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Queen without a Country

Rachel Bard

Among the least-known European queens, Berengaria of Navarre may head the roster. Few have heard of this twelfth-century princess who left her native land in 1191 never to return. Though she was wed to Richard the Lionhearted, greatest hero of the age, she never saw the England over which her husband reigned. She is mentioned but never extolled in the English history books (since she produced no heir to the throne) and receives no more than a cursory note in those of her native land. In some ways, her life marked the end of an era. With her generation, the long line of Basque kings of Navarre descended from Iсigo Arista ceased. Berengaria's brother, Sancho VII el Fuerte, died without an heir in 1234. Yet this unsung heroine was able, in the face of daunting odds, to achieve independence after the death of Richard in 1199. She stood up to unfriendly King John of England and the mercurial Philip Augustus of France; enlisted the aid of two powerful Popes; earned the respect of the entire city of Le Mans; and left one durable and visible legacy, the abbey of Epau that she founded just before her death. Though Berengaria's "liberation" was not of her own choosing, she serves very well as an early example of a determined woman who made her way in a man's world. She might also be seen as an embodiment of the traditional Basque virtues of tenacity, self-respect, and probity. But aside from recognizing such admirable qualities, there is historical value in bringing Berengaria out from the shadow of her famous husband and her equally famous mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine--who dominated the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries leaving little room on the stage for less flamboyant women. After seven centuries of oblivion, the verifiable facts are few, but as far as we know, this is Berengaria's story.

The Young Princess

Berengaria was born about 1165, one of the five children of Sancho VI of Navarre and his queen Sancha. Her childhood coincided with a relatively peaceful era for Navarre. Her father, whose appellation "The Wise" may have been due as much to his prudent management of his kingdom as to his respect for learning, kept his enemies at bay and left Navarre considerably larger, more stable, and more influential than he found it. While his neighbouring monarchs did battle with the Muslims, he stayed at home and guarded his borders against inroads by Castile and Aragon. Berengaria had leisure and encouragement to learn to read and write and to appreciate poetry and music, especially the works of the Provenзal troubadours. The royal family divided its time between Estella and Pamplona, though royal palaces were not built in either city until late in the twelfth century. Enter the young Richard, possibly when Berengaria was only ten or eleven. He came to visit her brother Sancho and to take part in a tournament in Pamplona in the 1170s. Richard was the second son of Henry II, count of Anjou and king of England, and Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine. He was his mother's favorite but his elder brother Henry was heir to the throne. However, Richard was slated to become duke of Aquitaine and was already count of Poitou. He was a notable jouster and poet in the troubadour tradition. It would make a pretty story to recount that the young prince and princess fell in love at first sight, and in fact some of the medieval chroniclers maintain that this happened--and that Richard addressed a few passionate lines of poetry to Berengaria while in Navarre. But in all likelihood they regarded each other with polite indifference; Berengaria was too young, and Richard was more interested in horsemanship, hunting, and mock battles than romance. Only some fifteen years later was the subject of marriage between the two broached by Eleanor. She favored it for political reasons. Richard's father and brother had recently died and he had been crowned king of England in 1189. Almost immediately he set off on a Cade, leaving royal responsibilities to his mother. Eleanor was concerned about the far-flung Anglo-French kingdom's many unprotected borders, especially in France. She saw how useful a strong ally to the South would be: ideally, a country with a common border with Aquitaine, such as Navarre. She was acquainted with Sancho VI of Navarre, having come to know him on various occasions when European monarchs gathered to adjudicate disputes or celebrate amity. She herself had entertained him in 1172 at a reception at Limoges. Astute and quick to act, she traveled to Pamplona to arrange the marriage. By now Berengaria was twenty-four, and no suitable fiancй had come forward from the eligible royalty of the Iberian Peninsula. Sancho and Sancha probably thought this a lucky chance for their daughter. We do not know what Berengaria thought. We only know that soon after Eleanor's arrival the two women began their travels across the Pyrenees and through France, intending to rendezvous with Richard before he set sail. What kind of maiden was this who said goodbye to loving parents and familiar surroundings to accompany an imperious stranger on a journey of hundreds of miles to marry a man she hardly knew? For one thing, she was a dutiful daughter to her royal parents, aware of the diplomatic value of this marriage. An alliance with such powerful monarchs as Henry and Eleanor was most desirable. For another, it must have been exciting to contemplate sharing the life of adventure and derring-do that such a one as Richard was sure to lead. Beyond that we are told that Berengaria was "elegant and prudent," by Ambroise, a Norman minstrel--one of only two chroniclers who ever saw her (It was only later writers who never saw her who called her "ravishingly beautiful" and "fairest in the land." They knew their public would be pleased with the tale of a noble prince wedding a fairy-tale princess.)

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