Sunday, February 7, 2010


For more than 600 years, following  King Odoacer's overthrow of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 when he officially became the King of Italy - no army based in Italy had ever defeated the German invaders.   

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!

Following Odoacer's victory - lands in northern Italy (north of Rome) / Switzerland were given to his officers and soldiers and their descendants, who had controlled this area for centuries.  The title of Emperor was resurrected by Charlemagne on Christmas day 800 and legitimized by the Pope (important to remember for future reference in this article), although the first time the title Holy Roman Emperor was used was by Otto 1 in 962.  By the way this title continued until 1806 when Francis II (of Austria) dissolved the Empire during the Napoleonic Wars.   

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).

Matilde di Canossa was born in 1046, the youngest child of her parents. She was of Longobard, (Germanic) descent and was fluent in German, French, Latin, and the Tuscan dialect which would become the Italian language. 

 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).

Emperor Henry III was outraged by the marriage of Beatrice and descended into Italy, captured and imprisoned Matilde, her mother Beatrice and her infant son Frederick in Germany. Frederick died during the imprisonment leaving 8 year old Matilde the only beneficiary of unimaginable wealth.  The question remains and I must ask it. Was the child Matilde and her mother abused in any way? Sexually, probably not. After all, Henry had hopes of marrying Matilde to his son, the future King Henry IV. Godfrey the Bearded, outraged at the treatment of his wife and son, to say nothing of the Midas rich Matilde. returned to Germany and with his allies forced Henry III to release his wife and restore his position of favor.   He and Matilde's mother, together with Matilde, then returned to Italy in 1055 to oversee Matilde's estates.

Sometime between Matilde 1055 and 1069 she consummated her marriage to her step-brother Godfrey the Hunchback and in 1071 she gave birth to her daughter Beatrice.  According to Wikipedia:

"Virtually all current biographies of Matilda assert that Matilde's daughter died in its first year of infancy, however genealogies contemporaneous with Michelangelo Buonarroti claimed that Beatrice survived, and Michelangelo himself claimed to be a descendant of Beatrix and, therefore, Matilda. Michelangelo's claim was supported at the time by the reigning Count of Canossa. The Catholic Church, possibly motivated by its claim against her property, has always asserted that Matilda never had any child at all."

From what I can tell, Matilde was tall, blond, athletic (she was an excellent rider and trained to handle weapons with dexterity). She was considered fair and lovely (as the picture to the left indicates).   In other words,  a classic Teutonic beauty.

Marriage to Godfrey the Hunchback must have been difficult and tedious for her. Although he was considered to be bright, and a good military strategist in his own right,  he had back problems due to his hump. According to his biographer, poor Godfrey was not very athletic. nor was he agile enough to perform sexual acts to Matilde's satisfaction. She was a carnal and feminine woman. In any case, after the birth of their daughter, Godfrey and Matilde became estranged and he returned to Germany.    Later - Pope Gregory VII advised her to terminate all sexual relations with her husband because of the issue of consanguinity.

Following her husband's return to Germany, Matilde at the age of 24 assumed full control over her vast land holdings in Northern Italy and initiated the decisions and actions that make her such an incredible woman. This is not only my opinion but historians, statesmen, military strategists and Church leaders through out the ages up to our 21st century.

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:

1. From 500 to 1500 AD the Muslim Empire included the Middle East, Siciliy, Spain, and Northern Africa, There was concern over its hegemony and even more worrisome, was its fierce commercial and financial competition with Europe.  Although this period is wrongfully referred to in the West at the Dark or Middle Ages, it is referred to as the Golden Age of the Muslim world - a period of great innovation, expansion, and a thousand and one inventions by Muslim Arabs.  For example in 1050 the Muslim invention - Astrolabe (sort of the GPS of its time) came into use in Europe.

2.   The Norman conquest of Sicily began (it would take the Normans ( another Germanic tribe)  30 long and bloody years before finally defeating the Muslims.

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.

4.  In 1054 Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople  refused to compromise on any point of their religious differences and angrily excommunicated each other - the final step in the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox churches that remains unresolved to this day.

5.   William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy (men from the North, thus Germanic) defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and named himself King of England.

6.   1066 - Matilde's future husband, Godfrey the Hunchback defeated the Italo-Normans (Normans who came back from the Holy land ... married Italian women and settled in Italy) in Rome on behalf of Emperor Henry IV.

To fully appreciate Matilde's accomplishments, some background information is needed on the two men who impacted her life and the conflict to the death  between them.  I am referring to  Pope Saint Gregory VII, Emperor Henry IV and the famous Investiture Controversy.

Pope Gregory VII was born Hildebrand of Sovana (Southern Tuscany), the son of a blacksmith.  As a youth he was sent to Rome to study.  Among his masters was the erudite Lawrence, Archbishop of Amalfi and the future Pope Gregory VI. When the latter was deposed by Henry III and exiled to Germany, Hildebrand followed him to Cologne. After Pope Gregory III's death, Hildebrand moved to  the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in France and later returned to Rome. Because of his clarity of mind, his political acumen, his wise counsel, his austere habits and his profound spirituality; Hildebrand found himself as it were- Advisor and Councilor to several Popes before he himself was elected Pope in 1073 in his own right by the Cardinals to the general acclamation of the Roman people. According to Wikipedia:

"In the decree of election those who had chosen him as pontiff proclaimed him "a devout man, a man mighty in human and divine knowledge, a distinguished lover of equity and justice, a man firm in adversity and temperate in prosperity, a man, according to the saying of the Apostle, of good behaviour, blameless, modest, sober, chaste, given to hospitality, and one that ruleth well his own house; a man from his childhood generously brought up in the bosom of this Mother Church, and for the merit of his life already raised to the archidiaconal dignity". "We choose then", they said to the people, "our Archdeacon Hildebrand to be pope and successor to the Apostle, and to bear henceforward and forever the name of Gregory" (April 22, 1073)."

For more than 700 years it was common for kings and rulers outside of Rome to select and appoint Cardinals, bishops, and even Popes.  It was also common that these were married men, which meant that frequently their estates were passed to their progeny / back to the king.   One of Pope Gregory VII's first acts in 1074 was to abolish simony and insist on the celibacy of priests.   He also declared, at the second council of Gregory that the Pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen or move them from see to see.

One view of history is that Gregory was a leader of the reform movement and sought these changes for spiritual reasons to preserve the faith and the Church which Jesus had founded upon a rock - Petros -  which means rock in Greek. It was also the name of the first Pope, Peter.   

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.

Emperor Henry IV did not take well to having his power to award and administer Church lands and properties removed by the Pope. Indeed, he was enraged. He openly opposed Pope Gregory's declaration.  The Pope, a man of character would not tolerate any threats. Result?  Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Emperor Henry IV - unequivocally. 


Henry IV was born 4 years after Matilde (1050), and was the youngest son of Emperor Henry III and his wife Agnes di Poitou - at the age of 3 Emperor Henry III had his nobles promise their fidelity to Henry IV and then had him elected King.   When Henry III died in 1056, the ascension of Henry IV was not opposed.  

 Shortly after Henry IV was made king, a church council in Rome declared, with In Nomine Domini, that secular leaders would play no part in the selection of popes and created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials or as they came to be known - Princes of the Church. To this day the College of Cardinals selects the Pope. Once Rome regained control of the election of the Pope in the now famous Conclave, it was ready to attack the practice of secular investiture on a broad front. This action set up the  conflict  which would arise almost constantly between the Popes and Secular leaders for the control of the Church, Church properties and its wealth and treasures.

In 1062 a conspiracy of nobles led by the Archbishop of Cologne kidnapped Henry but with help from his nobles he managed to escape.  At the age of 15 he was declared of age and his reign was marked by his need / desire to consolidate Imperial Power.  In 1066 he was married to Bertha but in 1068 he attempted to divorce her, but this was denied by the Papal Legate.  Henry, seething with frustration gave in and took back his wife. 

In the late 1060's Henry led a number of successful expeditions to quash rebellions in Saxony, Swabia, and Bavaria.  Initially in need of support for his expeditions in Saxony and Thuringia, Henry adhered to the Papal decrees in religious matters. His apparent weakness, however, had the side effect of spurring the ambitions of Gregory VII for Papal hegemony.

So let's move ahead a bit to 1075.   In that year Pope Gregory VII asserted in the Dictatus Papae that as the Roman church was founded by God alone; the papal power was the sole universal power - and only the Pope could appoint or dispose of churchmen.  Henry IV was no longer a child, and he reacted to this declaration and attempt to reduce his power by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he rescinded his imperial support of Gregory as Pope in no uncertain terms: the letter was headed Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk. It called for the election of a new pope. The situation was made even more dire when Henry IV installed his chaplain as Bishop of Milan, when a candidate had already been chosen by the Pope  in Rome. 

On Christmas day 1075, a Roman nobleman kidnapped and imprisoned Pope Gregory.  At Worms, on 24 January 1076, a synod of bishops and princes summoned and bribed by Henry declared Gregory VII's Papacy null and void. The people of Rome, indignant at the vile acts committed against their Pope freed him. His captors feared violent reprisals from the people. Pope Gregory accused Henry of having ordered his capture and imprisonment. Pope Gregory responded decisively.  On the 22th of February 1076, He excommunicated the Emperor and all the Bishops named by him.


The German aristocracy was happy to hear of the king's deposition. They used his excommunication as an excuse to continue the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075, and for the seizure of royal holdings. Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts, which had previously been outlawed, and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.  Thus, because of these combining factors, Henry IV had no choice but to back down and acknowledge the Pope's authority in order to win back his allies. Like Stalin who signed the Pact with his sworn and hated enemy, Hitler, Henry desperately needed time to marshall his forces to quash the rebellion.

One of the nobles who stayed loyal to Henry IV was Matilde's husband Godfrey the Hunchback.  Unfortunately for him, while fighting for Henry IV in Flanders, someone shoved a spear up his anal region while he was using the toilet and he died.  Poor Godfrey, what an atrocious way to die..    Some say Matilde was behind the murder of her husband, but personally I don't think so as he was already out of sight and he was surely out of mind. From a strategic position on the chess board, his death weakened her position back in Italy.

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.

Because of the increasing successes of his enemies, and pressure from his allies, Henry offered to apologize to the Pope in person if he came to Germany, but the Pope fearing foul play, suggested Canossa as a venue at the urging of Matilde. Henry agreed.  The Pope came and stayed with Matilde for several months and waited for Henry IV to appear.  During this time, Pope Gregory and Matilde became quite close as their warm letters between each other that have survived attest to.   Some detractors even say they became lovers; And so? The Pope was charismatic, well built, decisive,  attractive by all accounts. Matilde had to put up with a hunchback, whom would a sexy woman choose? I personally don't believe any sexual fun and games ever took place between the Pope and Matilde. His stance on celibacy was so strong and unswerving, he would have lost Matilde forever as an ally if he had even hinted at a sexual advance. I am not saying that a passionate affair did not cross their minds. Both had strong carnal drives. But I think both sublimated their desire for each other. They had more important affairs to mastermind. 

When Henry reached Canossa, the Pope ordered that he be refused entry. According to the first-hand accounts of the scene (letters written by both Gregory and Henry in the following years), Henry waited by the gate for three full days. During this time, he allegedly wore only his penitent hair shirt and fasted.  On the 28th of January 1077, the gates were opened for Henry and he was allowed to enter the fortress. Contemporary accounts report that he knelt before Pope Gregory and begged his forgiveness. Gregory absolved Henry and invited him back into the Church. That evening, Gregory, Henry, and Matilda shared communion in the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas inside the fortress, signaling the official end of Henry's excommunication.  I can easily believe that at this time Henry's fury and almost psychotic hatred of Matilde was born. Debasing himself in front of Pope Gregory in the haughty presence of the Countess/Duchess Matilde spurred him to evermore violence against the Pope and in particular, against "that vile woman."

Henry returned to Germany expecting his authority to be firmly re-established, but while he was away a small group of Saxon and South German magnates, headed by his brother-in-law Rudolf, and including the Archbishops of Salzburg, Mainz and Magdeburg, said Henry had lost his Imperial dignity by going to Canossa, and seized control of half of all of Henry's lands. Rudolf declared himself the anti-king.   As soon as Henry set foot on German soil, civil war broke out.  Henry in a desperate attempt to regain his   empire, began awarding bishoprics and bribes to his loyal clerics and allies. Pope Gregory, having received information on Henry's volta face and the status of the battles excommunicated Henry once again.  

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.   

In 1084 Henry took control of Rome at last. He confiscated the Papal seal.  Pope Gregory VII was deposed and Henry IV installed Pope Clement III ( his own appointee) who immediately crowned Henry IV as the Holy Roman Emperor.  

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.   


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.

Emboldened by the defeat of Henry and  following the appeal of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, Pope Urban I called on Christians in Europe to undertake the first Crusade in 1095.   By 1099, the crusaders came by land and sea to Constantinople.  By 1099, the crusaders had recaptured Jerusalem.  Although these gains lasted for less than two hundred years, the First Crusade was part of the Christian response to the Islamic conquests, as well as the first major step towards reopening international trade in the West since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

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.


  1. Isabel-
    Wow, I just finished reading your wonderful work on Mathilde. What a fascinating woman she was.... and you are just as interesting.

    When you are ready to publish the stories of the women of the middle ages, I would suggest that you secure an agent to represent your work and seek a traditional publishing house instead of a small independent publisher like me. My guess is that publishing in London may be even better than New York, but that is just my intution.

    Your work on Saints is also of great interest to me. I would love to read both the women of the middle ages work as well as the ones on Saints.

    Your writing is so interesting and urges me to think. I love that!

    Thank you for sharing this with me. Let's keep in touch. I'm not sure that I can help you, but I will do so if possible. At any rate, I want to purchase your wonderful books and enjoy reading them.

    They should be in libraries around the globe.

  2. Isabel is certainly a talented lady who os admired by many . She is btilliant and we are all fond of her. May I wish her continued happiness. Her admirer and friend on facebook from Washington, D.C., USA

  3. Wonderful articles Isabel - looking forward to more of your works when you get them published.

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