Queen without a Country
and if Berengaria still had hopes of a normal wedded life, they were dashed when Richard left again for more battles with Philip. His one true love for the next two years was the huge castle, Chateau Gaillard, which he was building at Les Andelys in Normandy. It was designed to withstand the worst the French king could throw against it. Soon Richard gave up any pretense that his marriage might be fruitful. We will never know the reason; perhaps Berengaria was unable to bear children. This is a more likely explanation than Richard's alleged homosexuality. He had, after all, fathered one illegitimate son before he was married. As a king with concern for the succession, he knew how important a direct heir was. In 1196, he finally rejected Berengaria and acknowledged his brother John as his heir. To add injury to insult, he began trying to reclaim two of the castles in Berengaria's dowry from Sancho VII who had succeeded Sancho VI as king of Navarre. Berengaria, discouraged, retired to an obscure castle near Angers. There she had the news of Richard's death. He died on April 6, 1199, aged forty-two, as a result of a wound incurred while besieging the castle of a rebellious vassal. Before he died he repented of his sins and took the Holy Sacrament--for the first time since his fit of penitence three years earlier. Eleanor was at Richard's deathbed and at his funeral at Fontevrault Abbey, but Berengaria, though within a day's journey, was invited to neither.
Did Berengaria mourn her husband? Possibly. She was certainly loyal to his memory for the rest of her life, and conscious of her position as widow of a king. But now began a new and trying period for the unlucky queen. For two deCrusades her life centered on her efforts to obtain her rightful share of Richard's estate and her own dowry, the extensive lands assigned to her by her marriage settlement. Her main adversary was King John of England who promised much and delivered nothing. Her champions were Pope Innocent III and his successor, Honorius III. The Church had a tradition of protecting widows and orphans and if the miscreants taking advantage of them were royal, so much the better. This afforded a splendid opportunity to demonstrate the primary of the Church versus temporal authority--the two great rivals of the thirteenth century. But only in 1220 after threats and even excommunications, did papal power prevail and Berengaria received a pension from England. By now John had died and Henry III had acceded. Meanwhile, she at least found a permanent abode. For a time she had taken refuge at her sister Blanche's court in Champagne. Then in 1204, Eleanor of Aquitaine died, aged eighty-two. Philip of France made haste to seize her lands. But when Berengaria claimed them as rightfully hers, as new dowager queen, he agreed to give her the city of Le Mans in exchange for certain other properties. For the next twenty-five years, Le Mans was her home. Despite a running battle with the local bishop and his archbishop over such matters as taxing powers and the jurisdiction of civil versus ecclesiastical courts, she eventually made her peace with these adversaries, and could devote herself to good works. She almost saw her most cherished dream come true: the founding of a Cistercian abbey. She succeeded in acquiring land to the south of Le Mans, at Epau. The walls of the buildings were rising and the monks who were to inhabit them were preparing to come, when Berengaria died on December 23, 1230. Instead of being welcomed by their benefactress, the white-robed Cistercian monks prayed at her tomb in the new abbey. In the last century Berengaria's effigy was moved from the abbey to the Cathedral of St. Julien in Le Mans. She is still revered in that city as "Dame of Le Mans," and perhaps this is the most fitting epitaph, rather than one that tries to link her with Navarrese or English royalty. Here was where she eventually found peace and an opportunity to serve her God--and where her memory as a strong, brave, and fair ruler still lives.
(Rachel Bard's curiosity about Berengaria was aroused during research for her history, Navarra: the Durable Kingdom.)
Rachel Bard Copyright © 2000 the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. All rights reserved. Updated 26 February 2001. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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