Part of a series about 20 crucial moments in German Medieval History. In 950 King Lothar of Italy dies, leaving behind his 19-year-old widow, Adelheid/Adelaide. With her begins the entanglement of the medieval emperors in Northern Italy.
Adelaide was born the daughter of the King of Upper Burgundy (~Fench speaking switzerland + soutwest France) Her father acquired the crown of the Kingdom of the Lombards (= Norther Italy) in the 920s but had to cede it to Hugh of Provence already in 925
Hugh of Provence invaded Upper Burgundy in 937 and abducted Adelaide and her mother. Adelaide was only 6 years old at that time. Once she was 15, Hugh married her to his son Lothar who he had elecated and crowned as King of Italy.
Now it is time for Hugh to lose his power. In 945 the margrave of Ivrea, Berengar ousts Hugh who retires back to Provence. Berengar however leaves Lothar and Adelheid as King and Queen of Italy.
That was a neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy. Adelheid for Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Provence and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat, but in reality, Berengar held total control of the reins of power.
This neat arrangement fell apart when Lothar unexpectedly died in 950. Berengar had to take the plunge and declare himself King of Italy without really having much legitimacy apart from having the bigger guns.
That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right.
o top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia.
You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe. Though they did not have potatoes then. Maybe the hottest parsnip? Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused.
At that point Adelheid becomes a risk. Leaving the key to the kingdom run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.
Whilst Adelheid, richest heiress in Europe and 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics are set in motion. Hang on, Adelheid, Europe’s richest and most beautiful heiress and is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?
Well, plenty. anyone who could dislodge Berengar and marry the 19-year-old and allegedly very attractive Adelheid would become king of Italy. That is the kind of offer that brings out the best in men.
First suitor was Henry, Duke of Bavaria and brother of King Otto I of East Francia. Though he is closest and has a significant followership his efforts stalled at Aquileia, 250km off target on Lake Garda.
Next up was the son of King Otto I, Liudolf. Luidolf was the oldest son and heir of the kingdom. Otto had him acknowledged by his magnates as his successor. All was good for him. So he wanted to crown his achievements by rescuing a damsel in distress.
That backfires badly. Not only does his uncle Henry stiffen the resistance of the Italian barons, little Liudolf has also failed to ask for permission from Dad. Otto I is not happy about his son’s move south and orders him back home
And now Otto I makes his own move. He takes a large army down to Italy to finally release the chained princess. Berengar sees him coming and hides in one of his castles. Otto I takes Pavia, capital of the kingdom of the Lombards, without much resistance.
Adelheid, it turns out did not need the help. She had escaped from the Rocca di Garda all by herself and found shelter with the bishop of Reggio on the castle of Canossa, a place that will become of even greater significance in German history
Otto I, recently widowed now asks for Adelheid’s hand in marriage. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion.
But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances.
And with that Otto I could pick up the iron crown of the Lombards. From this time onwards the Italian crown was (with one interruption), part of the Empire and whoever was elected King of the Romans had automatically authority over Lombardy.
This will be one part of the “Italian Entanglement” that makes medieval emperors cross the Alps again and again, seeking fame and fortune. Heinrich v. Sybel (1817-95) blamed this for the delayed nation building in Germany.
Modern historians have a more differentiated perspective. However, the rule over Italy did take up a lot of the resources and headspace of medieval emperors, in particular Henry IV, Barbarossa, Henry VI and Frederick II.
More on this story and many more, check out the History of the Germans Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms.