That is until Matilde Di Canossa accomplished what seemed like an impossible undertaking. Among her many great accomplishments, her defeat of the Holy Roman Emperor - Henry IV - was a major turning point for the Catholic Church, for Western Europe and for Italy. It earned her the honorific "Madonna of War" or as she is also known, "Gran Contessa" and "Gran Duchessa" - The Grand Countess and the Grand Duchess. For indeed, she held legal claim over both titles and more.
Let the story begin!
The territories and dominion of the Holy Roman Empire (during this time) in terms of present-day states comprised Germany (except Southern Schleswig), Austria (except Burgenland), the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Slovenia(except Prekmurje), besides significant parts of eastern France (mainly Artois, Alsace,Franche-Comté, Savoie and Lorraine), northern Italy (mainly Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and South Tyrol), and western Poland (mainly Silesia, Pomerania, and Neumark).
Her father was murdered in 1052 during a hunting expedition. Mathilde rode beside him and watched in horror as a thick arrow pierced his throat. He died in terrifying agony. What could a loving 7 year old girl do? Nothing. She could only pray for him, clasp his hand and whisper in his ear that she would never, never allow anyone to kill her. No actions on her part would ever be considered reprehensible; in order for her to protect herself, her lands and her people. Mathilde was willful and a determined 7 year old. A year later her beloved older sister Beatrice also died. Her mother Beatrice, in order to protect Matilde's inheritance, as she was now sole heiress to a vast inheritance of gold and land, married Godfrey the Bearded (don't you just love these descriptive names) in 1053 or 1054. At the same time Matilde was betrothed to Godfrey the Bearded's son - Godfrey the Hunchback (her step-brother).
Before I describe what these decisions and actions meant to Italy and to the rest of Europe, and why they are still so important in this day and age; I think it would be helpful to understand what was taking place around her and in Europe at this time:
3. Around the same time the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in Spain put aside their political differences in order to forge an alliance and progress was made in pushing the Muslims from northern Spain - Aragon, Leon, Burgos and Castille. In addition, the fleet of the city state of Genoa, a powerful and rich maritime Republic led by ruthless Condottieri (Warlords, or in this case, Sea Lords) along with the fleet from another wealthy naval Republic - Pisa; routed the Muslims in Northern Africa ... all these successes later impelled the Pope and the Kings of England, France, and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to undertake the First Crusade which resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem.
It was truly an era of major and never ending armed conflict.
Since I am more of a cynic, I suspect that another cause was more economically motivated. Robert Guiscard of the Italo-Normans, controlled all the lands south of Rome and Emperor Henry IV of Germany, the lands north of Rome. The Vatican was encircled. The church income was not going to Rome but to secular rulers who commonly sold church titles and properties to people loyal to them. Pope Gregory VII wanted total control over these resources for the Church's purposes instead.
IT WAS THE FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OR OF WESTERN EUROPE ITSELF, THAT A POPE HAD EVER DEFIED A KING.
THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT A KING OF HIS STATURE, AN EMPEROR OF THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE HAD BEEN DEPOSED SINCE THE 4TH CENTURY.
Matilde's mother Beatrice passed away in 1076 - leaving her alone at the age of 30, with (according to the Catholic Church's account) no heirs. Worse, she trusted no one but herself and God,but I doubt she ever received a clear reply from him. she believed that God and her wits and her loyal fighting armies would ultimately prevail for the Pope and for herself.
However, by 1080 Henry had prevailed and flush from his victories in Germany set off to Italy to replace Gregory with his own appointed Pope - Clement III. Upon his arrival in Pavia, Henry took the iron crown, declaring himself King of Italy. He also received financial help from the Eastern Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Constantinople who solicited Henry's help to fight the Italo-Normans who were harassing him in the Middle East.
Henry made two shamefully unsuccessful attempts to take Rome, which was heavily defended by Matilde's army and the Pope's allies, the Normans. The primary cause of Henry's problem consisted in the fact that Matilde's lands and territories controlled much of his logistical and resupply routes. He and his army had a hellish time penetrating Italian territories and an even more arduous time exiting the country because Matilde's armies and territories complicated his invasions and retreats.
Henry then changed tactics. His army swarmed into Tuscany. His soldiers outnumbered Matilde's army and he defeated her army at last. In 1081, Henry formally deposed her as Duchess of Tuscany and seized much of her lands there. He gnashed his teeth in rage when Matilde eluded him and escaped to Canossa, with all her core properties intact. Matilde's army had been harassing him at the rear. He concentrated the army at the front lines on a March towards Rome. In 1085 Henry attacked Rome for the third time in his reign.
Robert Guiscard marched on Rome and Henry prudently withdrew. This action allowed Gregory VII to flee to Salerno where he died in exile in 1085 - however, not before issuing a general call to the faithful to undertake a crusade against Henry IV. Matilde, who remained unswervingly loyal to Pope Gregory was Pope Gregory's intermediary for communications with Northern Europe.
One of Pope Gregory's more famous quotations which he pronounced before his death was: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore, I die in exile."
This has been attributed to many famous men erroneously but the first great man to say these words was Pope Gregory VII in Salerno on his deathbed.
Henry returned to Germany in 1084 to quell uprisings which had occurred in his absence leaving the puppet Pope Clement III and his allies in control of Rome and northern Italy. Matilde following the death of Pope Gregory took up the mantle of leadership of the reform movement and the call to oppose Henry. Just when the reformers throughout Italy and Europe thought their cause was lost -- Matilde's army defeated Henry's allies at the battle of Sorbara (located north of Modena) giving new optimism to the Reform movement.
After the death of Pope Gregory, with the support of Matilde and the Normans, Otto of Ostia (named by Pope Gregory as one of three candidates to replace him) was elected Pope Victor III in 1086. He formed a large coalition to oppose Henry that included the Normans, the Rus from Kiev and Matilde. He then excommunicated the Puppet Pope Clement III. Henry and the allies moved on Rome for the fourth time and ousted Pope Victor, the man they called the anti-pope. Hate is a powerful concomitant. Yet in spite of Henry's vitriolic attacks against the dead Pope Gregory and a vibrant and determined Matilde, Henry could not hold Rome for more than a few months. It was fiercely defended by Matilde's armies and the Normans. Pope Victor III died in 1087 and Pope Urban II succeeded him in 1088.
Matilde arranged to marry Welf II in 1089 as a means of strengthening her political position vis-a-vis the German princes. Her action was unheard of at that time. A woman proposing marriage? She was 43 and he was 18. After a marriage feast that lasted 120 days( at Matilde's expense) it was time to consummate the marriage. Back in those days this had to be confirmed. As the story goes, when they were alone, Matilde got on top of the feast table and removed all her clothing ... Welf who apparently was intimidated by her still beautiful nakedness was unable to get an erection ... and forever became known as Welf the Impotent to the Italians, who love to make love. However, his German biographers refer to him more favorably as Welf the fat. Matilde was so infuriated that she cast him out of her castle.
"Get out of my sight. Get out of my lands." she inveighed. Again, the German biographers say he left because he learned that before the marriage, Matilde had secretly bequeathed her holdings to the Church. Nontheless, as a result of the marriage Matilde acquired important alliances that stretched from her holdings in Canossa, through Northern Italy into Switzerland, in other words - all of her Nemesis Henry's supply routes.
Henry, outraged beyond belief from the opposition from Welf's clan in Bavaria and Matilde's unceasing harassment in Italy decided to mount a punitive attack on Matilde once and for all and in 1090 returned to Italy with a large army of 30,000 strong to do away with her.
"I want nothing more than to see her head on a spear and the rest of her drawn and quartered."
The bloody battle raged for five years. She wore a suit of armor and marched slightly ahead of her army.
"For Saint Peter and for Matilde!" they yelled themselves hoarse.
"Take no prisoners," was her diktat.
Remembering her first defeat, Matilde adopted a more comprehensive strategy. She made haste slowly, and together with the reformers, she replaced many of Henry's Bishops with Bishops loyal to the Church and its reforms. What did she do with the bought and paid for Bishops ? They ended up in prison, in exile to Sicily. The most recalcitrant ones felt the axe of the executioner. She also set up a network of highly trained and talented male and female spies to give her accurate and up to date information on Henry's movements. She decided to fight more of a guerilla war ... using ships to move her troops and resupply them. Deep rivers crisscrossed her lands and this mobility gave her untold advantages.
Even with all his resources, which greatly outnumbered Matilde's army, Henry suffered substantial losses and had difficulty resupplying his army from Germany. Henry was able to win the long and bloody battle of Mantua - Mantova (near the center of Matilde's holdings)because the city was easily breached. After this experience, Matilde would recommend that the river Mincio surround Mantua entirely. Matilde and Welf were at the center of all the battles, they held off Henry's army for 11 months.
In 1091 Henry's army prevailed, (he thought) and sought to end the war and return to Germany. He was tired. His soldiers exhausted. Henry offered a peace treaty to Matilde if she surrendered.
"No!" she declared and easily escaped the trap Henry had set for her.
Matilde counter-attacked Henry's army in the winter of 1091/1092 - but the battle was not as successful as it could have been. Henry was able to get away and resupply his army. He also took several hostages, including one of Matilde's key allies.
In June of 1092 a vengeful Henry mounted a major campaign against Matilde's Appenine castles devastating her lands and Castles in Modena and Bologna along the way. He then pushed to take one of her strongest castles in Monteveglio near Bazzano and was determined to capture the castle either through storming or blockade. However, the natural strength of the hilltop castle allowed Matilde to rebuff his attempts, and even launch counter-attacks against his army in which they destroyed one of his siege engines and killed one of Henry's illegitimate children. Eventually, Henry was forced to give up the battle with the approach of winter and retire to lower ground. However, the emperor still remained in a strong position.
At this point, Henry decided to attack Matilde's castle in Canossa - the site of his humiliation. Matilde on learning of this through her many spies, marshaled her resources to mount a defense of the castle. But she did something unusual, she split her army into two pieces ... leaving part to defend the castle and part to be available to support them.
She was Fortune's child that day. During the siege a heavy fog descended over the battlefield. Using a combination of trumpets and bugles, Matilde was able to give the impression that she had a large force approaching Henry's position. Her guerilla armies disseminated confusion.In one of these disconcerting moments, one officer in Matilde's army was able to capture Henry's flag and Matilde moved swiftly to hide it in an Abbey close by . She was also its Patroness and Protector.This caused a great loss of face for Henry. The shame at losing their standard spread over the entire army as quickly as the dark fog which had blanketed them. Some of his officers lost confidence and morale. In the midst of this ignominious event, Matilde's buglers and trumpeters continued their terrorizing "plays" back and forth between the plain blackened by fog and her Castle of Canossa, also hidden from view by nebulous phenomena.
Some say it was the turning point in the war for wars are fought not only with arms on battlegrounds. Wars are fought in the minds, hearts and spirits of the men who fight, bleed, leave an arm , a leg or a heart there.
Besides being in a position to continuously raise arms to support her armies, and her ability to lead and inspire them, Matilde was a brilliant strategist and deal maker. Her next big coup was to convince Henry's eldest legitimate son and crown prince Conrad, to join forces with her as an ally in 1093 (he was 19 at the time). Her spies may have told her that Henry was mean and abusive towards his son. This was a huge conquest without any bloodshed. Sun Tzu would have been elated. The lands controlled by Conrad's mother, Adelaide and claimed by Conrad included the route that Henry used to invade Italy in the first place. Conrad's alliance with Matilde effectively closed off all chances for Henry to resupply his army which, by this time had been reduced to less than a third as a result of his battles with Matilde.
The real coup-de-grace occurred in 1094 with the rescue of Henry's wife / Conrad's mother - Eupraxia or as she was known in Germany - Adelaide. Henry, a famous womanizer, had imprisoned his wife in Germany - and even punished her by offering his soldiers the opportunity to "have her". Eventually, she was moved to a prison in northern Italy, and Matilde arranged for a commando raid to free her. Her Commandos succeeded beyond all expectations. No one was hurt. The enemy remained unaware of their presence for hours. Queen Adelaide, on Matilde's orders was brought to Canossa where she was reunited with her son, Prince Conrad.
Now Matilde was in possession of Henry's flag, his son and heir Conrad, and his wife Adelaide. Henry's ability to resupply was effectively and permanently cut off. Nothing is more damaging to a King than ridicule. His alliances began to fall apart both in Italy and in Germany. Henry was forced to go from the offensive to the defensive.
Matilde was able to retake all of her lands in Tuscany. Mantua begged her to come back as their Duchess. She took back Modena and Bologna. The people threw flowers, at her feet and knelt on the ground to kiss the foot of her suited armor. She expanded her allies ... which later included all of Liguria, and Pisa. They declared Matilde Viceroy of Italy.
Henry tried one last pitiful time to defeat Matilde by attacking her castle in Nogara but he was again outfoxed by Matilde and finally withdrew from Italy in 1095, never to be seen or heard from again.
MATILDE'S TOTAL DEFEAT OF EMPEROR HENRY IV REPRESENTED THE FIRST TIME THAT AN INVADING GERMANIC ARMY HAD BEEN DEFEATED BY AN ARMY BASED IN ITALY.
In some ways it was like the Roman's defeat of Carthage ... for never again did a German army defeat and occupy Italy for any period of time until 1943 when an angry Hitler send his armies to invade Italy after the King signed an Armistice with the Allies. It also re-affirmed the power of the Catholic Church and of the duly elected Pope.
From 1095 Matilde continued to fight and defeated Henry's allies in Italy up until her death in 1115. In the process she became the largest land owner in Italian history, owning most of Italy north of Rome, including parts of what is now Switzerland. In effect, she became the first Queen of Italy. Not even Caesar Augustus had as much fertile and productive land as Matilde di Canossa.
In recognition of her masterful accomplishments, Matilde di Canossa was the first person ever interred in St. Peter's Basilica who was not a Pope or a Saint.
The famous sculptor Bernini designed and built her tomb.
She was the first, and is only one of two women buried in St. Peters.
At a time of great upheaval and need, Matilde rose to the occasion and her tenacity, ability to inspire, and dedication won the day against great odds - and is one of the principal reasons for the successful growth and expansion of power by the modern Catholic Church as we know it today.
Matilde di Canossa is probably one of the most successful female generals of all time. Unlucky in marriage (I mean really - a hunchback and an impotent fatty?), she excelled in other ways and in my opinion she is one of the most incredible women of the Middle Ages.
As an aside ... I once had dealings with her descendant, the Duchess of Canossa when I was in China ... another very strong woman in her own right, and another story all together.
Canossa hase ntered our vocabulary and our metaphors. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia once declared"The state of Prussia will never make a physical pilgrimage nor a spiritual one to Canossa."
Napoleon Bonaparte ruefully reminisced "If I had gone to Canossa instead of the Vatican, events might have turned out differently."
Abraham Lincoln" Gettysburg will never be Canossa."
Adolf Hitler on his release from Landsberg Prison" The NSDAP is never going to Canossa in any way, shape or form."
Lest we forget, Dante placed " La Divina Contessa Matilde di Canossa, Madonna della Guerra - Madonna of War, in the 11th canto of Paradise.
NOTE: The Author first presented her research regarding Matilde Di Canossa as part 1 of her five lectures on Incredible Women of the Middle Ages.
This presentation was made at the Italo-Brittanic Association in Genoa.