Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Matilda of Canossa II

Matilda of Canossa
Conflicting Synods

Gregory held a Lenten Synod in 1075 where he condemned all ecclesiastical investitures by laymen, infuriating the emperor who immediately invested two German bishops and nominated a second Archbishop of Milan. Gregory was a man who was unable to compromise, even when his principles were not involved and he was unlikely to take Henry’s provocations lying down.

Henry called the German bishops to a Synod at Worms on January 24th 1076. He denounced Gregory as a false monk and formally deposed the pope as his father had done three times before. German chroniclers, writing of the Worms synod in January 1076, suggested that Godfrey the Hunchback inspired Henry's allegation of a licentious affair between Pope Gregory and Matilda. The bishops wrote to Gregory from Worms;

‘You have filled the entire church, as it were, with the stench of the gravest of scandals, rising from your intimacy and cohabitation with another’s wife who is more closely integrated into your household than is necessary.’[i]

Acting on Henry’s suggestions the Synod deposed Gregory.

In 1074, on the eve of Gregory’s crusade, Matilda had been overcome by a spiritual crisis, brought on by the breakdown of her marriage. She contemplated renouncing her responsibilities and entering a convent. Whether it was pure strength of mind or whether she was given spiritual advice by Gregory is unknown as are the truth of the allegations of adultery[ii].]


On 26th February 1076 Godfrey the Hunchback was the victim of an assassination attack in Flanders while "answering the call of nature". He lingered for a week after the attack before dying. The adultery accusation coming so soon before Godfrey’s death meant that Matilda was suspected of ordering her estranged husband's death. It is unlikely that she was involved as the accusations of adultery could not have reached her in time to set up an assassination in Flanders[iii].

Less than two months later Matilda’s mother died as well, considerably augmenting Matilda’s power. She was now the undisputed heir of all her parents' allodial lands. Her inheritance would have been threatened had Godfrey survived her mother, but she now enjoyed the privileged status of a widow. Matilda spent much of her time trying to bridge the gulf between pope and emperor.

Agnes of Poitou (R)
At his Lenten Synod of 1076 Gregory deposed all the bishops who’d rebelled against him at Worms and excommunicated the emperor. This act horrified the Germans and in October the diet of princes invited the pope to Germany while threatening Henry with deposition and the election of a new emperor. The German princes demanded a reconciliation with the pope within a year and a day

Gregory accepted the princes’ invitation and Matilda helped facilitate a meeting between the two at Trebur;

‘Meanwhile by the advice of the most holy Abbot of Cluny, and of the queen-mother Agnes, and also of the aforesaid most wise Matilda, a general council the king and the apostle [Gregory] themselves was proclaimed, for the sake of peace and justice.’[iv]

Matilda’s main role in the meeting was to ensure Gregory’s safe arrival. He was escorted by her troops as he travelled north to Mantua where he was to await the promised escort of German troops. The escort of German troops never arrived, leaving Gregory and Matilda poised in Mantua.

It Ends at Canossa

Hugh of Cluny (L), Henry IV (C), Matilda of Canossa (R)
Henry decided to drive a wedge between the rebels in Germany and Gregory; he decided to avoid a meeting in Germany. In the depths of winter Henry and his wife Bertha of Savoy set out across the mountain passes to head off the pope off. Upon hearing the news that the emperor was in Italy Gregory diverted to Canossa.

‘He [Gregory] turned aside, at Matilda’s urging, into….Canossa, intending to wait until he could more carefully discover the purpose of his [Henry’s] arrival, namely, whether he came to beg forgiveness or to avenge the injury of his excommunication by force of arms.’[v]

For his part when he heard that Gregory was now ensconced in Canossa, Henry headed there. In the gown of a penitent, barefoot and hair-shirted he was left outside the castle gates for three days (and nights) in the January ice and snow.

Gregory was finally persuaded by Matilda and Hugh of Cluny to allow the emperor to enter the castle on 28th January. Once inside the castle Henry made cause with Hugh and Matilda who persuaded Gregory to revoke the excommunication.

Matilda was a devout champion of the church and while her loyalty to Gregory was unswerving, Henry’s Walk to Canossa went some way to changing her mind about the emperor. She and Countess Adelaide of Turin were Henry’s sponsors, formally swearing to the agreement between pope and emperor. Gregory stayed as Matilda’s guest for seven months, staying within her defensible domain.

Henry’s cause was not helped by the pope’s reversal of the excommunication; his opponents chose a new emperor, Rudolf of Swabia, at the Diet of Augsburg in February 1077. They declared that in future the emperor must be elected. The empire itself was swallowed up by civil war.

Post Canossa

Godfrey of Bouillon
Matilda defended her inheritance against foes willing to fight her. This period also saw Matilda hone her military experience. She managed to keep the core of her holdings. Between 1076 and 1080, Matilda travelled to Lorraine to lay claim to her husband's estate in Verdun, which he had willed (along with the rest of his patrimony) to his sister Ida's son, Godfrey of Bouillon. Godfrey of Bouillon also disputed Matilda’s right to Stenay and Mosay, which her mother had received as a dowry.

The quarrel between aunt and nephew over the episcopal county of Verdun was eventually settled by Theoderic, Bishop of Verdun, who enjoyed the right to nominate the counts. He found in Matilda’s favour, knowing that such verdict would please both Pope Gregory and the Emperor. Matilda then proceeded to enfeoff Verdun to her stepfather’s sister’s grandson, Albert III of Namur[vi] who she supported in his battle to become Duke of Bouillon.

Throughout this period the antagonism between north and south continued at a lesser level. A number of prelates travelling between the two parties had been ambushed; immediately after the concord at Canossa Bishop Gerald of Ostia had been seized by Dionisio[vii], the Bishop of Piacenza. Matilda aided Gregory in getting Gerald freed. Another incident later in the year saw Abbot Bernhard of Marseilles imprisoned for six months by Ulrich, Count of Lenzburg.

Supporting the Rebels

Henry IV (L) and Antipope Clement III (C)
In 1080 Gregory threw caution to the winds and threw his support behind the rebels at his Lateran Synod where he’d agreed to adjudicate between the two sides. He renewed his excommunication of Henry as a punishment for failing to fulfil the vows made at Canossa.

In response on 25th June 1080 Henry IV summoned a council in Brixen, which deposed Gregory, electing Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna[viii] in his place. This followed an assembly at Mainz by prelates loyal to Henry who declared Gregory;

‘[An] execrable disturber of the laws of God and man.’[ix]

Matilda and Gregory planned a pre-emptive strike at Wibert in Ravenna and committed their forces in the summer, scheduling the attack for the autumn[x]. Before the attack could be launched Henry’s supporters surprised Matilda; on 15th October 1080, near Volta Mantovana[xi], the imperial troops defeated Gregory’s loyal troops commanded by Matilda; it was her first serious defeat; Matilda’s troops were put to flight.

Rudolf of Swabia died on 15th October 1080 from wounds received during the battle on the Elster, this intercession was viewed as divine by Henry’s supporters.  Hermann of Salm was elected in Rudolf’s place, but he had little support.


The Making of Europe – Robert Bartlett, Penguin Books 1994

The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa – David J Hay, Manchester University Press 2008

The Holy Roman Empire – Friedrich Heer, Phoenix Giant Paperback 1995

The Oxford History of Medieval Europe – George Holmes, Oxford University Press, 2001

Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011

The First Crusade – Steven Runciman, Folio Society 2002

The Hapsburgs – Andrew Wheatcroft, Folio Society 2004


[i] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[ii] Although the allegations might be considered unlikely in a pope crusading within the church for chastity among the clergy
[iii] The allegations would have to allow for a double winter crossing of the Alps which would be barely passable at this time of year
[iv] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[v] Ibid
[vi] The deep animosity between Matilda and Godfrey may have prevented her from travelling to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, which was led by Godfrey in the late 1090s
[vii] Deposed by Gregory
[viii] Antipope Clement III
[ix] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[x] Robert Guiscard was scheduled to join in the attack, long with Jordan of Capua, having made up his differences with the pope in June at Ceprano. Neither man sent the promised troop, Guiscard being diverted by his quarrels with Byzantium. Jordan defected to support Henry in 1082
[xi] In Mantua province; Matilda’s castle was close to the Veronese entrance to the Brenner Pass, normally used by the Emperors on their visits to their Italian lands

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