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Guardian Queen: Blanche of Castile
Blanche of Castile
Not to be Trifled With
Well, this was a shock—Blanche was going to be married. And she was only eleven years old.
Even for a princess, Blanche (originally called Blanca) of Castile didn’t expect this. Born in Palencia, Spain on March 4, 1188, she was the second daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Spain and Queen Eleanor of England (who herself was the daughter of the fearless Eleanor of Aquitaine.) Blanche didn’t expect too much from life, assuming that her older sister Urraca would be the one married off to a foreign king and ruling as queen.
What a shock it was then the day Grandmother Eleanor came to visit. This wasn’t a social call—Grandmother Eleanor was there purely on business. England and France had reached a treaty, and part of the agreement was that one of Grandmother Eleanor’s granddaughters would marry the French king’s son. Grandmother sat down and spoke with Urraca … then after a few tedious moments of that, Grandmother promptly decided that Blanche had a much more pleasing personality than her older sister and decided that she would be the one to marry the French prince.
With no say in the matter, Blanche was whisked away from her home that spring 1200. Accompanied by her grandmother, Blanche and her entourage climbed over the Great Pyrenees Mountains separating Spain from France, and within a few weeks found herself in Paris. Grandmother Eleanor presented a likely very intimidated Blanche to the French court on May 22, 1200, and, being found acceptable, was married to the twelve year old Louis VIII the very next day.
At that time, marriages were made for political reasons such as treaties and land acquisition, and it was not uncommon for children to be married away to gain a piece of land, stop a war or begin a trade agreement. Marriages were not made for love and were fortunate to offer anything remotely resembling affection, but Blanche and Louis seem to have defied expectations and actually fell in love. The marriage was not consummated until many years later, with the first of twelve children born in 1205 (six died young.) Prince Louis IX, later canonized as a saint, was born April 25, 1214.
The next few years were dedicated to ruling as queen, overseeing her children’s education, building churches, helping the poor, studying (Blanche was very well learned for anyone of this time), and improving religious freedoms. She was a Christian but was renowned for defending the Parisian Jews, forbidding the burning of the Jewish Holy Books and assuring Rabbi Rehiel that she would keep them safe.
Even so, Blanche was strangely prejudiced against the Southern French religious sect called the Cathars, who were largely Christian in nature but believed in a duality in all things that many people considered heretical. Louis seemed to have shared these beliefs, and led armies against the Cathar villages. En route to one such raid, Louis was stricken ill with dysentery and died in November 1226, leaving Blanche a 38 year old widow with six children—as well as the guardian of France,, as stipulated in Louis’s will.
And Louis VIII’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time; for several years Louis had been embroiled in disputes with rebellious French barons, and Blanche knew that these men would never accept her as sole ruler of France. Acting swiftly, Blanche had her twelve year old son Louis IX crowned king one month after his father’s death, and then declared herself regent—meaning that Louis IX was king but Blanche would be calling the shots until he came of age to rule at seventeen. The barons of Champagne, Brittany and LaMarche refused to recognize Louis as king or Blanche as regent and revolted.
Incensed at the barons’ brashness, Blanche rapidly raised her army and rode out to confront the rebel barons. It’s not recorded if Blanche engaged in any of the fighting herself (though at this time it wouldn’t have been unusual at all), but she led many of the charges and at least one wintertime sneak attack on her enemies. Never one to just sit by and be idle, Blanche was known for going about and collecting firewood to keep her soldiers warm—an unqueenly act but she didn’t care. These were her people fighting for her.
Under her direction the rebellion was quickly squashed. The barons tried again years later when they surrounded Louis IX’s palace in Paris with the intent to kidnap him. Somehow learning of the plan, the teenaged king quickly dispatched a letter to his mother for help, and within days Blanche and her army came roaring into Paris, chasing the would-be kidnappers out of the city alongside Louis and his knights.
In 1248, Louis decided to go on the Seventh Crusade to free the Holy Land. Blanche was shocked and insisted that he remain in France, but Louis ignored her protestations and left her in charge as regent. It wasn’t long after Louis left that Blanche discovered that the Notre Dame Church was leveling taxes on the peasants and serfs in the area on top of the taxes they already in paid. Blanche was infuriated; as queen, she was the one in charge of the treasury and taxation. Not only did the church not have any right in taxing the people, the church was usurping her power and stealing her money. She ordered the church’s clergy to cease, but the frocked men only scoffed at her and proceeded to arrest the serfs that didn’t pay their taxes. Angrier, Blanche ordered the church to stop, but then the priests’ soldiers began arresting and imprisoning entire families. When word reached Blanche that the serfs were now dying in the dungeons below Notre Dame, she was outraged.
Summoning her army, Blanche rode to Notre Dame, several hundred armed men following close behind. Seeing her approach, the shocked priests fled into the church and closed the doors. As Blanche paused outside the cathedral, the priests shouted through the doors that she might as well leave, since she had no jurisdiction over the church.
Unfazed, Blanche turned to her soldiers and ordered that every one of Notre Dame’s doors be ripped off their hinges. The horrified priests were driven back as Blanche marched into the cathedral and freed all of the peasants. The clergy promised never to tax the peasants again, but Blanche, unsatisfied with their vow, captured almost all of their lands as punishment, leaving them largely destitute.
As strong as Blanche was, her strength couldn’t last forever. In the fall of 1252, Blanche became ill and died, and was buried at Manbuisson Abbey, which she had built years before. News of her death did not reach Louis until the following spring, and he was so devastated by the news that he could not speak to anyone for two days. Blanched was much loved and revered by the people of France, prompting a modern writer to state that, “(T)o all intents and purposes,, she may be counted among the kings of France. Among the greatest kings, one might amend.”
Blanche of Castile works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000
Blanche of Castile http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanche_of_Castile