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Adelaide of Burgundy, Ottonian empress

Title social-status: 
queen of Italy, Ottonian empress
Biography: 

Adelaide, queen of Italy, empress of the Ottonian empire, was literally and figuratively at the center of the political scene in the tenth century. She was, as Pauline Stafford points out, daughter, sister, and aunt of three consecutive kings of Burgundy, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and grandmother of three consecutive kings of France, wife, mother, and grandmother of three Ottonian emperors.(1) She was also queen of Italy in her first marriage to Lothar II (947-50); she ruled his land when he died without a son in 950 and brought it to her marriage to Otto (951).(2) She was the first Ottonian empress — Otto I became emperor in 962 after their marriage — and participated in the government with him. When Otto died in 973 she was regent for her son, Otto II, and after his death in 983 for her grandson, Otto III, sharing the latter position with her daughter-in-law Theophanu, and eventually ceding it to her, but returning after Theophanu's death in 991.
The dramatic story of Adelaide's passage from Lombardy to Germany is told by the nun Hrotsvit in Gesta Ottonis, written for the emperor's family during the lifetime of the empress, so while it may be somewhat romaticized it is presumably not entirely fiction. Hrotsvit says Lothar left his kingdom in her hands when he died and she would have ruled it worthily, but for the treachery of Berengar who imprisoned her and seized the throne. She escaped, through a secret tunnel she and her companions dug, and eventually reached a friendly bishop; messages were sent to Otto who remembered her kindness to him when he was in exile and was not unaware of the advantages of joining the Italian lands to his.
Otto had also been married before and had a son Liudolf but Liudolf predeceased him, so he was not a rival to Adelaide's son, Otto II. Adelaide and Otto I had four children, of whom two survived, Otto II and Matilda, abbess of Quedlinburg. Adelaide had had a daughter in her first marriage, Emma, who became queen of France. After the death of Emma's husband Lothar, who had at times been an enemy of the Ottonians, she served briefly as regent for her son. She too was imprisoned by a rival (her brother-in-law) and ousted, but unlike her mother she did not return. She wrote passionate pleas to her mother for help, which apparently she did not get.
Adelaide did take action, however, to protect her grandson. When Henry, duke of Bavaria, seized the young Otto III after the death of his father, she returned from Lombardy, met with her daughter Matilda, her daughter-in-law Theophanu, and her brother, the king of Burgundy, and other leaders of Europe (according to the Annales Quedlinburgenses, 984), and the child was surrendered to the "three imperial ladies."

Biographical notes: 

(1) Queens, Concubines and Dowagers, The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London: Batsford, 1983),116. (2) According to Edith Ennen, Adelaide had the right by Lombard tradition to designate her husband's successor, Frauen im Mittelalter (Munich: Beck, 1984), 63; the book was translated by Edmund Jephcott as The Medieval Women (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). The Annales Quedlinburgenses, written under the abbacy of Adelaide's daughter Matilda, record that she was the chosen heir of her [first] husband to the Lombard kingdom (951).