to root out blasphemy from my kingdom.’”
Louis ended usury — the charging of excessive interest — and implemented courtroom proceedings to resolve disputes rather than resorting to settlement by combat.
At his direction, members of the royal court were sent out into all the regions of France. Their job was to identify any bailiff, sheriff, elected or appointed official who was using their position to take advantage of the populace. Violators were relieved of their duties and dealt with harshly. The king sought to have in place fair-minded, honest officials promoting the welfare of all.
His character and wisdom have been compared to Solomon. Both kings were renowned for their sound judgment and shrewd actions; both found ways to avoid war and keep the peace. They advanced justice for their people and established strong armies. Solomon built the Jerusalem temple; St. Louis erected the beautiful Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel), which became the perfect prototype for many future churches. Into the temple, Solomon placed the Ark of the Covenant, and into Sainte Chapelle, Louis placed the crown of thorns, which Jesus wore during his passion.
A devout Catholic, he went to Mass daily, sometimes twice a day, fasted every Friday and often wore a hair shirt. He built churches as well as hospitals, including one for the blind, and was seen attending to the sick. He also funded universities, including the Sorbonne. At age 19, Louis married Margaret, daughter of Raymond Berenger, Count of Province; they had 11 children, all raised with Christian values.
Charity and compassion
Every decision Louis made was done with the glory of God in mind. His generosity and compassion toward others were widely acclaimed.
| A stained-glass window (1880) depicts Louis IX of France in La Rochelle Cathedral in Charente-Maritime, France. Selbymay
St. Francis de Sales wrote, “How nobly did St. Louis, one of the greatest of monarchs, follow this counsel! [becoming the servant of the poor], frequently himself serving at the table which he provided for the poor, and daily causing these poor men to share his own table; and many times he ate the remainder of their food with an incomparable love. When he visited the hospitals (as was his frequent custom) he generally ministered to those who suffered under the most revolting diseases, those afflicted with leprosy, cancer, and similar diseases; and serving them on his knees and with a bare head, acknowledging in their persons the Savior of the world, and cherishing them with the tender love of a mother for her child.”
Not only did he feed the hungry, but he also gave them clothing, money or both; he refused no one in need. On Holy Thursday, and other times, he washed the feet of poor people and instructed his older children to do the same. A model husband and father, he taught his family to think less of themselves and of material possessions and instead always to show compassion for the needy. He was unique among monarchs by combining his royal power with deeds of charity and mercy.
He established peaceful relationships with numerous countries and even served as arbitrator to settle differences between opposing rulers. Although not a judge in the strictest sense, he set aside time each week to hear complaints and sort out justice for anyone who came to him. Louis took the issues and problems of the people as his own.
Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) said of King Louis IX: “He was certainly a true king, because he governed himself and his subjects justly and holily. He governed himself, because he subjected the flesh to the spirit, and his passions to reason. Likewise he governed his subjects well, for he preserved them in all justice and equity. He also governed the churches well by defending the ecclesiastical liberties and rights.”
Believing it was the responsibility of every Christian monarch to take up arms against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land, Louis mounted and led two separate crusades. Both crusades were failures and in fact, during the first, from 1248-54, his army was defeated and Louis held prisoner. He was released after a ransom was paid. In 1270, while leading a second crusade, Louis contracted typhus and on Aug. 24, the feast of St. Bartholomew, received the last rites. He died the next day at age 56. Some Church historians suggest he should be considered a martyr because he died for Christ.
Six hundred years after the death of St. Louis, François Guizot (1787-1874), a prominent 19th-century French politician, historian and staunch Calvinist, gave this fitting tribute:
“The world has seen more profound politicians on the throne, greater generals, men of more mighty and brilliant intellect, princes who have exercised a more powerful influence over later generations and events subsequent to their own times; but it has never seen such a king as this St. Louis, never seen a man possessing sovereign power and yet not contracting the vices and passions which attend it, displaying upon the throne in such a high degree every human virtue purified and ennobled by Christian faith.”
Throughout Europe he became known as “the most Christian king.” Canonized in 1297 by Pope Boniface VIII, Louis IX is the only French monarch who has been raised to the altar of sainthood. His feast day is Aug. 25. Cities, hospitals, bridges, churches and streets around the world bear his name. The Church also honors him with a beautiful litany that includes: “... protector of the children of God, ... teacher of piety, .... model of Christian virtue, ... confessor of the living Christ.”
D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.