A Ruler on the Eve of the First Millennium


Adelaide, Queen of Burgundy and Empress of the Holy Roman, died just as Europe entered the year 1000. She was the daughter of King Rudolf of Lorraine, widow of Duke Lothar of Burgundy, wife of the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, and regent for both her son Otto II and, later, grandson Otto III.

Adelaide's Adventures: Adelaide lived a in rough and traitorous time. Her first husband, Duke Lothar of Burgundy, was poisoned by a fellow duke, Berengar. Berengar's aim was to try and get his hands on Lothar's great tracts of land in northern Italy. He crowned himself King of Italy, ignoring Adelaide who as Lothar's widow was the rightful heir and mistress of the region. Berengar could not ignore Adelaide for long as his tyrannical rule turned the people against him. When they turned to Adelaide for help, Berengar and his wife Willa seized the young widow, imprisoned her, and tried to force her to marry their misshaped son. A noble and educated nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, who knew Adelaide, wrote of the event: "Engorged with hatred and envy, Berengar directed his fury against Queen Adelaide. Not only did he seize her throne but at the same time forced the doors of her treasury and carried off, with greedy hand, everything he found...He even took her royal crown..."

Though imprisoned, Adelaide managed to resist Berengar's plan to marry his son, whom she suspected had helped poison her husband. Somehow, with her two maidservants, she managed to escape. Almost at once she was found, recaptured, and punished even more. Berengar's wife Willa turned vicious. She tore off Adelaide's jewelry, pulled her hair, scratched her face, and kicked her. Then Berengar locked Adelaide up in one of his castles on an island in Lake Garda. There Adelaide languished for four months.

It was a faithful priest named Warinus who saved Adelaide by digging a hole into the castle's thick walls. Every night the hole bored a little deeper into the stone. Adelaide and her one remaining maid did the same from inside her room. At last the wall broke through. The two women squeezed out, and all three escaped in a waiting boat. Of course they were pursued, yet managed to hide in a wheat field. Through the wheat field went their pursuers, stabbing right and left with their lances. Somehow, Adelaide was not found. With Warinus' help, she found her way to the castle of Count Azzo in Canossa, Italy and put herself under his protection.

Berengar was not about to give up. He arrived at the castle and laid siege to it. The faithful Warinus was Adelaide's savior again. He slipped through the siege and fled to Germany with a letter from Adelaide to Otto I, who was the most powerful man in Europe. The letter begged Otto to come to Adelaide's rescue. In return, she offered to marry him, thus uniting her lands with his. Otto couldn't resist the offer! In 951 he entered Italy and Berengar wisely fled before him.

Adelaide's Rule: Otto and Adelaide liked each other at once. Although she was a beautiful twenty year old and he was twice her age, all accounts say that they had a happy marriage. Otto let Adelaide control the lands she brought into the marriage, and even added some he owned. On February 2, 962, Otto and Adelaide were crowned emperor and empress by the pope in Rome. Adelaide now was officially empress of the "Holy Roman Empire."

Adelaide and Otto mainly ruled from Saxony (Northern Germany). They had five children. When Otto died, Adelaide became regent for her son Otto II. Greatly influenced by his mother, young Otto II included Adelaide in his decrees, arriving at decisions "with the advice of my pious and dearest mother." Then a rival appeared on Adelaide's horizon - a daughter-in-law for Otto II named Theophano.

Theophano was a Byzantine princess who in 971 was given in marriage to Otto II. When they married Theophano was only sixteen and Otto seventeen. Fresh from the glorious but treacherous court of Byzantium, Theophano brought with her a useful knowledge of the ins and outs of political intrigue. Otto began to listen to her more, and his mother less. Adelaide and her son and daughter-in-law grew apart.

Unexpectantly Otto II died young, leaving Theophano with a 3 year old son, Otto III. Immediately, both empresses overcame their feelings of ill will and united to safeguard the child king's claims to power. Theophano assumed the title "Imperator Augustus" and defended her son Otto's title both from dukes, princes and attacks by the still pagan Slavs and Danes.

For seven years Theophano with tact and firmness administered the empire in her son's name. Then, in her early thirties she died, and Adelaide took her place as Otto III's regent. She was now sixty years old. On his fourteenth birthday, Otto III gently, but firmly, broke loose from his grandmother, making it known that he no longer wished to be ruled by a woman. For the rest of her life Adelaide lived in a nunnery. She took a last title: "Adelheida, by God's gift empress, by herself a poor sinner and God's maidservant," and died in 999 on the eve of the next millennium.

Adelaide believed that the end of the world, the apocalypse, would come to pass in the year 1,000. According to the Biblical book of Revelation, she thought that Satan would be loosed out of his prison and Christ would come again. She told the abbot of the great monastery house of Cluny, "As the thousandth year of our Lord's becoming flesh approaches, I yearn to behold this day, which knows no evening, in the forecourt of our Lord."

Principle Source:

A.D. 1000: Europe on the Brink of the Millennium, Richard Erdoes, Harper & Row, 1988.
To find out about some contemporaries of Adelaide click here.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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