Adela of Normandy was born in late 1067 or early 1068 as the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Not much is known of her life before her marriage, unfortunately. She was probably well versed in Latin as she was praised for her ability to read and compose it. She was probably entrusted to the nuns at Holy Trinity in Caen where her elder sister Cecilia also lived, and it is quite possible that she sometimes joined her mother’s household.
Adela next appears in the historical records as the wife of Stephen-Henry, the eldest son of Thibaud III, Count of Blois. Even the date of her marriage is not exactly known. They were married at Chartres, probably in 1083. The union served to confirm the alliance between the Thibaudians and the Normans, which had been established in the 1050s. Upon the death of her father-in-law in 1089, her husband succeeded as Count of Blois. By then, he was already in this early forties while Adela was around 22 years old. Despite their age difference, his surviving letters to her suggest that the relationship was one of trust, respect and perhaps even affection. While Stephen was a crusade, he wrote to her two surviving letters in which he addressed Adela as “sweetest friend and wife” and also “my beloved.” They went on to have at least six children, though perhaps even eight children together. She was quite ill two or three times during her years as Countess, during one occasion she suffered from high fevers.
Adela and her husband sometimes issued joint documents suggesting that she was quite involved in the county. This could be because her husband acknowledged her abilities or even just the fact that as a King’s daughter, her social rank was more authoritative than her husband’s. Perhaps he even considered the fact that she might be left as regent for their young son due to their age difference. She acted as regent twice when her husband went on crusade. He probably felt safe enough to leave the county in his wife’s capable hands, and by then she had given birth to three or maybe even four sons, leaving the succession clear. Her personal wealth also provided for the large costs involved with such a long journey. Her documented actions during his first two-and-half-year absence suggest that she behaved decently and honourably and that her actions were not questions by male contemporaries. Her husband was killed in 1102 on his second Crusade during the Battle of Ramla, though the news did not reach France until the following year.
Adela was still only in her mid-thirties when she was widowed, and her sons were young and inexperienced. She did cede all authority to them, even though her eldest son William was meant to become Count of Blois though he was eventually passed over for his younger brother Theobald because Adela considered him to be a more effective ruler. William became the heir to the Count of Sully after marrying his daughter. By then, Adela’s brother Henry had become King of England, and she kept in close contact with the English court. She even used her diplomatic skills to arrange talks between her brother and his exiled archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald and his younger brother Stephen visited their uncle’s court in Engeland, while Adela toured her eastern domains. The White Ship disaster of 1120 not only killed Adela’s brother’s only son and heir William Adelin but also took the life of Adela’s daughter, Mathilda. Yet, “With (Adela) ruling like a duke, the glory of the realm stands affirmed and flourishes.”
After her death, the normal chronicler Robert of Torigni wrote, “After the death of her husband Stephen, Count of Blois, Adela…ruled the (county) nobly for some years because her sons were at that time less able to do so. When they were grown up, she took the veil and became a nun at Marcigny…where she served God in a praiseworthy manner till the end of her life.” Her decision to become a nun in 1120 is perhaps the best-documented event of her entire life. Her withdrawal from the world did not mean she did not keep up to date on events. It is quite likely that she became the prioress after a few years. In 1135, she was informed of the death of her brother King Henry I. Her reaction to her son Stephen becoming King of England instead of her niece Mathilda succeeding as Queen has not survived. Adela died in 1137, shortly before her son Stephen landed in Normandy. She was buried at Marcigny where she had lived for the last 17 years of her life.1