Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) was a strong supporter of the papacy during the Investiture Controversy, who mediated at the famous meeting between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV at her ancestral castle of Canossa in 1077.

With independence and conviction, Matilda, countess of Tuscany, led an unusual life for a woman of medieval days. Her military, financial, cultural, and, above all, spiritual support were instrumental in strengthening the power of the Church, especially the papacy, at a crucial time of conflict between the Church and the state known as the Investiture Controversy.

Matilda was born probably in 1046 in northern Italy, possibly in or near Lucca. Her father was Boniface II of Canossa; her mother was Boniface's second wife Beatrice. Matilda's heritage was illustrative of the political relationships that then connected Germany and Italy. When the Lombard kingdom of northern and central Italy became part of the Carolingian Empire under Emperor Charlemagne in the late eighth century, German rulers sought to impose their control over Italian lands. The Canossa were a family of the Lombard nobility whose territorial holdings were built, in part, through patronage and grants from German emperors.

Matilda's father controlled large amounts of land in northern Italy, including counties of Reggio, Modena, Mantua, Ferrara, and Brescia. In addition, around 1027, Conrad II, the German emperor, made Boniface margrave (marquis) of Tuscany. Matilda's mother was a niece of Emperor Conrad II which made Matilda directly related to German rulers Henry III and Henry IV, with whom she would eventually struggle.

Although Matilda had an older brother and perhaps another sibling, the six-year-old became sole heir to the family's extensive lands and power base in northern Italy upon the death of her father and brother in 1052. Because female inheritance was difficult to uphold during the Middle Ages, two years after her father's death, Matilda's mother Beatrice married Godfrey, duke of Upper Lorraine, to afford some protection for her daughter's claims. Godfrey, however, was in conflict with German emperor Henry III who took Beatrice and Matilda and held them captive in Germany from 1055 to 1056. Upon their release shortly before Henry III's death, they returned to their Italian homeland.

Matilda's upbringing was somewhat unconventional for a young woman of the 11th century. Greatly influenced by her strong, intelligent, cultured, and pious mother, Matilda's development included not only traditionally feminine pursuits, such as needlework and religious training, but also literate studies including knowledge of Latin as well as vernacular languages of Italian, German, and French. Matilda's later acquisition of manuscripts, her donations of books, and her patronage of arts connected with religious institutions are evidence of her educated background. In addition, it is believed that she had some skill in the military arts. Her later presence at several armed conflicts between imperial forces and papal supporters lends credence to the suggestion.

Her mother's greatest influence on Matilda was probably in her religious beliefs and support for the Church. Matilda's youth coincided with a strong movement of Church reform headed by the papacy. On the one hand, medieval rulers, especially the German emperors, believed in theocratic kingship which included exercising control over appointments of Church officials; the imperial position was symbolized by the investiture of Church leaders with both sacred and secular insignia. On the other hand, Church reform in the 11th century advocated the separation of affairs of the Church from those of the state; Church reformers, especially the popes, asserted that the spiritual powers of the Church were superior to secular powers. This conflict, known as the Investiture Controversy, would reach its greatest intensity in the second half of the 11th century during Matilda's maturity.

Through her teens, Matilda became an active supporter of the papacy as she defended, along with her mother and stepfather, the canonically elected pope Alexander II against an imperially backed antipope Caladus of Parma, who took the name Honorius II. It is likely that she was also present at several important battles, such as the battle of Aquino in 1066 where her stepfather's forces defeated the antipope's Roman and Norman supporters. She was present as well at several Church councils, beginning with the Council of Sutri in 1059 which she attended at age 13.

Probably in 1069, after the death of her stepfather Duke Godfrey, Matilda married his son, Godfrey the Hunchback, duke of Upper Lorraine, in what appears to have been primarily a political union. After the death of her infant son in 1071, she returned to Italy while her husband remained in Lorraine. Their political views parted ways as well; Godfrey became more closely aligned with the German emperor Henry IV while Matilda continued her strong backing of the reforming papacy. Godfrey died in 1076.

During the decade of the 1070s when Matilda reached maturity, the Investiture Controversy became a dramatic struggle between its two major protagonists: Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. Matilda and her mother had long been associated with the archdeacon Hildebrand who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073 and with his strong advocacy of Church reform. At the same time, Matilda's familial and feudal relationship to Henry IV brought her into close association with the German imperial cause. After her mother's death in 1076, Matilda became a leading figure in the heated controversy between Church and state.

As a cornerstone of his reform policy, in 1075 Pope Gregory prohibited lay investiture, a practice central to German imperial policy and ideals of kingship. Henry IV countered in 1076 with a declaration renouncing and deposing the pope. In return, Gregory excommunicated Henry. During one of the most famous and pivotal episodes in the Investiture Controversy, Henry, in order to maintain his rule, traveled across the Alps in a bitter winter of 1077 to do penance before the pope. Pope Gregory received him at Matilda's fortress at Canossa only after Henry waited three days in the snow before being admitted. Then Matilda acted as intermediary between her spiritual father Pope Gregory and her relative Henry.

Henry, however, continued to pursue his policies and his opposition to the papacy. After the 1080 death of Rudolf of Swabia, elected king in place of Henry by the German princes, Henry invaded Italy. Although her forces were no match for Henry's, Matilda remained a steadfast supporter of the papacy. Her one major victory was a surprise attack on Henry's army at Sobara, near Modena, in 1084. During this year, however, Henry was able to crown an antipope in Rome while the Normans rescued Gregory VII and took him to south Italy where he died in 1085.

Matilda supported the legitimately elected popes, first Pope Victor III (1086-87) and then Pope Urban II (1088-89). In 1089, probably to add military strength to her cause, 43-year-old Matilda agreed to another political marriage to 17-year-old Welf V of Bavaria. The marriage did little to assist her position since Henry continued to take over cities and territory that had been in Matilda's possession. This marriage ended six years later.

Though neither side abandoned its ideological positions, the intensity of the Investiture Controversy diminished after Pope Gregory's death. During her later years, Matilda therefore turned her attention to governing and administering her territories, to patronage of religious institutions, and to her spiritual life. As a result of Henry's inroads into her holdings and a general movement for independence among northern Italian cities, many of Matilda's estates were less directly under her control. She made numerous donations of land to churches and monasteries within her dominions while supporting building projects and provision of church furnishings for many of these religious foundations. She also was a patron of the developing school of canon law at Bologna under canonists such as Irnerius.

The last years of her life were increasingly spent in quiet and periods of withdrawal to the Benedictine monastery of San Benedetto Polirone which her grandfather had founded. After the death of her nemesis Henry, she became reconciled with his son and heir Emperor Henry V. Matilda died in 1115 and was buried at Polirone. Her remains were later removed for burial at St. Peter's in Rome in 1635 where her tomb in the crossing of the church is marked by a monument by the great Baroque sculptor, Bernini.

Because Matilda died without heirs or successors, the fate of the Canossa holdings remained a point of contention well after her death. Henry V effectively claimed all her territories when she died, leaving the popes to dispute with the emperors about the disposition of Matilda's grant of her alodial lands to the Church.

Matilda's life and accomplishments were chronicled and praised in a long heroic poem composed by Donizo, her chaplain at Canossa. With allowances for its laudatory aim and literary stylistics, this poem and other contemporary references reveal her to have been a complex woman of exceptional abilities. She had great strength, displayed in physical terms as a Christian warrior, and steadfast character, witnessed by her unwavering support of the papal cause. At the same time, her compassion was evident: she tended the wounded on the battlefield and was especially generous in the patronage she bestowed on the Church. She was also educated and cultured, with some understanding of the subtleties of the political and theological positions that inspired the controversy between Church and state. During this critical episode in medieval history, her multifaceted support was instrumental in advancing the position of the Church.

Further Reading on Matilda of Tuscany

Bellochi, Ugo, and Giovanni Marzi. Matilde e Canossa. Il Poema di Donizone. Aedes Muratoriana, 1984.

Duff, Nora. Matilda of Tuscany. Methuen, 1909.

Fraser, Antonio. Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Grimaldi, Natale. La Contessa Matilde e la su stirpe feudale. Vallechi Editore, 1928.

Huddy, Mary E. Matilda, Countess of Tuscany. John Long, 1906.

Blumenthal, Uta-Renate. The Investiture Controversy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Fuhrmann, Horst. Germany in the High Middle Ages c. 1050-1200. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rough, Robert H. The Reformist Illuminations in the Gospels of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany. Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.