The Crusades of Saint Louis: The 7th and 8th Crusades

The fall of Jerusalem in 1244, sparked yet another fire within a European monarch to once again, take up arms against the Muslim infidels, recapturing the Christian ‘Holy Land’ once and for all. This time it was the turn of French king, Louis IX. Louis is known to history as Saint Louis as he was overtly pious and is the only French king in history to be canonised by the Catholic faith. Louis was praised throughout Europe for being a fair king, who spent time and effort on legal reform including, the introduction of the presumption of innocence. Louis lived in the golden age of medieval France, a time in which his coffers were full and the rest of the world envied and respected the French crown - the perfect storm was brewing.

A stained glass window, depicting Saint Louis IX King of France, created by Lucien-Leopold Lobin (1853–1892), Tours, in 1890 SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Andreas F. Borchert

A perfect plan

Louis had studied the 5th and 6th crusades in great detail, spending his youth pouring over the accounts of the failed attempts to capture the city of Cairo and he believed, that with the right level of planning, military might, and religious zeal, the most important city in the Muslim held Mediterranean, would unlock the whole middle east for Christian forces.

With the financial backing of the French crown behind him, Louis was able to outfit a large army, gather a Genoise fleet (the now ‘go to’ method of transporting men to the holy land) and a perfect refuelling station on Cyprus was set up to allow Louis and his army to restock and rearm before arriving in the holy land. Cyprus had been a Christian stronghold since it was taken by Richard the Lionheart back in 1191, acting as the perfect go between for invading armies. Louis army of some 18,000 men arrived in the early spring of 1249 before leaving again, arriving in Damietta on 4th June of that year.

Before the French army could even get onto dry land they were attacked by the waiting Egyptian army, led by the sultan, As-Salih but the Genoise ships were equipped to deal with such a threat. Not unlike the landing craft used during the Second World War, the galleys used by the French army were designed to open directly on to the beech, allowing the heavy French cavalry to open the gate and charge directly into the waiting troops. The sight of thousands of heavily armoured French knights, drove the waiting army and the garrison waiting at Damietta back towards Cairo, allowing Louis to claim the port city as his own.

Old habits die hard

As mentioned before, Louis had spent his formative years studying the 5th Crusade, the last attempt to capture the holy cities via Egypt, but it is clear from what happened next that the French monarch did not take many lessons from what he had read. By November of 1249, Louis had learned that the Egyptian army under As-Salih was further south towards Cairo, he decided to march his army down the Nile River, building and fortifying towns on the way. It was around this time that As-Salih suddenly died, leaving the Muslim forces scrambling to try and find his heir, Fakhr-ad-Din. Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to strike, Louis ordered this brother, Robert I, Count of Artois to lead an attack on ad-Din’s camp just outside of Al Mansurah and was able to catch the Muslim force by surprise, killing Fakhr al-Din in the process

With this seemingly golden opportunity, Robert of Artois pushed on to the fortified city of Al Mansurah before being trapped, attacked and then his whole force was massacred, leaving Louis and the rest of the crusader army at the mercy of the Muslim forces. Louis had crossed the river at a ford near Al Mansurah but the overwhelming numbers saw Louis and his French knights butchered on the battle field.

The Battle of Al Mansurah was fought from February 8 -11, 1250, between Crusaders led by Louis IX, King of France, and Ayyubid forces led by Emir Fakhr-ad-Din Yusuf, Faris ad-Din Aktai and Baibars al-Bunduqdari. SOURCE: NYPL / Science Source

The Battle of Al Mansurah was a catastrophic defeat for Louis and his army, meaning an attack on Cairo, or for that fact, anywhere else was out of the question. Louis himself was captured after the battle of Fariskur, where his army was slaughtered and he was marched back to Damietta in chains.

Baibars and the Mamluks

One of the main leaders of the army that was able to smash Louis’ into pieces was the mamluk leader Baibars. Baibars and the rest of the Mamluk soldiers were slave soldiers usually from the Eurasian steppe, used by the Ayyubid’s to fight their wars and also, run their governments.

Bronze bust of Sultan Baybars in Cairo, at the National Military Museum, Egypt SOURCE: Ahmed yousri elmamlouk

Baibars and the other Mamluk soldiers used the turmoil of 1249-1250 to overthrow their overlords, removing (by killing them) the leadership of the already weak Ayyubid Empire, and after a bloody decade long civil war, established themselves as the dominant Muslim power in the region. Using their new political power, the Mamluks were able to broker a peace with Louis who was freed and soon left Egypt for Acre.

Louis in Acre

Unlike most failed crusade leaders, Louis didn’t immediately leave the holy land, choosing to stay in Acre and essentially rule the Crusader States, managing to keep all of the waring factions on good terms. Louis was so well respected by the wider Christian world that he was able to stabilise a region that historically, was constantly filled with smaller factions fighting each other for control rather than focusing on their external enemies. Louis would stay in the Holy Land until 1254, when he returned to France.

Baibars slaughter and the 8th Crusade

With Louis back in France, the Mamluk leader Baibars, was able to first cull Egypt of potential threats to his power and then, once fully established as overlord of Muslim Egypt, he turned his attention to the Christian settlements of the levant including, Jaffa and Caesarea. Throughout the 1260’s, Baibars and his Mamluk horde were hellbent of completing the holy war started some 150 years ago and they did so with horrendous brutality. Choosing to take few if any prisoners (mainly the young girls and boys who tended to end up in sex slavery), Baibars’ army swept through the Holy Land, murdering and pillaging all that stepped in their way.

By 1268, Louis (now aged almost 60) was ready once again, to lead a crusade but unlike the 7th crusade, this time he was warned against it. With ill health and a more formidable enemy to contend with, the leading nobles of France tried to talk their king out of it but, along sides his brother Charles, King of Sicily, they decided another attack on North Africa was needed.

Map of Europe and the Mediterranean from the Catalan Atlas of 1375 SOURCE: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Unlike previous attempts, Louis and his cohort of Christian knights would not attack ether the Holy Land directly or, the new favourite of Egypt, choosing instead to attack Tunis in modern day Tunisia. At first glance, this may seem like a strange target given its distance from Jerusalem but, it was the closest Muslim held land to Sicily (remember his brother Charles?) And taking land here would open up opportunities for the Capetian thrones.

Landing in 1270, Louis, Charles and the crusader army were able to take some land but before long, the Christian camp was hit hard with disease. Not only did the fighting men get ill but, both Louis' sons (John and Philip) became sick, with John later dying. To make matters worse, Louis IX, the pious lawmaking king soon became ill himself succumbing to dysentery on 25th August 1270. With the leader of both the crusade and the Christian world dead, the crusade soon fell apart with Charles of Sicily working out a pretty good peace treaty for himself, but the loss of Louis was felt around Europe.

The whole Christian world mourned one of their most chivalrous and holy sons with his canonisation happening in 1297, becoming the only French monarch to receive the Church’s highest honour. It can be argued that the two crusades that Louis took part in were both failures but, they did succeed in breaking apart the once powerful Ayyubid empire leaving in its place the much more powerful and zealous Mamluks, an enemy that would come to haunt the few remaining christians in the east.


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