When Chris and I were searching for names for our unborn daughter, “Alice” was one of our favorites. We had even announced it as her official name to our family and friends before I had a major “take-back” moment (more to come on this in a future post). It is also the middle name of my newest niece who was born just last week. In celebration of her birth, St. Alice is my “Little-Known Saint” for the month of June.
While there is more than one St. Alice, the one that would have been the patron saint of our little babe is St. Alice the Empress (sometimes known as St. Adelaide). She is the focus of this post.
Alice was only six years old when her father, the King of Burgandy (modern-day Switzerland) died. Ten years later she was married to Lothar — the King of Italy. They had a daughter named Emma before he died, leaving Alice a young widow. Despite her hardship, Alice focused herself intently on her faith, desiring nothing more than to grow in piety.
Left without a male heir, Alice’s power as reigning regent was threatened. An enemy of the family –Berengar II (who may or may not have poisoned her husband)– desired to take over the throne and attempted to legitimize his power by uniting his son and Alice in marriage. When Alice refused, she was thrown in prison, suffering the greatest of hardships and indignities. Willa (the wife of her enemy) beat her brutally, tearing at Adelaide’s hair and jewelry, scratching her face and kicking her.
After four months, she was rescued by a local priest who had been digging a tunnel under the castle throughout her entire captivity. Since the castle was surrounded by a lake, the fleeing party escaped escaped by boat, hiding in the marshes as Berengar’s guards searched for them. Eventually they arrived safely at the home of the priest who continued to care for and hide them.
After the escape, Berengar officially claimed the thrown of Lombardy for himself and his son, citing Alice’s flight as abandonment. Upon hearing this, Alice sent word to King Otto of Germany, asking for his help and protection. In exchange, she offered to marry him — meaning his kingdom would then be united with hers. Since this combination of their kingdoms would make them ruling figures over a commonwealth that rivaled the size of the great Charlemagne, Otto agreed. He invaded Lombardy, defeated the impostors, and assumed the title of a King of the Lombards. After this, Alice (or “Adelaide” in German) and Otto were officially wed. Despite their 20 year age difference, they “took an immediate liking to one another.” About a year later, Pope John XII crowned them as the Holy Roman Emperor and Empress.
Otto and Alice had a strong kingdom, a happy marriage, and five children. As Empress, Alice spent generously in charity and church building, unconcerned –in a holy way– with the serious drain on the imperial finances. She saw the Catholic Faith as a much greater treasure and of more importance for their subjects than a full imperial treasurery.
After 20 years together, Otto died and their son Otto II inherited the thrown when he was just 17 years old. Young and impressionable, he married Theophanu, a 16 year old Byzantine princess. Theophanu quickly drove a wedge between mother and son, and Alice found herself increasingly alienated from the new royal couple, until she was officially removed from court.
Alice returned to Italy first, then to Burgandy, where he brother Conrad was still king. Alice sought no revenge and didn’t wallow in her fate. Instead, she took what wealth she had and began establishing monasteries and churches in an attempt to promote evangelization. She used her position to help the poor, for whom she had a special affinity. While she focused her attention on the poor, her brother Conrad facilitated peace between the mother and son and Otto II appointed his mother as official viceroy to Italy. Sadly, Otto died later that same year (but not before repenting of all his transgressions). Putting aside any pride, Alice joined forces with her hostile daughter-in-law to protect the three-year-old king, Otto III. Alice and Theophanu reigned as co-regents for the child-king for a short time.
The peace between the women did not last. Within two years, Theophanu forced Alice to abdicate and exiled her. Alice returned to Lombardy, Italy, remaining there for six years before Theophanu also died. Alice was then restored as her grandson’s Regent, assisted by the bishop of Mainz. When Otto III came of age, he established his independence from his grandmother and Alice surrendered her title as regent gracefully.
Unsurprisingly, Alice then devoted herself exclusively to works of charity. Near the end of her life, she retired to a convent she herself had founded. There, she took her final title:
“Adelheida, by God’s gift empress, by herself a poor sinner and God’s maidservant.”
She understood that without God and his grace, she could not have accomplished anything.
I find the story of St. Alice/St. Adelaide mesmerizing. Her life story seems like something out of a fairy tale — and while she was a damsel in distress, she bore the whole experience with humility and holiness. She never gave in to despair. She suffered, she fled, and she asked for help — but she certainly wasn’t helpless. She did what she could to revise and advance the things she knew she had the power to change, and she graciously bore the infirmities of things that she had no control over. She never sought revenge of those who had wronged her (like Berengar and Theophanu); instead she was both just and merciful — asking only that her kingdom be restored and later, returning to the imperial court to serve with love when she was needed. Amazingly, her court was said to have the character of religious establishment… which is a stark contrast to the luxurious and pleasure-driven courts of the time period.
In 1097, Pope Urban II canonized the Holy Empress. Her feast day is Dec 16 (the day of her death) and still celebrated in most German dioceses. She is the patroness of a number of causes including abuse victims, brides, widows, princesses, second marriages, step-parents and large families. She is even called upon to intercede for problematic in-laws.
This is one saint who is certainly kept busy…
St. Alice — pray for us!