"And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea."
- Heaven-Haven by Father Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889)
Before it was unified with France in 1620, the small kingdom of Navarre lay in the north-west of the Iberian peninsula, bordering the Bay of Biscay. In 1170, it was ruled over by thirty-eight year old King Sancho VI, nicknamed "Sancho the Wise" or "Sancho el Sabio" by his subjects. Reflecting its location between a disunited Spain, imperialist England and fractured France, Navarre had an ethnically and religiously diverse population. The majority were either Occitan-French or Basque, but there were sizable Jewish and Islamic communities, too. The capital city was Pamplona, today part of Spain; its major cathedral was the magnificent Santa Maria le Real (the existing Santa Maria in modern Pamplona is a replacement, completed in the early sixteenth century.)
We have no way of knowing when Princess Berengaria was born into Navarre's first family - she was named after her grandmother, Berengaria of Barcelona. Records are frustratingly vague and there is a five year margin of guesswork, between 1165 and 1170. Her father, Sancho the Wise, had ruled Navarre since succeeding to the throne in 1150, at the age of eighteen. He was a tenacious defender of Navarre's independence from the neighbouring kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. A patron of the arts, particularly architecture, he was also a talented diplomat who had not only outwitted the expansionist designs of Aragon and Castile, but also established friendly relations with Henry II's England - then, unquestionably, the dominant political force in western Europe. Henry II had an empire that stretched from the Pennines to the Pyrenees; his inheritance from his father had given him huge tracts of land in northern France; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine meant that he had de facto control of Navarre's closest neighbour and, around the time Berengaria was born, Ireland had fallen to Henry's seemingly-unstoppable taste for glory. It was therefore a very good idea to keep the English on-side in the 1170s and this policy of her father's would later shape Berengaria's entire adult life.
Her mother, Queen Sancha, was a daughter of the King of Castile and his wife, a former princess from Aragon. As things go, Sancha herself was living proof that the theory that peace between nations could be guaranteed by royal marriages was hit-and-miss, at best. The deliciously-named Sancho and Sancha had six children together, with Berengaria apparently being born somewhere in the middle. Her eldest brother, another Sancho, was the heir to the throne and nicknamed "Sancho the Strong" by his subjects. He certainly had all the looks of a handsome, medieval warrior. He was also incredibly tall - one anthropologist suggested after studying Sancho's remains that he could have reached nearly 7 ft in height, although that seems slightly improbable. Sancho seems to have been proud of his looks and when he developed a weight problem in old age, he apparently felt the humiliation keenly. The other children, apart from Berengaria, were her brothers, Ferdinand and Ramiro, and her two sisters, Constanza and Blanca.
Appropriately enough for a girl whose father had the sobriquet of "the wise," Berengaria of Navarre acquired a reputation for intelligence. She also seems to have generally been considered very attractive. Like Anne Boleyn four centuries later however, there was one eloquent dissenter - the chronicler, Richard of Devizes, thought that Berengaria was more clever than she was beautiful. In general, however, commentators seemed to agree that Berengaria had both beauty and brains - "a beautiful and learned maiden," "beautiful" and "of renowned beauty and wisdom". Even allowing for some of the verbose flattery that was slapped on with a metaphorical trowel for medieval royals, there is enough consistency in the surviving sources to suggest that she was good-looking, like many members of her family, and that she also inherited their brains.
In 1190, when Berengaria was probably about twenty years old, the international situation and her father's politics found her a husband. Henry II of England had died, worn out and dejected by his sons' constant rebellions against him. His eldest surviving son, Richard, had now taken the throne, with the enthusiastic support of his mother, Eleanor, who had sided with her sons against her husband and endured nearly fifteen years of house arrest as a result. The Islamic attacks on the Holy Land had resumed and Europe was once again preparing for a crusade. Determined to go, Richard needed allies and he also needed to produce a son and heir, in order to keep his troublesome younger brother in check. With her family's connections to the Plantagenets and her country's geographically significant location, Berengaria seemed the perfect choice. Already en route to Italy to deal with an assault on his family's interests in Sicily, before setting sail for Palestine, Richard sent his mother south to Pamplona to fetch his betrothed and bring her to him. It was not romantic, but at least it was practical.
By this stage, the English Queen Mother was in her sixties and Berengaria must have quailed at the thought of meeting her. Her scandalous behaviour during the last crusade, her two marriages, her rebellion against her late husband, her larger-than-life personality, her fabulous wealth and her penchant for intrigue had all served to make Eleanor of Aquitaine a legend in her own lifetime. The two women met for the first time in Pamplona and Berengaria's father hosted a splendid banquet in Eleanor's honour at the nearby Palace de Olite. (Below) Then, it was Berengaria's duty to say goodbye to her family and accompany her mother-in-law on the long and perilous journey towards Sicily.
The evidence would suggest that Eleanor and Berengaria did not have a particularly good relationship. In later years, Eleanor was to do absolutely nothing to help Berengaria and she had a tendency, both then and later, to sideline her daughter-in-law in public and in private. The Queen Mother also rather pointedly, and nastily, omitted the usual "dilectissima" or "carissima" when she referred to her daughter-in-law in official proclamations. If this is true, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the journey from Pamplona to Messina was not an enjoyable one. Nor can it have been particularly comfortable, since the two women and their entourage had to pass through the Alps in the dead of winter and then across the inhospitable plains of Lombardy. Feverish to reach her beloved son, Eleanor did not allow any time for rest or relaxation. The only stops they made were near Milan, where Eleanor had some official duties to carry out, and again in Pisa, where she waited for further instructions from Richard. One of Berengaria's first official appearances with the English royal family would have been on her journey with Eleanor during their stopover at Lodi, near Milan, when they met the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI, who was also anxious to end Tancredi's control over Sicily.
It was not an easy time for Eleanor, which may suggest that she was particularly irascible company for poor Berengaria. Her daughter, Joanna, the Queen Dowager of Sicily, had been cheated of her inheritance by a usurper, Tancredi, who had also hurled Joanna into prison and thus necessitated Richard's pre-crusade attack on the island. There were also concerns that Richard's one-time friend (and some said, more than that), King Philip-Augustus of France, was attempting to exploit Tancredi in order to weaken Richard, regardless of the fact that both England and France were theoretically committed to one another because of the crusade.
Berengaria and Eleanor reached Sicily on the last day of March in 1191. The queen-to-be was described by one chronicler as "a wise maiden, noble, brave and fair, neither false nor disloyal." Unfortunately, her arrival coincided with Lent, the great penitential season of the Christian calender and one in which all marriages were prohibited by canon law. Richard and Berengaria could not therefore be legally joined together until the arrival of Easter, several weeks away. In the meantime, she got her first glimpse of her husband's impressive military skill, when he captured the city of Messina and forced Tancredi to release Joanna from her prison in Palermo. Joanna, King Richard's youngest sister, was reunited with her mother and brother and, it seems, that she and Berengaria soon developed a genuine friendship.
What of Richard the Lionheart himself? Well, like his parents, he was good looking. He was also tall and muscular, thanks to his active lifestyle. Despite his commitment to the crusade, there is not much evidence to suggest that he was particularly religious, but nor did he disdain the church or pursue quarrels with it - unlike his father and foolish youngest brother. Enshrined in legend because of his role in the Robin Hood tales, where he features as the archetypal "good king" to his brother John's "bad," Richard's reputation among scholars has fluctuated greatly since his death in 1199. He spent almost none of his reign in England, which led future Victorian scholars to fulminate against him in an outburst of patriotic pique. William Stubbs, the great historian and Anglican Bishop of Oxford, famously described Richard as "a bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler and a vicious man" in his 1864 description of Richard's reign. At the same time, other Victorians were celebrating Richard as the progenitor of the British Empire. Richard does seem to have genuinely deserved his reputation for military genius and Islamic chroniclers at the time paid him the grim tribute of saying that they never "had to face a bolder or more subtle opponent." He was not, however, overly concerned with his subjects' welfare, although he does deserve credit for halting the church-backed anti-Semitic pogrom that broke out in London shortly after his coronation. He also had the Plantagenets' infamous temper tantrum problem. Not quite the "hail-fellow-well-met" national paterfamilias suggested by the Robin Hood legends, Richard the Lionheart was nonetheless a perfectly competent monarch and a brilliant military leader. That being said, the Victorian verdict that he was a "bad husband" may still be a fair assessment.