Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Matilda of Canossa IV

Matilda's signature
The Reformist Church

Matilda’s objectives included the election of a reformist pope to replace Gregory and closing the Alpine passes against further incursions from Germany. The reformers inability to find a strong candidate to replace Gregory left them dependent upon Matilda. There was fighting between the reformers and the traditionalists in Rome; Bernold of Constance reported;

‘At this time much killing, burning and pillaging was committed between the supporters of Henry and the vassals of St Peter.’[i]

Matilda’s triumph at Sorbara enabled her to successfully interfere in internal church matters. Following the deaths of Henrician supporters within the church, along with her allies Matilda organised the election of reformist clergy to the sees of Modena. Reggio and Pistoia. By 1088 the Gregorian radical Bonizo[ii] was elected bishop of Piacenza with the support of the citizenry. Cremona also found itself with a Gregorian bishop when Walter was elected sometime before September 1086.

Bishop Diambert (2nd L) 
A number of clergymen who had supported Henry now saw their way to the truth and light; Archbishop Anselm III of Milan and Bishop Diambert[iii] of Pisa started to modify their antagonism around 1088. The struggles between the Gregorian reformers and the traditionalists slowed down the pace of change but Matilda and her allies were able to ‘strengthen and expand’ their hold over much of the north and central Italy.

After his death Gregory had recommended three candidates to succeed him; his first choice was Anselm of Lucca who was dead by the time elections were held in May 1086 and another of Gregory’s choices, the Abbot of Montecassino was chosen in Anselm’s place. A divisive figure, Pope Victor III survived in the hot house of Rome for less than two years despite Matilda’s support. Victor was replaced on 12th March 1088 by Odo of Châtillon, Bishop of Ostia, and a committed reformer who took the name Urban II.

Marriage Number Two

Duke Welf of Bavaria
It was not until after Urban’s election in 1088 and the anti-king Herman of Salm died that some kind of equilibrium was achieved in the empire and Italian peninsula. Urban encouraged Duke Welf of Bavaria to marry his 17 year old son Welf to Matilda (now in her forties), in a successful attempt to persuade Welf to join the grouping opposing the Holy Roman Emperor. Duke Welf was attracted by the thought of his son inheriting Matilda’s riches. For her part Matilda needed allies to fend off a projected invasion on the emperor’s part.

Before crossing the Alps Henry undertook a brief campaign to capture Matilda’s lands in Lorraine. In 1090 Henry crossed the mountain passes and engaged in reducing Matilda’s castles north of the Po, while Matilda was entrenching down south of the river waiting for a chance to counterattack. Bernold of Constance wrote;

Welf and Matilda
‘Duke Welf [the Younger] of Italy incurred much arson and pillaging when King Henry entered Lombardy in this year, but at the exhortation of his beloved wife. Lady Matilda, he fought to remain in fidelity to Saint Peter, and to withstand Henry manfully.’[iv]

On 10th April 1091 Henry’s troops took Mantua after a siege lasting nearly 12 months. Henry then concentrated his efforts at subduing Matilda’s lands north of the Po, taking the castle of Manerbio[v].

In the winter of 1091-2 Matilda’s troops were defeated at the battle of Tricontai at the hands of Henry’s troops. Welf, recently en-feoffed with the lands her father had held from the Bishop of Mantua, was probably one of her commanders at the battle. Matilda had sent a force over the Po to hunt for Henry. It has been surmised that Matilda’s force were betrayed by Hugh of Maine, Welf’s uncle.

Not long after their marriage Welf the younger discovered that Matilda had secretly endowed the church with all her wealth and the couple separated in 1095. Welf and his father then swapped sides and became allies of the emperor, possibly hoping that Henry would confirm Welf as his father’s successor as Duke of Bavaria.

Against the Emperor

Despite the defeats at Mantua and Tricontai Matilda fought on. Nevertheless Henry’s position had improved; the reformers had lost ground in Germany where a number of Gregorian churchmen had died along with the anti-Duke of Swabia, Berthold of Rheinfelden.

For his part Urban was finding it difficult to impose his authority in Rome; the Henrician Pope Wibert had not been expelled from the city until the summer of 1089; he then set up shop in Ravenna. By February 1091 he was back inside the walls of the Vatican while Urban celebrated Christmas outside the city walls. Henry held court in Mantua over Christmas, staying there until Easter 1092.

In the June Henry started a campaign against Matilda; seizing towns and fortresses throughout the lands south of the Po. He took the castles Montemorello and Montealfredo[vi] and captured Matilda’s standard bearer Gerard. Henry then moved on to Monteveglio[vii], where his ambitions were stymied by both the rugged mountains and the stubborn defence. Wibert arrived in late summer with reinforcements.

In early autumn Henry decided to attempt to end the status quo by offering to return to Matilda all her lands and raise the siege at Monteveglio if she would recognise Wibert as pope. Matilda held a conclave at Carpineti to consider the proposal, which she herself did not wish to accept. Many of Matilda’s supporters, including Bishop Heribert of Reggio, were weary of the seemingly endless war with the emperor. Despite this the council eventually agreed to refuse Henry’s offer.

Another Humiliation At Canossa

Henry now decided to make another attempt to take Canossa to where Matilda had just returned. Matilda divided her forces, leaving some of her soldiers to defend the fortress at Canossa and took the remainder to her fortress at Bianello. It is likely that Henry was able to field a much larger force than the one that Matilda had to protect her demesnes.

Henry’s forces made an unsuccessful attack on Canossa and then regrouped, having lost the imperial banner. Donizo[viii] wrote;

‘The king turned reign [sic], made for Bibbiano.

Having a heart dejected beyond measure, because he saw that the moment had turned against him.

He did not want to ride that road, nor even to know if [sic] it,

Not for ten thousand pounds!

The loss of the banner marked his defeat.

So that henceforth his reputation for losing soldiers grew.’[ix]

Henry had hoped to take Matilda prisoner, thus removing his major antagonist. But continuing his attacks on Canossa left his supply lines open to attack from Bianello. For her part Matilda was aware of the need to stay out of Henry’s hands.

Henry’s decision to retreat was undoubtedly correct from a military viewpoint, but it did almost irreparable damage to his reputation and from now on Henry’s forces were to suffer, particularly after Henry left them to their own devices. Matilda took advantage and over the next few years was able to win back most of the lands taken from her.


In 1093 Henry was further humiliated by the transfer of his son Conrad’s allegiance to the reforming arm of the church. Henry was convinced that Matilda was the cause of Conrad’s conversion. The author of Henry’s Life wrote;

‘[Conrad] was won over by the persuasions of Matilda – for whom may not womanly guile corrupt or deceive? – and joined his father’s enemies.’

Cathedral at Borgo San Donnino
Henry imprisoned Conrad who managed to escape and in July Matilda and her allies elected him King of Italy[x] and she arranged his coronation in Milan by Archbishop Anselm. Conrad took up residence in Borgo San Donnino[xi], impeding imperial access to Rome. Conrad was not alone in his conversion; a number of Henry’s other nobles followed him into the reformists’ fold.

In 1094 Henry’s wife, Eupraxia of Kiev[xii], left her husband and, like her stepson, looked to Matilda for her protection. The Annales Stadenses claims that;

‘The queen finally escaped her guard, came into Italy to that very powerful Matilda and by her escort to Pope Urban, to whom she sadly related her misfortune.’[xiii]

In March 1095 at the Council of Piacenza, Eupraxia claimed that Henry had imprisoned her in Verona and had forced her to have sexual intercourse with other men. Donizo alleged that Matilda sent the men who helped Eupraxia escape her imprisonment in Verona.

These personal setbacks and the military missteps after Canossa led to a collapse of Henry’s authority south of the Alps. Matilda and her allies held all the major passes across the Alps and Henry was unable to take back control of his lands in Italy.


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] Later made a saint; mutilated and expelled from the city in 1089
[iii] Or Dagobert
[iv] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[v] Between Brescia and Cremona
[vi] Both castles apparently lying in the mountains to the south of the Via Emilia
[vii] South of Bazzono on the River Samoggia in the foothills of the Apennines
[viii] Author of an epic poem starring Matilda
[ix] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[x] Henry later deposed Conrad and had his younger brother Henry elected in his place, making Conrad more dependent on Matilda
[xi] Now Fidenza
[xii] Also known as Adelaide; she was the daughter of Prince Vsevelod of Kiev and the widow of one of Henry’s nobles
[xiii] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay

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