You are here

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 was not granted. 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."

There is one document of a donation to the church of Vercelli while Adelaide was queen of Italy, but her role in encouraging donations to the church in the empire is suggested in passages from two confirmations, one by her husband, Otto I, the other by her grandson:  "In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti Otto divina favente clemencia imperator augustus. Si coniugis nostre piis suplicationibus faventes ecclesiarum honores ob utilitatem servorum dei ordinamus et corroboramus absque dubio imperii nostri stabilimentum et cellestis regni nobis conciliamus emolomentum.  Ideoque omnium fidelium sancte dei ecclesie nostrorum presencium uidelicet ac futurorum nouerint uniuersitas quia dilectissima coniux nostra Adeleida et consors nostri imperii humiliter nostram expeciit celsitudinem quatenus uenerabile monasterio ebobiense quod est constructum in honore beati petri principis apostolorum ubi clarissimus confessor Xpi columbanus corpore quiescit et abbatibus ibi pro tempore degentibus iuxta felicium decessorum nostrorum augustorum karoli hludouici hlotarii ... uidelicet et fratris sui karoli per nostre auctoritatis pragmaticum concederemus ac confirmaremus comitatum bobiensem cum omnibus eidem monasterio pertinentibus  ..." HPM, 1.232, #138, dated 972, July 25; "In the name of the father and son and holy spirit, Otto, by the favor of divine mercy, emperor august.  From the pious supplications of our spouse, favoring the honors of churches for the use of the servants of God, we order and confirm without doubt the establishment of our empire and we gain the benefit of the heavenly kingdom.  Therefor, let all our faithful of the holy church of God present and future know that our most beloved spouse Adelaide, the consort of our empire, humbly asked our highness that we grant and confirm the Bobbio county and all things pertaining to it to the venerable monastery of Bobbio which was constructed in honor of St. Peter, prince of apostles, where the glorious confessor of Christ, Columban lies in body, and to the abbots living there according to the [will?] of our happy august ancestors, Charles, Louis, Lothar, ... and his brother Charles, by the function of our authority ..."  and:  "Quo circa omnium Sanctae Dei Ecclesiae ac nostrorum scilicet presentium et futurorum noscat solertia quod interuentu et petitione nostrae Dominae Auiae Adelaidae Imperatricis Augustae Petrus Sanctae Astensis Ecclesiae Episcopus nostram efflagitans adiit celsitudinem ..." HPM,  1.289, #172, dated 992, 19 July, "So, let the concern of all those of the Holy Church of God and of our people, present and future, know that at the intervention and request of our Lady Grandmother Adelaide August Empress, and Peter, Bishop of the Holy Church of Asti, urging our highness ..."

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).