Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Matilda of Canossa V

15th century depiction of the Council of Clermont
Church Matters

In November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Urban called for the First Crusade much to the dismay of the Emperor in the east who needed troops to fend off the Muslim attackers. Now they were to suffer what amounted to an invasion as a crusade prepared to defend Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. Guibert of Nogent[i] recorded Urban as saying;

“I ask you to think how your hearts can conceive of the joy of seeing the holy city revived by your efforts…..Remember that the voice of the Lord himself said to the church, "I shall lead your seed from the East, and I shall gather you from the West."…..Out of the West he assembled us……Jerusalem's losses will be restored. If the words of Scripture and our own admonitions do not move your souls, then at least let the great suffering of those who wish to visit the holy places touch you.”[ii]

Urban was to rely on Matilda to keep peace in northern Italy while his attention was focussed on his crusade. She was intent on securing the support of the Lombard and Tuscan towns for the reformist agenda. Urban agreed to Matilda’s proposal to expand the see of Pisa to include Corsica, thus rewarding Diambert for his support; in addition Diambert was promoted to archbishop.

Robert Guiscard died in July 1085 and he was succeeded as the premier noble in southern Italy by his brother Roger of Sicily. For his part Roger was determined not to offend the Emperor in Constantinople. To bring Roger onside Matilda and Urban persuaded Conrad to marry Roger’s daughter Maximilla.

All Roads Lead to Rome

Isola Tiberina
Following a tour round France preaching the necessity of a crusade, Urban returned to Italy in November 1096. He met up with Matilda and the French crusaders at Lucca for a triumphal journey to Rome. Wibert’s involvement in Henry’s disastrous campaign at Canossa had discredited him as well as the emperor. This aided Matilda in her campaign to strengthen the north for the reformist cause.

Nonetheless the Wibertian supporters were still able to control parts of Rome[iii]. But Urban had the support of several powerful Roman families, including the Pierleoni who controlled Isola Tiberina[iv]. In 1094 Urban bribed Wibert’s governor to hand over the Lateran Palace, a serious blow for the opposition. The palace commanded the Porta San Giovanni on the city walls.

Wibert’s supporters still held the Castel Sant’Angelo when Urban returned from his preaching tour in late 1096. His supporters took control of most of the city; Fulcher of Chartres claimed that Urban was able to take control of;

‘The whole apostolic power with the aid of a certain most noble matron, Matilda by name, who was then very powerful in her native region about Rome.’[v]

When the crusaders continued on their journey Matilda stayed behind. Given that in 1074 she had wanted to travel to Jerusalem, this failure to join the crusade is interesting. It has been posited that Matilda did not want to travel in the company of Godfrey of Bouillon[vi], one of the leaders of the crusade. But the situation in Italy would not have allowed Urban to leave his rear unguarded. Although the Alpine passes were in the hands of reformist supporters Henry was still on this side of the Alps.

Additionally it was around this time that Matilda’s alliance with her second husband Welf and his family was falling apart. The marriage was dysfunctional, politically and sexually. Matilda was apparently a mature and attractive woman while Welf the Younger was later given the name Welf the Fat. Scandalous rumours of the couple’s sexual problems abounded. Chroniclers sympathetic to the reforming cause portrayed the marriage as a sacrifice Matilda endured to protect the church. By 1096 the Welfs were back in the imperial fold.

A True Church Woman

Matilda’s voice was now pre-eminent in church matters; when the archbishopric of Milan became vacant following the death of Arnulf III, the Milanese supported Arnulf IV for the see as he was Matilda’s man. They rioted in protest against the opposition man Landulf da Baggio[vii], the chosen of a more extremist group of reformers.

Matilda made her lands a refuge for reformists; Anselm of Canterbury was escorted to and from Rome[viii] by her men. Anselm later wrote to thank Matilda for her help. When Bishop Gebhard of Constance arrived in Italy in 1106 Matilda hosted him at Guastalla, again she provided an escort to and from Rome, to protect him against attack from Henry’s soldiers. Among other churchmen safeguarded were Herman, Bishop of Metz and Conrad of Salzburg.

Pope Paschal II
Urban finally gained control of the Castel Sant’Angelo in August 1098. Urban’s death in July the following year slowed the reformist cause down only momentarily; Paschal II’s election  in the August showed that the reformists did not lose ground by Urban’s death. By 1102 Matilda had a new papal adviser; Bernard degli Uberti who was the abbot of Vallombrosa.

Conrad died in 1101, five years before his father. Wibert, the antipope had died the year before and Matilda took advantage of the confusion afterwards to take back some of her inheritance. In 1101 Matilda undertook a campaign for the return of Ferrara, undertaking a siege of the city in the autumn. Her allies rallied to her cause, drawn by her ever-increasing influence in the north of Italy. Even Venice, which had hitherto held itself aloof from the reforming cause, sent a contingent according to Donizo.

In 1104 Matilda organised the installation of her adviser Bernard as the bishop in Parma; this coup, in one of the major centres of anti-reformists, was a great fillip to Matilda’s reputation. But when Bernard arrived in the city disaffected citizens threatened to kill him while he was conducting a mass. He was taken prisoner and when the news reached Matilda she sent an army against the city. Bernard was set free and was able to take possession of the bishop’s palace.

Renewing the Fight

Henry V (L)
With the death in August 1106 of Henry IV Matilda and the reformers lost their greatest enemy. The new Holy Roman Emperor Henry V learned from his father’s failure to defeat Matilda and he walked a more respectful path, opting for conciliation rather than confrontation. He visited Matilda at Bianello Henry appointed her his lieutenant in Liguria and crowned Matilda as Imperial Vicar and Vicereine of Italy. In return she granted him the inheritance rights over the fiefs disputed by his father. Henry swore that;

‘In the whole earth there could not be found a princess her equal.’[ix]

Not content with being the main force of the church militant Matilda is reputed to have founded about a hundred churches. Matilda and her mother allegedly built or restored numerous churches, monasteries, hospices, and bridges between the Alps and Rome. Some of the churches that claim support from Matilda include:

Basilica di San Zeno

It is possible that the foundation of the Church of San Salvaro in Legnago (Verona) was created on Matilda’s orders. Matilda also contributed towards the building of the Duomo in Pisa.

In 1115 the childless Matilda, now 70 years old, made the Holy Roman Emperor her heir. She died on 24th July 1115, suffering from gout, at Bondeno di Rancore. Once Matilda was dead Henry and his 14 year old wife, Matilda of England, made the journey across the Alpine passes to Canossa, to take possession of Henry’s inheritance.

It must have been a disappointment to the pope to discover that Matilda had disinherited the church to leave her vast patrimony to the Holy Roman Emperor. Her inheritance was disputed and was to be a bone of contention between the papacy, the Holy Roman Empire and the House of Welf for a long time.


The Making of Europe – Robert Bartlett, Penguin Books 1994

She-Wolves – Helen Castor, Faber & Faber 2010

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] Who claimed to have heard the speech
[iii] They held a council in the city in 1098
[iv] Connecting Trastavere to the main part of the city
[v] The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa - Hay
[vi] With whom she had quarrelled over the lands Matilda had inherited from her first husband Godfrey the Hunchback (see Matilda II)
[vii] Probably a relative of Pope Alexander II and of Bishop Anselm of Lucca, both di Baggios
[viii] During his set to with Henry I of England
[ix] She-Wolves - Castor
[x] In the Province of Mantua.

1 comment: