This is the story of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115), a faithful and fateful woman for the Catholic Church. She is not well known among the faithful today, and that is a shame, because history records few more loyal friends of the papacy.
The story starts with the monk Hildebrand, one of the most influential and fascinating individuals in the eleventh century. Adviser to several popes, the reform-minded cleric championed the proposal to change the election method for the papacy. Recognizing that the Church needed independence from the intrigues of secular rulers, who saw the papacy as a means of influence and wealth, Hildebrand convinced Pope Nicholas II (r. 1058-1061) to remove secular interference in papal elections by placing electoral responsibility on the cardinals of the Roman Church.
Hildebrand’s sharpened focus on securing ecclesial liberation from secular medieval lords continued during his pontificate. Elected pope himself in 1073, Hildebrand took the name Gregory VII and embarked on one of the most tumultuous papacies in history. Gregory elevated papal understanding of authority in relationship to the secular sphere by advocating that the pope was not merely the moral teacher of kings, but the moral judge. A pope, Gregory argued, could impose ecclesiastical penalties on recalcitrant rulers with secular implications. For example, Gregory maintained that excommunication resulted in the deposition of a ruler and the lifting of oaths of loyalty and fealty. Accordingly, papal punishments for secular malfeasance, especially against the Church, could produce legitimate rebellion in a secular ruler’s territory.
Gregory’s desire for ecclesial independence drew the ire of the German king Henry IV. Henry followed longstanding royal custom in German territory, where bishops, who were both secular and spiritual officials, were selected by the king. In the ceremony appointing the bishop to his office, the secular lord gave secular symbols (a sword or spear) and spiritual symbols (ring and crozier), and the new bishop took an oath of fealty to the king, performed an act of homage, and was then ordained, usually by the metropolitan bishop. This ceremony gave the impression that the king’s appointment made the vassal a bishop and that the diocese was the king’s gift to him. Reform-minded clerics, like Pope Gregory VII, despised this practice of lay investiture and sought its eradication. Gregory banned lay investiture in 1075, which produced an epic contest of wills between king and pope for the next decade.
Henry denounced the papal ban on lay investiture and called for the removal of Gregory, who, in response, excommunicated the king, prompting a political crisis in German territory. The German nobility ordered the king to make peace with the pope or be deposed and requested Gregory’s presence at a meeting in Augsburg the following year to discuss the situation. Gregory agreed to attend the meeting and began the journey. He spent the winter at Canossa in Northern Italy, in the territory of his faithful supporter, Countess Matilda of Tuscany.
Matilda’s life was consumed by the struggle between Church and state, and she knew the sufferings inflicted on society by the political desires of selfish men. A revolt against Emperor Henry III in Northern Italy led to the brief captivity of Matilda and her mother, Beatrice, and their transportation to German territory for a time. As a young girl, Matilda received an education and was known as a diligent student with an aptitude for learning, especially Latin. Matilda married Godfrey (“the Hunchback”) of Lower Lorraine for a time, but they separated in 1071. She focused on managing her extensive land holdings in central and northern Italy, which encompassed the main road from Italy to German territory through the Alps.
In the winter of 1077, Matilda’s impregnable castle at Canossa was witness to one of the most dramatic episodes in medieval history. During a brutally cold winter, the excommunicated King Henry IV and a small group of followers traveled through the Alps to Canossa to beg mercy from Pope Gregory VII. The repentant king asked to enter the castle to meet with Gregory, but the pope demurred and left the king in the cold for three days. Eventually, Gregory relented, because Matilda had persuaded him to, and allowed Henry entrance. The king begged forgiveness, which Gregory accepted. While Henry was reconciled to the Church, Gregory did not restore the king to his throne, because that decision was saved for the meeting in Augsburg.
However, Henry utilized his confession at Canossa to reassert his claim to political power. His noble supporters rallied to him, but some German barons, furious at the pope for granting forgiveness to the king, rebelled. The rebel nobles elected a new king, Rudolf of Swabia, in March 1077. Conflicted on how to resolve the issue of the two claimants, Gregory hesitated before finally deciding three years later, in 1080, in Rudolf’s favor. Henry consequently declared the pope a “false monk, ravisher of churches, [and a] necromancer” while appointing an antipope, Guibert, the archbishop of Ravenna, who took the name Clement III.
A few months later, Henry’s forces killed Rudolf, ending the rebellion. Years later, after another excommunication, Henry marched on Rome and besieged the city. Gregory invited the Normans in southern Italy to come to his aid. The Norman advance prompted Henry’s withdrawal to German lands, but then the Normans sacked the city, and Gregory was forced into exile, where he died in 1085.
Throughout the Investiture Controversy, Matilda was the pope’s ardent supporter, providing soldiers and money when needed. Gregory referred to Matilda and her mother as the “sisters and daughters of St. Peter.” She was known to ride into battle in armor with her troops in the conflict against Henry IV—a warrior-countess, called the “shield of Pope St. Gregory VII” during his most desperate hour.
Matilda bequeathed her lands to the Roman Church in 1077 and again in 1112. Upon her death from gout in 1115, a dispute arose between the Church and the German lords over the territory, but eventually, Emperor Frederick II confirmed the Church’s rights to the holdings.
Matilda was buried in an abbey near Mantua. But in 1634, Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-1644) ordered her remains reinterred in St. Peter’s Basilica as an honor for this great defender of the papacy and faithful daughter of the Church.