Daughter of Sancho the Wise of Navarre, Berengaria was related to the royalty of Spain, England and France.
She was brought from Navarre to Sicily by her future mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1190 to marry King Richard I of England. She was in her twenties at the time.
Richard was in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land to join with the Third Crusade having taken the cross in 1187. He had been prevented from fulfilling his vow because of a Plantagenet power struggle with his father King Henry II and younger brother Prince John over control of Aquitaine. His ally in his rebellion against his father was the French King Philip but by the time Berengaria arrived on the scene relations were souring between the two monarchs, not least because Philip expected Richard to marry the french princess Alys, a bride-to-be of some twenty years. Unfortunately, Philip’s half-sister was an unsuitable match in Richard’s eye – not least because she had been Henry II’s mistress, not that this stopped Philip from pocketing some 10,000 marks in compensation.
Berengaria accompanied Richard and Richard’s widowed sister Queen Joanna of Sicily to the Holy Land. Before their ship could reach Outremer it was separated from the main fleet and the royal women were ship wrecked off Cyprus. The ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus, whose only redeeming feature seems to have been the love he bore his daughter, attempted to take them hostage. This resulted in Richard leading an attack on Cyprus and capturing the island in less than a month. As well as demonstrating his prowess in battle, Richard also captured a useful staging post. Berengaria and Richard were married in May 1191 at Limassol. Berengaria was also crowned at this time and Richard gave her dower rights to all territories in Gascony south of the River Garonne. The marriage had been delayed thus far because of it being Lent.
Why marry Berengaria? Richard was the Duke of Aquitaine before he became King of England. An alliance with Navarre went some way to off setting the expanding power of Castille and Count Raymond of Toulouse who was undoubtedly a thorn in Richard’s side. It could also be that Berengaria’s reputation was spotless, a direct contrast to Alys. Chroniclers of the time were generous in their praise of a queen who never came to England. William of Newburgh described her as prudent and beautiful.
Both royal women accompanied Richard to the Holy Land. They were at the Siege of Acre and remained there while the crusaders pushed in land and it was from here that they sailed when Richard and Saladin agreed their truce in 1191. Berengaria and Joanna sailed to Brindisi and from there they travelled to Rome while Richard travelled home a different route and found himself a captive of the Duke of Austria.
Following his release, Berengaria did not join her husband. The estrangement between husband and wife was never fully reconciled. Perhaps because Richard needed to secure his empire from the machinations of Philip of France or possibly because Berengaria’s father was now dead and her brother, Sancho VII, had succeeded to the throne. The Navarre alliance served Richard well during his crusading years. Certainly he’d never bothered to demand the two castles that were Berengaria’s dowry. Now however, Richard set about gaining what the marriage treaty guaranteed. He even involved Pope Innocent III. The couple remained childless and spent very little time in one another’s company. As he lay dying he sent for his mother, not his wife. Berengaria did not attend Richard’s funeral and remained in a small castle near Angers -in effect a penniless princess having failed to provide Richard with an heir.
Berengaria now entered into a long struggle with King John for her dower lands which were all in France. In addition to her own dower lands in Gascony she was supposed to receive Eleanor’s lands in England, Normandy and Poitou after Eleanor’s death. John, once named Lackland, was not forthcoming. Fortunately, her sister, Blanche of Champagne took in the widowed queen and later King Philip gave her the city of Le Mans to rule. It was only in 1214 that John said he would settle the claim. This was, in part, due to Magna Carta and the fact that the Pope had excommunicated him but he never did pay what was owed. King Henry III settled Berengaria’s claim when he came to the throne.
Berengaria lived in Le Mans and ruled there from 1204 until her death in 1230. She ruled well and with determination, even tackling corrupt clerics. The Bishop of Le Man once closed the door of the cathedral in her face as she arrived for a Palm Sunday service. She also founded the abbey of L’Epau