Berengaria was the princess who became Queen Consort of one of history’s most famous Kings; Richard I the Lionhearted. Perhaps because she was overshadowed by her husband, very little is known of the queen who ‘never set foot in England’.
Birth and Early Life
Berengaria was born in c.1163/65 in Navarre, eldest daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre. She evidently met Prince Richard of England at a tournament in Pamplona, and fell in love with him then. He was at the time betrothed to Alys of France, daughter of Louis VII.
Little is known of Berengaria’s early life, except that she was supposedly beautiful and educated. In 1190, Richard repudiated his betrothal with the princess Alys, due to her reportedly being the mistress of his father.
Impatient with her son’s failure to marry and beget an heir, his mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine took matters into her own hands and arranged the marriage between Richard and Berengaria. She negotiated a vast dowry, and personally set forth to collect the bride.
The Crusades – and Richard
Despite being in her seventies, Eleanor brought Berengaria across the Pyrenees to meet Richard who had embarked on the Third Crusade. At Messina in Sicily, they were joined by Richard’s sister Joanna, the recently widowed Queen of Sicily. They arrived during Lent, when it was impossible to marry.
Berengaria and Joanna followed the crusaders and their ship was run aground at Cyprus, where its ruler, Isaac Comnenus, threatened to imprison them. Richard sailed to the rescue and overthrew Comnenus, traditionally shackling him with chains of silver, keeping his vow not to put the man in irons.
On 12 May 1191, Richard and Berengaria were married at St George’s Chapel at Limassol, Cyprus. She was crowned Queen of England the same day at a ceremony officiated by the Archbishop of Bordeaux.
Berengaria’s Married Life
Joanna and Berengaria accompanied Richard to Acre, and when the Crusade failed in 1192 she returned to Europe with her sister-in-law. It has been debated whether or not Richard and Berengaria ever consummated their marriage – there were rumours that Richard was homosexual and more interested in his wife’s brother; Berengaria could have been barren; or the explanation could simply be that they spent very little time together.
When the women arrived in Aquitaine, they discovered that Richard was imprisoned in a castle in Germany. Berengaria remained with Eleanor and helped raise the massive ransom required to affect Richard’s release.
On Richard’s return, he went to England to deal with his affairs there, leaving Berengaria in Normandy. Pope Celestine III ordered Richard to reunite with his bride, and ‘urged him to show fidelity to her’. After a serious illness, Richard did penance, and returned to his wife.
Over the next few years, Berengaria saw little of her husband as he was engaged in military squabbles with Philip II of France, and was preoccupied with the building of Chateau Gaillard (The Saucy Castle). She retired to a castle nears Angers where she was brought the news of Richards’s death on 6 April 1199.
Dower Queen of England
As Queen she never set foot in England, and has been historically remembered that way. Richard himself however only spent three months there during their marriage. It is probable that she visited England during her widowhood, and she certainly sent emissaries to King John to enquire about her dower payments.
John typically demurred, and Berengaria was forced to virtually live on her sister Blanche’s charity in Champagne. Eleanor and the Pope interceded on Berengaria’s behalf, but at the time of John’s death, he still owed her a vast amount of money. His son Henry III however, resumed the payments.
Blanche helped Berengaria acquire land to fulfil her ambition to build a convent at L’Epau in Le Mans. Berengaria was also supposed to receive some of Eleanor’s lands after her death, but as John had lost his Norman lands to Philip, these lands were forfeit. Even with two Popes as her champions, the matter was only settled when Philip offered her the county of Maine in exchange for her dower lands.
Berengaria lived in Le Mans, Maine for the rest of her life, and was active in its administration. Her right to do so was recognised by the French King, and she is said to have ruled ably.
Berengaria took vows and died at the convent in 1230. She is still remembered in Le Mans as ‘Dame of Le Mans’, and it is fitting that she should be remembered for her piety and fulfilment of a lifelong dream, rather than for being an ignored queen of a country she never saw.