ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Louis IX”

The White Queen of France

In medieval times, the Castilian royals had a preference for naming their daughters Urraca or Berenguela, now and then adding a Sancha or a Leonor to the mix. Alfonso VIII was no different, which is why he named his eldest daughter Berenguela and his second Urraca. A third daughter was given the name Blanca after which followed a Mafalda, a Leonor and then a Constanza. Yes, he had a Sancha too, but this little girl died in infancy before Urraca was born.

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Eleanor

All these girls were destined for great things. Not only was their father a forceful and competent king, but their mother was Eleanor of England, daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the medieval equivalent of the Kardashians—although in difference to this soap family, Henry II and his queen actually achieved stuff, prior to tearing each other to pieces during years of conflict. Neither here nor there, as this post is not about these two fascinating peeps.

Back to our Castilian princesses: Berenguela, as the eldest daughter, was kept relatively close to home, seeing as her various brothers had a tendency to die young, thereby making Berenguela a potential heiress to the Castilian crown. (In the fullness of time she did inherit it, but that’s another story). The other sisters were to make grand marriages and in spring of 1200 Urraca was informed she was to wed the dauphin of France ASAP.

This Castilian-French marriage was part of the Treaty of Le Goulet, whereby Philippe Augustus of France and John of England made peace with each other, exchanged a lot of air-kisses and promised to be friends forever while crossing their fingers behind their back.  One of the movers and shakers behind this treaty was Eleanor of Aquitaine who was determined to salvage what was left of the Angevin empire for John’s future heirs.

At the time, Eleanor was pushing eighty. Despite her age, she undertook the strenuous journey to Burgos in Castile, there to collect the future French queen. What Urraca may have looked like I don’t know, but based on descriptions of other members of the Castilian royal family I believe she was pleasing to the eye, definitely as pretty as any of her sisters. And yet Eleanor of Aquitaine decided to swap brides. Urraca was left behind and her younger sister, Blanca, rode off in her stead. Why? Because Eleanor believed Blanca’s personality would be a better fit with that of Louis of France. Plus, Blanca in French became the rather pleasing Blanche, while Urraca…No, such an odd name would not work in France.

Did Urraca resent her younger sister? Had she already started dreaming of a rosy future with Prince Louis? No idea. As a consolation prize, Urraca would some years later marry the future Portuguese king, have a number of babies and die young. Okay: not much of a consolation prize…

Blanca—oops, Blanche—was married to Louis in May of 1200. She was twelve, he was thirteen, and as was customary when the bride was so young consummation was postponed for a couple of years. Instead, the young couple lived together, studied together and in general got to know each other.

In 1205, Blanche gave birth to her first child. A little girl who did not live long. Four years later, a son named Philippe was born. He would die aged seven. Twins were born and died in 1213. By now, I imagine Blanche was beginning to feel substantial pressure to produce a healthy spare (little Philippe was still alive). Fortunately, in 1214 baby Louis was born—and he thrived! Phew! Even better, in 1216 Blanche had yet another healthy son, Robert, to be followed by six sons and one daughter. Only five of all these children would survive to adulthood of which four would outlive their mother.

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Blanche

Blanche’s life was not all about having babies. Some of you will know that the treaty between John and Philippe Augustus was broken already back in 1202, and by 1204 John had lost almost all his French lands, retreating to England there to lick his wounds. As most of you also know, John wasn’t exactly the most successful of kings, and come 1214 or so, civil war raged with John determined to hold on to his crown while his disgruntled barons were just as determined to oust him and replace him with Louis of France. Louis had no right to the English crown, but Blanche was descended from Henry II and this was all the excuse the anti-John party needed to proclaim Louis their king.

Initially, Philippe Augustus supported his son’s bid for the English crown. After all, John was an excommunicated king, and any Christian monarch could thereby insist he was just doing his duty by invading John’s realm. However, John was not a fool and when he offered to make England a vassal state to the Pope, his excommunication was no more. In fact, any Christian monarch who now attempted to conquer England would likely end up excommunicated instead.

Philippe Augustus had no desire to end up an enemy of the Church—he’d had his quarrels with this powerful institution over his terrible treatment of his Danish queen Ingeborg. After the French lost at Lincoln in 1217 and had to flee south, Philippe Augustus withdrew his support of his son’s venture. The dauphin and his men were now hounded by the English who, after John’s death, rallied round their boy-king, Henry III. All those power-hungry, disgruntled English barons saw a major opportunity to feather their own nests with a child on the throne, and so any support for Louis melted away as fast as a snowdrift in the Sahara.

Blanche, however, had taken to the idea of being queen of England, and was determined to stand by her husband. When Philippe Augustus refused assistance, she threatened to use her children as hostages to raise the money required to help hubby Louis out. Apparently Philippe Augustus was too fond of his little grandchildren to countenance such a scheme, and with the means he handed over to Blanche, our forceful young lady pulled together an army and vessels to transport them over to England and her waiting main.

The weather conspired against her. Plus, the English now presented a strong united front. Louis was far too experienced a leader of men to not read the writing on the wall, and so he returned home to his wife (and somewhat disgruntled daddy, I imagine)

Blanche Coronation_of_Louis_VIII_and_Blanche_of_Castille_1223In 1223, Philippe Augustus died. Louis became king of France with Blanche as his queen. Some years later, Louis died. It is said Blanche was so devastated she tried to kill herself to follow her beloved husband into the hereafter, but either her suicidal attempt was not in serious or someone managed to stop her. Truth be told, Blanche did not have the luxury to wallow in grief. With a twelve-year-old son to protect against the ambitious French nobles, she was soon fighting tooth and nail to preserve his kingdom. Plus, further to the south the count of Toulouse was still holding his own against the French, proudly refusing to kneel before the Capet king. (As an aside, Blanche’s hubby, Louis, had on purpose stirred the dying embers of the Albigensian crusade into flames again so as to give him an excuse to trounce the southern counts and demand their homage)

Well-educated and as competent and forceful as her grandmother, Blanche wasn’t about to sit around passively and allow her son’s (her) powers to be usurped. Nope. To the surprise of her rebellious nobles, Blanche assembled an army and rode out to fight them. And then she turned her attention south, hammering out a treaty with the cornered Count of Toulouse whereby his only daughter was married to Blanche’s third surviving son. By 1229, she had managed to secure her hold on the entire French kingdom—and hold off dear cousin Henry III who had hoped to capitalise on the fact that a mere woman was ruling France to regain some of the territories lost by King John.

Henry III quickly realised that he’d never gain a foothold in France through use of armed men. Instead, he decided to marry into lands, and in 1226 he negotiated a betrothal with little Yolande of Brittany, at the time seven years old. Well, Blanche was having none of that. She forced Yolande’s father to break off the engagement and instead little Yolande was betrothed to another of Blanche’s sons.

Henry III was not so easily discouraged. Soon enough, he’d found a new potential bride, Joan de Dammartin. With this lady came a lot of strategically important land, and once again Blanche had to step in and forbid the marriage. This did not please the bride’s family—after all, through Blanche’s meddling, little Joan was deprived of a crown. Blanche promised to compensate them and an opportunity to do arose when Blanche’s nephew, Fernando III of Castile, became a widower. Berenguela was anxious to see her son wed ASAP—the Castilian kings were a virile lot and she preferred it if her son did not spill his seed right, left and centre. The two sisters hatched a plan and Joan was dispatched to Castile, married Fernando and went on to have several children, one of whom was destined to become the queen of England.

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Margaret

Meanwhile in France, Louis IX was now old enough to rule on his own and by his side stood his wife, Margaret of Provence. It was Blanche who’d negotiated the marriage—Margaret and her three sisters came with impeccable bloodlines—but she wasn’t exactly fond of her daughter-in-law. In fact, she resented her, and did her best to keep Louis and Margaret apart. Margaret was too popular, too pretty, and where previously troubadours had written songs lauding Blanche’s beauty, now they sang about the fair Margaret.

Fortunately (at least from Blanche’s point of view) her son continued to turn to dear mama for counsel rather than to his wife. In fact, for as long as Blanche lived, she was her son’s go-to person so when he set off on a crusade in 1248 he named Blanche his regent. (He took his wife with him, and Margaret would prove herself to be much more than a pretty face during the years that followed)

Blanche wholly supported her son’s desire to go on a crusade. She was extremely devout and passed this on to her children, saying things like “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” To her—and her son—the duty to God came first and involved such things as helping the sick and the weak, doing severe penance for any sins and combating heresy wherever it arose.

Louis’ crusade was a disaster. He ended up a prisoner and it fell to Blanche to somehow collect the means required to buy her son’s freedom. As always, formidable Blanche came through, and soon enough Louis was a free man again. By now, Blanche was some years over sixty and late in 1252 she fell ill. Some days later, she was dead. It is said that when Louis heard the news, he was struck mute for two days.

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St Louis

In the fullness of time, Louis would be canonised (as would his surviving sister) I dare say Blanche would have been thrilled at having birthed two saints. Even more so as big sister Berenguela “only” gave birth to one, namely San Fernando (Yes, the virile king Berenguela was so anxious to see wed again).

In conclusion, I’d say Eleanor of Aquitaine made a wise choice that day in 1200 when she decided to take Blanca, not Urraca, with her to France. Blanca—Blanche—would live up to all her grandmother’s expectations and become not only a fertile queen consort but also a wise and pragmatic ruler, a lady who did not hesitate to use force when so required but who also excelled at playing the political game.

Two kings and their ostentatious piety

EHFA HenryIIII’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.

So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

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Westminster abbey, photo Bede 735

Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?

Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of  Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.

By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

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Westminster Abbey as per the Bayeux Tapestry

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build  – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.

The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…

Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

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Sainte-Chapelle, photo Michael D Hill

Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

EHFA Westminster retableI, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

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St Louis and the pope, Bibliotheque Nacionale de France

It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.

 

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