Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Blanche of Castile: Following in Her Grandmother's Footsteps

Blanche of Castile, queen of France (born 4 March 1188)


Blanche of Castile was the daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and his English wife, Eleanor Plantagenet--who was herself the daughter of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine.* As queen of Castile, Eleanor Plantagenet had considerable influence, her political acuity and ability recognized by her husband, who specified in his will of 1204 that, should he die before his son and heir reached the age of his majority, Eleanor should act as regent of Castile.

Blanche of Castile,
from a contemporary ms. 
But Queen Eleanor of Castile did not live long enough to act as regent for her son, Henry, when he became king--she died on 31 October 1214, just days after King Alfonso's death. (Instead, Queen Eleanor's daughter, Berengaria, acted as regent for her brother, who was just ten years old.)

But Eleanor Plantagenet's daughter Blanca, later Blanche, proved to be a capable--and successful--ruler of France not once but twice, from 1226 to 1234, and then again from 1248 to 1252.

In the year 1200, the twelve-year-old Prince Louis of France was married to Blanca de Castilla, then aged eleven--in a historically fascinating note, Blanca's eighty-year-old grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, traveled to Castile in order to accompany her granddaughter on her journey to France. Now in France where she was known as Blanche, she had her first child in 1205.

Over the course of the next twenty years, Blanche gave birth to at least eleven more children (and perhaps as many as thirteen--accounts vary). Her husband Louis became king of France in 1223. By 1225, aware that he was becoming increasingly ill, Louis named his wife Blanche of Castile as co-regent of France and as the sole guardian for his son and heir. When when Louis VIII died in 1226, his son was twelve years old. Blanche finessed any question of co-regency by having her son crowned as King Louis IX within a month of his father's death. 

Although she was to become one of the most long-serving and successful regents in France, Blanche was not the first woman to serve in this capacity--indeed, there was a long tradition of powerful women who had shared in government extending back to the time of Hugh Capet and his wife, Adelaide of Aquitaine (fl. 960s-1006), and Constance of Arles (c. 986-1032), the wife of Robert II, Adelaide's son.

But the first woman to serve officially as regent of France seems to have been Adèle Champagne (c. 1140-1206), the third of Louis VII's wives. During her twenty-year marriage to Louis, Adèle proved a "capable and energetic" queen. She attempted to take control of the government for her fifteen-year-old son, Philip, after Louis VII's death in 1180 but was unable to do so. Ten years later, in 1190, when he went on Crusade, Philip II appointed his mother as co-regent in his absence

But certainly one of the most successful and well-known women to have functioned as regent of France is Blanche of Castile. In his discussion of the long tradition of female regents in France, historian André Poulet indicates something of the breadth of her "absolute power" as queen-regent when it was her turn to take up the role: she "legislated, dealt with foreign powers, waged war, arranged marriages." "In short," he concludes, she "imposed herself as sovereign of the realm."

Although her son reached the age of majority in 1236, Blanche maintained her influence. As Poulet notes, although Louis IX was "under [his mother's] sway far longer than was stipulated by law," he nevertheless "respected her command of statecraft and recalled her to affairs of state when he went on crusade in 1248." 

Then, instead of appointing his wife, Margaret of Provence, to function as regent in the event a regency were needed, Louis IX turned once more to his mother. Although she opposed his crusading venture, Blanche again assumed her role as regent of France. After her son was captured in 1250, she added the job of raising his ransom to her responsibilities as regent. She died in 1252, while her son was still in the Holy Land.

Maubuisson Abbey, founded by Blanche of Castile,
and site of her burial
It is interesting to place Blanche of Castile in the of a powerful family of women--her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; her mother, Eleanor Plantagenet of England, queen of Castile; her sister Berengaria, who acted not only as regent of Castile for her younger brother, but who became queen regnant of Castile after his death (though her only way of maintaining power was to abdicate in favor of her son); her sister Urraca, who became queen of Portugal (named as regent, though she died before assuming the role); and her sister Eleanor, who became queen of Aragon. 

A new, full-length biography of Blanche of Castile is desperately needed, though Régine Pernoud's 1975 Blanche of Castile is very enjoyable. There is also an excellent assessment of Blanche of Castile, by Miriam Shadis, in Kathleen Nolan's Capetian Women.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).