Saint Adelaide, the Empress as Strong as Iron

In the 10th century, when the papacy was going through a terrible crisis, God raised up in temporal society a combative woman who became empress and saint: Adelaide.

Newsroom (14/07/2022 2:00 PM, Gaudium Press Daughter of the King of Burgundy, East-Central France, Adelaide was born in 931.  Her feast day is December 16th, but the lessons of her life apply to every day.  At the age of 15 she married Lothario, King of Italy, beginning a lifelong journey of leadership and devotion.

Three years later her husband died, probably poisoned by Berengarius, who proclaimed himself King of Italy and wanted his son to marry the widow of his victim.

Since Saint Adelaide refused, Berengarius threw her into prison. But she managed to escape, went to the Castle of Canossa in Northern Italy, which was the property of the Church, and sent an appeal to Otto I, son of Saint Matilda and King of Germania, who rushed to her aid with a powerful army.

Otto married her, and in 962, Pope John XII made him Emperor, thus making him the founder of the Holy Roman German Empire, which lasted until 1806, when it was extinguished by Napoleon.

With the death of Otto I, in 973, his and Saint Adelaide’s son, Otto II, was consecrated emperor. Shortly thereafter, influenced by bad individuals, he rebelled against his mother, who took refuge in Burgundy, whose king was his brother. She then met St. Odilon, who later became Abbot of Cluny.

Returning to Germany, St. Adelaide sent to the grave of St. Martin of Tours in France the richest of robes worn by her then already repentant son.

“When you arrive at the tomb of the glorious Saint Martin,” she wrote to the person in charge of this mission, “say: ‘Bishop of God, receive these humble gifts of Adelaide, servant of the servants of God, sinner by nature, empress by grace. Receive also this mantle from Otto, her only son, and you, who had the glory of covering with your own mantle Our Lord in the person of a poor man, pray for him!'”

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In 999, sensing that death was approaching, Saint Adelaide went to the monastery of Seltz – Eastern France – founded by her, where Saint Odilon ministered to her the last Sacraments.

A real saint

About this Saint, Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira commented: “We see here another type of medieval illumination. It is no longer that of the saint who lives in the convent, therefore, in the recollection and peace of the cloister, but that of the heroine.

 “The Middle Ages are fertile in heroes and heroines who go through the greatest adventures, the greatest risks, and have no ideal of social security, of retirement, but want and see in the risk, in the struggle, in the uncertainty – when in the service of a high cause, in defense of effective and legitimate rights – something that gives life its meaning.

 “Saint Adelaide’s existence was a succession of ups and downs. She was the daughter of Rodolf II, King of Burgundy, and married Lothar II, King of Italy; she had a daughter who was Queen of France. When the Saint was 18, her husband died, and Berengarius, it seems, had had him poisoned.

 “He proclaimed himself King of Italy and wanted her to marry his son. She should, therefore, marry the son of her own husband’s murderer; she would have an easy, pleasant life, and would certainly not suffer as she did. Having refused, she was imprisoned, and for a long time was exposed to the worst outrages. But suddenly she escaped.

 “How I like the escape of this Saint! How different it is from the idea that is usually made of a blessed one! According to this conception, the imprisoned Saint sits on her side, crying, thinking of everything but escape, and unable to do so; she has difficulty moving, and has no cleverness at all, she doesn’t know how to elude the jailers, nor have a skillful gesture to jump any obstacle and run away.

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 “But this is a different Saint [….] who corresponds to the true image of the saints, and not to this caricatured figure I made. The saint has the virtue of fortitude and that of prudence. And with fortitude and prudence one flees from all the places from which one should and can flee. […]

 “However, she knew where to flee to, because instead of going somewhere, she headed for Canossa, the terrible fortress of the Middle Ages, which was made illustrious by the fact that St. Gregory VII received Henry IV there, who went to kiss her feet, asking her forgiveness.

 “Canossa was a fief of the Church, and therefore could not be invaded by a temporal sovereign. Saint Adelaide was therefore entirely at peace there; she not only knew how to flee, but also where to take refuge. She was good at politics; she had the innocence of the dove and the cunning of the serpent.

Strength of soul, denouement, intrepidity

 “And in this place she did something that was not expected of a saint either: she got herself a husband, and a well-chosen one at that. She wrote to the King of Germania […] begging him to come and defend her. He went and then asked her to marry him. Then a new life begins for her.

 “Notice how many changes in this existence: how much strength of soul, how much denouement, how much intrepidity these changes assumed, and how much true virtue in this magnificent holiness!

 “He was made Emperor in Rome and married the Saint. The son of this marriage, however, was a bad man and another tragedy begins there; he rebelled against his own mother, and so she had to flee again and headed for Burgundy. It was in this region of France that she met Saint Odilon, who became famous. […]

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 “But her son repented, and I believe it was due to the prayers of Saint Adelaide. Because the fact that she sent a cloak to Saint Martin has all the aspect of a payment of a promise, as if she were saying to this Saint: ‘If you convert my son, I will send you his cloak.’

 “So she wrote a magnificent message, of which the most beautiful fact is the title she arranged for herself: ‘Adelaide, sinner by nature, empress by grace.’ It is such a contrast of titles, there is such greatness in the simplicity of that contrast, that it would deserve to be her epitaph: ‘sinner by nature,’ because all men by nature are sinners; even when they are holy and do not sin, in their nature they are sinners; ’empress by grace’ .”

By Paulo Francisco Martos, Notions of Church History

Compiled by Camille Mittermeier

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