The following is an eyewitness account of the imprisonment and release of St. Louis of France by the Saracens, according to his friend, seneschal and biographer John of Joinville. These events took place during the Seventh Crusade in late April 1250 in Mansoura, Egypt, not far from Damietta.
It is unimaginable that St. Louis, the Flower of Chivalry would have ever even pretended to apostatize, as the Act of Chinon, allegedly suggests the Templars did.
The text is taken from The Life of St. Louis By John of Joinville. Trans. by René Hague, New York: Sheed and Ward. 1955. 107-110.
We had been there but a short while, when they took away one of the chief men who was with us and led us to another pavilion. The Saracens were holding many knights and others in a courtyard which was shut in by an earthen wall. They had them brought in one by one from this enclosure in which they had confined them and asked them, “Will you renounce your faith?” Those who refused were put on one side and their heads were cut off; the renegades were put on the other side.
At this moment the Sultan sent his Council to speak with us. They asked to whom they should address the Sultan’s message, and we told them that they should speak to the good Count Peter of Brittany. There were men present called dragomans, who knew both Saracen and French and they translated the Saracen into French for Count Peter. Their message was, “Sir, the Sultan sends us to you to know whether you wish to be set free.” “Yes,” answered the Count.
“And what will you give,” they said, “in return for your freedom, any of the castles which are in the hands of the overseas barons?” The Count answered that it was impossible for him to do so; they were held from the Emperor of Germany, who was still alive. They asked wither we would surrender, against our freedom, any of the castles belonging to the Temple or the Hospital. The Count said that that was impossible; that when wardens were appointed to the castles they were made to swear on the Holy Gospels that for no man’s ransom would they surrender any castle. They answered that we seemed to have little desire for freedom; they would leave us and send those to us who would show us some swordplay, as they had to the others. Then they went away.
As soon as they had gone a great horde of young Saracens burst into our pavilion, swords in their belts. They brought with them a very old man, quite white, who had us asked whether we believed in a God who had been imprisoned, wounded, and killed for us, and on the third day had risen from the dead. We answered that we did, and he then told us that we should not lose heart at having suffered these trials for His sake, for, said he, “You have not yet died for Him as He died for you; and if He had the power to rise from the dead, you may be sure that He will set you free when it pleases Him to do so.
Then he went away, and all the young men followed him. I was greatly relieved by this, since I thought for certain that they had come to cut off our heads. Shortly afterwards men came from the Sultan and told us that the King had arranged for us to be set free.
After the old man who had comforted us had gone the Sultan’s Council came back to us and said that the King had arranged for our freedom and that we should send him four of our people to hear the terms. We sent my Lord John of Valery, that excellent knight, my Lord Phillip of Montfort, my Lord Baldwin of Ibelin, the Seneschal of Cyprus, and my Lord Guy of Ibelin, the Constable of Cyprus, than who I have seen few knights of better parts and one who loved better the people of this country. These four lords came back and told us how the King had arranged for our release, and the story was as follows.
The Sultan’s Council tested the King in the same way as they had tested us, to see whether he would promise to surrender any of the castles of the Temple or the Hospital or of the Syrian barons. By God’s will, the King gave them the same answer as we had done. They threatened him and said that as he would not agree they would have him put in the bernicles.
The bernicles are the most cruel torture you can suffer. They consist of two pliable lengths of wood, armed at the end with teeth. They fit together and are lashed at the end with strong oxhide thongs. When they wish to put people in them they lay the victims on their sides and insert their legs between the teeth. Then they have a man sit on the planks. The result is that there is not six inches of unbroken bone left in the legs. To make the torture as severe as possible, at the end of three days, when the legs are swollen, they place them in the bernicles again and break them afresh. To these threats the King answered that he was their prisoner and that they could do with him as they wished.
When they saw that their threats could not master the good King, they asked him how much money he would pay the Sultan, Damietta to be surrendered in addition. The King answered that if the Sultan would accept a reasonable sum from him he would send and ask the Queen to pay it for their release. “How is it,” they said, “that you will not undertake yourself to pay the ransom?” The King answered that the Queen was his lady and mistress and he did not know whether she would be willing. The Council then went back to consult the Sultan and returned with a message to the King that he would set the King free if the Queen would pay one million gold besants, which was the equivalent of five hundred thousand pounds.
The King asked them, on their oath, whether the Sultan would release them for that sum if the Queen was willing. They went back to consult the Sultan,and when they returned they sword to the King that they would release him on those terms. As soon as they hand sworn, the King spoke and promised the emirs freely to pay the five hundred thousand pounds for the freedom of his people, and Damietta for the release of his own person, since a man of his position should not be ransomed for money. When the Sultan heard this, he said, “By my faith, it is liberal of the Frank not to have haggled over so large a sum on money. Go tell him,” said the Sultan, “that I make him a present of one hundred thousand pounds toward the ransom.