Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Berengaria of Navarre: The English Queen Who Never Set Foot in England

Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England.
Engraving from c.1890.
Berengaria of Navarre, consort to one of England's most beloved and best remembered kings, Richard I (the Lionheart), had a distinction in history as the only Queen of England never to set foot in England, well at least during her husband's lifetime. Just as in the case of early medieval English queens consort, little is known about Berengaria's life, and this what makes her more intriguing for me. She lived in a time of many historical events and yet she was overshadowed by more forceful personalities of that time (Richard the Lionheart and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine). Berengaria is one of my favorite historical character, and I have always looked up to her as a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate and courageous woman, deeply devoted to her husband. But beauty and devotion were all seemed wasted. Richard, although undoubtedly the ideal warrior-king and the epitome of a chivalrous knight, was far from being the ideal husband (and the ideal king), and his treatment of Berengaria reveals a rather cold and callous side of his personality.

Berengaria was born a princess of Navarre, a little kingdom on the borders of France and Spain (and now a Northeastern region of Spain), between the years 1165 and 1170. She was the eldest daughter of Sancho IV of Navarre (nicknamed "the Wise") and Infanta Sanchia of Castile. Berengaria was probably born and educated in Pamplona, the capital of Navarre.

She was said to be extremely well-educated, and she grew up with a great appreciation for the music and poetry of the troubadours of neighboring Provence. Even though she was a Spanish by descent, she was more a Provencal princess in language and education. When it comes to her appearance, Berengaria was described as dark-haired and dark-eyed, "petite, and a fine musician... in all things, a suitable consort for a king". She was said to be very beautiful, but a Norman minstrel named Ambroise, one of the only two contemporaries who ever saw her, simply described her as "elegant and prudent".

Berengaria first saw Richard when he was still Count of Poitou at a grand tournament held by her father in Pamplona. Richard was a great friend of Berengaria's brother, Sancho. They were fratres juratis, or sworn brothers, according to a custom of the times of chivalry. They had similar personalities and interests. Both men were renowned for their bravery, and they were highly skilled in all the learning and poetry of the Provencals. As Count of Poitou, Richard had ample opportunities to visit Sancho since Navarre was a close neighbor of Poitou. It was believed by historians that it was the result of Richard's frequent sojourns to Navarre that he became acquainted and eventually felt attracted to Berengaria. Berengaria herself was a learned and cultivated princess, and Richard, a gifted troubadour-poet, must have become naturally drawn to her. He admired her cultivated mind, and she made a strong impression on his volatile heart.

Years after Richard and Berengaria's first meeting, the King of Navarre was informed that Eleanor of Aquitaine was interested in a marriage between Berengaria and her favorite son Richard, who by this time had made a vow to 'take up the cross' and join the Crusade. The union between the Princess of Navarre and a Prince of England would be very beneficial for Queen Eleanor, for an alliance with the kingdom of Navarre would mean protection to the southern borders of Aquitaine. The cultural similarities between Aquitaine and Navarre, where the troubadours enjoyed great prestige and royal protection, and the apparent physical attraction between Richard and Berengaria, helped to forge the marriage.

But marriage was impossible between the couple while the contract made by their parents between Richard and Alys of France remained intact. Years ago, Richard had been promised in marriage to Alys Capet, half-sister of the King of France. However, Richard's father King Henry II of England, had taken the gentle Alys as his own mistress, which resulted in Alys giving birth to an illegitimate child. But after the death of his father in 1189, Richard, now King of England, was quick to break the engagement to Alys, and felt free to select a bride according to his personal inclinations. Of course, Alys's brother, King Philip of France, insisted that Richard should marry Alys, but Richard stated openly the reason for his refusal: that Alys's reputation was sullied. Philip was unable to refute this charge, and finally dropped the matter.

King Richard I by the 19th century painter
Merry-Joseph Blondel
Since Richard was at that time busy preparing for the Third Crusade, he sent his mother Queen Eleanor to Navarre to secure Berengaria's hand in marriage. King Sancho was more than happy to accept the proposition and entrusted his willing daughter to Eleanor. We do not know what Berengaria thought about the whole arrangement, but being a dutiful daughter, she was aware of the political advantage of her marriage. And so Eleanor and Berengaria started on their journey not to England, but to Sicily. They were expecting to meet Richard in Messina, but he was already on his journey for the Holy Land. The two women arrived in Messina during Lent, and so the marriage could not take place until after Easter. Richard's sister, Joanna, the Dowager Queen of Sicily, had previously arrived, and she and Berengaria became the closest of friends. Queen Eleanor left Sicily for England with a task of raising money for the Crusade, and Berengaria was left under Joanna's custody. With the crusading forces started on their journey for the Holy Land, arrangements were made for Berengaria and Joanna to set sail to the Holy Land with Richard in a separate ship. En route to the Holy Land, a violent storm came on and scattered the vessels. Richard's ship found shelter in Crete, while Berengaria and Joanna's was driven towards Cyprus. The latter found themselves threatened by the island's ruler, Isaac Comnenus. Eventually, Richard found Berengaria's ship in the open sea, and was indignant to see Isaac and his men plundering the wrecked vessel. Richard led the attack, rescued his fiancee and his sister, captured the island, and overthrew Isaac. Berengaria must have been delighted to be reunited with Richard. It was then decided that their wedding should take place immediately.

Richard and Berengaria were married in Limassol on May 1191, amidst great feasting and revelry. A chronicler wrote: "And there in the joyous month of May, 1191, in the flourishing and spacious isle of Cyprus, celebrated as the very abode of the goddess of love, did King Richard solemnly take to wife his beloved lady Berengaria." The wedding was followed by their coronation. Richard was crowned King of Cyprus, and Berengaria Queen of England and of Cyprus. It was said that Berenagaria's crown was more elaborate and more expensive than those worn by previous Queens of England. It was probably due to her being both Queen of England and Cyprus.

Loretta Young as Berengaria of Navarre from
the movie "The Crusaders", 1935.
Soon after the wedding, Richard immediately set sail to the Holy Land, leaving his wife and his sister to sail under the protection of his most trusted knight, Stephen de Turnham. He was so busy commanding his troops and was in such haste to arrive in Holy Land that observers noted that he did not even spend enough time with his wife. Upon Berengaria and Joanna's arrival at Acre, the place had already been successfully captured by Richard and his men. The ladies stayed there throughout the duration of the Syrian campaign, living in almost harem-like seclusion. While Richard was busy securing the honor and renown he sought, history was silent about Berengaria and her life during this period. I would like to think that she possessed considerable courage and strength of will, since going to the Crusade and the constant dangers of living in a war zone was not an easy thing. Richard, on the other hand, appeared to have had no interest on his wife whatsoever, and many historians believe that the couple's marriage was never consummated. The reasons for this were various: some blame it to Richard being a homosexual, or that he was far too busy with his battles to devote his time to his queen.

After spending a year or two in the Holy Land, Richard finally made truce with his enemy, Saladin. With Jerusalem now under the rule of an Italian nobleman, Richard left the Holy Land, and started on his journey back to Europe. He had already sent Berengaria and his sister back ahead of him to Naples. While Berengaria and Joanna safely arrived in Naples, Richard's ship was wrecked on the coast of Istria. He was captured and imprisoned by the Emperor of Germany, and a huge ransom was demanded for his release. His ever devoted mother, raised the ransom money, and she was aided in this by Berengaria. Richard was released and journeyed back to England after a four-year-absence. As if to make up for the shame of his imprisonment and his long absence, he was re-crowned at Westminster Abbey. This might be the best opportunity to bring Berengaria with him in England and show her to his people. But he did not even bother to recall her. When he went to Normandy to check on his French territories, he did not make any effort to see Berengaria despite ample opportunities. It was said that during this time, Richard renewed his connections with "profligate and worthless set of persons with whom he had been associated in his bachelor days".

Berengaria was in a humiliating situation, but she kept her dignity and patience. The Church then finally intervened and reprimanded Richard. When he fell ill and thought that he was going to die, he admitted his faults and vowed that if he recovered, and if Berengaria would forgive him, he would never leave her again. He did recovered, and as he promised, he went to Poitou where Berengaria was residing, and became reconciled with her. She welcomed him with joyful forgiveness, wisely avoiding from giving him any reproaches. In the Polychronicon, a entry was found about the couple: "The King took to him his Queen Berengaria, whose society he had for a long time neglected, though she were a royal, eloquent, and beauteous lady, and for his love had ventured with him through the world." Berengaria indeed loved Richard, and throughout his time in France, she never left his side, even when he was on his campaigns. He further sealed the reconciliation by giving her the royal revenues arising from the mines in Cornwall and Devonshire for her dower. Unfortunately, her renewed happiness was short-lived. The couple's reconciliation proved to be unfruitful, and Richard, despairing of heirs by his queen, eventually named his younger brother John as heir to the throne of England. Richard never returned to England - his continental possessions had always been more important for him than England, which he viewed as only a source of money and resources for his wars. And thus Berengaria remained Queen of a country which she had never seen.

Queen Berengaria's tomb and effigy in
the Cathedral of St. Juliens in Le Mans, France
Richard died on 1199, when he was 42 years old, as a result of an arrow wound. Berengaria was with him when he died, and was a witness to the testimony that Richard left his crown and his kingdom to his brother John. Although she was still young and beautiful, Berengaria never remarried, and retired in Le Mans, one of her dower properties, where she founded the Abbey of L'Espan. She had never been insistent upon her marital rights, but when it came to her dower rights, she proved to be firm and unyielding. King John refused to pay her her dower rights, and she came to England to demand what was due to her. John treated her shabbily, but she refused to back down. She appealed to the Pope, who championed her cause. King John finally relented (after the threat of excommunication), but he died before the payment could be made. John's son, now King Henry III, finally set things straight, and Berengaria's courage and persistence were rewarded when she received her pension from England.

She spent the remaining years of her life at the stately Abbey of L'Espan, doing good works like feeding the poor, and caring for abandoned children. She died in 1230 and was buried in her abbey.

Berengaria, although one of the least known about Queens of England, proved to be, as her story shows, a virtuous, courageous and admirable woman. I also find her to be a sympathetic figure - she truly loved and admired her husband, but unfortunately for her, Richard seemed to be more interested in battling his wars than being with his wife. We would never know what her feelings were regarding her husband's neglect of her - she took her heart's secrets to her grave. Her devotion to Richard was commendable, and this was best summed up by the English writer Agnes Strickland: "From early youth to her grave, Berengaria manifested devoted love for Richard; uncomplaining when deserted by him, forgiving when he returned, and faithful to his memory even unto death."

Agnes Strickland, The Lives of the Queens of England.
Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort, England's Medieval Queens.


Anonymous said...

A remarkable woman in any age. LvS

Gem said...

I agree. :-)

Unknown said...

Nice to read about Berengaria. I previously didn't know much about her. Thanks. One thing, King John's heir was Henry III, his father was the great king Henry II.

Gem said...

Thanks for the correction Genevieve. Sometimes I get confused with the names of the early Plantagenet kings because of the many Henry's, and Edward's.

scotialass said...

Hi everyone! Glad to know there is still interest in this intriguing queen! I've been fascinated by her for a long time; probably because there is so little known of her. Queen without a Country is a wonderful historical novel by Rachel Bard if you'd like to read more about B! Wanted to remark that the abbey is called "L'Epau". Also, I have a theory as to why Richard, who was often ill for weeks at a time, and Berengaria had no children. I think he might have contracted Miliaria. If you read up on that disease, you'll find it could have been contracted in many places across the world 817 years ago. If he did have it, it could have caused him to be sterile!!!

Gem said...

@Scotialass: Thank you for your wonderful insights!

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