Women's Biography: Blanche of Castile, queen of France
There are letters written to and by Blanche of Castile, queen of France.
Blanche of Castile (1188-1252) was the daughter of the English princess Eleanor and Alfonso VIII, king of Castle. Her mother was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Her three sisters also became queens: the two older sisters, Berengaria/Berenguela and Urraca, married Alfonso IX, king of Leon, and Alfonso II of Portugal; her younger sister, Eleanor, married James I of Aragon. Blanche married Louis VIII of France in 1200; her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, by then close to 80, went to Spain to fetch and escort her. Blanche’s dowry included Évreux, Issoudun and Graçay; her dower Hesdin, Bapaume, and Lens.1
Louis was only a year older and the marriage was not consummated until 1205.2 The children from their marriage were: Philip (1209-1218), Louis IX (1214), Robert of Artois (1216), Jean (1219-27), Alphonse of Poitiers and Auvergne (1220), Philip-Dagobert (1222-35), Isabel (1224?), and Charles of Anjou (1226), who would become king of Sicily.3 Louis married Marguerite of Provence (who like her mother-in-law was one of four sister queens), Robert married Matilda of Brabant, Alphonse married Jeanne of Toulouse (daughter of Raymond VII), and Charles married first Beatrice of Provence, sister of Margaret and heir to Provence, died in 1268.
While we do not have her letter on the subject, there is a record of a request from Blanche to pope Honorius III, asking his help for vows she knows she made during illnesses of her children but of which she has forgotten the substance. The pope writes to the prior of St. Victor in Paris asking him to hear her confession and commute the vows into works of mercy (HGF 19.714, dated December 22, 1220), recorded in Regesta Honorii Papae III, ed. Sac. Petrus Pressutti, (Rome: Vatican, 1888), 1.480, #2908. Because Blanche’s mother was the only other surviving child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche had a claim to the throne of England when English barons rebelled against King John. In 1216, with the support of the barons, Louis invaded England to make good his wif’s claim. Blanche raised money from her father-in-law by threatening to put up her children as hostages (Sivéry, 62); she appealed to the barons and bourgeois of her lands in Artois to bring aid to her husband and raised troops for him, but they did not make it to the English shore (Pernoud, 111-12). Nonetheless, Louis held much of south-east England, including London. But when John died, the rebels went over to his young son Henry III and Louis made peace by the Treaty of Kingston, 1217, and withdrew.4
Blanche also had a claim to the throne of Castile. When her brother Henry died, her sister Berengaria succeeded him and passed the throne to her son Ferdinand, who was considered illegitimate by some Castilians because his parents’ marriage was within forbidden degrees of consanguinity. They would have preferred a son of Blanche, but she did not press that claim, a renunciation the poet Sordello held against her in his lament for Blacatz (lines 13-16).
Louis’s father Philip died in July 1223, and Louis VIII and Blanche were crowned on August 6. Louis himself died only three years later, leaving Blanche, by his will, in charge of the government and the kingdom. In a contemporary chronicle, the Chronique rimée, Philippe Mousquet speaks of the unusually strong love between king and queen and their children.5 Louis IX was 12 when his father died and his mother served as regent during his minority, but she continued to participate in government long after, as reports addressed to her on the siege of Carcassonne and a conspiracy from La Rochelle make clear (see letters).
Blanche took an active part in the affairs of the kingdom: she went with French forces to meet the armies of the western barons allied with England, but instead of fighting them, she negotiated with Thibaut de Champagne and Henri de Bar, and arranged a number of marriages between the children of rebel barons and her own. The marriages did not occur, however, the rebel army regrouped and when the young Louis, then 13, took refuge in the castle of Montlhéry and sent to his mother for help; she appealed to the people of Paris and the Ile de France, raised an army and set out but before she reached them, the barons disbanded. She negotiated various reconciliations with her first cousin, Raymond of Toulouse, in 1229, 1233, and 1242, whose daughter and heir, Jeanne, married Blanche’s son Alphonse. Blanche interfered successfully to stop a proposed marriage between the countess of Flanders, Joan, and Simon of Montfort, and instead arranged one between Joan and Thomas of Savoy, the uncle of Blanche’s daughter-in-law, Marguerite.
Not everyone was happy with her administration. Her enemies called her “Dame Hersent” (the wolf in the Roman de Renart); they accused her of improper relations with Thibaut of Champagne and with the papal legate, Romano Frangipani, during the troubles at the university of Paris, the usual charges leveled at women, particularly foreign women, in public life.6 But she took independent positions on many issues: she protected the Jews, encouraging and on occasion even presiding over debates on the Talmud despite general anti-Semitism (Pernoud, 326-28, Sivéry, 198), and she refused to side with the papacy against the emperor Frederick II or support a crusade against his son Conrad; indeed, she confiscated the property of French vassals who joined that crusade.7 When all Blanche’s sons went on crusade with their wives, 1248-49, Blanche was again in charge at home though she had opposed the crusade. When Raymond of Toulouse died, she sent envoys to take oathes of fidelity to her son, Alphonse, and daughter-in-law, Raymond’s daughter Jeanne, preventing an unfriendly takeover. Unusually concerned with the plight of the poor, she rescued serfs from prison and from abuse by canons, heading the force that freed them in person (Pernoud, 353-4), and she freed many serfs before her death (Pernoud, 355).
Blanche was not supportive of Louis’s wife, Marguerite of Provence and was reported to have interfered as much as she could in their marriage. But she gave alms generously to the poor and to the sick and lepers and she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cistercian order. She founded two abbeys, Notre-Dame-du-Lys (Sainte-Marie-Royale) near Melun and Notre-Dame-la-Royale at Maubuisson near Pontoise, where she was buried, having entered the house just before her death. The Miroir de l’âme, a work by a Cistercian nun, was dedicated to her.8
Matthew Paris, the English Benedictine, gives Blanche, “queen and regent of the French,” a generally favorable press in the Chronica Majora, recognizing her stature in the kingdom.9 Matthew mentions the rumors of an affair between Blanche and a papal legate, but seems to discount them. He makes much of her grief for her sons, suggesting it hastened her death, which he reports thus: “ . . . died that lady of all ladies of this world, Blanche, the mother of the French king; the guardian, protectress, and queen of France ... Her death, a great loss and source of grief to the French, was prematurely brought on by manifold sorrows.” Matthew says the death of her husband, Louis, left the French kingdom “dependent on her.” He reports that she took the veil before she died and was buried with a crown over the veil and in her queen’s robes. “Thus, therefore, did the noble lady Blanche, a woman in sex, but a man in counsels, one worthy to be compared with Semiramis, bid farewell to the world, leaving the French kingdom comfortless and void of all consolation.”10