Medieval Mold-Breaking Women: Countess Matilda of Tuscany

Painting of Countess Matilda
Countess Matilda, as depicted in Donizo’s Vita Mathildis

Matilda di Canossa lived in a tumultuous era, but she proved she was a capable leader. As the daughter of Beatrice of Lorraine and Boniface III, Margrave of Tuscany, she eventually inherited a considerable portion of northern Italy after the deaths of her brothers. During the 1070s, she ruled Tuscany in tandem with her mother; however, Beatrice died in A.D./C.E. 1076, making Matilda the sole ruler of her familial lands and one of the strongest vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.

The countess’ impressive political career showed she was among the most influential women of her era. She was a powerful participant in the Investiture Controversy, which elicited her ongoing involvement in imperial warfare later in life. The conflict arose over whether secular rulers or the Church had the right to appoint bishops and participate in papal elections. Pope Gregory VII attempted to gain victory in 1076 by excommunicating his adversary, Henry IV, and declaring that imperial vassals no longer owed allegiance to him. The measure cowed Henry, and the two were soon reconciled.

Tensions flared anew in the 1080s, and Matilda was at the center of it. She chose to side with Gregory and gifted the Church with large portions of her land. Henry replied by branding her a traitor and marching south to recover her lands and strike against Gregory. By holding most of northern Italy, Matilda was able to deny Henry key paths over the Apennines, delaying his advance. Although Henry eventually captured Rome and installed his own pope, Gregory had enough time to escape to Salerno. From then on, the exiled pontiff often communicated with his imperial supporters through Matilda.

Henry made later assaults on Tuscany, but Matilda continued to exercise her own political power in opposition. In 1089 she made a strategic marriage to Welf, the heir to the Duchy of Bavaria, a substantial imperial territory that also supported the pope over the emperor. A few years later, she convinced Henry’s son, Conrad, to join in open revolt against his father. Facing fractured authority across the empire and significant opposition in Italy and Bavaria, Henry admitted defeat before the century’s end.

Painting of Pope Gregory VII
Pope Gregory VII

Few medieval women were able to oppose their liege and win, which highlights Matilda’s extraordinarily influential status; however, her relationships with medieval popes also make her remarkable. Her step-uncle was Pope Stephen IX, and two bishops from Tuscany were his successors to the papal throne. She was especially close with Pope Gregory VII, not only due to their political alliance but also due to an abiding friendship. Their relationship was so intimate that their rivals accused them of being lovers, an allegation Gregory denounced in a 1074 letter to Matilda.

Gregory’s other communications with Matilda further reveal her influence in the Church. In the same 1074 letter as his denunciation, he specially requested Matilda’s and Beatrice’s advice on diplomatic affairs. An earlier letter showed his dependence on Matilda to oppose a faction of Lombard bishops who troubled him: “We exhort Your Excellencies and beg you most earnestly to avoid all communion with them and to give no aid or counsel to their party.” His December 1074 letter asked Matilda for “aid and counsel” on the prospect of a crusade. Clearly, Matilda was not a simple supporter of the pope; she was his advisor, too.

Matilda leveraged her papal connections to extend her agenda across Europe, as well. In 1105 she wrote to Pope Paschal II to persuade him to assist Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, who was in some sort of trouble. She had protected the archbishop during his previous travels to Italy, and his earlier letter to her showed their amity; consequently, it’s no surprise that she came to his aid.

There were not many medieval rulers who could claim such an exceptional political life. Matilda victoriously defied her liege in support of the Church, and her relationship with the Church shows the extent of her unique power. Without a doubt, she was among the most brazen and commanding women of the Middle Ages.

 

This is the final part of a Women’s History Month series on famous medieval women. The previous four parts can be found here: One, Two, Three, and Four.

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