Top 10 European Royals (Part I) | Sarah Stook
Royalty never disappoints us with its characters. We have great warriors and intelligent schemers. Here is part one of the most interesting royals from Continental Europe history.
Louis IX of France (r.1126-1270)
Europe has seen many devout Christian rulers, but arguably none more so Louis IX of France. The fourth son of Louis VIII, Louis’ three older brothers died and left him as heir. His mother, Blanche of Castile, raised him to be extremely devout. Louis was all of twelve when his father died and he became King of France. In 1242, Louis defended his lands from Henry III of England, who’d invaded.
He is famous for his deep religious views. Louis was given the Crown of Thorns in 1238 and built Paris’ famous chapel Sainte Chapelle to hold it. Louis also believed strongly in charity and was known for his lack of opulent clothes. He founded hospitals and was hugely popular with the people. Louis was kind, engaging and honest. The justice system was reformed so that the accused were given the presumption of innocence.
Unfortunately, Louis could be a little heavy handed. Due to his deep religious zeal, blasphemy was heavily punished. Those found guilty would have their tongue and lips mutilated. Louis also persecuted the Jewish people by evicting them from his lands and publically burning the Talmud. Whilst this wasn’t uncommon at the time, it is still a black mark against his name.
Louis married Margaret of Provence upon reaching his majority. Margaret was also deeply religious and the pair were initially very close. They had eleven children, prayed together and Louis was known for his faithfulness. She joined him on the Crusades and raised money for his ransom. Margaret even briefly led a Crusade, becoming the only woman to do so. Like her mother-in-law, Margaret would prove to be a very ambitious woman. Unfortunately, Margaret was nowhere as capable as Blanche.
Most famously, Louis led the Seventh and Eighth Crusades. The Seventh Crusade was a disaster- Louis lost a large amount of his army in Egypt and was captured. The ransom was enormous. Louis became deeply depressed and believed God was punishing him. The party then spent four years in Palestine. Louis built defence mechanisms before returning to France upon the death of his mother.
Upon returning, Louis’ religious fervour increased. He’d make a yearly walk of penance, wash the feet of the poor and support the widows of crusaders. Louis would pray for hours at a time. As King of France, he endeavoured to unite the land. Louis banned prostitution, high interest rates, officials partaking in bad behaviour and duelling.
Over two decades after his first crusade, Louis joined another one. He arrived in Tunis. Unfortunately, Louis died of dysentery in 1270. He died on a bed of ashes, moaning ‘Jerusalem,’ a lament to the city he could never win.
Louis IX is revered as a truly Christian king. The Catholic Church canonised Louis as a Saint, the only French King to receive such an offer. He was a patron of the arts and Christianity. Despite his failures, Louis is remembered through the many things named after him. He’s a fascinating religious figure who simultaneously showed Christian values- fidelity and charity- and cruelty- his treatment of the Jews.
Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (r.1155-1190)
One of the medieval era’s best rulers, Frederick was a brilliant soldier, master tactician and born leader. He was around 25 when he succeeded his father as Duke of Swabia. Frederick then joined his uncle, Conrad III of Germany on the Second Crusade. He immediately proved himself a loyal and good soldier despite the mission’s lack of success. Frederick would become Conrad’s closest confidant. The Siege of Damascus would prove Frederick’s skills.
Conrad died in 1152. On his deathbed, he reportedly chose Frederick as his successor over his own son. He was duly elected to the role of King of the Romans in that same year. As a consolation to his cousin, Frederick named the boy Duke of Swabia. Upon being crowned, Frederick criss-crossed the country in order to shore up support and create unity. In 1153, he agreed to help the Pope against the Normans in exchange for being crowned Holy Roman Empire. This occurred in 1155.
After the annulment of his first marriage, Frederick married Beatrice of Burgundy. He led several armies over several years, but his relationship with the Pope had soured. The Pope believed that Frederick was beholden to him; Frederick believed the opposite was true. Before he could excommunicate Frederick, the Pope died and was followed by Alexander III. The feud between Frederick and the Vatican continued, and he was excommunicated. In retaliation, Frederick supported the anti-Popes.
Forced back into his lands after a failed attack on Rome, Frederick spent six years at home. He contributed to keep the peace and saw his wife Beatrice crowned. After the death of his cousin, Frederick brought the Duchy of Swabia into his lands.
In 1176, Frederick invaded Italy after anti-German sentiment stirred up. He was banking on the help of Henry the Lion, but Henry refused to help. Frederick and his army suffered a major defeat and were repelled back to Germany. The Peace of Venice had Frederick recognise Alexander III as Pope. Henry the Lion was forced to surrender after an invasion and spent three years abroad in exile.
After receiving a plea for help, Frederick took the cross in the Third Crusade. He took his second son, also named Frederick, with him, whilst his eldest son Henry reigned as regent. Henry had also been named King of Italy. Frederick’s army was so large that they had to travel overland as other armies crossed water.
On the 10th June 1190, Frederick drowned in the Saleph River. It’s unknown what happened exactly, but his sudden death caused chaos. Many troops deserted; his son Frederick took the remainder of them with him to their destination.
Known as Barbarossa because of his fiery red beard, Frederick is one of the most celebrated rulers in German history. Despite several defeats, he managed to win great victories and even fight against the Pope. A myth persists that one day he’ll rise again, as he sleeps with his knights in the mountains. The Germans named their invasion of Russia Operation Barbarossa after him.
Margaret I of Denmark (r. 1363-1412)
The youngest child of Valdemar IV of Denmark, Margaret was born in a prison castle due to her mother’s reported adultery. She was only ten when she wed the twenty-two year-old Haakon VI of Norway. Due to her age, she did not leave Denmark for a few years after her marriage. Upon her arrival in Norway, Margaret soon showed herself to be a formidable ruler. Her only child, Olaf, was born when she was seventeen.
Valdemar died in 1175. Margaret claimed the throne for her son Olaf. The Mecklenburg family- her older sister’s husband’s clan- refused to accept this. The Duke of Mecklenburg said that the throne belonged to him and his son Albert. Margaret managed to outmaneuver Mecklenburg and got Olaf the crown. Due to his age, Margaret became regent. She proved to be extremely capable and intelligent. Haakon died in 1380 and Olaf also became King of Norway. Olaf died in 1387.
Margaret was given the role of regent of both nations for at least a year. She’d cast her eye toward Sweden, a neighbouring nation with a deeply unpopular king. Margaret colluded with the Swedish nobles, who despised their king, and overthrew him. In return, Margaret was proclaimed their leader. She chose her young great-nephew Eric of Pomerania, whom she had adopted, as King of Norway. As Eric was underage, Margaret was once again regent.
One of Margaret’s most famous legacies was her role in the Kalmar Union. This placed Sweden, Norway and Denmark under one banner. Whilst they were united, each nation would still be allowed a relative degree of independence. Eric became King upon his eighteenth birthday but it was well-known that Margaret was the power behind the throne.
As the real Queen, Margaret set about making reforms. She brought new land to the table, reformed the coinage, extended rights to citizens, enforced harsher punishments for rapists and gave a lot to charity. Her lands made her a very rich woman. Margaret was generally neutral on foreign policy but was not afraid to reclaim stolen territory. She negotiated the marriage of Eric and Philippa, daughter of Henry IV of England. Philippa would later be a regent and an active ruler.
Margaret had just won another war when she fell ill on a ship off the German harbour. Nothing much is known about her death but she died on the 28th October 1412. A special bell is rang twice daily in remembrance of Margaret, even to this day. The Kalmar Union remained until 1523.
An intelligent and wise woman, Margaret was said to work harder than every other person in the kingdom. She united the Nordic kingdoms and managed to keep the peace. Margaret ensured her family was cared for and that they made connections through marriage with other foreign royals. She was said to be very kind but a brilliant warrior.
Jadwiga of Poland (r.1384-1399)
The first female ruler of Poland, though her official title was King, Jadwiga did a lot in her twenty-five years of life. She was the youngest of the three daughters of Louis I of Hungary and Poland. Since Louis had no sons, he controversially decided that his daughters would have rights to the kingdom. The eldest daughter, Catherine, predeceased her father, so Mary became the heir. Jadwiga received a fine education and was a polyglot, speaking at least five languages. She was very religious due to the influence of her beloved grandmother, Elisabeth of Poland.
Louis died in 1382. Mary became Queen, but Poland decided to split from Hungary and form its own nation. The ten year old Jadwiga became Queen in 1384. She married Jogaila of Lithuania only two years later. He was thirty-five and she was twelve. Jadwiga proved to be very kind and sensible, as well as charming and capable. Despite only being a child, so many feared her that they bent the knee.
Upon the death of her sister Mary, Jadwiga should have become Queen of Hungary. Mary’s widower Sigismund, however, disputed this. Jadwiga stopped short of invading Hungary and a peace deal was eventually signed. This allowed Sigismund to hold power, though Jadwiga was accepted as heir.
A skilled diplomat and negotiator, Jadwiga managed to make peace with the Teutonic Knights who were plotting against her family. She was enormously charitable and lent her name to any project used to help others. Her own money was used to build hospitals and educate Lithuanians and Polish alike. Jadwiga was a huge patron of the arts. Religious texts were translated into Polish so ordinary people could read them. Many churches received help from Jadwiga.
Her most enduring legacy is that of the Kraków Academy. She endeavoured to restore it but died before its completion. Jadwiga’s will left all of her money to the academy and it became a treasured place of learning that still runs today. It was renamed Jagiellonian University in her honour in 1817. It remains one of the top universities in the world.
After a decade of no children, which caused friction with her husband, Jadwiga finally became pregnant in late 1398. She gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth on the 22nd June 1399. The baby died after a few weeks. Elizabeth was severely weakened by the birth and died on the 17th July, just days after her daughter. With no strong claim to the throne, her widower Jogaila became King and would help Poland into a new age.
Jadwiga was only ten when she came to the throne and twenty-five when she died, but she was a formidable figure. Grown men bent to her will and that was amazing in such a patriarchal time. Jadwiga was a devout Christian whose immense charity helped the Polish people even years after her death. She is a saint in the Catholic Church and a beacon of hope all these centuries later.
John I of Portugal (r. 1385-1433)
The illegitimate son of a king, one would expect that John would one day rule a nation. Illegitimate sons of the time would be given titles or sent to the priesthood. Born to Peter I and a noblewoman named Theresa. He received a good education that focused on religion and the military. Upon the death of Peter I, John’s half brother Ferdinand I ascended the throne. Ferdinand died aged only 37 and left behind one child, a daughter named Beatrice. He stipulated in his will that Beatrice be the heir and that the kingdom would combine with Castile, the home of Beatrice’s husband John.
This upset the Portuguese nobles. They were concerned about the Regency, as it meant that Ferdinand’s wife Leonor would be regent until Beatrice had a son who reached majority. If she had no children, then the crown would go to John of Castile and his issue from his first marriage. The Portuguese were concerned about being taken over by Castile. The regency wasn’t popular, as Leonor was hated for adultery and treason.
Portuguese nobles decided that John should be king, not Castile. John murdered the Queen’s unpopular favourite and received even more support. After several months of war, Castile retreated after a major battle. John was crowned King and soon married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of the powerful Duke of Gaunt. The death of Castile in 1390 and birth of John and Philippa’s eldest son a year later helped secure the throne.
John enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous reign, though there were often clashes with Castile for most of his administration. He was a popular ruler due to his judicial reforms, loyalty to tradesmen and removal of unpopular reforms. John was cautious but never afraid of battle. He enjoyed hunting and the arts, the latter of which was also patronised by his wife Philippa.
His children became known as ‘the illustrious generation.’ Eldest Edward would be king, second son Pedro was the regent for Edward’s son, and third Henry became the famous Henry the Navigator. John also encouraged Portuguese trade and travel. Fourth son John was an administrator and youngest Ferdinand is a revered Catholic prince. Daughter Isabella married into Burgundy and encouraged culture. His illegitimate son Alfonso was the sire of the House of Braganza and illegitimate daughter Beatrice also married well.
John was well-liked, extremely intelligent, learned, kind and benevolent. He died in 1433 of unknown causes. His nearly fifty years on the throne is one of the longest in Portuguese history. John managed to keep the peace, turn Portugal into a power and ensured powerful allies. Nobody would have expected that from an illegitimate son.