ING LOUIS SAILING from Cyprus about the 24th day of May, 1249, came with a fair wind to Egypt in some four days, having a great fleet of ships, numbering in all, it was said, some eighteen hundred, great and small. And now there fell upon him the first stroke of misfortune. There arose a strong wind from the south which scattered the fleet, so that not more than a third part remained with the King. As for the others, they were blown far to the north, even to the town of Acre, and, though none were cast away, it was many days before they could return. Now the King's purpose was to lay siege to the town of Damietta, a town which is built on the midmost of the seven mouths of the Nile. It was commonly agreed that whoever should hold possession of this said town of Damietta might go whithersoever he would in the whole land of Egypt, and further, that whosoever should be master of Egypt could do what he would in the land of Palestine.
When the King came with what was left to him over against the city of Damietta there was much debate between him and his counsellors as to what might best be done. "I have no mind," said he, "to turn back, having, by the grace of God, come so far. Say you that I should do well to wait for those who have been separated from us? That I would gladly do, for it grieves me much that they lose, so far, their share in this great enterprise. But two reasons constrain me to do otherwise. First, it would put the infidel in great heart if they should see me so delay to make trial of them; and, second, there is here no harbour or safe anchorage where I might wait. Nay, my lords, it is my purpose to attack the enemy without delay, for the Lord our God can save by few or by many."
The King being thus steadfastly resolved to have no more delay, his nobles and knights could not choose but obey him. This being so, they strove among themselves who should be the first to come to blows with the enemy. There were small boats with the larger of the ships, and these were filled with men and rowed to the shore. This was not done wholly without loss, for some slipped as they descended from the ships, or missed their feet, the boat moving from under them with the motion of the waves, so that some were drowned and others hardly saved.
Meanwhile they took the great flag of Saint Denys, from the ship in which it was, and carried it to the shore. But when the King saw the flag on the shore he would tarry no longer, but leapt into the sea, accoutred as he was, and the water came up to his armpits. When he saw the Saracens, he said to the knight that followed him, "Who are these?" And the knight answered, "These, sir, are the Saracens." When he heard this he put his lance in rest, and held his shield before him, and would have charged them, but his counsellors would not suffer it.
When the enemy saw that the King and his men had landed, they sent a message to the Sultan by carrier-pigeons; this they did three times. But it so chanced that the Sultan was in a fit of the fever which troubled him in the summer time, and he sent no answer. Then his men, thinking that he was dead, for they knew already that he was sick, fled straightway from the town of Damietta. When the King knew this for certain, the bishops that were in the army sang the Te Deum with great joy. The army which King Louis brought with him numbered thirty thousand men.
The army being thus established in the town of Damietta, there was much debate as to what should be done. The King was set upon assailing the enemy without delay. "It is by delay," he said, and said truly, "that these enterprises have been ruined heretofore, for not only does an army grow less and less with every day by sickness- -keep it as carefully as you will, such loss must needs happen--but the first fire of zeal begins to burn low." To such purpose the King spoke to his counsellors, nor could they gainsay his words. Yet they had to urge on the other part reasons so weighty that they could not be resisted.
The truth is that there could not have been chosen a worse time for the waging of war in Egypt than that at which the King arrived. Whereas other rivers overflow their banks in the winier season, the Nile overflows his in summer, and this he does because his stream is swollen, not by rains that fall in the land of Egypt, for such rains are more scanty than in any other country of the world, but by those that fall in countries far inland and, haply, by the melting of snows. So it is that in that part of Egypt which is nearest to the sea the river begins to rise in the month of June, and for a quarter of a year or so thereafter an army must rest perforce. The King was very ill served in his ministers when he was suffered to remain in ignorance of these things. Nevertheless, the case being so, he had no choice but to accept the counsel of delay. It was agreed, therefore, that the army should tarry in Damietta till the floods of the river should have ceased.
In the beginning of the month of December the King set out for Cairo with his army. Now the Sultan had sent five hundred of his knights, the bravest warriors and the best mounted that he could find in his whole army, to the end that they should harass the King's army as much as might be. Now the King being very careful of the lives of his men, as knowing that a soldier lost could not be replaced, had given a strict commandment that no one should presume to leave the line of march and charge the enemy. When the Turks saw this, or, haply, had learnt from their spies that the King had given this commandment, they grew bolder and bolder, till one of them, riding up to the line, overthrew one of the Knights Templar. This was done under the very eyes of the Master of the Temple, who, when he saw it, could no longer endure to be quiet. So he cried to his brethren, "At them, good sirs, for this is more than can be borne." So he spurred his horse, and the other Templars with him, and charged the Turks. And because their horses were fresh and the horses of the Turks weary, they bore them down. It was said that not one of the five hundred escaped, many being ridden down, and the rest being drowned in the river.
After this the King encamped between the two branches of the Nile, that which flows by Damietta and that which is the next to it toward the sunsetting. On the other side of this branch was ranged the army of the Sultan, to hinder the Christians from passing, an easy thing seeing that there was no ford, nor any place where a man might cross save by swimming.
While they were in this strait there came a Bedouin to the camp, who said that for five hundred pieces of gold he would show them a good ford. When the Constable Imbert, to whom the Bedouin had spoken of this ford, told the matter to the King, the King said, "I will give the gold right willingly; only be sure that the man perform his part of the bargain." So the constable parleyed with the man; but the Bedouin would not depart from his purpose. "Give me the gold," said he, "and I will show you the ford." And because the King was in a strait, he consented; so the man received the five hundred pieces, and he showed the ford to certain that were sent with him.
It was agreed that the Duke of Burgundy and other nobles who were not of France should keep guard in the camp, and that the King with his brothers should ford the river at the place which the Arab should show. So, all being ready, at daybreak they came down to the water. A ford there was, but not such as a man would choose save in the greatest need.
The King, having with him the main body of the army, crossed amidst a great sounding of horns and trumpets. It was a noble sight to see, and nothing in it nobler and more admirable than the King himself. A fairer knight there never was, and he stood with a gilded helmet on his head, and a long German sword in his hand, being by his head and shoulders taller than the crowd. Then he and his knights charged the Saracens, who by this time had taken a stand again on the river bank. It was a great feat of arms. No man drew long-bow that day or plied cross-bow. The Crusaders and the Saracens fought with mace and sword, neither keeping their ranks, but all being confused together.
But the Crusaders, for all their valour, could scarce hold their own, because the enemy outnumbered them by much. Also there was a division of counsel among them. Also there came a messenger from them that were shut up in Mansoura, telling the King how hard pressed they were, and in what instant need of succour.
And now the Sacarens grew more and more confident, for they were greatly the better in numbers; and if, man for man and in the matter of arms and armour, they were scarce equal to the Crusaders, yet the difference was not so great. They pushed on, therefore, and drove the Christians back to the river. These were very hard pressed, and some were for swimming across the river to the camp, but by this time their horses were weary, and not a few perished by drowning.
Nevertheless as time passed the Crusaders fared somewhat better, for they drew more together, and the enemy, seeing that they still held their ground, and being themselves not a little weary, drew back. In the end the King and such of the chiefs as were left got back into the camp. Right glad they were to rest, for the battle had been long and fierce.