Queen without a Country

Among the least-known European queens, Berengaria of Navarre may head the roster. Few have heard of this twelfth-century princess who left her native land in 1191 never to return. Though she was wed to Richard the Lionhearted, greatest hero of the age, she never saw the England over which her husband reigned. She is mentioned but never extolled in the English history books (since she produced no heir to the throne) and receives no more than a cursory note in those of her native land. In some ways, her life marked the end of an era. With her generation, the long line of Basque kings of Navarre descended from Iсigo Arista ceased. Berengaria's brother, Sancho VII el Fuerte, died without an heir in 1234.
Yet this unsung heroine was able, in the face of daunting odds, to achieve independence after the death of Richard in 1199. She stood up to unfriendly King John of England and the mercurial Philip Augustus of France; enlisted the aid of two powerful Popes; earned the respect of the entire city of Le Mans; and left one durable and visible legacy, the abbey of Epau that she founded just before her death.
Though Berengaria's "liberation" was not of her own choosing, she serves very well as an early example of a determined woman who made her way in a man's world. She might also be seen as an embodiment of the traditional Basque virtues of tenacity, self-respect, and probity. But aside from recognizing such admirable qualities, there is historical value in bringing Berengaria out from the shadow of her famous husband and her equally famous mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine--who dominated the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries leaving little room on the stage for less flamboyant women.
After seven centuries of oblivion, the verifiable facts are few, but as far as we know, this is Berengaria's story.

The Young Princess

Berengaria was born about 1165, one of the five children of Sancho VI of Navarre and his queen Sancha. Her childhood coincided with a relatively peaceful era for Navarre. Her father, whose appellation "The Wise" may have been due as much to his prudent management of his kingdom as to his respect for learning, kept his enemies at bay and left Navarre considerably larger, more stable, and more influential than he found it. While his neighboring monarchs did battle with the Muslims, he stayed at home and guarded his borders against inroads by Castile and Aragon.
Berengaria had leisure and encouragement to learn to read and write and to appreciate poetry and music, especially the works of the Provenзal troubadours. The royal family divided its time between Estella and Pamplona, though royal palaces were not built in either city until late in the twelfth century.
Enter the young Richard, possibly when Berengaria was only ten or eleven. He came to visit her brother Sancho and to take part in a tournament in Pamplona in the 1170s. Richard was the second son of Henry II, count of Anjou and king of England, and Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine. He was his mother's favorite but his elder brother Henry was heir to the throne. However, Richard was slated to become duke of Aquitaine and was already count of Poitou. He was a notable jouster and poet in the troubadour tradition. It would make a pretty story to recount that the young prince and princess fell in love at first sight, and in fact some of the medieval chroniclers maintain that this happened--and that Richard addressed a few passionate lines of poetry to Berengaria while in Navarre. But in all likelihood they regarded each other with polite indifference; Berengaria was too young, and Richard was more interested in horsemanship, hunting, and mock battles than romance.
Only some fifteen years later was the subject of marriage between the two broached by Eleanor. She favored it for political reasons. Richard's father and brother had recently died and he had been crowned king of England in 1189. Almost immediately he set off on a Crusade, leaving royal responsibilities to his mother. Eleanor was concerned about the far-flung Anglo-French kingdom's many unprotected borders, especially in France. She saw how useful a strong ally to the South would be: ideally, a country with a common border with Aquitaine, such as Navarre. She was acquainted with Sancho VI of Navarre, having come to know him on various occasions when European monarchs gathered to adjudicate disputes or celebrate amity. She herself had entertained him in 1172 at a reception at Limoges. Astute and quick to act, she traveled to Pamplona to arrange the marriage.
By now Berengaria was twenty-four, and no suitable fiancй had come forward from the eligible royalty of the Iberian Peninsula. Sancho and Sancha probably thought this a lucky chance for their daughter. We do not know what Berengaria thought. We only know that soon after Eleanor's arrival the two women began their travels across the Pyrenees and through France, intending to rendezvous with Richard before he set sail.
What kind of maiden was this who said goodbye to loving parents and familiar surroundings to accompany an imperious stranger on a journey of hundreds of miles to marry a man she hardly knew? For one thing, she was a dutiful daughter to her royal parents, aware of the diplomatic value of this marriage. An alliance with such powerful monarchs as Henry and Eleanor was most desirable. For another, it must have been exciting to contemplate sharing the life of adventure and derring-do that such a one as Richard was sure to lead. Beyond that we are told that Berengaria was "elegant and prudent," by Ambroise, a Norman minstrel--one of only two chroniclers who ever saw her (It was only later writers who never saw her who called her "ravishingly beautiful" and "fairest in the land." They knew their public would be pleased with the tale of a noble prince wedding a fairy-tale princess.)

A Reluctant Bridegroom

Eleanor and Berengaria's travels took them across the Alps, through Italy, and by sea from Brindisi to the Crusaders' camp at Messina, where they arrived on March 30, 1191. (The Chroniclers, who assiduously documented Richard's life, begin to help us now with dates and places). Philip Augustus of France, Richard's co-Crusader, had just left Messina for the Holy Land. Eleanor expected the wedding to take place at once, so she could return to her multitudinous duties.
The chronicler Ambroise reported on Richard's joy at his fiancйe's arrival: "Most dear the King did love her and revere." Nevertheless, Richard now gave the first sign that he lacked enthusiasm for the union. He argued for postponement because Lent was about to begin, and festivities would be unseemly. Eleanor departed, leaving Berengaria in the care of Richard's sister Joanna, the recently widowed queen of Sicily, who had just joined the entourage.
Richard tarried a few more days, then at last gave the order to sail. More than 200 vessels bravely set out toward the eastern Mediterranean. But a mighty gale arose and Berengaria and Joanna's ship lost contact with the others. Eventually they arrived off the coast of Cyprus and took shelter at Limassol harbor. Here they waited, uncertain about the whereabouts of Richard and the rest of the fleet. To add to their worries, they were suspicious of the self-styled emperor of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus. He sent boats out and tried to lure them ashore with promises of fine food and Cypriot wine--probably hoping to hold them for ransom. They ordered their captain to set out to sea and, just in the nick of time, Richard's ships appeared.
Enraged at Isaac's behavior, the king attacked the Cypriots and drove them into the hills. He might have pursued them and completed the conquest of the island, but was persuaded that now the wedding could be delayed no longer, "if only out of regard for the bride's reputation," says the chronicler Richard of Devizes. Besides, there was now a goodly crowd of Crusader knights recently arrived from Syria to add luster to the ceremony. So Richard postponed his pursuit of Isaac long enough to celebrate his marriage. After the service, two bishops and an archbishop crowned Richard king of Cyprus and Berengaria queen of England and Cyprus.
Richard's dazzling raiment is described by the chroniclers in grand detail, down to the last silken tunic. But not Berengaria's. Her effigy at Le Mans may give a clue, because it shows her with loose, unbound hair--as would befit a bride but not a wife or widow. Her veil is caught with a jeweled crown, and her flowing tunic is confined with a jeweled girdle. The face of this effigy is not that of a beauty, but of a "prudent and elegant" woman.
Feasting followed the ceremonies, and the conquest of Cyprus and capture of Isaac followed the feasting. Then it was time to pursue the real purpose of the expedition: the defeat of the infidels who held the Holy City of Jerusalem. The entire party set sail for St-Jean d'Acre in Palestine where Philip of France and Leopold of Austria impatiently awaited Richard and his aid in their assault on St-Jean. Victory crowned their efforts and Berengaria and Joanna were installed in the city's royal palace where they remained for most of the following year. We are told that they spent their time on embroidery and other fancy work, though at least once they were permitted to join Richard on a march to Jaffa.
Observers noted Richard's growing coolness toward Berengaria during this period, and there is no evidence that they spent any time together as man and wife. Some later writers suggested that he had lost his heart to another. But all the chroniclers say is that he was far too busy with his battles to devote himself to his queen.
For more than a year the Crusaders marched about Palestine, battling the Saracens and their able leader Saladin, but never getting close enough to Jerusalem to launch an assault. Philip lost enthusiasm and returned to France. Eventually Richard signed a truce with Saladin in the autumn of 1192 and the inclusive Third Crusade petered out.

The Deserted Queen

Richard dispatched his wife and his sister to France on September 29, 1192. It was to be three years before Berengaria saw him again. His adventures during this period are well known--hers, a matter of conjecture. We do know that she and Joanna made their way to Rome and sheltered for a time under the protection of the Pope; were conducted to Marseilles; from there, accompanied by Alfonso II of Aragon, traveled through Provence; and for the final leg of the journey, were conducted to Poitou by Raymond of St. Gilles, don of the count of Toulouse--whom Joanna subsequently married.
One wonders how the two women, who spent some three years together under sometimes trying circumstances, got along. And one is reassured by the words of the chronicler: "They held each other dear, and lived as doves in a cage." So Berengaria had at least one friend among her Angevin in-laws.
Back in France Berengaria sinks out of sight, probably spending several years at the Angevin castle of Chinon, in the valley of the Loire. Meanwhile, all Europe's attention was riveted on the fate of the king of England. Richard, on his way back from the Holy Land, had been imprisoned by his erstwhile ally, Leopold of Austria, and then by Leopold's lord, Henry VI of Germany. A huge ransom was demanded. His devoted mother managed to raise it, and Richard, freed, returned in triumph to England to be recrowned at Winchester Cathedral on April 16, 1194. Eleanor occupied the place of honor opposite him and his queen was pointedly not invited. Richard soon returned to France to reassert his authority, which had been eroded by Philip's aggressions. But he made no effort to see Berengaria. In fact, he devoted himself instead to evil companions, to the extent that he was reprimanded by the Church. A holy hermit warned him that his end was near unless he mended his ways and returned to his queen.
Finally, frightened when a severe illness nearly cost him his life, Richard publicly repented and rejoined Berengaria for Christmas at Poitiers in 1195. But the reconciliation did not last long, 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.

Beleaguered Widow

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 decades 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: basque@unr.edu

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