Agnes of Burgundy was born in about 1007. Thanks to her parents, Otto William of Burgundy and Ermengarde de Roucy, she was the granddaughter of a King of Italy and distantly related to the German imperial family. This royal blood made her a desirable bride, and it is why she was picked to become the third wife of William the Great, Duke of Aquitaine.
Duchess of Aquitaine
Duke William was a cosmopolitan man, a patron of learning and a connoisseur of books. But he was no leader where it counted in the eleventh century, on the battlefield, and he suffered a humiliating defeat at Viking hands the year before Agnes was born. But Aquitaine was also getting rich on raids of its own. These were at the expense of Muslim Spain, which was rich in Arab silk, gold and horses.
Agnes was only 12 when she arrived in her new home. She inherited two stepsons nearer her own age than her husband who was already about 50.
The new duchess gave birth to two sons of her own, but their chances of ruling Aquitaine seemed remote. Worse, they were still small children when their father died in 1031. One of her stepsons became Duke instead.
Countess of Anjou
The widow was only 24, and she promptly looked around for a new husband – preferably someone powerful enough to protect her children. She found the right man in the warlike Count Geoffrey of Anjou.
The couple were the same age, but from the start the marriage was a business partnership and not a love match. With her own sons too young to fight for their inheritance, the ambitious Agnes wanted her new husband to do the fighting for them. In return, Geoffrey expected a share of Agnes’ wealth and a grateful Duke of Aquitaine as his stepson.
The children of Agnes
The wars between Anjou and Aquitaine continued until both stepsons were dead. “The sons of Agnes” were the only men left standing in the ducal family. So Peter, the eldest, stepped up to become Duke of Aquitaine in 1039 and – just to confuse things – took the name of William VII.
In 1043, Agnes notched up another coup, when King Henry III of Germany turned down a Russian bride to marry her daughter (another Agnes). Three years later, she was in Rome and basking in the reflected glory as her daughter was crowned Holy Roman Empress.
The secret of Agnes’ success
In the eleventh century, power was projected on the point of a sword. But Agnes found her own way to influence events. While her husbands and sons poured money into wars and castles, she spent her wealth on the church. Many aristocratic families gave their children to be monks and nuns, so Agnes took a maternal interest in making their lives as comfortable as possible. She paid for new books and water rights. In one case, she even paid for a new bake house – built safely across the street so sparks from the bread oven could not start fires. These monasteries were suitably grateful and became powerhouses of prayers, propaganda and, most importantly, political support for her family.
Then, at the pinnacle of her success, Agnes separated from her husband. The marriage had failed to produce children, she was in her 40s, and Geoffrey of Anjou wanted an heir of his own. The divorce left Aquitaine with a dangerous enemy on its doorstep. But by 1058, Duke William had the upper hand, and his ex-step-father holed up in a castle – that was, until a fatal bout of dysentery struck him down, leaving Agnes with only one son. This was Guy-Geoffrey, who took his brother’s place as Duke and (confusingly) adopted the family name of William.
Agnes herself retired to the abbey of Notre Dame in Saintes and died there on 10 November 1068. She outlived her second husband by eight years. At the time of her death, she was already the grandmother of a future Holy Roman Emperor (Henry IV). Three granddaughters lived to become Queens of Aragon, Castile and Hungary. Another grandson – the as yet unborn William IX, the Troubadour Duke of Aquitaine – became the father of Eleanor of Aquitaine. 1
- Source: P.D. Johnson. Agnes of Burgundy: an eleventh-century woman as monastic patron. Journal of Medieval History, 1989, 15(2), 93-104. ↩