Berengaria of Navarre
Queen of England, 1191-1199
From obscure Basque princess to queen of England was a long leap for Berengaria, daughter of King Sancho the Wise of Navarre. And not only queen of England, but wife of the most famous warrior of the age, Richard the Lionheart.
The 1191 marriage was engineered by Richard’s mother, Queen Eleanor. King Henry II had just died. Richard, now king, was unmarried and the royal succession required an heir. Eleanor insisted that he marry before leaving for the Third Crusade. She brought the bride she’d chosen, twenty-six-year-old Berengaria, to Sicily just before Richard sailed off to the Holy Land. She ordered that Berengaria accompany him, to reduce the chances of his philandering and hasten the production of offspring.
Though Berengaria came to love Richard, he proved an indifferent husband, more interested in his battles than his wife. The Crusade fizzled out, no child was born, and upon her return to France Berengaria seldom saw Richard. In 1199 he died, without ever taking her to the country of which she was queen.
Widowed and almost impoverished, she lived quietly in a small castle near Angers. Since she had never borne the required heir, her English in-laws ignored her. Richard’s successor, King John, refused to send her her inheritance, despite her repeated pleas and demands. Then through an unlikely agent, fate intervened. King Philip of France, for devious diplomatic reasons, named her Dame of Le Mans. Her financial future was secure. For twenty-five years she governed wisely and firmly, surprising the powerful churchmen who had ruled the city and expected to bend a weak woman to their will.
As final vindication, King John’s successor, Henry III, acknowledged her rights and sent the inheritance that was due her.
She died in 1230, just before the dedication of her most enduring legacy, the magnificent Abbey of Epau in Le Mans, which still stands. Her tomb and her effigy are in the Cathedral of St. Julien in Le Mans, where the inscription reads:
“To the sovereign majesty, beauty and goodness and the virtues of her youth, were added her greatness in adversity and her resignation in sacrifice.”
Learn more about Queen Berengaria of Navarre:
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, by Amy Kelly. Harvard University Press, 1950.
Richard the Lionheart, by John Gillingham. Times Books, 1978