Matilda of Tuscany

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Miniature from the early 12th-century manuscript of Donizo's Vita Mathildis, emphasising Matilda's key role in the absolution of Henry IV at Canossa. Henry kneels at her feet in supplication, while Abbot Hugh of Cluny points towards her. "The king prays to the abbot, and pleads with Matilda."

Matilda of Tuscany (Italian: Matilde, Latin: Matilda, Mathilda; 1046 – 24 July 1115), was a powerful feudal lady and the principal Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy; in addition, she was one of the few medieval women to be remembered for her military accomplishments, and able to dominate all the northern territories of the Papal States.

In 1076 she came into possession of a vast territory that included Lombardy, Emilia, the Romagna and Tuscany, and made the center of her domains the city of Canossa, in the reggian Apennines. Between 6 and 11 May 1111 she was crowned Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy by Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor at the Castle of Bianello (Quattro Castella, Reggio Emilia).[1]

Sometimes called la Gran Contessa ("the Great Countess") or Matilda of Canossa after her ancestral castle of Canossa, was certainly one of the most important and interesting figures of the Italian Middle Ages: she lived in a period of constant battles, intrigues and excommunications, and was able to demonstrate an extraordinary force, even enduring great pain and humiliation, showing an innate leadership ability.


A bearded man sitting on a cushion
A veiled woman sitting on a cushion
Matilda's parents, Boniface (l) and Beatrice (r)

Matilda was the youngest of the three children of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany, ruler of a vast territory in Northern Italy and one of the most powerful vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. Matilda's mother, Beatrice of Lorraine, was the Emperor's first cousin and closely connected to the imperial household.[2] Renowned for her learning, Matilda was literate in Latin, as well as reputed to speak German and French.[3] The extent of Matilda's education in military matters is debated. It has been asserted that she was taught strategy, tactics, riding and wielding weapons,[4] but recent scholarship finds these claims contentious.[5]

Following the death of their father in 1052, Matilda's brother, Frederick, inherited the family lands and titles under the regency of their mother.[6] Matilda's sister, Beatrice, died the next year, making Matilda heir presumptive to Frederick's personal holdings. In 1054, determined to safeguard the interests of her children as well as her own,[2][7] Beatrice married Godfrey the Bearded, a distant kinsman of hers who had been stripped of the Duchy of Upper Lorraine after openly rebelling against Emperor Henry III.[6]

Henry was enraged by Beatrice's unauthorised union with his most vigorous adversary and took the opportunity to have her arrested, along with Matilda, when he marched south to attend a synod in Florence on Pentecost in 1055.[2][5] Frederick's rather suspicious death soon thereafter[8] made Matilda the last member of the House of Canossa. Mother and daughter were taken to Germany,[5] but Godfrey successfully avoided capture. Unable to defeat him, Henry sought a rapproachment. The Emperor's death in October 1056, which brought to throne the underage Henry IV, seems to have accelerated the negotiations. Godfrey was reconciled with the crown and recognized as Margrave of Tuscany in December, while Beatrice and Matilda were released. By the time she and her mother returned to Italy, in the company of Pope Victor II, Matilda was formally acknowledged as heir to the greatest territorial lordship in the south of the Empire.[8]

Matilda's mother and stepfather became heavily involved in the series of disputed papal elections during their regency, supporting the Gregorian Reforms. Godfrey's brother Frederick became Pope Stephen IX, while both of the following two popes, Nicholas II and Alexander II, had been Tuscan bishops. Matilda made her first journey to Rome with her family in the entourage of Nicholas in 1059. Godfrey and Beatrice actively assisted them in dealing with antipopes, while the adolescent Matilda's role remains unclear. A contemporary account of her stepfather's 1067 expedition against Prince Richard I of Capua on behalf of the papacy mentions Matilda's participation in the campaign, describing it as the "first service that the most excellent daughter of Boniface offered to the blessed prince of the apostles."[9]

First marriage[edit]

The states of the Apennine Peninsula in the second half of the 11th century

In 1069, Godfrey the Bearded lay dying in Verdun. Beatrice and Matilda hastened to reach Lorraine, anxious to ensure a smooth transition of power. Matilda was present at her stepfather's deathbed, and on that occasion she is for the first time clearly mentioned as the wife of her stepbrother, Godfrey the Hunchback,[10] to whom she had been betrothed since childhood.[11] The marriage proved a failure; the death of their only child (a daughter called Beatrice) shortly after birth in August 1071 and Godfrey's physical deformity may have helped fuel deep animosity between the spouses.[11]

By the end of 1071, Matilda had left her husband and returned to Tuscany.[10] Matilda's bold decision to repudiate her husband came with a cost, but ensured her independence. Beatrice started preparing Matilda for rule by holding court jointly with her[10] and, eventually, encouraging her to issue charters on her own as countess (comitissa) and duchess (ducatrix).[7]

Godfrey fiercely protested the separation and demanded that Matilda come back to him, which she repeatedly refused.[11] The Duke descended into Italy in 1072, determined to save the marriage.[10][11] He sought the help of both Matilda's mother and her ally, the newly elected Pope Gregory VII, promising military aid to the latter.[11] Matilda's resolution was unshakable,[11] and Godfrey returned to Lorraine alone.[10] He had lost all hope by 1074. Rather than supporting the Pope as promised, Godfrey turned his attention to imperial affairs. Meanwhile, a conflict later known as the Investiture Controversy was brewing between Gregory and Henry, with both men claiming the right to appoint bishops and abbots within the Empire. Matilda and Godfrey soon found themselves at opposite sides of the dispute, leading to a further detoriation of their difficult relationship. German chroniclers, writing of the synod held at Worms in January 1076, even suggested that Godfrey inspired Henry's allegation of a licentious affair between Gregory and Matilda.[7]

Matilda became a widow on 26 February 1076. Godfrey was assassinated while "answering the call of nature" in Flanders. Having been accused of adultery with the Pope the previous month, she was justifiably suspected of ordering her estranged husband's death. Matilda could not have known about the proceedings at the Synod of Worms at the time, however, since it took three months to reach the Pope himself, and it is more likely that Godefroy was killed at the instigation of an enemy nearer to him. Within two months, Beatrice was dead as well. Matilda's power was considerably augmented by these deaths; she was now the undisputed heir of all her parents' allodial lands, but it seemed unlikely that Henry would formally invest her with the Margraviate.[12]

Investiture Controversy[edit]

Main article: Walk to Canossa
Miniature of Matilda from the frontispiece of Donizo’s Vita Mathildis (Codex Vat. Lat. 4922, fol. 7v.). Matilda is depicted seated. On her right, Donizo is presenting her with a copy of the Vita Mathildis, on her left is a man with a sword (possibly her man-at-arms). The script underneath reads: Mathildis lucens, precor hoc cape cara volumen (Resplendent Matilda, please accept this book, oh you dear one.)

In 1073 Hildebrand of Soana assumed the Papacy with the name of Gregory VII. In the same year the new Emperor Henry IV, having reorganized the German territory, turned to his possessions in Italy. A strong enmity between both figures existed, a reflection of the struggle for supremacy between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire (the so-called Investiture Controversy). In 1076 the Pope decided to excommunicate the Emperor, who in this way suffered a double loss, being both forbidden from practicing religious rites and diminished in the eyes of his subjects.

Matilda was then free to act according to her will, and resolutely decided to be on the side of Pope Gregory VII, despite the Emperor being her cousin. The excommunication forced Henry IV to come to terms with the Pope; he came personally to Italy to speak with Gregory VII, who received him in January 1077 at Matilda's Canossa Castle. On the occasion the Emperor, to obtain the lifting of the excommunication against him, was forced to wait three days and three nights at the doors of the castle on his knees with his head covered with ashes.[13] Finally a compromise was reached in 28 January 1077: the Pope revoked the excommunication against the Emperor, but not the declaration of forfeiture of the German throne.

In 1079 Matilda gave the Pope all her domains, in open defiance to Henry IV, who as a feudal lord and close relative had rights over them. However, two years later the confrontation between the Papacy and the Empire turned again: in 1080 Henry IV summoned a council in Brixen, in which Gregory VII was deposed. The following year the Emperor decided to travel again to Italy in order to reafirm his overlordship over his territories. In addition, he declared Matilda formally deposed and banished from the Empire; although this wasn't enough to eliminate her as a source of trouble, for she retained substantial allodial holdings. On 15 October 1080 near Volta Mantovana the Imperial troops (with Guibert of Ravenna as the newly elected Antipope Clement III) defeated the troops loyal to Gregory VII and controlled by Matilda, guilty of having donated in 1079 all her domains to the Church. This was the first serious military defeat of Matilda (Battle of Volta Mantovana).[14]

However, Matilda didn't give up. While Gregory VII was forced into exile, she, thanks to her control over all the western passages over the Apennines, forced Henry IV to approach Rome via Ravenna; even with this route open, the Emperor would have difficulties besieging Rome with a hostile territory at his back. In December 1080 the citizens of Lucca, then the capital of Tuscany, had revolted and driven out her ally Bishop Anselm. She is believed to have commissioned the renowned Ponte della Maddalena where the Via Francigena crosses the river Serchio at Borgo a Mozzano just north of Lucca.

Matilda remained as Pope Gregory VII's chief intermediary for communication with northern Europe even as he lost control of Rome and was holed up in the Castel Sant'Angelo. After Henry IV had obtained the Pope's seal, Matilda wrote to supporters in Germany only to trust papal messages that came though her.

Henry IV's control of Rome enabled him to enthrone Antipope Clement III, who in turn crowned him as Emperor. After this, Henry IV returned to Germany, leaving it to his allies to attempt Matilda's dispossession. These attempts floundered after Matilda (with help of the city of Bologna) defeated them at Sorbara near Modena on 2 July 1084.

Gregory VII died in 1085, and Matilda's forces, with those of Prince Jordan I of Capua (her off and on again enemy), took to the field in support of a new pope, Victor III. In 1087, Matilda led an expedition to Rome in an attempt to install Victor, but the strength of the imperial counterattack soon convinced the pope to retire from the city.

Second marriage[edit]

In 1088 Matilda was faced a new invasion of Henry IV, and decided to be prepared with a political marriage. She chose the 15-years-old Welf V, heir of the Duchy of Bavaria and member of a family (the Welfs) whose very name was later to become synonymous with alliance to the popes in their conflict with the German emperors (see Guelphs and Ghibellines). The wedding was part of a network of alliances approved by the new pope, Urban II, in order to effectively counter Henry IV.

The 42-years-old Matilda sent a letter to her future husband:

Not for feminine lightness or recklessness, but for the good of all my kingdom, I send you this letter accepting that you accept me and the whole government of Longobardia. I'll give you so many cities many castles, noble palaces, gold and silver that you will have a famous name, if you'll make me dear; and not to write down the boldness because first you have run with the speech. It's reasonable to both male and female to aspire for a legitimate union, and it makes no difference whether the man or the woman to touch the first line of love, only to reach an indissoluble marriage. Goodbye.

After this, Matilda sent thousands of troops to the border of Longobardia to take her groom, welcomed him with honors, and after the marriage took place (mid-1089), she organized a wedding party of 120 days with such splendor that in front of which any medieval ruler would pale.

Cosmas of Prague, author of the Chronicon Boemorum, reports that after the wedding, for two nights, Welf V refused to share the marital bed and the third day, Matilda appeared naked on a table specially prepared with some knights telling him that everything is in front of you and there is no place where you can hide. But the Duke was dumbfounded; Matilda, furious, attacked him and insulted with these words: Get out of here, monster, don't deserve our kingdom, vilest worm, if tomorrow you will show in front of me, you received a miserable death.... The prince fled; for this he was nicknamed Welf the impotent. Matilda and her young husband separated after a few years (1095); obviously the two never had children.

Later Matilda allied with the two sons of Henry IV, Conrad and Henry, who revolts against their father. This forced Henry to return to Italy, where he drove Matilda into the mountains. He was humbled before Canossa, this time in a military defeat in October 1092, from which his influence in Italy never recovered.[15]

The final victory against Henry IV[edit]

Matilda's signature ("Matilda, Dei gratia si quid est"), quite tremulous due to her old age. Notitia Confirmationis (Prato, June 1107), Archivio Storico Diocesano of Lucca, Diplomatico Arcivescovile, perg. ++ I29

After several victories, including one against the Saxons, Henry IV prepared in 1090 his third invasion to Italy, in order to inflict the final defeat to the Church. The route was the usual, Brenner and Verona, in the border of Matilda's possessions who started from the city gates. The battle will centralize at Mantua. Matilda secured the loyalty of the people exempting them from some taxes such as teloneo and ripatico and with the promise of being integrated in the status of the Lombards citizens with the right to hunt, fish and deforestation on both banks of the Tartaro river.

The city stood at the side of Matilda until the called betrayal of Holy Thursday, in which the citizens (in exchange for some additional rights) sided with Henry IV. Matilda escape in 1092 to the Reggiano Apennines around her most inexpugnable castles. Since the times of Adalbert Atto the power of Canossa was based on a network of castles, fortresses and fortified villages located in the Val d'Enza, which constituted a complex polygonal defense that had always resisted any attack from the Apennines. After some intermitent and bloody battles, the powerful imperial army was caught in a vise.

Despite the Imperial army was a worthy threat, was destroyed by Matilda's vassals, among them were small landowners and assignees of fortified villages, which remained completely loyal against the Holy Roman Empire. The perfect knowledge of the places, the speed of information and movement, taking strategic positions in all the high places of the Val d'Enza, broke the intentions of Henry IV. It seems that Matilda personally participated, with a handful of chosen and faithful warriors, to the battle, galvanizing the allies to the idea of fighting a just war. The Imperial army was taken pincer in the valley, but the total defeat was more than a lost war: Henry IV realized it was impossible to penetrate those places, very different from the Po Valley or of Saxony was not more than front of the boundaries drawn by the rivers of Central Europe, but to steep trails, ravines, inaccessible places protected the fortresses, like high tower houses, from which the inhabitants were unloading missiles of all kinds of anyone who approaches: spears, arrows perhaps even boiling oil,[16] javelins, boulders, spades fiery.

After the victory of Matilda many cities such as Milan, Cremona, Lodi and Piacenza sided with her to escape from the Imperial sphere. In 1093 the Emperor's eldest son, Conrad, supported by the Pope, Matilda and a group of Lombard cities, was crowned King of Italy. Matilda freed and even gave refuge to Henry IV's wife, Eupraxia of Kiev, who, at the urging of Pope Urban II, made a public confession before the church Council of Piacenza.[17] She accused her husband of imprisoned her in Verona[18] after forcing her to participate in orgies, and, according to some later accounts, of attempting a black mass on her naked body.[19] Thanks to this scandals and division whitin the Imperial family, the prestige and power of Henry IV was increasingly weakened.

In 1095, Henry attempted to reverse his fortunes by seizing Matilda's castle of Nogara, but the countess's arrival at the head of an army forced him to retreat. In 1097, Henry withdrew from Italy altogether, after which Matilda reigned virtually uncontested, although she did continue to launch military operations designed to restore her authority and regain control of the towns that had remained loyal to the emperor. She ordered or commanded successful expeditions against Ferrara (1101), Parma (1104), Prato (1107) and Mantua (1114).

Vice-Queen of Italy[edit]

Henry IV died now defeated in 1106; and after the deposition and death of Conrad (1101), his second son and new Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, began to turn the fight against the Church and Italy. This time the attitude of Matilda against the imperial house had to change and she accepted the will of the Emperor. In 1111, on his way back to Germany, Henry V meet her at the Castle of Bianello, near Reggio Emilia. Matilda confirmed him the inheritance rights over the fiefs that Henry IV disputed her, thus ending a fight that had lasted over twenty years. Henry V gave Matilda a new title: between 6 and 11 May 1111, the Emperor crowned Matilda as "Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy". This episode was the decisive step towards the Concordat of Worms.

Foundation of churches[edit]

Traditionally, people say Matilda founded some churches, including:

It seems that even the foundation of the Church of San Salvaro in Legnago (Verona) is made by Matilda.


Matilda's tombstone at St. Peter's Basilica, by Bernini.

Matilda's death of gout in 1115 at Bondeno di Roncore marked the end of an era in Italian politics. It has been reported that she left her allodial property to the Pope for reasons not known however this donation was never officially recognized in Rome and no record exists. Henry V had promised some of the cities in her territory he would appoint no successor after he deposed her. In her place the leading citizens of these cities took control, and the era of the city-states in northern Italy began.

She firstly buried in the Abbey of San Benedetto in Polirone, located in the town of San Benedetto Po; then, in 1633, at the behest of Pope Urban VIII, her body was moved to Rome and placed in Castel Sant'Angelo. Finally, in 1645 her remains where definitely deposited in the Vatican, where it now lies in St. Peter's Basilica. She was one of the only three women who had the honor to be buried in the Basilica, with Queen Christina of Sweden and Maria Clementina Sobieska (wife of James Francis Edward Stuart).

A memorial tomb for Matilda, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, commemorates her place in St Peter's and is often called the Honor and Glory of Italy.

After his death, around Matilda was to create an aura of legend. Church historians given her a character of a semi-nun, dedicated to the contemplation and faith. Some argues instead that she was a woman of strong passions of both spiritual and carnal nature (indicated by her supposed affairs with Popes Gregory VII and Urban II).


She has been posited by some critics as the origin of the mysterious "Matilda" who appears to Dante gathering flowers in the earthly paradise in Dante's Purgatorio.[22]

The story of Matilda and Henry IV is the main plot device in Luigi Pirandello's play Enrico IV. She is the main historical character in Kathleen McGowan's novel The Book of Love (Simon & Schuster, 2009).


  1. ^ Every year, usually in the last Sunday of May, this episode is recreated in the Corteo Storico Matildico.
  2. ^ a b c Villalon, 358.
  3. ^ Ferrante, Joan M. (1997), To the Glory of Her Sex: Women's Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts, Indiana University Press, p. 88, ISBN 0253211085 
  4. ^ Beeler, John (1971), Warfare in Feudal Europe, 730-1200, Cornell University Press, p. 206, ISBN 0801491207 
  5. ^ a b c Hay, 35.
  6. ^ a b Luscombe & Riley-Smith, 78-79.
  7. ^ a b c Hay, 44.
  8. ^ a b Hay, 34.
  9. ^ Robinson, Ian (2004), The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII, Manchester University Press, p. 49, ISBN 0719038758 
  10. ^ a b c d e Villalon, 361.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hay, 43.
  12. ^ Hay, 65.
  13. ^ Hence the expression ANDARE, VENIRE A CANOSSA (Go to Canossa) was created: humbly ask forgiveness, surrender, especially after a bold and reckless conduct. The castle of Canossa in 1077 Henry IV, barefoot and with the dress of penitents, went to ask forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII that humiliated him with a wait of three days. ["Idioms" from vocabulary ZINGARELLI].
  14. ^ Paolo Golinelli: Sant’Anselmo, Mantova e la lotta per le investiture, 1987.
  15. ^ Eads, Valerie (2010). "The Last Italian Expedition of Henry IV: Re-reading the Vita Mathildis of Donizone of Canossa". Journal of Medieval Military History 8: 23–68. 
  16. ^ At the time, the oil was obtained only by cold pressing of the olives; was therefore very rare and expensive.
  17. ^ G. Althoff: Heinrich IV, Darmstadt, 2006, p. 213.
  18. ^ I.S. Robinson: Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106, Cambridge, 2003, p. 289.
  19. ^ I.S. Robinson: Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 289ff.; Women of Ancient Rus (In Russian).
  20. ^ Provincia di Modena. Chiesa Sant’Andrea Apostolo di Vitriola [retrieved 13 April 2015].
  21. ^ Comune di Pescarolo ed Uniti. Pieve di San Giovanni Decollato [retrieved 13 April 2015].
  22. ^ Binyon, Lawrence (1978). ""Argument", Canto XXVIII". In Paolo Milano. The portable Dante (Rev. ed. ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140150323. 


  • Hay, David (2008), The military leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115, Manchester University Press, pp. 35, 43–44, 65–67 
  • Villalon, L. J. Andrew (2003), Crusaders, Condottieri, and Cannon: Medieval Warfare in Societies Around the Mediterranean, BRILL, p. 358, ISBN 9004125531 
  • Jonathan Riley-Smith; David Luscombe, eds. (2004), The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, C.1024-c.1198, Cambridge University Press, pp. 78, 84–85, ISBN 0521414113 

External links[edit]

Italian nobility
Preceded by
Godfrey IV
Margravine of Tuscany
Title next held by