Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England

Effigy of Berengaria in the chapter house of L'Abbaye de l'Epau, Le Mans, France Photo by MOSSOT
Effigy of Berengaria in the chapter house of L’Abbaye de l’Epau, Le Mans, France
Photo by MOSSOT

Of the many princesses available as a bride for Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Berengaria of Navarre was chosen to be his queen. There were two reasons for this choice. The first was for the usual dynastic purpose of having an heir. The second rationale was for strategic and political reasons relating to Richard’s desire to go on Crusade to the Holy Land.

Berengaria was born c. 1170. Her parents were King Sancho VI the Wise of Navarre and Queen Sancha-Beata of Castile. We don’t know anything about Berengaria’s education but the court of Navarre had assimilated some of the troubadour and courtly love culture from southern France. The chroniclers did describe Berengaria as “wise” and she had an unsullied reputation. Richard may have seen Berengaria when she was a young girl on a visit to Pamplona in 1177.

Richard was engaged to Alys, the sister of King Philip II of France for many years but the marriage was never celebrated. Alys had come to the English court of Richard’s father King Henry II when she was a young girl and she may have been seduced by King Henry and had his child. Richard needed King Philip’s participation in the Crusade and so delayed his marriage to Alys as long as he could. In the meantime he pursued an alliance with Navarre. While he was on Crusade, he needed someone to guard his holdings in southern France and King Sancho was in a position to defend Richard’s interests.

In 1185, Berengaria was given the fief of Monreal near Tudela. Her sisters didn’t receive any such gift so King Sancho may have been enhancing Berengaria’s status prior to a betrothal to Richard. Sancho would have considered Richard to be a splendid match for his daughter. While Richard was on a progress through his holdings in the south of France in 1190, he may have come to an understanding with King Sancho about the marriage. In the same year, Richard sent his formidable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to retrieve Berengaria. Eleanor met Sancho and Berengaria in Pamplona. Although they were still trying to keep King Philip in the dark about the engagement, Sancho celebrated the meeting with a large banquet at the Palace of Olite.

Berengaria and Eleanor left Navarre together, crossing the Alps in to Lombardy. They moved down to Pisa to await word from Richard. There was no ship to carry them so Richard had them continue to Naples where they finally embarked in February, 1191 accompanied by Count Philip of Flanders who was planning to join the Crusade. While the women travelled to meet him, Richard took Messina in Sicily. Philip knew Berengaria was on her way and was pressuring Richard to marry his sister Alys. In March, Richard finally told Philip he would not marry Alys as she had been his father’s mistress. Philip was angry but he needed to avoid embarrassment and was forced to agree that Richard could marry whoever he wanted.

Berengaria arrived with little fanfare. It was Lent and the marriage couldn’t be celebrated so Richard sent Berengaria and his sister Joanna on a ship to the Holy Land. The women supposedly became separated from the fleet in a storm and came upon the coast of Cyprus where their ship might have been wrecked. Richard’s plans included taking Cyprus to utilize it for holding supplies for the Crusade. He used the excuse of the missing ship to attack and take the island.

Richard and Berengaria were married in Limasol at the chapel of Saint George on May 12. The ceremony was performed by Richard’s chaplain Nicholas who later became the Bishop of Le Mans. Berengaria was then crowned queen by John, Bishop of Evreux. Richard settled on Berengaria all his Gascon properties beyond the Garonne River as her dower. They had three weeks together and then sailed on June 5, arriving at Acre on June 8.

While Richard was fighting, Berengaria and Joanna were no better than captives, moving between Acre, Jaffa and Ramleh. The areas where they stayed were dangerous so they probably couldn’t do much travelling or sightseeing. Their activities were most likely limited to reading, prayer, embroidery, weaving, and games. In 1192, Richard and his opponent Saladin finally came to an agreement to end the Crusade.

Berengaria and Richard parted at Acre. Berengaria and Joanna left for Europe on September 29. They went to Brindisi and then on to Rome where Berengaria stayed for six months. In December, as Richard made his way across Austria, he was captured by Leopold of Austria who turned him over to the German Emperor, Henry VI. He was held in captivity and a ransom was set for 100,000 marks in February of 1193.

Berengaria left Rome in June and travelled to Pisa, Genoa and Marseilles. She may have helped to raise some of Richard’s ransom but most of the fundraising was done by Eleanor. Eleanor was frantically working to stop her son John from taking Richard’s throne while she required everyone in England to contribute to Richard’s ransom. Eleanor left for Germany in December 1193 to pay the ransom and Richard returned to England, landing at Sandwich on March 12, 1194. He dealt with John before he was crowned again at Winchester on April 17, in the presence of his mother rather than his wife.

Richard hadn’t seen Berengaria for two years. He was being pressured by several sources to reunite with his wife and he eventually did, most likely joining her in Loches in what is now central France in 1194. Berengaria had organized a small household in Poitou and had travelled between the castles of Beaufort-en-Vallée, Chinon and Saumur before the reunion at Loches. In 1195, she and Richard began construction of a small house on land they had purchased at Thorée but there is no evidence they ever lived there.

Despite this reunion, Richard was now spending a lot of time working on his cherished project of building his castle at Gaillard. He also was fighting incursions by King Philip II of France into Normandy. There is some evidence Richard might have considered repudiating Berengaria during this time, most likely due to her inability to have a child. But Berengaria’s brother, now King Sancho VII was a staunch ally of Richard and the marriage remained intact.

In March of 1199, Richard began a siege of the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in his ongoing struggles with Philip. It was on an evening stroll outside his camp, without his usual armor, that he was struck by an arrow in the arm. His health had not been robust since the Crusade and even though the arrow was extracted, infection quickly set in. Before he died, he sent for Eleanor who arrived at his bedside to witness his death on April 6. Berengaria was not summoned and was told of her husband’s death by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln at Beaufort-en-Valée. Berengaria was in deep sorrow and heartbroken.

Richard was buried at the family mausoleum at Fontevrault in Eleanor’s presence. For unknown reasons, Berengaria did not attend the funeral. She did visit Fontevrault shortly after the funeral and had a brief meeting with Eleanor. She also discussed the marriage of her sister Blanca to Thibaut of Champagne with the papal envoy Cardinal Pietro di Capua. She attended the wedding at Chartres in July.

When Thibaut died in 1201, Blanca provided a home for Berengaria for a few years. Berengaria was having a hard time getting money due to her from King John and Eleanor. Berengaria had to send envoys to John in England to press for the money. John promised to pay but never delivered. The Pope even complained on Berengaria’s behalf to no avail. John’s son Henry III made similar promises to pay but negotiations were still pending as late as 1226. Richard had managed to cheat her out of getting her dower properties from their marriage and she was forced to rely on the French for her living. She became known as the Lady of Le Mans.

Berengaria lived mostly in the palace of the counts of Maine with her household. She took an interest in the local church of St. Pierre. She involved herself in a feud between St. Pierre and the rival cathedral chapter of St. Julien and St. Pierre came under interdict. The Pope protected Berengaria during this feud but she did leave Le Mans and lived at Thorée until the interdict was lifted in 1216 and she was able to return. She devoted her life to charitable works and caring for the poor.

Berengaria never set foot in England during her husband’s lifetime. Richard himself was only in England about six months of his reign. There is some dispute as to whether Berengaria visited England several times during the reign of King John.  Safe passages were issued to some of her servants.  It is possible she toured England in 1216 and in 1220 where she may have been in the crowd at Canterbury Cathedral that witnessed the translation of Thomas Beckett’s bones to the new Trinity Chapel shrine.

Berengaria’s main project in her last years was to erect a Cistercian house. She managed to purchase some land and was granted more land by King Louis VIII of France. She built the foundation of Nôtre Dame de la Pieté at Epau. In 1230, the first monks arrived and the abbey was confirmed by the Pope and consecrated by Bishop Geoffrey de Laval in January, 1231. Unfortunately, Berengaria did not live to see the sanctification as she had died in December of 1230. She was buried in the abbey at Epau. Her bones were moved at some point but it is believed they were rediscovered in a hidden vault in 1960. Her remains have been restored in Epau to the chapter house behind her effigy.

Further reading: “Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, “Richard & John: Kings at War” by Frank McLynn, “Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Alison Weir, entry on Berengaria of Navarre in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Elizabeth Hallam