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Blanche of Castile (1188–1252)

Blanche of Castile (1188–1252)

Queen of France and actual ruler for 14 years during the reign of her son, Saint Louis IX. Name variations: Blanca of Castille. Born on March 4, 1188, in Valencia, Castile (some sources cite 1187); died on November 27, 1252, in an abbey near Melun, France; third daughter of Alphonso VIII (b. 1155), king of Castile (r. 1158–1214), and Eleanor of Castile (1162–1214); sister of Urraca of Castile, queen of Portugal (1186–1220), Berengaria of Castile (1180–1246), andEleanor of Castile (1202–1244); privately educated; married Louis VIII (1187–1226), king of France (r. 1223–1226), on May 23, 1200, in Normandy; children: (twelve, five of whom lived to adulthood) Louis IX (1214–1270), king of France (r. 1226–1270); Robert I (1216–1250), count of Artois; Alphonse (1220–1271), count of Poitiers and Toulouse;Blessed Isabelle (1225–1270); Charles of Anjou (1226–1285), king of Sicily (r. 1266–1282), king of Naples (r. 1268–1285), who marriedBeatrice of Provence

Became queen of France (1223); Louis VIII died (1226); named regent for son, Louis IX (1226–34); rebellion of the French nobles (1226–30); made regent again (1248–52).

Following her birth in 1188, Blanca, or Blanche, as the French would call her, spent a happy childhood in Valencia, Castile, as the third daughter of King Alphonso VIII and Queen Eleanor of Castile (1162–1214). This Spanish kingdom was known at the time for its sunny climate, high culture, and colorful troubadours. But lurking beneath the superficial gaiety was the constant threat from Saracens, Muslims from North Africa who then occupied parts of Spain.

By the year 1200, when Blanche was 12 years old, her oldest sister, Berengaria of Castile (1180–1246), was already queen of Leon, and there was talk of an engagement for Urraca of Castile (1186–1220), the middle sister. Excitement ran high, as their maternal grandmother, the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine was en route with her entourage for a visit. This former queen of France and, later, of England was coming to select from among her granddaughters a wife for the future king of France. All assumed that Urraca would be the chosen bride to become the pawn, as royal children often were in those days, in a proposed truce between the English and French kings.

The aging queen Eleanor hoped to end the territorial struggles between her son, King John of England, and King Philip II Augustus of France. Perhaps a marriage between her granddaughter, a niece of King John, and Philip's oldest son, Louis, would help bring peace. What a surprise when several weeks later the senior Eleanor and her French advisors chose Blanche over her sister Urraca. After becoming acquainted with the two girls, Eleanor had evidently found in 12-year-old Blanche the making of a wise and strong royal consort. Grandmother and granddaughter made their way over the Pyrenees in the spring of 1200.

Upon reaching Bordeaux, the 80-year-old Eleanor was exhausted and sent Blanche on in the care of an archbishop to Normandy. There the treaty of peace was signed between Blanche's uncle, King John of England, and her future father-in-law, King Philip Augustus. The following day, Blanche and the future king Louis VIII were married in Normandy.

After the wedding, the couple proceeded to Paris, where they would live as companions and fellow students for four years until beginning life as husband and wife. Chronicles of the time report that Blanche and Louis had almost immediately become best of friends and that the marriage was extremely happy. It produced 12 children, including the future Saint Louis IX.

Eleanor of Castile (1202–1244)

Queen of Aragon. Name variations: Leonor. Born in 1202; died in Burgos, Castile and Leon, Spain, in 1244; daughter of Alphonso VIII, king of Castile, andEleanor of Castile (1162–1214); became first wife of James I (1208–1276), king of Aragon (r. 1213–1276), also known as Jaime the Conqueror of Aragon, on February 6, 1221 (divorced, 1229); children: Alfonso of Aragon, infante (d. 1260, who marriedConstance de Marsan ). James I's second wife wasIolande of Hungary (1215–1251).

Eleanor of Castile (1162–1214)

Queen of Castile. Name variations: Eleanor of England; Eleanor Plantagenet. Born on October 13, 1162 (some sources cite 1156), in Domfront, Normandy, France; died on October 31, 1214, in Burgos, Castile and Leon, Spain; interred at Abbey of Las Huelgas, Burgos, Castile; daughter ofEleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1202) and Henry II, king of England (r. 1154–1189); married Alfonso or Alphonso VIII (1155–1214), king of Castile (r. 1158–1214, also known as Alphonso III), in September 1170; children: Sancho (1181–1181);Berengaria of Castile (1180–1246, who married Alphonso IX, king of Leon); Sancha (1182–1184);Urraca of Castile (1186–1220, who married Alphonso II of Portugal); Enrique also known as Henry I (1204–1217), king of Castile (r. 1214–1217);Blanche of Castile (1188–1252, who married Louis VIII of France); Mafalda of Castile (c. 1190–1204); Fernando (1189–1211);Eleanor of Castile (1202–1244, first wife of James I, king of Aragon); Constanza of Castile (c. 1204–1243, who became abbess of Las Huelgas); Henry (died young); Constance (died young).

The second daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine , Eleanor of Castile married Alphonso VIII, king of Castile, in 1177. When the pope wanted to annul the marriage, Alphonso refused because of his affection for his wife; he also built Las Huelgas Convent in Burgos for her. Widowed in 1214, Eleanor died a few days later. She is buried at Las Huelgas.

At this time, the early 1200s, France consisted of scattered royal domains centered about Paris and the Ile de France. Many of the greatest French territories, such as Burgundy and Provence, were virtually independent entities ruled by feudal lords who fought among each other, ruled their people autocratically, and were only nominally loyal to the king. Under the prevailing feudal system, the great lords took oaths of fealty to the king and were expected to give him financial and military support. How strictly these obligations were actually observed depended greatly on the relative strengths of nobles and kings. Philip, determined to expand the royal domain, succeeded through strategic marriages and military prowess to rein in many of the nobles and to expel the English from French territory. France was moving toward a more centralized government. After Blanche's husband became King Louis VIII, he too would lead military expeditions to expand royal power and territory; but it would not be until the reign of Blanche's son Louis IX that the king in Paris could truly be called "king of France."

While the indomitable Philip was still king and Blanche's husband Louis was heir to the throne, the barons of England rose up against the excesses of King John whose diabolical cruelties had led the barons to try to end his reign of terror. Forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, King John had no intention of abiding by this charter which would limit his power. Finally, in desperation, the English nobles offered the throne of England to Louis and Blanche. As a granddaughter of England's late great King Henry II, Blanche was descended in a direct line from William the Conqueror. She, with her husband, could be the instrument of peace—but only after a military invasion. Landing with his army in England, Louis was enthusiastically greeted, but wily John now played his last card. He died, leaving his nine-year-old son Henry (III), Blanche's first cousin, among Louis' rivals for the English throne. Unhappy with the thought of a child-king and a regency, the English nobles again asked Louis to be their king.

Once more, Louis heeded the call, invaded England, but suffered adversities and needed more support. His father, King Philip, completely unsympathetic with the scheme, refused aid. Then Blanche, a loyal wife and would-be queen of England, revealed the determination that would characterize her future career. She begged Philip for men and money to put his son on the throne of England. Again, Philip refused. In the end, however, the formidable King Philip Augustus, pacifier of great magnates of France, gave in to his daughter-in-law, for she had threatened to pawn her own child, his grandchild, in order to raise the funds.

Blanche then rode about France gathering troops and raising additional money to assemble a fleet which she personally organized. When the fleet sailed for Dover but was driven back by a great storm, Louis had no choice but to obey the call to a peace settlement arranged by little Henry's mother, Queen Isabella of Angoulême . Meanwhile, the pope, who had been asked to intercede, favored Henry; Louis' support fell away, and he agreed to withdraw his claim in exchange for a large sum of money.

Six years later, in 1223, King Philip died and Blanche's husband became King Louis VIII. His three-year reign was spent campaigning in order to maintain and expand the royal domains. After a long and exhausting siege in the intense heat of the summer of 1226, Louis became ill on his way back to Paris. Meanwhile, Blanche and their 12-year-old son, young Louis, had set out to meet him halfway. King Louis died before the longed-for reunion could take place. Observers reported that on hearing the news, Blanche, "mad with grief," tried to kill herself. Before dying, the king had named her regent during the minority of their young son Louis.

Blanche rallied from her grief, and, within a mere three weeks, she had arranged Louis IX's coronation. Though she knew that many of the great nobles, restive under the powerful Philip and his son, would waste no time taking advantage of a child and his mother, she was well-prepared for the awesome task ahead. Her husband had shared with her the problems of maintaining and expanding territories and power against continual enemies, the English, and even the church. From now on, the French realm would depend on Blanche's vigilance and sagacity. She would determine when to win support through marriage alliances, negotiations, gifts of land, castles, and titles—or when to threaten with force. Usually, the threat of force proved sufficient, and, according to one biographer, she never shed blood to prove her point.

Medieval chroniclers tell us that both Blanche's demeanor and appearance commanded respect. She is described as beautiful and even "magnificent," elegantly robed and truly regal. Standing side-by-side, she and her slim, blond, handsome son were evidently an impressive sight. Her personality, however, remains difficult to assess because—as in the case of most strong, assertive leaders—admirers and enemies present conflicting pictures. Her opponents saw her as cold, imperious, cunning, tenacious; her supporters saw her as warm, sympathetic, caring. Always, she was pious. As a devout and practicing Christian, she trained her children, particularly Louis, to try to avoid sin, protect their souls, and pray frequently. Louis is said to have adhered to these teachings throughout his personal and public life. Years later, he often related: "Madame used to say to me that if I were sick unto death, and could not be cured save by acting in such-wise that I should sin mortally, she would let me die rather than I should anger my Creator to my damnation."

She was perhaps the outstanding woman of the thirteenth century.

—Margaret Wade Labarge

After the coronation, Blanche was quick to gain an ally. To strengthen the allegiance of strategically located Flanders, she freed, reinstated, and reimbursed a high-ranking Flemish leader who had been imprisoned by Philip, leaving Flanders indebted to the French crown. But for those she could not win over, she used other devices. Within a few months of the coronation, many of France's most powerful nobles revolted and formed an alliance to undo the centralizing efforts of Philip and Louis VIII. During the next five years, Blanche would have to deal with constant outbreaks and conspiracies. When Louis IX was 13 years old, she thwarted a plot to ambush and kidnap him by raising the people of Paris to protect him. She enlisted this "people's army" who swarmed out of Paris to the nearby castle where he and his inadequate guard were trapped. The people surrounded their king and escorted him back to Paris.

In another instance, Blanche led an army to persuade certain rebel leaders to switch sides. Among those who did so was Theobald of Champagne, a significant noble and troubadour. In the tradition of medieval troubadours, he composed and sang songs of love and praise to his "lady," Queen Blanche. Although it was well-known that these flowery expressions of devotion were an accepted part of the tradition, Blanche's enemies spread scurrilous rumors. Angry with Theobald's desertion and Blanche's success, they accused the two of having more than a lady-and-vassal relationship. When the accusation was denied, they asserted that she should not be ruler because she was a "foreigner." (She had now lived in France for 26 years.) Detractors often called her "virago," and no doubt to her enemies the epithet was well-deserved.

Gender, too, was said to be an issue. Her enemies asserted that: "Queen Blanche ought not to govern so great a thing as the Kingdom of France, and it did not pertain to a woman to do such a thing." In medieval Europe, appointing a queen mother as regent for her minor son was not unheard of; but the regent usually was amenable to her councilors. Blanche, on the other hand, was ruler-in-fact, not purely in name, and at times she even organized and led military expeditions.

Finally, in 1230, she broke the back of the nobles' rebellion. Together, Blanche and the 16-year-old Louis IX led the royal army to the scene of a campaign to request negotiations with the enemy. So reluctant were the rebel lords to fight their anointed king that they asked him to withdraw from the site. When he refused, one by one the rebels capitulated and the coalition disintegrated. Now, Blanche could concentrate on administering the kingdom, but she could never relax her vigilance. Her informants throughout the realm acted as ears and eyes for news of incipient plots on the part of the nobility. She did not fear her more lowly subjects for she had won over the common people who loved their young king.

Blanche trained Louis to be firm when he was sure of his position but to be sympathetic with the weak and the poor. The piety she preached was not an empty facade of faith and ritual. Through her example, Louis became a champion of the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed. Stories abound, whether true or apocryphal, of Blanche ordering trees to be cut for firewood to warm freezing soldiers, and of Louis personally feeding beggars in the palace courtyard and inviting the poor to his dining hall. Blanche taught him as well only to use the sword as a last recourse. In the traumatic first years of his kingship, Louis learned that trading benefits, bestowing gifts, negotiating, and forming peaceful alliances could solve most of the conflicts.

By 1234, Louis was 20 years old and of age to rule on his own. Officially, the regency ended. In fact, however, Blanche continued at her son's side as a virtual co-ruler. She remained as a member of Louis' council and sometimes represented the crown as a secret negotiator. In certain crises, she was informed of the danger first, afterward explaining the situation to King Louis. A letter to Blanche eight years after Louis' marriage is addressed to "queen of the French" and her "serene Highness." It seems that Blanche was still thought of as "the queen" for years after 13-year-old Margaret of Provence married Louis in 1234.

This marriage helped strengthen ties between Provence and the French throne. Louis is said to have been devoted to his young queen and continued to be so throughout his life. However, he never allowed her to play a political role. (Still, later in life, Margaret would show that like her mother-in-law she, too, was strong and determined, despite the years of living in Blanche's shadow.)

Contemporaries describe strained relations between the two queens. Apparently, Blanche tried to keep the young lovers apart during the day—ostensibly to keep Louis' attention on affairs of state. In one of their favorite castles, the young couple's separate rooms were joined by a spiral staircase which they climbed as frequently as possible. They ordered the servants to give a warning knock on the door whenever Blanche appeared. Louis had the authority to dismiss Blanche both as counselor and councilor but evidently chose not to do so.

Historians believe that by 1244, when she was 56 years old, Blanche was tempted to retire from political life. France was enjoying relative peace, education and culture were flourishing, and new abbeys arose. Thanks in part to Blanche's economies, money was available for building cathedrals in that great age of Gothic architecture. Work on Notre Dame continued and in 1243 construction began on that glory of French art: Sainte-Chapelle.

Blanche must also have felt reassured that her religious teachings had formed strong roots in her son. Considering all of these auspicious conditions, she may have felt that she was no longer needed. She could not have imagined that another trying regency, to last six years, yet lay before her. Undoubtedly pleased that Louis was in truth a "most Christian king," she was nevertheless shocked when he announced in 1244 that he was going on crusade to rescue Jerusalem from Muslim control. In this age, the highest form of Christian devotion was believed to be risking, and even giving, one's life to redeem the Holy Land from non-Christians. The accepted explanation for Louis' decision relates that in 1244 he became gravely ill of dysentery and was near death. Miraculously, he recovered and promised God that in gratitude he would lead a crusade to save Jerusalem. Blanche and other advisors tried to dissuade him, protesting that France needed his leadership. His mother reminded the 30-year-old Louis: "Remember the virtue it is, and pleasing to God, to heed your mother and agree with her judgments." In spite of the maternal plea, he stood firm.

Plans for the great enterprise proceeded; but not until four years later did the crusaders actually leave France. Recruiting men, outfitting ships, and raising money were formidable tasks. The government reduced its expenses and raised new revenues from the clergy and from cities and towns. Amid these preparations, just before leaving, Louis turned his thoughts to a domestic concern. In 1247, he issued orders to set up a royal system of investigators who would travel throughout the kingdom listening to people's grievances. He was especially concerned about reports of abuses and injustices at the hands of his own administrators. High and low, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, serf and free subjects of all conditions were to be questioned about unjust treatment. Blanche's biographer, Regine Pernoud , notes the queen-mother's influence, especially in the inclusion of Jewish subjects, as Blanche was known to defend Jews against persecution and to respect their faith.

While Queen Margaret accompanied her husband on crusade, Blanche, aged 60, along with her council of three clerics and two of Louis' brothers, was once again left in charge of the French government. As Louis left Paris, Blanche is said to have fainted, after crying: "Alas, my fine son. I will never see you again in this mortal life." Her prediction would prove true.

For the crusaders, the enterprise was a disaster, particularly for the many thousands who died of disease or in battle. Other thousands were imprisoned and tortured. King Louis was captured, well-treated, and ransomed. At that point, most French, including Blanche, assumed he would return home. But her pleas were in vain, for he refused to leave while so many of his men were still held captive. Moreover, the crusading remnants were still in Egypt, a long way from their goal of Jerusalem.

Louis was free to continue his campaign only because of his mother's leadership, but she was now tired and disheartened. She was not, as she had hoped, destined to retire quietly to her favorite Cistercian abbey and live out her remaining years in peace. Once more she was responsible for raising more funds and more men from an unenthusiastic populous.

In 1251, with Louis still abroad, she faced two especially difficult crises. A peasants' crusade had formed in the countryside, at first with Blanche's blessing. These would-be crusaders marched en masse to Paris where they became an ugly mob attacking Jews and clergy, creating riots and general mayhem. The queen ordered them to disperse, force was used, and some of the peasants were killed before the movement finally died.

A few months later, Blanche personally dealt with another crisis involving peasants. The serfs of nearby church lands under the jurisdiction of Notre Dame Cathedral revolted against additional taxes levied by the cathedral. The serfs claimed the taxes to be excessive and illegal. When their leaders were imprisoned and starved, Blanche intervened, asking for an inquest and the serfs' release. The church, angry at the queen's interference in what it considered a purely church affair, threw the wives and children of the leaders into extremely hot, tiny cells in which some died. This time, enraged by the inhumane treatment, Blanche led a body of troops to the cathedral where they found the door locked. She demanded and received the key, marched to the dungeon door, personally (according to one version but disputed by others) cudgeled it open, and released the prisoners.

Ordering an investigation, Blanche demanded that the peasants be liberated from their serfdom, as she had in the past liberated many serfs. But the bishops brought suit against her for acting outside her jurisdiction. Exhausted from administering her son's domain for a second time and anxious to know the court's decision, Blanche entered the Cistercian abbey which she had founded 16 years earlier. She asked to be made a nun, was clothed in the habit, and lay down to die. According to witnesses, she had lost the power of speech, but as she died, she began to intone a prayer. She "gave up her soul little by little, muttering between her teeth the rest of the prayer." Queen Blanche was buried in Maubuisson Abbey on November 29, 1252, at age 64. A chronicler wrote: "At her death the common people sorrowed much, for she had ever a care that they be not fleeced by the rich, and did well defend the right."

King Louis was still in the East trying unsuccessfully to rescue the Holy Land. In fact, he never made it to Jerusalem. Word of his mother's death did not reach him until the following summer. Eyewitnesses reported that on hearing the news, he "burst into tears" and went into seclusion for two days, saying that he "loved his mother above all mortal creatures."

The king began preparations to return home, but not until 1254, after many additional trials and tribulations, did Louis finally reach France. He had been absent for six years. Altogether, during 14 of his first 26 years on the throne, his mother had actually ruled for him. Louis IX lived for 13 more years, dying from illness on yet another disastrous crusade after invading Tunis in mid-summer of 1270.

Between crusades, Louis became known as a just but firm king and, above all, as a peacemaker. The Peace of Paris in 1259, involving disputed lands in France, brought 34 years of peace between England and France. Beloved as a wise arbitrator, Louis is described by his biographer Jean Richard as the "greatest peacemaker that the 13th century had known." To praise the peace-making of the crusading Louis may sound ironic. However, for the 13th century, reducing armed conflict within Europe alone was an unusual and major triumph. Queen Blanche's spirit and teachings lived on with her son who, in 1297, was proclaimed a saint by Pope Boniface VIII.

sources:

Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Labarge, Margaret Wade. Saint Louis: Louis IX, Most Christian King of France. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1968.

Pernoud, Regine. Blanche of Castille. Translated by Henry Noel. London: Collins, 1975.

Richard, Jean. Saint Louis: Crusader King of France. Translated by Jean Burrell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Emily Gilbert Gleason , freelance writer in history, Sylvania, Ohio

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