Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of the Lionheart

Berengaria of Navarre, queen of England (crowned 12 May 1191)


Even being the wife of one of the most famous kings of England, Richard I, "the Lionheart," is no guarantee that details of your life and accomplishments will be preserved. Such is the case for Berengaria of Navarre, the daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre and his wife, Sancha of Castile. 

Berengaria's tomb and effigy,
from the chapter house of the
Abbey of L'Épau 
Although she is known to be the eldest daughter of the Navarrese monarchs, the year of Berengaria's birth isn't clear--she may have been born as early as 1163 or as late as 1170.

Her father, who earned the name "the Wise" (el sabio) was able to to use his wisdom--or his canny sense of power and diplomacy--to defend Navarre's independence against the more powerful Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and cultivate a relationship with the Angevin empire, in particular the English king Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Sancho was also a patron of the arts and interested in education, which may be why Berengaria was described not only as beautiful but as "learned" and "wise." Even here, there is a bit of contradiction--at least one contemporary chronicler writes that she is "more wise than beautiful." And although we have no solid evidence about her education, there is a great deal of speculation--okay, nonsense--about the influence of troubadour poetry and courtly love as part of Berengaria's "education."

After Henry II's death in 1190, his successor, Richard I, needed a wife--well, he didn't so much need a wife as an heir. And, since he intended to go on Crusade, he also needed an alliance that would safeguard his vast territorial holdings in France (at the time he became king of England, Richard also became duke of Normandy and count of Anjou--he was already duke of Aquitaine). The marriage with Berengaria would assure the king of Navarre's support--and Berengaria's dowry would help Richard finance his dream of a new Crusade.

It was left to Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, then nearing seventy, to meet the bride and escort her on her journey to Richard. To that end, Eleanor, traveling with her son on a progress through his holdings in southern France, separated from him at Chinon on 24 June 1190, then headed to Pamplona, where she met Sancho and his daughter, Berengaria.

Eleanor escorted Berengaria on the journey to Sicily, where the two women headed to an intended rendezvous with Richard--they were faced with an extremely difficult trip, which included a winter crossing of the Alps, followed by a long journey down the Italian peninsula. Food was scarce, there were always outlaws, and the various heads of the various Italian powers were feuding. 

In February 1191, after months of travel, the two women, now traveling by sea, finally reached the city of Messina, but they were refused permission to dock there, officials saying that their royal entourage was too big to be adequately provided for in the island city. (Since Richard had captured the city in 1190, looted it, and then burned it, the unwillingness of Messina to host Berengaria and Eleanor seems understandable.) The women were forced to sail south and then on to Brindisi, on the eastern coast of the Italian peninsula. 

They eventually met up with Richard back at Reggio (just across the strait of Messina from Sicily) on 30 March 1191, but by then it was Lent, and Berengaria and Richard could not be married. Since Eleanor left on 2 April, headed back to Normandy, Richard put Berengaria in the charge of his sister, Joanna, the dowager queen of Sicily.

On 10 April, Richard's fleet left for the Holy Land, the women were sent on in a galley of their own (by agreement, no women were supposed to be part of the Crusaders' army). But a severe storm shipwrecked Berengaria and Joanna on Cyprus, then held by the Greek Isaac Comnenus. 

Rescued by Richard, Berengaria was finally married on 12 May 1191, in the chapel of St. George at Limassol, on the southern coast of Cyprus. Immediately after the marriage ceremony, Berengaria was crowned queen. 

Whether Richard and Berengaria ever consummated their marriage isn't clear. Historians continue to debate this question and the question of Richard's sexuality--he was, almost certainly, a homosexual, and there are ample contemporary accounts of his passionate attachments to men. But, while the status of Berengaria's marriage and the nature of her relationship to Richard are not clear, what is clear is that Berengaria and Joanna traveled with the Richard and his Crusaders at least as far as Syria; they spent the next months in the cities of Acre, Ramallah, and Jaffa, where one chronicler described the women's stifling existence: they were forced to live "like birds in a cage."  

Unsuccessful in his attempts to recapture the Holy Land for God, Richard was forced to come to terms with Saladin and return to Europe. On 29 September 1192, the two queens were sent back home, leaving Acre by ship; Richard would follow shortly after their departure, traveling by land.

The story of Richard's capture and ultimate ransom is well-known, so mythologized that it's become a glorious story in popular culture. Berengaria's story is not well known, and it's definitely not glorious. On their journey back home, Berengaria and Joanna first landed in Brindisi, the Italian port city where Berengaria had last been in 1191 on her journey to marry Richard. From Brindisi, Berengaria traveled north to Rome, where she spent at least the next six months. 

Wherever she might once have been headed in order to reunite with Richard, after his capture in December of 1192, Berengaria did not go to England--instead, she stayed on the continent, and she is known to have been in Genoa, Pisa, and Marseilles, perhaps helping to raise money for Richard's ransom, although whether she was involved in this effort isn't clear and is just one more detail about her life that is disputed. (Some historians describe her tireless efforts to raise money for Richard, others say she did nothing.)

During this time, Berengaria seems to have spent time in Maine, near Navarre, and to have resumed connections with her family. For his part, when he was ransomed in 1194, Richard went directly to England, where he was once again crowned at Westminster--his mother, Eleanor, was present, but not Berengaria. He seems to have made no effort then, or in the months to follow, to reconnect with his wife.

In fact, Berengaria seems never to have been in England, at least not while she was queen consort. Urged to recall his wife to his side or to rejoin her himself, Richard displayed no interest in doing so until he fell ill in 1195--and then he promised that if he recovered he would reunite with her. He recovered, and he seems to have spent some time with Berengaria at Poitou. 

But, for whatever reasons, the marriage never fulfilled its goal--Richard died childless in 1199. While he was dying, Richard sent for his mother, not his wife. He was buried in the royal abbey of Fontevrault, but Berengaria was not present.

After his death, she wrangled with Richard's successor, King John, over her dower payments, and she may have traveled to England in order to secure them. If so (and, again, this is disputed), that is the only time she was in the country where she had been--by title at least--queen. 

She was not very successful in securing her dower properties, so she lived with her younger sister Blanca, who had become countess of Champagne (and who would serve as regent of Champagne and then as regent of Navarre). After King John lost Normandy to the French king, Berengaria was given Maine in exchange for her now-lost dower property in Normandy.

She lived on for another thirty years, in Le Mans, where she founded the Cistercian abbey of  L'Épau. She also got herself involved in a variety of local political disputes, secular and sacred, and seems to have no qualms about extorting taxes from the local Jewish population. Again, historians disagree about whether her attitudes and actions were typical for the thirteenth century or whether she was a "persecutor" of the Jews.

Berengaria died on 23 December 1230. She was buried at the abbey of  L'Épau, and though a rebuilt tomb, with an effigy, is in the chapter house of the abbey, her remains have been moved several times.

You can read letters from Berengaria at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters by clicking here. (In addition to the four letters from Berengaria, there are letters written to her as well.)

Berengaria appears in a great deal of historical fiction--primarily because of Richard the Lionheart--but Rachel Bard's Queen without a Country is focused on Berengaria herself. There is one biography, Ann Trindade's 1999 Berengaria: In Search of Richard's Queen. I recommend the chapter on Berengaria in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens, though a great deal of this chapter focuses on Eleanor of Aquitaine rather than her daughter-in-law. Berengaria is also discussed, favorably and unfavorably, always contradictorily, in biographies of Richard the Lionheart and of Eleanor of Aquitaine.