The Countess’ Chamber

The Countess’ chamber had four walls, a floor and a ceiling.  Yet it extended into the far corners of the world.  If she had chosen to stay within that room for the rest of her days, she would have all the earthly knowledge compiled by man to keep her company.

Tapestries roared with history and battles, her thoughtful bed was decorated with philosophy, flowers, herbs and all medicinal skills.  Above her head painted constellations and their mathematical voyages arched, below her feet continents and seas divided the surface into hemispheres, longitudes and latitudes.

Adela of Normandy was born in 1067, a time so distant and shadowy one cannot believe that a sun did shine above England’s primeval forests.  Her father was William the Conqueror; her brother was King Henry I:  dark, rough-hewn and unpleasant, the “beauclerk” who considered her his favorite sister.  She married when she was about 15 years old and would bear eight children.

One of the few portraits of Adele portrays a heart-shaped face wrapped in a nun-like wimple, although through that discreet drapery a suggestion of a smile flickers.


One of the chroniclers of the day, Orderic Vitalis, described her as a “wise and spirited woman”.  She was educated and strong-willed.  She had the type of will that would send her husband back to the Crusades when he had returned before, in her opinion, fulfilling his crusader vow to forge a path to Jerusalem.  He left in 1101 and died in battle the next year.

A poet, Abbot Baudri of Bourgueil, wrote of her excellent qualities:

“She has the gifts to attract suitors, but not the desire. He has seen her, but was unable to look at her; she has the brilliance of a goddess, the power of a Gorgon or a Circe.”

He also wrote of her chamber:

“The walls are covered with tapestries, woven according to her design, and all seem alive: on one wall, creation, the fall and fratricide, the flood with fish on mountain tops and lions in the sea…On the ceiling, the sky with its constellations, the signs of the zodiac, the stars and planets described in detail. On the floor, a map of the world with its seas, rivers, and mountains, named along with their creatures, and the cities on the land masses of Asia, Europe, and Africa.

By the sweat of my brow, Adela, I have trifled to describe in verse a beautiful chamber.”

Breezes that trickled in through windows that knew no glass caused the tapestries to ripple with woven currents.  Silver thread glittered, horses and knights seemed to move, free of their embroidery.  Stars and planets glowed at night.  She walked through foreign lands by day.  She woke and slept in a room festooned with knowledge.

So she must have dreamed as well.  In her dreams the chamber would be transformed into a living thing.  When she stepped out of bed she would notice that the hem of her gown became damp with the oceans stirring beneath the pearls and satin edging.  Her feet would feel the glitter of teeth as she stepped around the sea monsters that proclaimed the sea’s terror and wonder.

Outraged physetera, krakenicthyocentaurs, serpents and twisting leviathans snapped at and minced her pretty slippers into shreds of silk and shining threads.  She walked across continents and returned with the dirt of distant lands on the soles of her feet.  The fragrance of deserts and forests, heat and ice, salt and spices clung to her.

From the walls of her chamber came sound and movement.  Voices, flight, blood, speech and argument ran through the tapestries, bringing them life-like synapses firing muscle into mad, kinetic movement.  Knights clung to their draft horses weighed down with carved leather saddles and arras-hung reins.  She heard them gallop into the distance and the sudden clash of pike and arrow; the piercing discord of battle.  The conquest of England, Hastings, the death of the King repeated itself again and again.

Gods and myth, swathed with cloud and thunder, came alive in the Countess’ chamber:  Phaeton, driving his burning chariot, Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth, alluring Orpheus…documented miracles challenged fact and erupted from the cold paint and plaster.  The four elements were born, and she felt her senses respond with the message of each one’s creation.

Her bed was decorated with symbols of the arts; of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.  She heard the carvings stir with the sound of harp and lute, with the purity of plainsong.  The symmetry of the planets created slender melodies that spun like gossamer silk around Adela’s fingers are she touched the delicate lines.

At the foot of the bed were the ciphers of Galen and Hippocrates, and the sweet pungent smell of medicines and herbs.  Cinnamon, rosemary, violets, pomegranate; balms of honey and wine, turmeric and vinegar swept across the sheets like perfumed breezes.

She lay on her complex bed and looked up into the sky, at the stars and planets living and dying against the twilight planes.  She saw Ptolomy’s 48 constellations – Andromeda, Canis Major, Cygnus, Pegasus – draped like garlands and twisted around evening’s distant bowers.  Symbols of the zodiac, their silhouettes pricked with the edging of stars, were rooted within the celestial sphere – balanced on the moon’s curving longitude.  The countess grew weary of the dazzling sight.  She closed her eyes.

When she opened them, she was lying once more within the still world.  Throughout the day she would think of the night and its convoy of fantasies.  She would wait for evening to arrive again, and so continue her journeys – as far as the world could take her, as far as human knowledge would allow.


6 responses to “The Countess’ Chamber

  1. As soon as you mentioned 1067, I thought, “1066. The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest.” It’s one of the dates that remains permanently embedded from my schooling, and here it proved useful by giving me a reference point for your post.

    The post itself is wonderfully written, and of course there’s no way to travel through those rich descriptions without thinking of the Bayeux Tapestry. Now, I wonder – do we have our own artifact of the worlds that surrounded Adela?

    • Artifacts? Castles. How I need to visit them once more.

      Scholars have speculated as to whether the Bayeux Tapestry and one of those described in the Countess’ chamber are the same. There is no way to be conclusive, of course, but recently opinions have been that she could have had the actual Tapestry in her chamber. What an extraordinary lady!

  2. What an enchanting account… The Bayeux Tapestry? Mind boggling and bewitching!

  3. quelle beauteousness of words and imagery and More please.

  4. “The Countess’ chamber had four walls, a floor and a ceiling. Yet it extended into the far corners of the world. If she had chosen to stay within that room for the rest of her days, she would have all the earthly knowledge compiled by man to keep her company”

    Made me think (obliquely, perhaps) of Hamlet:

    “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…

    ….were it not that I have bad dreams”

  5. You really know how to make a room come alive, Aubrey! I love the description of her skills, her works all around her.

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