‘A most praiseworthy widow’
On 3 September 1189, a new king was crowned at Westminster. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s betrayal of Henry marked the beginning of a long series of cruel disappointments which marred the last period of his reign. A decade after Montlouis, the Young King and Geoffrey had rebelled against their brother Richard’s rule in Aquitaine, but the uprising collapsed when the Young King died suddenly in June 1183. Three years later, Geoffrey, too, was dead: his heir, Arthur of Brittany, was born after his father’s demise. All Henry II’s strategies for the future seemed to be unravelling at once, a position he himself exacerbated by making Princess Alys, Richard’s betrothed, his mistress. Alys’s wily brother Philip Augustus, now King of France, took advantage of Henry’s endless stalling over the marriage and marched into Angevin territories on the pretext of reclaiming Alys’s dowry of Berry and the Vexin. Richard, who had long feared that Henry intended to designate his younger brother John as heir, threw in his lot with the French King, and for a time the two enjoyed a passionate friendship which was the wonder of the chroniclers. Richard and Henry were still at war when the King died a bitter and possibly unshriven death on 5 July 1189, shortly after witnessing the French armies burning his beloved birthplace of Le Mans to the ground.
One of Richard’s first acts on learning of his father’s death had been to dispatch William Marshal to England to release his mother, and Eleanor, now aged sixty-eight, was with her beloved son as he was anointed. She had made several public outings since 1183, prompting some historians to consider that Henry may have responded to the Young King’s deathbed request for his mother to be set free, but effectively she remained a prisoner. She was permitted a progress through her dower lands in an attempt to forestall Philip Augustus’s claim to them on behalf of his sister Marguerite, the widowed Young Queen, and was produced for several strategic appearances before returning to England in 1186, but her freedom was illusory: ‘She was paraded abroad when it suited Henry and confined when it did not.’1 As Richard’s regent in England until his coronation, Eleanor was finally able to exercise the powers which had so long lain dormant. Matthew Paris noted that Eleanor’s activities in this period made her ‘exceedingly respected and beloved’. Her capabilities were particularly useful as Richard did not plan to spend any longer in his new kingdom than he had to. Since the battle of Hattin in 1187, in which the Muslim ruler Saladin had inflicted unbearable slaughter on the knights Templar and Hospitaller in the Holy Land, Richard had had only one object in mind: Jerusalem.
Before Richard’s crusading plan could be put into action, there remained one last detail to be taken care of. Marriage was essential for two reasons: first to cement an alliance that would provide vital protection of the Angevin territories in the south during his absence, and secondly to attempt to secure the succession. If he were to die without a son, the competing heirs would be his nephew Arthur of Brittany and his brother John. When Richard arrived in France in December 1189, he renewed his longstanding pledge to poor, patient Princess Alys, but after a council held in Normandy in March 1190, which included the archbishop of Canterbury, John and Eleanor, he persuaded Philip Augustus to ‘reconsider’ the match. This diplomatic delaying tactic was designed merely to hold off Philip’s anger for as long as possible -Richard had no intention of marrying the disgraced Alys, but he needed French support for the crusade and therefore thought it unwise to mention to his jilted fiancée’s brother that he was already engaged to another woman.
Various dates are given for the betrothal of Richard of England to Berengaria of Navarre. Like his mother, Richard has in many ways become the victim of his own legend, and there is a tendency to romanticise the first meeting of the Spanish princess and themost romantic of kings. The high chivalric version has him falling in love with her during a tournament in Pamplona when he was still Count of Poitiers, possibly as early as 1177, even though at the time she was about seven and he was twenty. The marriage may have been mooted in 1185, but a more generally accepted date for the confirmation of the betrothal is 1188. In any event, Richard continued to play his double game with Philip until literally hours before Berengaria arrived for their wedding.
On 7 August 1190, Richard embarked at Genoa, rested for five days at Portofino, and continued down the coast of Italy, meeting Philip Augustus at Messina on Sicily on 24 September. Meanwhile, Eleanor set off from Bordeaux across the Pyrenees to fetch the bride. Her destination, Navarre, was a small but geographically important kingdom on the Spanish side of the mountains, a nexus for pilgrim and trade routes as it controlled the two main passes of Sonpont and Roncesvalles.
Navarre might not have been large, but it was no provincial backwater. The population was Occitan-French, Basque, Jewish and Muslim as well as Navarrese, a blend reflected in (relatively) tolerant attitudes towards non-Christians and a sophisticated legal code. Like Richard, Berengaria was of mixed ancestry, and she already had family connections with the Angevin dynasty. Her cousin Alfonso VIII of Castile was married to Richard’s sister Leonor and her aunt Margarita had married William the Bad, the Norman King of Sicily, in 1150, serving as regent for several years after his death on behalf of her son William the Good, the recently deceased husband of Richard’s sister Joanna. Unlike Richard’s, Berengaria’s parents appear to have been happily married. They had five children in twenty-five years together, and after Berengaria’s mother, Queen Sancha-Beata, died in 1179, her father, King Sancho El Sabio (the Wise), spent the remaining twenty years of his life without remarrying, a pattern that would be followed by both Berengaria and her sister Blanca.
Sancho El Sabio’s reign was dominated by the power struggle between Navarre and the neighbouring kingdoms of Aragon, Castile and Leon. On at least two occasions Henry II had met the kings of Navarre, Aragon and Castile to arbitrate in these conflicts. King Sancho was allied with the King of Aragon against Richard’s enemy, Raymond of Toulouse, so a Navarrese connection could provide vital support for the English king in southern Gascony, while Sancho would benefit from protection against his enemy the King of Castile. In April 1185, Richard had agreed to help the ruler of Aragon to persuade Sancho to return two castles, which suggested he already had some influence in Navarre, and it is notable that in that year Berengaria was given the tenencia, or fief, of Monreal near Pamplona. Neither of her two sisters is known to have received a similar gift, and it is likely that the King of Navarre was thus enhancing his daughter’s status with a view to her betrothal to Richard. In 1188, the troublesome troubadour Bertran de Born was gloating over Richard’s rejection of Alys for Berengaria, and though neither the date nor place of Berengaria’s birth are known for certain, it is estimated that she would have been about eighteen when her betrothal was confirmed.
Berengaria met her famous mother-in-law in Pamplona, before the two women set off to cross the Alps, descending into Lombardy, where Eleanor witnessed a charter at Lodi near Milan, and on to Pisa. Here they paused to wait for news from Richard, and since there was no ship available to take them directly to Sicily, Richard decided that they should continue along the coast to Naples, where they embarked in February, accompanied by the Count of Flanders, who was travelling to join the waiting crusaders at Messina. It was an arduous journey for these intrepid women to undertake, particularly in the case of the sixty-six-year-old Eleanor, but beyond this sparse itinerary, no record remains of the time they spent together. An Alpine crossing was particularly gruelling in winter, and Berengaria and Eleanor had no choice but to live in intimacy as they were carried in litters up the precarious passes, pausing to sleep in monasteries, or as their horses plodded through the dense, freezing mists of the Lombardy plain, but they do not seem to have developed a warm relationship. In charters given from Fontevrault in the years after Richard’s death, Eleanor refers to her daughter-in-law as ‘Queen Berengaria’ without adding the affectionate ‘dilectissima’ or ‘carissima appended to the names of her daughters.
Three chronicle accounts emphasise Berengaria’s wisdom’, though so little is known of her early life that it is impossible to ascertain her education, and we can do no more than suppose it was similar to that of other girls of her class. Berengaria is sometimes described as a Basque, but again there is no evidence that she spoke the Basque language. Her mother tongue was possibly Castilian or, more likely, Romance (Aragonese-Navarrese), which had become the official language of the Navarrese chancellery in 1180. The language she was most likely to have had in common with Eleanor was Occitan, which was also spoken in Navarre. Mothers-in-law are often intimidating creatures, and Eleanor, the most famous woman in Europe, must at first have been a terrifying companion for a girl who had barely ventured outside her father’s domains. Perhaps there were awkward silences.
As Berengaria and Eleanor moved slowly south, the tension between Richard and Philip Augustus became acute. The two kings had arrived in Sicily a day apart, in late September, and Philip immediately began seeking to weasel Richard’s disagreements with the island’s ruler, Tancred, to his own advantage. Tancred, the bastard nephew of William the Good, had succeeded in claiming the throne in defiance of the rights of Constance of Hauteville, the new bride of the German Emperor. His position was precarious, and he was deeply suspicious of the motives of the crusaders. Joanna, William’s widow, was imprisoned in Palermo, and though Richard was swiftly able to secure her release, Tancred prevaricated about her dowry, claiming that the terms of William’s will were void and trying to palm her off with a meagre cash payment. When riots broke out between the citizens of Messina and the crusaders, whose presence was imposing great strain on the city’s resources, Richard saw an opportunity to demonstrate to Tancred that he meant business. He took Messina in less time than a priest could say matins’,2 set up a mobile fortress and established a strict set of rules to control the behaviour of his soldiers. Unsurprisingly, Tancred now showed himself amenable to negotiation. Philip Augustus, by this time desperate to force Richard to marry Alys, tried to persuade Tancred that Richard planned to betray him.
Though Richard had of necessity been discreet about Berengaria’s arrival, Philip was aware of her journey, and that Eleanor had met the German Emperor at Lodi. It was easy for Philip Augustus to suggest that the English King was in league with the Emperor to overthrow Tancred, and for a while he was believed, but Richard had an ace to play. In March, he informed Philip bluntly that he had no intention of marrying Alys, since she had for years been his own father’s mistress and had even had a child by him. If Philip insisted on imposing the damaged goods of the Capets upon him, he would produce witnesses to publicly affirm Alys’s disgrace. The Treaty of Messina records Philip’s helpless concession that the above mentioned King [Richard] may freely marry whomever he wishes, notwithstanding the former agreement made between us that he would take our sister Alys as wife’. Tancred had revealed Philip’s poisonous suggestions, and Richard had satisfied him with a recognition of his crown - the promise of a betrothal between Richard’s nephew Arthur of Brittany and Tancred’s daughter - and a pact against invasion. Tancred provided another, larger payment against Joanna’s dowry settlement and the two kings exchanged gifts. Richard got nineteen ships and Tancred received Excalibur. Tancred was obviously a gimcrack diplomat, but he was pleased with his magic sword, and certainly a happier man than Philip who, exposed as a liar and the brother of an adulteress, slunk off in disgust for Acre on 30 March 1191, just hours before Richard’s new wife arrived.
Given the background to her entrance to Messina, the reports of Berengaria’s reception are disappointingly low-key. Ambroise does his best to introduce a bit of romance: For the news had been brought to him that his mother had arrived there, bringing the King his beloved. She was a wise maiden, noble, brave and fair, neither false nor disloyal. Her name was Berengaria and her father the King of Navarre had handed her over to the mother of King Richard, who was longing for her to be brought to him. Then she was named as Queen. For the King had loved her very much; ever since he was Count of Poitiers he had desired her.’3
Other writers (none of them eyewitnesses) describe Berengaria as of renowned beauty and wisdom’, a beautiful and learned maiden’, ‘nobly born’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘of splendid parage’.4 Richard of Devizes strikes a discordant note amid this conventional praise with his contention that Berengaria was ‘more wise than beautiful’, though the Navarrese historian Mañuel Sagatibelza Beraza loyally suggests that if her wisdom surpassed even her beauty, Berengaria must have been wise indeed. The Berengaria scholar Ann Trindade suggests that even within the constraints of medieval literary convention, some of her distinctive personal qualities’ may be discerned from these descriptions, notably in the repeated use of ‘sage’ - wise - and Ambroise’s interesting choice of ‘preux’, meaning brave, an unusual adjective to apply to a woman. Both these qualities were to be tested in the next stage of Berengaria’s long journey to the altar.
Since it was Lent, the royal wedding could not be immediately celebrated in Sicily, so on the Wednesday of Holy Week the huge crusader fleet of 219 ships set off for the Holy Land. Eleanor had spent only three days in Sicily with her children. Berengaria and Joanna travelled in the same vessel, modestly separated from Richard. Off the coast of Crete, the fleet was scattered by storms and the ship containing the Dowager Queen of Sicily and the queen-to-be of England was driven towards the coast of Cyprus. Isaac Comnenus, the island’s ruler, supposedly attempted to lure them ashore at Limassol in the hope of a fat ransom, and the ‘Itinerarium’ imagines the two shipwrecked queens gazing longingly across the violent waves, yearning for rescue. Richard then obligingly appears in full Lionheart mode, charging up the beaches, sword in hand, imprisons the tyrant’ Comnenus and liberates his fiancée. In fact, the conquest of Cyprus had always been on Richard’s agenda, and the threat of shipwreck was merely an unmissable opportunity to add to the Lionheart legend.
One of Richard’s greatest strengths as a military commander was his capacity for organisation away from the battlefield. He had already identified Cyprus as a vital staging post in the crusade supply line, and waiting until Philip Augustus had set off for the Holy Land before invading the island relieved him of the obligation to honour the agreement of a fifty-fifty division of spoils acquired in God’s service’.On 6 May Richard appeared from Rhodes, where his own ship had docked, and within weeks he had control of Cyprus. Comnenus surrendered on 1 June, once he learned that Richard had taken his daughter prisoner, on the unusual condition that he not be bound in irons. Ever the gentleman, Richard supposedly had some silver chains made up. With his coffers fortified - Cyprus was an immediate source of revenue in the form of treasure and a tax levied on the inhabitants - Richard promptly sold the island to the order of the Templars for 100,000 Saracen bezants.
It is quite possible that Richard had had it in mind to hold his wedding on Cyprus, provided all went according to plan, rather than in the embarrassing presence of the French King in Palestine. Whenever he made the decision, on 12 May, while his men were sweeping over the island, he and Berengaria were married in Limassol at the chapel of St George.
The ceremony was performed by Richard’s own chaplain, Nicholas, later bishop of Le Mans, before Berengaria was crowned Queen of England by John, bishop of Evreux. The groom wore a rose silk tunic accessorised with a scarlet cap, gold embroidered cape and sash and a gold and silver scabbard. The bride’s outfit is not recorded. An English poem describes the wedding, suggesting it was celebrated in style:
There King Ric spoused Beringer
The King’s daughter of Navarre
And made there the richest spousing
That ever maked any king.
And crowned himself Emperor,
And her Empress, with honour.5
Berengaria got a three-week honeymoon on the island of Aphrodite and then, on 5 June, husband and wife set sail once again. Berengaria and Joanna were now joined by the captured Cypriot princess, whom Richard had entrusted to his wife’s care. Isaac Comnenus was deposited at the fortress of Margat on the Syrian coast before the fleet moved on to Tyre. Berengaria may have witnessed a sea battle when the rear of the fleet encountered a laden Muslim supply ship bound for the besieged garrison at Acre. Richard succeeded in taking the ship in a perfectly timed blow to Muslim morale.
On 8 June the new Queen of England arrived at Acre and, for the next two years, while Richard was making his reputation as the greatest warrior in the west, remained in a curious limbo, a queen without a country, with no outlet for any of the traditional activities associated with her position. Pierre de Langtoft describes Berengaria and Joanna as coming together like birds in a cage’,a sad image which suggests something of the restricted existence they led. Together with the Cypriot princess, they were housed first at Acre, then at Ramleh and Jaffa, but both cities were dangerous and there was little opportunity to explore their exotic surroundings. Weaving, embroidery, board games, reading and prayer were likely pastimes, and they were able to enjoy music, as the writer Ambroise mentions the presence of minstrels. Mindful of Eleanor’s dubious crusading reputation, Berengaria was bound to conduct herself discreetly and the silence of the chroniclers about Berengaria and Joanna suggests that their conduct was spotless: their lives were apparently so dull that there was nothing worth recording of them. One highlight was the Christmas court Richard held at Latrun, where the two queens proved a great attraction and Berengaria was able to perform the ceremonial role she had been led to expect would be required of her, at least for a short time. But for the most part Richard (again, perhaps recalling the failure of the Second Crusade, and the accusations that the presence of women had undermined it morally) was naturally inclined to keep them away from the action. We might imagine that sensually Berengaria’s experience was novel and exciting -the scents of strange and wonderful flowers and spices, the sounds of an unknown language, the flavours of orange water and olives -but for her the Holy Land was a country only glimpsed from behind the leather curtains of a litter or through the narrow window of a fortress.
Berengaria and Richard said goodbye at Acre in September 1192. She and Joanna sailed for Europe on 29 September and the queen of England was not to see her husband again for nearly two years. After landing at Brindisi, their party made its way to Rome, where Berengaria stayed for six months. In April, she witnessed a charter on securing a loan, signing herself proudly as Queen of the English, Duchess of the Normans and Aquitainians, Countess of the Angevins’. It is just possible that her attempt to raise money might have been connected to the capture of Richard in December by his old enemy Leopold of Austria, who had taken him prisoner as he made his way home from the Holy Land and handed him over to the German Emperor, Henry VI. Richard’s return to Europe had been complicated by the quarrels that had flared up during the crusade, and the coasts of southern France and Italy between Genoa and Pisa were barred to him. After a perilous journey on the high autumn seas, he reached Venice, from where he attempted to cross Austria. He was seized at Erdburg near Vienna, according to legend making a poor show of disguising himself as a cook. Richard’s captivity was a great boon to both Emperor Henry and Richard’s former friend Philip of France, and in February the King’s ransom was set at the impossible sum of 100,000 marks.
It was not Richard’s wife who busied herself working for his release, but his mother Eleanor - an opportunity for action that marks the beginning of the greatest period of her queenship, albeit now as dowager. Berengaria, meanwhile, left Rome in June 1193, escorted by Cardinal Melior and Stephen of Turnham, and travelled to Pisa, Genoa and Marseilles, accompanied first by her brother-in-law King Alfonso and then by Raymond of Toulouse to the Aquitaine heartlands of Poitou. As Berengaria continued her stately progress, Eleanor was frantically trying to prevent her youngest son John from usurping his brother’s throne and to raise the enormous ransom for Richard’s release. John had wasted no time in profiting from Richard’s absence, manipulating the unpopularity of the chancellor, Walter Longchamp, to march on London to effect the officer’s dismissal and the sequestration of his estates. He then set off on a series of progresses designed to win popularity and to convey, prematurely, the impression that he was Richard’s heir-apparent. To some extent, Eleanor had condoned, if not supported, John’s activities until this juncture. She approved of Walter of Coutances, archbishop of Rouen, who had been appointed head of the regency council in Longchamp’s place, and had refused to receive the delegation of cardinals Longchamp had mustered in his support, even denying them safe conduct across Normandy. Now, though, John had gone too far.
Eleanor had kept her Christmas court of 1191 in Normandy where, in January, Philip Augustus launched an attack on Gisors, in flagrant defiance of the truce of God, the agreement by which crusading monarchs agreed not to wage war upon one another. When the assault failed, the French King turned to John. He offered him all Richard’s French holdings if he would marry the abandoned Princess Alys (who, as no one knew quite what to do with her, was still languishing in the semi-custody of the English at Rouen) and surrender Gisors. John accepted with alacrity, but Eleanor managed to reach England just as he was preparing to sail for Normandy. She convened councils at Winchester, Windsor, Oxford and London to demand a renewal of the oath of loyalty to Richard and contrived to have John’s castles confiscated if he attempted to leave the country. This contained him for a time, but when news of Richard’s capture finally broke after months of puzzling silence, John lost no time in rushing to Paris to pay homage to Philip, claim Richard’s Angevin lands and confirm that Arthur of Brittany would be excluded from the succession. In April 1193, Philip invaded Normandy and attempted to besiege Rouen. John, meanwhile, had raised a mercenary force in Wales and taken Windsor Castle; he had also hired mercenaries in Flanders. Gervase of Canterbury reports how, under Eleanor’s orders, people of all social ranks, peasants, knights and nobles, manned the eastern coast of England to successfully repel them. Still, as Eleanor had to raise a sum of money three times the annual expenditure of the English government to secure Richard’s release, it was necessary to come to a swift accommodation with her treacherous son. John agreed to place the royal castles he had appropriated in Eleanor’s temporary keeping, and Eleanor set about her campaign.
In the first of two extraordinary letters to Pope Celestine III, Eleanor recalls in no uncertain terms Henry II’s support for the papacy during the recent conflict between Rome and the Emperor Frederick. ‘Grief,’ she reproaches him, ‘does not recognise a master, is afraid of no ally, it has no regard for anyone and it does not spare them, not even you.’ The Pope’s reluctance to help Richard for fear of threatening the tenuous truce between Rome and the empire is ‘a mark of criminality and disgrace’. In reminding him of her husband’s loyalty in preserving the papacy, she remarks that Celestine’s failure to intervene on Richard’s behalf is bringing the Church into disrepute. ‘Indeed, among the public it casts a shadow over the Church and excites a rumour among the people (and it considerably damages your standing) the fact that in such a crisis, amid so many tears . . . you have not sent those princes even one messenger from those around you.’ Eleanor’s second letter is an impassioned outpouring of maternal grief, reinforced by references to her royal status and Marian imagery:
I wish that the blood of my body, already dead, the brain in my head and the marrow of my bones would dissolve into tears, so much that I completely melt away into sorrow. My insides have been torn out of me, I have lost the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes; if God had assented to my prayers He would condemn my ill fated eyes to perpetual blindness so that they no longer saw the woes of my people . . . why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, reached the disgrace of this abominable old age?
Revisiting her previous charge that the Pope is being prevented from acting by worldly concerns, Eleanor has the temerity to ask: Is your power derived from God or men?’ In her fury, she dares to accuse the Pope of being a coward, of keeping the sword of Peter sheathed’. Despite these taunts, the Pope continued to dither, so she set about raising the entire ransom herself.
Everyone in England, from the wealthy, who were taxed at 25 per cent, to the Cistercian monks, who had nothing to give but their sheep, was forced to contribute to the fund. Eleanor appointed a council of five to supervise the collections and the booty was stored in the vault of St Paul’s. Collectors rode all over Anjou and Aquitaine and Eleanor personally dunned the abbot of St Martial at Limoges for 100 marks. The Pope eventually stirred from his lethargy, kindly offering to place England under interdict if Richard’s beleaguered subjects did not melt down their plate fast enough, which was not quite the assistance Eleanor had been hoping for. But by the autumn, she was able to promise over two-thirds of the ransom to the imperial envoys.
Eleanor left for Germany in December 1193. Rather wonderfully, the captured Cypriot princess was one of the ladies in her train. It has been suggested that she may have taken the oportunity to visit her first child, her eldest daughter with Louis, en route, as her journey took her through the northern regions of Champagne, and she and Countess Marie may have seen one another again at Meaux or Provins. Eleanor was in Cologne in time to keep the feast of Twelfth Night, and though John and Philip had offered the Emperor a last-minute bribe to delay Richard’s release, she was reunited with her son at Mainz in February. On 12 March, the King of England landed at Sandwich. Richard was determined to put his upstart brother in his place and, after giving thanks for his deliverance at Canterbury and at a reception in London, he set off for Nottingham to besiege the castle John had garrisoned. In his swift execution of his task, he introduced Greek fire for the first time, a crusading device which combined sulphur, pitch and naphtha to ‘bomb’ the walls. On 17 April, Richard was crowned again in the ancient capital of Winchester, but once more, it was Queen Eleanor, not Queen Berengaria, who witnessed his triumph.
Berengaria’s apparent lack of activity during this period has been interpreted as a sign of a breach in the marriage, but it is difficult to see how she and Richard could actually have had time to fall out. Since the moment they had embarked for the Holy Land, they had spent only a few weeks in one another’s company. Yet contemporary chroniclers such as Roger of Howden made it clear that there was something wrong with their relationship, and modern scholars have found a fruitful field of speculation in the supposed rift. The period of Richard’s Austrian adventures and captivity is exceptionally rich in Lionheart legend, and Berengaria, too, finds a place in it. However dubious their veracity, an examination of these stories and of how they have been used and interpreted brings us closer to an understanding of both twelfth-century and modern perceptions of the mystery at the heart of their marriage.
The explanation, according to many modern commentators, is that there were two queens in the relationship. Despite being obliged to concede that there is ‘no direct evidence to prove that Richard was homosexual, and some direct evidence to prove that he was not’,a ‘majority’ of writers are determined to believe that the Lionheart was gay.6 Richard had at least one illegitimate child, Philip of Cognac, acquired a reputation for less than gentlemanly behaviour with the wives and daughters of his enemies and apparently so affronted a Fontevrault nun with his attentions that she declared she would rather put out the beautiful eyes that had seduced him than submit, but none of this is in itself proof that Richard did not also enjoy sexual relations with men. That he did has been inferred from various chronicle accounts, the first of which deals with his relationship with Philip Augustus. Roger of Howden reports that during the period of their intense friendship in 1187, before the mutual alienation of the crusade, the two men ‘ate from the same table and drank from the same cup and at night they slept in the same bed. And the King of France loved him as his own soul and their mutual affection was so strong that because of the vehemence of their mutual affection the Lord King of England was dumbfounded.’7Ann Trindade has highlighted the choice of the word ‘vehemence’, which is used by several writers in the course of describing sexual love, but there was nothing at all unusual about medieval men sharing either plates or beds, and if Richard was ‘dumbfounded’ it may well have been by the fact that he had achieved such friendship with his traditional enemy.
The second often-cited piece of evidence concerns the visit of a hermit in 1195. The holy man warned Richard to be ‘mindful of the destruction of Sodom and abstain from unlawful things; or else God’s just retribution will overtake you’.8 Scholars disagree on the interpretation of the sins of Sodom. Some note that the term could be used to cover a range of sexually aberrant activities and is therefore applicable to Richard’s adulterous heterosexual behaviour at this juncture; others insist on texts which refer ‘consistently and unambiguously to male homosexual inter-course’.9 Later Lionheart legends certainly pick up on the theme of Richard’s sexuality. In the English romance Richard Coeur de Lyon, the imprisoned King falls in love with the King of Almain’s daughter, and when her furious father releases a ferocious lion into his cell, he reaches down its throat and rips out its heart. This seems a straightforward bit of heroic fantasy, but it has also been interpreted as a ‘defensive’ anecdote, designed to counter the story of the hermit by casting Richard as aggressively heterosexual. The most famous of the legends concerning Richard’s captivity is perhaps that of the minstrel Blondel, who sang piteously before a number of German castles before hearing the voice of his beloved master. The story appears in the thirteenth century, and in some versions 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.
Academic obsession with dragging the Lionheart out of the closet may indicate no more than that to twenty-first-century eyes Richard was too convincingly straight for his own good, but what is interesting about the hermit story, the most compelling piece of evidence for some sort of extramarital antics, is the way it centres upon Richard’s reconciliation with his Queen. That such a reconciliation was called for has led some scholars to believe that the marriage was never consummated, but there is no reason to believe this was so. According to Howden, the King initially disregarded the hermit’s warnings, but during Holy Week he fell ill. He called for priests and confessed, then ‘received his wife, whom he had not known for a long time [this author’s italics], and renouncing unlawful intercourse, was united with his wife and the two became one flesh; then God gave him health of both body and soul’. This suggests that Richard had ‘known’ Berengaria at some point; that he had not done so for a long time is explained by the simple fact that he had not seen her. The King heard Mass, gave alms and ordered new church ornaments to replace those which had been impounded to raise his ransom. This pattern of reformation and reunion follows an earlier sequence in which Richard performed a similarly motivated penance in Sicily before departing on crusade, a penance capped by the arrival of Berengaria at Messina. Sin, sexual or otherwise, is followed by disease (a pious objective correlative), then repentance, symbolised by union with Berengaria, and a return to God. The point here is not the precise nature of the sins Richard committed, but the primacy given to the Queen as a symbol of redemption and healing. Abuse of the sacrament of marriage leads to God’s displeasure and disease; the proper use of the queen’s body sets things right. In this light, the hermit story might be read as much as a celebration of the sanctity of sex within marriage as a hint of Richard’s love for men without it.
A likely date for Richard and Berengaria’s reunion is June 1194, at Loches. His English homecoming had been short-lived. In May, Richard and Eleanor sailed for Normandy, where Eleanor presided over a reconciliation between her sons at Lisieux. John prostrated himself before his brother and was forgiven - was Richard displaying the same kind of ill-judged leniency that had caused so many problems for his father Henry? - and after that it was back to business as usual, which for Richard meant war. Philip’s incursions into Normandy had to be stopped, and it was this mission that occupied the last five years of Richard’s life.
Berengaria was accompanied to Loches by her brother Sancho. Their father, Sancho El Sabio, died the following month and Berengaria’s brother, who had proved himself staunchly committed to the English alliance, returned to Navarre. In Poitou, Berengaria had been keeping a small household, moving between the castles of Chinon, Saumur and Beaufort-en-Vallée, but the next Christmas she and Richard may have been together at Eleanor’s palace in Poitiers. She was certainly present with him when Joanna was married to Raymond VI, the new Count of Toulouse, in Rouen in October 1196, in an ill-fated attempt to resolve the difficulties between the houses of Aquitaine and Toulouse. In 1195, the year given by Howden for the hermit’s visit, she and Richard purchased land together at Thorée and built a house there. This single attempt at constructing a marital home certainly suggests that Richard was at this stage committed to Berengaria, though there is no evidence that they ever lived there together, and nothing of this modest property, with its mill and fish pond, stands today. In 1216 Berengaria made a gift of it to the brothers of the hospital of Jerusalem.
Richard was also preoccupied with a far grander building project: the castle of Château Gaillard at Les Andelys, a magnificent declaration of defiance to the French (the name means ‘Saucy Castle’). Whomever else Richard loved, he loved his castle, even referring to it, rather sadly, as his ‘child’. Though he spent much time at the château, again, there is no indication that Berengaria ever visited him here; indeed, it has been claimed that, despite the reconciliation reported in the chronicles, Richard was during this period considering repudiating Berengaria, primarily on the grounds of her childlessness but also because her brother, now Sancho VII ‘El Fuerte’,was ‘insouciant about Richard’s diplomatic concerns’.10 In 1198, Richard had enlisted papal support to push Sancho over the matter of Berengaria’s dowry castles, Rocabruna and St Jean Pied-de-Port, and the newly consecrated Innocent III had duly written to Sancho, who appeared to do little about the matter. This request has been construed as evidence that the Navarrese alliance was under strain, since Sancho was now more concerned with politics to the south of the Pyrenees, and at the same time gathering vassals in Gascony whose first allegiance ought to have been to Richard. Though there is truth in both of these points, Sancho’s long-term policy towards the English suggests a continued relationship of mutual interest and support, indeed a certain dependence, which was later to become particularly relevant in the matter of Berengaria’s disputed dowry. If Berengaria had ‘outlived her usefulness’,11 it was biologically, rather than diplomatically. Whether or not Richard did experience sexual difficulties with women, he was fertile and had married in the hope of producing an heir. Berengaria did not provide one. The term ‘barren’ may be distasteful to modern ears, but as far as her contemporaries were concerned, Berengaria had failed in her primary duty as a queen, and when she was widowed in 1199,it became clear that the Angevin rulers, now represented by Eleanor of Aquitaine and John, had no further use for her.
Richard’s struggle with Philip of France over the territories of the Vexin and Gisors, which occupied the last years of his life, amounted to little more than two bald men fighting over a comb. Perhaps this explains why the Lionheart legends attempted to invest Richard’s pointless and premature death with one last bit of glamour by claiming that he went to besiege Chalus-Chabrol in search of buried treasure. In fact, the attack on Chalus, near Limoges, in March 1199 was a necessary part of the King’s strategy in his ongoing struggle to maintain control of his vassals in Aquitaine. But the great warrior had grown a little careless. Strolling outside his camp on the evening of 26 March, protected only by his helmet and shield, Richard was hit in the arm by an arrow fired from the ramparts. His health had been sporadically poor as a result of the illnesses he had suffered on crusade, and even though the arrow head was wrenched from his flesh, it became clear that the wound was infected and that he was not going to recover. A messenger was dispatched to his mother Eleanor at Fontevrault, and she arrived at his bedside in time to be with him as he died, on 6 April. The castle fell the same day.
Berengaria, who was at Beaufort-en-Vallée, was not summoned to Richard’s deathbed, supposedly because this would alert the French and allow them to take advantage of the situation. It is a measure of her political marginalisation that a visit from Eleanor should not have been considered suspicious, whereas Berengaria’s arrival would have signalled an emergency. Instead Berengaria heard the news from Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who had been en route to meet Richard when he was informed of the King’s death. According to Adam of Eynsham, Berengaria was ‘sorrowing and almost heart broken’ and Hugh said Mass for her and was able ‘to calm her grief in a wonderful way’. Hugh then departed for Fontevrault, where Richard was buried on Palm Sunday in the presence of Queen Eleanor. Although later chroniclers assumed that Berengaria was among the chief mourners, it appears that she did not attend the funeral, as she kept Easter at Beaufort with Bishop Hugh and her brother-in-law John. In response to an urgent message from Eleanor, John had rushed from Brittany to Chinon as Richard was dying to secure the royal treasure, then ridden on to Fontevrault, where he visited not only Richard’s tomb but that of his father and Henry the Young King, before going on to Beaufort. Three days later Berengaria did visit the abbey, where she witnessed a charter issued by Queen Eleanor. Why did Berengaria not take up her rightful position at Richard’s funeral? Was she too ill with grief to contemplate the journey? Or did she consider Fontevrault too much Eleanor’s territory? In later life Berengaria maintained some correspondence with the abbey, purchasing land for her own foundation from the abbess in 1230, but she eschewed any connection with the royal mausoleum, unlike the next Queen of England, Isabelle of Angoule me. Berengaria had had little joy from her marriage, and John and Eleanor made it quite clear in the year after her widowhood that her concerns were of little importance to them. Her resistance to the Angevin way of death has something assertive about it, a little gesture of defiance towards the mother-in-law who was the most powerful woman of her age.
During her brief meeting with the grieving Eleanor at Fontevrault, Berengaria discussed with the papal envoy, Cardinal Pietro di Capua, the prospective marriage of her sister Blanca. The bridegroom was Thibaut of Champagne, Eleanor’s grandson by her daughter Marie, who had succeeded to his brother’s comital title two years earlier. Berengaria accompanied her sister to her wedding at Chartres in July and acted as witness to the ceremony. Marie, the former regent of Champagne, had died the previous year, but Berengaria’s association with the Champenois court highlights a neglected link that hints at a spiritual affinity between Richard and herself, whatever disappointments their marriage brought them.
Until their deaths, Richard and his half-sister Marie had shared a confessor. Adam de Perseigne, abbot of the eponymous Cistercian abbey in the diocese of Le Mans. The Cistercians were much favoured by Berengaria’s Navarrese family, a tradition she was to continue in her own foundation, and in her widowhood Adam remained a staunch supporter and friend to her. Unlike many clerics of the day, he sustained warm relations with women (though he was sharp on the frivolities of Blanca’s court), and while none of his letters to Berengaria survives, he also corresponded with her sister and appears as a signatory and witness on several documents relating to Berengaria, as well as assisting in the establishment of her own Cistercian house and personally selecting his successor, Gautier de Perseigne. Richard and Marie had enjoyed a close relationship, the strongest attestation of which is a poem written in captivity by Richard addressed to his Countess sister’. The connection with Adam de Perseigne suggests that Berengaria was less marginalised among the second generation of Angevin royalty than has previously been assumed. Through him she was linked to one of the most significant female rulers of her day, and their friendship after Richard’s death indicates that both husband and wife had confided and trusted in this astute, literary cleric. The interests and values they shared with Adam were clearly mutual, and such confidence implies a subtle degree of sympathy between Richard and Berengaria.
Blanca of Champagne herself was soon widowed: Thibaut died in 1201, leaving her the mother of one child and expecting another. Her court provided a refuge for Berengaria over the next few years, as both Eleanor and John were too absorbed in the upheavals of the Angevin succession to concern themselves with her welfare. Another sadness had come with Joanna’s death late in 1199. Raymond of Toulouse had spent much of their marriage warring with his own barons, and had proved to be a neglectful and, it seems, cruel husband. Joanna had decided to leave him and turned to Richard for protection, but as she travelled to meet her brother, ill and pregnant with her second child, she received the news of his death from Eleanor at Niort. By August, she had managed to rejoin her mother and brother John, who were keeping court at Rouen, and when it was obvious that she was dying she asked to take the veil as a nun at Fontevrault. Eleanor was able to persuade the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, to set aside canon law to admit this unconventional vocation, and though Joanna was too unwell to stand up in church to make her profession, she was able to ensure her entitlement to be buried as a veiled nun after her death. She was interred alongside her father and brother at Fontevrault. Her child, possibly born by Caesarian section, lived only a few hours. Joanna made no mention of Berengaria in her will, but then this princess who had been a queen had nothing to leave but 3,000 marks given in charity by her brother John, which she requested be distributed among the poor. The Cypriot princess who had shared Berengaria and Joanna’s experiences of the Holy Land seems to have had a knack for being in the right place at the right time: she became the next Countess of Toulouse.
Eleanor of Aquitaine had spent much of the period between Richard’s reconciliation with John at Lisieux in 1195 and his death in 1199 in relative seclusion at Fontevrault, where she still lived in royal style, albeit on a smaller scale. When, on his deathbed, Richard finally confirmed John, rather than Arthur of Brittany, as his heir, Eleanor knew she would have to intervene to ensure the succession. Richard’s decision has been attributed to Eleanor’s influence, but why was she so keen for John, who had repeatedly shown himself to be so disloyal, to inherit over Arthur, who, as Geoffrey’s son, arguably had the better hereditary claim and could also add Brittany to the Angevin power bloc? One answer is Eleanor’s powerful dislike of Arthur’s mother, Constance of Brittany. Since Arthur was barely into his teens, a crown for the son would mean a regency for the mother. The reduction of the governance of a large area of Europe to a squabble among women is typical of the way in which Eleanor’s legend has subsumed her political acumen. Underage kings were inevitably surrounded by destructive factionalism, and the aggressive tactics of Philip of France would require a strong opponent with a united baronage to oppose them. Moreover, John had effectively been king of England for some years, he was experienced and, with the backing of Eleanor’s status in Aquitaine, stood a better chance of holding the Angevin lands together.
John was invested as Duke of Normandy on 25 April 1199 and crowned King of England at Westminster on Ascension Day the same year. The English and many of the Norman lords accepted his accession, but the situation on the Continent was far from clear. Arthur continued to behave as if his rights superseded John’s, for example, in presuming to appoint William des Roches as seneschal of Anjou. Accompanied by Des Roches and his mother, he then led an army to the city of Angers, which promptly surrendered to him. The lords of Anjou, Maine and Touraine now came out in support for Arthur, and Eleanor was obliged to come out of retirement at Fontevrault to go to war. She selected Mercadier, one of Richard’s most loyal military captains, as her general, and accompanied him to Angers. Constance and Arthur fled north and the city was sacked on Eleanor’s orders as punishment for accepting Arthur. Eleanor then commanded that the surrounding countryside be laid to waste. If the dating of these incidents is correct, then it is an impressive example of Eleanor’s energy at the age of seventy-three. In the space of a fortnight she had travelled from Chalus to Fontevrault after Richard’s death, buried her son, campaigned in Anjou and arrived back at Fontevrault to make a grant to the abbey of St Marie de Turpenay for the celebration of Richard’s anniversary, witnessed by Berengaria, on 21 April.
Eleanor could have rested for only a few days at Fontevrault, because on 29 April she was at Loudun, then at Poitiers on 4 May, Montreuil-Bonnin the next day, followed by Niort (where she broke the news of Richard’s death to Joanna), Andilly, La Rochelle, St-Jean d’Andely, Saintes and Tours. By 1 July she was in Bordeaux, and in Rouen by the end of the month. The purpose of this progress was most obviously to consolidate support among her own people, but she also initiated a small political revolution when, at Tours in June, she paid homage to Philip Augustus of France for her Aquitaine dominions. This was an extraordinary act for a woman to perform independently. While it was not unknown for women to hold lands in their own right, Capetian tradition had always deemed that a man – a husband or a brother – paid homage as her proxy. To do so personally made a powerful symbolic statement about a woman’s ability to wield authority. Moreover, it was a shrewd move in the campaign against Arthur. By paying homage herself, Eleanor was effectively separating Aquitaine and Poitou from the other Angevin dominions. Having already exchanged a series of charters with John designating him her heir, she was able to deprive Philip of France of any legal cause to invade her lands or interfere there to Arthur’s advantage. To have acted so quickly, in such a compressed period of time and under the strains of bereavement and war shows not only an informed knowledge of the law but a remarkable ability to apply it.
Eleanor displayed similar ingenuity in her inauguration of communes or corporations in several towns, including La Rochelle. Based on a set of rules known as the Establishments of Rouen, these charters have sometimes been seen as evidence of a proto-democratic strain in Eleanor’s governance, but in fact by granting ‘independence’ to towns, Eleanor was incorporating the relatively new commercial power of the urban bourgeoisie more firmly into the older system of vassalage. The flattered burghers were permitted a mayor (subject to Eleanor’s approval) and the freedom to order some of their own affairs, but along with the right to defend themselves and their customs came an obligation to participate in the levy when Eleanor summoned her vassals to war.
Swindled by Richard out of her dower properties, Berengaria was eventually obliged to throw herself on the mercy of the French and spent the remainder of her life as Lady of Le Mans. From this point she no longer used any of the titles that had accompanied her signature in Rome over a decade before. Now she signed herself ‘humilissima regina quondam Anglorum’ - ‘most humble former queen of the English’. Berengaria had been a queen without a kingdom, but in the city of Le Mans and its suburbs, a total of thirty-seven parishes, she found her own small realm. She was permitted to appoint her own seneschal, Herbert de Tucé, and members of her household included Paulin Boutier, a knight, Pierre Prévot, her cantor, Simon and Garsia, her clerks, Adam and then Gautier de Perseigne, her chaplains, and her women, of whom one, Julianeta, was an embroideress. Thus established, she began to take an active and rather contentious part in local politics.
In Le Mans, Berengaria lived mainly at the palace of the counts of Maine and took a close interest in its church, St Pierre, which was constantly at odds with the rival cathedral chapter of St Julien. In 1204-6, two of Berengaria’s servants, Martine and Luke, tried to exact a tax payment from one André, who claimed he owed the money not to St Pierre but to St Julien. In retaliation, the cathedral chapter excommunicated one of the servants. The next year, Berengaria ordered the seizure of Andre’s goods and imprisoned him in the tower of Le Mans. The chapter promptly placed the city under interdict, but St Pierre defied them and successfully petitioned the papal curia to be allowed to celebrate low Mass with the church doors closed and no bellringing. The feud continued in 1218, this time over money Berengaria allegedly owed to St Julien, as Ann Trindade recounts:
Several other canons, acting on the authority and instructions of the Chapter, had warned Queen Berengaria to see that the money that her servants had taken in contravention of the rights of the Chapter was returned. But she replied that she would not return the money because, as she said, this customary right was hers. They told her the Chapter was ready to grant a hearing to her representatives and those of the man she had imprisoned and pass judgement. She replied that she would have none of it and after she had been warned several times about this by the Chapter and still refused to do anything about it, the Chapter placed the church and the city under the interdict.12
Berengaria herself enjoyed special protection from the Pope during the interdict. In acknowledgement of her ‘devotion to the Holy Roman Church and to our own person, and because of the universal obligation of our pastoral office, which charges us to exercise our case and concern with special favour towards the orphan and the widow’.13 The interdict was eventually lifted in 1218 after which Berengaria, who had been living at Thorée, returned ceremonially to Le Mans. She finally handed over the money to St Julien in 1220. Given that the sum in question was five denarii of Tours, a paltry amount, the whole affair rings slightly of the bickerings of a suburban local council.
However, money was never far from Berengaria’s mind. In 1213, she had sent envoys to John to try to make arrangements for the transfer of funds from properties that were hers by right, but John enjoined her to keep silent and reassured her that arrangements were in hand. He finally promised 2,000 marks in arrears and 10,000 pounds in two instalments, but then wrote the next year to regretfully inform his dearest sister’ that he couldn’t pay. In 1216, the Pope complained to the archbishop of Tours of the ‘frequent acts of injury and theft’ Berengaria had endured, but despite papal pressure it was left to John and Isabelle’s son Henry III to settle the debt to Berengaria, agreeing to pay her 4,500 pounds over five years. The negotiations were still dragging on in 1226, more than a quarter of a century after Richard I’s death.
One of the more blithely ridiculous claims to have been made about Berengaria is that, notwithstanding the view of many writers that she was the only English queen never to have set foot in England, ‘in fact she was a frequent visitor to the court of King John, as is attested to by the numerous safe-conducts given to her and her servants . . . In 1216 she toured England after the King had given her permission to travel wherever she pleased in the realm and in 1220 she was amongst the vast throng gathered to witness the translation of Becket’s bones.’14 Safe-conducts were issued for Berengaria and her servants in 1215, 1216, 1219 and 1220, but there is absolutely no evidence that she undertook a pleasant tour of England during the barons’ wars. Nor is there any confirmation that the conducts were even used, though they may have been intended to serve as passports through Aquitaine to Navarre, in the event that Berengaria was left so impoverished by her genial brother-in-law that she was obliged to return to her homeland.
Since John had well and truly cheated her, Berengaria was obliged to make the best of what resources she had. Her efforts to do so earned her a rather unpleasant reputation as a persecutor of the Jews’.15 Le Mans had a significant Jewish community, and Berengaria, perhaps following Navarre’s liberal tradition towards the Jews, had employed the services of Jewish moneylenders during her marriage. A record exists of her use of revenues from the queen’s Cornish tin mines to pay a debt to an Italian Jew named Pontius Amaldi in 1199. But France was not Navarre and, as in England, Jews were liable to have their property confiscated without recompense, despite this being expressly forbidden in a papal bull of 1120. Berengaria was prepared to exploit their degraded legal status, rewarding her servant Martin with a house and vineyard taken from two Jews, Desiré and Copin, in 1208,a gift he sanctified by selling one acre of the land to pay for a memorial Mass for Richard I’s soul. Berengaria also profited from the sale of land by converted Jews and gave a former Jewish school building to her chapel. The signature of Adam de Perseigne on one such document, and her donations to the Dominican order, who made the conversion of Jews something of a speciality, may testify that she was interested in saving Jews as well as robbing them. Certainly Adam, her close friend and spiritual counsellor, disapproved of the ill-treatment of Jews, so his involvement suggests that at least some of Berengaria’s transactions were conducted with a degree of probity. Such activities in any case hardly amount to persecution, and indeed were not considered illegal by the powerful, but in the light of Berengaria’s readiness to plead her own vulnerable status as a widow to the Pope, they do seem somewhat hypocritical.
Since what dower rights Berengaria had managed to claw back were usufructuary - that is, only for her lifetime - she needed money to acquire land if she was to fulfil the project that dominated the last years of her life. Her plan was to found a house for the Cistercians, an order closely linked with her natal family and from whom she sought anniversary Masses for Richard and her sister Blanca after the latter’s death in 1223. Berengaria bought land from the hospital of Coeffet and a vineyard from Fontevrault to fund her foundation of Nôtre Dame de la Pieté-Dieu at Epau. Louis VIII of France granted her forty-six acres of woodland with seven meadows and two gardens on the River Huisine, where she erected two watermills for the monks. Louis and his mother, Blanche of Castile, visited Epau to confirm the gift to their ‘dearest relative and kinswoman’ in 1230. That year, the first monks arrived and the abbey was confirmed by the Pope and consecrated by Bishop Geoffrey de Laval in January 1231. Sadly, Berengaria did not live to see her abbey sanctified, as she died the preceding December. She was buried at the abbey, in the choir, and, after being moved in the nineteenth century, her bones have now been restored to the chapter house.
Berengaria is one of England’s least-known medieval queens and often considered one of the saddest, dwarfed by both her husband and her mother-in-law. Her marriage could not be called successful, yet it offered her an opportunity for experience and adventure which far exceeded the limitations of many women of her class, and her interactions with her powerful relatives specifically affected the alignment of power in Europe. As Lady of Le Mans she continued to exercise authority and succeeded largely by her own efforts in raising an impressive monument to her memory. She was tenacious and, in a quiet way, refused to be dominated by the much larger characters of the Angevin rulers who became her marital family. The glory of the Third Crusade is Richard’s, but it is worth recalling that had it not been for his last-minute wedding to Berengaria, it might never have happened at all.