10 Things You Should Know About Berengaria of Navarre

If history books mention this queen at all, it’s often only to repeat the legend with a little truth that she was Queen of England, but never set foot on English soil. How did that happen? Or did it?

Read on to discover ten important facts about this remarkable woman, the legends and shadows of her history, and the known details of her life and brief reign as England’s “unseen” queen.

  1. Born between 1165-1170 A.D.

It’s not quite clear when Berengaria was born, but we know she was the eldest daugther of  Sancho VI of Navarre and Sancha of Castile. Her father worked to establish peace in Navarre and brought the kingdom onto the European stage as a power to be reckoned with.

Berengaria’s name came from a Latinized Germanic word for “bear spear.” (No, I don’t know why she got that name.) Since she lived in a kingdom that was sort of a cultural and linguistics crossroads, her name can have many spellings.

1190 map of Iberian Peninsula. Navarre is in bright, bright green between “France” and “Spain”

2. From Navarre

So, where is Navarre? Picture France and the Iberian Peninsula (or just look at this map). Nestled between the regions we now call France and Spain and on the side closest to the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Side), well that’s Navarre in the Middle Ages. Technically, the kingdom is usually classified as Spanish, but French influences entered many of the customs and traditions.

In 1185, Berengaria’s father gave her a “little” gift: the fief (territory) of Monreal, located in modern day northern Spain.

3. She had a lovely reputation

Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine and others encouraged troubadours to create elaborate medieval stories, often detailing ideals of chivalry. Interestingly, Navarre adopted an interest in this skilled minstrels and they, in turn, wrote wonderful poems about Navarre’s princess, praising her as virtuous, pure, and beautiful.

3. It’s unclear if her story is all romance, reality, or a little of both

Spoiler: Berengaria marries the King of England. But whether she married for love, power, or to please her elders is completely unclear. There are stories that Berengaria had met her king early in life and they were both smitten. Other stories suggest she was pushed into a loveless marriage.

We do know that Eleanor of Acquitaine, the king’s mother, might have had a hand in some matchmaking. She had a celebratory feast with Berengaria’s father in 1190, but we’re not sure what they celebrated! Also, the English king was rather entangled in a betrothal to the French princess, who was the sister of his ally, Phillip of France, for the Third Crusade. The king broke that engagement, though, leading to tons of speculation on motives…

A Medieval image of Richard I’s coronation in 1189 A.D.

4. Married Richard I of England

Princess Berengaria of Navarre was officially betrothed to King Richard I of England in Messina, Sicily, in 1191, after traveling a great distances with Eleanor of Acquitaine to join the king who was already on his crusade to the Holy Land. While headed for Israel, Berengaria got shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus and when the local ruler and ruffians threatened her, Richard appeared – like a rescuing knight in troubadour tales – rescued the princess and captured the whole island.

Consequently, Berengaria and Richard married on Cyprus Island on May 12, 1191, and that same she was crowned Queen of England.

5. Went on part of the Third Crusade

Technically speaking, Berengaria – now Queen of England – went on part of the Third Crusade. This military/religious venture started as a joint effort by the kings of England and France to lead armies and “rescue” the Holy Land and religious shrines from Muslim rulers. Sometimes called “the king’s crusade,” the expedition did reach the Holy Land, fought Saladin and his warriors, and secured a treaty, but the European knights and armies started quarreling with each other on the expedition, leading to more difficulties on the way home.

Berengaria joined the crusade at Sicily, and we know she made it as far as the island of Cyprus. Accounts suggest King Richard sent her back to safety in mainland Europe shortly after their wedding.

6. Tried to raise money for her husband’s ransom

Richard I, “the Lionheart King”, got imprisoned on his way back to England and his jailers demanded a huge ransom. Ultimately, the kingdom of England – guarded by Richard’s mother and her advisors – raised the ransom, but records show Berengaria attempted some significant fundraising of her own from her temporary home in western France.

Theoretically, this suggests she at least like Richard (or a queen’s title), adding possibility to the legend that she loved England’s king.

The statue carved at Berengaria’s grave. By MOSSOT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9714240

7. A lonely Queen

Richard got released from prison, but he didn’t seem anxious to see his wife. He hastened to England to secure his kingdom, then tarried so long the pope sent orders for the king to come “rescue” Berengaria from her lonely solitude in France. Some accounts claim Richard came to France (remember, England had lands in France) and faithfully took the queen to church every week.

Either way, Berengaria’s life seems lonely and forlorn. Richard didn’t take her England and didn’t seem to spend much time with her. No children arrived, and therefore, no heirs to Richard’s throne when he died in 1199, leaving Berengaria greatly saddened and troubled by the situation.

8. The disliked sister-in-law

Unfortunately for the kingdom and just about everyone, John Lackland – Richard’s youngest brother – became king. John wasn’t a nice man, and his high-handed ways eventually led to the Magna Carta which limited the king’s power and forced him to obey the law.

Berengaria suffered under King John’s rule. He refused to send her the money she was entitled to as queen dowager, until Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Pope ordered John to “pay-up.” We know she sent numerous letters to England, and some historians think she might have briefly visited England after Richard’s death. Whatever the details, this period of her was difficult, but she tried to use the limited power she had to fend for herself in a troubling world. She never remarried.

9. Found religious peace

Berengaria eventually settled in Le Mans, France. She supported an abbey and later entered the convent, finding spirituality and quiet peace after her exciting but lonely life. She died in 1230 and is believed to be buried within the L’Épau Abbey.

Ten years after her death, a bishop wrote about Berengaria with these words: “as a most praiseworthy widow and stayed for the most part in the city of Le Mans, which she held as part of her marriage dower, devoting herself to almsgiving, prayer and good works, witnessing as an example to all women of chastity and religion and in the same city she came to the end of her days with a happy death.”

10. Remembered as a good queen and woman

Though Queen of England for a only a brief time and seemingly ignored by King Richard I, Berengaria reflected life patterns of many noble women during the Middle Ages. Her “voice” and presence in historical records is faint or lost; she was not a powerful, scheming ruler, but she wasn’t really given the opportunity to excel, either.

Still, two images of Berengaria of Navarre emerge in the history books. One image portrays her as a romantic, marrying for love and then getting a broken heart when Richard took his time returning to her. Another image pictures her forced into a completely loveless marriage and eventually just making the best of a tragic life. The truth? Possibly somewhere in the middle of the two stories.

It’s safest to remember Berengaria of Navarre as a princess, queen, and widow who probably always tried to do the right thing, didn’t have the best “luck” in life and love, but found contentment in religious devotion and assisting others. With her kind heart, we can’t help wondering what kind of queen she would’ve been if she had gone to England as Richard I’s bride and actually reigned with him.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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