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No Prince Her Equal: Matilda of Tuscany

Updated on March 25, 2016

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany
Matilda of Tuscany | Source

La Grand Contessa

No Prince Her Equal: Matilda of Tuscany

Who would have thought that little Matilda would challenge a hot-headed German emperor—and win?

Her father, Count Boniface III was a warlord. Extremely powerful, he ruled over Tuscany, an enormous area containing the cities of Modena, Matua, Ferreara, Reggio, Pisa, Verona, Canossa, Parma, Florence, Lucca, Pistoia and Brescia. Her mother Beatrice, was a noblewoman and a warrior in her own right. Boniface and Beatrice made sure that their son and daughters were well educated in warfare. As a child Matilda learned to ride a horse as a lancer, and was trained with spear, battle axe and sword. Her mother also supervised their education, and Matilda was fluent in Italian, French, German and Latin.

In 1052, Boniface was murdered. Needing to ensure her surviving children’s protection, Beatrice married Godfrey the Bearded, a warlord who had defied the Holy German emperor Henry III. Henry was outraged that Beatrice would marry his sworn enemy. Beatrice asked to be allowed to explain herself, and while Henry eventually agreed, he had Beatrice arrested. He treated her son Frederick in a more respectable manner, but the boy eventually died, leaving his little sister Matilda the sole inheritor of all of Boniface’s lands. Godfrey the Bearded protected Matilda and went to war with Henry III to free Beatrice.

Henry VI pleads with Matilda

Henry VI pleads with Matilda
Henry VI pleads with Matilda | Source

Matilda’s family were supporters of the pope, often supplying soldiers for various papal campaigns. In 1061, Matilda and her mother suited up in armor and took up the sword, and helped Pope Alexander II fight the Council of Sutri for control of the papacy. One account of the battle recalled that fifteen year old Matilda acted with “such bravery that she made known to the world that courage and valor in mankind is not indeed a matter of sex but of heart and spirit.” In 1066, Matilda directed 400 archers at the Battle of Aquino, and later that same year, she led her combined forces to drive Sir Guibert of Ravenna from the city.

Sometime after Godfrey the Bearded forces triumphed, Matilda was married to her stepbrother, Godfrey the Hunchbacked in 1069. The marriage was far from happy, and only one child was produced, a daughter that reportedly died in infancy (though the artist Michelangelo claimed descent from Matilda via her daughter, there is nothing confirming this.) In February 1075, Godfrey the Hunchedback was ambushed while relieving himself and was stabbed in the buttock by a sword. The wound quickly became infected and Godfrey died in agony, leaving Matilda a pleased widow.

Matilda was a great supporter of Pope Gregory VII, and their letters, which have survived to this day, show that the countess and the pope loved each other dearly. Gregory was a man of principles, and he was so disgusted by the practice of people buying the papal office (in other words, anybody could become pope if they paid enough, no religious training required), that he banned it under penalty of excommunication. His flaunting of power angered the new Holy German emperor and Matilda’s cousin Henry IV, and he and Gregory clashed constantly. Finally, Henry called Gregory “a false monk” and demanded he be removed from office. Gregory retaliated by excommunicating Henry and then retreated to Matilda’s fortress in Canossa.

Now excommunicated, Emperor Henry began to rapidly lose support of his vassals and soldiers, with various insurrections cropping up throughout the empire. Panicking, Henry traveled to Canossa, begging for an audience with the pope. Matilda acted as moderator, not allowing Henry to see Gregory until he did penance. In January 1077, Emperor Henry VII stood dressed in rags and barefoot for three days before the huge gates of Canossa. On the fourth day he was allowed in and threw himself at Gregory’s feet. Gregory granted Henry absolution as a man, not a king. This was a mistake on Gregory’s part, as both he and Matilda could see the seething fury on Henry’s face throughout the following banquet. By 1085, Henry had driven Gregory out of Rome, and the pope died in broken-hearted exile.

Seeing Gregory die wasn’t enough to satisfy Henry VII; he was determined to destroy the woman who humiliated him at Canossa. Henry staged several strategic attacks on Matilda’s cities, taking her armies by surprise. In 1091, Henry led the march to Canossa with his formidable army.

Unfortunately for Henry, he forgot a major detail; Matilda was Boniface’s daughter, and she was well trained in the art of war. Knowing that she was outnumbered, Matilda divided her army, leaving half in the town of Bianello and keeping the rest at Canossa. Knowing how thick the fog would roll in around Canossa that time of year, Matilda waited for Henry’s army to march blindly into the mist and flounder about, disoriented. Dressing in armor and taking her father’s sword, Matilda led her army out through a secret passage and attacked, slaughtering the emperor’s army while Canossa’s monks stood on the parapets, singing psalms for the dead.

Taken by surprise, Henry IV collected his few remaining soldiers and fled. To his horror, Henry found the other half of Matilda’s army waiting for him at Bianello, and he barely escaped with his life, losing his battle standard to Matilda.

Humiliated twice, Henry never forgot what Matilda had done to him, but Matilda’s victory was so spectacular that an alliance of Italian cities joined her side, ready to fight back if Henry tried to invade again. Matilda was able to strike a friendship with Henry VI’s son Henry V, who referred to Matilda as, “in the whole earth there could not be found a prince her equal.”

With her country safe, Matilda eventually retired to a Benedictine monastary where she died July 15, 1115 at 70 years old. Known as “la grand Contessa,” Matilda is interred in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

Matilda of Tuscany works referenced:

Tuscan Countess, by Michele K. Spike

Women Warriors, by David E. Jones

Warrior, Women by Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles.

Tomb of Matilda of Tuscany

Tomb of Matilda of Tuscany
Tomb of Matilda of Tuscany | Source

Matilda of Tuscany

Church of Saint Augustine, Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Church of Saint Augustine, Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
XXVIII Biennale dell'Antiquariato
XXVIII Biennale dell'Antiquariato


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