Matilda of Canossa.
The life and vicissitudes of The Grand Countess – Part 2

The dreaded excommunication of the Emperor by Pope Gregory VII came to pass in 1076 when, in violation of papal dispositions, Henry IV nominated the bishops of Fermo and Spoleto, and declared, at the Synods of Bishops at Worms and Piacenza, that Pope Gregory had been deposed and was to be replaced by an Antipope, in the person of the Bishop of Ravenna.  This was only the first step of a conflict that was to last, with many ups and downs, for fifty years.

Immediately after issuing the excommunication, Gregory VII set off for Germany accompanied by Matilda. His arrival was to deal a decisive blow against Henry’s authority, bolstering his enemies, but the Emperor pre-empted his move.  While the Pope was in Mantua together with Matilda, in that far-off bitter winter of 1077, news suddenly arrived that Henry was coming to Italy.  Matilda advised Gregory to turn back and take refuge in the mightiest castle she owned: Canossa, which overlooked the entire Enza valley. 

After just a few days Henry’s troops arrived at the foot of the nearby castle of Bianello, a lookout post of Canossa guarding the plain, however Henry had not come to wage war but to seek an agreement which, after lengthy negotiations inside the same castle, resulted in a dramatic deed, of the kind that go down in history. The Emperor, the heir of Charlemagne, agreed to seek the Pope’s pardon and, to make this wish of his explicit, began three days of fasting and penance in front of the walls of Canossa dressed in a simple tunic, finally being allowed into the castle and admitted into the presence of the Pope. 

Henry prostrated himself stretching out his arms in the sign of the cross. The Pope pardoned him, accepted his oath of obedience, and immediately wrote to the princes of Germany of the peace won, something probably agreed during the preliminaries to the meeting. It was the morning of the 28th of January, 1077. Matilda, who had played an important part in fostering this reconciliation, had just recently become the sole heir of the huge Canossa fiefdom after the death of her mother, Beatrice. From this day on, she officially assumed the honour and burden of becoming the papacy’s main ally and defender. It is said that she was tall and blonde, and a mere thirty years old. But the Emperor’s repentance was somewhat short-lived. Just a few weeks later, while Matilda and Gregory were just about to arrive in Mantua for a new meeting with Henry, they were informed that the Emperor was going to take them prisoner. And so once again the Pope became Matilda’s guest, first at Canossa and then at Carpineti, where he spent the summer.

In 1080 relations had again deteriorated so much that the Pope was forced to excommunicate the Emperor for the second time. It was an open conflict and the first signals made it clear just how difficult it was going to be for Matilda to wage and win a war. In fact, in 1084, she was unable to stop Rome being taken. The next two years saw the deaths of the people closest to Matilda, namely, Gregory VII, and her beloved bishop and trusty counsellor, Anselmo from Lucca. But the Grand Countess continued her battle against the Emperor, with varying degrees of success. In 1087 she arrived in Rome with her army to defend Pope Victor and in 1088 married the young Guelph V of Bavaria, who was a mere sixteen years old. The marriage was part of a network of alliances set up to fight Henry IV more effectively, which the new Pope, Urban II, also participated in.

The war was at its height in the years 1080 to 1092, the latter the year when many of Matilda’s trusty supporters were on the point of laying down their arms, having lost any desire to carry on with such a merciless, exhausting struggle. They made this intention clear at the meeting held in one of the most secure castles of Matilda’s domain, that of Carpineti, where the hermit, Giovanni di Marola persuaded those present not to lay down their weapons, not to undo all the many trials and hopes of those long years of war. And so the decision was taken to carry on, and at long last the tide turned for the better for Matilda and her allies.

The Emperor’s siege of the fortress of Monteveglio near Bologna ended in defeat, and the same thing happened at Canossa too, where thick fog and the astute military strategy of the Grand Countess and her captains ended up scattering the imperial troops, who beat a hasty retreat towards the plains. At this point the war was cut short by the substantial defeat of Henry. The complex network of fortresses built by Matilda had stood up to the assaults and definitively put paid to the enemy. By this time roundly defeated, Henry IV died in 1106 and was succeeded by his third-born son, Henry V, the new Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Henry V once again took up arms against the Church and Italy, but this time Matilda’s attitude towards the Imperial House had changed, to conform with the Emperor’s wishes. In 1111, while returning to Germany, Henry V met her at the castle of Bianello where he was to remain for three days. To everyone’s surprise, the meeting was affable and affectionate.  Matilda and the new Emperor reached a political agreement which granted her the title of Vice-Queen of Italy, while Henry became heir to all of Matilda’s personal possessions.  But the years of war and the ordeal of a gruelling life on the road across impracticable territories had taken their toll on the Grand Countess’s health.

Suffering from gout, she was confined to bed for the entire summer of 1114 at Montebaranzone near Modena. Rumours of her death were already rife and it was not long before the citizens of Mantua rose up to reclaim the freedom they had enjoyed for over twenty years when the city was in the hands of Emperor Henry IV. However, as soon as she recovered, Matilda once more took over the city, and decided to stay for a while on a farm at Bondeno di Roncore, nowadays Bondanazzo in the Municipality of Reggiolo. There she took ill once more and passed away in July 1115 attended by the Bishop of Reggio Emilia, Bonseniore.

She was buried at the monastery of San Benedetto in Polirone, at San Benedetto Po, but in 1632 Pope Urban VIII purchased her remains and had them transferred to Rome, where they still lie in Saint Peter’s Basilica inside a sepulchre sculpted by Lorenzo Bernini. These were just some of the many important events which saw Matilda of Canossa the heroine and instigator of political and military life in the first century after the year 1000. A cultured, fearless woman who can take pride of place amongst the greatest names in history. After her death, a halo of legend began to arise around Matilda, and Dante himself mentioned her in his Divine Comedy in Cantos XXVIII to XXXII of Purgatory. A very beautiful woman, the one described by the great poet, who appears to him in a dream all alone in the middle of a large meadow, singing to herself and picking red and yellow flowers, and eventually escorting him to Paradise to meet with his beloved Beatrice.