Tuesday 31 August 2010

"The Fair Maid of Brabant": The Life of Adeliza of Louvain, Queen of England

“It has not been granted to you from Heaven that you should bear a child to the King of the English… Perhaps the Lord has closed up your womb.”
- Hildebert, Archbishop of Tours in a letter to Queen Adeliza

Appropriately enough, Adeliza of Louvain’s career as Queen of England started with a shipwreck. This one incident in the English Channel, which occurred months before she even set foot in England, was to radically alter Adeliza's position in her new country. Initially, the marriage between Adeliza of Louvain and the recently-widowed King Henry I of England was supposed to bring some comfort and distraction to the King following the death of his first wife, the powerful and respected Matilda of Scotland. On the surface, Adeliza seemed to fit the bill perfectly. She was young, charming, beautiful and well-connected. Her father owned sizable territories in modern-day France and Germany and her mother was a descendant of the great Emperor Charlemagne. So proverbial was Adeliza’s prettiness that she was nicknamed “the Fair Maid of Brabant” and her personality had won her praise at the Imperial court in Germany. The marriage contracts between King Henry and Adeliza’s father, Godfrey, were signed in the spring of 1120, six months before the shipping disaster that would shatter not only Adeliza’s future happiness but also the welfare of England for a generation.

Since the death of his beloved mother two years earlier, Henry I’s eldest son, 17 year-old William, had continued to justify the faith his parents had shown in him, by competently executing the role of Regent of England during his father’s long periods of residence in Normandy, something necessitated by the monarchy’s possession of two domains on opposite sides of the Channel. In order to get on with the business of producing an heir in the second generation, the young prince had been married to the wealthy aristocrat heiress, Matilda of Anjou, although he had temporarily left her side to conduct the 12th-century’s equivalent of a State Visit to Paris in the summer and autumn of 1120. There, the prince had paid homage to the gargantuan King Louis VI of France, unflatteringly nicknamed “Louis the Fat” by his subjects, and his queen, the rather more comely Adelaide of Maurienne. Then, William had returned to Normandy in the company of what sounds like a rather fun crowd of the “who’s who” of the nobility. Half the heirs and heiresses of the greatest aristocratic families in his father’s empire were present, along with two of Prince William’s own half-siblings, Robert, “a brave youth, and dear to his father,” and the Comtesse de Perche, both products of some of the King’s long-ago extra-marital affairs. The party boarded a vessel called The White Ship, which set sail for England only to be beset by a ferocious storm early in the voyage. It sank and almost everybody on board was drowned. The ship’s captain made it to the surface, but hearing that the Heir to the Throne had drowned, Captain Fitzstephen let himself sink to the depths again, rather than face Henry’s infamous wrath.

At a stroke, not only had whole swathes of the aristocracy been plunged into mourning, but England had lost its last legitimate prince. Looking back on it, it's hard to disagree with the assessment of William of Malmesbury that, “No ship ever brought so much misery to England." With young William’s death, the forthcoming marriage to Adeliza of Louvain was suddenly transformed from one which would bring the King comfort in his old age into a matter of the highest political necessity. The new Queen must now produce as many children as possible in order to replace the Heir lost in the depths of the sea.

Adeliza did not, therefore, step into an easy situation. No queen was to be under so much immediate and ill-disguised pressure to conceive until the days of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour four hundred years later. Aged about fifteen, sixteen or seventeen at the time of her marriage, Adeliza’s father, Godfrey the Great, had held the titles of Duke of Lower Lorraine and of Brabant, as well as Count of Louvain. A courageous and gifted politician, Godfrey had reclaimed his lands in the Lorraine with the help of the Emperor Heinrich V, the King of England’s son-in-law, during which time Adeliza had lived at the Imperial Court in Aachen, in the company of the Empress Matilda, King Henry’s only legitimate daughter. (Due to the plethora of other Matildas at this time, she will be referred to here simply as “the Empress” from henceforth.) Having lost her own mother, Ida, Comtesse de Namur, Adeliza wound need a chaperone and the Empress graciously acquiesced. The Empress, who was a year or two older than Adeliza, took a great liking to her and if the historian Marjorie Chibnall is correct in suggesting that the Empress and her father met in 1119, shortly after the death of Queen Matilda and before the drowning of Prince William, it seems likely that the Empress was instrumental in promoting the lovely Adeliza as the best candidate for her father’s new bride.

The wedding between the 53 year-old King and the teenage Adeliza took place at the magnificent Windsor Castle on 29th January 1121, just over two months since the White Ship disaster, and from the start Adeliza discovered that she was not just living in the shadow of the sunken ship but also in that of her predecessor – Matilda of Scotland. The Royal Household was still governed by the strict etiquette which both Henry and the late Matilda had so approved of and even codified in the constitution known as the Domus Regis. Adeliza was to have no trouble conforming to the rigid protocol of her position, indeed she was to execute it with aplomb. England was also an intensely religious country and thanks in no small part to the late Queen Matilda, it was one rich in devotion to the Virgin Mary. The royal chaplains continued to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in December, despite the fact that in the 12th century the festival was generally only observed by the more zealous of the Virgin’s devotees and although Christianity bit deep into the collective hearts and minds of most Europeans at that time, England was certainly going through a period of exceptional fervour, nurtured at the heart of the Royal Family by the late Queen.

However, unlike her predecessor, there is no evidence that Adeliza was a particularly religious person, although she was undeniably observant, like most young ladies of her time. Always scrupulous in carrying out the duties expected of her as a queen, Adeliza served as a royal patroness for a bevy of religious institutions, chief amongst them the magnificent cathedral at Winchester (below), as well as the convents at Waltham, Osney, Eynsham and Holy Saviour. Later in the reign, she was to become patroness of both the Templar Knights and the Cistercian monastic order in England. She also founded a small priory and a leprosy hospital, in imitation of her predecessor.

King Henry was obviously smitten with his young, attractive queen in the first months of their marriage. She not only received the vast lands held by her predecessor, but extra estates in Bedfordshire, Devon, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex. To supplement her already vast income, she was also the first lady to be granted something known as “the Queen’s Gold,” a revenue by which the Queens of England later derived a huge amount of pocket money. "The Queen’s Gold" meant that anytime an English or Norman subject was sentenced to pay a fine of more than 10 marks, an extra 10% was to be added on top of it and that supplemental tithe would then be paid into the Queen’s Household. Less attractively, it also added 10% onto any tax levied against the King’s Jewish subjects for exactly the same purpose. Adeliza was thus already a phenomenally wealthy young woman, even by the standards of royalty, when her husband granted her yet another manor, at Berkeley, before then going on to give her the entire county of Shropshire. As if this wasn’t already enough, she was later granted exemption from land tax, a privilege which had never been granted to either Matilda of Flanders or Matilda of Scotland and which, in effect, means that Adeliza of Louvain was one of the wealthiest queens in English history.

Yet, despite the wealth being showered upon her, it was not exactly clear what Henry expected her to spend it on. Unlike his first marriage, he had absolutely no intention of allowing Adeliza any independence whatsoever. Henry had not only adored but also respected his first wife, even going so far as to leave her in charge of the government of England on several occasions. Adeliza was not cut from the same political cloth as Matilda, nor did she have any real interest in politics, either then or later. (When it came to picking sides in the later Civil War, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Adeliza picked the side of the Empress because they were friends, rather than any other reason.)

Henry also refused to leave her alone for a prolonged period of time, as he had with Matilda, because unlike the first time around, he and Adeliza had to be in bed with each other as often as possible in order to produce the much-needed new son. This time, when the King went to Normandy, the Queen went with him and the Bishop of Salisbury was left behind in London to run the government. So, whilst Adeliza travelled around in her husband’s company, accumulating wealth she had no real ability to spend, she amused herself with trivial but elegant amusements and if we see Henry’s first wife as the embodiment of the Queen as a partner in government, it might be well to see his second as the embodiment of the Queen as a consort. Adeliza enjoyed plays, music and poetry, so her Court was a lively place – amusing, entertaining and a little frivolous, unlike the late Queen’s, dominated as it had been by both politics and piety.

Adeliza’s constant companionship of her husband also meant that she had to directly confront a part of Henry’s life which the late Matilda had deftly avoided – his womanising. Even with his regular visits to his wife’s bed, Henry still found time to go hunting for other women and the inevitable result of more bastards followed in its wake. Another illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth, had been born only weeks before Adeliza’s arrival in England and she joined the King’s seven acknowledged illegitimate sons – two Roberts, two Williams, a Reginald, a Fulk and a Henry – and his daughters, Sybilla, Gundrada, Rohese, Juliana, Maud, Constance, Matilda, Emma and Cybil. During the course of her marriage, Adeliza witnessed the arrival of at least one more bastard son in her husband’s family – Gilbert – and possibly three more daughters, Eustacia, Alice and Joan, although it is possible that these girls were born before Adeliza’s time as queen.

Adeliza gave no visible sign of distress over this tribe of royal bastards, nor did she exhibit any public sign of unhappiness as her own marriage began to fall apart. In public, the Queen was always perfect, always happy, always dignified, and almost theatrically submissive in her deference to her terrifying husband. She commissioned flattering accounts of his reign and had them set to poetry and then to music. Yet, as the years rolled on Adeliza failed, time and time again, to conceive. Her mortification was only increased by the attention subsequently paid to the King’s illegitimate children – the eldest, Robert, already enjoyed the title of Earl of Gloucester, now his brother Reginald was created Earl of Cornwall, while many of their half-sisters made marriages into the French nobility. Constance married the Vicomte de Beaumont-le-Maine, Alice married the Constable of France and Eustacia married the Sénéchal de Montmirail and, worst of all from Adeliza’s perspective, the King’s eldest bastard daughter, Sybilla, already played the part of a royal princess in having been married to Alexander, King of Scotland.

The elevation and celebration of the King’s bastards need not necessarily be read as a deliberate policy of humiliating the Queen. Many of his children had made aristocratic marriages in the days before Adeliza came to England, when the King had no reason to fear for the Succession; Sybilla’s queenship in Scotland had come long before Adeliza’s in England. Yet, their very existence cannot have helped but exacerbate her ever-increasing misery - the King had produced a small army of bastard children, as well as four with his first wife and it was therefore apparently clear to everyone that the “fault” for the royal marriage’s failure lay with the beautiful but useless Adeliza.

In fact, as events were to show, the issue of why Henry and Adeliza failed to conceive together is not necessarily so clear-cut. It was not from a lack of effort on Henry’s part, certainly, since when he was not in other women’s beds, he was in Adeliza’s with military regularity. However, with the exception of the birth of his bastard son, Gilbert - the product of a brief fling with an unknown lover - none of Henry’s bastard children’s birth can definitively be dated to the period in which he was married to Adeliza. The other three possible candidates – Eustacia, Joan and Alice – are just as likely to have been born during the time of the King’s first marriage, than his second. Is it possible then that, as he entered his sixties, Henry I’s famous potency was beginning to wane and that was the reason why his second queen failed to conceive the Heir everyone was so desperately hoping for?

As Henry and Adeliza’s marriage approached its tenth anniversary, even Adeliza was finding it difficult to keep the pretence that everything was fine. We know from a surviving letter that at one point she obviously expressed her misery to the Archbishop of Tours who, rather unhelpfully, wrote back that there was nothing to do in the face of God’s Will and maybe the Queen might like to console herself by spending more time with the poor, adopting them as her spiritual children since she couldn't have any of her own – after all, as he wrote, “It is more blessed to be fertile in spirit than the flesh.” Adeliza’s response to this advice is, sadly, not recorded.

Events now began to move rapidly beyond Adeliza. She was now a political irrelevance. A gorgeous one, no doubt, but an irrelevancy all the same. Everyone in the upper-classes could tell that Henry I was every bit as unhappy at the state of his childless marriage as his wife was and the strain was beginning to show physically. By the time he reached his mid-sixties, observers noted that the King was “much weakened by strenuous labours and family anxieties”. Realising that something would have to be done to secure a peaceful transition of power, Henry began to prepare to hand the inheritance over to his only legitimate child, the Empress.

On the one hand, seeing more of her one-time friend and chaperon from her days at Aachen must have been a pleasant experience. On the other, the frequent presence of the widowed Empress in London must have highlighted that thanks to Adeliza’s failure to produce a son, the King now had to embark upon the unthinkable policy of leaving the kingdom to his daughter. For a time, Henry seemed to have toyed with the idea of leaving it to his nephew, Stephen, Count of Boulogne and Mortain, and to this end the King had enriched Stephen, making him a conspicuous presence in the polity, but, now, the monarchy’s attention had shifted back onto the Empress Matilda. It was she who was to inherit once Henry was gone.

As ever, Adeliza played her part as an elegant accessory to all the ceremonies that followed - whereby the barons and great lords of England and Normandy were forced to swear fealty to the Empress and promise to uphold her claim to the throne once the King was dead. It is hard to imagine a more humiliating public duty for Adeliza, given that all this was necessary solely because she had not become pregnant in over a dozen years of marriage.

Whether the old legend that Henry began to treat her badly at this time is true, we have no way of knowing. It seems more likely, given the royal couple’s itinerary, that Henry kept trying to impregnate the Queen, even at this late stage. Of course, both theories are not necessarily mutually incompatible. Just because Henry was sleeping with her does not mean he had to be nice to her - but, who knows? In any case, Adeliza’s liberation from uncertainty came on 1st December 1135, when the Court was in residence in Normandy. Already exhausted and unhappy, the King succumbed to accidental food poisoning after a banquet – legend has it that death followed a large helping of lamprey eels.

Henry I was about sixty-seven at the time of his death and he had reigned for thirty-five years, an extraordinarily long time by the standards of the Middle Ages. His body was conveyed to the abbey at Reading, where he was buried with instructions that the monks were to pray for “the salvation of my soul and that of King William my father and King William my brother and William my son and Queen Matilda my mother and Queen Matilda my wife.” The name of childless Adeliza was absent from the list of prayer requests. Perhaps it was because, unlike everybody else on it, she was not dead yet. Or perhaps Henry had taken the sting of her failure with him into the grave. Again, we do not know.

What we do know is that Adeliza was now, at last, released from both her husband’s control and the exquisite agony of her position as queen. She was now Queen Dowager, a very wealthy and independent woman, still attractive and still young(ish), being not yet thirty. For a time, as she carried out the ritual of mourning for the King, she decorously retired to the convent of Wilton, where she amused herself by financing talented poets and praying.

Yet, as Adeliza’s insecurity came to an end, England’s began. Henry I's death marked the start of a period so traumatic in the nation’s history that it was dubbed “The Anarchy” or, more poetically and more tragically, as the time when Christ and His saints had slept. The Empress’s succession to the throne did not go as smoothly as her late father had hoped and many rallied behind the counter-claim of her cousin, Stephen. With the nobility and then the entire country split between those who favoured the claim of the Empress against those who favoured the claim of a man, England was plunged into a brutal and savage civil war for the next two decades. Adeliza’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of her stepdaughter, the Empress, and when she came to England to press her claim, Adeliza operated an “open house” policy of hospitality to the most notorious woman in the country. Three years into this, Adeliza married again and, infuriatingly, we know very little about her romance, because it was not just a great love story across the classes, but also a love across the barricades, as it were, for Adeliza’s new husband – William – was as strong a supporter of King Stephen, as Adeliza was of the Empress.

William d’Aubigny, the son of one of Henry I’s courtiers, must have known Adeliza for sometime when they wed in 1138. Although, when they first met, their relationship would have been defined as the distant and reverential one between a courtier and a queen. Now, with the King’s death, William and Adeliza’s relationship changed. Put simply, they fell in love, for although William was certainly very wealthy, he was also five or so years younger than his new wife and, whatever way one looked at it, she was certainly marrying “down” in marrying someone outside the sacred confines of royalty. William must have been a wildly attractive figure, for he was not only chivalrous, loyal and brave, but he was also understanding, considerate and tolerant, especially when it came to Adeliza. He began building a castle for them to live in, Castle Rising, although their first marital home was Adeliza’s palatial residence at Arundel Castle, on the Norfolk coast and which she seems to have preferred in the long-run. (below.)

Having acted like almost nothing more than a pretty doll next to her first husband, Adeliza’s second marriage seems to have been on a more equal footing. Despite his loyalty to King Stephen, William did not force Adeliza to abandon her friendship with the Empress and, in return for William’s devotion to his cause, the King was prepared to overlook his wife’s affection for his rival. He later ennobled William as Earl of Lincoln and later as Earl of Arundel, giving Adeliza yet another title, although she showed herself fairly reluctant to abandon the original one and she was still being referred to as "the Queen of Louvain" by her contemporaries for the rest of her life. Titles mattered to the pre-modern eyes, not just to their incumbents but also to everybody else. Society was hierarchical and flying in the face of that did not endear you to anybody. When Henry VIII's younger sister was widowed by the King of France, she married for love (or lust) to the handsome Duke of Suffolk and, despite the fact that she clearly loved her new husband a dozen times more than she did her old, she was still referred to as "the French Queen" by courtiers in London - so Adeliza's retention of the title of Queen Dowager should not be read as a slight of William, but rather as conforming to the expectations of her class.

Then, throughout the national misery of the 1130s and 1140s, Adeliza found yet more happiness with William. At long last, she was pregnant. Baby Raynor was followed in the d’Aubigny nursery by William, Henry, Geoffrey and their three sisters, Alice, Olivia and Agatha. Having spent years without any baby bump as queen, as a countess Adeliza was now the mother of seven children. It is one of those improbable occurrences that can make history more interesting than any fiction and through these children, William and Adeliza were to become ancestors of some of the great houses of the English and Irish nobility.

By the end of 1150, despite the fact that she was still only in her late forties, Adeliza’s health began to fail. Sensing that her death was near, she bade farewell to her husband and children and returned to her native Brabant, entering the convent at Affligem in order to spend her final weeks making ready to meet her God. She died at the height of spring in 1151 and William did not re-marry.

Adeliza of Louvain, one-time Queen of England and Countess of Arundel, was buried next to her first husband, the late King, because that was the appropriate thing to do and, as Adeliza had shown through a political career, the needs of propriety were something she had always put first. Whatever it might have cost her, Adeliza held the duties of being a queen seriously. Yet, if in the early part of life and in the elaborate pageantry of her death, she had always done what was expected of her, there is nonetheless something equally magnificent about the balance Adeliza achieved in the middle. In a wholly unlikely set of circumstances, she had married for love to a noble and courageous man and, with him, she had the family she had always wanted and, in a curious twist of fate, her descendants would one day wear the crown of the Queens of England again. These women, whose names were Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were to descend from the offspring of Adeliza’s second marriage and, like their famous ancestor, they too were to feel the agony of being unable to produce a son for the King of England. Unlike Adeliza, however, for them there was no happy ending. Today, another of Adeliza and William's descendants, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, born Catherine Middleton, is a member of the Royal Family by marriage and it is to be hoped that she will find the same level of happiness with her William that Adeliza found with hers. 


  1. Thank you for posting this story of such a fascinating woman! In all honesty I had never heard of the late Queen before, I am so surpised I haven't! Truly a remarkable life.

  2. I have heard of Adeliza but never knew much about her beyond the fact that she was Henry's second wife. Thanks for sharing the info and for the considerable amount of time and effort that must go into these posts - they are fascinating indeed!

  3. This was a truly enjoyable read!!! Thank you!

  4. Love this article. I've read Hilton's scholarly account of Adeliza's life but you fleshed out her the pain of her situation more beautifully. Adeliza's tenure as Henry I's queen reminded me about that of Catherine of Braganza (at least Charles II wasn't an a**hole for all his infidelity). But it's comforting that Adeliza attained the love and the family that she'd always wanted in the end. I wait with bated breath for your take on the Plantagenet queens, especially on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France.

  5. Thank you for this lovely article. I've read about the many other English consorts, but not much was written about Adeliza of Louvain or Matilda of Boulogne. Modern paintings or engravings of her are almost non-existent. I've been taking an interest in the lives of the queens consort of England, and I'm happy to find out more about her. :)

  6. Hi, Queen Katherine Parr was also a descendant. Great article though.

  7. Just traced the family backwards and forwards. My oldest brother is a descendent of Adeliza & William and now I can call him a distant cousin to Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and to think he will be a distant cousin to the next English heir to the throne.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed this history lesson, recently found out Adeliza is my 27 great grandmother with her second husband. What an incredible life
    She led, glad she found happiness and proved to everyone she wasn't the problem with Henry1. Thank you

  9. Interesting! Didn't know Kate was also a descendent until reading this. Adeliza is also my distant great grandmother:-) must be a few of us around.

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  11. She was buried at Reading, a charter of her brother makes that clear. A translation of is printed in Kemp's Reading Abbey Cartularies, vol. 1, p.416

  12. rebecca.
    Adeliz (Dowager Queen of England) De Louvain is my
    aunt of husband of 3rd great grandmother of wife of 21st great grandfather

  13. Thank you so very much! I can't get enough of "history". I have taken over ancestry research that my first cousin,once removed, started in 1976. She has traced our ancestry back to King Charlemagne. Adeliza of Louvain,Dowager Queen of England. Now that I have names , dates,and places....I'm anxious to find more about them
    Once again ,
    Thank you

  14. She was one of my ancestors with her second husband William. It amazes me how far back J can trace the family history.


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