Born to wealth, Blanche of Castile (1188-1252) took the reins of leadership early in life as the wife of Louis VIII, King of France and later as co-regent during her son, Louis IX's, minority. She proved to be a good, albeit strong willed leader, keenly adept at dealing with her male counterparts.
Blanche of Castile was born on March 4, 1188 in Palencia, Castile, an area that is now part of central and northern Spain. She was the daughter of King Alphonso VIII of Castile and Princess Eleanor Plantagenet of England. Her grandfather was Henry II of England, her grandmother was Eleanor of Aquitane and her uncle was John I of England. This rich lineage prepared her well for a place on the throne of France.
When Blanche was 11, her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitane, arrived in Spain and took her to France where she was betrothed to Louis VIII (1187-1226), future King of France. The marriage treaty was concluded immediately and on the following day, May 23, 1200 at Portsmouth Hampshire, eleven-year-old Blanche married twelve-yearold Louis VIII. She embarked on a regent's life that would occupy her energies for the next 52 years. The marriage, arranged by John of England, Blanche's uncle, was politically motivated and sparked a brief truce in the ongoing struggles between England and France over French territories. Blanche and Louis produced numerous children, accounts vary from eleven to fourteen. The first three did not survive to adulthood, placing the fourth child, Louis IX, in line to ascend the throne upon his father's death.
During Louis VIII's short reign, Blanche confined her activities to the education and upbringing of her children. She was especially careful of the education of her favorite son, Louis. She was a stern Christian and taught him to be pious and devoted to the services of the church. His training was demanding and she required that he hear all daily prayers said by the monks and to listen to sermons on feast days.
Early in her life in France, Blanche set a goal of French unification. She believed that progress was being made by the victory over the English and her cousin Otto of Brunswick, at Bouvines (1214). In the spring of 1214 Blanche gave birth to her fourth child, Louis, the future king of France. Although she missed Spain and her family, she took to France with ease. In 1216 Louis VIII, not yet king, embarked on an ill-advised journey to invade England. Blanche unsuccessfully sought help for her husband's endeavor from her father-in-law, Philip Augustus. When he refused, tradition has it that she swore she would 'pawn her children if necessary to get money for her husband,' and her father-in-law quickly offered his assistance.
Upon the death of John of England in 1216, Blanche and Louis VIII saw an opportunity to further their goal of unification. A small group of barons, who had rebelled against John, sought aid from Louis and, in turn, offered him the throne of England. His first skirmishes were successful, but in the end Louis was defeated. Peace was struck at Kingston in 1217 and Louis received a secret settlement of 10,000 marks for his efforts.
During this time, a religious sect known as Cathari, or the Albigensians, had grown and flourished throughout southern France. Their belief that good and evil had two separate creators was counter to everything that Blanche, a devout Roman Catholic, believed. In 1224, Louis VIII, who had become king the previous year, seized the opportunity to launch an attack against the heretical group. He captured Poitou and, in 1226, captured the fortress of Auvergne, a Cathari stronghold. It was during this battle that Louis VIII contracted a case of dysentery, which proved fatal. He died on November 8, 1226 while on his return to northern France.
In 1225, when Louis VIII realized his health was failing and death was eminent, he made his will, providing for the succession of his son and naming Blanche as guardian of the kingdom and the royal children. She was to reign as co-regent until his son Louis IX reached adulthood. To ensure his wishes were carried out, he summoned the bishops, lords and officials who had accompanied him and made them swear to have Louis crowned as soon after his death as possible. Louis saw the need for rapid action as the reason for taking such an unprecedented move and naming a woman to serve as regent of the kingdom. Many of the lords believed this was an opportunity to reassert their independence of the crown. The nobles groused that not only was she a stranger and a Spaniard, but also a woman. Their sense was 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." But from the moment Blanche learned of her husband's death and for the next 26 years, her efforts were directed to one end only—the strengthening and maintenance of the French royal family.
The death of Louis VIII passed the reins of authority to Louis IX, the twelve-year-old son of Louis and Blanche. The well educated, strong-willed and shrewd Blanche realized the importance of the role she was now undertaking. Her son, at 12, was in his minority and Blanche was not only his guardian, but also co-regent of France. She moved quickly, giving no time to the nobles to group against her or the legitimate heir to the throne. Blanche arranged to have Louis IX at Rheims on November 29, 1226, three weeks after her husband's death. On the way to Rheims Louis was knighted at Soissons.
With Louis crowned as the lawful king of France, it fell to Blanche to stem the tide of revolt that was rising among the nobles. Almost immediately, various factions began to challenge the new king. Most pressing was a rebellion organized by the illegitimate son of King Philip II Augustus, Philip Hurepel. King Henry III of England supported the rebellion. Blanche gained strengthened respect and support from her followers when she successfully led her troops into battle against the rebels at the Ile de France.
Blanche participated in several indecisive battles against Henry III, but perhaps one of the most crucial events to mark her regency was the support she received from the Roman Catholic Church. The papal legate, Frangipani, who had been assigned to Louis VIII by Pope Honorius in 1225, continued his support of Blanche after Louis' death. It was this legate who convinced Pope Gregory IX, historically sympathetic to Henry III of England, to switch his support to France. As a result of this change, it was decreed that all chapters of the dioceses would tithe to Blanche of Castile in support of the southern crusade.
Frangipani received the submission of Raymond VII, Count of Languedoc and Toulouse, in Paris at Notre Dame. This submission resulted in the Treaty of Paris in April 1229, ending the Albeginsian War and uniting southern France. As her rule in France continued to grow strong, Blanche never let down her guard, especially regarding her son. After one attempt to abduct Louis, Blanche made it known to all that her first responsibility was to the young king and if it became necessary to replace a rebel noble with a commoner to ensure his safety, she would take just that action. By the time of the Treaty of Paris, Blanche had created local militias as needed and established a truce with England. France now embarked on a period of domestic peace and stability during which time many of France's beautiful cathedrals were constructed.
To ensure the continuation of her line, Blanche sought an appropriate wife for her son and settled on Margaret of Provence. Margaret was the eldest daughter of Raymond Berengar IV, Count of Provence. The marriage occurred on May 27, 1234 when Louis was 20 and Margaret 13. Although Blanche arranged the marriage, she frequently treated her daughter-in-law with disdain. She was said to be an authoritarian mother-in-law and often interfered in her son's marriage. She exercised strict supervision over Margaret and, on occasion, attempted to separate Louis from his wife during the day, leaving only nighttime to the young couple. Blanche believed that her daughter-in-law's sole responsibility was to ensure the succession of the royal authority.
In 1236 Louis came of age but Blanche remained at his side—his strongest supporter and advisor. Louis proved to be an energetic king devoted to his people. He was a devout Roman Catholic, austere and prayerful and a devoted husband and father. His devotion to his religion caused Louis and Margaret to undertake a crusade against the Muslims. Louis took the cross in 1244 but did not set out on the journey to the Holy Land until 1248. The kingdom was once again entrusted to Blanche. When she received word in 1250 of Louis' defeat and capture at Al-Mansurah in Egypt, she sought to raise the ransom needed for his release from her parents, her allies and the pope but Louis remained imprisoned until 1254. During his absence in the Holy Land, his brother Alphonse, count of Poitiers and Toulouse acted as co-regent with Blanche until her death in 1252.
Blanche of Castile suffered with a heart ailment, but continued to preside over court responsibilities. In 1252 she suffered a heart attack while on her way to the Abbey of the Lys for a retreat. She was returned to the Palace of the Louvre in Paris where she received the last rights and died. Her heart was taken to the Abbey of the Lys and she was buried at Maubuisson Abbey.
Blanche of Castile left a legacy of respect and admiration. Throughout her life both friends and enemies alike admired her ability to reign with grace and determination. Theobald I, the son of Theobald of Champagne became Thebaut I, King of Navarre upon the death of his Uncle Sancho VII in 1234. He was an early supporter of Louis VIII but deserted him in 1226. On Louis' death, Theobald joined a group of rebellious barons who opposed Blanche, but he soon abandoned the group in favor of Blanche. He became a poet and composer and many of his verses are dedicated to Blanche. The nobles of the time accused Blanche of having been his lover but most authorities consider that she was too devout a Christian and too devoted to France and her son to have been anything more than an inspiration.
Baron Mathieu de Montmorency fought under Louis VIII against the English in 1224 and in the Albigensian conflict in 1226 and he continued his support of Blanche as co-regent with Louis IX.
Blanche of Castile brought strength of character and a shrewd political mind to her regency, but she also brought an appreciation for beauty and poetry as seen through her own verses and the building of some of the worlds most beautiful cathedrals.
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