Matilda of Tuscany (1046 – 1115), was a powerful feudal Margravine of Tuscany and ruler in northern Italy. In addition, she was one of the few medieval women to be remembered for her military accomplishments, which enabled her to dominate all the territories north of the Papal States.
Sometimes called La Gran Contessa (the Great Countess), or Matilda of Canossa after her ancestral castle of Canossa, Matilda was one of the most important figures of the Italian Middle Ages. She lived in a period of constant battles, intrigues and excommunications.
Matilda was the youngest of the three children of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany. A Margrave was the medieval title for the military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire. Boniface was the ruler of a substantial 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. Renowned for her learning, in addition to being fluent in numerous languages, Matilda is believed to have been schooled in military strategy, tactics, riding and wielding weapons, unheard of for a woman during that period.
Following the death of their father in 1052, Matilda’s brother Frederick inherited the family lands. The next four years of the family’s life was fraught with political difficulties. Matilda’s sister died the following year and in 1054, her mother remarried an adversary of the Emperor. Within a short time, Matilda and her mother were imprisoned, while her brother Frederick died under mysterious circumstances. Fortunately for the family, Henry III died in 1056 and negotiations with his son, Henry IV were successful. Matilda, now only ten years old, became the heir to the greatest territorial lordship in the southern part of the Empire.
Matilda’s mother and stepfather Godfrey became heavily involved in a series of disputed Papal elections which ultimately saw Godfrey’s brother Frederick became Pope Stephen IX. This also served to enhance the family’s power and influence.
She was then unwilling betrothed to Godfrey’s son by a previous union. Her stepbrother was known as Godfrey the Hunchback. The first mention of her as married was the recounting of a visit to her stepfather’s deathbed in 1069. The marriage proved unsuccessful. They had one daughter named Beatrice who died as an infant. Matilda left her husband a few months later near the end of 1071. Godfrey tried to reconcile the marriage for several years without success. He died in 1076, killed by his enemies while he was in France. Two months later Matilda’s mother passed away, making her the undisputed heir of all her parents’ lands. At the age of 30, she now enjoyed the privileged status of a widow.
Matilda’s first military endeavor occurred in late 1076, when she provided protection for the Pope Gregory VII during his perilous journey north. This was during a period of turmoil between the Church and Henry IV. In a series of moves and counter moves, the Emperor was excommunicated, then accepted back into the Church. A peace was brokered between the Pope and Emperor, only to be cast aside in 1080, with Henry IV supporting the newly-elected antipope Clement III.
On October 15, 1080, near Volta Mantovana, the imperial troops defeated Matilda’s soldiers, but she refused to surrender and still retained control over all of the western passes in the Apennines. Meanwhile, Gregory remained in Rome, holed up in Castel Sant’Angelo. Henry was forced to take the lengthy route by way of Ravenna to besiege Rome, but was ultimately victorious enabling him to place Clement on the Throne of St. Peter.
Matilda’s forces thwarted various incursions by imperial forces into her territory for the next several years. In 1088, she was facing a new attempt at invasion by Henry IV and decided to pre-empt it by means of a political marriage. Matilda, now in her early forties, married Welf V, who was only about 17 years old at the time. Welf was heir to the Duchy of Bavaria and a member of the Welf/Guelph dynasty, important Papal supporters from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The wedding was part of a network of alliances approved by the new Pope, Urban II, in order to effectively counter Henry IV.
It was not a surprise that Matilda’s second marriage did not last. She found her young husband to be weak and early on in the relationship he was actually afraid that she was a witch. They separated in 1095 without Matilda bearing any children.
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 pursued Matilda and her military forces into the mountains. 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 defensive alignment that had always resisted all attack from the Apennines. After several bloody battles, Henry’s powerful imperial army was surrounded. Henry’s rout in October of 1092 was more than a military defeat. He recognized that he could never displace Matilda and her forces from their highly defensible positions. His influence in Italy never recovered.
Once Henry withdrew from Italy, Matilda reigned virtually unchallenged. Henry IV lasted on the throne until his death in 1106. His estranged son Conrad predeceased him in 1101, leaving Henry’s second son to inherit the Holy Roman Empire as Henry V. Matilda forged an alliance with the new Emperor and in 1111, he stayed at the Castle of Bianello, near Reggio Emilia. It was there that Henry V gave Matilda a new title crowning her Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy.
During her lifetime, Matilda founded over one hundred churches in addition to monasteries and hospices and built bridges in the regions of Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and the Veneto. Most of these churches continue today to be vital centers of their communities, whether located along the Po and Arno rivers or built along the Apennine mountain passes.
Matilda’s death from gout in 1115 at Bondeno di Roncore marked the end of an era in Italian politics. She was at first buried in the Abbey of San Benedetto in Polirone; 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 were moved to the Vatican, where they now lie in Saint Peter’s Basilica, one of only six women to receive that honor. A memorial tomb for Matilda was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and designed by Bernini and marks her burial place, often called the Honor and Glory of Italy.