Daughter and wife of monarchs, acclaimed as queen and empress… Her life, however, was no fairy tale, but rather a compendium of the heroism of the warriors, the resignation of the martyrs and the astuteness of good statesmen.


Certain teachings of the Gospel are often the object of greater attention and devotion than others, to the point that some have almost fallen into oblivion in today’s world.

The life of St. Adelaide reminds us of one of these truths proclaimed by the Divine Saviour, the meek Lamb who allowed Himself to be immolated on the Cross, but also the perfect model of those who must be as wise and as cunning as serpents.

Born in a “golden cradle”

St. Adelaide – Church of St. Maurice, in Soultz-Haut-Rhin, (France)

We might say that Adelaide was born in a golden cradle, on June 27, 931, for she was the daughter of the King of Burgundy, Rudolf II, and Queen Bertha of Swabia. Providence had reserved a great mission for her, and showered her with gifts that she would use generously, marking history with a brilliance hitherto uncommon for a lady.

Although little is known of her childhood, it is not difficult to conjecture that it served well to prepare her for the hard fight that was to be her life: besides receiving a sacred education according to the customs of the Faith, she learned to speak French, German and Latin fluently, skills that equipped her as an extremely cultured woman for her time.

The end of those quiet and happy years came with the death of her father in July 937. Her little brother Conrad was sent to Germania; she and her widowed mother had a very different fate: King Hugh of Italy, anticipating certain political benefits, sent emissaries to Burgundy to force them to abandon their possessions and to settle at the Italian court in Pavia. Thus Queen Bertha was forced to marry him, while Adelaide was promised in marriage to Prince Lothair, Hugh’s son.

Young queen of Italy

The girl then had her first encounters with evil. At the new court, vice, shamelessness and illegitimate unions reigned supreme; violence, intrigues and power struggles were the order of the day. Queen Bertha was soon scorned for her Christian habits and, to protect herself from the king’s displeasure, she abandoned her daughter in Italy to take refuge with her son Conrad.

Adelaide was left alone in Pavia, like a sheep among wolves… However, God would bring great good out of this unfortunate situation which so sorely tested her virtue: when she married Lothair II, she became part of the line of succession to the Italian crown.

The young prince, of a temperament opposite to his father’s, proved faithful and devoted, showering his wife with riches and further enhancing her education.

Lothair II

At the death of King Hugh, Adelaide became Queen of Italy at the age of only eighteen. King Lothair gave her the title of “consors regni”, that is, consort in the sovereignty, and gave her land and fortune to ratify this prerogative.

Would fame and wealth divert her from the path of virtue she had followed since childhood? Not at all, for she had laid up her treasure in Heaven, where the thief does not enter, and the moth does not destroy (cf. Lk 12:33). Thus she would soon come to be admired by her subjects, both for the sweetness of her conduct and the wisdom of her decisions, always reconciling benevolence with the grandeur and dignity of her position.

As an official regent, respected on all sides, she confirmed the power of nobles and prelates, making various gifts of her property to monasteries and churches. Aware of her role in the unification of the kingdom, she aimed with these donations to consolidate alliances with the political elite and with high-ranking ecclesiastical figures, a move that would later save her life.

Widow… and abducted once again

Medieval history is littered with episodes that have remained largely unexplained. The death of King Lothair is one of them. The young monarch expired in Adelaide’s arms at the end of 950, presumably poisoned by the Duke of Ivrea, Berengar II, who coveted the royal crown.

Once again Adelaide found herself alone, “with no other relief than that of tears, no other consolation than her own innocence, no other support than God Himself.”1 Out of concern for the future of her little daughter Emma, she left Turin, the burial place of Lothair, and went to the city of Pavia.

Berengar II

However, Berengar sent his emissaries to abduct her, and the queen was imprisoned in the region of Lake Garda. While the duke proclaimed himself king of Italy, Adelaide suffered insults and ill-treatment, as St. Odilo, her first biographer, recounts: “This innocent captive was afflicted by various tortures, having her hair pulled out and frequently receiving blows and kicks.”2

Hoping to legitimize his position on the throne, the usurper offered his son Adalbert to Adelaide in marriage as the price for her freedom. In prison, however, she demonstrated all her courageous virtues, the firmness of her principles and her strength of soul, refusing the infamous proposals of the enemy and trusting in Him who makes “the branch of the mighty to wither away” (Is 25:5).

Fleeing at the right time, to the right place

Adelaide accepted suffering and affronts with the resignation of a martyr, but not with her arms folded… Using those defensive and offensive spiritual weapons of which the Apostle speaks (cf. 2 Cor 6:7), she devised a way to escape from prison. The escape was so secretive that Berengar did not become aware of it until she had reached the fortress of Canossa and was safely under the protection of the local count, the Bishop of Reggio and the Roman Pontiff.

This was perhaps one of the most admirable episodes in the life of St. Adelaide, for it was an occasion when her audacity and prudence shone in a special way, virtues by which, defying obstacles and dangers, she was able to escape at the right time to the right place!

In the fortress of Canossa, the queen devised bold plans, calling to her aid the Germanic King Otto I. While awaiting him, she witnessed the crumbling of the meagre siege set up by the wicked Berengar, whose hopes of recovering her captive were completely dashed with Otto’s arrival. He restored order and forced the enemy troops to withdraw immediately.

Shortly afterwards, Otto married Adelaide and was crowned King of the Lombards. From then on, she would begin to fulfil one of her most important missions, for which she would forever be remembered in history as the woman whose virtuous and sagacious actions made Otto an emperor, for the benefit of the Catholic Faith throughout Christendom at that time.

The consolidation of power

Battle of Lechfeld, by Balthasar Riepp – Parish church of Seeg (Germany)

The following years were marked by intense activity. St. Adelaide’s endeavours extended to all social levels, beginning with her own family, defusing various animosities. She magnanimously granted Berengar pardon, which he had requested, and even allowed the offender the administration of the kingdom of Italy, since the couple were settled in Germania.

With true political acumen, she consolidated the power of the Ottonian dynasty, using her wealth to establish friendly relations and extend the domains of the Church. Exerting a strong influence on the king’s decisions, she particularly favoured the monasteries and churches founded by the monks of Cluny, in order to encourage the reform of customs and the religious formation of her subjects.

No one set a greater example of detachment and modesty at court than the queen herself, who dressed soberly and repressed any form of flattery and ostentation in her courtiers.

In 955, she had the joy of giving birth to the successor to the crown, Otto II. In August of the same year, her husband defeated the Hungarians, still pagans, at the historic Battle of Lechfeld, fighting in the front rank and wielding one of the most valuable relics of Christianity, which had accompanied Adelaide since childhood: the Holy Lance, symbol of royal and divine power.

A few years later, an unexpected situation would favour the glorious ascension of Otto and Adelaide to the status of emperors.

The first empress of the West

As regent of Italy, Berengar had become a cruel tyrant, despoiling the local nobility and using violence in his deliberations and commands. The Roman Pontiff’s request to Otto for help was added to the general outcry of the people, indignant at his excesses.

Scenes from the life of St. Adelaide – Church of St. Martin, L’Isle-Adam (France)

On her way to Rome, Adelaide had her six-year-old son crowned co-king in Aachen Cathedral, in memory of the Emperor Charlemagne, in order to strengthen the dynastic line of succession.

Finally, on the symbolic feast of the Purification of Mary, February 2, 962, Otto and Adelaide were crowned emperors by Pope John XII. It should be noted that it was she herself who established the ceremonial of their coronation, for until then no woman had achieved such a dignity in the West.

In fact, it was with St. Adelaide that the role of the empress was born in the government and in the exercise of power. Her name would appear on almost all the official documents of the empire and she herself would issue decisions, always demonstrating generosity and being a tireless mediator between the people and the crown.

She showed herself to be an expert in the exercise of justice, even when God put the infamous Berengar in her hands. The captor and tyrant of old became the prisoner of the one he had oppressed before, ending his days in captivity.

An enemy in her own family

The Holy Empress was concerned with ensuring the stability of the empire in the person of her son, making the necessary arrangements for the marriage of Otto II to the Byzantine princess Theophanu. During the ceremony, held in St. Peter’s Basilica and officiated by the Pope, the bride and groom were crowned and associated with the empire as successors to the reigning couple.

Alas, the death of Otto I spelled the end of the days of happy government. A few years later, Adelaide was forced to flee her own son’s court, for her daughter-in-law, likely moved by envy, had maliciously worked to instil in Otto II a deep aversion for his mother.

Maternal love compelled St. Adelaide to pray for her son until, some time later, she obtained his repentance and conversion. As a sign of gratitude and perhaps in fulfilment of a promise, she had one of the robes of Otto II sent to the tomb of St. Martin, richly embroidered, with the following message: “Receive, priest of the Lord, this small gift, sent to you by Adelaide, slave of the servants of God, sinner by her nature; by the grace of God, empress.”

Scenes from the life of St. Adelaide – Church of St. Martin, L’Isle-Adam (France)

Theophanu, however, was unable to admire the holiness of her mother-in-law…3 When Otto II died after an unsuccessful military campaign, she was eager to exercise command and, contrary to the policy used by Adelaide, instigated division at court, promoted unsuccessful wars and put the union of the empire at serious risk. She had her son Otto III crowned, then a child of just three years of age, but a few months later he was kidnapped by a relative – Henry II of Bavaria, nicknamed the Wrangler – in a failed attempt to usurp the throne. Peace was only restored when St. Adelaide herself retrieved the boy, making use of the vast network of friendships she had built up over the years.

Since little Otto was still unable to govern, Theophanu assumed the regency, exercising power until her death on June 15, 991. She died at only thirty-one years of age, obstinately at enmity with her mother-in-law.

Fond of the fight and of audacity

It fell to St. Adelaide to serve as regent of the empire until her grandson reached the age necessary to rule. After successfully leading him to the throne, she was finally able to joyfully enjoy the fruit of years of struggle and suffering, seeing the empire united and stable, cemented by her effective audacity and tireless charity. She then retired to a monastery, eager to prepare herself in recollection and prayer for her encounter with the Lord. It was at this time that she decided to narrate her life to a certain monk of Cluny, the future abbot St. Odilo.

Fond of the fight and of audacity, but mindful of her own weakness, St. Adelaide knew how to find courage in Him who casts down the mighty from their seats and lifts up the humble, and for this reason she was never discouraged in the face of difficulties. During our present time of struggle, more than a millennium after her death, her example continues to encourage us along that sublime path of heroism – confidence! – reserved for the children of the light, “sinners by nature, but Our Lady’s intrepid soldiers by grace.”4 



1 SEMERIA, Giovanni B. Vita politico-religiosa di Santa Adelaide. Turim: Chirio e Mina, 1842, p.13.
2 ST. ODILO. Epitaphium Adalheidæ Imperatricis, n.3: PL 142, 971.
3 Idem, n.18, 979.
4 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Santa Adelaide: pecadora por natureza, imperatriz pela graça [St. Adelaide: Sinner by Nature, Empress by Grace]. In: Dr. Plinio. Year XVI. No.189 (Dec., 2013); p.31.


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