It’s great to be King. The throne brings with it absolute power, widespread admiration, and immense wealth. But with those advantages come enormous temptations: to abuse your power, to oppress your subjects, and to succumb to pride and vanity. As the old saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s all too easy to give in to sin when you’re at the top, and no one can stop you.
But what if a king ruled with humility and justice, not egotism and cruelty? What if he saw himself not as a god in human form, but as a suffering servant who put his subjects first? What if he favored the interests of the poor over the rich, and fed the hungry from his own table? In short, what if a king truly sought to follow Christ’s example? The life of Louis IX, the only French king ever made a saint, showed that a deep devotion to God can enable even a powerful ruler to resist sin and corruption.
Louis was born at Poissy in 1214. His mother, Blanche of Castile, raised the young monarch to be deeply religious. She took him to two Masses a day and told him: “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”
When Louis was 12, his father died and he was crowned as King of France. Inspired by his mother’s guidance, he would rule for over 40 years with generosity, humility, and fairness. He lived by the ideal of prud’homie, which included a spirit of justice and the virtues of wisdom, courtesy, moderation, and honesty. His every act as king was intended for the glory of God and for the good of his subjects.
Louis’ generosity toward the poor and suffering was legendary. He fed beggars at the royal table, often serving them himself and washing their feet. Over 100 people daily received food at his table. He went to hospitals to minister to the sick, including lepers. He even emptied their bedpans at times.
Louis enacted a series of reforms that laid the foundation for our modern justice system. He outlawed trial by ordeal and by combat, instead setting up a system of jury trials with himself as the final arbiter of all appeals. He introduced the presumption of innocence in trials. He would sit in a park at Vincennes and make himself available to hear cases for anyone who came before him.
His reputation for fairness and integrity was so widespread that even other European rulers would ask Louis to mediate their disputes. He was renowned for rulings that respected everyone’s rights equally, regardless of rank.
He took the moral demands of his faith very seriously. He often prayed so deep into the night that the Queen would get up to cover him with a cloak and protect him from the cold. Louis wore a hair shirt under his royal robes, and he allowed himself to be flogged in penance for his sins. He often visited the abbey at Royaumont to eat and pray with the monks; he even considered abdicating the crown and retiring to a monastery himself.
As a Christian king, Louis considered it his duty to lead two Crusades; these proved to be his undoing. His first crusade ended in defeat, and Louis himself was captured and had to be ransomed. He blamed himself for the loss, feeling it was God’s punishment for his sins. His second crusade ended with his death by dysentery in 1270 at the age of 56.
Louis’ legacy lives on in his canonization and in the many churches and cities (such as St. Louis, Missouri) named in his honor. In addition, he left behind a set of teachings for his son, Philip III, on how to be a good and virtuous ruler.
As his mother had, Louis ordered his son to avoid mortal sin at all costs. He advised Philip to bear all ordeals “willingly and with grace,” and said that if the Lord brought him prosperity, “thank him humbly” and avoid “vain pride.” He instructed Philip to “be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate, and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can.” He told his son to “[hold] the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather than with the rich, until you are certain of the truth.” Above all, he told Philip to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation.”
These are wise words for a future leader, but they’re also words we can live by as we attempt to follow the path of Christ.
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