June 1248. The town of Aigues-Mortes is in full turmoil. On the Place Royale, whose dimensions have only just been measured, the crystalline sound of the chisel on the stone drowns out conversations. Having come down from Alès for almost two years, the Cévennes masons are busy on the construction site of the Notre-Dame-des-Sablons church and that of the castle. Fortunately, the Constance Tower is completed. Surrounded by water and connected to the city by three arches, the building is ready to receive Louis IX and his suite. The king’s emissaries announced that he would soon leave Paris, with his armada of crusaders: 2,500 knights, with squires and valets-at-arms, 10,000 infantrymen and 5,000 crossbowmen! Tremble, Saracens, the 7th Crusade is on its way to drive you out of Syria and Palestine for good!
“If I escape, I will go and deliver the holy places!” »
Three or four years previously, Aigues-Mortes – dead waters in Occitan – was nothing more than a large fish swamp, on the edge of the Mediterranean, owned by the Benedictine abbey of Psalmodie, which jealously watched over its property. Fishermen were only allowed to set up their cabins on its shore, but only for one season. “Saint Louis, in search of an embarkation port for his first crusade, set his sights on the site. He plans to build a bastide there, a new town, rather than depending on the goodwill of the Holy Roman Empire, which exercises its sovereignty over Marseille and Toulon”, explains Patrick Florençon, curator of the exhibition “Saint Louis, of the West to the East”, organized in 2014. A few land exchanges with the monks thus sealed the fate of this plot, separated from the sea by two ponds deep enough for ships to cross them. The vow to “cross one another”, pronounced by the pious Saint Louis, dates back to December 1244. Overwhelmed by a high fever, the king was almost in agony: “If I escape, I will go and deliver the holy places ! » The plea was heard, he recovered. In fact, the king has been toying with the idea of a new crusade for a long time. As a child, he was fascinated by the stories and deeds of his grandfather Philippe Auguste. The old sovereign had commanded the third crusade, alongside Richard the Lionheart. In 1192, their alliance had wrested the city of Acre (Palestine) from the clutches of Saladin, the great Muslim ruler.
A cruel defeat
Jerusalem, the Holy City where the heart of Christianity beats! Louis IX had already come close by acquiring the relics of the Passion from a Venetian gambler. Dressed in a simple white shirt, he himself carried the crown of thorns for a few leagues, when it finally entered Paris, in August 1239. Through this gesture, “he has already fully experienced ecstasy crusaders arriving in Jerusalem,” writes Jacques Le Goff, historian and author of a remarkable biography of Saint Louis. After he recovered, at the end of 1244, his mother Blanche of Castile, who feared his estrangement, asked him to renounce his vow, made in a very weak state. But Louis IX did not want to hear anything, although he was still unaware that Jerusalem had been recaptured a few months earlier, and its population massacred, by warriors in the service of the Sultan of Egypt. The Holy Sepulcher is now closed to Christians. Worse, in October, the sultan’s mercenaries inflicted a crushing defeat on the Franks and their Muslim allies at La Forbie, near Gaza. 1245: Saint Louis reiterates his wish to Pope Innocent IV, who took refuge in Lyon due to his problems with Frederick II, Emperor of Germany and Italy. In August 1248, preparations for the First Crusade of Saint Louis were completed. For months, convoys of boats, rented or purchased from Genoese and Venetian shipowners – because France does not yet have an arsenal – transported food and equipment from Aigues-Mortes to Cyprus, the rear base. Frank. On the 28th, after waiting three days for the wind to be favorable, the nave of Saint Louis, baptized La Montjoi e, leaves the Languedoc port, followed by dozens of boats overloaded with men, weapons, horses and stones, to ballast these hulls without keels. Louis IX was 34 years old, Marguerite, his wife, who accompanied him, 27. Crowned at the age of 12, after the premature death of his father Louis VIII, he spent the last years unifying and modernizing the kingdom of France, of which he has just entrusted the reins, during his absence, to his mother, Blanche of Castile. In September, the crusaders were assembled in Cyprus. Saint Louis reveals his plan: rush towards Egypt, the heart and lock of the Middle East. But he delays implementing it, and lets the winter pass. There is no doubt that the Saracens have heard of it. The Frankish fleet of 120 large vessels, reinforced by a swarm of small vessels, did not anchor off Damietta until June of the following year. Damietta is one of the two cities, with Alexandria, to defend the entrance to the Nile delta. Saint Louis learned the lessons of the Fifth Crusade: in 1219, the Franks had laid siege to the Egyptian city for several months, and suffered heavy losses before seizing it. The king sent a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats, capable of going up marshes and canals, to get as close as possible to the city walls and thwart its defense. The Saracens are defeated in a few hours. Once again, Saint-Louis lets time pass, in order to avoid the dreaded floods of the Nile. Too long probably. When the crusaders arrived in December at the foot of the fortress of Mansourah, on the road to Cairo, they encountered a defense much tougher than in Damietta. Especially since an army of Mamluks, slave soldiers from Turkestan, came to reinforce it. The fights are terrible. The fiery Robert d’Artois, younger brother of Saint Louis, died there. The knights fall one after the other under the iron and Greek fire of the besieged. The Saracen cavalry cuts the road to Damietta, preventing any supplies. Epidemics do the rest. The crusaders have no other solution than to retreat, pursued by the Mamluks.
“Saint Louis will go down in history as the only Western sovereign to have fallen into the hands of the Saracens”
Saint Louis refused to get ahead of and abandon his comrades in arms, including his two brothers, Alphonse and Charles. The king is taken prisoner with 12,000 other Francs. He must pay a ransom and return Damietta. His Egyptian dream ends in a humiliating fiasco. Saint Louis will go down in History as the only Western sovereign to have fallen into the hands of the Saracens. Freed, the king landed at Saint-Jean-d’Acre on May 12, 1250, with his brothers and a hundred knights. Does he already have in mind staying in the Holy Land? “He finds Latin States of the East weakened six years after the rout of the Franks at La Forbie, and baronies divided. We urge him to stay to restore order, underlines Patrick Florençon. Saint Louis gives himself time to reflect, and sends his two brothers back to France. For four years, he will consolidate the defenses of the Frankish States and build the equivalent of four Aigues-Mortes! »
“Saint Louis is a king of commitment. A true crusader! »
“The greatness of Saint Louis is to have spent these four years without any title or official power,” adds medievalist Alain Demurger. But he imposed himself thanks to his natural authority, brought into the ranks of the barons who were too independent, but also the Templars and the Hospitallers who had formed alliances with the Saracens. He also does not want to leave the Holy Land until the agreement made with the Mamluks is completely kept: the release of all their Frankish prisoners. Saint Louis is a king of commitment. A true crusader! » In the spring of 1254, the king re-embarkated with his wife Marguerite, who remained at his side, and their three children born in the East. His mother, Blanche of Castile, died a few months earlier. The king is no longer the same. Arriving as a warrior steeped in certainties, he leaves as a man of nuances and doubts: where and when did he offend God, so that he did not grant him victory at Mansourah? “Returning to France, Saint Louis will impose on his kingdom a policy of conciliation with the Divine, by severely punishing the abuse of power of his vassals, and by issuing his famous ordinances against gambling, loans at interest, or blasphemy,” summarizes Patrick Florençon. At the beginning of the 1260s, the Middle East once again trembled under the footsteps of the Mamluks. Sultan Baybars, with whom Louis IX had dealt during his captivity in Cairo, swore to put an end to the existence of the Latin States. The strongholds of Caesarea, Jaffa, and Antioch fall one after the other. In March 1267, the king met again in front of his barons. Aigues-Mortes, where his troops arrived in May 1270, had become a small city, populated by Provençals, Languedocians, Italians and Aragonese. The Notre-Dame-des-Sablons church is completed. But the ramparts are still only in the planning stage.
An epidemic ravages the Frankish ranks
Although it was carefully prepared, like the previous one, this eighth crusade did not arouse the same enthusiasm. Those close to the king, including his faithful friend and biographer Jean de Joinville, expressed their doubts to him. Saint Louis just turned 56. He lost his physical valor. Regrouped in Cagliari, in the south of Sardinia, the fleet set sail in July, towards Tunis. The king is said to have heard of a supposed desire of the Hafsid sultan – named after the rulers of Ifriqiya (present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria) – to embrace Christianity. This could deprive the Mamluks of important support. Converted to diplomacy, Saint Louis also worked, for several years, to rally the Mongols, the new masters of Persia, to the Christian cause. The Mamluks fear these warriors installed on the Iranian plateau, who constitute a real threat. Let them rush towards Palestine, and the crusaders towards Egypt, after Tunis, and that will be the end of the Muslims. Alas, the king was wrong. Tunis is impregnable. Saint Louis has the feeling of reliving the nightmare of Mansourah. No more food or water, all under the heat and the beatings of the Muslim horsemen. An epidemic of dysentery ravages the Frankish ranks. Very ill, Saint Louis died in Tunis, the day after the arrival of the fleet of his brother Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, accompanied by reinforcements. The latter negotiates a retreat with the sultan. Twenty-one years later, in 1291, Saint-Jean-d’Acre, the last Frankish stronghold in the Holy Land, fell. Aigues-Mortes was then a thriving port of some 1,200 inhabitants, whose fortifications, intended to protect it “against enemies, prowlers and the wind”, were practically completed. Canonized in 1297, Saint Louis of France, the last sovereign to cross, entered the legend.