The Queen Who Never Saw Her Realm

Queen Berengaria – a portrait by an unknown artist based on a medieval drawing
Queen Berengaria – a portrait by an unknown artist based on a medieval drawing

by Ray Setterfield

May 12, 1191 — Spanish Princess Berengaria married a king on this day – and is believed to have been the only queen in history never to have set foot in her realm.

Her husband was Richard the Lionheart – King Richard I of England – and they were married in Cyprus.

Though King Richard would spend less than six months in his country during his reign of nearly ten years – he was too busy fighting crusades in the Holy Land – Berengaria smashed the record with her total absence.

Before their marriage, news had spread in 1187 that Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslims under Saladin. It was such a terrible blow that Pope Urban III was said to have died of shock after hearing it. A call went out across Europe for a crusade to reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom.

Among those answering the call was the 34-year-old bachelor king Richard who set off on a crusade less than a year after his coronation. On his way to Palestine he stopped at Cyprus and in the Chapel of St. George at Limassol he married Berengaria, a royal princess of the Spanish kingdom of Navarre.

Richard’s mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, pressed for the match because Navarre bordered Aquitaine on the south, thus presenting the possibility of Eleanor further expanding her empire. Also, the marriage with Berengaria would bring a dowry that would help Richard finance his efforts in the crusades.

The honeymoon, such as it was, took place on the way to Palestine as Richard pressed on with his mission, Berengaria in tow. Sensibly, as many historians thought, she cut short the trip and returned to Europe – with much difficulty – under her own steam.

She stopped in France and settled at Le Mans, devoting the rest of her life to the Church, never seeing Richard. Their marriage was, of course, childless. Historians say that there is no record of a visit to England but it is just possible that Berengaria dropped by there after Richard’s death to fight for her pension as a Dowager Queen.

She founded L’Épau Abbey outside Le Mans in 1229 and was buried there when she died the following year. Cistercian monks honoured her by carving her figure in stone for her tomb and placing it in the abbey.

Sadly, she was not allowed to rest in peace because centuries later French revolutionaries turned the abbey into a farm and a laundry and put the Queen’s tomb in a barn. It was discovered there under a pile of straw in 1817 and moved to an outside chapter house. There it has remained, covered but deteriorating because it is open to all weathers.

In another twist, a skeleton, thought to be that of Berengaria, was found during restoration of the abbey in 1960. It was decided to preserve it beneath the stone effigy of the queen. Finally, in 2020, France’s Le Figaro newspaper reported that an appeal had been launched for money to end the “curse” of Berengaria’s remains and relocate the tomb inside the abbey.

The queen was honoured in modern times when in the 1940s the Cunard shipping line gave the name Berengaria to their flagship.

The vessel had actually been built in Germany and when launched as SS Imperator in 1912 she was the largest ocean liner in the world by gross tonnage, beating even the Titanic. She could carry more than 4,200 passengers – nearly twice the capacity of the ill-fated British ship.

Imperator was taken over by the United States Navy after the First World War and used to transport troops back to the US from Europe.

After that she was acquired by Cunard, refitted and relaunched as Berengaria. The ageing “queen” was retired in 1938 and finally met her end in 1946 after the Second World War, the largest ship ever to be broken up for scrap metal.

Published: December 15, 2020

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