Most St. Louisans are familiar with the fact that our city was founded by the French as a fur trading post in 1764. During this period, St. Louis became the land of frontiersmen, people at the forefront of exploration, yet with a deep reverence for their heritage. It was presumably in this spirit that the leaders of this new settlement chose to name it after King Louis IX of France, the most highly-rated European king at the time, and the only French king to be canonized as a saint.
These are mostly known facts of our city’s history, but have you ever wondered why this king was held in such high regard by these French settlers, even some 500 years after his death? Where did the qualities that set him apart from the other kings come from?
Louis IX’s mother, Blanche of Castile, was a notoriously tough-as-nails princess. Her life was far from comfortable as she dealt with the harsh realities of the time. Though it was her older sister who was initially betrothed to Louis VIII, future King of France, their grandmother felt Blanche had a demeanor better fitted to become Queen of France and thus brought her instead to seal the marriage alliance between Spain and France. She was 12 years old and he was 13.
Five years later, she gave birth to their first child, who died shortly after. In fact, the couple’s fifth baby, Louis, was the first to live past childhood. Blanche was closely involved in her children’s education, especially Louis’, choosing his teachers and mentors deliberately. She felt that young Louis’ education should be centered on nurturing two main attributes, kingliness and piety, a big part of which meant instilling in him deep kindness and compassion for the poor and the oppressed.
In 1226, when her husband died, Blanche of Castille’s eldest living son would be crowned King Louis IX of France. Keeping with family tradition, he was only 12 years old at the time. Until the young king came of age, Blanche assumed the role of queen regent and as such, ruler-in-fact of the kingdom. Already an archetype of grit, Blanche assumed her responsibilities in the face of tragedy with fortitude. During this period, Blanche would steer the kingdom wisely, building and strengthening alliances through trade and negotiation, valiantly protecting her eldest son from a plot to kidnap him, staving off violent rebellions, and leading armies into battle herself when necessary.
The man known as Saint Louis, or King Louis IX, ruled France from 1226 to 1270. The 1200s are referred to as “The Golden Century of Saint Louis” because of the unprecedented prosperity throughout France during his reign. As the largest and richest kingdom in Europe, France was revered as the center of thought. Between the revival of both Gothic architecture and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” the arts and philosophy were given a level of attention and support found nowhere else, no-when else. True to the efforts of his mother to raise devout children, Louis IX was renowned for his acts of charity. Stories abound of how he often hosted dinners for the poor, during which he purportedly served his guests himself.
But for all his total accomplishments, King Louis IX spent a quarter of his rule either as a child or away on crusade, during which time his mother was in charge. In her first stint as regent, Blanche’s leadership ultimately delivered to young Louis a nation at peace. Leading by example, Blanche taught him the art of peaceful negotiation, using force only as the last resort in conflict. As the experienced ruler she had proven to be, Blanche remained a close advisor to Louis for the rest of her life. She opposed Louis’ crusades, the first of which required her to ride off to his rescue and represented an embarrassing financial loss to the kingdom, and the second of which dealt out his death. So, when considering the legacy of King Louis IX it is impossible not to conflate his achievements with his mother’s.
Music composed at the bequest of Blanche of Castile can still be found and listened to today, 800 years later. It is a living legacy that gives us an opportunity to commune with history in a direct common experience of beauty. It’s easy to forget that the kings and queens and saints of history were real people. However, listening to this music gives shape to the humanity behind all this history. When you read the story of someone’s life in so many words, it requires some effort not to take a list of facts at face value, to see that Castilian grit as something tangible. Even, perhaps, as something we share.
We all owe a great deal of gratitude to those who came before us. Our mentors, parents, family, and the villages who helped raise us. Perhaps the best way to honor them is by carrying forward the best of their attributes with the awareness of our responsibility to those who will come after us. After all, this is the frontier city of St. Louis.