Was she so incredibly beautiful that powerful men were willing to leave their wives and marry her? Or was she a witch, a sorceress? One chronicler of the time said nothing good was ever said about her except for her beauty, while another said she was pleasing to God and compared her to an angel.
What we do know is that Bertrade or Bertrada was born about 1070 in Montfort, a region of what is now northern France. She married her first husband, Fulk, Count of Anjou when she was about eighteen or nineteen. He had according to the chroniclers fallen passionately in love with her. They were married by 1089.
Fulk had been married several times before—perhaps as many as four. One wife may have died, but the others were repudiated without necessarily being divorced. Only his first wife had a child, a daughter. Many church officials considered the marriage between Bertrade and Fulk to be bigamous since he still had living, albeit repudiated, wives.
Shortly after they were married, Bertrade gave birth to a son, Fulk V, who eventually became King of Jerusalem. By 1092, she had left Count Fulk to live with and eventually marry Philip I of France, who was eighteen years her senior. Philip, whose nickname was The Amorous, had married Bertha of Holland in 1072, had two children with her, and then repudiated her in 1189 so he could marry Bertrade. His grounds for putting Bertha aside were that she was too fat.
The fact that King Philip and Bertrade both had living spouses did not go unnoticed by the church. Excommunication followed, although it was lifted several times when the couple promised to never touch each other again. A promise they did not keep, and so they were excommunicated again. In fact, for a while, Philip’s territories were placed under interdict. The excommunication prevented the King from participating in the First Crusade which enabled him to gain power while most of the important French nobles had gone to the Holy Land.
Bertrade and Philip had four children—three sons and a daughter. Reportedly, Bertrade tried in a variety of ways to have Philip’s eldest son by Bertha replaced as heir. She approached Henry I of England about kidnapping her stepson, and there were rumors about possible plans to use poison as well. A few writers whispered that she might have tried sorcery to gain her end. However, the young man survived to become Louis VI, later known as Louis the Fat.
During the last years of Philip’s life, he was content to let his son Louis taken on many of the responsibilities of ruling. The excommunication of Philip and Bertrade was finally lifted in 1104 and later that year, Bertrade and Philip traveled to Anjou where they met with Count Fulk, her first husband. At that time, the son of Bertrade and Fulk was confirmed as the heir to Anjou.
When Philip died in 1108, Bertrade’s sons by Philip raced to Rheims hoping to prevent the coronation of their half-brother. Rheims was the traditional location for the ceremony. Instead, Louis was crowned in Orleans just five days after his father’s death. Although the validity of the ceremony was questioned, it did prevent Bertrade from putting one of her sons on the throne of France.
Once Louis became king, Bertrade retreated to Fontevraud Abbey, where she lived until her death in 1117. She encouraged her children to make trouble—even going to war—with their half-brother, now their king. The former queen also spent a great deal of time claiming Louis was denying her proper dower rights.
History gives us only brief glimpses of women who lived in eleventh and twelfth century. Their names are recorded in connection with their husbands or their children. We are left with more questions than answers when looking at Bertrade. Was she so incredibly beautiful that two powerful men were willing to put aside their wives to be her husband? Was she searching for power? Was her life an early medieval version of a modern soap opera?