The vast salty marshlands and prairies of the Camargue are the nearest thing you can find in Europe to the wild west of America. Towns in this part of southern France have hitching rails outside bistros and bars for the Camargue cowboys when they ride into town from their ranches; and it’s in this unlikely setting that you can find one of the most evocative and best-preserved survivals from crusades of the thirteenth century. It is Aigues-Mortes, a small walled town 4 miles from the coast and about halfway between Arles and Montpellier. Closer inspection reveals that almost everything within the walls is medieval; the crenellated ramparts are topped by twenty towers at regular intervals and eight gates reveal a grid pattern of streets that remain much as they were when Louis IX laid out the town in 1244. His pièce de résistance, however, stands proud of the walls at one corner of the town. There Louis built a citadel and palace – a perfectly round and huge tower, surrounded by a moat that can be seen from several miles away.
The tower is of massive construction with walls that look to be about 10ft thick; arrow-slit windows light the lofty round chambers of the interior, with a mellow reflection from the honey-coloured stone. The ornate and graceful ribs of the vaulted ceilings are evidence of Louis’s touch for fine architectural detail. This remarkable citadel and the town of Aigues-Mortes give us a clear insight into the systematic approach to crusading that had reached its zenith in the thirteenth century, because it was here that Louis set up his headquarters and European base for his crusade to Egypt.
Louis must have spent a fortune just on constructing the town and digging a canal to the sea, but, fortunately for us, once Aigues-Mortes had served its purpose the town declined and dropped out of history; the area suffered from serious silting so the quays were quickly abandoned and development passed to other more suitable ports along the coast.
Crusading was in Louis’s blood, put there by generations of warrior kings. His great-great-great-grandfather’s brother had taken part in the First Crusade; his great-grandfather and grandfather had been leaders of the Second and Third Crusades; and his father had died on his way back from the Albigensian Crusade. His mother was descended from the crusading kings of Castile. Louis took the Cross in 1244 after the loss of Jerusalem and the disastrous battle at La Forbie when the crusader army was all but wiped out. It seems likely that news of those events played an important part in Louis’s decision-making, but a severe illness also affected him. At death’s door he vowed that he would go to the East if he was spared, in spite of implacable opposition from his formidable mother, Blanche of Castile.
The Pope’s agents began preaching the crusade in 1245 but succeeded in signing up only a sprinkling of men outside France from Norway, Germany, Italy, Scotland and England, which provided about 200 crusaders led by William, Earl of Salisbury. The bulk of the recruits came, of course, from France. For the first time a crusade organization was equal to the task – logistically it was a model operation with the finance, transport and supplies successfully dealt with by Louis’s handpicked administrators. The Church contributed about two-thirds of the expenses and the balance came from confiscating properties of heretics, from royal revenues, from subsidies from royal towns and from money extorted from the Jews. Louis was well enough financed to be able to subsidize many knights and nobles. His brothers took the Cross as well: Alphonse, Count of Poitiers; Robert, Count of Artois; and Charles, Count of Anjou (a future king of Sicily and the leader of the Pope’s crusade against the heir of Emperor Frederick II). The queen, Margaret of Provence, went as well, following the example of an earlier French queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, during the Second Crusade.
Among the king’s followers was John of Joinville, Seneschal of Champagne. What we know about this crusade is due largely to The Life of St Louis, which scholars used to think Joinville wrote many years after the event, in his old age. His work now appears to have been written much earlier in his life and closer in time to the events he has described. Joinville settled his affairs in Champagne and with eleven of his knights set off for Marseilles via Lyon and the River Saône. The knights’ war horses, walking along the river bank, kept up with the boats carrying their equipment all the way to Lyon, where they embarked on vessels to take them down the River Rhône to the sea. In a poignant aside, Joinville recalls his departure. ‘I never once let my eyes turn back towards Joinville, for fear my heart might be filled with longing at the thought of my lovely castle and the two children I had left behind.’
Joinville and his party sailed from Marseilles in August 1248. Before he left from Aigues-Mortes the king made a tour of his realm and in Paris presided over the dedication of the Sainte Chapelle, which had been built specially to house relics of Christ’s Passion mortgaged by the impoverished Latin emperor in Constantinople. Louis received the pilgrim’s scrip and staff at Notre Dame and walked barefoot to Saint Denis to take possession of the royal battle-standard. Thus prepared, he went south to join his fleet and set sail for the island of Cyprus – the crusade’s forward base and assembly point in the eastern Mediterranean.
The ships arrived at Cyprus on 17 September 1248 to discover that the commissariat had done its job well. Joinville noted that the treasury had plenty of money and that the stacks of wine barrels were so large that they looked like barns from a distance. There were also great mounds of wheat and barley that had sprouted after rainfall, ‘and consequently appeared to be covered with grass so that, at a glance, you might have imagined that they were hillocks’.
By the time all the fleet had assembled off Cyprus, Joinville says that there were 1,800 vessels, and that the sea ‘as far as the eye could reach was covered with the canvas of the ships’ sails’. Like crusade historians before him, Joinville probably exaggerated the number, but it must have been a large fleet to have carried the estimated 15,000 men plus their horses and equipment. The king, in his flagship, Mont Joie, arrived off Damietta at the mouth of the Nile on 4 June 1249. The sultan’s forces, Joinville says, were drawn up all along the shore. ‘The Sultan’s arms were all of gold and where the sun caught them they shone resplendent.’ Kettledrums and Saracen horns made a great din as Louis prepared to land without waiting for the rest of the fleet that was delayed by the bad weather.
The landing went well. The defenders retreated across the Nile on a bridge of boats and, in their panic, not only left the bridge intact but abandoned Damietta and all its supplies to the crusaders. Compared with the Fifth Crusade, when Damietta had held out for over a year, Louis’s campaign had made great progress and with very few losses. But now five and a half months went by before Louis made his next significant move. He waited both for the Nile’s regular flood to subside and for his brother, Alphonse of Poitiers, to arrive with reinforcements.
While they waited in Damietta some leaders expressed the view that, instead of pushing on into Egypt, Alexandria should be their objective. The large Christian fleet and the element of surprise, they argued, could secure Egypt’s most important port and, using that as a bargaining counter, much of Palestine, including Jerusalem, might be regained. The opposite view, however, prevailed; the king’s brother, Count Robert of Artois, believed that ultimate success for the crusade lay in subjugating the Nile valley. Egypt was the heart of Muslim power in the East and ‘if you wished to kill the serpent you must first crush its head’. The army started along the bank of the Nile towards the sultan’s stronghold of Mansurah on 20 November 1249. They took the same route that had led the Fifth Crusade towards its tragic debacle, but within sight of Mansurah they were stopped by a tributary of the Nile. The sultan’s forces were just across the water on the other bank, and attempts to build a causeway across to Mansurah failed. Ominously, supply boats were not reaching the crusaders from downriver.
As the crusaders worked, barrels of Greek fire were catapulted on to them from across the waterway, setting fire to the causeway and the siege machinery. At night, those medieval napalm bombs lit up the sky as if it were day, but just as it looked as if the crusaders would never get across the Nile tributary, a local peasant offered to show them a way across a ford further along the bank. On Shrove Tuesday, 8 February 1250, an advance guard made up of the best cavalry units and led by the king’s brother, Robert of Artois, started across the river. On the other side they surprised a Saracen outpost and, intoxicated by their success, Robert of Artois, against orders he had from the king, spurred his men on in hot pursuit of the fleeing Saracens. The Templar Knights, not wishing to appear cowardly, went as well and followed their quarry into Mansurah’s network of narrow streets. The Christian knights were now in an impossible position and, being attacked from all angles, and they were brought down and killed; among the fatalities was the king’s brother.
Unaware of what had happened to his advance guard, Louis crossed the river with the main Christian army and came under heavy attack. He decided to fight his way along the bank to a point opposite his camp in the hope that some of his troops could get across the water and join the battle. But the Christians were hard-pressed. Joinville gives us a glimpse of what it was like when he describes knights flinging themselves at the Turks in a battle of maces against swords with both sides inextricably entangled. After one engagement Joinville saw knights riding back from the fray with terrible wounds. ‘A blow from one of the enemy’s swords landed in the middle of Erard de Siverey’s face cutting through his nose so that it was left dangling over his lips.’ Another suffered a lance thrust between his shoulders which made such a large wound that ‘blood poured from his body as if from a bunghole of a barrel’.
Joinville says he managed to protect himself from enemy arrows by using a discarded, padded Saracen’s tunic so that he was wounded only five times – in such battles, knights were often described as looking like porcupines with so many arrows sticking out of them – but even in the thick of the fighting Joinville recorded that King Louis cut a fine figure. ‘Never have I seen a finer or more handsome knight! He seemed to tower head and shoulders above all his people; on his head was a gilded helmet and a sword of German steel was in his hand.’
At the end of that day the Christian army was left victorious in the field, but, in the weeks that followed, the crusaders’ ability to take the initiative gradually diminished. Numerically, Louis’s army was falling below offensive strength. The Muslims beat the crusaders’ river blockade of Mansurah by transporting galleys in sections overland on camels, and launching them again downstream of the Christian forces where they played havoc with the Christian supply boats. Joinville says that eighty of the king’s galleys were captured and the flow of urgently needed provisions from Damietta trickled away to nothing.
Louis refused to accept the seriousness of his military weakness and hung on until the end of March. Then, under constant harassment from the sultan’s forces, he sounded the retreat; hunger and disease dogged the Christian army all the way back along the bank of the Nile. ‘The sickness that had stricken the army now began to increase to such an alarming extent, and so many people suffered from mortification of the gums, that the barber surgeons had to remove the gangrenous flesh before they could either chew their food or swallow it. It was pitiful to hear around the camp the cries of those whose dead flesh was being cut away; it was just like the cry of a woman in labour.’ During the retreat, Louis was suffering so badly from dysentery that a hole was cut in his drawers.
Amid the panic and misery there was an attempt to evacuate the sick by galley – the crews lit fires in the hope that ailing soldiers could drag themselves to the river bank – but before they could be helped on board, Egyptian knights would pounce and cut them down. The king refused to be evacuated by boat and was captured, more dead than alive, in a cottage where a woman, said to be a native of Paris, was nursing him.
In Damietta, Queen Margaret learned of the king’s capture a few days before the birth of her son and, in a remarkable display of fortitude, combined with a well-timed distribution of largesse, she managed to stop the influential Italian merchant communities from fleeing; Damietta could therefore still be used as part of the ransom negotiations that would free the king. The plight of the captives was made more precarious by a coup d’état in Egypt. A new sultan, who had succeeded the old one just before the battle for Mansurah, and who, Joinville tantalizingly says, had been knighted by Emperor Frederick II, was hacked to death by a group of Mamluk officers, including Baybars – a name that future generations of Franks would come to fear – and left unburied for days by the Nile where he fell.
The whole surrender package could have collapsed into a bloodbath of retribution. The Mamluks were an elite corps of cavalry who were trained in the sultan’s barracks and were all recruited from young white slaves. Among their ranks were Turks from the south Russian steppes, Greeks, Circassians and even the occasional Hungarian or Russian – boys and young men who had been taken to Damascus or Cairo where they learned Arabic and the art of warfare. The sultans had a tradition of recruiting their elite professional soldiers and administrators in this way, but, with the murder of the sultan at Mansurah, the slaves had made a bid for complete power and had established a long line of slave-rulers of Egypt.
Negotiations were resumed under the new leadership and it was agreed that 800,000 gold beasants and Damietta would change hands in return for the freedom of the king and all the prisoners. As a first instalment the king had to find fifty per cent of the ransom price, but his coffers – depleted by the campaign – could not furnish the full amount. The Templars, who had a galley conveniently loaded with gold coin in the Nile, made up the difference on the understanding that the king would reimburse them. It took two days to count and weigh the gold and when one of Louis’s officials boasted of cheating the Muslims out of 10,000 French livres, the king angrily insisted that the missing amount should be handed over. Wearing his prison clothes and sleeping on the mattress supplied by his captors, the king set sail for Acre on 6 May 1250.
Louis, unlike most leaders of crusades that ended in failure, stayed on in the Holy Land. His two brothers returned home, and with them most of the surviving knights, but in Palestine the Franks accepted Louis almost as their ruler in the continuing absence of Emperor Frederick’s son, Conrad IV. Louis sought to make amends for his failure, which he regarded as a punishment from God, by securing the release of most of his soldiers left behind in Damietta, including the ones who had converted to Islam; and, in what must have been the result of some deft negotiating, the Egyptians were persuaded to waive the unpaid half of Louis’s enormous ransom. In trying to strengthen the kingdom Louis exploited a new rift between Damascus and Cairo and, within two years of his capture and release, he entered into a military alliance with his former adversaries in Egypt. It resulted in little practical advantage but it bought time for the settler barons of Outremer to consolidate their position.
The tangible remains of Louis’s four years in the Holy Land are to be seen in masonry and mortar, and the town walls of Caesarea are his best surviving monument. The moat has been excavated to reveal the base of the wall which slants outwards into the moat – a device to deter would-be tunnellers. Louis is said to have supervised the work personally and, according to the chroniclers, he even carried some of the materials himself during the year-long project. But looking along the moat today, between the lower courses of what were once great square towers, you can see huge pieces of tumbled masonry left there until they were found by archaeologists – evidence of the destruction Baybars wrought only fourteen years after Louis’s monumental reconstruction. A changed man, Louis returned to France in the summer of 1254 to live a penitent and simple life, but the taint of failure eventually spurred him to take the Cross a second time.