Women of St. Peter's: Matilda of Tuscany

This old myth has been around for years: the Catholic Church hates women.  Don't mention the myriad orders of sisters and nuns, the four female Doctors of the Church, the epically heroic women and girl martyrs, the spectacular women saints who affected the Church and history (think St. Catherine of Siena) and certainly not the deep respect given to holy women in the Bible, especially in St. Paul's letters.  Most of us Catholics are pretty sure that women in the history of Catholicism were not just incidental.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the hundreds of titles given to her, the deep love for her evidenced in the life of every single holy person, and the dozens of countries dedicated to her?  Get with the times - the Church loves, respects, and cares for women, because Christ Himself loved, respected, and cared for the women around him, from His Mother to the woman who touched the hem of His robe to the women who stopped him during the carrying of the Cross.

If you spend any time in St. Peter's Basilica, that most beautiful "parish church of the world", you'll notice this theme played out amid the sculptures, tombs and altars.  Not only are Our Lady and the great women saints evident in our basilica, but there is a significant representation of lay women as well.  It's a star-studded list if you know your history, and if not, we'll remedy that: Matilda of Tuscany, Christina, Queen of Sweden, and Maria Clementina Sobieski, in historical order.  I find the stories of these women absolutely fascinating, so I have decided to share them with you over the next few weeks.

[caption id="attachment_1864" align="alignleft" width="246"]The tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, by Bernini. The tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, by Bernini.[/caption]

Matilda of Tuscany, also known as "the great countess", la Gran Contessa, was born in 1046.  She was embroiled in politics from her birth, as her family was caught up in imperial maneuverings.  Despite a childhood troubled by her father’s murder and her own imprisonment, with her mother, by Henry III, Matilda received “an excellent training; she was finely educated, knew Latin, and was very fond of serious books. She was also deeply religious, and even in her youth followed with interest the great ecclesiastical questions which were then prominent.”[1]  When she was 26, she began to administrate her lands, which covered six counties and the provinces of Tuscany and Lorraine.[2]

If you know your church history at all, even a modern Protestantized version of it, you'll know that a hallmark of the twelfth century was the conflict between church and state, concentrated in the so-called Investiture Controversy.  Basically, this was the contention of the emperors that they had the right to decide which men would be bishops in their territory, versus the popes' holding firm to the right of apostolic succession and the sole authority of the see of Peter to choose and instate bishops.  Politics in the 12th century were centered around pro-imperial and pro-papal parties.

This controversy gave background and focus to Matilda's life.  Despite being first cousins with Henry III and second cousins of Henry IV, Matilda always had a deep devotion to the papacy; with her position and talents, she was also in the perfect place to help the popes of her era.  As the site Epistolae says,  "From the time of Alexander II, through Gregory VII, Urban II and Paschal II, she gave financial and military assistance. She was there with her troops and she had a number of striking military successes as well as setbacks, but she consistently opposed the anti-popes of the empire, even when her own position was threatened. She offered refuge and protection to reform clergy like Anselm of Canterbury, Bonizo of Sutri, Gregory VII, as well as to the fleeing wife and rebellious son of the emperor.  Gregory VII relied particularly on the support of Matilda, saying again and again in his letters to them that she and her mother are the only princes he can trust."  Essentially, if you can name a pope during the period of Matilda's lifetime, you name a friend of hers.

Returning to Gregory VII brings us to the great episode of the Investiture Controversy.  Emperor Henry IV called a synod of German bishops and sent a nasty letter to the Pope, at which point Gregory finally excommunicated him.  The Catholic Encyclopedia offers the best-distilled version of what happened next.  “As the majority of the princes of the empire now took sides against the king, Henry wished to be reconciled with the pope, and consequently travelled to Italy in the middle of a severe winter, in order to meet the pope there before the latter should leave Italian soil on his journey to Germany. Gregory, who had already arrived in Lombardy when he heard of the king's journey, betook himself at Matilda's advice to her mountain stronghold of Canossa for security. The excommunicated king had asked the Countess Matilda, his mother- in-law Adelaide, and Abbot Hugh of Cluny, to intercede with the pope for him. These fulfilled the king's request, and after long opposition Gregory permitted Henry to appear before him personally at Canossa and atone for his guilt by public penance.”[3]

Imagine the scene in your mind: a bitter winter with snow on the ground.  Henry, well-used to the finery and comfort of his court, a proud and stubborn man, is politically and publically forced to give homage to his enemy.  This is not just a political move, though, but a recognition that he has placed himself outside the arms of Holy Mother Church.  This earthly monarch removes his shoes and walks barefoot through the snow to the welcoming arms of the sovereign pontiff.  It's a dramatic moment, and Matilda is, as always, present not too far away from the Pope, a little in the background of history.

Alas, the reconciliation did not last long.  Matilda’s support of Gregory continued as he had to excommunicate Henry again a few years later.  She bequeathed her lands to the papacy, though continuing to govern and administrate them herself.  Those lands would become another source of contention between the popes and the emperor, as ownership was disputed for the next two centuries.[4]  After her began the reign of the city-states, as Florence, Siena, and others became independent powers in a post-feudal society.

Matilda continued to support the papacy, opposing anti-popes and lay powers until her death in 1115.  Her military prowess was substantial; she lead multiple campaigns in person, and was eventually crowned imperial vice-regent after she made peace with Henry V in 1110.  The countess was highly regarded by her contemporaries.  She was called “wealthiest and most famous…most distinguished in virtues” by one writer, and a biographer, Donizo, “composed a verse life of Matilda in which he speaks not only of her virtues and her military and diplomatic achievements, her winning over some with gifts, others with arms — he was an eye-witness of her second war against the emperor (1090-97) — but also of her intellectual powers, her letters attacking the errors of the king, her knowledge of the German language, and her ability to speak French as well as to dictate in Latin.”[5]

This is the story of a woman who knew what was right and did not fear for herself so long as she was on the side of God.  Her character, as it comes through the history books, is strong, determined, bold, and intimidating.  Matilda of Tuscany is the Catholic lay woman of the medieval era, who used her rank, education, and skills (from letter-writing to swordplay!) to support the cause of the Church in one of her dark hours.  Her tomb in St. Peter’s, sculpted by the legendary Bernini, is the repayment of the Popes for her great service to Christ and his Bride.

You may find out more about Countess Matilda here - there are some fairly good videos about her - and, of course, on Wikipedia.  Epistolae has a number of her extant letters (translated), which look like fun reading for anyone interested in the reality of this era and learning more about Matilda's character.


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia, “Matilda of Tuscany”.

[2] Epistolae, Medieval Women’s Latin Letters, “Matilda of Tuscany, countess of Tuscany, duchess of Lorraine”.

[3] Catholic Encyclopedia, see above.

[4] Encyclopedia of Catholic History, “Matilda of Tuscany” (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995), 544.

[5] Epistolae, see above.