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Matilda of Tuscany

The Great Countess of Tuscany

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Henry IV outside Matilda's Canossa castle

Henry IV outside Matilda's Canossa castle

Culture Club / Getty Images

Matilda of Tuscany Facts

Known for: She was a powerful medieval ruler; for her time, the most powerful woman in Italy, if not through Western Christendom. She was a supporter of the papacy over the Holy Roman Emperors in the Investiture Controversy.  She sometimes fought in armor at the head of her troops in the wars between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Occupation: ruler
Dates: about 1046 – July 24, 1115
Also known as: The Great Countess or La Gran Contessa; Matilda of Canossa; Matilda, Countess of Tuscany

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Beatrice of Bar, second wife of Boniface. She was a niece of Emperor Conrad II.
  • Father: Boniface II, Lord of Canossa, Margrave of Tuscany.  Assassinated 1052.
  • Stepfather: Godfrey III of Lower Lorraine, known as Godfrey the Bearded.
  • Siblings:
    • Older brother, Frederick?
    • A sister or brother besides that brother, perhaps named Beatrice?

Marriage, Children:

  1. husband: Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lower Lorraine (married 1069, died 1076) – also known as Godrey le Bossu
    • children: one, died in infancy
  2. Duke Welf V of Bavaria and Carinthia – married when she was 43, he was 17; separated.

Matilda of Tuscany Biography:

She was probably born in Lucca, Italy, in 1046. In the 8th century, the north and central part of Italy had been part of Charlemagne’s empire.  By the 11th century, it was a natural path between the German states and Rome, making the area geographically important. The area, which included Modena, Mantua, Ferrara, Reggio and Brescia, was ruled by Lombard nobility.  Though geographically part of Italy, the lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the rulers owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1027, Matilda’s father, ruler in the town of Canossa, was made Margrave of Tuscany by Emperor Conrad II, adding to his lands, including part of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna.

Matilda’s likely birth year, 1046, was also the year that the Holy Roman Emperor – ruler of the German states – Henry III was crowned in Rome.  Matilda was educated well, primarily by her mother or under her mother’s direction. She learned Italian and German, but also Latin and French.  She was skilled in needlework and had religious training.  She may have been educated in military strategy.  The monk Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) may have taken a role in Matilda’s education during visits to her family’s estates.

In 1052, Matilda’s father was killed.  At first, Matilda co-inherited with a brother and perhaps a sister, but if these siblings existed, they soon died.  In 1054, to protect her own rights and her daughter’s inheritance, Matilda’s mother Beatrice married Godfrey, Duke of Lower Lorraine, who came to Italy.

Prisoner of the Emperor

Godfrey and Henry III were at odds, and Henry was angry that Beatrice married someone hostile to him. In 1055, Henry III captured Beatrice and Matilda – and perhaps a brother of Matilda, if he was still alive.  Henry declared the marriage was invalid, claiming that he had not given permission, and that Godfrey must have forced the marriage on them.  Beatrice denied this, and Henry III held her prisoner for insubordination.  Godfrey returned to Lorraine during their captivity, which continued into 1056.  Finally, with the persuasion of Pope Victor II, Henry released Beatrice and Matilda, and they returned to Italy. In 1057, Godfrey returned to Tuscany, exiled after an unsuccessful war in which he’d been on the opposite side from Henry III.

The Pope and the Emperor

Soon after, Henry III died, and Henry IV was crowned. Godfrey’s younger brother was elected Pope as Stephen IX in August 1057; he ruled until his death the next year in March of 1058. His death set off a controversy, with Benedict X elected as pope, and the monk Hildebrand leading opposition to that election on the grounds of corruption. Benedict and his supporters fled from Rome, and the remaining cardinals elected Nicholas II as pope.  The Council of Sutri, where Benedict was declared deposed and was excommunicated, was attended by Matilda of Tuscany. 

Nicholas was succeeded in 1061 by Alexander II. The Holy Roman Emperor and his court supported the antipope Benedict, and elected a successor known as Honorius II. With the support of the Germans he tried to march on Rome and depose Alexander II, but failed.  Matilda’s stepfather led those who fought Honorius; Matilda was present at the Battle of Aquino in 1066. (One of Alexander’s other acts in 1066 was to give his blessing to the invasion of England by William of Normandy.)

Matilda’s First Marriage

In 1069, Duke Godfrey died, having returned to Lorraine.  Matilda married his son and successor, Godfrey IV “the Hunchback,” her stepbrother, who also became the Margrave of Tuscany upon their marriage. Matilda lived with him in Lorraine, and in 1071 they had a child – sources differ as to whether this was a daughter, Beatrice, or a son.

Investiture Controversy

After this baby died, the parents separated. Godfrey stayed in Lorraine and Matilda returned to Italy, where she began to govern with her mother.  Hildebrand, who had been a frequent visitor in their home in Tuscany, was elected Gregory VII in 1073.  Matilda aligned herself with the pope; Godfrey, unlike his father, with the emperor.  In the Investiture Controversy, where Gregory moved to prohibit lay investiture, Matilda and Godfrey were on different sides.  Matilda and her mother were in Rome for Lent and attended the synods where the Pope announced his reforms.  Matilda and Beatrice were apparently in communication with Henry IV, and reported that he was favorably disposed to the pope’s campaign to rid the clergy of simony and concubinage. But by 1075, a letter from the Pope shows that Henry did not support the reforms.

In 1076, Matilda’s mother Beatrice died, and in that same year, her husband was assassinated at Antwerp.  Matilda was left the ruler of much of northern and central Italy.  In the same year, Henry IV issued a proclamation against the Pope, deposing him by decree; Gregory in turn excommunicated the emperor.

Penance to the Pope at Canossa

By the next year, public opinion had turned against Henry.  Most of his allies, including rulers of states within the empire like Matilda owing him allegiance, sided with the pope.  Continuing to support him might mean they, too, would be excommunicated. Henry had written to Adelaide, Matilda and Abbott Hugh of Cluny to get them to use their influence to prevail upon the Pope to remove the excommunication. Henry began a journey to Rome to do penance to the pope to get his excommunication lifted.  The Pope was on his way to Germany when he heard of Henry’s journey.  The Pope stopped at Matilda’s fortress at Canossa in the extremely cold weather.

Henry also planned to stop at Matilda’s fortress, but had to wait outside in the snow and cold for three days.  Matilda mediated between the Pope and Henry – who was her relative – to try to resolve their differences.  With Matilda sitting at his side, the Pope had Henry come to him on his knees as a penitent and make public atonement, humiliating himself before the Pope, and the Pope pardoned Henry.

More Wars

When the Pope left for Mantua, he heard a rumor that he was about to be ambushed, and returned to Canossa.  The Pope and Matilda then traveled together to Rome, where Matilda signed a document bequeathing her lands at her death to the church, retaining control during her lifetime as a fiefdom.  This was unusual, because she did not get the emperor’s consent – under feudal rules, his consent was needed.

Henry IV and the Pope were soon at war again. Henry attacked Italy with an army.  Matilda sent financial support and troops to the Pope. Henry, traveling through Tuscany, destroyed much in his path, but Matilda did not change sides.  In 1083, Henry was able to enter Rome and expel Gregory, who took refuge in the south.  In 1084, Matilda’s forces attacked Henry’s near Modena, but Henry’s forces held Rome.  Henry crowned the antipope Clement III in Rome, and Henry IV was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Clement.

Gregory died in 1085 at Salerno, and in 1086 to 1087, Matilda supported Pope Victor III, his successor.  In 1087, Matilda, fighting in armor at the head of her troops, led her army to Rome to put Victor in power.  The Emperor and antipope’s forces prevailed again, sending Victor into exile, and he died in September 1087.  Pope Urban II was then elected in March 1088, supporting the reforms of Gregory VII.

Another Convenient Marriage

With the urging of Urban II, Matilda, then 43, married Wulf (or Guelph) of Bavaria, a 17-year-old, in 1089. Urban and Matilda encouraged the second wife of Henry IV, Adelheid (formerly Eupraxia of Kiev), in leaving her husband. Adelheid fled to Canossa, accusing Henry of compelling her to participate in orgies and a black mass. Adelheid joined Matilda there. Conrad II, a son of Henry IV who had inherited Matilda’s first husband’s title as Duke of Lower Lorraine in 1076, also joined the rebellion against Henry, citing the treatment of his stepmother.

In 1090, Henry’s forces attacked Matilda’s, taking control of Mantua and several other castles.  Henry took over much of her territory, and other cities under her control pushed for more independence.  Then Henry was defeated by Matilda’s forces at Canossa.

The marriage to Wulf was abandoned in 1095 when Wulf and his father joined Henry’s cause.  In 1099, Urban II died and Paschal II was elected.  In 1102, Matilda, in effect single again, renewed her promise of donation to the church.

Henry V and Peace

The wars continued until 1106, when Henry IV died and Henry V was crowned.  In 1110, Henry V came to Italy under a newly-declared peace, and visited Matilda. She did homage for her lands under imperial control and he expressed his respect for her.  The next year Matilda and Henry V fully reconciled.  She willed her lands to Henry V, and Henry made her regent of Italy.

In 1112, Matilda confirmed the donation of her property and lands to the Roman Catholic church -- despite that will made in 1111, though that was made after she had donated her lands to the church in 1077 and renewed that donation in 1102. This situation would lead to much confusion after her death.

Religious Projects

Even during many of the war years, Matilda had undertaken many religious projects. She gave land and furnishings to religious communities. She helped develop and then supported a school for canon law at Bologna.  After the 1110 peace, she spent time periodically at San Benedetto Polirone, a Benedictine abbey founded by her grandfather.

Death and Inheritance

Matilda of Tuscany, who had been the most powerful woman in her world during her lifetime, died on July 24, 1115, in Bondeno, Italy.  She caught a cold and then realized she was dying, so she freed her surfs and in her last days, made some final financial decisions.

She died without heirs, and with nobody to inherit her titles.  This, and the different decisions she had made about disposition of her lands, led to further controversy between the Pope and imperial ruler. In 1116, Henry moved in and seized her lands that she had willed to him in 1111.  But the papacy contended that she had willed the lands to the church before that and confirmed that after the 1111 will.  Finally, in 1133, the then pope, Innocent II, and then emperor, Lothair III, came to an agreement – but then the disputes were renewed.

In 1213, Frederick finally recognized the church’s ownership of her lands.  Tuscany became independent of the German empire.

In 1634, Pope Urban VIII had her remains reinterred in Rome in St. Peter’s at the Vatican, in honor of her support of the Popes in the Italian conflicts.

Books About Matilda of Tuscany:

  • Nora Duff.  Matilda of Tuscany. 1909.
  • Antonia Fraser. Boadicea’s Chariot: The Warrior Queens. 1988.
  • Mary E. Huddy. Matilda, Countess of Tuscany. 1906.
  • Michele K. Spike. Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa. 2012.

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