Blanche was born on 4 March 1188, the third surviving daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and Eleanor of England, the granddaughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was strong-minded, intelligent, educated, and bold, so when Philip Augustus of France and her uncle, King John of England, signed the Treaty of Le Goulet in 1199 and agreed to a wedding between one of John’s nieces and Philip’s son, her grandmother Eleanor chose young Blanche as the most suitable bride for the future King Louis VIII. Eleanor herself accompanied Blanche to France, and on 22 May 1200 she witnessed her granddaughter’s marriage to the dauphin.
Blanche and Louis were so young when they wed that the consummation of the union was deferred for a few years, with Blanche giving birth to her first child in 1205. Blanche would go on to produce 13 children with Louis, but only five of them – four sons and one daughter – would survive to adulthood. Her oldest surviving son was only 12 years old when his father died in November 1226, and Blanche had only been Queen of France for three years. Nonetheless, as Dowager Queen and regent for her son, Blanche would prove to be one of the strongest rulers France would have have.
First, she had to pull the kingdom together for her son. There were several barons and nobles in the southern part of France who were determined not to swear allegiance to the new king. Blanche, however, was more determined that they would. Some of the barons she wooed, giving Ferdinand, Count of Flanders, his freedom and giving valuable properties to her husband’s half-brother, Philip I, Count of Boulogne, in exchange for their fealty. She also arranged the marriage between Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse’s only child and her son Alphonse, keeping the Toulouse lands within the Capetian domains.
Other rebel barons, like Peter Mauclerc, she beat into submission. Blanche herself accompanying the army that defeated Mauclerc in January 1229, and she purportedly “collected wood to keep the soldiers warm” with her own hands. Although he was forced to recognize Louis IX as king, Mauclerc would rebel again in just over a year, but once again Blanche’s troops defeated him. By 1234 Mauclerc had given up insurrection and had become firm in his support of King Louis IX – and the dowager queen.
Blanche also repeatedly blocked her cousin, Henry III of England, from securing a French heiress and more lands from which to stage an invasion in France, first by scuppering his union with Yolande of Brittany, and then by getting the Pope to deny a dispensation for Henry to marry Joan, Countess of Ponthieu. She also managed to keep King Henry’s mother and stepfather, Isabelle, Countess of Angoulême and Hugh X of Lusignan, from aiding the king when he invaded France in 1230.
In 1234 she further solidified her son’s hold on the south of France by arranging for his marriage to Margaret of Provence. This union was happy and fruitful, except for the fact that Blanche was the mother-in-law from hell. She couldn’t abide giving up power over her son, or the court. Sometimes this is credited to jelousy over Margaret’s youth and beauty, but I think that Blanche just couldn’t stand to give up one iota of influence over the king whom she had worked so hard to make stable on his throne.
The good qualities of the queen dowager far outweighed her unkindness to her daughter-in-law. Louis IX, whom she had raised to be devout, was a bit of religious fanatic and when Pope Gregory IX moved against the Jewish community, King Louis would have unquestioningly done as ordered, but Blanch insisted that the Jews of Paris be allowed to defend themselves from the allegations of the pope. The king’s mother was the one person in the world whom Louis revered as much as the pope, so Louis allowed the Disputation of Paris in 1240, “where rabbi Yechiel of Paris defended the Talmud” against the accusations of convert Nicholas Donin and Pope Gregory IX. Although King Louis would burn the Talmud and other Jewish books as the Pope commanded, Blanche stepped in to put Rabbi Yechiel under her protection. The Jewish community lost a great many valuable possessions, but thanks to Blanche it didn’t turn into a pogrom.
As a dutiful son of the Church, Louis joined the Seventh Crusade to smite the infidel Muslims in 1248, even though Blanche was dead set against such a waste of resources. Blanche was right. Worse (from Louis IX’s perspective anyway), the infidel smote back, capturing the pious and genocidal king on 6 April 1250 at the Battle of Al Mansurah. Blanche once again kept the kingdom together for her son, and during “the disasters which followed she maintained peace, while draining the land of men and money to aid her son in the East.” Alas for Louis, his mother fell ill at Melun in the last week of November 1252, dying in Paris a few days later.
Blanche of Castile could never rescue her son from his youth or his own folly again.