Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, December 16, 2022

Adelaide of Burgundy, Empress, Regent, Saint

Adelaide of Burgundy, Empress and Regent of the Holy Roman Empire (died 16 December 999)

About the women in Adelaide of Burgundy's extended family--among them Adelaide's daughter-in-law, the Empress Theophanu, Adelaide's older daughter, Emma, queen of the Franks, and her younger daughter Mathilda, princess-abbess of Quedlinburg--historian Pauline Stafford writes, "A group of women played key roles in the last decade of the tenth century. . . ." They "ruled as regents for under-age males." They "met together . . . to debate important questions of succession and dynastic interralations." They were, "in every sense . . . a regiment of powerful women." (If only John Knox had known about this "monstrous" regiment!)

Nineteenth-century artist Abel Terral's 
entirely imagined portrait
of Adelaide of Burgundy

Chief among these powerful and influential women was Adelaide herself: queen, empress, regent of the empire, and saint.

The daughter of Rudolf II, king of Upper Burgundy, and Bertha of Swabia, Adelaide of Burgundy was born in the Frankish kingdom of Upper Burgundy (now Switzerland) in the year 931.

In the decade before Adelaide's birth, Rudolf had intervened in the politics of northern Italy, opposing the current ruler, Berengar I, king of Italy and emperor of the Romans. Invited by disaffected members of the nobility, Rudolf was himself crowned king of Italy in Pavia in 922. He defeated Berengar at the battle of Firenzuola d'Arda on 29 July 923, after which Rudolf ruled in both Upper Burgundy and in Italy (though he never became emperor).

But by 926, sentiment turned against him, and it was the turn of Hugh of Provence, Rudolf's former ally, to be invited by disaffected members of the nobility to intervene in Italian politics. Rudolf was eventually forced back to Upper Burgundy, while Hugh of Provence gained control in northern Italy. In 931, Hugh had his son, Lothair, crowned co-ruler of Italy, and to bolster his position, concluded a treaty with Rudolf--Rudolf gave up his claims in Italy, and Hugh ceded Provence to Rudolf. To secure their alliance, the two agreed to the marriage of Rudolf's daughter, Adelaide, to Hugh's son, Lothair.

But, surprise! After Rudolf's death in 937, his widow (and Adelaide's mother), Bertha, married Hugh of Provence. After her mother's remarriage, Adelaide was raised in Pavia, and on 12 December 947, when she was about fifteen years old, Adelaide of Burgundy was married to her step-brother, Lothair. She bore him a daughter, Emma, about a year later. With the death of Hugh of Provence (c. 948), Lothair became sole king of Italy, Adelaide his queen.

But just three years after their marriage, Lothair was dead (22 November 950), probably poisoned by Berengar II--the grandson of Berengar I. This Berengar had been actively seeking control of Italy for some time. He had fought against Hugh (who died in 947), and then against Lothair. After Lothair's death, Berengar assumed the title of king of Italy, named (and crowned) his son, Adalbert, as co-ruler, and aimed to consolidate his power in the territory by forcing the widowed Adelaide to marry his son.

A hair-raising account of Adelaide's situation is related by the tenth-century writer Hrotsvita of Gandersheim in her epic poem, Carmen de gestis Oddonis imperatoris (Poem of the Deeds of the Emperor Otto). In her words, Adelaide was "a woman illustrious in the comeliness of her queenly beauty and solicitous in affairs worthy of her character." She "possessed . . . pre-eminent natural abilities"--recognized by Lothair, who intended that the kingdom of Italy would be "ruled by the will of the eminent queen" after his death.

But because of their "vile treachery," a "certain faction of the populace, with perverted and hostile spirit," betrayed Lothair and Adelaide; after Lothair's death, they offered the kingdom instead to Berengar II, who had long "nursed" a "hatred" in his "baleful breast." Having seized the throne, he deprived Adelaide of her attendants and imprisoned her in Garda Castle. The indomitable young woman resisted, ultimately escaping her confinement--according to Hrostvita's account, Adelaide somehow managed to dig a "secret tunnel under the earth" (Hrostvita says this tunnel was dug "under the guidance of common prayer" and with the "support of the benevolent Christ").

However she managed it, by means of a secret tunnel or otherwise, Adelaide escaped from Berengar, avoided pursuit and recapture, and found refuge with Adalbert Atto, count of Canossa. When Berengar attempted to take Canossa by siege, Adelaide appealed to Otto, king of the Franks. 

Otto quickly saw the advantages of a marriage with Adelaide. One contemporary source indicates that Adelaide not only appealed to Otto for assistance but sent him a marriage proposal. Hrotsvita, however, attributes Otto's interest to his recognition of Adelaide's excellent qualities (and the convenient death of Otto's first wife, Edith of England): "with frequent ponderings of heart Otto remembered the distinguished Queen Adelaide, and longed to behold the queenly countenance of her whose excellence of character he already knew."

Whatever his motivation, Otto invaded northern Italy, entered Pavia, had himself crowned king of Italy, and sent for Adelaide, who left her refuge in Canossa and joined him. They were married on 23 September 951. 

Thirteenth-century sculptures
of Otto I and Adelaide,
Meissen Cathedral
I love his worried face!
Following her marriage, Adelaide, now queen of the Franks and queen of Italy, gave birth to two sons, who did not survive. Her third child, a daughter, was Mathilda, who would eventually become abbess of Quedlinburg. 

A third son, Otto, was born in 955. In 961, after the death of his elder step-brother, Otto was recognized as his father's heir and co-ruler. On 2 February 962, Otto was crowned emperor of the Romans as Otto I, and Adelaide herself crowned as empress. Five years later, in December 967, Adelaide's son, Otto (who would succeed his father as Otto II), was crowned co-emperor

During their marriage Adelaide "acted in partnership with Otto"; since he was so often on the battlefield, Adelaide's stable position in Rome seems to have made her a reliable, accessible agent able to act on her husband's behalf, though she seems also to have been able to act independently. As Edward Schoenfeld notes in his discussion of Adelaide, "decisions regarding Italy were made only with her consent," and she "exerted considerable influence on non-Italian affairs." She was greatly interested in religious issues as well: "She promoted Cluniac monasticism and strengthened the allegiance of the German church to the emperor, playing an important role in Otto I’s distribution of ecclesiastical privileges and participating in his Italian expeditions."

The extent of her influence is documented by her appearance in contemporary diplomatic records: "Adelaide is named in royal diplomata by both her husbands; during her marriage to Otto I, she intervened in 92 out of 289 extant diplomata, 29 times in Italy, 63 in Germany."

By 972, Adelaide's son, the sixteen-year-old Otto, had married the Byzantine noblewoman Theophanu. The younger Otto had not yet reached his full majority when Otto I died on 7 March 973, though his succession was uncontested, undoubtedly because of the presence of his mother, now dowager empress. She acted briefly as regent for the young couple after their accession.

While there seems to have been some conflict between Adelaide, her son, and her daughter-in-law (Adelaide "retired" to Upper Burgundy in 978), she did act as Otto's "viceroy" in Italy, and following her son's death in December 983, whatever the issues between her and Theophanu may have been, they were put aside. Adelaide supported Theophanu as she acted as regent for her son, another Otto, who at the age of three, succeeded his father as Otto III, Holy Roman emperor.

Theophanu governed as regent until her death in 991, after which the sixty-year-old Adelaide took over the role for her grandson. Four years later, Otto III reached his majority; he was crowned emperor at Rome on 21 May 996.

By contrast, check out her face!
After resigning her regency, Adelaide focused on founding a number of religious institutions, though her political role was not yet over. After the death of her brother, Conrad I, king of Burgundy, Adelheid traveled to Burgundy to shore up support for her nephew, Rudolf III. 

She died on 16 December 999 at Selz Abbey (Alsace), which she had founded in 991. She was canonized by Pope Urban II in 1097.

I've already linked to several online sources, above. In addition, you can read letters to and from Adelaide at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters (click here). There are only two letters from Adelaide, but quite a few written to her, including a number from her daughter, Emma, queen of the Franks. 

For an academic study comparing Adelaide of Burgundy and Matilda of Tuscany, I recommend Penelope Nash's Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda: Medieval Female Rulership and the Foundations of European Society. (A great deal of helpful introductory material, including a detailed timeline, is available from the publisher here.)

I'll make special note, too, of the edition of Hrotsvita's Deeds of the Emperor Otto, from which I've quoted, above. The English translation is by Sister Mary Bernardine Bergman, her Ph.D. dissertation (St. Louis University, 1942) published in 1943 by the Sisters of St. Benedict of Covington, Kentucky.

By the way, over the centuries, the abbey Adelaide founded suffered from a "millenial flood" (in 1307), was rebuilt, secularized (1481), Protestant-ized (1571), re-converted to Catholicism (1684), dissolved (1692), set on fire by Austrian troops (1793), rebuilt and "recreated" (1801), restored for the "anniversary" of Adelaide's death (1899), almost destroyed in World War II, and restored again in 1958.

Detail from sculpture,
Meissen Cathedral.
She looks like she'd be so much fun!