Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Crusader's Bride: The Life of Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England

"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.

Because they were not yet married, Richard and Berengaria did not sail together when the crusading convoy set off with a fleet of 219 ships on the Wednesday of Holy Week, 1191. Instead, she travelled on a ship with her future sister-in-law, the recently-liberated Joanna. Eleanor did not accompany them; she went back to England to help oversee the government during Richard's absence. It's hard to imagine that Berengaria shed too many tears over the Queen Mother's departure and it's perhaps during the voyage that Berengaria and Joanna's friendship began.

Berengaria got another opportunity to witness her husband's fighting prowess when she and Joanna got into difficulties off the coast of Crete. Their section of the fleet was hit by a storm and the captain in charge of the royal women's safety made for the shelter of nearby Cyprus, which was ruled by the thoroughly unlikable Isaac Komnenos. Isaac was an offshoot of the powerful Komnenos dynasty, who ruled the Byzantine empire. (His great-grandfather had been given the rather lovely nickname of Emperor John the Beautiful.) Isaac seems to have inherited all of the Komnenos's appetite for power, but very little of their aptitude for it. His rule in Cyprus was characterised by dishonesty and manipulation - even according to Byzantine sources. Instead of offering Joanna and Berengaria asylum, he essentially took them prisoner and tried to extort a fat ransom from Richard and the Third Crusade. He should have seen how Richard had treated Tancredi in Sicily and let the women go once the weather turned, but he didn't, and Richard descended on Cyprus, swiftly conquering it and tossing the luckless Isaac into prison.

Byzantium and all its many satellites did not fare too well as a result of the Catholic-led Third Crusade. It's therefore quite possible that historians are right in suggesting that Richard the Lionheart was always planning to invade Cyprus and Isaac's thuggish attitude to Berengaria and Joanna simply furnished him with a useful excuse for doing so. Either way, with Isaac now deposed and Lent over, Richard and Berengaria could at last get married and the royal nuptials were celebrated with appropriate magnificence. The wedding mass took place in the Chapel of Saint George in Lissamol, Cyprus. Later, some saw the decision to marry in a church dedicated to Saint George as a nod to the kingdom Richard had left behind, but that seems to be endowing Richard with a sentimental nationalism that he probably did not possess. In any case, in the twelfth century, it was Saint Edmund the Martyr who was more often venerated as England's national saint, rather than the dragon-slaying Saint George. Maybe Richard identified with George because he saw George's own fight against the dragon of darkness as a perfect analogy for his own coming fight with the Islamic caliphates. Maybe the chapel was just the closest available. Who knows?

After three weeks in which the last vestiges of Isaac's rule were swept away and the crusade's hold over the island was solidified, Richard and Berengaria set sail for the Holy Land. This time, on the same ship. There were more celebrations en route when Richard's fleet captured an important Muslim supply ship, bound for Palestine. Then, after a short voyage, Berengaria, now Queen of the English and Duchess of the Normans, arrived in the Holy Land, in the port of Acre. Palestine occupied a potent, almost siren-like, place in the collective imagination of medieval Christians. It combined both the fantasy of exotic Eastern life with the obsessive piety of the period. In an age when holiness was believed to increase in direct proportion to a location's spiritual-historical significance, there was nowhere that excited Christian hearts quite like the earthly dwelling places of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the prophets and the holy apostles.

Sadly, Berengaria did not have the chance to bask in either the heat or the holiness of the Holy Land. Instead, while Richard went off to fight under the banner of Christ, she was left behind in Acre, with Joanna and one of the daughters of Isaac Komnenos for company. One chronicler rather movingly describes the three women as forming a close companionship "like birds in a cage." And that does seem to be a fairly accurate description of Berengaria's early married life. There occasional relief to the undoubted boredom of her everyday existence, particularly when she and Joanna were allowed to become the star players at Richard's extravagant Yuletide celebrations. The marriage, for one reason or another, does not seem to have been particularly happy - either at the start or at the end. Other royal marriages got off to a rocky start, but soon developed into something better. The marriage of Charles I and Henrietta-Maria in 1625, which began with the young queen punching her fist through a window in rage at her household arrangements (my kinda gal), springs fabulously to mind. 

Part of the problem may have been that Berengaria had married into an impossible situation, because her husband had no sexual or romantic interest in the opposite sex. Berengaria's own most recent biographer, Ann Trindale, has drawn attention to the use of the word "vehemence" in contemporary chronicles when describing Richard's emotional attachment to other men. "Vehemence" was a strong word, generally reserved in medieval vocabulary to describe a disordered emotion - in this case, lust. It was the historian John Harvey, in his 1948 book The Plantagenets, who first expounded the theory (in depth) that Richard the Lionheart was gay (as we would now understand it.) At one point, Richard was publicly rebuked by a religious hermit for his "sodomy," although it has fairly been pointed out that "sodomy" was only taken to refer exclusively to homosexuality at a much later date. Originally, it often meant blasphemy or, by Richard's time, any kind of sexual activity outside of procreative marital sex. 

The case for arguing that Berengaria's husband was gay has been weakened by the rather fantastic candidates suggested for his lovers. His one-time friend, King Philip-Augustus of France, is often cited, perhaps because of the artistically brilliant portrayal of their dysfunctional relationship in the twentieth century play The Lion in Winter. There is no doubt that at some point the two men were very, very close. When Richard was forced to flee to Paris during his youthful rebellion against his father, Philip-Augustus had welcomed him with open arms. (And more, if subsequent historians are to be believed.) The two young men "ate from the same table and drank from the same cup and at night they slept in the same bed." Richard's father was apparently "dumbfounded" by his son's obsessive feelings for Philip-Augustus and, according to the same chronicler, these feelings were reciprocated - with Philip-Augustus loving Richard "as his own soul".  Cast in this light, Philip-Augustus's later vindictiveness towards Richard emerges as the actions of a spurned and embittered ex. The historian Lisa Hilton, however, has pointed out "there was nothing at all unusual about medieval men sharing either plates or beds". An even more fantastic rumour is that one of Richard's conquests was Berengaria's elder brother, Sancho, which seems highly improbable, to say the least. If Richard  I was gay, and the suggestion cannot be lightly discounted, then it's more probable that his lovers were not fellow kings, but names that are now lost to us.

Two of Richard's modern biographers are divided on the issue. John Gilingham, in his Yale University Press biography of Richard, dismisses the notion that Richard had male lovers and instead argues that whilst he was unfaithful to Berengaria, it was with women, not with men. A 1999 French-language biography of Richard, by Jean Flori, suggests that Richard I was probably bisexual and that he went through stages of his life in which he was more attracted to one gender than the other. There is, in conclusion, no easy answer about Richard I's sexuality. It is certainly more than possible that he preferred his own gender, or both, and that he had a reputation in his own lifetime (either deserved or undeserved) for sexual excess. Whether that reputation was for promiscuity with women or an attraction to men is, frustratingly, unverifiable. 

The Third Crusade, which has been associated with the legend of Richard the Lionheart ever since, was by and large successful in shoring-up Christian dominance of Palestine. However, its sheen was forever tarnished by the fact that it failed to gain its ultimate objective - the reconquest of Jerusalem from the control of the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin. By the summer of 1192, the war had reached an impasse and King Richard was forced to concede that there was no viable way to break the Islamic control over Jerusalem. Richard's willingness to compromise over the issue of sovereignty of Jerusalem was brought about not only by his sense of pragmatism (his French and German allies had proved less than useless), but also because he had come to respect, and even admire, his main opponent - Sultan Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb. Known more often as Saladin in European sources, the sultan was noted for his chivalry, honourable nature and his military skill. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Richard was evenly-matched and he knew it. 

With the crusade now drawing to its close, the decision was taken to send the two queens - Berengaria and Joanna - back to Europe. Along with their companion, the disinherited Cypriot princess, the two women set sail from Acre in September 1192. Richard stayed behind briefly and the treaty that ended the Third Crusade guaranteed the continued existence of a Christian kingdom in Palestine, centred on Acre, but allowed Saladin to retain possession of Jerusalem. In return, Richard elicited a promise that unarmed Christian pilgrims were to be allowed access to the city and to its main holy places - particularly Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was believed to stand on the site of Christ's original tomb.

Berengaria and Joanna landed in Brindisi, a port city in south-eastern Italy, after a fairly uneventful voyage and Berengaria then made a leisurely trip to Rome. She seems to have shown no real interest in hurrying towards England or,  indeed, any part of the Plantagenet empire. It might have been that she was waiting for specific instructions from Richard, but given that his ultimate destination was supposed to be London, it is curious that the Queen did not go there to wait for him. The estrangement between the couple seemed even more obvious when Berengaria received the news that Richard had been kidnapped just outside Vienna and handed over to his former allies-turned-enemies, the Holy Roman Emperor, who, with the support of Philip-Augustus of France, now imprisoned Richard with the unheard-of ransom fee of 100,000 marks. It was Richard's mother, Eleanor, who raised the money - resorting to fair means and foul. Berengaria, it seems, did absolutely nothing.

On the one hand, Berengaria lacked any real political authority. Unlike Eleanor, who had the reins of government firmly in her hands in England, Berengaria technically had no means of raising the kind of money the Emperor and Philip-Augustus wanted in return for Richard's release. But Berengaria was not destitute and as her time in Rome showed, she had good credit with the city's bankers. Even a token gesture of donating some of her own income would have indicated that she too was anxious to see her husband freed from prison. Yet, again, she did nothing. Even though she had barely spent any time with him in Palestine, it is hard to escape the logical conclusion that Berengaria's actions are not those of a conventionally loyal medieval wife.

The attempts to free Richard are dealt with in much more detail in this blog's chapter of Eleanor of Aquitaine's later life. In the meantime, Berengaria returned to live with her natal family. It was a smart move, but not exactly a romantic one. If England could not raise the money to liberate its king, then at some point it's quite possibly that Berengaria's family might want to see her marriage to Richard annulled, so that she could be freed to marry someone more useful. She apparently spent those two years quite happily, shuttling between her family's many homes, and enjoying far more freedom than she ever had at her husband's side. Her failure to go to England, which would have been useless in terms of fundraising for Richard but a powerful gesture of solidarity all the same, not only backs-up the idea that she wasn't close to her husband, but also that she did not much care for the thought of spending time with her mother-in-law again. Whatever the reasons for Berengaria's actions during the two years in which Richard was a hostage (and it should be stressed that all the reasons suggested here are pure speculation), she was not even in England to welcome Richard home when he was finally released in 1194. 

The couple were not reunited until the summer of that year and it was in the French part of the Plantagenets' empire. When Berengaria did rejoin her husband, she came with a little family support in the (tall) shape of her eldest brother, Sancho. (One version of Richard's life suggests that during this re-union, he was far more interested in Sancho than in Berengaria and that his interest may have been reciprocated. As fun as that story sounds from the point of view of melodrama, it's improbable to the highest degree.) Not long after reuniting with Richard, Sancho left Berengaria to go home to Navarre. Their father had died at the age of sixty-two and Sancho was now King Sancho VII. He returned to Pamplona strongly committed to his country's alliance with England - although unfortunately for generations of scandal-lovers, that's almost certainly because of Richard's skill as a warrior, rather than as a bed-mate. Shortly after his coronation, Sancho married Constance of Toulouse and Berengaria attempted to get on with married life with Richard.

Even now, however, there doesn't seem to have been much of a thrill of a reunion between the King and the Queen. They were together to witness Joanna's marriage to the Count of Toulouse, a man with whom she was spectacularly unhappy. A Toulouse marriage would guarantee the borders of Richard's possessions in Aquitaine and, with the count's sister having just married Berengaria's brother, it created a neat network of political marriages that were supposed to secure peace in the region. That the majority of these marriages were personally miserable was irrelevant. Sancho and Constance ended up getting divorced five years after marrying; Count Raymond was often spiteful in his treatment of Joanna and there is every possibility that Berengaria was married to someone who would much rather have been married to a man. Even if he didn't, he wasn't faithful to her and there is ample evidence in the surviving sources to prove that everyone could see that something was wrong with the royal marriage.

In her excellent account of England's medieval queens, Lisa Hilton has noted that in some of the contemporary romances written about Richard's kidnapping, a prominent character is a minstrel called Blondel, who wandered piteously around Austria and Germany singing songs beneath castle windows until he heard Richard's voice in return and identified where his master was being held. It's almost certain that there was no single, real man called Blondel in Richard's household, but, as Hilton notes, "in some versions [of the story] Blondel is portrayed as a rival to Queen Berengaria for Richard's love. That it is entirely fictitious does not entirely dismiss the possibility that contemporaries thought Richard had love affairs with men and that the Blondel story could be a reformulation of collective rumours." If Jean Flori's theory is followed, it's certainly possible that after emerging from his captivity in Austria, Richard had entered into a love affair (or sexual liaison) with one of his male servants and that the Blondel character is a later reflection of this.

There is intriguing evidence from the time to suggest that this is just about possible. Or that it was widely believed, which is not the same thing, of course. In 1195, the year after he reunited with Berengaria, the King paid a visit to a hermit, who had dedicated his life to abstinence and a Philippians 2:12-approach to personal salvation. Holy persons, then and now, can have a jaw-dropping disregard for their social superiors and this hermit in 1195 was no exception. Fired up with religious zeal, he told Richard to remember "the destruction of Sodom and abstain from unlawful things". If he didn't, of course, the threat of God's fiery wrath hung over his head like the Judeo-Christian sword of Damocles.

Scholars still debate whether the Biblical story of Sodom was actually about homosexuality and, even if it wasn't, if it was interpreted that way by subsequent generations. Bible stories are naturally constantly being reinterpreted in a religion that has lasted for thousands of years. Even if the hermit did mean homosexuality, it's possible that he was just responding to inaccurate rumours about Richard, rather than correctly identifying a genuine part of the King's psychology. Either way, the most important part of the story was the hermit's hectoring that Richard should go back to his wife "whom he had not known for a long time, and renouncing unlawful intercourse, [should be] united with his wife". It's here that we can clear and irrefutable evidence that Berengaria's marriage was known to be dysfunctional - even if we can debate over what the reasons for that were. Even after a year of being together again, the hermit's rant makes it clear that they had not been sleeping together and therefore hadn't been since the time of the crusade, at least three years earlier. It's my own hunch that Richard's own courtiers may have put the hermit up to it or fed him the information about the King and Queen's sex life. They may have been understandably worried about Richard's continued lack of a son or of the rumours concerning his private life. Maybe they hoped to frighten him back to Berengaria for the good of the dynasty.

If that was their plan, then it worked. The King fell ill during Holy Week and surrounded by his doctors and priests, he became convinced that the hermit had spoken the truth and that he was being punished for abstaining from his procreational duty with Berengaria. In his desperation to recover, he made gifts to local churches, distributed alms to the poor and heard Mass frequently. He also, of course, sent for Berengaria and for a while after his scare, the couple seem to have been man and wife in practise, as well as in law. Naturally, once Richard had decided he actually wanted to have sex with her, there was nothing the Queen could do but submit with the best grace possible.

For a time afterwards, there was discussion of Richard and Berengaria building their own palace together in Normandy, but nothing much came of it. Tensions soon resurfaced in the royal family. Berengaria's dowry had not been paid in full, she was still childless and Richard still left her for long stretches of time, officially on the pretext of fulfilling his military obligations. It's true that the last half of Richard's reign was plagued by fighting with Philip-Augustus over the provinces of Gisors and the Vexin, but even that cannot adequately explain why he spent so much time away from her unless he did not particularly care one way or the other if he saw her. Despite the occasional reunion, Berengaria of Navarre spent most of the second half of her married life in much the same way as she spent the first - alone.

Richard was still off fighting when, on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1199, he was hit by an assassin's arrow whilst inspecting the walls of Chalus-Chabrol Castle. He died on 6th April, aged forty-one, magnanimously forgiving the young man who had shot him. He even gave him one hundred shillings and sent him on his way. (Richard's followers, crazed with grief, waited until the King was dead before hunting the poor boy down and torturing him to death.) The Queen Mother was summoned to Richard's deathbed, but Berengaria wasn't even told that he was sick. Instead, she had to hear the news from the Bishop of Lincoln (later made a saint by Pope Honorius III.) Bishop Hugh had been travelling to meet the King when he heard the news that Richard had died; it was he who broke the news to the Queen and celebrated a Mass for her. According to Berengaria's confessor, she had been genuinely grief-stricken by the news of her husband's death and the presence of the gentle Bishop Hugh had helped calm her. It's possible, of course, that Berengaria was far more concerned about what her status would be as a childless queen dowager, but equally she could have developed genuine feelings for Richard, despite all their difficulties.

To add insult to injury, Berengaria was not even invited to Richard's funeral at Fontevrault, the magnificent dynastic necropolis his mother Eleanor had spent years overseeing. Either that or she simply did not feel the need to go. She did admittedly visit Fontevrault not long after, but even then her behaviour was somehow detached from the situation. She showed no real sign of the grief that had seized Eleanor and instead spent a lot of her time with a papal diplomat, Cardinal di Capua, trying to smooth out a few concerns about the forthcoming marriage of her younger sister, Blanca. Berengaria, it seems, was all business, despite her confessor's kindly claim that she was "almost broken hearted."

Since she and Richard had never had any children together, the English crown now passed to Richard's younger brother, Prince John. Despite her misgivings about him, Eleanor helped put him on the throne and crushed the chances of a rival claimant, Arthur of Brittany. King John was a duplicitous and grossly greedy character and he began trying to cheat his sister-in-law out of her inheritance almost from the moment he got his greasy little fingers on the royal sceptre. Berengaria fought to try to get something out of John, but without much luck. She spent most of the next few years living with her sister Blanca, now Countess of Champagne. It must have been a rather fun environment, despite Berengaria's increasing financial difficulties. Her confessor, Abbot Adam, repeatedly criticised the extravagance and frequent parties at Blanca's court. As a medieval priest, that was his job, but neither Berengaria nor Blanca seem to have paid him much mind.

With no money coming from England, Berengaria was eventually forced to throw herself on the mercy of the French monarchy. They reacted chivalrously to her plight, perhaps to shame the miserly English. She rather theatrically abandoned her title as queen and insisted she be referred to as "regina quondam Anglorum" - "former queen of the English." She was given the city of Le Mans, which is famous today because of the car race that began there in 1923. It was, and is, a pretty area, dominated by the enormous Cathedral of St. Julien de Le Mans. Berengaria was allowed to collect rents from the surrounding area, intervene in local politics, appoint her own overseers, knights, priests, ladies-in-waiting, clerks and lawyers. She was involved in a spat with the cathedral because of her favouritism towards the neighbouring church of Saint Peter, but even during that she received special treatment from the Vatican, because of her "devotion to the Holy Roman Church".

All this might suggest a rather picturesque "happily ever after" for Berengaria of Navarre, in which she settled down in a pretty little private kingdom and devoted herself to pastoral good deeds, piety and personal wealth. Such a picture would, however, be omitting her treatment of the Jews of Le Mans. Like every queen of England since Adeliza of Louvain, Berengaria of Navarre had enjoyed access to ten percent of all fines levied on her husband's Jewish subjects whilst she was queen. This so-called "queen's gold" was used to fund the queen consort's household and it was a standarised, if grossly unfair, system of taxation. During that time, Berengaria had shown absolutely no hesitation in taking that money, but in fairness neither did any of her predecessors or successors. As a widow in Le Mans, however, she deviated from England's unfair but impersonal laws about Jewish-royal finance and instead embarked upon some deeply unpleasant, nepotistic bullying of her town's Jewish community.

She began giving quite a substantial amount of money to the Dominican Order, who saw the conversion of the Jews as one of their main priorities. (In fairness to her, like most medieval Christians, Berengaria probably held fast to the belief that extra Ecclesium nulla salus and therefore saw the Dominicans' actions as ones of kindness, rather than coercion.) Less spiritually, she also confiscated land, houses and even vineyards from local Jews and used them to reward her own servants. She also gave a former Jewish school as a gift to her own private chapel, despite the fact that her confessor Abbot Adam was personally opposed to anti-Semitism. The attitudes of historians to Berengaria's Jewish policies in Le Mans are divided. Lisa Hilton in Queens Consort argues that her actions "hardly amount to persecution," particularly by the standards of the thirteenth century. The French historian, Bouton, took a harsher view of her, labeling her a "persecutor."

Berengaria outlived her husband by just over thirty years. She died in Le Mans in December 1230, two days before Christmas, at the age of about sixty. She chose not to be buried at Fontevrault, but instead to be interred in the abbey of Our Lady of the Mercy of God in Epau, which she had helped found. Her sister-in-law, Isabelle, who had loathed every second of being married to King John and who had been treated far more cruelly by the English than Berengaria, still chose to honour propriety by being buried next to John and his family when she died in 1246. An earlier queen, Adeliza, had unquestionably loved her second husband far more than she ever had her first, yet she too came back to England to be buried alongside the late King. Perhaps in her refusal to be buried next to Richard, Berengaria indicated how much she had always preferred being away from him. Who knows? The mysteries of why their marriage was unsuccessful are unlikely ever to be fully solved now. Maybe, in the end, it was simply the thoroughly undramatic result of two incompatible personalities.

Berengaria's name, fleetingly preserved in the folklore of Robin Hood and the legends of love-struck Blondel, did return to prominence, however, seven centuries after death when the Cunard Line named its flagship after her in 1920. The third largest ship in the world at the time, the liner had originally been named Imperator, before being seized from a defeated Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and given to Britain. Prior to this, most Cunard ships had been named after provinces of the ancient Roman Empire; Berengaria (below) was the first to be named after an English queen. All subsequent Cunarders have followed that trend - today the line operates the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth


  1. I'm really enjoying your posts on the medieval English queens, Gareth. Particularly enjoyable was your post on Margaret of Anjou's death. Personally I find her a fascinating figure - yes she seems to have come across at times as cold, ruthless and calculating, but her story is intriguing and I feel one can only admire her for taking over power the way she did in order to provide a measure of security and stability in a dangerous England.

    I wanted to ask you whether you would recommend studying for a postgraduate (ie Masters) degree. My essay on Katherine Howard's fall, which I submitted to St Hugh's College Oxford, led to me being invited there in October, which I'm really excited about. As you yourself studied at Oxford, would you recommend applying there in 3 years time for a postgraduate degree?

  2. Congratulations on the essay. I think a postgraduate is a very specific thing and whilst I would always recommend Oxford, I think you'll know more about what you want to specialise in by your second year of undergraduate.

  3. Thanks Gareth. I'll see how it goes, it's still a while away.

    I think we discussed it before, but I regularly read articles relating to Anne Boleyn's fall in particular, and it really is something to see how Ives, Bernard, Warnicke and Walker all interpret evidence relating to Anne's fall in such differing ways. When I asked Professor Warnicke by email how she had reached the conclusions she had which differed from those stipulated by Ives and Bernard, she rather heatedly stated that they were political and MALE historians whereas she was one who focused more on sexuality and women's histories.
    Do any of these four historians put forward a theory which you find convincing? Or do you think Anne's fall still remains a mystery which no historian has adequately solved?
    Of all of them, I'd still say that Ives is most likely to be nearest the truth, but Walker's theory is compelling.


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