Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Matilda of Canossa

Boniface III of Tuscany
Family Fortunes

Matilda[i] was born in 1046, the youngest of the three children of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany. Boniface was the most powerful prince in northern Italy; being not only Margrave but also Count of Brescia, Canossa, Ferrara, Florence, Lucca, Mantua, Modena, Pisa, Pistoia, Parma, Reggio, and Verona from 1007.

Boniface had fought to impose his rule over his varied fiefs; in 1021 he won the battle of Coviolo to secure his grip on Emilia and supported Conrad II in his fight to become Holy Roman Emperor. As thanks for that backing Conrad had given Boniface the Margravate of Tuscany. In return Boniface supported Conrad in later campaigns[ii]. After Conrad’s death in 1039 Boniface fell out with his successor Henry III who held that Canossa was too powerful.

In 1037, Boniface married Beatrice, his second wife[iii]. She was the daughter of Frederick II, Duke of Upper Lorraine and Count of Bar, and niece and adoptive daughter of the Empress Gisela, wife of Conrad II. Beatrice gave birth to a daughter Beatrice, then a son Frederick, and finally Matilda.

Matilda was taught French and German[iv] in addition to Italian and she appears to have had some little proficiency in Latin. Claims that Matilda underwent weapons training are unverified. She does appear to have assimilated the skills to strategically and tactically manage armed forces from her father, stepfather, mother and husband number one.

New Family Dynamics

Beatrice of Bar
In 1052 Matilda’s father was assassinated with a poisoned spear[v]. Many suspected the emperor of organising the assassination which suited Henry’s aims of reducing the power of the Tuscan Margravate. Boniface’s elder daughter Beatrice died shortly after him. Frederick succeeded his father. Boniface’s widow Beatrice, raised at the imperial court and able to play court politics, acted as regent for first Frederick and later for Matilda.

Beatrice remarried in 1054 to Godfrey III, who ruled on Matilda’s behalf until his death in 1069. The feud with Henry III was not assuaged by this marriage; Godfrey was one of Henry’s bitterest enemies[vi] and a capable general, able to continue the fight against the emperor. The marriage strengthened Godfrey’s claim to Lorraine as Beatrice’s father had been Duke of Upper Lorraine.

Matilda’s brother Frederick died in 1055 in suspicious circumstances and Matilda inherited the Countship from him. In the same year the emperor marched over the Alps and drove Godfrey from Tuscany and took Matilda and Beatrice captive. Despite this setback Godfrey refused to capitulate so Henry returned to Germany with his prisoners in tow.

Godfrey’s rebellion reduced the power of the emperor over his far-flung lesser barons and his neighbours, most notably the king of France. Henry made attempts at rapprochement with Godfrey, but died in October 1056.

He was succeeded by his son Henry IV. In December of that year Godfrey was formally reconciled with the emperor and recognised as the Margrave of Tuscany. Godfrey was able to take his family home, accompanied by Pope Victor II[vii]. Matilda was formally recognised as heir to her father’s lands.

Marriage Number One

Godfrey the Hunchback
When Godfrey lay dying after a long illness at the end of 1069, Matilda and Beatrice made the journey to Bouillon, where Godfrey had established his court after the return of his dukedom in 1065. Not long after her stepfather’s death Matilda married Godfrey’s son Godfrey the Hunchback. The couple had been engaged for a long time.

Two years later Matilda bore her only child, Beatrice who died the same year. Around the same time the marriage dissolved into acrimony and Matilda left Godfrey in Lorraine to return to her lands in Tuscany. She refused to return;

‘Matilda, leaving him behind, returned to Lombardy. And when her husband frequently ordered that she return, not only did she not comply, but she declared to him who gave the order that he should come to her.’[viii]

In 1071 Matilda indicated her intention to rule her patrimony without the support of her husband. Beatrice began teaching Matilda the skills needed to rule, jointly holding courts with her daughter.

Papal Support

Pope Gregory VII
After Pope Gregory VII’s coronation in April 1073 Matilda frequented papal councils and synods. She corresponded with the pope who was more than happy to open the Vatican’s doors to Matilda and her family;

‘Therefore should it happen that your illustrious mother returns at this time to Rome, with all our heart we charge, or rather beseech, your excellency to pay a visit to the apostles in her company.’[ix]

In 1073 Godfrey travelled to Tuscany in order to enlist the support of his stepmother and of Pope Gregory VII. Godfrey promised Gregory that he would provide military support in return for papal assistance in getting his wife back. Matilda refused to back down and by 1074 Godfrey seems to have given up any hope that Matilda would return to Lorraine.

After the failure of his Tuscany trip in 1073 Godfrey had nothing more to do with either Matilda or Gregory and notably failed to send the promised troops. Instead he became one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s most trusted allies.

At some time between 1074 and 1080 Matilda willed all her domains to the church, in open defiance of Henry IV's claims both as the overlord of some of those domains, and as her close relative. Gregory’s indulgence towards a woman defying the standards set for a medieval woman may very well have been because his church reforms were in need of substantial backing[x].

A Papal Crusade

Coin of Robert Guiscard
In 1074, having made enemies all around from the Holy Roman Emperor, impatient with what he saw as the arrogance of the Catholic church, to Robert Guiscard, the leader of the Normans in Sicily and not forgetting the Seljuk Turks, Gregory determined to free the church from any interference by the Holy Roman Emperor and from the emperor in Byzantium. Gregory intended that all Christendom should be subject to Rome. Matilda, with her financial and military support to the church, was allowed a great degree of leeway.

Gregory organised a military offensive with Matilda as one of its leaders.

‘Let this messenger of yours come by way of Countess Beatrice, who with her daughter and son-in-law, has it in train to contend in this business. But we are not at pains to assemble this multitude of knights so that we may proceed to shedding the blood of Christians….when the Normans are brought to peace we may cross to Constantinople to bring aid to Christians….afflicted by the most frequent raving of the Saracens.’[xi]

Matilda and her mother attended the councils of war and prepared to lead their troops into battle on the pope’s behalf. Matilda attended Gregory’s Lenten synod from 9th  to 14th March 1074, along with Prince Gisulf of Salerno. To avoid the stigma of Christians fighting Christians Gregory took the precaution of excommunicating Robert Guiscard.

Gregory was not amused when Godfrey’s troops failed to materialise, but Matilda and Beatrice rendezvoused with the pope at San Flaviano. The expedition collapsed after numerous mishaps and quarrels among the various nobles who had answered the pope’s call. By 1075 even the pope had given up on the idea of chastising Robert Guiscard. He returned to his self-imposed challenge of reforming the church.


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 Hapsburgs – Andrew Wheatcroft, Folio Society 2004


[i] Also known as Matilda of Tuscany
[ii] A campaign in Burgundy and rescuing Conrad from a revolt in Parma.
[iii] Boniface was first married to Richilda, daughter of Giselbert of Bergamo, who bore him no children. She died between 1034-7
[iv] Beatrice had lived at Conrad’s court whilst a girl, so she must have spoken German
[v] This version of Boniface's death is disputed. Some have alleged that Henry played a part in his assassination. It is also held by some that in 1044 there was an attempt made on the Margrave's life at Brescia and that the conspirators fled to Verona, which Boniface subsequently sacked before expelling some Veronese conspirators from Mantua as well. One Scarpetta Carnevari apparently nursed a grudge for this act and years later, while Boniface was preparing a galley for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, shot him with a poisoned arrow on the river Oglio, near Martino dall'Argine in the region of Spineta while on the hunt.
[vi] Godfrey was one of Beatrice’s distant kinsmen, who had been stripped of the Duchy of Upper Lorraine after openly rebelling against Emperor Henry III
[vii] The fourth and last pope nominated by Henry III, who was to be a strong defender of the church against the Holy Roman Emperor. He died in 1057, victim of the miasmas of the Pontine Marshes
[viii] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[ix] Ibid
[x] Many of the northern churches resented the new regulations on simony and celibacy among other matters
[xi] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay

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