Adela of Normandy was the daughter of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England, and his wife, Matilda of Flanders.
Although most sources give her date of birth around 1061/2, the Oxford Database of National Biography argues that her birth was after the Norman Conquest, as contemporary poetry suggests she was born the daughter of a king.
Adela was one of 9 or 10 children born to William and Matilda, with at least 4 sisters and 4 brothers. Given her high level of literacy, and her patronage of poets in adulthood, it is likely that Adela was very well-educated as a child; either through tutors or possibly through residence in a convent, as happened with many daughters of the nobility at that time.
As a child, it seems, a marriage was arranged between Adela and Simon Crispin, count of Amiens; however, the groom chose to take monastic vows. As part of an alliance directed against the aggressive counts of Anjou, Adela was then betrothed to Stephen of Blois, son of Count Theobald III, count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen was about 20 years her senior. The formal betrothal took place at Bourgueil and was later followed by a lavish wedding ceremony in Chartres Cathedral in about 1081.
Adela and Stephen would have about 11 children in all, with at least 2 sons born before Stephen succeeded his father as Count of Blois and Champagne in 1090.
Of their 5 daughters, Matilda married Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester. The couple drowned in the White Ship disaster which deprived Henry I of his son and heir, William. Another daughter, Eleanor, married Raoul, Count of Vermandois and brother of Isabelle de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester and Surrey.
Adela’s eldest surviving son seems to have been disinherited at an early age. However, while he is described as an ‘idiot’ by some, William married Agnes, the daughter of Giles, Lord of Sulli, and was given the titles Count of Chartres and Lord of Sulli, but was not allowed to inherit the richer county of Blois; which went to his younger brother, Theobald.
Poetry from the time of her wedding describes Adela as valorous, learned and generous. Indeed, she seems to have been a great asset to her husband, who included her in charitable donations and even in his early judicial rulings. Adela developed a cordial relationship with Bishop Ivo of Chartres, which worked well to maintain the peace between the laity and the clergy in the county.
In 1095 Stephen of Blois joined the First Crusade, leaving Adela as head of the family and regent of his domains. Letters that the count sent to his wife indicate a great level of affection and trust; Adela was given charge of the family’s finances. However, Stephen’s return from crusade appears of have been less than happy. Adela believed that he had not fulfilled his crusader’s vow and her criticism may have been a contributing factor in his return to the Holy Land in 1101 – she certainly approved of it.
Stephen was killed in combat in the Holy Land, during the siege of Ramallah in May 1112. He was succeeded as Count of Blois by his 2nd surviving son, Theobald. Theobald was knighted in 1107, by which point his older brother, William, had already been removed from the succession to Blois. William inherited the lesser title of Count of Chartres.
Following Stephen’s death Adela continued to act as regent until Theobald attained his majority. Even after Theobald came of age, mother and son ruled jointly until Adela retired from public life in 1120.
Adela was particularly close to her younger brother, Henry, who would later become King Henry I of England. She even supported him against their oldest brother, Robert, when Henry claimed the English crown.
An able administrator and negotiator, Adela settled many disputes among monasteries, and even between monasteries and laymen, in her own domains and beyond. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of William II and Henry I, praised her skills as negotiator and peacemaker following her success at achieving a temporary truce between Anselm and her brother in 1105.
Anselm described her as an ardent supporter of papal reform, and enjoyed her hospitality during his exile from England. Adela hosted many other church dignitaries, including archbishop Thurstan of York and Pope Paschal II. Her family’s prestige and power was bolstered by her friendships with the leading ecclesiastic figures in both France and England.
An avid patroness of the arts, Adela corresponded with such dignitaries as Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans and Abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil – later bishop of Dol – who both wrote poems dedicated to the countess. The book Ecclesiastical History Together with the Deeds of the Romans and the Franks, written by Hugh of Fleury, was dedicated to Adela.
One of Adela’s youngest sons, Henry of Winchester, was dedicated to the church at an early age, and was raised at the Priory of Cluny in France. He was nominated as Bishop of Winchester in 1129 and was a great support to his older brother, Stephen, when he claimed the throne of England on his uncle Henry’s death in 1135, at the expense of Henry’s daughter, Matilda
An active ruler Adela regularly toured the family’s domains, both as regent and mother of the reigning count. She also maintained links with the Anglo-Norman and Capetian kings. In 1101 Adela sent knights to help Philip I of France’s son, Louis, battling against rebels north of Paris.
However, by 1107 her son Theobald had joined the revolt and relations with France were to deteriorate further in 1113 when the allied forces of Theobald, Henry I and Adela defeated a Capetian-Angevin army. After further conflict in 1118 Adela used her wealth and diplomatic skills to benefit her family.
In 1120 Adela stopped using the title of countess and retired to the Clunaic Priory of Marcigny; the same year that her daughter Matilda died in the White Ship disaster off Barfleur in Normandy. She continued to be active in political affairs and lived to see her son, Stephen, claim the throne of England, though not the 20 years of conflict that ensued.
Aged almost 70, and having been a widow for half of her life, this most remarkable woman, Adela of Normandy, former Countess of Blois and Chartres, died in 1137, possibly on 8th March. Although later tradition has her buried with her mother at Holy Trinity in Caen, contemporary sources say she was buried at Marcigny.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.com; epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com.