You can’t have a conversation about powerful people without talking about Matilda of Tuscany. A commanding woman who brought peace and destruction as she saw fit, her glorious achievements during her lifetime undoubtedly shaped the course of history. A lover, a fighter, and a genius, Matilda had it all in one powerful package—and that made her end all the more tragic.
Matilda of Tuscany Facts
1. She Was Powerful
Matilda came from a doozy of a powerful Italian family. Her father presided over no less than 13 different territories, while her mother brought over five more territories (plus a sweet château) to the high-powered marriage. When Matilda entered the world in around 1046, she immediately became one of the most powerful baby girls in the Holy Roman Empire. But her luxurious life would get rocky fast.
2. She Was A Genius
Matilda, along with her siblings, grew up around educated scholars and priests. Matilda, in particular, quickly proved herself to have quite the sharp little mind. She mastered Latin with ease, and probably learned German and French too. She quickly learned the importance, and power, of religion, and may have even learned strategy and tactics as well.
Matilda soaked it all up like a sponge. Unfortunately, she’d have to put her knowledge to use much earlier than anyone expected.
3. Her Father Suffered A Mysterious Fate
In 1052, Matilda’s father lost his life, but the circumstances surrounding the incident remain shrouded in mystery. There was no doubt that Matilda’s father, as the powerful head of the House of Canossa, had many enemies. Some say his enemies, tired of his rule, pierced him with a poisoned arrow. Others say it was merely an accident. Either way, she was just six years old when her older brother became head of the family.
Then, just one year later, more tragedy struck Matilda’s family.
4. Her Mother Angered The Emperor
In 1503, Matilda became the heiress presumptive when her older sister left the earthly plane. With her family shrinking and her brother still too young to protect them, Matilda’s mother made a calculated political decision. The following year, in mid-1504, she remarried. Matilda’s new stepfather, however, came with his own set of issues.
He openly rebelled against Emperor Henry III, a kinsman of Matilda’s family. When Henry heard about the marriage, he made sure Matilda and her family felt the depth of his anger.
5. She Lost Everything
1055 became a year full of horrors for Matilda. That year, a very angry Emperor Henry captured both Matilda and her mother, imprisoning them in Germany, while Matilda’s stepfather managed to evade capture. This wasn’t all that happened though. Soon after the arrest, Matilda’s older brother, much like their father, passed on due to some very suspicious circumstances. With her siblings gone, Matilda became the last member of the House of Canossa.
6. They Had Luck On Their Side
Henry III never quite managed to capture Matilda’s stepfather. He continued to be a thorn in Henry III’s side, until an incredible stroke of luck befell Matilda and her family. Henry III passed in October of 1056 and with his early demise came forgiveness for Matilda’s stepfather. The new king Henry IV released Matilda and her mother, allowing the pair to joyfully return to Italy, where she began performing her duties as the sole heir to the House of Canossa.
7. She Became The Protector Of The Church
Due to Henry IV’s young age, the Papacy turned to Matilda’s powerful family for protection. Luckily for them, Matilda had a deep sense of spirituality and was deeply devoted to the Papacy. This meant that when a series of antipopes attempted to rise to power, Matilda jumped at the chance to put down these pretenders. In fact, one of her earliest forays into battle happened when Matilda was just 15 years old…
8. She Inspired Her Men
When Matilda was 15, she received news that her stepfather planned to let an antipope named Cadalous cross their territories to Rome. Well, Matilda wasn’t going to let that happen! She went to her mother, begging for control of their men to confront the dastardly antipope. After listening to Matilda’s impassioned speech, her mother conceded.
Soon after, Matilda led a group of knights in armor and peasants with farm tools into battle. When Matilda happened upon the opposing forces in Tuscany, she rallied her men, who surged forward like an unstoppable tidal wave.
9. She Was A Teen Hero
Although Cadalous had a much larger force, they were bone-tired from a perilous mountain trek. As a result, Matilda’s force of fresh men managed to repel back Cadalous’s force. Young Matilda soon emerged triumphant, but to her frustration, Cadalous managed to run. Matilda decided to make a quick strategic retreat to re-evaluate her options. However, one of the options to take her completely by surprise.
10. She Made A Calculated Decision
In exchange for joining their forces together, Matilda’s stepfather proposed a betrothal between Matilda and his son, Godfrey the Hunchback. For Matilda’s stepfather, this was the perfect way to truly cement their families together, and for Matilda, this was her best chance of protecting the Papacy in Rome from Cadalous. This was technically a win-win for all (if, you know, you ignored the fact they were step-siblings). Matilda eventually accepted the proposal, and the two set off for Rome.
11. She Emerged Victorious
Matilda’s forces joined the forces of Rome in a long and bloody battle against the invading men. On horseback, Matilda rode up and down her ranks, rallying her forces while watching out for the wounded. In the end, Matilda and her men emerged victorious. Cadalous, exhausted by their battle, withdrew. Matilda returned home, triumphant, glorious… and ready to fulfill her promise to marry Godfrey the Hunchback. Things for Matilda started going downhill almost immediately.
12. They Hated Each Other
Unfortunately, Matilda and her new husband just didn’t have much in common. They differed in matters of religion, and his physical deformity only fueled their dislike of one another. Not even the passing of Matilda’s step-dad in 1069 brought the newlyweds together. The two always seemed on the verge of calling it quits, until a family tragedy finally tore them apart.
13. Tragedy Tore Them Apart
In 1070, Matilda became pregnant and gave birth to a little girl around 1071. Matilda barely had any time to enjoy being a new mom, however—the infant didn’t make it past her first few weeks of life. The heartbreaking event drove an even deeper wedge between Matilda and her husband, and eventually, Matilda separated from him entirely. She returned to her mother, and began strengthening her ties to Italy. However, Matilda didn’t manage to escape her husband for long.
14. He Hunted Her Down
Matilda’s husband was not at all happy with her decision to just up and leave him. He repeatedly demanded her return, which she refused each time. Frustrated, her husband decided that he needed to take care of things personally, and went to Italy in early 1072. He wanted to reestablish his marriage with Matilda, and reinforce his claims on her land to boot. Little did he know, Matilda had one heck of a plot twist up her sleeve…
15. She Almost Threw It All Away
Not only did Matilda decide to reject her husband because she simply didn’t like him, but she also decided that she wanted to become a nun. So unshakeable was her determination that her husband eventually left Italy, empty-handed and enraged. In 1073, she began petitioning Pope Gregory VII for a divorce in order to become a nun, but her vengeful husband managed to make that an impossible task.
16. He Crushed Her Dreams
During this time, Gregory VII and Henry IV were in a struggle for authority over Church affairs. Knowing this, Matilda’s husband promised to support Gregory…if Gregory barred Matilda from getting a divorce. As a result, Matilda never got her divorce, and never fulfilled her dream of becoming a nun. As if it wasn’t enough to have her dreams utterly crushed, Matilda soon found herself smack-dab in the middle of the power struggle between Gregory and Henry too.
17. She Decided The Fate Of Her House
Matilda began to consolidate her power by co-ruling the House of Canossa with her mother. This put her in a very delicate situation. If Matilda decided to side her house with Gregory, like her heart wanted, she would be going against the Emperor, who was also her cousin. If she sided with the Emperor, she would be going against every principle she stood for. This was a dangerous crossroads for Matilda, and her choice ultimately charted the entire course of her future.
18. She Took A Side
In the end, her heart won out. As a deeply spiritual individual, Matilda whole-heartedly supported Pope Gregory VII. In fact, when her mother tragically passed on in April 18, 1076, Matilda donated an entire town and several estates to a bishop ordained by Pope Gregory in her mother’s honor. With her mother’s passing, Matilda was now left to navigate the dangerous political minefield of the Holy Roman Empire on her own… and her husband somehow managed to make things even more complicated.
19. Her Husband Betrayed Her
Remember how Matilda’s husband swore to support Pope Gregory in exchange for his promise to never annul his marriage to Matilda? Yeah, about that… Matilda’s husband, in an act of complete betrayal, decided not to fulfill his side of the bargain with the Pope. He decided that supporting Henry would be a more advantageous choice. Now on opposite sides of the conflict, Matilda and her husband’s relationship got steadily worse, and it almost ended with both of them losing their lives.
20. They Accused Her Of Adultery
The Synod of Worms held in January of 1076 nearly ended Matilda for good. Although Matilda was not present for the synod, it had everything to do with her. During the meeting, Henry dropped a deadly accusation on Matilda: he accused her of having a sordid affair with Pope Gregory VII. To make matters worse, some historians believe that Matilda’s own husband planted the idea in Henry’s mind.
Matilda never got the chance to respond though, and the reason why was almost worse than the accusation itself.
21. She Lost Her Husband
Just a month after, the grim reaper took her husband’s life. On February 27, 1076, Matilda’s husband was—ahem—”answering the call of nature” when someone ran him through with a spear. All fingers immediately pointed to Matilda, who had every reason to hate her husband. Since Matilda wasn’t present at the Synod of Worms, and couldn’t have known about the accusations yet, this was unlikely.
One thing was for sure though: the Emperor thought of Matilda as an enemy, and she needed to be ready for his wrath.
22. Her Rule Was Undisputed
While the loss of her family was deeply tragic, their passing allowed Matilda the lands and resources necessary to protect herself from her cousin’s anger, and boy, was he positively hopping with rage. Things got worse when the Pope responded to Henry’s accusations of adultery by excommunicating him. This one act turned the Holy Roman Empire, and Matilda’s world, completely upside-down.
23. She Fought Despite The Odds
The Pope’s bold act kick-started a flurry of action within the Holy Roman Empire. German princes that supported the Pope fled to Trebur to await him, and Matilda became the leader of the expedition to get the Pope to Trebur safely. Not only was she the best candidate because she controlled all the passes from Italy to Trebur, but she was also the only one to support the Pope’s (frankly insane) plan.
Despite the enemies pressing in on all sides, Matilda almost accomplished her mission—until Henry managed to barge his way into Italy.
24. She Made A Strategic Retreat
With Henry approaching, Matilda had to think fast. She had no doubt that her cousin wasn’t exactly coming by for a friendly chat. She urged Gregory to stop the journey to Trebur, and to instead retreat to Canossa Castle, where she could better shield the Pope from the Emperor’s attack. Gregory eventually took her advice, much to Matilda’s relief. After assuring the safety of the Pope, Matilda left the castle to meet with Henry. She would end this conflict once and for all.
25. She Had Mercy
Instead of having to placate an enraged Henry, like Matilda expected, she found her cousin desperate for their conflict to end. You see, Henry’s excommunication meant that he was in danger of losing the crown, and he was ready to beg the Pope to lift his sentence. Matilda found herself feeling a bit sorry for him, despite everything, and agreed to try and arrange a meeting between Henry and the Pope. Her attempt to arrange a meeting wasn’t exactly successful.
26. She Had Compassion
The Pope not only refused Matilda’s request, but he went one step further and refused the Emperor entry into Matilda’s castle. It was January 25, 1077 by this time, meaning the Emperor was left out in the bitter cold of winter just outside of Matilda’s castle. To make matters worse, the Emperor’s wife, son, and mother-in-law were also in the entourage.
They were all tired, freezing, and starving, and despite her disagreements with her cousin, Matilda couldn’t just stand back and watch.
27. She Was A Master Negotiator
After three days, Matilda’s words finally managed to move Gregory’s heart, and he allowed Henry entry into Matilda’s castle. Matilda’s cousin, now thoroughly beaten down and altogether more humble, meekly presented himself before the Pope. Acting as a mediator, Matilda cleverly brokered an agreement between the two men, and the Pope finally absolved Henry. Soon, things went back to normal for Matilda, but the peace didn’t last for long.
28. She Shocked The World
In a move that shocked her peers, Matilda gave all her domains over to the Pope in 1079. Henry was, unsurprisingly, enraged with Matilda’s decision. This transfer of land tipped the scales of power heavily in the Pope’s favor—exactly what Matilda wanted. In response, Henry attempted to claim Matilda’s land, citing his position as Emperor and his relationship as her cousin as reasons why the land should be his, but it was to no avail.
Matilda made her decision to support the Pope loud and clear, and a year later, this almost cost her life.
29. Everyone Turned Against Her
In early March of 1080, the Pope once again excommunicated Matilda’s cousin during the Synod of Lent, threatening to dethrone him if he didn’t submit to the Papacy by August 1. This time, however, Matilda and the Pope didn’t get the support they expected. Instead, not only did the German princes and bishops support Henry, but they even nominated a new Pope named Clement III.
Despite this, Matilda swore to face her cousin in battle, no matter who was against her—and this turned out to be a terrible idea.
30. She Had Charisma To Spare
Soon, Henry mustered a sizable force and began marching towards Matilda. Never one to turn away from a challenge, Matilda put together a force of her own. Much of her force consisted of peasants, armed with little more than farming tools and their own fists, but Matilda’s sense of justice compelled them to fight. Under Matilda’s leadership, her men faced the incoming imperial force, but this time, victory didn’t come easily.
31. She Was Utterly Defeated
The imperial force was nothing like the force Matilda faced in her first battle. These were battle-hardened veterans, and they would not yield, despite the enthusiasm of Matilda’s men. Gradually, Matilda’s men lost ground and their lines broke, causing confusion to sweep through her forces. Sensing victory, the imperial force swept through Matilda’s ranks, forcing Matilda to retreat.
Matilda barely managed to get behind the gates of Florence before Henry arrived at the gates, ready for a showdown.
32. She Was On The Run
Matilda managed to hold the city for several weeks as Henry laid siege to its walls, but victory alluded her. Soon, Matilda agreed to let Florence’s citizens surrender, while she escaped in the cover of darkness. Unable to turn the tide of battle, Matilda ran from town to town, her force hounded by Henry’s men. They managed to push Matilda all the way back to Canossa Castle, where Matilda decided to make her last stand.
33. He Tried To Starve Her
Outside of Matilda’s stronghold, her cousin made the grim order to starve Matilda into submission by cutting off all supplies heading in and out of the castle. Matilda no longer had access to the nearby village, and her men slowly began to starve. Matilda managed to stay cheerful throughout it all to bolster their spirits, but cheer didn’t fill their empty stomachs.
Still, they held on, until Matilda saw an opportunity to fight back in an early morning in October.
34. She Was Battle-Savvy
That morning, a thick fog covered the area surrounding the castle. Matilda took this as a sign, and ordered her men to use the fog as a cover to attack Henry’s men. Many of Henry’s men, still asleep, were completely unprepared for Matilda’s sudden approach. Henry ordered his men to retreat, allowing Matilda access to resources once again.
However, this merely prolonged the siege, since neither side backed down. The stalemate dragged on for two long years, and during this time, Matilda found her position as Countess being challenged.
35. Her People Betrayed Her
With victory uncertain, many nobles turned against Matilda. Even some of her own people turned against her; the town of Lucca, which housed many of Matilda’s valuables, threw open their gates and welcomed Henry’s men in December of 1080. The bishop Matilda installed there fled as a result, furthering chipping away at Matilda’s influence.
To make things worse, Henry finally managed to force the Pope into exile. By all accounts, Matilda was losing, and still, she refused to give up. It was time for some desperate measures.
36. He Drove Her To Desperation
Matilda’s cousin continued to slowly take apart Matilda’s sphere of influence, but Matilda managed to hang onto many of her supporters. Some loved her out of loyalty, but some loved Matilda because of her generous gifts. After years of waging guerilla war, however, Matilda’s vast stores of wealth finally ran dry. By 1082, she had nothing more to give to her retainers, and many threatened to leave. Matilda, as a result, ended up making a heartbreaking decision.
37. She Committed A Grave Sin
While Matilda continued to be an ardent supporter of the Pope, she began distancing herself from some of Gregory’s more radical ideas in an effort to keep her supporters happy. She also began melting down precious church treasures in order to have enough money to support the Pope’s cause. For many, this was a questionable practice at best, and Henry used this to his advantage.
38. She Lost Her Influence
Henry spun Matilda’s desperation to his own advantage. Matilda, he claimed, was plundering precious treasures from churches and monasteries (how dare she!). As a result, the city of Pisa joined Lucca in siding with Henry, and just like that, Matilda lost two of her most important cities in Italy. Matilda’s cousin continued to gain more and more power, until he managed to make Matilda’s worst nightmare come true.
39. She Suffered A Devastating Defeat
Henry officially named Clement III the Pope, and Clement, in turn, crowned Henry the Emperor, lifting Gregory’s excommunication sentence. Henry triumphantly went back home to Germany. While this was a devastating blow for Matilda, it gave her a chance to catch her breath. She knew the moment of peace wouldn’t last for long—after all, she had royally angered her cousin, and he wasn’t the type to gracefully leave a conflict. Matilda ended up being unfortunately right about that.
40. She Defeated His Men
On July 2, 1084, Henry’s allies attempted to take down Matilda for good, but the campaign quickly became disastrous. After Henry’s allies set up camp near Modena and settled in for the night, Matilda’s men surprised them in the cover of darkness and managed to drive them out. Matilda once again managed to stymie Henry’s quest to completely dominate the Church, but she didn’t get much time to celebrate her win. Just a year later, tragedy struck.
41. She Lost More Allies
On May 25, 1085, Gregory lost his life due to old age. Through her grief, Matilda managed to support the new pope, Victor III. However, Victor was far less eager to fight against Henry and Clement. In 1087, Matilda invaded Rome to put Victor on the Papal Throne, but Victor quickly ordered Matilda to back down when the imperial legion fought back.
Matilda would never get a second chance to try again—before the year was up, illness claimed Victor’s life. Matilda was on her own.
42. She Brokered A Marriage
By 1088, Henry was ready to invade Matilda’s lands again. This time, Matilda didn’t use force to resist him, but instead entered a political marriage with Welf V, heir to the duchy of Bavaria. While Welf didn’t bring with him vast resources, he did bring with him the chance for Matilda, now in her forties, a chance to produce an heir. Oh, and there was a very disturbing twist. Welf was only 15 or 17 years old, and he definitely acted his age.
43. Her Husband Feared Her
The couple married in 1089, and problems immediately began. Welf suspected Matilda of witchcraft, and feared her so much that he refused to share the marital bed with her. For Matilda, who needed to pop out an heir ASAP, this wouldn’t do. On day three, she laid herself on a table and presented herself to Welf, without a lick of clothes on her body. Every boy’s dream come true, right? Not exactly.
44. She Hated Her Husband
Matilda’s display completely dumbfounded Welf, and Matilda, already worn thin from Henry’s repeated invasions, snapped. She slapped Welf across the face and ordered him out of her sight, and by the Spring of 1095, the couple separated. Despite attempts to get the two to reconcile, they never got back together again. Needless to say, the whole “producing an heir” plan didn’t work out. With that, Henry attacked Matilda once again.
45. She Took Advantage Of The Rebels
To add insult to injury, Welf’s family switched sides and joined Henry on the offensive against Matilda. Henry, who now held all the cards, began to attack Matilda in earnest. What he didn’t realize, however, was that fortune was starting to favor Matilda once again. Many of the cities that Henry managed to take from Matilda began to rebel.
Matilda, sensing the turning of the tides, took advantage of their wavering allegiances. Unfortunately, this also signalled the beginning of the end for our intrepid Countess.
46. She Made A Dangerous Deal
The cities weren’t just rebelling against Henry. They were rebelling against the idea of being ruled at all, and were ready to become their own city-states. As a result, many offered Matilda their support, if she promised them their own rights and freedoms. With little choice, Matilda conceded. This once again gave her a foothold in the fight against Henry, but it came at an unbearably high cost.
47. She Won At A Cost
Everything came to a head in 1097. With the support of several powerful cities in Italy, as well as the assistance of the French who were heading off to the First Crusade, Matilda finally managed to reinstate a new Pope to the Papal Throne. Matilda lost much of her power as a result, however. With many of the cities now having the right to decide in their own affairs, Matilda became less and less important in the grand scheme of things.
Despite her achievements, the world was beginning to move on without her.
48. She Became Less Powerful
As Matilda lost her ability to enforce the law, the bishops began to run wild. Many of these bishops began to aggressively expand their power and spheres of influence, angering many of Matilda’s subjects. As a result, Matilda spent much of her time protecting the bishops against her very own people, and it didn’t do much to inspire loyalty from them.
Some began to openly hate her, seeing Matilda as an obstacle to their freedom. As the end of her life loomed near, Matilda began to lose many of her closest allies.
49. They Celebrated Her Passing
In 1114, rumors spread that Matilda had passed on, and the news sparked absolute jubilation in the city of Mantua. The people of Mantua marched to Rivalta Castle, a nearby stronghold owned by Matilda, and demanded entry. Sadly for them, Matilda was alive and well, and when news of her good health reached them, the enraged citizens burned Rivalta Castle to the ground.
If anyone needed a clear sign that Matilda was no longer welcomed to this new world, this was it, and they didn’t have to wait long to rid themselves of her.
50. She Left A Legacy Behind
On July 24, 1115, the aging Matilda suddenly lost her life to a heart attack. Her lands went to the new Emperor, Henry V, without much resistance. Many of her subjects, once loyal to the recently deceased Countess, quickly switched to the imperial side. This didn’t mean Matilda’s accomplishments were suddenly forgotten, however. In 1633, hundreds of years after Matilda’s passing, her body was re-buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. She is one of only six women who received this honor.