A King’s Ransom

King Louis IX of France

King Louis IX of France

The idiom “a king’s ransom” means something that costs a staggering amount of money, as in “I’ll bet that diamond- encrusted wristwatch cost a king’s ransom.”  An incident in the life of Louis IX of France gives us a vivid illustration of its actual meaning.

Born in 1214, Louis became king at age 12.  His mother, Blanche of Castille, didn’t waste any time getting her boy on the throne after her husband’s death.  One of the titles bestowed on the adolescent Louis at his coronation was “lieutenant of God on Earth”.  Titles like that are why crowns don’t come in small or medium sizes — only extra-large.

As soon as he was old enough to act in that capacity, Louis IX set about spreading God’s love by slaughtering as many infidels as possible.  He put together a big army and launched the Seventh Crusade in 1248.  His campaign in Egypt went fairly well for a while, but then, in 1250, dysentery caught up with Louis and his men.

Not long thereafter, Louis was captured.  As you might imagine, the Sultan of Egypt demanded a literal king’s ransom.  In addition to surrendering the city of Damietta, the Crusaders had to cough up 400,000 livre if they wanted their king back.  To give you an idea how much that was, consider that at that time, France’s annual revenue was 250,000 livre.

Louis was a few bucks short of the 400,000 and American Express wouldn’t let him put it on his card, but the Knights Templars had a stash of cash and agreed to make Louis a loan.  Get this:  it took two days to count and weigh all the gold required to buy Louis IX’s freedom.  In other words, about as much as a corporate executive’s year-end bonus.

Even Louis must have known it was a lot of dough, and this is a guy who liked to throw his subjects’ money around.  In 1240 he had bought what was reputed to be the actual crown of thorns worn by Jesus.  Louis paid 135,000 livre for that relic, and then spent 60,000 more to build a chapel in which to keep it.  Sainte-Chappelle, as it is known, is exquisite.  Built in 1248, it is still one of the must-see attractions in Paris.

In spite of his extravagant ways, the French people loved him;  he was renowned for his piety and his fairness.  When he died in 1270 during the Eighth Crusade, he went to the head of the line for prospective sainthood, and was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297.  Louis IX is the only French king to achieve sainthood, and (as far as I know) the only French king to have a city in Missouri named after him.

Saint Louis’ feast day is August 25.  In his memory, go spend a huge amount of money on something.

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One response to “A King’s Ransom

  1. Tom,

    This is why I love history. They are all stories… little movies where the truth is generally stranger than fiction. Love your site.

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