16 April 2017

Adelaide del Vasto – Countess of Sicily

Prudent ruler who looked after Sicily for her young sons

Adelaide (right) in a painting that depicts her renouncing by Baldwin of Jerusalem
Adelaide (right) in a painting
that depicts her renouncing
by Baldwin of Jerusalem
Adelaide del Vasto, who served as regent of Sicily during the 12th century, died on this day in 1118 in Sicily.

One historian described her as ‘a prudent woman’ and a Greek and Arab document listed Adelaide – known in Italian as Adelasia - as ‘a great female ruler and protector of the Christian faith’.

Born in Piedmont, Adelaide was from an important family with branches that ruled Liguria and Turin. She became the third wife of Roger I of Sicily in 1089. When he died in 1101 she became regent of Sicily for her young sons, Simon and Roger II, when she was about 26.

After rebellions broke out in parts of Calabria and Sicily, Adelaide dealt with them severely, but this did not tarnish her reputation as a good ruler.

Adelaide’s eldest son, Simon, was enthroned at about the age of nine but he died in 1105 leaving her as regent again until Roger II became old enough to take control of the kingdom in 1112. There is evidence that Adelaide continued to play a central role in the governing of Sicily as her signature can still be seen on documents drawn up after that date.

Baldwin, King of Jerusalem
Baldwin, King of Jerusalem
During her regency Palermo officially became capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. Adelaide, and later Roger II, chose to rule with the help of local officials rather than bringing in foreign advisers. She also donated generously to local Greek monasteries to win favour with them.

When Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, was looking for a new wife, Adelaide was suggested to him by his advisers. Adelaide laid down terms that their son, if they had one, should inherit Jerusalem, but if there was no heir, the kingdom should pass to her son, Roger II.

Adelaide took a large amount of money, which Baldwin urgently needed, Muslim archers and about 1000 Sicilian soldiers with her to Jerusalem.

When no new heir was immediately forthcoming, the King was blamed for having contracted a bigamous marriage because his second wife was still alive and living in a convent after having been cast aside. The Pope, Paschal II, asked for the marriage between Adelaide and Baldwin to be annulled. By then Baldwin was ill and became convinced that renouncing his sin of bigamy would cure him, so he agreed. The annulment was performed and Adelaide sailed back to Sicily.

Adelaide died in 1118 and was buried in Patti in northern Sicily.

Roger II was outraged at the way his mother had been treated and never forgave the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thirty years later he refused to give assistance when Jerusalem needed it during the second Crusade, which resulted in a great victory for the Muslims. At the time he was accused of taking revenge against the whole population because of ‘the fault of a single individual’.

The Church of San Cataldo, with its Norman bell tower and spherical red domes of Islamic influence
The Church of San Cataldo, with its Norman bell tower
and spherical red domes of Islamic influence
Travel tip:

Palermo, which became capital of Sicily during the time Adelaide was regent, is a vibrant city with a wealth of beautiful architecture to impress visitors. The buildings reflect the influence of both northern European and Arabic style. The Church of San Cataldo in Piazza Bellini is a good example of the fusion of Norman and Arabic architecture, having a bell tower typical of churches in northern France as well as three spherical, red domes on the roof, which are typical features of Islamic and Byzantine architecture.

The Cathedral of San Bartolomeo in Patti
The Cathedral of San Bartolomeo in Patti
Travel tip:

Patti, where Adelaide was buried, is a town in north-east Sicily, about 76 km (47 miles) from Messina, which is famous for the ruins of Tindari, an ancient town destroyed by an earthquake. The city was rebuilt after the Saracens had been driven out by Roger I and Roger II and today is popular for its large sandy beaches. Adelaide’s tomb can be seen in Patti’s Cathedral of San Bartolemeo, which originated in the 10th century and has a striking Romanesque façade.

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