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 ruler in northern Italy and the chief 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, thanks to which she was able to dominate all the territories north of the Church States.

In 1076 she came into possession of a vast territory that included present-day Lombardy, Emilia, the Romagna and Tuscany, and made the castle of Canossa, in the Apennines south of Reggio, the centre of her domains. 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 at 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, the 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 on opposing 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 in Flanders while "answering the call of nature" . Having been accused of adultery with the Pope the previous month, Matilda was justifiably suspected of ordering her estranged husband's death. She could not have known about the proceedings at the Synod of Worms at the time, however, since the news took three months to reach the Pope himself, and it is more likely that Godfrey 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 was elected Pope 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. The enmity between the two men was a reflection of the struggle for supremacy between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire (the so-called Investiture Controversy). In 1076 the Pope excommunicated the Emperor, who as a consequence not only was banished from all religious practice, but also saw his subject released from all allegiance to him.

Matilda was then free to act according to her will, and resolutely sided with the Pope, despite the Emperor being her cousin. The excommunication forced Henry IV to come to terms with the Pope; he came to Italy to meet Gregory VII, who received him in January 1077 at Matilda's Canossa Castle.[13] On the occasion the Emperor, in penitential garb, was kept waiting three days and three nights outside the castle gate, before the Pope agreed to see him and lift the excommunication.[14] Finally a compromise was reached in 28 January 1077: the Pope absolved the Emperor of the excommunication, but did not recall the forfeit of the Imperial Crown.

In 1079, Matilda gave the Pope all her domains, in open defiance of Henry IV's claims both as the overlord of some of those domains, and as her close relative. Two years later the fortunes of Papacy and Empire turned again: in 1080 Henry IV summoned a council in Brixen, which deposed Gregory VII. The following year the Emperor decided to travel again to Italy to reinstate his overlordship over his territories. He also declared Matilda, on account of her 1079 donation to the Church, forfait and banned 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. This was the first serious military defeat of Matilda (Battle of Volta Mantovana).[15]

Matilda, however, didn't surrender. While Gregory VII was forced into exile, she, retaining control over all the western passes in the Apennines, could force Henry IV to approach Rome via Ravenna; even with this route open, the Emperor would find it hard to besiege 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 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 caught hold of the Pope's seal, Matilda wrote to supporters in Germany only to trust papal messages that came through her.

Henry IV's control of Rome enabled him to enthrone Antipope Clement III, who, in turn, crowned him 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 withdraw from the city.

Second marriage[edit]

In 1088 Matilda was facing a new attempt at invasion by Henry IV, and decided to pre-empt it by means of a political marriage. In 1089 Matilda (in her early forties) married Welf V, who was probably fifteen to seventeen years old.[16] Welf was heir to the Duchy of Bavaria. He was also a member of the Welf dynasty: the Welfs/Guelphs were important papal supporters from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries in their conflict with the German emperors (see Guelphs and Ghibellines). Matilda and Welf's wedding was part of a network of alliances approved by the new pope, Urban II, in order to effectively counter Henry IV.

Cosmas of Prague (writing in the early twelfth century), included a letter in his Chronica Boemorum, which he claimed that Matilda sent to her future husband, but which is now thought to be spurious:[17]

Not for feminine lightness or recklessness, but for the good of all my kingdom, I send you this letter: agreeing to it, you take with it myself and the rule over the whole of Lombardy. I'll give you so many cities, so many castles and noble palaces, so much gold and silver, that you will have a famous name, if you endear yourself to me; do not reproof me for boldness because I first address you with the proposal. It's reason for both male and female to desire a legitimate union, and it makes no difference whether the man or the woman broaches the first line of love, sofar as an indissoluble marriage is sought. Goodbye.[18]

After this, Matilda sent an army of thousands to the border of Lombardy to escort her bridegroom, welcomed him with honors, and after the marriage (mid-1089), she organized 120 days of wedding festivities, with such splendor that any other medieval ruler's pale in comparison.

Cosmas also reports that after the wedding, for two nights, Welf V, fearing witchcraft, refused to share the marital bed. The third day, Matilda appeared naked on a table especially prepared on sawhorses, and told him that everything is in front of you and there is no hidden malice. But the Duke was dumbfounded; Matilda, furious, slapped and spitted his face, taunting him: Get out of here, monster,you don't deserve our kingdom, you vile thing, viler than a worm or a rotten seaweed, don't let me see you again, or you'll die a miserable death....[19] Matilda and her young husband separated a few years later (1095); of course they had no children.

Later Matilda allied with the two sons of Henry IV, Conrad and Henry, who rebelled against their father. This forced Henry to return to Italy, where he chased 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.[20]

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 descent to Italy, in order to inflict the final defeat on the Church. His route was the usual one, Brenner and Verona, along the border of Matilda's possessions, which began outside the cities' gates. The opposing armies would meet near Mantua. Matilda secured the loyalty of the townspeople by exempting them from some taxes, such as teloneo and ripatico, and with the promise of Lombard franchise, entailing the rights to hunt, fish and cut wood on both banks of the Tartaro river.

The Mantua people stood by Matilda until the so-called " Holy Thursday betrayal, when the townspeople, won over by additional concessions from Henry, who had meanwhile besieged the city, sided with him. In 1092 Matilda escaped to the Reggiano Apennines and her most inexpugnable strongholds. Since the times of Adalbert Atto the power of the Canossa family had been based on a network of castles, fortresses and fortified villages in the Val d'Enza, forming a complex polygonal defense that had always resisted all attack from the Apennines. After several bloody battles with mutual defeats, the powerful imperial army was surrounded.

In spite of its fearful power, the Imperial army was defeated by Matilda's liegemen. Among them were small landowners and holders of fortified villages, which remained completely loyal to the Canossas even against the Holy Roman Emperor. Their familiarity with the territory, their quick communications and maneuvering to all the high places of the Val d'Enza gave them victory over Henry's might. It seems that Matilda personally participated, with a handful of chosen faithful men, to the battle, galvanizing the allies with the cry of Just War. The Imperial army was taken as in a vise in the meandering mountain creek. The overall import of Henry's rout was more than a military defeat. The Emperor realized it was impossible to penetrate those places, wholly different from the plains of the Po Valley or of Saxe. There he faced not boundaries drawn by the rivers of Central Europe, but steep trails, ravines, inaccessible places protecting Matilda's fortresses, and high tower houses, whence the defenders could unload on anyone approaching missiles of all kinds: spears, arrows, perhaps even boiling oil,[21] javelins, stones.

After Matilda's victory several cities, such as Milan, Cremona, Lodi and Piacenza, sided with her to free themselves of Imperial rule. 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.[22] She accused her husband of imprisoning her in Verona[23] after forcing her to participate in orgies, and, according to some later accounts, of attempting a black mass on her naked body.[24][25] Thanks to these 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 unchallenged, although she did continue to launch military operations to restore her authority and regain control of the towns that had remained loyal to the emperor.[citation needed] With the assistance of the French armies heading off to the First Crusade, she was finally able to restore Urban to Rome.[13] She ordered or led 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 met 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]

Some churches are traditionally said to have been founded by Matilda. These include:

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 from gout in 1115 at Bondeno di Roncore marked the end of an era in Italian politics. It is widely reported that she bequeathed her allodial property to the Pope. Unaccountably, however, this donation was never officially recognized in Rome and no record exists of it. Henry V had promised some of the cities in her territory that 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.

Matilda was at first 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 they now lie in St. Peter's Basilica. She is one of only three women who have the honor of being buried in the Basilica, the others being 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, marks her burial place in St Peter's and is often called the Honor and Glory of Italy.

After her death, an aura of legend came to surround Matilda. Church historians gave her the character of a semi-nun, solely dedicated to contemplation and faith. Some argue, 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.[28]

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 2003, p. 358.
  3. ^ Ferrante 1997, p. 88.
  4. ^ Beeler 1971, p. 206.
  5. ^ a b c Hay 2008, p. 35.
  6. ^ a b Luscombe & Riley-Smith 2004, p. 78-79.
  7. ^ a b c Hay 2008, p. 44.
  8. ^ a b Hay 2008, p. 34.
  9. ^ Robinson 2004, p. 49.
  10. ^ a b c d e Villalon 2003, p. 361.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hay 2008, p. 43.
  12. ^ Hay 2008, p. 65.
  13. ^ a b Peters 1971, p. 34.
  14. ^ 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].
  15. ^ Paolo Golinelli: Sant’Anselmo, Mantova e la lotta per le investiture, 1987.
  16. ^ Hay 2008, p. 124-129.
  17. ^ W. Goez and E. Goez, Die Urkunden und Briefen der Markgraefin Mathilde von Tuszien (Hannover, 1998), no. 140 (1089), p. 361, accessible online at: Monumenta Germaniae Historica (in German and Latin); and J. Chodor, ‘Queens in Early Medieval Chronicles of East Central Europe’, East Central Europe 1: 21–23 (1991), 9–50, at p. 32.
  18. ^ Cosmas of Prague, Chronica Boemorum, II, ch. 32, MGH SS 9 p.88, accessible online in Latin and with an English translation at: Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters.
  19. ^ Cosmas of Prague, Chronica Boemorum, II, ch.32, in B. Bretholz and W. Weinberger, ed., Die Chronik der Böhmen des Cosmas von Prag, MGH SS rer Germ NS 2 (Berlin, 1923), pp. 128f., accessible online at: Monumenta Germaniae Historica (in Latin).
  20. ^ Eads 2010, p. 23-68.
  21. ^ At the time, the oil was obtained only by cold pressing of the olives; was therefore very rare and expensive.
  22. ^ Althoff 2006, p. 213.
  23. ^ Robinson 2003, p. 289.
  24. ^ Robinson 2003, p. 289ff..
  25. ^ Women of Ancient Rus (In Russian).
  26. ^ Provincia di Modena. Chiesa Sant’Andrea Apostolo di Vitriola [retrieved 13 April 2015].
  27. ^ Comune di Pescarolo ed Uniti. Pieve di San Giovanni Decollato [retrieved 13 April 2015].
  28. ^ Binyon 1978.


  • Althoff, G. (2006). Heinrich IV. Darmstadt. 
  • Beeler, John (1971). Warfare in Feudal Europe, 730-1200. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801491207. 
  • Binyon, Lawrence (1978). ""Argument", Canto XXVIII". In Milano, Paolo. The portable Dante (Rev. ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140150323. 
  • 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. 
  • Ferrante, Joan M. (1997). To the Glory of Her Sex: Women's Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253211085. 
  • Hay, David (2008). The military leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115. Manchester University Press. pp. 35, 43–44, 65–67. 
  • Peters, Edward, ed. (1971). The First Crusade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812210174. 
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan; Luscombe, David, eds. (2004). The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, C.1024-c.1198. Cambridge University Press. pp. 78, 84–85. ISBN 0521414113. 
  • Robinson, I.S. (2003). Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106. Cambridge. 
  • Robinson, Ian (2004). The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719038758. 
  • Villalon, L. J. Andrew (2003). Crusaders, Condottieri, and Cannon: Medieval Warfare in Societies Around the Mediterranean. BRILL. p. 358. ISBN 9004125531. 

External links[edit]

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