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Berengaria of Navarre
Berengaria (or Berenguela) of Navarre, Queen of England is a peculiar case in history. Always in the shadow of her charismatic husband, Richard de Lionheart, in most of historical books she receives no more than a few lines, just to point out that she was the only English queen not to set foot on English soil, and that she produced no heir to the throne (arising speculations about the sexual inclinations of Richard).
A more complex study of Berengaria is not easy, due to the scarce sources about the years before her marriage. She was the daughter of King Sancho VI el Sabio (the Wise) of Navarre, and sister of King Sancho VII el Fuerte (the Strong), one of the leading figures of a paramount victory of the Christian kings of Spain against the Muslims in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). All we know about her birthdate is that she was between twenty one and twenty six years old when she married Richard in 1191.
In those years, Richard was the golden boy of European royalty. King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou, he added to this impressive collection of titles a well-earned prestige as a warrior and military leader. He was also good looking, tall and well built, and a renowned minstrel in several European courts. And he was about to set sail to the Holy Land to recover Jerusalem from the hands of Saladin. So, what caused this shining star of the European bridal market to engage himself to the unknown daughter of the king of a tiny kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula?
Richard had been engaged since he was a boy with Alice (or Aelis), sister of King Philippe of France. However, this marriage never took place. After the agreement, Alice was handed over to Richard's father, Henry II. Rumors spread fast: despite not being more than a child, Henry had seduced Alice; some gossips suggested that she even gave birth to a child. No matter if this was true or false, Richard did not intend to marry the young French princess under these circumstances. Nevertheless, the breach of the agreement was a difficult question, because Alice dowry included strategic lands like the Vexin.
Henry II committed himself in his last years in arbitrations between the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. And both the father and the brother of Berengaria had interests at the other side of the Pyrenees; so it is possible that they met Richard while he was ruling Poitou. Although several sources remark that Richard knew and fell in love with Berengaria on a trip to Pamplona (as a minstrel or a as a pilgrim heading to Santiago de Compostela), there is no evidence that this trip took place. The only source, the Estoire de la Guerre Sainte, written by a companion of Richard in the crusade by the name of Ambroise, said that the King loved her a lot and had desired her since he was Count of Poitou. That sentence suggests that he knew her before being crowned King of England in 1189, because it didn't mention this title, but instead the one of Count of Poitou. It is true that Ambroise is not a very reliable source, because his opus is an exaggerated tale of Richard´s feats, but in this point Ambroise has no need to idealize or lie to encourage the King; nothing will come out of his reputation regarding whether he did or did not meet Berengaria before the wedding.
There is no evidence either that Richard knew Sancho VII; the similar characteristics and military prestige of both the English and the Spanish monarch make it possible that they both knew each other. Some sources point out that the engagement between Richard and Berengaria was agreed in 1185. According to these sources, in 1185 Richard met Alfonso II of Aragón in Gascony, and Alfonso sought Richard's help in some conflict with Sancho VII, which that could mean that the Lionheart had some kind of influence in the King of Navarra. And precisely this same year, Sancho granted several lands to his sister Berengaria. That was, according to these sources, an indication of Berengaria's new status as bride of Richard.
2. Queen of England
For others, like John Guillingham, the engagement was Richard's idea. According to Guillingham, 1190 was a year of great military and diplomatic activity in Gascony and there was a meeting between Richard and Sancho at La Reole that well could be the conclusion of the arrangements that begun in 1185. For Sancho VII the engagement was a great diplomatic achievement: it consolidated his position at the other side of the Pyrenees and allowed him to focus on his problems in the Peninsula with his neighbors of Castile and Aragon.
As we said, Eleanor traveled to Pamplona in September 1190, picked up Berengaria, and together they departed in a toilsome trip across the Pyrenees and the Alpes, through Lombardy, Pisa, Rome and Naples and finally arriving at Sicily. Philippe of France departed before they arrived; obviously he had not wished to meet either Eleanor (first wife of his father Louis VII) or Berengaria (Richard broke the engagement with his sister Alice because of the Spanish princess). The chronicles described Berengaria as wise, noble, brave, instructed and beautiful.
The couple set sail from Sicily to the Holy Land, where the marriage should take place. They didn't embark in the same ship, and Eleanor was replaced by his daughter Joan as Berengaria's companion. But the vessel where the two women traveled was hit by a storm and they had to seek refuge in Cyprus. Richard arrived at the island when the governor of the island tried to request a ransom for the women, set them free and decided to marry Berengaria there and then. The marriage took place in Limassol, on 12 May 1191.
Regarding the question of Berengaria not being pregnant before Richard was captured in his return from the crusade, there are obviously no records about the consummation of the marriage, but when the couple set sail to the Holy Land they departed in different vessels. When they arrived at Outremer, Berengaria took no part in the military campaign of her husband and traveled from one Christian fortress to another. Fifteen days after the crusaders conquered Acre, on 6 July 1191, Berengaria reunited there with Richard. But his conditions were far than suitable to the marital obligations: he was sick and feeble, confronted with Philippe of France and other Christian leaders and taking tough decisions, like the slaughter of two thousand Muslim captives.
A month later Berengaria arrived at Acre, Richard left the place and headed to Jerusalem, leaving her behind. There is no record mentioning if they slept together or not, but Berengaria was not pregnant. In September, Richard conquered Jafa and the next month Berengaria joined him there, where they stayed for six months, although Richard spent most of this time in campaign against Saladin. Again there is no mention about the couple’s marital relations, and again Berengaria was not pregnant.
The whereabouts of Richard after the signing of a truce with Saladin in 1192 are well known: he was captured by Leopold of Austria and held captive by the Emperor Henry VI, and was released in February 1194.
And as for Berengaria, she traveled from the Holy Land with Joan, reached Cyprus and Naples and arrived in Rome in December 1192. She stayed there for six months, joining forces with her mother in law in trying to make the Pope persuade the Emperor to set Richard free. In June 1193, Berengaria and Joan, escorted by Alfonso of Aragon and Raymond of Toulouse, moved to Poitou. Despite being Queen of England and despite the situation of the King, Berengaria did not travel to England, but stayed in Poitou during Richard's captivity.
It is true that the situation was not easy, neither in England nor in Poitou. In England, John Lackland was plotting to grasp his brother’s crown and Eleanor, while trying to stop his younger son, was heavily taxing the English people to pay the ransom and set Richard free. In Poitou, Berengaria faced the Aquitaine nobility, traditionally independent and reluctant to obey the orders of their dukes. They were not easily submitted by Henry II, but on the other hand they were willing to take advantage of this new situation.
When Richard was released, he quickly returned to England to reassert his power; he arranged a new ceremony of coronation in Winchester. Eleanor was with him in the coronation, but Berengaria was not. It is difficult to elucidate if this was a sign of previous problems between the couple or simply was a matter of lack of time (Richard needed the ceremony to be hastily performed and Berengaria was in France). It is even possible that Richard thought that there was not need of a dangerous crossing of the Channel, especially since he himself has intention to travel to France as soon as possible. The question is that Berengaria did not accompany Richard in his new coronation.
Richard only stayed in England for three weeks after his coronation. Then he headed to France, never to return to England. He spent the remaining five years fighting Philippe in France; his campaigns are widely documented, but unfortunately these chronicles said nothing about Berengaria and her whereabouts (as usual, medieval queens were invisible, except to write down her marriages and the birth of royal children).
When we say that Richard spent his final five years fighting Philippe, we don’t mean that he was in the battlefield each and every day. Wars in the Middle Ages were a limited affair – both in time and in space. There were a few clashes between the enemy armies during spring and summer, followed by long truces to allow the soldiers to go home and harvest the crops and then take shelter during the winter. That means that if Richard and Berengaria didn’t produce an heir during this last five years, it was not because he was always in a tent in the battlefield or setting siege or being besieged by the French army.
Just as an example, Richard spent Christmas in 1194 in Rouen, and Berengaria was not with him. This year his father died and she was mourning him in Anjou, most likely in Beaufort Castle, where she presumably set her residence because she was also there when Richard died.
There is a famous fact, quoted by Roger of Howeden in 1195. It is always related with Richard’s sexual conditions, but it has his significance also in connection with Berengaria. A hermit addressed Richard, calling him a sinner and reminding him of the destruction of Sodoma. The King then accepted he penitence, received his wife (he has not been with her for a long time), and he joined her so they were one flesh. We don’t know for sure if this is true, but what we do know is that, again, Berengaria was not pregnant.
There is no reference to the activities of Berengaria in the last years of Richard. She must be present in the wedding of Joan, Richard’s sister, at Poitiers in 1196. But in those years Richard was dedicated to the project of building the formidable Chateau Gaillard, and there is no record of Berengaria being there with him, not even when the construction of the fortress was finished.
When Richard was fatally wounded in Chalus-Chabrol, he called by his side his mother Eleanor and the knight William Marshal, not his wife. This could be another sign of the lack of affection between the couple, although it could be argued that by calling on Berengaria (she was never present in the battlefield) this could cause speculation about the seriousness of the wound. Walter de Guiseborough, who wrote in the fourteenth century, stated that the physicians forbade the King, due to the deepness of his wound, to embrace and even to see his wife. But other sources claimed that the wound did not prevent Richard to engage with several women in his bed.
3. Humblest Former Queen of the English and Lady of Le Mans
After Richard's death, bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who was about to join the King, decided to go to Beaufort Castle to see Berengaria. He found her bereaved and with her heart broken. After Richard was buried, his widow headed to Fontevraud and played an important role in the engagement between her sister Blanca and Theobald of Champagne. The wedding took place in Chartres on 1 July 1199 and Berengaria acted as witness.
In the months that followed, both the new King of England, John I, and Eleanor of Aquitaine showed no concern at all for Berengaria. She had to take refuge in her sister's court in Champagne. Pope Innocent III, who always acted in favor of the widow queen, described her situation as ‘a beggar, poor and humiliated’.
Had Berengaria gave birth to an heir for Richard, her role as a widow would have stayed linked to the center of power as a regent, or at least in charge of his education. But as she did not have a boy, her only two choices were a new marriage or a retreat in an abbey or a monastery (that didn't necessarily involve taking vows as a nun).
The situation was not easy for Berengaria due to the tensions between England and France. Philippe was trying to recover the possessions that the Plantagenets had inherited or conquered in France. John I, even if he was concerned about his sister-in-law’s welfare (which he wasn't), had his own problems because he was losing all of the continental Plantagenet empire. That meant that every castle or town where Berengaria decided to live was at risk of being sieged or taken by the French. Berengaria traveled from one place to another (Beaufort, Chinon, Fontevraud, Champagne) and finally in 1204 established her residence in Le Mans; she lived in this town for the rest of her life.
Berengaria reached an agreement with Philippe of France, She gave up the places that she inherited as Richard's widow (Falaise, Domfront y Bonneville), recognizing him as overlord. In exchange she received the city of Le Mans and one thousand sterling marks. For the rest of her life, Berengaria didn't use the titles of Duchess of Normandy or Countess of Anjou. Instead, she always signed her writs as ‘humblest former Queen of the English’. Nevertheless, she was later known as Lady of Le Mans.
Financially, Berengaria was almost in dire straits. She never married again and John didn't fulfil the dowry promised to her when she married Richard. They signed a document in the year 1200 where John granted her one thousand marks a year, but despite several reclamations and even the intervention of the Pope on behalf of Berengaria, the King delayed this payment for many years. Only in September 1215, after John sent a letter to Berengaria warning her about the confidentiality of the negotiations between them, they signed a new document where John agreed to pay her two thousand marks plus the amount he already owed her.
Knowing John, it came as no surprise when, the following year, he wrote to Berengaria saying that he couldn't pay his debts because he was bankrupted due to the costs of the war in France. John even said that he was sure Berengaria must understand his reasons. Years of fighting, humiliation and the personal intervention of the Pope came to nothing when John died this same year.
Finally, in 1218, and after the mediation on her behalf of the new Pope Honorius III, Henry III of England fulfilled the promises that his father John didn't and paid Berengaria four thousand five hundred marks (over five years).
In Le Mans, where she spent the last twenty six years of her life, Berengaria is remembered by her generous contributions to the churches and abbeys of the city. As one author put it, she left a ‘persistent fragrance of charity’. She was the benefactor of the Church of Saint Pierre; this church, even before the arrival of the queen, had a lot of clashes with the cathedral town hall regarding tax payments and fines for slow payers. Berengaria strongly vouched for the church's rights before the Pope and even left the city for a time when the cathedral town hall lifted an interdict against the Church of Saint Pierre. She retired to lands she had acquired with Richard in the village of Thorée.
When she returned to Le Mans, the citizens cheered her all the way home. Berengaria was very popular because of her charities and donations to all kinds of institutions dedicated to help the poor and sick (including the cathedral). It must be said, however, that part of the money she donated was earned by acquiring at low price property from Jews of the city who had been forced to convert to Christianity and sell their properties below their value.
We do not know much of her personal life during these years. It is possible that she planned to return to Navarre, because Henry III signed passports for her and her messengers to travel to her homeland, but there is no evidence that she traveled home. She kept in touch with her sister Blanca, who was regent in Champagne on behalf of her son Theobald.
The situation around her was now quite different in just a few years. Philippe of France was dead, as was his son Louis VIII. The new king, Louis IX (later St Louis) was advised by his mother, Blanca of Castile, who was Berengaria's niece. Her situation improved with her new overlords, who helped her with her most beloved project: the foundation of a Cistercian abbey called Notre Dame de la Piété-Dieu.
Louis IX granted her the domain where the abbey was built, although she had to contribute with a large amount of money of her own to solve a dispute regarding the property of the sandlot and to buy adjacent lands. She chose the Order of Cistercians because of their links with Navarre and with her husband Richard. The construction was hastily concluded and the monks occupied the abbey on May 1230. The abbey seal represents a lady who has in her left hand a cross crowned with a dove under several fleurs de lis. She was surrounded by the words: ‘Countess of the Normans and the Angevins’ and ‘Berengaria, by the grace of God Queen of the English’.
Only a few months later, on December 1230, Berengaria of Navarre died in Le Mans. She was buried in the abbey she founded. But during the Hundred Years War the abbey was burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt years later, and after the French Revolution went to private owners. The Germans seized it during the Second World War, and in the 1960s it passed to public property again before being rebuilt.
It is believed that her tomb has been plundered several times since the fourteenth century, and the statue of Berengaria that presided over the monument was transferred to the Cathedral of Le Mans in 1821. In 1960, the remains of a woman were found under the floor of the abbey’s hall. There was a huge discussion whether or not it was Berengaria. The University of Caen made some examinations and afterwards most of the experts considered that the remains were indeed those of Berengaria. Now the effigy and the tomb with the remains are located in the new hall of the abbey where everybody can pay a visit.
Ann Trindade, Berengaria. In search of Richard the Lionheart´s Queen.