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Church and Denominational History
Writings of James Craigie Robertson
Sketches of Church History
Book 2 Church History: A.D. 589 - 1517
Chapter 14 Frederick II--St. Lewis of France
In this way, then, the popes had got a hold on Frederick, and when he answered their summons by saying that his affairs at home would not just then allow him to go on a crusade, they treated this excuse as if he had refused altogether to go; they held him up to the world as a faithless man, and threatened to put his lands under an interdict (p 219), and to take away his crown. And when at last Frederick found himself able to go to the Holy Land, the pope and his friends set themselves against him with all their might, saying that he was not hearty in the cause, and even that he was not a Christian at all. So that, although Frederick made a treaty with the Mahometans by which a great deal was gained for the Christians, it came to little or nothing, because the popes would not confirm it.
I need not say much more about Frederick II. There was very much in him that we cannot approve of or excuse, but he met with hard usage from the popes, and after his death (AD 1250) they pursued his family with constant hatred, until the last heir, a spirited young prince named Conradin, who boldly attempted to recover the dominions of his family in Southern Italy, was made prisoner and executed at Naples in 1268.
At the same time with Frederick lived a sovereign of a very different kind, Lewis IX of France, who is commonly called St. Lewis, and deserves the name of saint better than very many persons to whom it is given. There was a great deal in the religion of Lewis that we should call superstition; but he laboured very earnestly to live up to the notions of Christian religion which were commonly held in his time. He attended several services in church every day, and when he was told that his nobles found fault with this, he answered, that no one would have blamed him if he had spent twice as much time in hunting or in playing at dice. He was diligent in all other religious exercises, he refrained from all worldly sports and pastimes, and, as far as could be, he shunned the pomp of royalty. He was very careful never to use any words but such as were fit for a Christian. He paid great respect to clergy and monks, and said that if he could divide himself into two, he would give one half to the Dominicans and the other half to the Franciscans. It is even said that at one time he would himself have turned friar, if his queen had not persuaded him that he would do better by remaining a king and studying to govern well and to benefit the Church.
But with all this, Lewis took care that the popes should not get more power over the French Church than he thought due to them. And if any bishop had tried to play the same part in France which Becket played in English history, we may be sure that St. Lewis would have set himself steadily against him.
In 1244Jerusalem was taken by the Mongols, a barbarous heathen people, who had none of that respect which the Mahometans had shown for the holy places of the Jewish and Christian religions; thus these holy places were now profaned in a way which had not been known before, and stories of outrages done by the new conquerors, with cries for help from the Christians of the Holy Land, reached the West.
Soon after this King Lewis had a dangerous illness, in which his life was given over. He had been for some time speechless, and was even supposed to be dead, when he asked that the cross might be given to him, and as soon as he had thus engaged himself to the crusade he began to recover. His wife, his mother, and others tried to persuade him that he was not bound by his promise, because it had been made at a time when he was not master of himself; but Lewis would not listen to such excuses, and resolved to carry it out faithfully. The way which he took to enlist companions seems very curious. On the morning of Christmas-day, when a very solemn service was to be held in the chapel of his palace (a chapel which is still to be seen, and is among the most beautiful buildings in Paris), he caused dresses to be given to the nobles as they were going in; for this was then a common practice with kings at the great festivals of the Church. But when the French lords, after having received their new robes in a place which was nearly dark, went on into the chapel which was bright with hundreds of lights, each of them found that his dress was marked with a cross, so that, according to the notions of the time, he was bound to go to the Holy Land.
The king did what he could to raise troops, and appointed his mother, Queen Blanche, to govern the kingdom during his absence; and, after having passed a winter in the island of Cyprus, he reached Damietta, in Egypt, on the 5th of June, 1249. For a time all went well with the Crusaders; but soon a change took place, and everything seemed to turn against them. They lost some of their best leaders; a plague broke out and carried off many of them; they suffered from famine, so that they were even obliged to eat their horses; and the enemy, by opening the sluices of the Nile, let loose on them the waters of the river, which carried away a multitude. Lewis himself was very ill, and at length he was obliged to surrender to the enemy, and to make peace on terms far worse than those which he had before refused.
But even although he was a prisoner, his saintly life made the Mahometans look on him with reverence; so that when the Sultan to whom he had become prisoner was murdered by his own people, they thought of choosing the captive Christian king for their chief. Lewis refused to make any treaty for his deliverance unless all his companions might have a share in it; and, although he might have been earlier set free, he refused to leave his captivity until all the money was made up for the ransom of himself and his followers. On being at length free to leave Egypt, he went into the Holy Land, where he visited Nazareth with deep devotion. But, although he eagerly desired to see Jerusalem, he denied himself this pleasure, from a fear that the crusading spirit might die out if the first of Christian kings should consent to visit the holy city without delivering it from the unbelievers.
After an absence of six years, Lewis was called back to France by tidings that his mother, whom he had left as regent of the kingdom, was dead (AD 1254). But he did not think that his crusading vow was yet fulfilled; and sixteen years later he set out on a second attempt, which was still more unfortunate than the former. On landing at Tunis, he found that the Arabs, instead of joining him, as he had expected, attacked his force; but these were not his worst enemies. At setting out, the king had been too weak to wear armour or to sit on horseback; and after landing he found that the bad climate, with the want of water and of wholesome food, spread death among his troops. One of his own sons, Tristan, who had been born during the king's captivity in Egypt, fell sick and died. Lewis himself, whose weak state made him an easy victim to disease, died on the 25th of August, 1270, after having shown in his last hours the piety which had throughout marked his life. And, although his eldest son, Philip, recovered from an attack which had seemed likely to be fatal, the Crusaders were obliged to leave that deadly coast with their number fearfully lessened, and without having gained any success. Philip, on his return to France, had to carry with him the remains of his father, of his brother, of one of his own children, and of his brother-in-law, the king of Navarre. Such was the sad end of an expedition undertaken by a saintly king for a noble purpose, but without heeding those rules of prudence which, if they could not have secured success, might at least have taught him to provide against some of the dangers which were fatal to him.
the Fifth Week after Easter