Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

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Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

Powerful ruler of extensive lands in Tuscany and Lombardy-Emilia (Italy), who was the most loyal and courageous supporter of the papal cause during the lengthy dispute between the popes and the German emperors known as the Investiture Conflict . Name variations: Matilda of Canossa; Matelda, Mathilda, or Mathildis. Born in 1046, somewhere in northern Italy (month, day, and place unknown); died on July 15 or 24, 1115, at the monastery of Polirone in northern Italy; daughter of Boniface II, margrave of Canossa and Tuscany, and Beatrice of Lorraine (c. 1020–1076); married Godfrey III the Hunchback (her stepbrother), in 1069 (died 1076); married Welf V of Bavaria (c. 1073–1120), in 1089 (separated by 1097); children: (first marriage) probably one child who died in infancy (birthdate unknown).

Born into a powerful Italian family during a time of political turmoil (relations between the German emperors and the Papacy were heading towards a crisis, and the rulers of states within the empire were forced to choose between the two warring sides); inherited sizeable and wealthy territories and soon showed her preference for the papal cause; devoted her life to the support, moral, financial and military, of the popes and earned the title "handmaiden of St. Peter"; had two brief and unhappy marriages; had no children who survived beyond infancy.

Countess Matilda of Tuscany was one of the few women of the Middle Ages to have had a prominent role in the political affairs of church and state. Medieval chroniclers traditionally ignored the women of their time, or made token references to them either as stereotypically good (saintly virgins or devoted mothers) or quintessentially evil (harlots or heretics). Matilda, however, is transmitted to us, through the letters of such dominant figures of the age as Pope Gregory VII and St. Anselm, as well as through the verses of her personal chaplain, as an individual: a woman of considerable resources, forceful convictions, and the courage to devote her life to a cause.

Matilda was of noble birth and was to inherit a large and wealthy domain. Her father, Boniface II, held sizeable estates in northern Italy, with the seat of his power located at Canossa, a virtually impregnable fortress in the Apennine mountains. Her mother, Beatrice of Lorraine , Boniface's second wife, was the daughter of the duke of Upper Lorraine and a niece of Emperor Conrad II. The marriage of Matilda's parents marked the high point of good relations between the house of Canossa and the emperors and, in 1028, Boniface added Tuscany to his Apennine-Alpine dominions as a reward from Conrad II for his support and as an incentive to continue it. After Conrad's death in 1039, however, the pattern of alliances began to change and, following the death of her husband in 1052, Matilda's mother embarked upon a course which was to shape and define her daughter's life.

It is impossible to fully understand Matilda without some grasp of the turbulent political circumstances in which the six-year-old found herself following her father's death. The first German emperor, Charlemagne, had managed to acquire his vast territories through a variety of stratagems: inheritance, alliances and, most productive of all, conquest. In the year 800, the title of Roman emperor, moribund in the West since the fall of Rome more than three centuries earlier, was revived and bestowed upon Charlemagne by the pope, in recognition of his preeminent political position and in gratitude for his support. The tripartite division of Charlemagne's territories among his warring grandsons in 843 had assigned the rights to the imperial crown to the ruler of the Italian lands, but during the 10th century the German kings acquired the title, and henceforth it became an elective office, awarded following the decision of the designated German electors and ratified by papal coronation.

Beatrice of Lorraine (c. 1020–1076)

Marchioness and regent of Tuscany . Name variations: Beatrice of Tuscany; Beatrice of Canossa. Born in Upper Lorraine around 1020; died in 1076 in Tuscany, Italy; daughter of Frederick, duke of Upper Lorraine; niece of Conrad II; became second wife of Count Boniface II of Canossa, Marquess of Tuscany, around 1040 (died 1052); married Godfrey the Bearded, duke of Upper Lorraine, in 1054 (died 1069); children: three from first marriage, including Matilda of Tuscany.

Beatrice was born into the ruling family of Lorraine around 1020. In 1040, she married Count Boniface II of Canossa, the marquess of Tuscany (in northwestern Italy) and had three children, including a daughter Matilda of Tuscany ; the other two died in infancy. At this time, central European politics were dictated by the armed struggles between the Holy Roman emperor Henry III and Pope Gregory VII, who were vying for ultimate power across Germany and Italy. Beatrice and Boniface supported Pope Gregory's authority over Henry III; Tuscany's strategic location and wealth made them important allies for Gregory and detested enemies of Henry. Boniface was assassinated in 1052, probably on Henry's orders and certainly with his approval. Beatrice's only surviving child, Matilda, inherited her father's titles and estates at age six. Beatrice became regent of Tuscany for her small daughter, ruling by herself for two years. In 1054, she married the duke of Upper Lorraine, Godfrey the Bearded. Like her first husband, Godfrey was a supporter of the papacy.

The year after their marriage, Godfrey managed to escape Tuscany when the Holy Roman emperor had Matilda and Beatrice arrested and taken captive to Germany. Beatrice remained a prisoner in Germany for about a year, until Godfrey and Henry reached a settlement, and Henry allowed the mother and daughter to return home. Beatrice took up the reins of government again in Matilda's name, arranging a marriage for Matilda with Godfrey's son, Godfrey III the Hunchback. Even after she reached adulthood, Matilda seemed content to let Beatrice and Beatrice's husband continue administering her lands, and after her marriage in 1069 she moved to Lorraine. However, later that year Godfrey the Bearded died, and Matilda left Lorraine to return to Tuscany. Beatrice and Matilda co-ruled for the remaining six years of Beatrice's life. Matilda continued her parents' policy of staunch support for the papacy throughout her own eventful reign.

Laura York, Northampton, Massachusetts

Lacking the security of the hereditary principle, which was to gradually establish itself in such neighboring countries as England, France, and Hungary, the German emperors were forced to court the support of their powerful vassals, and they also had to avoid alienating the papacy. Emperor Henry III, who succeeded Conrad, seems genuinely to have attempted to assist the papacy through a difficult period and to have encouraged spiritual reform. Once awakened, however, the reforming impetus proved difficult to control, indeed it might be argued that a major confrontation between church and state was becoming inevitable. The Canossan territories, strategically located between Germany and Rome, could not remain untouched by the conflict, and Matilda was to find herself a leading player in the drama.

According to her chaplain and biographer Donizone di Canossa, Matilda's upbringing was strongly influenced by her mother Beatrice: "From early childhood she educated in a beautiful manner her daughter Matilda, who had an elevated and temperate mind." Matilda was taught French and German as well as Italian and we are told that she wrote Latin like the clerks. She shared her mother's love of learning and, from her youth, encouraged and funded the building of monasteries to assist in the spread of literacy and the transmission of written culture. Also from her childhood, Matilda seems to have been devout and pious; her favorite form of signature reads "Matilda, by the grace of God if she is anything."

Matilda, Countess of Tuscany … inherited vast domains in northern Italy … acting as the 'faithful handmaid of St. Peter,'—a hand-maid with a sharp sword in her hand and an army at her back.

—Antonia Fraser

On her father's death, the emperor Henry III attempted to transfer Boniface's Tuscan territories, held in feudal tenure, to a male heir, leaving Matilda (whose brothers—we are not sure whether she had one or two—predeceased their father) to inherit the Canossa lands. The law regarding the right of women to inherit lands varied widely throughout medieval Europe, and it was sometimes possible for females to succeed, even to feudal tenure, as long as they designated a man to perform the required military duties. Cases were often decided, not on the prevailing legal principles, but upon political circumstances and the support that female claimants were able to muster. Given her somewhat vulnerable situation, it is hardly surprising that Matilda's mother, Beatrice, should have remarried within two years to her cousin, Duke Godfrey of Upper Lorraine, a vigorous opponent of Emperor Henry III. The evidence suggests that Matilda's mother had now decided to give her support to the anti-imperial forces, forces which were soon to be headed by a series of reform-minded popes.

The death of Henry III in 1056 provided a temporary respite in the political turmoil which defined Matilda's life. The future Henry IV was then a child of six and could not yet be the threat to Italian affairs that his father had been. With a regency established in Germany, Godfrey and Beatrice were left free to administer Matilda's lands until she came of age. In 1059, as a young girl of 13, Matilda had her first opportunity to observe the explosive conjunction of secular and papal politics when she and her parents attended the Council of Sutri, one of many assemblies held to determine which of rival claimants should be accepted as the true pope. The Sutri meeting was precipitated by the death of Godfrey's brother, who had headed the Church as Pope Stephen IX. At Sutri, the family was successful once again in having its candidate selected as Pope Nicholas II. However, Nicholas' death in 1061 caused yet another outbreak of factionalism. Matilda's family supported the candidacy of Alexander II, but an anti-pope assumed the title of Honorius II, setting off armed conflicts which were to rage on for years.

According to a somewhat romantic, and probably sometimes exaggerated, 17th-century account of Matilda's life, she first appeared on the battlefield in 1061. The Italian author, Vedriani, vividly describes Matilda, accompanied by her mother, leading her troops against the supporters of the evil anti-pope:

Now there appeared in Lombardy at the head of her numerous squadrons the young maid Matilda, armed like a warrior, and with such bravery, that she made known to the world that courage and valour in mankind is not indeed a matter of sex, but of heart and spirit.

We will probably never know for certain whether Matilda actually donned armor and "seized the spear of Pallas" as Vedriani would have us believe. Contemporary accounts, extolling her bravery and dedication to the papal cause, describe her leading her troops against the enemies of religion, but that may well mean only that she ordered them into battle. Given the generally negative reaction which Joan of Arc was to provoke, some 300 years later, by wearing armor and riding into battle, it seems unlikely that Matilda, almost universally praised for her virtue and decorum, would have transgressed against the accepted convention that war was a "manly" pursuit. However, it is probably safe to assume that her role as director of the Canossan armies increased after the death of her stepfather, Godfrey of Lorraine, in 1069.

During 1069, or perhaps earlier, Matilda, now 23 years old, had married her stepfather's son by an earlier marriage, a young man known as Godfrey III the Hunchback. While there is evidence to suggest that she might have preferred to dedicate her life completely to Christ, espousing perpetual virginity, Rangerius, the biographer of Matilda's spiritual advisor Anselm of Lucca, records that "her mother's exhortations prevented her from committing herself to the deep religious desire for a chastity which was, in her case, no longer permissible in view of the obligations she had assumed."

Not surprisingly, if Rangerius is to be believed, the marriage was not a happy one, and although it produced at least one child, none of Matilda's offspring survived infancy. As Matilda's devotion to the papal cause grew ever stronger, so her marriage seems to have diminished in importance. Apart from the couple's apparent lack of personal compatibility, Godfrey spent most of his time and military resources fighting in Lorraine, while Matilda's efforts focused on Italy, and she was displeased when her husband's forces failed to support her initiatives there. According to Antonia Fraser , the marriage "ended technically with Godfrey the Hunchback's death in 1076 but before that politics, far more than physical disinclination, had driven the couple apart."

Matilda's mother Beatrice, to whom she had always been close, also died in 1076, leaving Matilda to depend even more upon two men, Pope Gregory VII and Bishop Anselm of Lucca. Both served as advisors and confidants in matters political as well as spiritual; indeed, given the temper of the times, it was almost impossible to separate one sphere from the other. Perhaps Anselm's role was primarily that of Matilda's spiritual advisor, but the relationship between Matilda and Gregory was far more complex and interdependent, as the famous "incident at Canossa" of 1077 was to dramatically demonstrate.

Before his consecration as Pope Gregory VII in 1073, Hildebrand the monk had clearly aligned himself with the reformist cause in Rome, indeed he appears to have been the source of many of the reform initiatives of his predecessor, Alexander II. While he shared the monastic vision of what Abbot Hugh of Cluny called "the boundlessly rich and happy realm of heaven," he was not content with the monastic ideal of renunciation and flight from the world. Rather, the new pope applied all of his considerable talent and energy to the task of enforcing the claims of the successors of St. Peter, the popes, over the secular authorities, the kings and, in particular, the emperor. Throughout his life, Gregory held unflinchingly to one fundamental conviction:

We must fight with the sword of the Holy Spirit, which is the word of God, to the death if need be, in the defence of righteousness (iustitia) against the enemies of God until they are converted.

In this fight Gregory was to rely heavily upon the faithful "daughter of Peter," Matilda.

The most important element of Gregory's reform program was to ensure the independence of the Church from outside interference; the practice of lay investiture, by which was meant the handing over of the symbols of office to bishops by secular officials, was formally prohibited in February 1075. Although the prohibition had serious implications for all the rulers of Christendom, since all of them tended to treat their bishops as members of their own staff, to be appointed, moved and even dismissed at will, the implications for the now adult Emperor Henry IV of Germany were the most serious of all. Not only was the assistance—less friendly observers might call it interference—of the German emperors in papal matters a long-established practice, but the German government, perhaps the most well developed in Western Europe during this period, could not function adequately without the bishops whom Henry and his predecessors had carefully selected and installed.

A vituperative war of words broke out between the emperor and the pope, during the course of which, on Christmas Eve 1075, the pope was assaulted in Rome and narrowly escaped being taken to Germany as a prisoner. At the Council of Worms in January 1076, Henry IV renounced his obedience to "Hildebrand, not Pope but false monk." In February, the pope responded with the most powerful weapon in his arsenal—excommunication.

Not only did the sentence of excommunication have spiritual consequences for Henry—if he died he could not be buried in consecrated ground and his soul would be damned forever—but there were also serious practical effects. If the ruler failed to do penance and have his sentence lifted within a period of 12 months, his subjects were absolved from their obedience to him and he forfeited his office. This threat of deposition was particularly serious in view of the elective nature of the imperial title; if Henry IV failed to reinstate himself into the pope's good graces, those entitled to elect the emperor could simply choose someone else to replace him. Given the constant struggles for power in Germany, and their resentment of Henry's growing power, there was little doubt that the princes would grasp their opportunity. Matilda of Tuscany and her stronghold at Canossa were to occupy a central place in the dramatic confrontation which was to follow.

There are few episodes in the history of the entire Middle Ages which have reached us with the completeness and vividness of the incident at Canossa, and for the intimate details of the affair we have to thank, not the chroniclers of the papal or the imperial courts, but a long (almost 3,000

lines) biographical poem, the Vita Mathildis, written while Matilda was still alive by her chaplain, Donizone. It is from him we learn of the proud and prosperous state of Canossa in 1077. But it was not the castle's grandeur or prosperity which Gregory was to come seeking; he was in need of the fortress' strength.

In December 1076, the pope, accompanied by a guard of Matilda's troops, was already on his way to Germany to preside at a meeting of the German Diet, called to discuss the mechanisms whereby, if certain conditions were not met, Henry IV might be deposed. Unwilling to be placed in such a potentially dangerous position, the emperor, with his wife Bertha of Savoy by his side, determined to head the pope off and seek a resolution. With Germany now out of reach, Gregory headed for the safety of Canossa, Matilda's great, almost impregnable, fortress in the center of her dominions.

Henry IV was wise enough to realize that violence would not serve his interests on this occasion; halting a respectful distance from Canossa, he begged for the intervention of Matilda and Abbot Hugh of Cluny, a saintly reformer who was also in the castle. Both Hugh and Henry agreed that Matilda had the best chance of softening the heart of the pope, and Henry implored his kinswoman to intercede. A charming illumination in Donizone's manuscript, still preserved today in the Vatican Library, shows Henry as a supplicant, sitting at the feet of a much larger Abbot Hugh, with both men gazing confidently at Matilda of Tuscany, who sits enthroned, surrounded by an elegant Romanesque canopy. The manuscript illuminator, the priestly poet, and especially the beleaguered emperor, were well aware of the potency of Matilda's influence.

But Pope Gregory was not a man to surrender his hard-won position of power easily. At first, he appeared to resist the attempts of all those who counselled moderation and forgiveness, even the pleas of the "faithful handmaiden of Christ," Matilda. Instead of granting absolution and lifting the sentence of excommunication, Gregory sent Henry IV prevaricating messages about the forthcoming Diet. According to Donizone's eyewitness account, Henry, one of the most powerful secular rulers in Christendom, was forced to employ desperate measures. He donned the sackcloth shift of a penitent and stood, with bare head and bare feet, in the deep alpine snow. There, during three days spent in prayer and fasting, he knocked repeatedly at the castle gates, seeking Gregory's forgiveness. According to Gregory's own account of the incident, reported later to the German princes:

[Henry] ceased not with many tears to beseech the apostolic help and comfort until all who were present, or who had heard the story, were so moved by pity and compassion that they pleaded his cause with prayers and tears. All marvelled at our unwonted severity, and some even cried out that we were showing, not the seriousness of apostolic authority, but rather the cruelty of a savage tyrant.

While Gregory the pope, with an eye to his political advantage, might have continued to resist Henry's pleas, Gregory the priest could not refuse a penitent, and he finally granted Henry absolution. The pope's fears proved only too well-founded; once Henry IV had averted deposition, he immediately resumed his opposition to papal policies and had soon arranged for the installation of an anti-pope in Rome, driving Gregory into exile at Salerno. The German princes, who had been preparing to select a new emperor, went ahead despite the lifting of the sentence of excommunication, for they had lost all faith in Pope Gregory and many of them rallied behind the rival king. The Diet at Augsberg never took place, and civil war ravaged the empire for the next three years.

Yet despite the weakness of the papal position, Matilda's faith never wavered, indeed she continued, "like a shining light," to actively support the papal side, putting, as Donizone tells us, "her weapons, her revenues, her servants and her property" at the disposal of the righteous cause. By 1080, she had agreed that, at her death, her lands should pass to the papacy, and she remained Gregory's one reliable source of support until he died, still in exile at Salerno, in 1085. Stalwartly refusing to recognize the anti-pope, despite mounting pressure from Henry, Matilda formed another firm alliance with Urban II who became pope in 1088. In 1089, she enraged the emperor still further by marrying Welf V of Bavaria, thus bringing this important region into the camp of papal supporters.

The marriage of the 43-year-old Matilda and the 17-year-old Welf has been variously interpreted by historians. Shulamith Shahar cites it as one of the isolated examples of medieval noblewomen "acting independently, evading the constraints of the law and overruling the customs of their society to select their own mates" and suggests that she made the selection "out of personal choice" as well as political considerations. Fraser, on the other hand, writes of Matilda's "personal reluctance" and concludes that this second marriage "was not only arranged by the Pope, but arranged for the benefit of his cause." What we know of Matilda's personality would suggest that, on this point, Fraser's version is closer to the truth. In any event, the marriage lasted only six unhappy years; by 1097, the couple had separated, and Welf had made his peace with the emperor.

The years which followed saw some significant deaths: Urban II in 1099, the anti-pope Clement III in 1100 and, in 1106, the death of Matilda's old enemy Emperor Henry IV. Matilda's relations with Henry V were better, partly because of Henry's somewhat more conciliatory attitude towards the question of church reform. While she continued to defend her own territories, she no longer went in person or sent aid to the papal supporters in other parts of Italy. In 1111, Matilda was formally reconciled with the emperor, and she appears to have revoked her earlier decision to give her lands to the papacy.

Now in her 60s, Matilda of Tuscany gradually came to accept the virtual independence of many of the cities within her domain; she spent less time waging war, devoting herself instead to visiting the monasteries which she had endowed, particularly St. Benedetto di Polirone, a reformed Benedictine house, founded by her grandfather. A magnificent manuscript, the so-called Matildine Gospels, presented to the monks of Polirone by Matilda, testifies to her love of learning and to her generosity. It was at Polirone in July 1115 that Matilda died, in her 70th year. Given the spiritual devotion with which she lived her life, there can be no doubt that she kept in mind the advice which St. Anselm of Canterbury had once given her:

This counsel I presume to give you that if you feel the danger of death to be imminent, give yourself wholly up to God before you depart from this life; and for this purpose always keep a veil prepared secretly beside you.

Matilda of Tuscany was buried at Polirone. His great Vita unfinished and unpresented, Donizone lamented his patron's demise: "Now that thou art dead, oh great Matilda, the honour and dignity of Italy will decline." Certainly, Italy was not soon to see another woman of Matilda's determination and devotion. Profoundly revered by both popes and poets, she probably provided the model for Dante's Matilda, the beautiful young girl who appeared as guardian of the Earthly Paradise. In 1634, it was Pope Urban VIII who made arrangements for her body to be transferred to St. Peter's in Rome, the center of papal power. There her remains lie today, encased in an imposing tomb designed by Bernini. The famous Renaissance sculptor depicted the Countess Matilda larger than life size, young and beautiful, yet strong and determined. She carries the keys of St. Peter in her left hand and cradles the papal mitre protectively in her left arm, while with her right hand she grasps a staff. In death, as she had in life, Matilda of Tuscany stands ready to confront all who might wish to assail these sacred symbols of papal authority.


Donizone di Canossa. Vita Mathildis, Celeberrimae Principis Italiae. Edited by Luigi Simeoni. Bologna, 1968.

Duff, Nora. Matilda of Tuscany: La Gran Donna D'Italia. London, 1909.

Fraser, Antonia. Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens. London, 1988.

Shahar, Shulamith. The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London, 1983.

Strayer, Joseph R., ed. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 8. 1982–1989.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

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