Arguably the most successful woman to wield political power in the middle ages, Blanche of Castile is today not so well known as her more famous grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In her new book, author Lindy Grant explores the unknown history of Blanche.
When I say that I am writing a book about a medieval queen, almost everyone thinks of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s not surprising. Her story is colourful. Her first marriage to Louis VII of France ended in a messy divorce in 1152, after she flirted with her uncle on Crusade. Immediately, she married Henry duke of Normandy and count of Anjou, who then became king of England, so that Henry and Eleanor ruled not just England but half of France. But in 1173 she encouraged their sons to revolt against Henry. Eleanor was captured, and languished in comfortable but frustrating captivity until Henry’s death in 1189. As a widow, she came into her own, playing a prominent role during the reigns of her two sons, Richard the Lionheart, until his death in 1199, and then King John. When she died, in 1204, she was probably 80.
In 1200, Eleanor was asked by King John to negotiate a crucial element in an important treaty with the king of France – the marriage between the heir to the French throne and one of Eleanor’s Castilian granddaughters. The aged Eleanor went to Castile, chose the granddaughter and took the twelve-year-old back to France. Later chronicles claimed that Eleanor chose not the most beautiful granddaughter, but the most able. The child, Blanche of Castile, grew up to become a formidable queen of France, the mother of St Louis, and arguably the most successful woman to wield political power in the middle ages. Eleanor must have seen something of herself in her granddaughter. As the two of them travelled from Castile to France, Eleanor must have told Blanche the story of the families of the kings of England and the kings of France, whose dynasties she would link.
Grandmother and granddaughter had a lot in common. Both were intensely political; both enjoyed power.
Like many medieval women, both achieved the apogee of their power through their sons. Richard and John turned to their mother often for important diplomacy, and Eleanor effectively took over as regent of the Angevin Empire during Richard’s captivity in 1192-4. Blanche twice ruled France as sole regent for her son, Louis IX: between 1226 and 1234, when Louis succeeded his father as a minor; and then again between 1248 and her death in 1252 when Louis went on Crusade. During her son’s personal rule, Blanche was regarded as the most trusted and important of his counsellors, playing a major role in the acquisition of the Crown of Thorns in 1239, for instance. Even Blanche’s baronial enemies admitted that ‘she knew how to govern a kingdom better than they could run a village’.
Where the two women differed was in their relationships with their husbands. Eleanor’s first husband, Louis VII of France, is said to have loved her with a childish passion: she is said to have complained that it was like being married to a monk. The marriage failed to provide a male heir, and both sides saw divorce as the only solution. The marriage to Henry was initially more successful, but Eleanor may have felt he gave her little real power, and probably resented his infidelities. Whatever the reason, her revolt against him in 1173 proved the great political blunder of her life. Blanche’s marriage to Louis VIII, on the other hand, was one of mutual love and support and shared cultural and intellectual interests. On his deathbed Louis VIII entrusted the regency of the kingdom of France to her hands alone – unheard of, for most regencies were commissions of great magnates and prelates.
Both women had the sort of personalities which made them ‘legends in their own lifetime’.
Both attracted gossip and what is often called a ‘black legend’ – stories which reflected the fact that contemporaries saw them as both politically powerful and sexually attractive. Eleanor’s flirtation with her uncle on Crusade grew in the telling. By the mid thirteenth century it was widely believed that Eleanor had poisoned Henry’s mistress Rosamond Clifford; and a French poet, the Minstrel of Reims, claimed that Eleanor had an affair with Saladin. Blanche’s enemies accused her of having affairs with the papal legate and with the poet, count Theobald IV of Champagne. Rumours circulated in England that Theobald had poisoned Louis VIII in his jealous passion for Blanche. One of Blanche’s sons was said to have punished Theobald’s presumption with a runny cheese in his face in the manner of a custard pie. But somehow, while Eleanor became a byword for female sexual voracity, Blanche retained a reputation for chastity in the face of passionate advances.
Lindy Grant is professor of medieval history, University of Reading, and was previously medieval curator at the Courtauld Institute, London.