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The making of an unlikely leader. Matilde of Tuscany's childhood

Not much is known about Matilde/a of Tuscany's birth. The year was 1046, but the

day and place are uncertain. Mantova, Lucca, Canossa, even Ferrara have been proposed by different scholars and researchers.

The lack of precise information is probably unsurprising as Matilde was a third-born, hence destined for the cloisters, and it took unimaginable twists of fate - and the resolve of her mother, the formidable imperial princess Beatrice - to transform Matilde into the heir presumptive to her father's lands.

All locations are plausible and fascinating in different ways. Margrave Bonifacio, her father, spent considerable time in Mantova, close to the vital artery of the Brenner pass, the main communication route between the Canossa lands and their overlord in Germany. It was a splendid city, proud of its Roman origin, which had withstood the ravages of the Hungarians in the previous century. The discovery - or re-discovery - of the relics of the legionnaire Longinus, especially the Holy Blood of Mantova, just before Matilde's birth, had added to the city's glory.

A view of Mantova

Donizo, Matilde's biographer (and a monk at her small abbey within the walls of the castle of Canossa, by means of calling Matilda Lucens (resplendent) seems to lean for Lucca, which is equally plausible. In Bonifacio's days it was the most important city in his march of Tuscany, Bonifacio was the overlord of the local bishop and the city's ancient churches were being redeveloped as marble-decked jewels in the Romanesque style, a testimony to the city's wealth and prestige.

Ferrara, although less of a possibility, is fascinating as a reminder of Bonifacio and Beatrice's relationship with the monastery of Pomposa, a centre of mysticism and monastic learning where in those years a monk called Guido was developing the musical scale we still use today. Interestingly, Monk Guido's. patron was Matilde's uncle, Bishop Tedaldo of Arezzo.

Canossa is also a credible possibility. The majestic fortress, built by Adalberto Atto, Matilde's great-grandfather, had played a role in the legendary escape of Queen Adelaide of Italy, dashingly protected by Count Adalberto Atto against her kidnapper and usurper, her husband's murderer Berengario. Perched on white rock (hence the Latin name Canusia) and protected by three rings of walls, Margravine Beatrice could not have wished for a safer place to deliver her children!

A third-born and a girl, she is likely to have been raised within her mother's household, something that may seem obvious today but that an 11th century noblewoman could not take for granted. We just have to look at Matilde's relative Berta of Savoy, betrothed to the heir to the German throne. Berta said goodbye to her parents at age two, and was raised by her future husband's mother, Empress Agnes.

We know from her biographer Donizo that Matilde spoke French and German, languages she is likely to have acquired in childhood through her mother. Beatrice hailed from Lotharingia, the area along both banks of the Rhines which both East and West Francia (nowadays Germany and France) claimed rights to. In addition to the influence of polyglot Beatrice, Matilde's fluency in German is likely to have improved significantly when she spent a year of her childhood there, after her father's death.

Matilde's mother, Beatrice

We do not know at what age she was taught Latin. It was the language of diplomacy and Matilde was fluent in it as an adult, but whether the lessons started after her brother's death, when she took on his titles - or before is unclear. I like to think that her formidable mother, who managed to play a significant political role in 11th century Europe despite her sex, and certainly fluent in the language herself, did not differentiate much in the education of her boys and girls, but that is purely my speculation.

The force of life experience is likely to have shaped Matilde just as much as education and upbringing, and it was not all plain sailing. Matilde's childhood was traumatic even by the standards of a medieval ruler. At six she lost her father, mysteriously murdered during a hunting party while hunting in the Po swamps outside Mantova. The assassin was never found, and the killing may have been instigated by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry, who had grown jealous of Bonifacio's power. That is hard to prove (or disprove), however the widow Beatrice's actions two years later give away a crisis in her house's relationship between the Salian rulers of Germany.

Regent for her underage son Federico, Margravine Beatrice re-married to her Lotharingian kinsman Godfrey, sworn enemy of Emperor, without the latter's permission. Through the marriage alliance, Beatrice would have hoped to protect the rights of her son, who was a year or so away from coming of age.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry III

The clandestine marriage negotiation precipitated the crisis with Germany to a new low, and a wrathful Emperor Heinrich summoned Beatrice to Florence to justify her conduct. We do not know exactly when Matilde's elder sister Beatrice and brother Federico died, but by the time Matilde and her mother arrived in Florence, Matilde was Margrave Bonifacio's only surviving child, presumptive heir to the richest landowner in the Holy Roman Empire.

Losing a young sister to illness was something that a deeply religious medieval soul, used to face child and youth mortality, with time, would have been spiritually well-equipped to come to terms with. The trauma of losing a father, and possibly a brother, to murderous foul play, is a different matter. The tragic experiences of her childhood must have left an indelible trace in her soul.

Similarly, the feud between the Salian rulers of Germany and the house of Canossa-Lotharingia, whose many twists and turns are worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, is likely to have deeply affected Matilde. Paradoxically, though, the Holy Emperor Henry's sentence against Beatrice, which forced mother and daughter to follow him to Germany as his prisoners, may have turned into a positive experience for young Matilde. Beatrice and her daughter joined the household of Agnes of Poitou's, the Emperor's wife, and do not appear to have been mistreated. For the girl, now ten, the opportunity to spend time with other children in the imperial nursery (Agnes had five children, including two daughters close in age to Matilde) was probably a healthy change from her own lonely upbringing.

We cannot know how Matilde re-elaborated the experiences of her childhood. I like to think that confronting death and treason at such a young age contributed to making her fearless, and ready to push the boundaries of her societal role. It may also explain her determination to keep her oath to her overlord.

When Henry III, who might have instigated her father and brother's untimely deaths, suddenly passed away at barely forty years of age, a ten-year old Matilde swore her oath of fealty to his five-year old son, also called Henry. All German, Italian and Lotharingian princes were expected to swear allegiance to the king of Germany/Holy Roman Emperor as their overlord. However, later history proves that her oath seems to have been sincere. At the height of the Saxon insurrection that threatened his power, the young King Henry claimed to trust Matilde and her mother above anyone else. The traumatic experiences of her childhood may have persuaded the young Matilde of the value of loyalty and peace.


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