Berengaria of Navarre (c. 1163–c. 1230)

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Berengaria of Navarre (c. 1163–c. 1230)

Spanish princess who reigned as queen of England with Richard the Lionheart, although she never set foot on English soil. Name variations: Berengare,

Berengeria. Pronunciation: Ber-en-GAR-ee-uh. Born in Pamplona, in the kingdom of Navarre, about 1163 (some sources cite 1165); died after 1230 in l'Epau Abbey near Le Mans, France; daughter of Sancho VI the Wise, king of Navarre (r. 1150–1194), and Sancha of Castile and Leon (d. 1179); daughter-in-law of Eleanor of Aquitaine; married Richard I the Lionheart, king of England (r. 1189–1199), on May 12, 1191, in Cyprus; no children.

Although she was born a princess and was eventually crowned queen of England and Cyprus, Berengaria of Navarre's story has been almost completely obscured by the fame surrounding her husband and his family. Her life and subsequent anonymity exemplify the fate of many medieval princesses, who, as political pawns, were often forced to play a secondary role to the men to whom they were related.

Berengaria was the eldest daughter of King Sancho VI (called the Wise) of Navarre and Queen Sancha of Castile and Leon . During the 12th century, Navarre was a small kingdom situated in the Pyrenees mountains, between France and the larger kingdoms of Castile and Aragon on the Spanish peninsula. Although lacking in size, Navarre was a politically important kingdom because of its strategic location, and thus the leaders of other European countries were often eager to ally themselves with its royal house.

Though both of Berengaria's parents were of Spanish descent, the culture she grew up in was more French than Spanish. Navarre, by virtue of its proximity to France, had adopted many of the Provençal tastes and fashions of southern France. In her father's castles, the princess grew up speaking langue d'oc, the French dialect spoken in the southern regions of France (although she knew Spanish as well). The chroniclers unfortunately do not describe Berengaria to us very clearly; we know she had dark hair and dark eyes and was said to be "beauteous" and "fair," but these were adjectives applied to most royal daughters. She was educated in the accomplishments considered vital to daughters of the upper classes—reading and writing, poetry, playing an instrument, singing, and fine needlecraft. She was thus a part of what has been called the 12th-century renaissance, a time of increased production of poetry and music, and also a part of the age of the troubadours and the "courts of love," from which the concepts of chivalry were developed. Similar to other medieval princesses, it was expected that Berengaria would eventually marry a prince from a foreign country and become that country's queen-consort; her brother, Sancho (VII), the Strong, would inherit their father's crown under the rules of primogeniture.

Betrothals in the 12th century among royal houses were usually made when the bride- and groom-to-be were small children. Betrothal was not, as in the 20th century, a private promise to wed but a binding legal contract signed by the parents of the betrothed. The bride's dowry (monetary payments and land grants to be made by the bride's parents to her new family) and her dower (usually lands or estates to be given to her by her husband's family upon marriage) were the most important part of the betrothal contract. Although royal marriages were arranged early, Berengaria was not formally betrothed to anyone until she was almost 30. It is not clear from the records why her father refused to marry her until such a late age; it was probably not for lack of offers, although perhaps Sancho and Sancha were hoping to gain a major political alliance from their eldest daughter and so refused bridegrooms of small, unimportant kingdoms.

The details of Berengaria's betrothal to and subsequent, though much delayed, marriage to King Richard I the Lionheart of England have often been romanticized by chroniclers and later historians. The facts are much less clear than these storytellers have made them seem, for we have no actual evidence of Berengaria's feelings toward Richard or his own toward her at any time during their years together. They met in 1177 at a tournament given by Berengaria's brother Sancho in Pamplona. At the time, Richard was 20 years old, a young English prince already in rebellion against his father, King Henry II. Richard had been betrothed as a boy to the Princess Alais of France (b. 1160) and was still engaged to her when he met Berengaria, but his constant fighting with his father and Alais' rumored affair with King Henry II prevented his wedding to Alais from taking place.

Richard, whose parents were both French-born, had been raised by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine , in the same Provençal culture Berengaria knew. This probably accounts in part for Richard's affection for members of the royal house of Navarre; he was a close friend to Prince Sancho the Strong, for both were great warriors and poets, and he often visited Pamplona during his younger years. Yet Richard was also politically astute in choosing his friendships, for he was duke of Aquitaine (a province which included most of southern France) and he could see that a political alliance with Navarre through marriage could only help his power struggles, both against his rebellious vassals and his father.

Richard's previous betrothal to Alais of France was an obstacle to Berengaria's marriage that must have seemed impossible to overcome. His relationship to King Philip II Augustus of France was constantly fluctuating, from allies to enemies; thus at times Richard's wedding to Philip's half-sister Alais seemed imminent, only to be delayed again when the constant intrigues of the English and French royal houses shifted alliances between King Henry II, his sons, and King Philip. But after meeting Berengaria in 1177, Richard realized that he might do well to marry into the House of Navarre, although his legal bond to Alais prevented him acting on this idea.

This stalemate might have lasted indefinitely if it were not for the death of King Henry II in July 1189. In the meantime, Berengaria had remained in Navarre; although the chroniclers do not tell us how she occupied her time, it is unlikely that other possible bridegrooms were considered after Richard expressed interest. (This would have been especially true after 1183, when Richard's older brother Henry, heir to the throne, died of a fever, and Richard became the new heir). But with his father's death, Richard, now king of England, believed himself free to marry whomever he chose. Thus, a few months after his coronation, he sent his mother Eleanor to Navarre to negotiate a marriage contract while he journeyed to Naples, Italy, to meet with Philip of France; the two were preparing to accompany each other on a Third Crusade to the Holy Land. In his absence, Eleanor was to act as Richard's regent.

Sancha of Castile and Leon (d. 1179)

Queen of Navarre. Name variations: sometimes referred to as Beatrice or Beatrice of Castile. Died on August 5, 1179 (some sources cite 1177); daughter of Alphonso VII, king of Castile and Leon (r. 1126–1157), andBerengaria of Provence (1108–1149); married Sancho VI the Wise or el Sabio (d. 1194), king of Navarre (r. 1150–1194); children: Sancho VII (b. after 1170), king of Navarre (r. 1194–1234);Berengaria of Navarre (1163–1230);Blanche of Navarre (d. 1229, who married Theobald III, count of Champagne); Costanza (died young); Fernando (d. 1207); Ramiro (d. 1228), bishop of Pamplona.

Sancho readily agreed to the marriage contract and gave Richard two strategically located castles, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Roquebrune, as Berengaria's dowry; Berengaria was granted extensive estates in the county of Maine (in modern-day northwestern France) as her dower. Eleanor, by now in her late 60s, traveled with Berengaria (who was about 27 years old) to Naples, arriving in the later part of 1190. In bringing his prospective bride to Italy, Richard placed himself in a politically dangerous situation. The Princess Alais was being kept a virtual prisoner in the castle of Rouen, in Richard's Aquitainian lands; her brother would not accept her back in France because she was betrothed to Richard, yet Richard would neither marry her nor let her out of Rouen. Richard thus had to find a way to break off the marriage contract to Alais without completely alienating the powerful king of France, with whom he had to work closely if the Crusade were to be a success.

While Richard pondered this dilemma and completed preparations for the army's departure, Eleanor and Berengaria left Naples to spend the winter in the small town of Brindisi, where they remained until the spring of 1191. In the meantime, Richard went to Sicily, where he found a solution to his conjugal problems. His sister, Queen Joanna of Sicily , had been recently widowed by William II of Sicily; William's nephew Tancred had then seized the throne and imprisoned Joanna, and Richard came to Sicily to demand his sister's freedom (which his great army and fierce reputation easily secured). While there, Tancred informed Richard that his supposed ally, King Philip, was secretly plotting against him.

When Richard subsequently met with Philip in Messina, he demanded the end of his betrothal to Alais. The reasons he gave were Philip's recent betrayal and the Princess Alais' affair with his father Henry II. Thus confronted, Philip had little choice but to formally break the betrothal contract and free Richard to marry Berengaria. Only one obstacle remained in preventing the princess of Navarre's wedding: it was the period of Lent, when no weddings could be performed. Since all preparations for the crusade were completed, Richard and Berengaria decided to depart for the Holy Land and hold off their wedding until they reached their destination.

Because Berengaria was as yet unmarried, etiquette prevented her from sailing on Richard's ship. Instead, she took another vessel from Messina, in the company of the widowed Sicilian queen, Richard's sister Joanna, and their commodious baggage. The two women, who were almost the same age, quickly became close friends and remained so for life; a contemporary chronicler of the crusade, Piers of Langtoft, wrote of Berengaria that "Queen Joanna held her dear/They lived as doves in a cage."

Sailing from Messina to Acre, to which they were bound, usually took about three weeks, but it was six adventurous weeks before the royal ladies and Richard reached Acre's shores. A terrifying storm drove many of the ships bearing towards Acre off course, while others were lost at sea (including that carrying the chancellor of England). Richard's ship was spared, but it took days of searching the harbors of the islands of Crete, Rhodes, and Cyprus, before he knew for sure the fate of all the lost vessels.

Joanna of Sicily (1165–1199)

Queen of Sicily. Name variations: Joan or Johanna of Sicily; Joanna of England. Born in Angers in 1165; died in childbirth in 1199; third daughter of Henry II, king of England, andEleanor of Aquitaine ; sister of Richard the Lionheart, king of England, andMatilda of England , among others; married William II (d. 1189), king of Sicily (whose mother wasMargaret of Navarre ), in 1177; married Raymond VI (d. 1222), count of Toulouse, in 1196.

After the death of her husband William II of Sicily in 1189, Joanna accompanied her brother Richard the Lionheart and Berengaria of Navarre to the Holy Land. The sisters-in-law became lasting friends. Richard proved his skill and ruthlessness in successive battles against Saladin, notably in a victory at Arsuf, despite being outnumbered three to one. Although rudimentary rules of war had been worked out among Christian princes in the preceding centuries, none of them applied to the "infidel" Muslims, and Richard showed his mercilessness by massacring the Saracen prisoners taken during the battle of Acre. The fighting in the Holy Land was punctuated by periodic negotiations, but the crusaders' demand for the entire Holy Land was far more than Saladin was willing to yield. At one point, Richard even suggested that in return for Jerusalem he would arrange for a marriage between Joanna and Saladin's brother Saphadin; the plan was scotched, however, when Joanna indignantly refused, unless Saphadin would convert to Christianity (which, of course, he would not). Upon returning to Europe, Joanna married Raymond VI of Toulouse.

One of the missing vessels was that carrying Berengaria and Joanna; after some time, the ship was discovered, intact, off the coast of the island of Cyprus. Driven off course, its captain had sought shelter in the island's harbor of Famagusta, but the crew and the royal ladies were kept from coming ashore by the Lord of Cyprus, Isaac Comneni. The Greek Isaac distrusted Westerners, especially Crusaders, and brought soldiers to the shores of Cyprus as a warning to the ship not to attempt a landing. So for days Berengaria was kept almost a prisoner by Isaac; the ship was too damaged by the storm to set sail, yet it could not be brought into the harbor.

When Richard discovered the ship holding his future bride and his beloved sister anchored off the island and learned of their treatment at Isaac's hands, he did not hesitate in making war on Isaac and the Cypriots. His army soon conquered the entire island and took Isaac and his daughter captive. Richard presented Isaac's daughter to Berengaria as her own prisoner; it is recorded that Berengaria did not punish the young girl for her father's actions but rather set about educating her. The princess kept the girl (whose name is not recorded) at her side as an attendant throughout the crusade.

After the conquest of Cyprus, Richard and Berengaria decided to celebrate their marriage on the island, in the capital city of Limassol. A three-day festival preceded the wedding, which took place on May 12, 1191. At this long-awaited event, the princess of Navarre wore a white dress banded by jeweled ribbons at her neck and waist; over this was a brocaded mantle (cape) and a white veil covered her hair. Berengaria's coronation as both queen of England and queen of Cyprus immediately followed the wedding. At last, she was a queen, a position she had been promised for over 14 years, yet one she would only hold for eight. But Berengaria had little time to enjoy her new-found status, for soon after the festivities ended, the army set sail again for Acre.

The chroniclers do not give us much information about Berengaria during the rest of the crusade, only that she saw very little of her new husband, who was constantly occupied with directing the army's efforts. The Christian army remained in the Holy Land from June 1191 to September 1192, until it was all but completely destroyed in the fruitless attempt to conquer the Muslim army of Saladin. Leading what remained of the army, Richard set out for home. (Because of illness, Philip had abandoned the crusade in 1191, soon after the battle of Acre.) Once again Berengaria and Joanna of Sicily boarded a ship, again without Richard, who, fearing his many enemies, had decided to disguise himself and take another ship back to his domains.

The two royal women journeyed safely to Naples and then went on to Rome, presumably to wait for Richard. But many weeks later they learned that Richard had been discovered and captured by his enemy, King Leopold of Austria, who was holding him hostage. For fear of Leopold and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, both of whom declared Richard the Lionheart their mortal enemy, Berengaria decided to remain in Rome under the pope's protection. After six months of waiting for news of her husband's whereabouts, she begged the pope to send her under guard to her husband's lands in Aquitaine; the pope agreed and she was brought safely to Marseilles. There the king of Aragon provided safe transport for the young English queen, along with the widowed queen of Sicily, to the town of Poitou in Aquitaine, where they arrived about the middle of 1193. It was another year before Richard was ransomed and returned safely to England, in April 1194.

At this time, it became clear that Richard and Berengaria had become estranged. He did not bring her to England during his stay there after his return, nor did he visit her when he was in Aquitaine on the Continent. The reasons for this rupture are unknown; historians have suggested that Richard knew Berengaria was barren, for there had not even been a rumor of a pregnancy since her marriage, and thus avoided her, but the couple had almost never been together since May 1191, so this conclusion seems unlikely. Others have suggested that Richard was in love with another woman or that he might have been homosexual, but these theories have not been proven or disproven.

Thus, Berengaria settled down into a somewhat ambiguous position. She was Richard's wife, yet rarely saw him; she was queen of England but rivaled another woman for the title: Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Despite the fact that her own husband was deceased and the new king had a wife, Eleanor continued to hold the responsibilities, privileges, and title of queen of England; she still signed documents and letters with her accustomed signature, Alienor Dei Gracia Regine Anglorum (Eleanor, by the Grace of God Queen of England), and acted as the true ruler of England while Richard was absent (which was most of his reign). Thus, Berengaria was denied a role in the administration of the kingdom, a privilege which most queens enjoyed. Yet she seems to have possessed at least the outward respect due to her as a crowned queen, and there is no evidence that she was unhappy with her circumstances. As historian Amy Kelly writes in Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, "Though apparently on fair terms with Eleanor, who had certainly usurped her function, [Berengaria] seems to have kept mainly to her own dower properties in Maine, but without establishing a court for herself or Richard."

After about a year of living in Maine, the princess of Navarre was reconciled with her husband. This was in the spring of 1195, when Richard, only 38 years old, fell suddenly and violently ill. Despairing of his life, he vowed that if he recovered he would repent of his sins and never forsake his wife again. He did recover and sent for Berengaria to meet him in Poitiers later that year. Though they remained together for a couple of years, the beginning of 1199 found Berengaria back on her estates in Maine, while Richard continued the provincial wars he was waging against his rebellious vassals.

She lived to a great age, and died beloved by all and full of honour, [the] only English queen who never saw England.

—Elizabeth Villiers

Berengaria was still in Maine in April 1199, spending her time in the administration of her estates and in reading, embroidery, and music, when she received word that Richard had been killed while besieging the castle of Château-Chalus. How the newly widowed queen felt is uncertain, for we have no letters or descriptions of her state of mind during her initial mourning period. Several days after Richard's death, word came that her beloved friend and longtime companion Joanna of Sicily (who had remarried) had died in childbirth. A week or so later, Berengaria heard that her only sister Blanche of Navarre (d. 1229) had also died giving birth to a son.

It is perhaps not surprising given the sorrows she bore that Berengaria, only 36 years old, chose at this time to retire to a life of seclusion in the old city of Le Mans in the county of Maine. But she did not pass her time idly. Instead, she set to work founding a new abbey and convent, called L'Epau Abbey, at Le Mans, using her dower income to support its construction as well as to give generously to charitable works. She was rarely seen outside the city after 1199, although several times she sent messages and letters to King John (Richard's brother, who had succeeded him), asking for payment of the annuity which she had a right to as the king's widow. John was unable or unwilling to help her settle her accounts, and it wasn't until his son succeeded as Henry III that Berengaria was able to force the crown, with the help of the pope, to give her her due.

The widowed queen became renowned throughout France and England for her charitable nature during her years in retirement. The abbey's construction was finally completed in 1230. At that time, Berengaria moved into the convent at L'Epau, where she lived as a nun, although she did not take a nun's vows. The queen of England who never saw England died at her stately abbey several years later and was buried in the abbey church in a magnificent tomb. This tomb, which can still be seen today at the abbey, bears a beautiful carved effigy of Berengaria as she had appeared on her wedding day, 40 years earlier.


Hewitt, Mary E. "Berengaria of Navarre," in Lives of Some Famous Women of All Ages. NY: Birdsey-Somers, 1912.

Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Villiers, Elizabeth. "The Queen Who Never Saw England," in Love Stories of English Queens. Philadelphia, PA: David McKay, 1918.

suggested reading:

Bridge, Antony. Richard the Lionheart. London: Grafton Books, 1989.

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. The Plantagenet Chronicles. NY: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986.

Labarge, Margaret Wade. Women in Medieval Life. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986.

Laura York , freelance writer in women's history and medieval history, Anza, California

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Berengaria of Navarre (c. 1163–c. 1230)

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