Unlike Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who made his crusader vow at both is coronations, King Louis IX of France took his crusader vow at a moment of profound desperation rather than triumph. When sick with fever so severe that he expected to die, he promised God he would free Jerusalem, if his life would be spared a little longer. After the King’s seemingly miraculous recovery, the King held to his vow despite resistance from many of his closest advisors, including his mother. They argued he had taken the vow when his mind was clouded and warned him he should not leave his kingdom for an extended period. King Louis responded by taking the vow again ― when he was obviously in full position of his senses.
Despite the opposition of his court, Louis found strong support for his endeavor from the Knights Templar in France. These were led by the Preceptor (Commander) for France, Renaud de Vichiers. The latter promised not only that he would accompany the crusade with a large contingent of French Knights Templar, he undertook to negotiate the transportation of Louis’ crusading force. Whereas in the time of King Richard 100 ships had been needed to transport a crusading army, by now just 38 ships were sufficient ― not because the King Louis took fewer knights, men and horses with him than Richard I, but because ship-building had advanced so much that the “modern” vessels of the mid-13th century were capable of carrying roughly 700 men and 100 horses each.
On August 25, 1248 Louis’ large crusading army set sail from the newly constructed port of Aigues Mortes. He was accompanied by his three younger brothers, the Counts of Artois, Poitou and Anjou, as well as many other powerful noblemen such as the Duke of Burgundy, the Counts of Flanders and St. Pol and de la Marche (the head of the French Lusignan family, with so many ties to the Holy Land.) He was also accompanied by his queen, Marguarite of Provence, and an English contingent of knights under the Earl of Salisbury.
The French/English fleet reached the port of Limassol on Cyprus without mishap on September 17, 1248. Here the crusaders, particularly King Louis, were welcomed by the King of Cyprus, Henry I. The Cypriot King was a grandson of Aimery de Lusignan. He had inherited the throne as an infant and been treated like a pawn by the Holy Roman Emperor during his brief sojourn in the Holy Land, but after coming of age at 15 in 1232, Henry had shown great spirit and independence. Notably, he had attained a papal decree ending Cypriot vassalage to the Holy Roman Emperor a year before the arrival of King Louis. He was at the start of the 7th Crusade 31 years old, a man in his prime, and he, naturally, supported King Louis wholeheartedly.
In consequence, Louis’ army was strengthened by large contingents of troops commanded by the local barons, who generally held fiefs in both Cyprus and the remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Louis was also joined by a large contingent of Knights Templar commanded by the Master of the Temple, William de Sonnac. These Templars were drawn from the Templar fortresses and commanderies in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.
For this larger army, a new fleet had to be found, something that took most of the winter, so that it was mid-May of 1249 before the crusading army set sail to assault Damietta in Egypt, the opening volley of the 7th Crusade. This army was estimated at 2,800 knights and “countless” infantry. It took, according to the participant and chronicler Jean de Joinville, 1,800 vessels (both large and small) to transport it.
A storm partially dispersed this great fleet, but St. Louis went ahead undeterred and with what ships he had established a beachhead. Interestingly, the first ships to land were not those of the Templars, but some of the crusaders such as Joinville and the local barons, notably the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, John d’Ibelin. Joinville describes the arrival of Jaffa’ galley as follows:
As the galley approached, it seemed as if it flew, so quickly did the rowers urge it onwards with the powerful sweep of their oars; and what with the flapping of the pennons, the booming of the drums, and the screech of Saracen horns on board this vessel, you would have thought a thunderbolt was falling from the skies. As soon as this galley had been driven into the sand as far as it would go, the count and his knights leapt on the shore, well-armed, well-equipped, and came to take their stand beside us. (Joinville, p. 204)
As for King Louis,
When the King heard that the standard of Saint Denis was on shore he strode quickly across the deck of his ship, and in spite of all the legate, who was with him, could say, refused to be parted from the emblem of his sovereignty, and leapt into the sea, where the water came up to his armpits. He went on, with his shield hung from his neck, his helmet on his head, and lance in hand, till he had joined his people on the shore. When he reached land and scanned the enemy, he asked who they were, and was told they were Saracens. He put his lance under his armpit, and holding his shield before him, would have charged right in among them if certain sagacious men who were standing around him had allowed it. (Joinville, p. 204)
Instead of charging on foot, the Frankish knights did as Richard the Lionheart had done before Jaffa: they thrust the points of their shields and the butts of the lances into the sand, with the tips of the latter pointed outwards. Behind this improvised wall, they withstood multiple charges by Saracen cavalry until crossbowmen and finally the horses could be off loaded from the ships. Eventually, enough horses were on hand for the Franks to launch a charge of their own.
To their astonishment, the enemy broke and fled behind the powerful walls of Damietta. In fact, as it turned out, they didn’t just take refuge in the walled city of Damietta but continued fleeing out the other side. What had happened was that the Sultan, who was dangerous ill in Cairo, had failed to respond to carrier pigeons requesting instructions and reinforcements. Thinking the Sultan was already dead, the defenders lost heart and fled in disarray. The crusaders, not knowing this, initially camped outside the walls expecting a long siege, but Coptic Christians came out of the city the following morning to report the city had been abandoned by the Saracens. The crusaders moved into Damietta the same day.
This rapid victory took the crusaders by surprise. They had expected a long siege. Their unexpectedly rapid victory meant that they had control of the city while the Nile was still in flood. To attempt an assault on Cairo at this time would have been foolish, so the army settled in to await the ebbing of the waters. Louis sent for his Queen to join him, and the dying Sultan offered to exchange Jerusalem for Damietta.
Unfortunately the Sultan made the suggestion via the Knights Templar. When King Louis learned that the Master de Sonnac had received secret communications from the Sultan of Cairo he was incensed. He both rejected the offer (because he was determined to take Cairo and dictate a more ambitious settlement) and sharply rebuked the Templar Master, ordering him not to receive any further envoys from the Sultan without “permission” ever again.
This was the first but not the last instance in which King Louis asserted his authority over the Templars without legal basis. The Templars were independent, subordinate only to the pope, and certainly did not have to take orders from the French King. Yet, King Louis with his vast army was also the best (and arguably the only) hope for liberating Holy sites from Muslim occupation. So Master de Sonnac made no protest.
Finally, on or about November 20, 1149, with the flooding over, King Louis’ crusading army set out along the east bank of the Nile heading south for Cairo. Up to this point, except for Vichiers’ role in securing the Genoese transport fleet, the Templars had not played a conspicuous military role. Now, however, they claimed and won their traditional position in the van of the army. At once the Templars, showed their spirit ― this time in direct and open violation of King Louis’ orders. Joinville describes the incident as follows:
It happened, however, that when the army began to move forward, and the Turks realized that no attack on them was contemplated ― for their spies had told them that the king had forbidden it ― they grew bolder and flung themselves on the Templars, who formed the van. One of the Turks bore a Knight Templar to the ground, right in front of the hoofs of the horse on which Brother Renaud de Vichiers, at that time Marshal of the Temple, was mounted. On seeing this, the Marshal cried to is brother Templars: ‘For God’s sake, let’s get at them! I can’t stand it any longer!’ He struck his spurs into his horse, and all the army followed. Now our men’s horses were fresh, and those of the Turks already weary; and so, as I have heard, not one of the enemy escaped, but all perished.
Although this charge was also in flagrant disobedience of King Louis’ orders, the Templar success apparently mollified Louis’ disapproval and no action was taken against the Templars. The next time they disobeyed similar orders proved catastrophic ― but the blame does not lie with them.
The crusaders had advanced up the Nile until they reached a wide and well-defended canal north of the Egyptian city of Mansourah. To reach Cairo they had to pass his last bastion and after bloody losses and a long stalemate, Bedouins showed the Franks a ford far to the east and out of sight of the defenders of Mansourah. The ford was deep and treacherous. The horses had to swim part of the way and the landfall was very slippery, causing some horses to fall and crush their riders. Nevertheless, the vanguard of the army consisting of the Templars, the English and the King of France’s brother, the Count of Artois, succeeded in making the crossing.
King Louis’ orders had been very explicit: the vanguard was to secure the beachhead for the rest of the army. But the Count of Artois, thinking that they had surprise on their side, charged forward. The Templars, according to all accounts, tried to stop him, urging caution. They were insulted for being cowards, and ― either goaded by this slander or simply unwilling to stand-by and watch the slaughter of a Prince of France with his knights ― joined the charge.
This charge was initially successful, over-running a Saracen camp that was indeed taken by surprise and so in disarray. However, the Mamluke commander rapidly turned his disadvantage into a trap. He pulled his troops back inside the walled city of Mansourah and intentionally left the doors open inviting. Apparently, at least according to one chronicle, at this point the Franks regrouped and consulted again. Allegedly, Artois wanted to pursue, and both the Earl of Salisbury and the Master of the Temple, William de Sonnac, urged caution. It was perhaps at this point that the accusations of cowardice were brandished. Perhaps more seriously, Artois allegedly claimed the whole of the Holy Land would long have been liberated if the military orders had not hindered the crusaders for the sake of their own profit. (Barber, p. 150.) If such a charge was leveled, it would certainly have forced Sonnac’s hand.
The result was a catastrophe. The Frankish knights were lured deep into the city by a lack of resistance, and then once they were already divided up and slowed down by the narrow, winding streets, they were pounced upon from all sides, particularly the rooftops. Beams were thrown down to block their retreat. Boiling oil and missiles rained down on them. Their horses were stabbed in the belly and otherwise cut down by men darting out from the houses. The entire vanguard was slaughtered in the streets of Mansourah, including the Earl of Salisbury and the Count of Artois. Master de Sonnac escaped with a handful of Templars and a wound to his head that robbed him of sight in his right eye. Louis had no need to reproach him; the defeat was both reproach and punishment enough.
Meanwhile the main body of the army had set up camp in front of Mansourah ― where they could see the body of the Count of Artois swinging from the ramparts. Saracen attempts to dislodge them by force failed, but in one of these Master de Sonnac was again wounded in the head, losing his other eye and dying in camp shortly afterwards. Having failed with assaults, the Saracens resorted to cunning. They sent ships down the Nile that intercepted all the Frankish ships taking the wounded back to Damietta and bringing food, supplies and reinforcements back to the crusader camp. The crews and wounded were slaughtered, the supplies stolen. Soon the crusader army was starving and suffering from scurvy.
As the health of the army seeped away, King Louis had to concede defeat and tried to retreat back towards Damietta. Halfway there, the pursuing Saracens launched an attack that, although resisted by the military orders (now mostly Hospitallers) forming the rearguard, was successful. After killing the bulk of the rearguard, King Louis of France, suffering from such severe dysentery that he could not ride, was captured in his tent. What was left of the entire crusading army surrendered.
Despite the losses already incurred, thousands of men were now at the mercy of the Saracens. These were no commanded mostly by Mamlukes, who had no scruples about killing any prisoner to sick to walk; all the sick were slaughtered except King Louis. The negotiations began at once, and Louis agreed to the return of Damietta as his own ransom, and a payment of 500,000 livres (or 1 million bezants) for the rest of his army, both great men and small. That is a highly significant gesture: he did not leave the commoners too poor to pay a ransom to slavery, nor did he leave his nobles to negotiate their own ransoms and beggar themselves in the process. He bore the financial burden for his entire army without quibbling.
There was only one small problem. After the Mamlukes had murdered the new Sultan (before Louis’ eyes), they renegotiated the deal. While reducing the overall ransom by 100,000 livres, they insisted on an up-front payment of 200,000 livres. When the king’s officers tried to find this enormous sum, they came up 30,000 livres short. Eyes turned toward the Knights Templar, who had sent reinforcements by ship to Damietta ― including considerable cash. The French demanded a loan of 30,000 livres, and the Templar Treasurer refused on the grounds that the bulk of the money was not Templar funds, but deposits placed with the Temple by other people; i.e. these were deposits which could only be released at the request of the depositor. At this point, Joinville grabbed an ax and threatened to take the treasure by force, and Renaud de Vichiers (who had somehow survived the slaughter) stopped him, with the words that since he was prepared to use force the Temple would yield. The 30,000 livres were paid toward King Louis’ ransom.
It was perhaps for this service, that King Louis used his influence to ensure that Renaud de Vichiers was elected the next Master of the Temple. At first their relationship was excellent. The Queen of France lived in the Templar castle of Athlit and gave birth there to a son, Peter. When the Assassins attempted to blackmail Louis into paying them tribute, he let the Masters of the Temple and Hospital deal with them; the result was a non-aggression pact between King Louis and the Assassins that secured his northern flank.
Unfortunately, the following year, the Templar Master made a grave mistake. Like Sonnac before him he attempted to negotiate an independent peace, this time with the Sultan of Damascus, who was still an Ayyubid. Louis, however, still owed money to the Sultan of Cairo. As a result, thousands of crusaders were still in Mamluke hands. Almost certainly it was fear of what would happen to these men, for whom Louis felt profound responsibility, that led to the draconian character of his response on learning of these separate negotiations. Instead of a mere rebuke as had sufficed for Sonnac, Louis insisted on humiliating the Templars for their “insubordination.” The Knights Templar were required to assemble barefoot before the King and publicly renounce the treaty, then knelt before him and begged his forgiveness. Furthermore, Vichiers offered to Louis all the wealth of the Temple, so that he could choose what he wanted as retribution. Although Louis took nothing, he ordered the knight who had done the negotiating banished ― and Vichiers complied.
That was a long step down from the days when the Templars had not allowed the Kings of Jerusalem to arrest a member of the Order even when the latter had committed murder. Robinson suggests in his history of the Templars that this humiliation “shattered” Templar morale (Robinson, p. 318.) Howarth suggests in contrast that it reflects the exceptional status of King Louis IX ― a man considered saintly even in his own lifetime.
King Louis is a major character and a Templar squire is the protagonist of my novel: St. Louis' Knight.