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Blanche of Castille |
A crusade lost and a nation won

Blanche of Castille is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 140, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Rather than abandon his sick and wounded, Louis IX becomes a Muslim prisoner, then back in France he sets a pattern for monarchy that will endure through the ages

Blanche of Castille - A crusade lost and a nation won

Blanche of Castille - A crusade lost and a nation won
Below is a nineteenth-century statue of Blanche of Castile by Antoine Etex. Chosen by her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine to wed the French monarch Louis VIII, Blanche would give birth to Louis IX. After the unexpected early death of her husband, she would act as her son’s regent until he came of age, skillfully thwarting several attempts at her son’s throne.

It was a strange irony that brought together the girl and that elderly lady in the rugged Spanish mountain town of Burgos, capital of Castile, on a February morning in the year 1200. Granddaughter and grandmother, they were headed for the snowbound Pyrenees and France aboard a sturdy royal coach with a heavily armed escort. The older woman, now aged eighty, was Eleanor of Aquitaine, arguably the most controversial woman of the now-departed twelfth century (see sidebar, pages 72—73). The girl, aged twelve, was Blanche of Castile, possibly the most virtuous woman of the oncoming thirteenth.

Three months later in Normandy Blanche would marry the future King Louis VIII, age thirteen, and with him would give birth over the ensuing twenty-six years to twelve children. Four of them would die in childhood, but the fifth, as King Louis IX, would provide a model for monarchy for the rest of the Middle Ages and a model for political rectitude that would last for all time. He would also greatly advance the creation of modern France, would lose two crusades yet be revered both by his own soldiers and his enemies as the perfect warrior, and would finally pass into history as St. Louis, the only French monarch ever canonized. And as Louis himself and every historian would readily acknowledge, the greatest influence upon him all his life was his mother, Blanche of Castile.

Her grandmother Eleanor had been sent to Spain to pick a future queen for France in the fulfillment of a treaty.1 Though polar opposites in their views of what constitutes acceptable royal conduct, both she and Blanche were driven lifelong by a fierce determination: Eleanor to serve her sons and herself, Blanche to serve first her husband, then her sons, and always her adopted country, France. The latter would not only influence Louis’ character; in his childhood and beyond she would also repeatedly and explicitly save his throne.

When her husband, the eighth Louis, died unexpectedly in 1226 after reigning just over four years, his heir was the eleven-year-old Louis IX. A cabal of French nobles, led by the count of Brittany and backed by King Henry III of England, moved swiftly to liberate themselves from any allegiance to the boy king. The inexperienced Blanche, acting as regent, moved more swiftly still. She hastened to have young Louis crowned, forced any wavering barons to swear allegiance to him, and, with the help of the papal legate in Paris and the friendly Count Theobald of Champagne, organized a royal army. Its utterly unexpected appearance chilled the conspirators. They yielded immediately, Henry withdrew his troops to England, and the rebellion was, for the moment, over.

Twice more in the course of the king’s youth, Blanche had to muster troops to suppress similar baronial mutinies led by the count of Brittany and England’s Henry. In one the barons tried to kidnap young Louis, but he took refuge in a royal castle. The people of Paris arrived in their thousands to rescue him, their armed men lining the roads as he returned home. It was a demonstration of loyalty Louis would never forget. To fight the last baronial insurrection of his youth, his mother launched a midwinter surprise attack. (Nobody fought wars in the snow.) She herself accompanied the army, sometimes collecting wood to keep her soldiers warm. This time Henry went back to England and stayed there.

Meanwhile, young Louis dutifully survived the arduous Christian and cultural education his mother provided for him–everything from poetry to geometry to the memorizing of all the monastic offices. He also played an increasing role in the government of the country long before his formal assumption of power. His task, he understood, was to unify France from the English Channel to the Mediterranean and from the Pyrenees to the lands of Germany, and to curb the English control of large parts of France.2

His grandfather Philip II had been known as “Augustus” because he had greatly enlarged the French kingdom, gaining control of Normandy, Maine, Anjou, and much of Poitou. Young Louis’ father, in his brief reign, had furthered the work. Following the brutal suppression by Simon de Montfort of the Cathar heresy in the south (see sidebar, pages 230—233), Blanche’s son brought peace, French culture, and Christianity to embattled Languedoc, securing the submission of the rebellious count of Toulouse, who eventually stood barefoot and penitent in Notre Dame Cathedral. He also accepted the submission of rebellious Brittany to the crown, and he cemented by marriage a claim to the rich region of Provence and its great port city of Marseille.

With Louis’ marriage to the beautiful Marguerite of Provence, however, came a predictable problem. There were now two women in his life: Blanche, so accustomed to the exercise of power, and Marguerite, who earnestly sought it. Blanche brooked no competition from her daughter-in-law, whose duties she saw as confined strictly to the bedchamber. There Marguerite duly conceived for Louis eleven children, Blanche meanwhile strenuously striving to prevent husband and wife from meeting for any other purpose. But Louis loved his wife. Palace lore describes how they would meet secretly to talk, with guards posted to warn of his mother’s approach.

Suddenly, at age thirty, Louis’ life appeared to have come to an end. So stricken was he, probably with erysipelas (a bacterial skin infection), that he was given up for dead. Indeed, the sheet was being pulled over his face when suddenly he awoke, rapidly recovered, and declared himself obligated by God to launch a crusade. Much of France took up the cause with him, while England not only agreed to refrain from attacking her habitual enemy but also contributed troops. The story of this, the Seventh Crusade, is told more intimately than almost any other through the diary kept by John of Joinville, who became Louis’ closest friend and sometimes severest critic.

With characteristic prudence Louis took more than three years to make preparations for the conquest first of Egypt, breadbasket of much of the Mediterranean world, then of Jerusalem. Special taxes were levied. Genoa and Marseille were contracted to supply transport. Queen Mother Blanche, torn between anxiety for her son and a desire to see him fulfill his perceived debt to God, once again became regent. Queen Marguerite and the children accompanied the crusaders to Damietta, the ancient port in the estuary of the Nile.

Damietta was gradually being supplanted by Alexandria but was still so vital to the economy of the Islamic heartland that at one point the Muslims had offered to surrender Jerusalem in exchange for it. On June 4, 1249, one quarter of Louis’ force drew up among the perilous sandbars at the Nile’s mouth, the other three quarters having been driven off course by storms. Though cautioned against it, Louis personally led his army onto the beaches, where in a fierce battle a foothold was won. The city, scarcely defended, fell the next day. Its great mosque became a Christian cathedral, and Damietta became the effective capital of Outremer.

Now a decision must be made. Should the invaders strike for Babylon, later named Cairo? Or should they seize the great port of Alexandria and seal off Egypt from the Mediterranean coast? They decided upon Cairo, which meant first taking another key city, Mansourah. Here an ill-timed attack by part of the French army resulted in a major defeat, although its worst consequences were overcome by Louis himself, who prevented the Muslims from further exploiting their victory. But for the next six weeks, while the crusader army laid siege to Mansourah, it was critically enfeebled by the diseases of a torrid summer.

Meanwhile, the Muslims were able to besiege the besiegers by setting up a blockade, cutting off their food supplies. King Louis’ best strategy now would have been to retreat to Damietta, but this would mean abandoning his sick men–which he would not do. Thus, defeat was inevitable, and the king himself made prisoner. His captors alternately waved knives in his face and offered him life and luxury if he would abjure the Christian faith. Steadfastly he refused, causing the Muslims to admire him so much that some said they wished he were their sultan. The ransom set for the invalid soldiers was one year’s revenues of the French crown; King Louis’ ransom was the surrender of Damietta. Both were paid and the king was freed, but the Muslims nevertheless slaughtered some thousands of sick French and English soldiers.

Moving his headquarters to Acre, Louis stayed in Outremer two more years, diligently strengthening the defenses of the few Christian cities remaining along the coast. But then the death of his mother made necessary his return. He realized that the crusade had been a complete failure, but more chilling still was a thought that occurred to many a Christian mind: if God denied victory to a man as plainly virtuous as Louis IX, might this imply that the whole concept of the crusades was ill conceived from the start?

Whatever the skepticism of others, however, failure had the reverse effect on Louis. Men should thank God for tribulations, he said, because these can lead to repentance. His personal devotion remained unwavering. He loved sermons, fasted twice weekly, and liked listening to minstrels but preferred hymns. He enjoyed good conversation, read avidly, and, following the example of a sultan he admired, organized a public library in Paris. Joinville once asked him if he would rather be a leper than commit a mortal sin. Hideous though it is, the king replied, leprosy is preferable because it leaves us when we die. Sin is leprosy of the soul, and it may not.

Back in France he was notably frugal in clothing, food, and drink, and wore a hair shirt under his outer garments as a constant reminder that men were still suffering in Outremer. On three projects, however, he spent lavishly. One was a ring of thorns–the same, the authorities assured him, that Jesus wore on Calvary. (First mentioned in the fifth century, the “crown of thorns” was preserved at Jerusalem until Saladin’s time, then moved to Constantinople and pawned by the impoverished Latin emperor. It is now kept at Notre Dame in Paris.)

The other two were building projects. The new royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel), is described by his biographer Margaret Wade Labarge (Saint Louis: The Life of Louis IX of France) as “the greatest architectural achievement of his reign.” The second was the Cistercian Abbey of Royaumont, some of which still stands at Val-d’Oise, twenty miles north of Paris.

Nevertheless, writes historian Labarge, faithful Christian though Louis undoubtedly was, “he was very far from being a clerical puppet.” He repeatedly collided with the papacy when he saw bishops seeking to exercise purely temporal power or ignoring their obligation to obey the temporal courts in temporal matters. He described the members of the Roman curia as “treacherous people,” and his assertion of royal authority left old Pope Gregory IX describing himself as “astounded.”

It was in his very concept of monarchy, however, that his Christian convictions proved most telling. Joinville depicts him sitting beneath a great oak tree at Vincennes, now an eastern suburb of Paris, discussing justice with his court and permitting his humblest subject access to the king himself for redress of a personal wrong. Legend though this may be, its import is altogether factual. No king before or after Louis was more acutely aware that, whatever else it does, government must act fairly. Royal officers were strictly forbidden to receive “gifts” (meaning bribes) or levy fines except in open court or sell government offices or levy unauthorized taxes–all radical reforms at the time.

When a priest was charged with killing three government officers who had been robbing the people, the king pardoned the priest and took him into the royal service. When a feudal baron was found robbing travelers and pilgrims, he had the man’s castle destroyed. He strove hard for peace between individuals or feuding barons, and became an international arbiter between nations because he was so universally trusted. A determined opponent of usury (charging interest on loans), he cracked down on the Jews for practicing it, then set up programs to aid their wives and children left bereft as a result.

His compassion seemed boundless. He set up almshouses for the poor and a home for the blind in Paris. He visited leper colonies, frequently washing the feet of the lepers as he frequently washed the feet of the poor. When Joinville protested that a king should not do such things, he replied that a king already had (meaning, of course, Jesus at the Last Supper). As he returned from the Crusades, a monk is said to have told him that no kingdom ever fell except through the failure of its monarch. Louis believed him and acted accordingly.

But his last years are a sorrowful tale of rejection, tribulation, failure, and tragedy, which began in 1260 when the Muslim victory over the Mongols at Ain Jalut ultimately doomed Acre, the last Christian foothold in the Holy Land. As Acre’s frantic appeals for help echoed through Europe, Louis, at age forty-seven, resolved on a second crusade. Although he was so weak physically that he sometimes had to be carried from place to place, no one could dissuade him–not his closest advisers, his wife, his unenthusiastic barons, or even the devoted Joinville.

At a glacial pace the crusade inched its way across France, slowed by the feeble king and disrupted by brawls between French troops from north and south in which some hundred men were killed. The goal this time was the capture of Tunis as a preliminary to an attack on Egypt, a strategy that most historians agree was engineered by Louis’ brother Charles of Anjou. Accumulated delays kept the army from Tunis until July, the beginning of the torrid season, and dysentery soon spread among them. Its victims included several of France’s nobles, among them King Louis’ son John Tristan. Born in the failing days of his father’s first crusade, the young prince died twenty years later in the failing days of his last. (His name, probably drawn from the hero of a popular song, means “John the Sorrowful.” It proved tragically prophetic.)

At length the king himself neared death. As was customary at the time, he had had himself laid upon a bed of ashes with his arms outstretched as on a cross. His final prayer was an appeal for his fellow crusaders: “Gracious, good God, have mercy on this people who stay here, and lead them to their country, that they do not fall into the hands of their enemies and are not constrained to deny thy holy name.” His last words were, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.”

Thus died King Louis IX of France on August 26, 1270, at the age of fifty-six. He could never have guessed that centuries later, at the confluence of two mighty rivers an ocean and half a continent away, his name–St. Louis–would be commemorated by a city twenty times bigger than the Paris he knew (and also, in fact, by twenty-one other cities, nearly all in the Americas).

Even Steven Runciman, definitive modern historian of the Crusades and certainly no admirer of them, sheds his skepticism when he comes to Louis IX. “In an age when virtue was so much admired and so seldom achieved,” he writes, “few human beings have ever been so consciously and sincerely virtuous. As king, he felt that he was responsible before God for the welfare of his people; and no prelate, not even the pope himself, was allowed to come between him and his duty.”

What might have pleased St. Louis more, however, was a tribute from a most improbable source, who would describe him as “a prince destined to reform Europe, had it been capable of being reformed, to render France triumphant and civilized, and to be in every respect a model for mankind . . . in council prudent and firm, in battle intrepid but not rash, and compassionate as if he had always himself been unhappy. In a word, it is not in the power of man to carry virtue to a greater height.”

This was the assessment of Voltaire, critic supreme of the French monarchy, the Middle Ages, and the entire Christian religion. Not even his supreme cynicism could withstand the light that shone from this one remarkable Christian soul.

This is the end of the Blanche of Castille category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 140, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Blanche of Castille from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at