Can a political leader be a saint? Private morality can’t be the sole criterion. Politicians have to make decisions in a cruel and perplexing world, and some consequences of even the best decisions will be morally repugnant. The question is inveterate. Our medieval forebears answered it by simply declaring some people to be ‘saints’. An early medieval king remembered as a saint was nearly always one who had either opted out of active kingship to lead a private life of exemplary piety while others did the dirty work, or one who had been killed in a Christian cause. An example of the first kind is Edward the Confessor; of the second, Edmund, murdered by Vikings in 869 for refusing to give up Christianity.
This demarcation between sainthood and active kingship was one way in which society tried to uphold high moral ideals in an immoral world. Clergy were banned from killing, sex and money-making, while above them (all this in theory) were monks, walled off to pursue moral ‘perfection’. Saints came even higher, but they had to be dead. At first, the only saints were martyrs. They were joined around 400 ad by holy men, like bishops, then by other categories, including those kings who may or may not have been saintly.
Louis IX of France was the first major king to be made a saint. His reign, from 1226 to 1270, forms the middle episode in an unbroken success story for the French monarchy, a story which had begun in 1180 with his grandfather Philip Augustus, and would reach a climax under his grandson Philip IV, who died in 1314. Louis’s fusion of kingly and saintly qualities was an indispensable element in that success. His heirs made sure he was canonised and ever since that happened, in 1297, ‘Saint Louis’ has been a cornerstone of French national history.
Jacques Le Goff’s brilliant biography, Saint Louis, came out in French in 1996, and is now published in a readable English translation (despite gaucheries, like the retention of the French forms of names: ‘Giraud de Galles’ for ‘Gerald of Wales’, ‘Compostelle’ for ‘Compostela’ and many more). Its publication gives Anglophones a book to set beside W.C. Jordan’s Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade (1979) and Jean Richard’s Saint Louis (1983, translated in 1992). Jordan remains invaluable on Louis’s administrative reforms, and Richard on the intricacies of French dynastic politics, but Le Goff excels in his knowledge of the biographical sources, which he subjects to close analysis, against the background – Le Goff’s home territory – of European mentalités. For instance we learn in passing that Louis’s contemporaries usually read aloud rather than silently; that French kings began to be numbered just after Louis; and much more.
The one description we have of Louis’s appearance is from the Franciscan chronicler Salimbene of Parma, who in 1248 saw him en route for his crusade. Although Salimbene wrote well after Louis’s death in 1270, his memory was clear. Louis was ‘tall, graceful and healthily thin’ (subtilis et gracilis … macilentus convenienter et longus). Dressed as a pilgrim, and without noble retinue, he ‘looked more like a monk with devotion in his heart than a knight armed for war’. Louis’s direct speech was also recorded (a first for a French king). Most of the examples come in the Life of Saint Louis by Joinville, a knight ten years younger than Louis who was often in his company. Although Joinville may have written his impressions down even longer after Louis’s death – he seems to have dedicated the Life only in 1309, when he was in his eighties – his memories were vivid.
Louis’s lifetime coincided with some of the most tempestuous events in European history: the Mongols arrived on the Adriatic in 1241, the Hohenstaufen Empire fell in 1254. But, more to the point, the territorial hexagon we now call France was then only theoretically a kingdom. Louis had to make his inheritance; we would never have heard of him if he had opted out. Or rather, if his mother had in 1226, when Louis became king at the age of 12. Blanche was one of history’s strong women. The daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile (and hence the granddaughter of Henry II), Blanche was referred to by chroniclers as ‘the queen’ until her death in 1252, leaving the king’s wife, Margaret, to be described as ‘the young queen’. Blanche’s early regency was not, as far as we know, ever formally ended. When Louis went crusading in 1248 he made his mother regent again.
Blanche’s background in the Spanish reconquista might explain a lot of her son’s behaviour. His Christianity was of a no-nonsense kind. He punished blasphemy severely, sometimes by mutilation. If Joinville heard anyone maligning Christianity, Louis told him, ‘you should thrust your sword into your enemy’s stomach as far as it will go.’ Castilian tradition may also help explain the 18-year-old Louis’s onslaught on bishops, whom he stripped of much of their jurisdiction. The reign’s biggest disaster – one which, according to the St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris, caused a crisis in belief throughout Christendom – was Louis’s capture by the Egyptian sultan in 1250; and there may have been a Spanish element to that too, since Louis’s underestimation of Muslim power may have been encouraged by the recent triumphs of Blanche’s nephew Ferdinand III in southern Spain.
One kingly duty was to have children (Edward the Confessor neglected it, whence 1066 and all that). Louis married relatively late, at 20: perhaps Blanche was dragging her feet. Margaret, his bride, was the eldest of the four daughters of the count of Provence, and two years later Louis and his mother helped engineer the marriage of Margaret’s sister Eleanor to Henry III Plantagenet, who was of course the King of France’s natural rival. This marriage was the foundation of Louis’s resolute policy (pursued with some stick and a lot of carrot) of stabilising his relationship with the English crown. The other two Provence daughters married the brothers of Louis and Henry. For Christmas in 1254 Louis got all four sisters and their spouses to celebrate with him in Paris. If saintliness were a domestic matter some might think Margaret as good a candidate as her husband. Her life with him was far from painless, quite apart from the bearing of 11 children, since her mother-in-law remained a hovering presence. If Louis and Margaret were alone during the day, they had to post scouts to warn of Blanche’s approach, so that Louis could scuttle up to his room by a private staircase. Louis never gave his wife any political authority, and thwarted her plan, after Blanche’s death, to exert a similar influence over her own son, Philip III. Yet, especially when Louis was taken prisoner on the crusade, Margaret behaved heroically, and when in 1252 news came that Blanche had died, and Joinville asked Margaret why she was weeping, ‘since you loathed her’, Margaret replied: ‘Because it will so hurt the king.’
Most royal dirty work was to do with fighting or justice, and Louis was involved in both. He upheld the doctrine of the ‘just war’, as elaborated by his friends the university friars. Once he had secured what he saw as royal rights within France, he became famous as a peacemaker, even outside the country. If there was a war to be fought, on the other hand, he was there at the front. In 1242, he led 24,000 men to victory against Henry III; Joinville, who was there, makes clear that Louis shared all the dangers of his knights on the front line. Indeed, he sometimes had to be restrained. When the crusaders’ ships were approaching an Egyptian fortification in 1249, the king jumped into the sea, sword in hand, hoping to lead an assault, but his knights thought it inopportune and prevented it.
The dirtiest work in the judicial sphere concerned the execution of court sentences. Louis was extremely keen to reform France’s judicial system, especially after his spiritual and other traumas on the Egyptian crusade. On landing back in Provence in 1254, he met Hugh of Digne, a fundamentalist Franciscan renowned for his charismatic preaching, who preached on France’s need for justice. Back in Paris, Louis revamped the judicial structure. Under the new system, carefully selected, constantly renewed provincial judges, the baillis, supervised by teams of travelling ombudsmen called the enquêteurs, made the process of justice over most of the hexagon follow more rational and centralised procedures. Louis’s religious preoccupations, which fuelled these reforms, also resulted in the expansion of the slender royal capacity to legislate, making it harder for conservatives to protest when the new laws, like those in his 1254 établissements, dealt with moral or religious matters such as blasphemy, prostitution or the treatment of Jews. From the same year, 1254, come the earliest surviving records of the Paris parlement as supreme court of appeal.
Of Louis’s supposedly saintly qualities, his passion for justice was the one most demonstrably advantageous to his kingship. It also entailed acts unconventional in a saint. A high-born lady near Paris committed adultery and had her lover kill her husband: she was sentenced to death. Queen Margaret and other noble ladies, backed by mendicant friars, pleaded with Louis for her life. He stood firm, and the woman was burned alive. (Chivalry shunned the hanging or decapitation of women, so until 1449 they were buried or burned alive.) Again, one Good Friday, Louis was deep in his prayer book when friends came to plead for the life of a prisoner who had been sentenced to be hanged. Christ had died on this day, they said, and had forgiven a thief on the cross. Keeping his place in the book with one finger, Louis sent for the Paris prévôt, had him read the charges, confirmed the sentence, to be carried out at once, and returned to his prayer book. That the prisoners in both these cases were of some social standing didn’t help them. If less ostentatiously than his descendant Louis XI, Saint Louis was at war with the claims of judicial monopoly made by conservative nobles. His most notorious intervention found him within a hair’s breadth of hanging the most important seigneur in Picardy, for having, three days earlier, himself hanged three trespassers without proper trial.
Louis died in August 1270, possibly of typhus, while trying yet again to convert or conquer Islam. In the two decades after his death, friars and monks close to him set to work to show he was a saint. They knew what was needed. Wars and criminal justice recede into the background, piety and charity come forward; Louis is forever at prayer, on foot or on horseback, at all times when duty and health permit. He confesses frequently, flagellates himself, attends two or three Masses daily and often hears sermons. Some of his entourage thought this piety extravagant, and one of Louis’s own confessors managed to persuade him that to wear a hair shirt on holy days was not regal behaviour. But usually he stood firm. When nobles complained at the amount of time he spent in prayer, Louis replied that it was no more than the time they spent on idle games. Meanwhile, all sources agree, torrents of royal charity flowed towards the poor and sick, to individuals and into charitable foundations. Contemporary estimates of the king’s outlay on charity vary between £7000 and £14,000 annually. And it wasn’t just money. On tours to the sick ward at Royaumont (the Cistercian monastery north of St Denis that Louis and Blanche founded to commemorate Louis VIII), Louis might be seen à la St Francis, hugging a leper whose faced oozed with pus.
One reason Le Goff is the most widely read of European medievalists is that he paints with a broad brush. He is easy to follow and he says what he thinks. Blanche is ‘insufferable … and frankly, odious’, Matthew Paris shows his ‘usual perversity’, Louis ‘held intellectuals in contempt’ (actually, he helped found the Sorbonne). This broadness of brush hides nuances which, exposed, would reveal that Louis’s reign has a long-term significance that Le Goff scarcely hints at. He refers more than once to ‘the greed’ of the Church, as if no qualification were needed. In Louis’s reign royal revenues rose threefold, partly at the expense of churches, which inter alia supplied two-thirds of the colossal expenses of his two abortive crusades, and at a time when Innocent IV (scion of Genoese bankers) was straining every nerve to get bishops to keep proper accounts, and not dilapidate their assets.
Until Louis’s grandfather’s reign, bishops had done much of the work of government, hand in hand with a monarchy they had played a big part in raising. But things were changing. Towns, which were growing quickly all over western Europe, wanted a style of government closer to their new needs than that offered by the churches around whose knees they had formed. In France, more than elsewhere, the crown grew to be the favourite authority of the towns, the king’s bonnes villes. The old episcopal church consequently lost out, not only in revenue but more crucially in jurisdiction. Excommunication was the most severe sentence open to ecclesiastical courts. But they could coerce recalcitrants only if the king’s officers agreed to back them. Hitherto they had done; now it all got swept up in Louis’s centralisation of justice, and excommunication became subject to appeal to parlement.
As the king’s governmental machinery grew more effective, that of the bishops weakened; and in so far as history consists of causes and effects, this is why Louis became a saint. In 1297, his grandson Philip the Fair – the king who was soon to burn Knights Templar at the stake and to kidnap a pope – put a tax on all French bishoprics to help finance renewed hostilities against England. Pope Boniface VIII denounced the taxation of clerical property without ecclesiastical permission and Philip responded by banning the export of precious metal from France, which struck at papal income. To achieve a compromise Boniface had to play his trump card: he canonised Philip’s grandfather.
When Louis’s body was taken for burial at St Denis in 1271 he was already a saint in many Frenchmen’s eyes. An Englishman present said that Henry III was no less of one. This was not unreasonable: Henry III’s piety had been equally pronounced. But if that Englishman had been able to consider both countries’ history dispassionately, he would have seen that there was no contest. He would have realised, first, that France is much bigger, which in the early Middle Ages meant that it was politically less integrated than England. That in turn meant Normandy had been able to make its own foreign policy and conquer England in 1066, which had increased the imbalance, as the Normans, then the Angevins, added their clever improvisations to an already precocious monarchy, and unified England. The French kings trailed far behind, their lands in the 1170s dwarfed by those of the English crown. Then everything changed. The Plantagenets had been too successful, and around 1200 it was France’s turn to realise its potential. It was a century behind England, and this delay gave the French monarchy its distinctiveness. For one thing, it explains why the English parlement (a ‘talking shop’) emerged to restrain a monarchy, while its French equivalent emerged to help establish one. But the delay also meant that the Capetian success story coincided with the huge expansion in town life and in learning. The crown made itself patron and beneficiary of both. The constitutional changes which were bound to follow were also shaped by their timing. For a third contemporary explosion was in the study of Roman law, which provided a stock of ready-made rational prescriptions for the business of integrated government. Most medieval governments would in time show an interest in this. Not England, it had made its monarchy. But France had not, and now did, borrowing from Roman law, not least in respect of the king’s office. Roman law had revolved round the princeps. French administrators needed only to replace princeps with rex to have an à la carte menu for a new political philosophy. The king was to have no superior within the frontiers of his kingdom. His office acquired a ‘majesty’ far above the man-to-man obligations which had been the glue in earlier monarchies. This is where sanctity came in. The halo, before it signalled a Christian saint, had adorned the head of the Roman princeps. In 1297 it was returning to base.