Updated: Sep 29, 2021
In many ways, Countess Matilde of Tuscany was the most remarkable woman of the XI century. She must have made quite an impression on Maud/Matilda of England, King Henry’s legitimate daughter who lay claim to the English throne. When they met, in the Italian castle of Canossa, Maud was young and Matilde an old woman, but a woman who, as the last of her bloodline, had fought and defeated an emperor on the field. I suspect the English princess felt they had more in common than their first name, and that she may have seen her as her role model.
So many things are unique about Matilde, and she truly was a trailblazer. In her time, heiresses would surrender their power when entering a political alliance dressed up as marriage - unless their husband in his mercy granted them some limited area of autonomy, usually around helping the poor or convents. The only path to true power for women was as regents for underage children, but Matilde was childless. She married - perhaps I should say they pressurised her to marry - twice. That was common. What makes her unique is that she fled her first marriage and sent her second husband packing. Let’s not forget that she lived in an age and culture in which divorce was not an option. Estrangement, the step she took twice to free herself, was an incredibly daring choice, which would leave her exposed to the mud of enemy propaganda.
The Church never ‘blessed’ her decisions - how could they when Rome had engineered both marriages? Yet, they did not openly condemn them either. This is remarkable. Matilde’s actions show her willing to undermine the indissolubility of marriage, and willing to risk the undoing of alliances deemed vital by the papal diplomacy; at the same time, she embraced a military role of protectress, ‘sword of Saint Peter,’ with Rome’s blessing and gratitude. These contradictions in how the Church viewed her, and in how she projected herself, are the source of some of the musing and questions that prompted me to write about her. Was she a pious woman denied her wish to retire to the cloisters and forced to rule against her deepest wishes, just to limit the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy and Rome? A lot of writing and research has cast her in that light. But I struggle with it.
Like the other protagonists of the Investitures conflict, she could not escape the polarising views of chroniclers, whose partiality would feel familiar in the current age of fake news. The true Matilde, with her views, and her feelings, is irrecoverable, filtered by so many diverging representations.
But the actions remain, and the action speak of a woman who believed in her right to rule, a right she had received, like an emperor, directly from God. Matilda's seal, 'Deo Gratia si quid est,' is often read as a declaration of humility. I prefer to read it as a claim that she was God's anointed.