© Heather M. Dale, 1996)
The duties of an ideal medieval king stemmed from his role in the feudal system. As overlord for his vassals, the king was bound by oath to protect them militarily, to seek their counsel on important matters of state, and to treat each one of them fairly. However, a king should not let the administration of his realm suffer for his military pursuits, nor should he allow any injustice to be done to any of his people. By the High Middle Ages, the tenets of Christianity were firmly entrenched in Europe, and an ideal ruler was also one who genuinely supported the Christian ideals of honour, justice and sincere piety.
Many of these virtues were embodied by Charlemagne, the greatest of Carolingian monarchs. But since the feudal system was still in its infancy during the 8th century, I would argue that he cannot be used as an example of an ideal medieval monarch. That distinction can, however, be given to a member of the Capetian dynasty, King Louis IX of France.
Few European kings can compare to Louis IX’s ability and versatility. Louis promoted peace between rulers, yet was also courageous in battle. He took a personal role in reforming and managing his administration, and his reputation for even-handed and thoughtful justice was known throughout Europe. Louis’ sincere piety led to his canonization only twenty-seven years after his death while on Crusade. Many other rulers had one or two of these qualities, sometimes in greater measure than Louis IX, but not since the advent of the feudal system had Europe seen a ruler who was capable of effectively fulfilling all the requirements of an ideal medieval king.
One of the realities of medieval life was the presence of military conflict, and the hierarchical feudal system developed to deal effectively with warfare. Few monarchs could preserve their domains without leading their armies against internal and external enemies, and many of the most successful European kings turned their military strength towards conquering their neighbours in order to gain territory, revenue and prestige.
As a monarch, Louis IX stands apart for his devotion to peace among Christian rulers (Sauvigny, 50). For example, his foreign policy of peace through fair compromise ended the long conflict between the Capetians and Plantagenets, despite the opposition of his counsellors (Jordan, 198). The Treaty of Paris in 1258 returned France’s most recent Continental conquests to King Henry III of England, but France retained the large domains conquered by Louis IX’s grandfather, Philip Augustus. For his part, Henry agreed to do homage for his Continental holdings to his French brother-in-law (Sauvigny, 50), thus explicitly recognizing Louis as the higher feudal authority. A similar treaty was concluded with the King of Aragon over the contested lands of Rousillon, Catalonia and Toulouse (Sauvigny, 51).
These compromises demonstrate Louis’s policy of placing lasting peace over personal gain. Though his counsellors and barons objected to the loss of territory, Louis’ actions reflect the idealized role of a feudal overlord responsible for the protection of his vassals. By securing a lasting peace with France’s powerful enemies, Louis ensured the continued safety of his realm, even during his long absences on Crusade.
Louis IX’s efforts as a peace-maker were not restricted to external matters. He imposed a 40-day ‘cooling off period’ for private disputes between the French barons, and prohibited crop burning and the killing of peasants as tools of internal warfare (Bishop, 69). Civil strife was antithetical to the stability of France, and Louis used his ultimate feudal authority to curb the destructiveness of his vassals.
There was only one baronial revolt after Louis took full command of the kingdom from his regent mother, Queen Blanche of Castille (Sauvigny, 51). This isolated revolt occurred when several disgruntled barons in Aquitaine joined Henry III’s abortive 1242 invasion, and Louis’ punishment of the rebels consisted mainly of bringing them on Crusade (Jordan, 16). In contrast, Queen Blanche had to put down several baronial rebellions during her regency (Sauvigny, 48). Louis’ relatively uncontested rule shows that the barons were generally satisfied with the conduct and policies of their king, since they certainly had the opportunity to revolt during Queen Blanche’s second regency while Louis was on Crusade.
Though King Louis was committed to peace, he should not be considered an ineffectual military leader. He proved himself early on in his reign by personally commanding the decisive victories at Taillebourg and Saintes over Henry III’s invading army (Jordan, 16), and continued to show his courage and ability during his time in the Holy Land.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Crusading Movement added a new dimension to European warfare. Traditional rivals joined their armies under the aegis of the Church, in order to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims and return it to the domain of Christendom. Louis IX, though he did not know it, was the last of the great Crusading kings (Jordan, 217). He swore the crusader’s vow in 1244 after recovering from a grave illness, against the strenuous objections of his mother (Jordan, 3), and he led his forces to the Holy Land in 1248. While the Crusade was initially successful, the Saracens routed Louis’ army at Mansourah in 1250, and held the ill French king and his surviving brothers captive until they were ransomed. Unable to accept that his Crusade had failed, Louis stayed in Palestine for another four years before returning home (Jordan, 127). The ultimate failure of the Crusade is not the focus here, rather, we should examine Louis’ military behaviour during this period.
Relatively early in his reign, Louis IX demonstrated the personal skill at arms that was expected of a medieval ruler. Especially during the first part of the Crusade, Louis showed his courage to his men, and he proved himself worthy of his role as their leader. The personal bond of loyalty between warriors and their lord dates back to the early Germanic societies, and is one of the foundations for the power of a feudal king.
His contemporary biographer, Jean de Joinville, relates numerous occasions where Louis was the first into a battle, often heedless of his own safety. For example,
The first occasion on which he risked death was when we arrived off Damietta. All his Council advised him, I heard, to stay in his ship until he saw how his knights fared in the landing. ... But he would not listen to any of them; he leapt fully armed into the water, his shield round his neck, his spear in his hand, and he was among the first to land. (Joinville, 24)
Another case of Louis’ inspiring courage and leadership was his defence of his beleaguered brother Charles, Count of Anjou (and later King of Sicily, as Joinville prematurely names him here), cornered in a Turkish cavalry attack:
A message was sent to the King [Louis] telling him of his brother’s plight. When he heard how things were he spurred, sword in hand, through his brother’s division and flung himself so far into the Turkish ranks that his horse’s crupper was caught by the Greek fire. This charge of the King’s relieved the King of Sicily and his men, and they drove the Turks out of their part of the camp. (Joinville, 91)
Though Louis’s behaviour is impetuous in these examples, he was more commonly found in consultation with his barons to determine the army’s next move (Slattery, 102), and Joinville notes that Louis reminded his nobles that he did not wish for the services of any knight who would not follow his orders (Slattery, 106). Discipline and consultation were also key attributes of Louis’ non-military activities, especially his reformed administrative and justice systems.
ADMINISTRATION & JUSTICE
After the reign of Charlemagne, the authority of the French monarchy slowly waned, reaching its lowest point in the reign of Philip I. But in the 12th century, the Capetian kings began to consolidate royal power through strategic marriages and by strengthening the kingdom’s central administration, and Louis IX’s large realm was the result. Unlike the early Capetian kings, Louis’ authority extended far beyond the royal lands and he needed an efficient administrative system to collect revenues and dispense justice.
The provincial administrative system that was in place by the 12th century depended on a hierarchical structure of lay officers. The most important were the salaried regional administrators known as baillis (or sénéchaux in southern Languedoc), of which there were no more than 20 at any one time during Louis’ reign (Jordan, 48). The king relied on these officers to represent him judicially, financially and militarily in their bailliages (Slattery, 153). Subordinate to the baillis were the local prevôts and a host of minor officials such as foresters, keepers of the peace (sergeants) and toll collectors (Jordan, 46). The king exercised little control over the vast majority of these lower officers, who bought their prevôtés by auction and reported only to the baillis (Jordan, 46-7).
In theory, the baillis owed their offices directly to the crown, but in practice the bailliages had become hereditary and many officers had vested interests in their territories (Jordan, 48). Louis IX vigorously reasserted royal control and imposed moral reform in 1247 by sending itinerant enquêteurs to collect complaints about the baillis and other officers, echoing the function of the Carolingian missi dominici (Jordan, 53). The enquêteurs were mostly Franciscan and Dominican friars, or laymen who espoused the same sense of impartial justice (Jordan, 53). Their courts of inquiry were designed to be accessible to the populace; they were held in convenient locations, used vernacular language and they particularly sought out testimony from the helpless, including widows, mothers and even juveniles (Jordan, 62).
Louis dealt swiftly and directly with corrupt officials by replacing them or requiring them to pay compensation to those they had wronged. It is important to note that if the official had simply been fulfilling a past royal order that turned out to be harmful, then Louis took responsibility for the injustice to his people and the money for compensation was taken from the king’s own accounts (Jordan, 57). This is an excellent administrative example of Louis’ devotion to fairness over personal gain, previously noted in reference to his peace treaties. The king replaced or reassigned the majority of the baillis within a two year span, and appointed men who had already demonstrated their loyalty, integrity and ability (Jordan, 61). Therefore, by 1249, Louis’ decrees and ordinances could be applied throughout the kingdom by officers whose fundamental loyalty was to the crown (Jordan, 63), thus achieving a level of administrative efficiency and credibility of which his predecessors had never been capable.
The people of France soon recognized the king’s enquêteurs for their dedication to truth and fairness, and thus Louis IX as well. Louis also travelled around France before and after the Crusade, to personally oversee the administration system, soothe baronial tensions and hear his people’s complaints (Jordan 135, 146). The king was always the vital centre of the highest court of appeal, the Parlement de Paris. He consistently attended its sessions, occasionally intervening or reversing a decision of the professional judges, and he never let the institution become too hidebound or impersonal (Jordan, 142). A commonly-cited image of Louis’ informal accessibility is given by Joinville:
Often in summer he went after Mass to the wood of Vincennes and sat down with his back against an oak tree, and made us [his Council] sit all around him. Everyone who had an affair to settle could come and speak to him without the interference of any usher or other official. The King would speak himself and ask, "Is there any one here who has a case to settle?" All those who had would then stand up and he would say, "Quiet, all of you, and your cases shall be dealt with in turn." (Joinville, 37-8)
While Louis was firmly committed to administrative justice, he did not neglect his feudal duty to consult with his vassals. He was constantly referring to his nobles for their advice in times of war and peace, though his rule was firmly based on his own decisions, not on those of his barons or clergy (Slattery, 91). After Louis’ return from his first Crusade, it became impossible to summon all the nobles for daily consultation, and so the king relied on his trusted Conseil or Council (Slattery, 152), composed of men who had proven their sagacity and moral character.
The Frankish peoples had had strong ties to the Christian Church from the time of King Clovis and the divinely anointed Merovingian monarchs. This tradition of theocratic rule was reinforced after the Carolingian Frankish-Papal Alliance of the 8th century, and again by the strong Church support for the Capetian Kings. Of course, some rulers were more devout than others, but Louis IX remains the only sainted French monarch (Bishop, 67).
Underlying all of Louis IX’s actions was his deep devotion to Christianity, instilled in him by his mother Queen Blanche, who once told him that she would rather see him dead at her feet than have him commit a mortal sin (Jordan, 13). Louis felt that as King he had sole responsibility for the fate of his people collectively before God, and his personal holiness was a means by which all of his subjects could achieve salvation (Slattery, 95). This faith was the fundamental reason for the moral reform of France’s administration, for providing justice for even the most lowly of his subjects, for his Crusades, and for his efforts at making peace in Europe. Louis IX embodied the ideal of the divinely anointed king, one who was responsible for leading his subjects in both spiritual and secular matters.
Louis’ personal devotion manifested itself through moderation of dress, appetite and speech, as well as sexual abstinence and fasting beyond what was strictly required by the Church (Law, 57, 64). The King attended several Christian services a day (O’Connell, 57), was very generous with his alms, and founded and endowed numerous monasteries, abbeys, convents and hospitals for the poor (Jordan, 189-90). He voluntarily submitted himself to physical penance, and even sent a "cheenetes de fer" to his daughter Isabelle so that she could flagellate herself in the course of her religious discipline (O’Connell, 57). Geoffroy de Beaulieu, a contemporary companion of Louis, reported that the king wished to remain forever in Palestine as a pilgrim or to abdicate to join the friars, but that his obligations as king prevented him (Jordan, 130).
Unusual among medieval kings, Louis took a strong role in raising and educating his children. Joinville relates:
Before he went to bed the King used to send for his children and tell them of the deeds of good kings and emperors, at the same time pointing out that they should take such men as an example. He would also tell them of the deeds of wicked princes, who by their dissolute lives, their rapacity, and their avarice had brought ruin on their kingdoms. (Law, 62)
Louis wrote careful instructions for correct behaviour for his two eldest children, Philip (the future Philip III, the Bold) and Isabelle, Countess of Champagne and Queen of Navarre. Integral to these Enseignements are relation of piety, justice and truth to the role of a Christian ruler. For example, in the Enseignements à Philippe, Louis teaches:
Dear son, if you succeed to the throne, make sure that you have the qualities which befit a king. Be so just that you never deny justice to anyone on any account. (Law, 63)
The king also writes to Isabelle that she should always strive to be rational in time of adversity, and that she should not make pious gestures of resignation at the expense of getting good advice (O’Connell, 70). As we have seen throughout Louis’ life, he sincerely practiced what he preached to his family and subjects.
Louis IX was an active king who used his own personal convictions and strengths to rule his kingdom. He took a genuine interest in the welfare of his people, ensuring that they had easy access to justice and that they were treated fairly by all of his representatives. He also strove to be a Christian example and sacrifice for them, thus fulfilling his role as a divinely anointed king.
Louis recognized his feudal responsibilities to his vassals, and governed with their advice. He possessed the military leadership and personal courage expected of an ideal feudal monarch, as evidenced by his passive and active efforts to protect his realm and defend Christianity.
Through his successful balance of all aspects of kingship, King Louis IX of France can be called an ideal medieval king. The influence of his example profoundly affected Europe’s perception of monarchy by divine rule, and he his still remembered today as one of the greatest ruling figures in history.
Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1968.
Joinville, Jean de. The Life of St. Louis. Sheed and Ward, New York, 1955.
Jordan, William Chester. Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade: A Study in Rulership. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1979.
Law, Joy. Fleur de Lys: The Kings and Queens of France. Hamish Hamilton, London, 1976.
O’Connell, David. The Instructions of Saint Louis: A Critical Text. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1979.
Sauvigny, Guillaume de Bertier de and David Pinkney. History of France. The Forum Press, Arlington Heights IL, 1983.
Slattery, Maureen. Myth, Man and Sovereign Saint: King Louis IX in Jean de Joinville’s Sources. Peter Lang, New York, 1985.
Copyright 1996, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.