Lionheart’s Wife: Berengaria of Navarre

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Berengaria of Navarre, wife of Richard I, is perhaps the least-known and easiest to forget queen consort in English history. Indeed, for the entirety of her husband’s reign she never once set foot in his country and without any children to anchor her to the Plantagenet dynasty, his death untethered her and easily removed her fingerprints from history. Nevertheless, her husband is one of England best-known monarchs thanks to his military prowess, his role in the Crusades and a rather catchy nickname – “the Lionheart” – that keeps his memory alive. For nearly eight years, Berengaria was his wife.

An exact birth date for Berengaria is unknown, but is believed to be between 1165 and 1170. She was the daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre and his wife, Sancha of Castile, whose seemingly happy marriage produced seven children in 25 years. After Sancha died in 1179, Sancho declined to marry again, setting an example that his daughter would later follow. A Spanish kingdom, Navarre was dominated by its larger neighbors of Aragon, Leon and, most of all, Castile, and often found itself mired in conflicts that prompted European intervention, including from England.

Little is known of Berengaria’s upbringing, but one can perhaps glean a certain level of open-mindedness thanks to the religious tolerance of Navarre that would have been lacking from Richard’s own upbringing in England, and certainly that of his sisters.

As for Richard, these years were by far more tumultuous, but they did bring him closer to the throne he eventually ascended. As the second of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sons to live through adolescence, he was destined for his mother’s lands while his elder brother, Henry, was expected to inherit England. In 1170, when their father took ill, they were granted the freedom to begin ruling during his lifetime, but he still controlled their finances and had the final word. The younger Henry in particular chafed against this set up and he eventually abandoned his father for the court of Louis VII of France, seeking his protection. He would be followed by Richard and another brother, Geoffrey, while the youngest brother, John, was still a child. Louis, always delighted to one-up the English king, was only too happy to oblige.

He also had personal skin in the game since two of his daughters were living in England. His daughter, Marguerite, married the younger Henry in 1172, while Alys was betrothed to Richard in 1169. Until the latter marriage was solidified, the young princess lived as a ward of Henry II, and rumors swirled in the 1180s that she became his mistress, a situation which put both Richard and the French Royal Family in a problematic position.

Louis died in 1180, followed by the younger Henry in 1183 and Geoffrey in 1186. Richard was now the eldest of Henry II’s remaining sons, but his former disobedience made him fearful that his father would opt to bestow England on John instead. He chose to bind himself even more closely to the French by aligning himself with Louis’s son, now Philip II – and theoretically his future brother-in-law. When Henry II finally passed away on July 5, 1189, he and Richard were still at odds. To solidify his control of England, he immediately sent word from abroad to release his mother, Eleanor, who had been kept under glorified house arrest in the last years of her husband’s reign. She effectively ruled as her son’s regent until Richard’s coronation two months later.

But though Richard wanted the crown, he had little intention of spending much time in England. His two goals were to go on crusade and marry as soon as possible. Technically, though, he was still betrothed to Alys, but believing her to have been his father’s mistress, he had little intention to marry her. In March 1190, he asked Philip to re-consider whether the match made sense, but in the meantime, he was already well on his way to marrying Berengaria.

It’s unclear when exactly Richard and Berengaria were betrothed, or even if they had met before. The likeliest date for an arrangement having been made in 1188, meaning that for at least two years, he was promised to two different women. That August, Richard met with Philip in Italy, while Eleanor went off to covertly fetch Berengaria. The two women came to face-to-face in Pamplona where Sancho held a banquet at the Olite Palace. Afterwards, the two women traveled to Italy, waiting for word from Richard. Their wait lasted until February 1191, when finally they embarked for Naples, undertaking an arduous journey through the dead of winter.

Richard, meanwhile, was in an increasingly tense face-off with Philip, their friendship falling away as it became clear that Richard had no intention of marrying Alys and, indeed, was already negotiating with other European parties. Finally, Richard made it clear that if Philip forced the issue he would make public Alys’s disgrace and thus he got his way. Philip departed on March 30, 1191, just hours before Eleanor and Berengaria arrived. As such, it was hardly the festive ceremony that one might expect for the King of England’s marriage – one of the reports of her arrival states:

“For the news had been brought to him [Richard] that his mother had arrived there, bringing the King his beloved. She was a wise maiden, noble, brave and fair, neither false nor disloyal. Her name was Berengaria and her father the King of Navarre had handed her over to the mother of King Richard, who was longing for her to be brought to him. Then she was named as Queen. For the King had loved her very much, ever since he was the Count of Poitiers he had desired her.”

The last bit, of course, indicates that Richard and Berengaria had met before, but it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction on this matter. By some reports, they may have encountered each other as early as 1177, but to suggest they fell in love then is problematic mainly because Berengaria would have been a child and Richard 20. Nor was it uncommon for the chroniclers of the time to wax poetic about royal matches, writing love stories out of thin air based on marriages that were essentially business transactions.

Unfortunately, even after the long road that brought them to Sicily – where Richard’s sister, Joan, lived – the wedding couldn’t go forward since it was Lent. Instead, Eleanor returned to England, while Berengaria and Joan followed Richard by boat. Their ships were separated off the coast of Crete, with the women’s vessel veering towards Cyrpus. Richard, who had already been planning in invasion of the island, arrived in early May to both “rescue” them and invade. By June, he was successful, a tax was levied and Cyrpus was duly sold to the Knights Templar. In the middle of this, on May 12, Richard and Berengaria finally married in Limassol and the bride crowned queen of England shortly after the ceremony.

After a brief respite in Aphrodite, the two set sail from Cyprus, the captive princesses Richard took prisoner entrusted in Berengaria’s care. In short, it was a strange wedding celebration, but one altogether fitting for the bride of Richard the Lionheart. Berengaria arrived in Acre that June and spent the next two years living alongside her sister-in-law there, as well as in Ramleh and Jaffa. The cities were dangerous and Richard was frequently absent. By all accounts it was a boring, restricted existence and though Berengaria was queen, it was only in name.

Finally, in September 1192, Berengaria and Joan departed Richard to return to Europe. She spent six months in Rome, followed by journeys to Pisa, Genoa and Marseilles through the following year. Within this time, Richard was taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria, but it was Eleanor, not Berengaria, who spent the next several months raising money to pay his ransom and ensuring that his brother, John, didn’t attempt to usurp the English throne. In the end she was successful and by February 1194, mother and son were reunited with Richard finally returning to England in March. Once again, Berengaria was far from the action.

The two wouldn’t meet again for another three months, following a nearly three-year separation. The reunion took place in Loches, where Berengaria was joined by her brother, Sancho, who had succeeded their father as King of Navarre, but even that was short-lived. They appear to have spent the Christmas of 1194 together in France, and the two were present in Rouen in October 1196 when Joan re-married to Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. The following year, the couple purchased land in Thoree and built a home, but they don’t appear to have ever lived there together – much later, in 1216, Berengaria made a charitable gift of it.

Richard was wounded in the spring of 1199 and passed away in Aquitaine on April 6. After nearly eight years of marriage, Berengaria was left a widow without any children to show from the union and having never stepped foot in England. She wasn’t summoned to his deathbed, though Eleanor was, nor did she attend his funeral. She would eventually go to his tomb shortly afterwards, at which point she had a brief meeting with her mother-in-law, but for all practical purposes her relationship with the Plantagenets was over. Eleanor and Berengaria never hit it off, the throne passed to John and Berengaria offered them nothing of political significance.

Richard failed to take care of his widow financially and John was disinclined to ensure his unknown sister-in-law was paid her due as a dowager queen. Instead, she was eventually forced to fall back on the charity of the French. She settled in Le Mans, one of her dower lands, and served as “Lady of Le Mans,” devoting herself to the Church. Even so, she continued to send envoys to England to negotiate with John over her dower, a situation that persisted well-past John’s death in 1216 and into the reign of his son, Henry III.

In her later years she was the benefactress of L’Épau Abbey, but unfortunately she didn’t live to see its consecration. She passed away on December 23, 1230 and is buried within the Abbey.

Thanks to the fame of her husband and the lack of information on Berengaria, there are a number of rumors and theories floating about on their marriage and her later life. The first is that their marriage may never been consummated. Richard and Berengaria were never together for long, he was focused more on the Crusades, which occasionally spurned the company of the women, and there were no children from the union. Even so, it’s unlikely that Richard would marry with the sole purpose of shoring up an alliance and securing the succession if he never intended to consummate it. Indeed, there is enough evidence from Richard’s own words to indicate that they had. Their childlessness may have spoken to fertility issues or to the reality of their frequent physical separation.

The thought plays into another lingering question on Richard, which is whether or not he was gay. It’s impossible to say with certainty and it’s a question weighted enough to merit its own post at some later date, but even if he was he does appear to have maintained other relationships with women, even fathering an illegitimate child at one point.

Then there is the question of Berengaria’s presence in England. While it’s been established that she never visited the country while Richard was alive, there is some conjecture that she traveled there during the reigns of John and Henry III. While safe passages were issued, in fact she likely never made the journey if for no other reason than doing so would have been expensive.

Which brings us to our final issue, which is that Berengaria garnered herself a reputation for persecuting the Jewish population in Le Mans. It’s unlikely that having grown up in Navarre, a place known for multiple religions peacefully intermingling, she harbored personal prejudice. What’s true, however, is that she did benefit financially from the legal structures in place that did persecute the Jewish in France. It’s not ideal, but it speaks to the reality of the time and a woman without much recourse playing the hand of cards she was dealt.

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