Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999)

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Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999)

Empress of the Holy Roman Empire at the time of its reorganization under husband Otto I, who was not only active in imperial governments, but also endowed many churches and monasteries so as to earn the title saint. Name variations: Adeheid, Adelheid, Adelheide, Adelaide, Queen of Lombardy; Saint Adelaide. Born Adelaide in 931 in Burgundy; died at Seltz in Alsace on December 16, 999; daughter of Rudolf or Rudolph II of Burgundy and Bertha of Swabia; married Lothar also known as Lothair (d. 950), king of Italy, in 947; became second wife of Otto I the Great (912–973), king of Germany (r. 936–973), Holy Roman emperor (r. 962–973), in 951; children: (first marriage) Emma of Italy (b. 948); (second marriage) Matilda of Quedlinburg (c. 953–999) and Otto II (955–983), Holy Roman emperor (r. 973–983); grandmother of Adelaide of Quedlinburg (977–1045), German abbess and founder.

Married Lothair, king of Italy (947), who was poisoned three years later by Berengar II (Berenguer), a rival for the Italian throne; imprisoned for refusing to marry Adalbert, Berengar II's son (951); escaped and married Otto I later the same year; crowned empress by Pope John XII (962); served as regent to her grandson, Otto III (991–95).

On an April day in 951, Adelaide of Burgundy stood hidden behind tall stalks of wheat listening to the crunch of soldiers' boots nearby. She was on the run and being hunted. Several nights before, she and a trusted servant had tunneled for hours to escape the prison of King Berengar of Italy. Now in the disguise of a serving maid, this widowed queen was headed north to seek refuge at Reggio and appeal for protection to Otto, the king of Germany. As the soldiers grew closer, the grass was parted by a sword—first on one side of the hidden queen, then the other. But Adelaide escaped detection. Her perilous journey continued through hills and marshes, with the aid of clerics and fishermen, to a successful rendezvous with her future husband, Otto, in northern Italy.

The dramatic escape of Adelaide from the prison of King Berengar is recorded by two contemporary biographers. These accounts show Adelaide to be a strong, resourceful, and independent woman. Such a woman of character may not coincide with a modern image of the demure medieval lady, but women's access to power in the Middle Ages was greater than most 20th-century observers might suspect. In a society based on feudalism, the control of land was the control of power. Women inherited and controlled property in equal measure to their brothers. And, while eldest sons usually enjoyed some favor in royal succession, daughters without siblings were known to rule as well. Finally, while land could be won through military might, legitimate heirs were needed to achieve a measure of stability from one generation to the next. Therefore, as daughters and wives, women could advance the economic and dynastic ambitions of their families. In particular as widows, they could enjoy independent rule over their own land holdings and serve as regents and guardians for their children and grandchildren. So, while all early medieval queens did not tunnel out of dungeons or hide in grain fields as Adelaide did, her life serves as a good example of the power and limitations of royal women in the 10th century.

Adelaide was born in 931 in Burgundy in what is now southwestern France. Her father Rudolf II was king of Burgundy and her mother Bertha of Swabia came from the German province of Swabia. As part of a peace agreement between her father and King Hugh of Italy, Adelaide was betrothed to Hugh's son, Lothair, at the age of two. Rudolf died in 937 and Adelaide's widowed mother married King Hugh placing Adelaide in the odd position of being betrothed to her stepbrother.

In 947, at the age of 14, Adelaide of Burgundy married Lothair who had become king of Italy two years earlier. A year later, she gave birth to a daughter, Emma of Italy , a future queen of France. Adelaide's marriage to Lothair lasted only three years. On November 22, 950, Lothair died, and Adelaide's life was then thrown into turmoil. Berengar, the Marquis of Ivrea, claimed the Italian throne for himself. Although he had served as an advisor to Lothair, it was rumored that the marquis had poisoned the king in order to carry out this coup. Berengar then proposed that Adelaide marry his son, Adalbert; this union would legitimize Berengar's claim to power in Italy. Adelaide's consent was required for the marriage, however. This she refused to give and so found herself imprisoned in Berengar's Garda Castle.

Locked away in Berengar's dungeon, 19-year-old Adelaide became the classic example of "a lady in distress." After four months of captivity, she used her own wealth, connections, and resourcefulness to execute a daring escape. Liberation, however, was only the first step in countering Berengar's usurpation of her political rights in Italy. Adelaide needed military aid to defeat Berengar. She appealed to Otto I, king of Germany.

A logical choice, Otto was a strong military and political leader whose lands bordered Italy to the north. Years earlier, when Adelaide's father died, Otto had served as a tutor to her brother, Conrad, and had helped Conrad protect his rights as heir to the throne of Burgundy. Adelaide had much to offer Otto in return, for his chief ambition was to revive the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that united Germany and Italy. Coming to Adelaide's aid gave Otto an excuse to advance his political ambitions in Italy. Therefore, an alliance between Otto and Adelaide brought advantages to both.

Bertha of Swabia (fl. 900s)

Queen of Burgundy. Born in the German province of Swabia; married Rudolf II of Burgundy also known as Rudolf of Lorraine (died 937); married Hugh of Provence, king of Italy; children: (first marriage) Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999); Conrad of Burgundy.

In December of 951, only a few months after escaping Berengar's prison, Adelaide of Burgundy married Otto, and he immediately began to advance their claims in Italy. As one of Otto's closest advisors throughout their marriage, Adelaide's influence and popularity was key to the Italian campaign. It took over 11 years, but the dream of empire became a reality. In 962, Otto and Adelaide were crowned emperor and empress of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John II.

The couple had two children: a son, Otto II, and a daughter Matilda of Quedlinburg . (Otto I also had three other children by his first marriage to Edgitha , sister of the English king Athelstan). Otto II became coemperor with his father in 967 at the age of 12. Five years later, Adelaide and Otto I arranged a marriage for their son with Theophano (c. 955–991), a Byzantine princess. This union further established the empire's authority over Greek holdings in southern Italy. Adelaide's daughter Matilda chose a career in the church, entering Quedlinburg monastery. She rose to the rank of abbess, an office with responsibility over a wide variety of spiritual and secular matters.

After the death of Otto I in 973, Adelaide of Burgundy devoted much of her energy and wealth to the church. She was an active benefactor of many religious foundations, and was particularly supportive of the monastic reform movement centered at Cluny. Two abbots of this house, Majouis and Odilo, were close friends and advisors, and the latter wrote her biography. Adelaide's devotion to religious works went beyond the simple donation of money. She was personally active in the care of the poor, especially at her daughter's monastery at Quedlinburg. She often took off her royal garb and dressed as a serving woman in order to distribute food and clothing to the destitute who gathered at the monastery gate.

Adelaide's religious fervor, however, was not appreciated by her son, Otto II, who considered that her wealth might be more appropriately spent on secular-political pursuits. This tension between mother and son caused Adelaide to leave the imperial court of Germany and live with her brother, Conrad, in Burgundy in 978. Two years later, Adelaide and 25-year-old Otto II were reconciled when he appealed to his mother for aid in calming political unrest in Italy. Adelaide used her personal influence to calm the crisis. She then agreed to return to a more active political life in Italy.

The untimely demise of Otto II in December 983 left the empire in an unstable state. His own son and heir, Otto III, was only three years old. Several political rivals saw these circumstances as a perfect opportunity to usurp the Ottonian claim to the imperial crown. Acting in concert with her daughter Matilda and her daughter-in-law, Theophano, Adelaide of Burgundy was able to counter these political challenges and firmly establish Theophano as regent for her grandson. However, when Theophano died in 991, Adelaide assumed responsibility for the administration of the empire. Under her leadership the kingdom remained stable and peaceful until Otto III was old enough to take up the imperial crown in 995.

Matilda of Quedlinburg (c. 953–999)

Abbess of Quedlinburg and regent of Germany. Name variations: Mathilda. Born around 953; died in 999 at Quedlinburg monastery, Germany; daughter of Emperor Otto I (912–973), king of Germany, and refounder of the Holy Roman empire (r. 936–973), and Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999); sister of Otto II (955–983), Holy Roman emperor (r. 973–983); never married; no children.

Born into the imperial family of Germany, Matilda was the daughter of Adelaide of Burgundy and Otto I. As a girl, she was allowed to enter a convent rather than marry. Highly educated by the nuns of Quedlinburg, especially in the areas of medicine and history, she also showed a talent for artistic work, and became well known for her exquisite embroidery. Matilda was eventually elected abbess; under her rule, Quedlinburg became famous for its production of richly embroidered clothing for clerics and altar cloths, some of which still exist.

Around 980, Abbess Matilda was pulled out of the convent to act as regent, along with her mother Adelaide and her sister-in-law Theophano (c. 955–991), for her nephew, the young Otto III. The peaceful, introverted nun became an excellent leader, even sending an army to defeat an enemy invasion in 983. When Otto came of age, Matilda returned to Quedlinburg, where she died several years later.

Laura York, Northampton, Massachusetts

In her final years, Adelaide returned to a life devoted to religious causes. It was a time of great literary activity in the monasteries, including Hrotsvitha who was writing at Gandersheim. In her last months, Adelaide undertook a pilgrimage to the various religious shrines of Northern Italy, Burgundy, and Germany. Many of these holy places had benefitted directly from her patronage. Her biographer, Odilo, recorded the journey in great detail. At every site, friends and family greeted Adelaide along with crowds of poor looking for alms. Adelaide continued the practice of ministering to the poor herself. She also spent much time in prayer. Her piety and devotion greatly impressed Odilo and shaped his claim of her saintliness. Adelaide's pilgrimage ended at Selz where she had ordered her tomb built at the convent of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, a religious house she had founded. On December 16, 999, Adelaide of Burgundy died peacefully in her sleep.


Hroswitha of Gandersheim. Gesta Ottonis. Edited by P. Winterfeld. Monumenta Germania historica, Scriptores rerum germanicarum in usum scholarum. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1965.

Odilo of Cluny. [Epitaph of Adelaide] Die Lebensbeschreibung der Kaiserin Adelheid von Abt Odilo von Cluny. Edited by H. Paulhart. Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung, supplementary vol. 20, part 2. Festschrift zur Jahrtausendfeier der Kaiserkronung Ottos des Grossen, part 2. Cologne: H. Boohlaus Nachf, 1962.

suggested reading:

Baumer, Gertrude. Adelheid, Mutter der Königreiche. Stuttgaart: R. Wunderlich, 1949.

Stafford, Pauline. Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Linda A. McMillin , Assistant Professor of History, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania

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Adelaide of Burgundy (931–999)

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