The Most Christian King

“The Most Christian King.”  That seems like braggadocio, doesn’t it?  It reminds me of a story about the member of an obscure Catholic order who said, “We may be small, but in humility we’re tops.”

Actually, the title “Most Christian King” was given to the kings of France.  Considering the less than admirable conduct of many French kings, that appellation may seem strange and misplaced; but the reason for it was probably the exemplary life of Louis IX, king of France from 1214 to 1270.  Louis IX was the only French king to be canonized as a saint by the church, and he was one of very few temporal rulers to be so recognized.  

Louis IX was one of the most notable European monarchs of the Middle Ages.  His fellow European rulers esteemed him highly, not only for his pre-eminence in arms or the unmatched wealth of his kingdom, but also for his reputation of fairness and moral integrity: he was often asked to arbitrate their disputes.

Louis IX took very seriously his mission as “lieutenant of God on Earth”, the title with which he was invested when crowned in Reims. To fulfill this charge, he conducted two crusades. They contributed to his prestige, even though both ended disastrously. Everything he did was for what he saw as the glory of God and the good of his people. He protected the poor and was never heard to speak ill of anyone. He had a great love for the Church. He was merciful even to rebels. When he was urged to execute a prince who had followed his father in rebellion, he refused, saying: “A son cannot refuse to obey his father.”

He was a reformer and developed French royal justice. He banned trials by ordeal and introduced the presumption of innocence in criminal procedure. To enforce his new legal system, Louis IX created provosts and bailiffs

Louis was also renowned for his charity. Beggars were fed from his table: he ate their leavings; washed their feet; ministered to the wants of lepers (who were generally ostracized), and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals and houses: the House of the Filles-Dieu for reformed prostitutes; the Quinze-Vingt  for blind men (1254), and hospitals at Pontoise, Vernon, and Compiégne.

His zeal for the church and adherence to papal edicts caused him to order the burning of manuscript copies of Talmud and other Jewish books and to engage in crusades.  Louis was also severe in his punishment of blasphemy; otherwise his regime was marked as an veritable oasis of charity in a desert of medieval intolerance and cruelty.

During the so-called “golden century of Saint Louis”, the kingdom of France was at its height in Europe, both politically and economically. Louis was regarded as “first among equals” among the kings and rulers of the continent. He commanded the largest army and ruled the largest and wealthiest kingdom.  France was also the European center of arts and intellectual thought at the time. The foundations for the notable college of theology, later known as the Sorbonne, were laid in Paris about the year 1257.

The prestige and respect felt by Europeans for King Louis IX were due more to the appeal of his personality than to military domination. For his contemporaries, he was the quintessential example of the Christian prince.  His reputation for fairness and even saintliness was already well established during his lifetime. Unfortunately, I can think of no successor to the throne of France who followed Louis IX’s illustrious example.  Perhaps Henry IV came closest, but he was struck down by an assassin before posterity could properly gauge the man.

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