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Agnes of Poitiers, empress

Title social-status: 
empress
Biography: 

Empress Agnes, who was regent of the empire for her son Henry IV from 1056-1062, was the daughter of William III of Poitiers and Agnes of Burgundy, and second wife (married in 1043) and widow of emperor Henry III (+1056). She had five children born between 1045 and 1052: Matilda (+1060), duchess of Swabia; Judith/Sophia, queen of Hungary and then of Poland; Adelaide, abbess of Quedlinburg and Gandersheim; emperor Henry IV (+1106); and Conrad (+1055).(1) Her husband died when his heir was 6 and Agnes was the regent until her son was kidnapped by Anno of Cologne, who then assumed the regency. While she was regent, journeying through the kingdom to give judgments and holding Reichstagen, trying to continue her husband’s policies and act in the best interests of the empire, she made many enemies, particularly within the church, but when she retired to become a nun in Rome she won the respect and friendship of Peter Damian and pope Gregory VII whose reforms she supported. Agnes was accompanied to Rome by her widowed sister-in-law Hermesinde, who also became a nun and corresponded with Peter Damian. Agnes mediated between her son and the pope even after she became a nun, returning periodically to the imperial court for official business(2) and to Poitiers to negotiate with her brother, William VI/VIII. William was the father of the first extant Provençal poet, William VII/IX, himself the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, making Agnes the great-grand-aunt of Eleanor. Though Agnes had supporters and admirers (e.g., Lambert, “all the work of administration was done by the empress, who defended the endangered common weal with such art that the novelty gave rise to no tumult, no dissension,” and “the empress sustained her son and the affairs of the realm by herself”(3)), she also had hostile opponents. Many of the criticisms directed at her during the regency were openly anti-feminist. The Bamberg canons complained angrily to bishop Gunther of Bamberg that the empress had prevailed on him to give an abbacy back to an abbess whose misdeeds they list in some detail, culminating in the abbacy becoming a brothel. They tell him “there may not be much glory in defeating a woman, but there is certainly great shame in being defeated by one” (MGH BZHIV, Briefs Meinhards von Bamberg, ep.61, p.107-09, dated 1060-61). Gunther for his part complained to Anno of Köln that the empress attacks his opinion in his absence and cites him against himself (ep.68, p.115-16 late 1061). Meinhard of Bamberg wrote sarcastically to Gunther congratulating him that his lady (Agnes) has taken him back into favor, with quotes from Terence and aspersions cast at her sex, her nature, her fatherland, and her mother, who had “as many marriages as birthdays” (ep.71, p.118-19, late 1062).(4) Dean Poppo, in a letter to Gunther, described the most hostile spirit of the empress (“infestissimus imperatricis animus”), who judges our harm small, your grace nothing (MGH BZHIV, Weitere Briefe Meinhards, ep.10, p.203-04, late 1062). Years later, Bonizo of Sutri attacked Agnes for her role in appointing the anti-pope Cadalus in the Liber ad amicum, c.1085: the Lombard bishops, he said, “seduced the soul of the empress, inasmuch as it was feminine . . . deceived by these and similar machinations, the empress, with feminine license, gave assent to a nefarious work.”(5) Even Peter Damian, who had good relations with Agnes once she came to Rome, had also had differences with her while she was regent. He had ignored her presence and role and insisted that the church must intervene in the empire because young Henry was “without a tutor,”(!6) and he had joined with or written for other cardinals, in an assertion of papal versus imperial rights of investiture, ep.71, see 3) below. But once she left the regency, she won his respect for her religious devotion and his affection, as witnessed by the letters of praise, encouragement, and grief at her absence.

Biographical notes: 

(1) For a detailed study of Agnes’s life and politics, see M.L. Bulst-Thiele, Kaiserin Agnes, Beitrage zur Kulturgeschichte des Mittelalters und der Renaissance 52 (Leipzig: Teubner, 1933). See also Wolfgang Eggert, “Agnes von Poitou, Ein Leben in Sorge und Frömmigkeit,” Herscherinnen und Nonnen, Frauengestalten von der Ottonenzeit bis zu den Staufern, ed. Erika Uitz, Barbara Pätzold, Gerald Beyreuther (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1990), who notes that there were many interventions by Agnes in documents from her husband’s reign. (2) Tilman Struve, “Zwei Briefe der Kaiserin Agnes,” Historisches Jahrbuch 104 (1984), 411-24, notes that Agnes’s name appears in documents from 1056 to 1068, that is even after she had taken the veil (in 1061) and retired to Rome. Agnes made at least three official trips as Rome’s representative to the imperial court, 1066-67, 1072, and 1074, for two different popes, see Eggert, “Agnes von Poitou,” Herscherinnen und Nonnen. (3) These and other passages acknowledging that Agnes was the choice of the princes of the realm for regent are cited by Bulst-Thiele, Kaiserin Agnes, 33-34, fn.3. (4) The attack on the empress’s mother, Agnes of Burgundy, seems gratuitous, since she was probably married only twice, though she may have had a third alliance, but she was actively involved in the politics of her husbands and her sons, and probably made her own enemies. Agnes of Burgundy was related to Carolingians on both sides and was married to William “the Great” of Aquitaine and Poitiers (III/V), the empress’s father and to Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. She may also have been the consort if not wife of Thibaut III of Champagne (see Kimberly LoPrete, “Adela of Blois: Familial Alliances and Female Lordship,” Aristocratic Women in Medieval France, ed. Theodore Evergates [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999], fn.14). Agnes overthrew her stepsons and ruled for her sons in Poitou. See Bulst-Thiele, Kaiserin Agnes, 1,6, and Penelope D. Johnson, “Agnes of Burgundy: an eleventh century woman as monastic patron,” Journal of Medieval History 15 (1989), 93-104. Johnson notes that Agnes of Burgundy’s greatest generosity was shown to a woman’s house she founded and later retired to, Nôtre Dame of Saintes. (5) Liber ad amicum, 6 MGH, LL1, 594-5. But Bonizo credits another woman, Beatrice, the mother of countess Matilda, with stopping the advance of the anti-pope. I am endebted to Megan McLaughlin for this information. (6) This point was made by Megan McLaughlin in “Caesar’s Mother: Representations of the Empress Agnes in the Polemical Literature of the Investiture Conflict,” presented at the Medieval Academy Meeting, Columbus, Ohio, March 20, 1992.