Phoenix: Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon

In my novel LADY OF THE ENGLISH,  Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, shares the credits with her stepmother, Adeliza of Louvain. While many readers probably know at least something about the Empress, Adeliza has appeared less in the public eye and is not well documented by history.

So what was she like, this second queen to Henry I? What’s her story?

Adeliza was the daughter of Godrey of Louvain, duke of Lower Lotharingia – an area that is part of Belgium today – see the yellow area on the left of this map.
She was born around 1103, and married Henry I in January 1121 when she was about 18 years old.
Henry I’s first wife, Matilda of Scotland, had died in 1118. Henry’s reputation for begetting children was fearsome and he had more than a score of bastards to his name, but only two legitimate children of his first queen. William Adelin, his son, was heir to the throne, and there was Matilda, his firstborn (1102) who had gone in marriage to Germany as an eight year old child. William Adelin (b 1103) drowned in November 1120 when the White Ship sank while leaving Barfleur harbour on a return journey from Normandy to England and Henry found himself without an heir of his loins other than Matilda, far away in Germany and now an Empress. Past historians have believed that Henry immediately set about finding a new queen on which to beget more heirs, but it has been proven that even before his son’s death, he was in negotiations with Godfrey of Louvain for his daughter’s hand.
The chroniclers say that Adeliza was beautiful. She was known as ‘The Fair Maid of Brabant’ She was descended from Charlemagne, and an alliance with her father’s house also helped to strengthen Henry I’s ties with Germany and advance his policies. By early January 1121, Adeliza was on her way to England and a new life as its queen.
As Adeliza settled into life with Henry, he took her everywhere with him, pherhaps in the hope that she would become pregnant. Henry had utilised his first queen as regent when he was absent from England, but Adeliza never took up any kind of political role. This is logical and understandable since by the time Henry married her, Henry had an effective administrative system in place and a strong justiciar in the form of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. Also, since Adeliza was only 18, unaccustomed to England and Normandy, and inexperienced, there was no point in putting her to rule. Her duty was to Henry and to future heirs.

In the event, Adeliza did not become pregnant during the almost 15 years of their marriage. It appears to have been a source of great distress to her. She wrote to Hildebert of Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours for advice on this. We do not know what she said to him, but we do have his reply to her, where he says: ‘If it has not been granted to you from Heaven that you should bear a child to the King of the English, in these (the poor) you will bring forth for the King of the Angels, with no damage to your modesty. Perhaps the lord has closed up your womb, so that you might adopt immortal offspring…it is more blessed to be fertile in the spirit than the flesh.’

Although Adeliza took no major part in governing the country, she was, nevertheless present at several councils and played a symbolic role in the royal administration. Shortly before her marriage to King Henry, she was honoured with the title ‘Lady of the English’. She appeared with Henry at crown wearing ceremonies, including one on the day after her wedding and another the following Pentecost. She was perhaps the first queen entitled to a payment of ‘Queen’s Gold.’ This was later to be an important part of the income of queens. It was a tax of an extra ten per cent on any fine to the crown over the value of ten marks. It was also owed on tax paid by the Jews. The fine was standardised when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen, but Adeliza is ‘the first example of a queen receiving a proportion of a licence fine.’

Adeliza also had lands and revenues of her dowry and position as queen of England. She had revenues from Waltham and Queenhithe. (from which she donated 100 shillings to be given each year to Reading Abbey on the anniversary of Henry’s death). She had estates in Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Middlesex, Gloucestershire and Devon. She had part of the royal estate at Berkeley and Henry gave her the entire county of Shropshire. She also held the rape of Arundel, including the castle. This and various other lands had not been held as dower by other queens, nor did they revert to the crown on her death, but were granted in hereditary. She appears to have taken an active interest in the management of her lands, issuing orders for example, to the monks of Reading not to alienate any of her gifts to them. ‘Aelidis dei gratia regina Edwardo abbati et toto conventui de Radingia, salutem. Audivi a quibusdam quod vultis ecclesiam de Stantona extra dominium vestrum et manum ponere. Quare mando vobis quod nolo ut illam vel aliquod de elemosina mea extra manum vestram ponatis. Teste Reinaldo de Windresores Apud Arondell.’Adeliza was also a concerned sponsor and benefactor of friends and relations. Her brother Joscelin was her constable at Arundel and she gave him the barony of Petworth which was within the honour of Arundel and helped arange him a lucrative marriage. She also helped out her cousin Melisende with a marriage portion of land in Stanton Harcourt. We know that her domestic household seems to have been stable and long serving. Her chaplain was called Herman, her clerk Serlo, and her constable Godeschal.

Adeliza was concerned with religeous foundations and seems to have been devout. She founded a leper hospital at Wilton, and in her second marriage, there were also leper houses established at Arundel and Castle Rising. As well as corresponding with Hildebert of Lavardin, she was a close friend of Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, addressing him as ‘amico Karissimo’ in a charter. She gave donations to Waverley Abbey, Tintern, St. Mary’s of Oseney, St. Mary of Eynsham, Waltham Abbey, the Templars, and Affligem Abbey in Brabant, where she was eventually to retire.

Castle rising

Castle Rising Castle

Adeliza appears to have been well educated and to have enjoyed literature and patronage of the written word. She comissioned an account of Henry’s reign from a Scottish poet called David, to be set to music. Sadly this work no longer exists, which is a pity. If it was anything like William Marshal’s Histoire, it would have been a fantastic insight into the period. Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary is dedicated to Adeliza In her widowhood, she patronised the poet Serlo of Wilton.

When Henry died in 1135, Adeliza entered the nunnery at Wilton and dwelt there for a couple of years, more or less retiring from the world. She was still a young woman though, and when William D’Albini, lord of Buckenham in Norfolk came courting, she agreed to marry him. The D’Albini’s were royal stewards and held a solid, important place at court, although they were not of the top rank. William D’Albini had supported Stephen for the throne when Henry I died, rather than Henry’s daughter Matilda. All the barons had sworn for Matilda during Henry’s lifetime, but most were not disposed to welcome her as queen when it came to crunch time. Where Adeliza’s sympathies lay is difficult to say, but she had spent a lot of time in Empress Matilda’s company between 1125 and 1135, and had known her before that while Matilda was Empress of Germany. However, Adeliza’s new husband was staunchly Stephen’s man.

In September 1139, about a year after Adeliza had married William D’Albini, the Empress prepared to come to England to further her claim to the throne. Stephen ordered a watch put on all the ports, but Matilda made instead for Arundel. Although not a port, it had a river connection with the sea and was close to the coast. Several chroniclers seem to think that Adeliza actually invited Matilda to come there. I think she probably did and used the tradition and sacred bond of kinship tie both as a pretext and a genuine reason. Adeliza was of a similar age to Matilda, but she was also her stepmother, and that gave her certain duties and obligations. One of the roles of a queen was that of peace-maker, so perhaps Adeliza thought she could lay the ground for some kind of peace deal between Stephen and Matilda. What her husband thought of all this is not reported, but he certainly went along with it, which suggests, given his otherwise loyalty to Stephen, that he was prepared to indulge his wife.

Stephen  arrived at Arundel and an agreement was reached whereby the Empress was escorted from the castle to Bristol and the custody of her half brother Robert of Gloucester. From there the war began in earnest, so as a cordial visit from kin and as a diplomatic exercise, Adeliza’s ploy was something of a disaster.  If I have to speculate on the reasons behind that landing and the negotiations, I would say that some of the parties, including Adeliza, hoped indeed that a peace deal could be struck, but it all went ‘pear-shaped’ as the saying goes.  I suspect the Empress always knew there was going to be a fight.

Adeliza had been barren in her 15 year marriage to Henry I, but her union with William D’Albini proved the opposite and Adeliza discovered that she was very fecund indeed. Between 1139 and 1148, she bore seven children. Why she was so fertile with her second husband and not her first is a mystery and open to conjecture. Henry I was certainly not incapable even in his later years, and surely would have been keen to beget an heir if possible, but we can only speculate. It’s one of history’s and biology’s puzzles. Adeliza and William’s descendants include Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The line still exists, although through various side-moves on the family tree. The descendants of Adeliza of Louvain and William D’Albini still own Castle Rising and Arundel Castle today.

William D’Albini was a great builder and once his funds and standing increased following his marriage to Adeliza, he embarked on a programme of construction and improvement. His most famous monument is that of Castle Rising in Norfolk where he built an entire castle and graced it with a magnificent entrance hall, rich external decoration based on Norwich Castle, and mod cons in the private chamber. Castle Rising is thought to be the first in the country with separate Ladies and Gents toilets!
Adeliza had always been devout, and when her child-bearing years were over, she retired, with her husband’s consent, to the Benedictine convent at Afflighem and died there in 1151. There is a puzzle in that both Afflighem and Reading Abbey (where Henry I is laid to rest)  lay claim to be her burial site and both apparently have good evidence.  Perhaps, as with many royal and aristocratic burials she was parcelled out and her heart may lie in one tomb and her body in another. Her husband survived her by another twenty five years and did not remarry.

castle rising 2

Castle Rising entrance stairway

It has been fascinating piecing together the few known details about Adeliza and extrapolating awarenesses of her character from the information available.
Adeliza of Louvain: An overlooked Queen and ‘Lady of the English.’

‘O queen of the English, Adela, the very muse who prepares to call to mind your graces is frozen in wonder.’ Henry of Huntingdon: The History of the English People

See also:

Adeliza of Louvain and Anglo Norman Queenship by Laura Wertheimer – Haskins Society Journal 7

The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon – Oxford World Classics

Queens Consort by Lisa Hilton – Wedenfeld & Nicolson

Lady of the English USA




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