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Adela of England, Countess of Blois

Title social-status: 
Countess of Blois, Chartes, and Meaux

Adela was the daughter of William the Conqueror, sister of Henry I of England, wife of and regent for Stephen of Blois, and mother of Stephen, king of England. Born to the purple, after her father became king of England, Adela could claim royal blood on both sides — her mother Matilda of Flanders was descended from Robert the Pious through her mother and king Alfred through her father — which gave Adela particular prestige. She was co-ruler with her husband ("Stephano comite et Hahela ejus uxore regnantibus," from the Cartulaires de l’abbaye de Molesme, v.2.139-40, #143).  When he went on [the first] crusade in 1096, a venture she underwrote with her personal wealth, she ruled for him for three years.  He came back without fulfilling his vow, indeed with the shame of a cowardly retreat, and Adela urged him to return to the Holy Land, where he died in 1102.(1) She continued to rule for her sons, and even for her childless brother-in-law Hugh, count of Troyes, while he was on crusade, keeping the family holdings intact, and she participated in meetings between her brother and her sons as late as 1118. She was involved in the secular and religious politics of England and northern France until her retirement. Kimberly LoPrete calls Adela “one of the most prestigious, influential, and effective power brokers in the turbulent secular and ecclesiastical politics of the late-eleventh and early-twelfth centuries.”(2) Adela had five sons, William, count of Chartres, Thibaud IV count of Blois (II of Champagne), Odo, Stephen (king of England), and Henry (abbot of Glastonbury, bishop of Winchester, papal legate in England), and at least one daughter, Matilda (married Richard of Chester, died on the White Ship), and perhaps Agnes.(3) Thibaud’s sons Henry of Champagne and Thibaud V of Blois, married Marie and Alice, daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII, his daughter Adela married Louis VII and was the mother of Philip Augustus, so Adela was mother of the king of England and great-grandmother of the king of France. In 1120, Adela retired to Marcigny, where she died in 1137.

Ivo, bishop of Chartres, wrote frequently to Adela about problems in their common jurisdiction. He often criticized her actions and warned against her tendency to anger, but he did his best to maintain a working relationship.(4) Nine letters from him are extant. Ivo also mentions a letter not extant from Adela to him in his letter to Walter II, bishop of Meaux, ep. 70, about the scandalous life of the nuns of St. Fara of Marmoutier c.1098: Quod ideo suggero dilectioni vestrae quia tam ex verbis Turonensium monachorum quam ex litteris dominae Adeleidis [domnae Adelae] venerabilis comitissae audivi turpissimam famam de monasterio Sanctae Farae, quod jam non locus sanctimonialium, sed prostibulum dicendum est, mulierum daemonialium corpora sua ad turpes usus omni generi hominum prostituentium (cited by LoPrete, Adela of Blois, 450, #18); "Therefore I suggest to your love that I have heard, as much from the reports of the monks of Tours [Marmoutier] as from the letters of the venerable countess lady Adela, the very shameful rumor about the monastery of St. Fara, that it is not called a place of nuns, but a brothel, of devilish women prostituting their bodies to the shameful uses of men of all kinds."  LoPrete notes that no letters Adela wrote before her retirement survive though "the letters of Adela's several episcopal correspondants suggest she wrote to them on more than one occasion" (Adela of Blois, p.546, fn.62).  I am endebted to LoPrete for detailed editing of my translations of Adela's letters.

Adela issued various charters, grants of land, of jurisdiction, rights to and freedom from customs, vicarial rights, both during her regency and after she had retired to Marcigny. There are also poems to and about Adela, two from Baudri of Bourgeuil and one or two from Hildebert of Lavardin addressed to her, one about her by Godfrey of Rheims in a verse epistle to Ingelran, and at least one anonymous poem.(5)

Biographical notes: 

(1) Stephen was implicated in the emperor’s decision to turn back and not support the crusaders at Antioch, for which he was blamed, see Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, v. I, The First Crusade (New York: Harper and Row, 1964, repr. 1951), 239-41. Orderic Vitalis mentions Adela’s exhortations to her husband “between conjugal caresses/flattery,” “inter amicabilis coniugii blandimenta,” (HE 10.20). Orderic also praised Adela’s honorable governing of her husband’s county (HE 11.5). (2) From “The Latin Literacy of Adela of Blois,” read at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May, 1991. For an analysis of Adela’s political manoeuvres to enhance the Thibaudian family into which she married and which she headed for almost two decades, see LoPrete’s “The Anglo-Norman Card of Adela of Blois,” Albion 22 (1990), 569-89, from which most of the information in this paragraph comes. See also "Adela of Blois: Familial Alliances and Female Lordship," in Aristocratic Women in Medieval France, ed. Theodore Evergates (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999). I am very grateful to Professor LoPrete for sharing her work on the countess with me and for giving me access to letters and charters I would not otherwise have known of, which she discusses in her dissertation (“A Female Ruler in Feudal Society: Adela of Blois [ca.1067-1137],” University of Chicago PhD, 1992, 2v.), and in her book, which is the most comprehensive study of Adela available, Adela of Blois, Countess and Lord (c.1067-1137) (Dublin: Four Courts Press), 2007. (3) Agnes and another girl may be Adela's stepdaughters, daughters of Stephen, who may have fathered children before his marriage to Adela. On the education and fate of Adela’s children, see Kimberly LoPrete, “Adela of Blois as Mother and Countess,” Medieval Mothering, eds. John C. Parsons, Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland, 1996), 313-33. (4) On their relationship, see Kimberly LoPrete, “Adela of Blois and Ivo of Chartres: Piety, Politics, and the Peace in the Diocese of Chartres,” Anglo-Norman Studies 14 (1991), 131-52. (5) Godfrey’s poem appears in André Boutemy, “Trois oeuvres inédites de Godefroi de Reims,” Revue du moyen âge latin 3 (1947), 343-44. The anonymous poem was edited by Boutemy in “Deux pièces inédites du manuscrit 749 de Douai,” Latomus 2 (1938), 126-27 and translated by Gerald Bond, The Loving Subject, Desire,Eloquence, and Power in Romanesque France (Philadelphia: University of pennsylvania, 1995), 134. Bond devotes a chapter to Adela and cites and translates a number of passages in her praise from Ivo, Baudri, Hildebert, and Hugh of Fleury.