The King Who Became a Saint: Louis IX and His Legacy in Paris

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The King Who Became a Saint: Louis IX and His Legacy in Paris
France had 18 kings called Louis, so it is unsurprising that some are more familiar to us than others. We remember Louis XIV, the Sun King who built the Palace of Versailles, and Louis XVI, husband of Marie Antoinette, who was executed in the Revolution. But of all the others, surely the one who ought to be much better known is Louis IX, the only king of France who is also a saint, a man whose legacy is clear in Paris even today, some 750 years after his death. The Île Saint-Louis bears his name and he masterminded one of the city’s best-known buildings, the glorious Sainte-Chapelle. The 12-year-old Louis became king in 1226 and reigned for 46 years, although his mother, the redoubtable Blanche de Castille, acted as regent at first. Louis was canonized only 30 years after his death and his piety was legendary. Said to attend some six masses a day, he wore a hair shirt and regularly invited beggars to dine with him in his palace, feeding them from his own table and eating the leftovers himself. Louis saw himself as God’s lieutenant on earth, and twice went on crusades to, as he saw it, free the Holy Land. These were no light undertakings. He first set out in 1249, taking a hundred ships and 35,000 men, not returning until 1254, after a ransom had been paid to free him from capture. It was on his second crusade to Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, that he died of dysentery in 1270. Sainte Chapelle – Upper Chapel, Paris, France (C) Didier B/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 2.5 His religious zeal led to the building of the Sainte-Chapelle. Its purpose was two-fold: to serve as a two-storey private chapel, the lower floor being for palace staff, while Louis and his closest family and advisers worshipped upstairs; and to provide a sanctuary for the holy relics which Louis had bought from the Emperor of Constantinople. These reliques de la Passion, said to be from the crucifixion of Christ, included the Crown of Thorns and fragments of the true cross and were stored in a large and ornate silver chest, the Grande Chasse. The chest was melted down during the Revolution, but the relics had been hidden away and were later moved for safe-keeping to Notre Dame. South facade of Notre-Dame de Paris. (C) sacratomato_hr/ Wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 And what a legacy this building is. Must-dos on a trip to Paris surely include both admiring the soaring beauty of its gothic spire from a river trip and staring in wonder at the jeweled beauty of the floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows when you first step inside. Up to 15 meters in height, they are the oldest stained glass windows in the whole of Paris, with over a thousand scenes telling bible stories from Genesis to the Resurrection. Go round the ground floor in a clockwise direction, and the last window you come to depicts Louis himself, dressed as a penitent and carrying the relics back to Paris. One special and calm way to enjoy the building’s beauty is to attend one of the evening concerts held there; for tickets see here.

Lead photo credit : Louis IX receives the crown of thorns and other sacred relics for the Chapel (C) Unknown author, Public domain

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.


  • June OReilly
    2021-06-07 07:45:00
    June OReilly
    I am so glad that you did not gloss over the fact that Louis IX was anti Semitic.He did not permit the Jewish people to live in Paris but designated them to the almost uninhabited area now Known as the Marais .On many walking tours of Paris it was pointed out where the new museum of the Holocaust near Rue St Paul the successful merchants and families lived .He also taxed these business men to poverty levels .I ask does this make him a good Catholic ?Shouldnt he be defrocked of his title ?Saint no less .How ironic is that .Just mentioning ,it is hypocrisy at its zenith .


    • Marian Jones
      2021-06-09 11:09:48
      Marian Jones
      Thank you for taking the trouble to comment, June. Yes, I thought it was important to include some of his terrible acts and not just portray him as a saintly figure. The focus of this short piece was on where you can 'find' Louis in Paris today, but I agree with you that his darker side should always be mentioned. I have been to the Shoah several times, sometimes taking students with me, and have found that they do an excellent job of explaining not just the past, but also the relevance of their story to today.