Berengaria (Castilian: Berenguela) (1 June 1180 – 8 November 1246) was Queen regnant of Castile in 1217 and Queen consort of León from 1197 to 1204.
The eldest daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and his wife, Eleanor of England, she was the great-granddaughter of another Berengaria, the wife of Alfonso VII of León and sister of Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona. In the maternal line she was the granddaughter of King Henry II of England and another important woman of the age, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
At the time of her birth, Berengaria was the only child of the king and queen, as those born earlier had not survived. Therefore she was the heir apparent to the throne of Castile, and hence a greatly desired party in all of Europe.
Berengaria’s first engagement was agreed in 1187 when her hand was sought by Conrad, Duke of Rothenburg and fifth child of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The next year, in Seligenstadt, Germany, the marriage contract was signed. Conrad then marched to Castile, where in Carrión the engagement was celebrated and the young count was knighted.
The marriage was not consummated, at first due to Berengaria’s age and later because the king and queen, in 1189, had a son, Ferdinand, who was then designated heir to the throne. At this, Emperor Frederick, seeing his aspirations in Castile frustrated, lost all interest in continuing with his son’s wedding in spite of the princess’s dowry of 42,000 aureos. Conrad and Berengaria never saw each other again. Berengaria requested an annulment of the engagement from the Pope, influenced, no doubt, by third parties such as her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not interested in having a Hohenstaufen as a neighbor to her French fiefdoms. But those fears would later be neutralized when the duke was assassinated in 1196.
Two years later, Berengaria married King Alfonso IX of León, her first cousin once removed, in Valladolid. They had five children:
Berengaria (1198–1235), married John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem;
Constance (1200–1242), a nun in the Abbey of las Huelgas;
Ferdinand III (1201–1252), King of Castile and León;
Alfonso (1203–1272), Lord of Molina and Mesa by his first marriage. He married, first, Mafalda de Lara, heiress of Molina and Mesa, second, Teresa Núñez, and third, Mayor Téllez de Meneses, Lady of Montealegre and Tiedra, by whom he was the father of María of Molina, wife of King Sancho IV of León and Castile.
But in 1204, Pope Innocent III annulled the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity, despite the fact that Celestine III had permitted it at the time. This was the second annulment for Berengaria as well as for Alfonso, and they vehemently sought a dispensation in order to stay together. But this pope was one of the harshest on matrimonial issues and denied their request, although they succeeded in having their children considered legitimate. Her marriage dissolved, Berengaria returned to Castile and to her parents, where she dedicated herself to the care of her children.
On the death of Alfonso VIII in 1214, the crown passed to his heir prince Henry (third and sole surviving son of the late king), who was only ten years old. Thus began a period of regency, first under the young king’s mother, lasting 24 days until her own death, and then under his sister and heir presumptive Berengaria.
At this point internal strife began, instigated by the nobility, primarily the House of Lara. This forced Berengaria to cede guardianship of the king and the regency of the realm to Count Álvaro Núñez de Lara in order to avoid civil conflict in Castile.
In February, 1216, an extraordinary parliamentary session was held in Valladolid, attended by such Castilian magnates as Lope Diaz de Haro, Gonzalo Rodríguez Girón, Álvaro Díaz de Cameros, Alfonso Téllez de Meneses and others, who agreed, with the support of Berengaria, to make common cause against Álvaro Núñez de Lara. At the end of May the situation in Castile had grown perilous for Berengaria, so she decided to take refuge in the castle of Autillo in Palencia, which was held by Gonzalo Rodríguez Girón (one of her allies) and sent her son Ferdinand to the court of León and his father, Alfonso IX. On 15 August 1216 an assembly of all the magnates of Castile was held to attempt to reach an accord that would prevent civil war, but disagreements led the families of Girón, Téllez de Meneses, and Haro to break definitively with Álvaro de Lara.
Circumstances changed suddenly when Henry died on 6 June 1217 after receiving a head wound from a tile which came loose accidentally while he was playing with some other children at the palace of the Bishop of Palencia. His guardian, Count Álvaro Núñez de Lara, tried to hide the fact, taking the king’s body to the castle of Tariego, although it was inevitable that the news should reach Berengaria.
The new sovereign was well aware of the danger her former husband posed to her reign; being her brother's closest agnate, it was feared that he would claim the crown for himself. Therefore, she kept her brother's death and her own accession secret from Alfonso before finally abdicating in their son's favour on 31 August.
Although she did not wish to be queen, Berengaria was always at her son’s side as an adviser, intervening in state policy, albeit in an indirect manner.
In this way she arranged the marriage of his son with princess Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen (known as Beatriz in Castile), daughter of Duke Philip of Swabia and granddaughter of two emperors: Frederick Barbarossa and Isaac II Angelos of Byzantium. This union with such an important family improved the lineage of the Castilian monarchy and opened the way for Ferdinand to participate actively in European affairs. The wedding took place on 30 November 1219.
Another instance in which Berengaria’s mediation stood out developed in 1218 when the scheming Lara family, still headed by former regent Álvaro Núñez de Lara, conspired to have Alfonso IX, King of León and King Ferdinand's father, invade Castile to seize his son's throne. However, the death of Count Lara facilitated the intervention of Berengaria, who got father and son to sign the Pact of Toro on 26 August 1218, putting an end to confrontations between Castile and León.
In 1222, Berengaria intervened anew in favor of her son, achieving the ratification of the Convention of Zafra, thereby making peace with the Laras by arranging the marriage of Mafalda, daughter and heiress of the Lord of Molina, Gonzalo Pérez de Lara, to her own son and King Ferdinand’s brother, Alfonso.
In 1224 she arranged the marriage of her daughter Berengaria to John of Brienne, a maneuver which brought Ferdinand III closer to the throne of León, since John was the candidate Alfonso IX had in mind to marry his eldest daughter Sancha. By proceeding more quickly, Berengaria prevented the daughters of her former husband from marrying a man who could claim the throne of León.
But perhaps her most decisive intervention on Ferdinand’s behalf took place in 1230, when Alfonso IX died and designated as heirs to the throne his daughters Sancha and Dulce from his first marriage to Theresa of Portugal, superseding the rights of Ferdinand III. Berengaria met with the princesses’ mother and succeeded in the ratification of the Treaty of las Tercerías, by which they renounced the throne in favor of their half-brother in exchange for a substantial sum of money and other benefits. Thus were the thrones of León and Castile united in the person of Ferdinand III.
She intervened again in the second marriage of Ferdinand after the death of Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen, although they had had plenty of children, but with the aim that the king’s virtue not be diminished with illicit relations. This time, she chose a French noblewoman, Joan of Dammartin, a candidate put forth by the king’s aunt and Berengaria's sister Blanche, widow of King Louis VIII of France.
Berengaria behaved like an actual queen while her son Ferdinand was in the south, on his long campaigns of the Reconquista. She governed Castile and León with the skill that always characterized her, assuring him that she had his back well covered. She met with her son a final time in Pozuelo de Calatrava in 1245, afterwards returning to Castile, where she died the next year.
She is portrayed as a virtuous woman by the chroniclers of the time. She was a protectress of monasteries and personally supervised the work on both Burgos and Toledo Cathedrals. Moreover, she was also concerned with literature, charging Lucas de Tuy to compose a chronicle on the Kings of Castile and León, and she herself being mentioned in the works of Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada.