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St Adela of Blois

Feast day: 24 February

Adela of Blois was the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. She was probably born after her father became King of England, and was supposedly the youngest daughter. She was well educated, with a knowledge of Latin. Between 1080 and 1083 Adela married Stephen Henry, son and heir of the count of Blois. She was fifteen and he was nearly twenty years older. She gave birth to many children and was also stepmother to those from Stephen’s previous marriage. Her husband inherited Blois, Meaux and Chartres on his father’s death, as well as lands and rights in parts of Berry and Burgundy. The dynasty had other possessions east of Paris and by the end of Adela’s life was becoming part of the county of Champagne. She played a large part in laying the foundations of the union of the two. She worked closely with her husband, making decisions with him. For example they defended the Bishop of Chartres against the King of France.

Stephen Henry joined the First Crusade in 1096, along with his brother-in-law. Stephen’s letters to Adela gave an insight into the experiences of the Crusaders and showed that he trusted Adela to rule as regent in his absence. During her regency she granted the monks the right to build new churches as well as other charters. She travelled around to settle disputes, promote economic growth and even to command knights to go into battle with the king. The Count of Blois returned from the crusade bringing with him several cartloads of maps, jewels and other treasures. According to Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine monk and chronicler, Stephen Henry came back  from the crusade in ignominy. Adela berated him for this. He was under an obligation to the Pope for agreements made earlier. He returned to Antioch to participate in the crusade of 1102 and was ultimately killed after the Battle of Ramala.

Adela continued to act as regent after her husband’s death and in the early year of her son Thibaud’s reign. She had chosen him rather than his elder brother William as heir, as she did not think William fit to rule. Even when Thibaud came of age, she continued to issue charters and to act as co-regent of many parts of their lands. She did not secure a marriage alliance for him and he did not get married till after she retired in 1120. She therefore kept her power and influence.

Adela was a devout sympathiser with the Benedictines and had her children educated by high-ranking tutors. One child, Hugh, was dedicated to God as an oblate at Cluny Abbey; he went on to be appointed Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester. In that capacity he was responsible for a huge building programme of castles, forts, bridges and villages. He also built churches and chapels, and sponsored many books including the Winchester Bible. Another son, Stephen, was a favourite at the court of Henry I and  seized the English throne from the rightful heiress, the Empress Matilda, which led to the long civil war.

Adela’s place of retirement was the Marcigny Convent in Eastern France, near the great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny. She lived the life of a nun, devoting herself to prayer. However she remained in contact with her family and the ecclesiastical rulers of the lands she had once governed, maintaining her influence.

Adela was an accomplished and influential woman. She wrote many letters which can still be read today. Her personal chamber was adorned with scenes from the bible, mythology, her father’s conquest of England and images of the academic subjects of the time, displaying her love of learning. She contributed greatly to the economic and cultural well-being of her lands and was generous in endowing monasteries and churches. She supported poets and artists.

Adela died on on 8 March 1137.

St Adela of Blois, pray for us.