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.
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.
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)
In 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.
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.
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.