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The Seventh Crusade

The Crusade of St. Louis

The last of the major crusades that traditionally has a number was entirely the work of Louis IX, King of France. He undertook the crusade largely upon his own initiative, it was financed by the French crown, he set the objectives, and it was over only when he decided to go home again. The event that spurred the king to go was not anything in particular that happened, although there was a great defeat at Gaza in 1244, but rather it was the king's own illness and brush with death in that same year. While still sick, he swore that if he should recover, he would go on Crusade.

The Seventh shares with the Sixth Crusade the attribute of being under the control of a particular monarch. Taken together, they show plainly that the papacy had lost control of the crusading movement and, equally, that the movement was no longer able to stir interest throughout Europe. The crusades were close to becoming the instrument of national policy.

Like all the other crusades except the First, this one ended in failure. And, like the others, it had unintended consequences in Outremer and almost no effect back home. We will look at both of these.


We know quite a bit about Louis' preparations for his crusade; he was a very famous monarch, even in his own day, and so we have many sources, and one in particular--that of the king's seneschal, Joinville--tells us much about this Crusade. Louis took three years before he was ready to go. He had to raise money, arrange matters internally and with foreign powers, find transportation, and then raise the army itself.

Although the French church complained mightily about not being exempted from the Crusade tax, Louis managed to make all these arrangements without making too many enemies. With one exception: the Venetians were already unhappy about Louis' plan to invade Egypt, for that was the objective Louis had selected. When the king also chose to use for transport ships from Marseilles and Genoa, he effectively made Venice his enemy. It would have to be Venice or Genoa as enemy--there was almost no way to favor one without angering the other.

A few Scots and Englishmen went along, but the great bulk of the Crusaders were French. They set out from the ports in August of 1248. Louis brought with him many family members, including his queen, two of his brothers, and numerous cousins.

Journey to Egypt

The King and Queen sailed to Cyprus, arriving at Limassol on September 18, where they were received by King Henry of Cyprus. They were joined there by the Grand Master of the Hospital, the Grand Master of the Temple, and many of the Palestinian barons. Louis called a council and there it was agreed to aim for Egypt. Both in the Latin West and in Outremer it was understood that Jerusalem could never be secure so long as Egypt was hostile.

Once the objective was decided, Louis wanted to set out at once, but the locals persuaded him that an attack on the Nile delta in winter would be too risky. There were few harbors along the delta; landing required calm seas and the winter storms made these unpredictable. Despite his eagerness, Louis agreed to wait until spring.

During the winter, the king was distracted by various diplomatic maneuvers, including sending an expedition to the Mongols to seek an alliance there. Constantinople begged him to help in its struggle with the Emperor of Nicaea. Antioch asked for help. The Templars were engaged in some complex negotiations with Aleppo. Louis steadfastly refused to be distracted from his crusading goal and refused all these entanglements, except he did send six hundred archers to Bohemond at Antioch.

In the spring, additional troops arrived from the Morea. Louis had arranged for supplies at Cyprus, but he had planned only for a stay of weeks, not months, and he now had far fewer stores than he had hoped. More time (and supplies) was wasted in trying to find ships, for Venice now refused to help at all, and Genoa was distracted by a war. When a fleet did assemble, it was promptly scattered in a storm. When Louis sailed in May 1249, he had with him only about a quarter of his army.

Capture of Damietta

The rest of the army was making its way toward Egypt as best it could, but Louis would not wait. He arrived off the coast of Egypt on June 4. The Egyptians knew Louis was coming and had despatched a strong force to oppose him. His advisors all told Louis to wait until the rest of the army should come up, but he refused. On the morning of the 5th, the King landed, leading his troops personally.

A fierce battle developed on the beach. John of Ibelin, Count of Jaffa, along with the King himself, distinguished themselves with their courage. The Egyptian commander, Fakhr ad-Din, withdrew under cover of darkness back to Damietta. While there was great elation at their victory, the Christians knew that the really hard fighting still lay ahead.

During the night, Fakhr ad-Din found that the city lacked the resolve to fight. He made the tactical decision to abandon the city and to retreat up river. Most of the Muslim population, already in a panic over the prospect of a terrible siege, left with the Egyptian troops.

In the morning, some Christians from the city came to the French camp to tell them that the city was undefended. Louis marched triumphantly into Damietta on June 6, 1249. The last time Damietta had fallen to the Christians, the Sultan had offered Jerusalem in exchange. Hopes among the Crusaders ran very high.

Advance on Cairo

Having won Damietta, the Crusaders now stopped. The Nile would begin to flood in another month, and everyone remembered the fate of the Fifth Crusade. Moreover, the greater part of the army had not yet arrived. Louis decided to wait out the flood season before considering a further advance up the Nile.

Louis was in his element here, dispensing justice and arrangement the affairs of government. But as the army grew and waiting, it consumed supplies at an alarming rate, and discipline grew slack. Once again the Sultan, who was old and dying of tuberculosis, offered Jerusalem for Damietta. Once again, the Crusaders refused, believing that they had the Egyptians on the run and would be able to win even more.

In Cairo, the political temperature rose rapidly. The Sultan, Ayub, was dying and everyone knew it. He had relied on his slave warriors, known as the Mamluks, for the defense of Damietta and they were now disgraced. They were advocating a palace revolution to restore their position, but Fakhr ad-Din would not lead them.

Ayub did what he could. Al-Kamil had constructed a small town on the site of his victory over the Fifth Crusade, naming it al-Mansourah: the Victorious. Ayub had himself brought in a litter to Mansourah and turned the place into an armed camp. He sent Bedouin raiders out to harry any Christians who dared to venture beyond Damietta and the army camp set up outside it.

September came and went, then October. The floodwaters receded and the way to Cairo opened. Louis received reinforcements from France, commanded by his brother Alfonso of Poitou. After some discussion, it was agreed to advance up the Nile toward Cairo, and the army set out on November 20, 1249. The King left his Queen behind in Damietta, along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem and a strong garrison.

Sultan Ayub died on November 23 at Mansourah. With the Mamluks and other troops already restless, the Sultana managed to hide the fact of her husbands death long enough to recall her son, Turan-shah, from Syria and to make sure that she and Fakhr ad-Din were securely in power. She managed all this even as Louis and his army were advancing up the Nile toward her.


Fakhr ad-Din kept most of his forces at Mansourah, securely protected by the joining of the Bahr as-Saghir with the Nile--exactly the same position occupied by al-Kamil about thirty years previously. He sent cavalry forces out to oppose the Christians, and some heavy fighting developed at Fariskur on December 7, but Louis led his troops well and they were little delayed by these attacks. The Crusaders arrived on the banks of the Bahr as-Saghir on December 21, and the two armies dug in.

The rivers protected the Christians as much as they did the Muslims. Fakhr ad-Din tried several times to find a way to attack the French, but each attempt was thwarted. For their part, the Christians were engaged in trying to build a dyke to bridge the river, but the Egyptians managed to thwart that in their turn. January 1250 passed in these activities.

Then, at the beginning of February, the Crusaders got a break. A Coptic Christian offered to show them a ford across the river. They set out on February 8.

The van was led by the King's brother, Robert of Artois, accompanied by the Templars and the English. Louis gave strict orders that no one should attack until he himself gave the order.

The crossing was difficult and took a long time. Once over, Artois decided to attack right away, fearing that the Egyptians might discover him there before the French could get across. The Templars reminded him of the King's orders, but he made the decision to attack anyway.

Battle of Mansourah

Duke Robert was almost immediately successful. The Egyptians were just going about their morning business, unaware that the Christians had crossed the river, so the French were able to burst into the camp almost unopposed. The Egyptians were not formed up, many weren't even armored. Many fled immediately for Mansourah; those who stood and fought, including the Egyptian commander Fakhr ad-Din, were slaughtered.

The Egyptian camp was now in Crusader hands, a very great triumph, but Robert of Artois wanted more. He wanted to pursue the fleeing Egyptians and to capture Mansourah; if that city fell, Cairo could not stand. With Cairo, so fell all of Egypt, and the future of the Holy Land would be assured. It was a crucial moment. But the Crusader forces were badly dispersed in and around the Egyptian camp, and in any case the superiority of the Latin cavalry would be lost in the narrow streets of a city. Both the Grand Master of the Temple, William of Sonnac, and the commander of the English contingent, the Earl of Salisbury, advised Robert to wait for the main Crusader force under King Louis. The Duke dismissed the others as cowards and urged his French forces forward. The Templars and the English reluctantly followed, knowing that Artois would be killed if he went on alone.

King Louis and the bulk of the French army were still crossing the Bahr as-Saghir, unaware of what was happening.

Egyptian Counter-attack

In Mansourah, the fleeing Mamluks were re-grouped under a new leader, Rukn ad-Din Baibars. He stationed his men around the city and allowed the Crusaders to charge into the city without opposition. Once they were all deep within the town, Baibars ordered the counter-attack. Even the people of the town took part, casting down stones and pulling riders from their horses.

The Crusaders could not defend themselves; many, indeed, found themselves in alleys so narrow they could not even turn their horses around. Disaster fell on them. Two hundred and ninety Templar knights rode into Mansourah; five escaped. Robert of Artois was killed, overwhelmed when he tried to take refuge in a house. The Lord of Coucy and the Count of Brienne were killed. The Grand Master William lost one eye, but managed to get away. The Earl of Salisbury and almost all of the English knights were killed. Many who escaped the city drowned while trying to swim the river back to safety. Duke Peter of Brittany, severely wounded, managed to make it to the river crossing and it was he who told the King of the disaster.

Louis knew what was coming. He quickly formed his army up to meet an attack, but his crossbowmen were still on the other side of the river. The king ordered a pontoon bridge to be built as quickly as possible so they could cross, knowing that their arrows would be needed. In the meantime, the Mamluks attacked.

That afternoon saw hard fighting on both sides. More than once the Egyptian army was on the verge of success, but personal courage on the Christian side kept the French intact. Toward sundown, the bridge was at last completed and the bowmen hurried over. That was enough for the Egyptians, and they retired to the safety of Mansourah.

Louis learned of his brother's death only after the fighting was done. He wept over his loss, but he could not hope for vengeance, for that same brother had been responsible for the loss of too many knights. The king ordered a retreat back to the Crusader camp.

Retreat and Disaster

The Egyptians soon tried to capitalize on their victory, attacking three days after the Battle of Mansourah. Hard fighting lasted all day, but in the end the Christians were able to withstand the attack and the Egyptians again withdrew. There followed a stalemate that lasted for several weeks, but always to the detriment of the Christians.

After the death of the Sultan, the Sultana immediately summoned Turanshah to Cairo. He arrived on February 28 and soon tightened the noose around the Christians by implementing a successful blockade of the Nile. All though March, few supply ships managed to slip the blockade; at the end of the month, a whole fleet of thirty-two ships were seized. Famine and disease stalked the Christian camp, and King Louis realized that he must retreat or risk losing everything. He first tried to offer Turanshah an exchange: Damietta for Jerusalem; but the Sultan would have none of it.

The Latin army set out under cover of darkness early on April 5, 1250. They managed to get across the Bahr as-Saghir via a pontoon bridge before the Egyptians noticed the movement, but the Christians neglected to destroy the bridge behind them and the Egyptians set out in pursuit. The King remained in the rear guard, leading the defense against the Egyptian attacks. That night, however, he fell ill and by morning could barely ride. The next day, the army tried to move on, but typhoid and dysentery were everywhere.

By mid-day, the King could go no further and his bodyguard placed him in a house at Sharimshah. The Egyptians closed in. Although the King never ordered a surrender, and Philip of Montfort was negotiating with the Sultan, there was a confusion of orders and the army simply surrendered. It scarcely mattered; the army could not have fought. A little later, the Christian ships that had been sent down the Nile carrying the sick and wounded were likewise captured.

The entire Crusader army, including the King of France and many of the barons of Outremer, was now captive. The only point of resistance was Damietta, still under the command of Queen Margaret of France. With her were only a handful of knights, a large contingent of Italians, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Her situation was complicated by the fact that she was nine months pregnant.

The Captive King

The Egyptians had captured such a large army, they lacked enough men even to guard it. Every day, for the next seven days in succession, three hundred of the weakest were taken aside and decapitated. By these measures the number of Christian captives was reduced to a manageable size.

King Louis was take to Mansourah, both for better security and for better medical care, for his was very sick. Even so, he was kept in chains, even while he was being nursed back to health. The King's health was very important to the Sultan, for he was the biggest bargaining chip.

That there was a bargain to be made at all was due largely to Queen Margaret. Three days after hearing of the surrender of the army and the capture of her husband, Margaret gave birth to a son whom she named John Tristan (John Sorrow). That same day she heard that the Italians were planning to abandon Damietta as the city was threatened with a shortage of food. Summoning their leaders to her bedside, she persuaded them to stay by offering to buy sufficient food out of her own purse. Margaret and her son were soon sent to the safety of Acre, and negotiations with the Sultan were taken over by the Patriarch Robert, but the Queen's courage at a crucial moment had saved the city, giving the Patriarch something with which to bargain.

An Egyptian Revolution

Meanwhile, extraordinary events were transpiring at Fariskur, where the Sultan and the main Egyptian army were encamped. On May 2, Turanshah gave a great banquet. At the end of the feast, a faction of Mamluk soldiers rushed in and tried to kill him. These soldiers had been offended by Turanshah's treatment of them and, led by Baibars, decided to exact vengeance. The Sultan was wounded but managed to escape to a tower next to the Nile River.

The Mamluks pursued him and set the tower on fire. Turanshah leaped into the river. His pursuers stood on the banks and shot at him with arrows, even as he begged for his life, offering to abdicate. Unable to kill him from the shore, Baibars himself waded out into the water and hacked the Sultan to death. A puppet Sultan was chosen, but he lasted only a few years. In reality, from that bloody night forward, Baibars Bundukdari was the ruler of Egypt. The Mamluks would rule here for almost three hundred years as the slave-sultans.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in the immediate aftermath of these events. Despite some blood-curdling threats, the Mamluks chose to confirm the bargain made by Turanshah, mainly because of the enormous ransom of half a million pounds tournois. On May 6, Damietta was surrendered to the Egyptians, and King Louis was brought there and released the same day. He was required to pay half the ransom (now reduced to 400,000 pounds) immediately. With the reluctant help of the Templars, he managed to do this and to set sail the same day for Acre. A great many wounded soldiers had been left behind at Damietta; as soon as the Crusaders were gone, the Mamluks slaughtered all these.

Louis at Acre

Louis arrived at Acre on May 12. Most of his army was dead and much of the rest of it was still captive. He was still obliged to raise the other half of the ransom money to free them, but his own financial reserves had been drained nearly dry. His mother wrote from France that he was sorely needed at home, but he decided to stay. His brothers and many others went home in July, leaving behind as much money as they could spare and about 1,400 men.

Louis was now effectively the ruler of Outremer. Conrad of Germany was technically its monarch, but he obviously had no intention of coming to the East, and a commander was desperately needed. Some legal shuffling was done to give an appearance of legitimacy, but Louis' role was more pragmatic than legal.

Fortunately, the Mamluk revolution that had led to a new split between Cairo and Damascus, for the Syrians resented the Mamluks and their murder of Turanshah. An-Nasr Yusuf of Aleppo, a great-grandson of Saladin, occupied Damascus and opened negotiations with Louis. He could not accept an open alliance with so many prisoners still in Egypt, but at least the King did not need to face an immediate Muslim offensive against the Crusader states. That winter, the Ayubites of Damascus invaded Egypt but were repulsed.

In 1251, because of this rivalry between the Ayubites and the Mamluks, Louis was able to negotiate the return of all the Christian prisoners (about three thousand) in exchange for three hundred Muslim prisoners and no further money; in return, Louis promised to aid Cairo against Damascus. The King had learned a great deal about politics in Outremer.

Louis spent 1252 repairing fortifications in various towns, working from Jaffa. Although there was some maneuvering of armies, the Mamluks chose not to leave the safety of Egypt and neither Louis nor an-Nasr Yusuf would risk an open battle.

In 1253, Yusuf appealed to the Caliph at Baghdad to arbitrate between himself and Aibek, the puppet Sultan of Cairo. The Caliph was concerned to unite the Muslims against the invading Mongols and so took an uncharacteristically active hand. He negotiated a settlement acceptable to both Damascus and Cairo, and the alliance with the Christians was immediately forgotten.

The King Goes Home

Louis' presence in Outremer had saved the Crusader states from the disaster at Mansourah. He did this not only by dealing effectively with the Ayubites at Damascus and the Mamluks at Cairo, but also by keeping good order among the barons of Outremer and by gaining their respect.

Louis conducted himself with bravery in the battles in Egypt and with great dignity while in captivity. Once he arrived at Acre, he showed himself to be fair-minded, generous and impartial in his dealings with the barons. He arbitrated a dispute at Antioch and then some delicate issues of succession over the crown of Jerusalem itself. He could easily have made himself a partisan in this latter, and even have laid claim to the throne himself. Instead, he continued to administer the affairs of the kingdom in the name of its child-kings and respected the decisions of the High Court of Cyprus regarding the succession.

Despite feeling that he was still needed in Outremer, Louis returned to France in 1254. His mother had died in November 1252. She had been the strong hand at the helm during his abscence, and trouble broke out soon after her death. By late 1253, with trouble in Flanders and with King Henry of England threatening, Louis knew he had to leave. He set out on April 24 and arrived in France in July.


The immediate parallels with the Fifth Crusade are obvious: the capture of Damietta, a brave advance upriver followed by catastrophe. But the effects of the Seventh Crusade were perhaps even more profound. Louis was universally respected. There had been no internal rivalries within the Crusader camp. If God did not grant victory here, then perhaps victory belonged only to the early Crusaders, who had long since passed into legendary status.

It would be long before there was again any enthusiasm for crusading; another generation, really. The loss of money and life was disastrous for the Crusader states themselves and especially for the Military Orders; they never fully recovered. Outremer was now faced with an aggressive military state in Egypt and only the ominous advance of the Mongols prolonged its life. Once the Mongols had been dealt with, the Crusader states fell quickly.

Louis himself was deeply distressed over his failure. He lost a brother on the Crusade and many good friends besides. It is evident that he was haunted by this because at the end of his life, he undertook another crusade. In 1270, against the advice of counselors and family, Louis again fielded an army and headed east. His ultimate goal was again deflected by a brother: this time, by Charles of Anjou, now King of Sicily, who persuaded Louis to attack Tunis first. He did so, gained a victory, but died of a fever in August. As a final irony, he was preceeded in death at Tunis by his son, John Tristan, the boy born at Damietta amid disaster.

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