Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Four


Young Kings

Between 1227 and 1242, Louis IX of France fights off Henry III of England, and the kings of León-Castile and Aragon almost finish the reconquest of Spain

THE WESTERN KINGDOMS were in the hands of the young.

In France, twelve-year-old Louis IX and his regent, his mother Blanche of Castile, faced a front of French barons who were tired of eclipse. Louis’s grandfather, Philip Augustus, had taken a loose collection of almost-independent noble estates in Western Francia and turned them into France, a country united under a strong-handed king. France was more prosperous, stronger, larger than Western Francia had ever been.

The price: the power of France’s nobility.

Philip Augustus’s son Louis VIII, an experienced soldier, had died of dysentery in 1226 after a brief three-year reign. His untimely death gave the French aristocrats a chance to push back. “Since the barons of France saw the King a child,” writes Louis’s friend and biographer, the Crusader knight Jean de Joinville, “and the Queen his mother a foreign woman, they made the Count of Boulogne, the uncle of the King, their chief, and held him likewise to be their lord. After the King was crowned, there were barons among them who demanded of the Queen that she should give them great fiefs; and since she would do none of this, all the barons assembled at Corbeil.”1

Corbeil was just south of Paris. At that moment, young Louis IX himself was on his way back to Paris; he had been on a coronation tour, so that his subjects could see him and pay their respects, and had halted at Montlhéry, a few miles west of Corbeil. The frustrated barons apparently planned to kidnap the young king, but word of the plot got to Blanche. She surrounded the royal party with armed men, and they made their way back to Paris as quickly as possible.2

This level of hostility towards a crowned king was a new and alarming phenomenon, and it was soon followed by even more disturbing news: the king of England was using the revolt of the barons to make a play for the French lands that King John had lost.

Henry III was now twenty years old, ready to terminate the regency that had dominated him for eleven years. Old William Marshal had died in 1219, three years after the boy king’s coronation; his successor, the Earl of Kent, was easily dismissed. Henry, energetically reorganizing his government to suit himself, had no possessions left in France except for the south of Aquitaine. But he still held the titles Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, and he now had hopes of regaining the lands that went with them. Encouraging the rebellion against young Louis, he sent messengers to the French barons: “making large promises,” says Roger of Wendover “if they would receive him in good faith . . . and acknowledge him as their natural lord.”3

Henry’s first attempts to woo the French nobility came to nothing; Blanche of Castile had rethought her refusal to meet the baronial demands and was “lavishly distributing amongst them the lands and castles of the royal domain.” She managed to bribe and persuade most of the discontented nobility to swear allegiance to her son, and Henry’s messengers went home unsuccessful.

Henry III had a high opinion of his own royal rights. Inclined to act autocratically, to mount lavish demonstrations of his own magnificence, and to insist on his own prerogatives, he was not willing to give up his claim to the French lands. Eventually he persuaded the Count of Brittany to break his vows to Louis IX and swear allegiance to the English throne instead, in exchange for the title Earl of Richmond and the opportunity to become Duke of Brittany instead of a mere count. Now Henry had a friendly shore to land on; and in May of 1230 he sailed from Portsmouth with his army and landed at Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast.4

He had visions of a great and glorious war against the French enemy, but after five months he still hadn’t gotten out of Brittany. Inexperience, empty pockets, and the prospect of fierce French opposition stalled the English army at the southern border: “The king of England all this time,” writes Roger of Wendover, “was lying with his army at the city of Nantes, doing nothing except spending his money.” In October, recognizing the impossibility of fighting any farther into the lost lands, Henry III gave up and went home. Not long after, the Count of Brittany reversed himself and became, once more, the vassal of Louis IX.5

Neither of the young kings had distinguished himself. Henry III spent the next few years trying to appease his own barons, who were annoyed both by his autocratic manner (his first move, as soon as he got back to London, was to demand that they all ante up scutage to pay for the unsuccessful campaign) and by his propensity to offer favors to the French. And Louis IX, relying on Blanche to keep his own unhappy barons in line, found himself forced to yield to most of their demands to keep peace.

ACROSS THE WATER south of England, across the mountains west of France, the kings of Spain were having much better fortune.


44.1 The Invasions of Henry III

James of Aragon, who had begun his rule as a five-year-old hostage to Simon de Montfort, was now twenty-two. For the first fourteen years of his reign, Aragon had been in a boil of intrigue, every noble clan attempting to maneuver its way past the child into power. “The nobles of Aragon formed themselves into gangs and factions,” James wrote, in his own account of his reign, “. . . And we were unable to take decisions nor did we have anybody with us whom we could consult.” His regent had resigned when James was ten, leaving him to run the country more or less on his own; and he grew up a master of manipulation, playing his noblemen against one another to preserve himself.6

James had a hair-raising childhood: fighting, armed in combat, for the first time at nine; leading a siege at eleven; married at twelve (“We were a full year with her without being able to do what men should do with their wives, because we were not old enough”). In 1227, at nineteen, he had finally managed to negotiate a truce between all the battling clans: the Peace of Alcalá, an agreement that finally gave the towns of Aragon the breathing space to mend their walls and restock their treasuries.7

James was both canny and ambitious; at once, he corralled all the warlike nobles into a single cause and pointed them towards the Muslim lands.

The Almohad caliphate had retreated into North Africa, leaving a series of independent governors ruling mini-kingdoms across the south. Among the most powerful of these was Ibn Hud, who had begun as an Almohad official in Murcia and took advantage of the Almohad decay for his own benefit: “Little by little,” says the sixteenth-century historian al-Maqqari, who used contemporary accounts now lost to write his account of Muslim Spain, “Ibn Hud’s partisans increased, until, seeing himself at the head of a respectable force, he caused himself to be proclaimed king by his men.” He swore allegiance to the Abbasid caliph in far-off Baghdad, and in return was awarded the title Commander of the Faithful; and before long he also controlled Seville, Córdoba, and Granada.8

Instead of moving south against Ibn Hud, James targeted the Muslim-ruled island of Majorca, off the eastern coast. He talked the cortes, the lawmaking assembly of Aragonese nobility, into passing a tax that would pay for the war; he talked the papal legate in Aragon into offering crusade indulgences* to anyone who would fight with him; he sailed through a ship-destroying storm to land on the shores of Majorca; and in December of 1230 he led his army in sacking the capital city of Palma and claimed the island for himself. It was his first great victory, and it gave Aragon a serious edge in carrying on trade across the Mediterranean Sea.9

To his west, the king of Castile, Ferdinand III, was also prospering.

Ferdinand was the son of the king of León by his second wife, and so not in direct line to inherit León’s throne. Instead, he had been crowned king of Castile at the age of eighteen, when his mother had inherited the rule of Castile from her brother and had immediately passed it on to him. In 1230, as James was returning from the conquest of Majorca, the king of León died. Immediately Ferdinand claimed the throne of León as well; his two older half siblings, both women, were unable to rouse enough support to drive him off, and the three eventually came to a semifriendly settlement. This made Ferdinand the king of a united León-Castile; the two kingdoms, which had joined and split several times already, would never divide again.

The following year, Ferdinand led the armies of his double kingdom south against Ibn Hud. Two years of campaigning drove Ibn Hud to sue for peace; he was, at the same time, threatened on his other side by another Muslim governor, Ibn al-Ahmar of Arjona. Al-Ahmar declared himself to be king of Arjona in 1232, and the cities of Córdoba and Jaén at once went over to him. “Whilst the [Muslim] chieftains divided among them the provinces of Andalus, or were at war against each other,” al-Maqqari laments, “the Christians . . . were furiously assailing the dominions of Islam.” The multiple battle lines weakened the Muslim kingdoms and gave Ferdinand an advantage: he pushed steadily through the Islamic-held territories, and by 1236 Córdoba was in his hands.10

Late in 1237, Ibn Hud, who had lost most of his supporters as he lost his land, was assassinated by one of his lieutenants, the governor of Almería. According to al-Maqqari, the two men had fallen passionately in love with the same woman, a Christian prisoner (“one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived”), and Ibn Hud’s lieutenant hired four men to smother his rival with pillows as he slept. With Ibn Hud out of the scene, al-Ahmar immediately seized Almería. In 1238, he proclaimed himself king in Granada and started to construct a fortified palace for himself: the Alhambra, the “Red One,” named after the red clay bricks that the builders first used. It would become the official residence of his descendants, the Nasrid dynasty, and the capital of the Kingdom of Granada.11


44.2 The Spanish Peninsula, 1248

Over the next decade, Ferdinand of León-Castile and James of Aragon between them carried out the reconquest of almost all of the remaining Muslim lands. James began a campaign against Valencia: “Now that God has allowed you to conquer by sea,” one of his noblemen told him, “you should also conquer that which is at the gate of your kingdom. And it is the best and most beautiful land in the world.” It took him thirteen years, but by 1245 Valencia was his. Ferdinand took Murcia in 1243, Jaén in 1246, and Seville in 1248. Only the Kingdom of Granada survived the Christian onslaught, the last Muslim enclave in Spain.12

HENRY III was not so lucky.

He had not given up on his French project. Ever since his humiliating return to England, he had schemed to divert the allegiance of Louis IX’s nobles. His new ally was Hugh de Lusignan, count of the small province of Marche, just south of Poitiers. Forty years earlier, Hugh had been engaged to Henry’s mother, Isabella of Angoulême; King John had taken her away and married her. But in 1220, four years after John’s death, Isabella had returned home. Hugh, seeing her, was struck with her beauty, and the long-separated pair married. Isabella was thirty-two, Hugh close to forty; she had already given John five children, and between 1221 and 1234 she had nine more, half siblings to the king of England, with the Count of Marche.

Isabella had encouraged her husband to switch allegiances (according to some accounts, she refused to sleep with him until he agreed), and while Hugh de Lusignan pretended loyalty to Louis, he was secretly assembling men to fight against the king of France. In May of 1242, Henry III brought three hundred English knights across the Channel to join his stepfather; a much smaller army than he had hoped for, but the barons of England had refused to agree to a higher scutage, and it was all he could afford.13

Louis responded by gathering thirty thousand men and garrisoning them at the castle of Taillebourg, west of Marche, on the banks of the Charente river. Henry III, once again displaying the total lack of strategy that had characterized his earlier invasion, brought his men and Hugh’s—barely two thousand in number—to face the French across the river. It could be crossed only by a slender bridge; perhaps Henry thought that this would narrow the odds. But the French had already assembled a whole fleet of boats to storm across the Charente.

On July 22, the battle began, and ended quickly. “Our folk,” writes Jean de Joinville, “that had the castle on their side, strove with much ado and crossed perilously by boats and [pontoon] bridges and fell upon the English.” Henry III fled; the few noblemen who had accompanied him, among them Simon de Montfort the Younger (son of the notorious Crusader), fought a desperate rearguard action, but finally were forced to scatter and flee. Hugh de Lusignan and Isabella were taken prisoner. Louis IX allowed them to apologize, and then took most of Marche for himself, plus all the Count’s money.14

Henry III took up a new position at Bordeaux, but he had no strength left; Simon de Montfort, exasperated almost beyond words, told him that he ought to be locked up like Charles the Simple before he did any more damage. But the damage was already done. The defeats in France rankled; and in the next century, the seeds Henry had planted would blossom into a century-long war.15


*An “indulgence” was an official pronouncement, validated by the authority of the pope, that reduced the amount of punishment a sinner would have to undergo in the afterlife.

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