Berengaria of Navarre's 'cursed' tomb to be restored

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Renovation plan is latest event in peripatetic history of remains of wife of Richard I

Tomb of Berengaria of Navarre
The tomb of Berengaria of Navarre, who was the wife of Richard the Lionheart. Photograph: DEA/G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

For centuries, a statue of Berengaria of Navarre, wife of Richard the Lionheart, has been in search of a final resting place.

Known as the only English queen never to have set foot in the country, the pious Berengaria died in 1230. Cistercian monks honoured her by carving her figure in stone for her tomb and placing it in l’Épau Abbey, near Le Mans, which she had founded the previous year.

Berengaria was portrayed lying at peace, wearing a crown and holding a prayer book, none of which impressed French revolutionaries, who centuries later turned the abbey into a laundry and a farm and put the queen’s tomb in a barn.

In 1817, the tomb was rediscovered under a pile of straw and hay. One of Berengaria’s arms was missing as well as her aquiline nose. In the absence of a better idea, the tomb was placed in the cathedral in Le Mans. A copy of the effigy kept in the abbey was destroyed by the occupying German army in 1944.

Sixteen years later, the local authority purchased the abbey, by then in ruins. During its renovation, the skeleton of a woman, believed by some to be Berengaria – a suggestion disputed by others – was found and the tomb and effigy returned.

L’Épau Abbey, near Le Mans
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L’Épau Abbey, near Le Mans. Photograph: Michel Gile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Since then it has rested in an outside chapter house, covered but open to all weathers and slowly crumbling.

A public appeal for donations has been made to end the “curse” of Berengaria’s remains and relocate the tomb to a more appropriate place inside the abbey. French heritage officials have agreed to a €142,000 (£128,000) renovation of the stone effigy and tomb, €42,000 of which they hope to raise from the public.

“The aim is to restore the statue as well as the [sculpted] panels to return it to being a medieval tomb,” Bertrand Sechet told Le Figaro. “The return of the effigy in its original place will mark a new period in the long history of the abbey.”

Little is known about Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre, whose arranged marriage to the Plantagenet Richard I – king of England between 1189 and 1199, leader of the Third Crusade and a bachelor at 42 – may never have been consummated and resulted in no children. Richard’s family refused to allow her to be buried with him at Fontevraud Abbey.