Richard I and Berengaria of Navarre
By John Gillingham
Historical Research, Vol. 53: 128 (1980)
Introduction: From the mid twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth century the five reigning queens of England were Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angouleme, Eleanor of’ Provence and Eleanor of Castile. Simply to list these names is to suggest that their husbands had important political and diplomatic interests in south-western Europe. On the other hand to read what historians have written about the kings of’ England in this period is to gain the impression that this was not the case. Historians have tended to concentrate almost exclusively on the lands on either side of the English Channel, on the area of the old Anglo-Norman realm. It is easy enough to understand why they have chosen to confine their history within these narrow geographical limits. The northern Plantagenet lands and, above all, England are relatively rich in the kind of documentation to which historians of politics have grown accustomed: narrative sources and the records of central government. By contrast, there is relatively little of this type of evidence to be found in the lands which comprised the southern part of the Plantagenet empire. Although this difference may, in practice cause historians to neglect the south, we should not assume that the Plantagenets themselves shared this attitude. The paucity of familiar kinds of evidence may imply that politically and culturally, the south was a very different sort of society from the north; but it does not mean that the Plantagenets were northerners who believed that the south did not matter.
In this article, by focusing attention on just one of these royal marriages, I hope to suggest that if we are to understand the Plantagenets we must be prepared to travel south – as they did when they chose their queens. At the same time an investigation of the circumstances of Richard I’s marriage should help to dispel two myths: the old, but still vigorous myth that he was a negligent king who was ‘a total loss in the counsel-chamber’, as well as the flourishing modern myth about his activities in the bedchamber.
The well-known facts about the marriage are few and can be quickly summarized. Berengaria of’ Navarre was brought to Richard’s court, then at Messina in Sicily, in March 1191. She accompanied the crusader-king on his journey east and they were married in Cyprus, at Limassol, on 12 May 1191. After the crusade they saw little of each other and there were no children. These facts can be fitted quite easily into the conventional portrait of Richard as an irresponsible crusader, indifferent to serious matters of politics like the succession to the throne, sacrificing his kingdom’s future for the sake of present pleasures. As a result no historian has bothered to give them much thought.