Berengaria: The Queen of England Who Never Set Foot on that Sceptered Isle

Queen Berengaria

Queen Berengaria

She was the Queen of England, but she never even saw her realm. Nonetheless, she is the first queen who had a British ocean liner named for her, a ship that had been built for Imperial Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm. She was Berengaria, wife of King Richard I, “The Lionheart.”

The year was 1190. Richard had succeeded his father, Henry II, on the throne of England. Henry’s wife was the imperious, scheming Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor had once been married to King Louis VII of France. She had that one annulled, got her real estate back, then went out and snagged Henry. Eleanor knew a few things about arranging marriages for political gain.

Mommy the Matchmaker

King Richard I, "The Lionhearted"

King Richard I, “The Lionhearted”

When Eleanor’s son Richard inherited the throne, he’d already been betrothed to Princess Alys, daughter of King Philip of France. But Eleanor wanted to look after her homeland, the French duchy of Aquitaine. She saw that a friendly neighboring realm was the way to go. That realm was Navarre. So Eleanor connected up with King Sancho of Navarre at a banquet in Spain, and she fixed up her son with Sancho’s oldest daughter, Berengaria.

One problem: Richard had already been packed off from England to run the disastrous Third Crusade. With him out of the way, of course, Eleanor could rule in his stead, as regent. Richard was at Messina, in Sicily, when the 70-year old Eleanor and Berengaria caught up with him. He officially terminated his betrothal to Alys – a good move, because she had been sleeping with his father Henry, and probably had borne Henry at least one illegitimate child.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine

So Richard and Berengaria got engaged. Another problem: It was Lent, so they couldn’t get married. Richard’s sister Joan, the widowed Queen of Sicily, was there too. The happy couple, now engaged, set off for the Holy Land in different ships. Joan was assigned to keep an eye on Berengaria, and traveled with her. A storm hit, the fleet got scattered –Richard’s treasure ship sunk too – and Berengaria ended up aground off the island of Cyprus.

An Island Wedding, at Last

The nasty Isaac Comnenus ruled Cyprus. He threatened Berengaria and her entourage with all sorts of bad things. Richard’s fleet finally arrived and came to her rescue. He conquered the island and married Berengaria there, at the Chapel of St. George at Limassol. A couple of A-List church men were on hand, and so that same day, Berengaria was crowned Queen of England by the Archbishop of Bordeaux and the bishops of Évreux and Bayonne.

Berengaria and Richard went to Acre in Palestine. She soon left, and went back to Poitou, France. Things didn’t go well for Richard, though. On his return trip to Europe, he was captured and held prisoner in Germany until 1194. Eleanor finally arranged for his ransom – by plundering the riches of the church, primarily – and got him freed.

The marriage of Berengaria and Richard was not a happy one. They had no children, and he is widely believed to have been gay even though he did father at least one illegitimate child. Richard was more interested in his military campaigns than in his marriage after he returned from captivity. The marriage was seen as so rocky that Pope Celestine ordered the pair to reconcile. Richard obeyed and took Berengaria to church every week after that.

Richard died in 1199 and was succeeded as King of England by his brother John. Berengaria, distressed at being overlooked as queen of England, retired to Le Mans in France. She lived in poverty because John seized her property and never paid most of her pension, which amounted to 4,000 pounds. Later on, though, John’s son Henry III came across with the funds.

Berengaria may have actually come to England at one point to complain about the money. But she was never there during Richard’s lifetime, and therefore is the only queen of England who never set foot in her realm. She died in 1230 and was buried at a convent in Le Mans.

The Berengaria – Once the World’s Largest Ship

Launch of The Imperator at Hamburg, Germany

Launch of The Imperator at Hamburg, Germany

In May 1912, a month after the Titanic went down, Vulcan Shipyards of Hamburg, Germany launched the Imperator, a luxurious ocean liner that was then the world’s largest ship. Its maiden voyage from Hamburg to New York was in June of 1913. But in July 1914, with World War I breaking out, the German navy ordered that the Imperator remain in port, lest it be seized as a war prize.

The Imperator remained there until 1919 when the Americans made it into a troop transporter for returning soldiers. In August of that year, they gave the ship to the Brits as reparation for the Lusitania.

RMS Berengaria, flagship of the Cunard Line

RMS Berengaria, flagship of the Cunard Line

The Imperator became the flagship and pride of the Cunard Line. The British rechristened her the Berengaria, in honor of the queen who never made it to her country. It was the first time that a ship was named for a queen of England. Along with the Mauretania and the Aquitania, the Berengaria was a mainstay of the Cunard Line’s express routes between Southampton and New York in the 1920s.

The Berengaria was taken from service after the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were launched in 1936. The Berengaria was sold for scrap in 1938, but it took until the end of World War II to dismantle her completely.

The Berengarias – Queen of England who lived in France, and luxury British ocean liner built for Imperial Germany by the man most responsible for the Great War that nearly destroyed England and the rest of Europe. And now you know their stories.

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