The Inheritance of Canossa
Matilda of Canossa, as the entire world knows, sits atop the pyramid of powerful women rulers along with Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt; Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt; Zenobia of Palmyra; Theodora, Empress of Byzanitium; and Suiko, Empress of Japan. However, unlike Hatshepsut, she was not succeeded by a bitter son who attempted to remove all traces of her from history. Unlike Cleopatra, she was not forced to kill herself to avoid the humiliation of defeat at the hands of her lover’s son. Unlike Zenobia, she did not suffer defeat and the humiliation of being led in golden chain in the triumphal parade of the general who defeated her. Unlike Theodora, she ruled in her own name, not through the power of a husband. And unlike Suiko, she is definitely more than a mythical ruler from the distant past.
Matilda was very much a flesh and blood woman who, over the course of a 40 year reign, 1) inherited a powerful realm in two duchies in and around the Po Valley of northern Italy and the spine of the Apennines, 2) an ancestry that gave her visions of being much more, 3) the charisma to make her way in a world of powerful and forceful men, and 4) the intelligence to become the most powerful sovereign in the Holy Roman Empire other than the Emperor himself.
How she did managed to accomplish this while birthing and raising five children, attracting some of the best minds of her time to her court, and keeping her eye always on the final prize, is the topic of the first chapter of this history. Subsequent chapters will discuss the various generations of the Canossa dynasty that she so successfully launched.
Matilda of Canossa
To understand Matilda, you have to first understand her family and its history.
Her father was the Duke of Toscana (Tuscany) and Spoleto. She had one older brother, Federigo. In 1052, When she was a young girl of just 6, her father died. Her brother inherited the titles, lands and vassals while still a minor. Three years later, her brother died of a terrible wasting disease - doctors believe some sort of pox that carried him away quickly and painfully. Thus, at the age of 9 she became the Duchess of Toscano and Spoleto, the most powerful vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor south of the Alps.
Although she was surrounded by powerful men, most were prelates who served her faithfully and minimized what might have been a disastrous struggle for power in the vacuum that arose with the death of the Dukes, her father and brother. She also had, for many years, her mother as an informal, but powerful advisor. I believe this was one of the most critical factors in really understanding Matilda as she grows into her adulthood.
The chart below summarizes the reasons why: Matilda could trace in the matrilineal line through her Great-Grandmother (Gerberga Welf) descent from two Kings of Burgundy, a King of Italy, two Kings of France, and the Ludolfinger line of Holy Roman Emperors. Through her Great-Grandfather, she had additional linkages to the Ludolfinger line. All of these lines were extinct in the lines of the sons - some died of old age with no sons to inherit, but many died in wars against rebellious vassals or mysteriously (which, in those days, meant the hands of unseen assassins.) The last Karling King of France (Louis V) died at age 19; the last Ludolfinger HRE died at the age of 22.
Matilda’s mother would have been well aware of this line of royal and imperial descent flowing in her veins, and would have been aware that the ruling Emperor from the Salian dynasty was the son of the man who overthrew the Ludolfingers. In other words, while Matilda was the most powerful vassal of the Emperor south of the Alps, she also had a strong dynastic link to the throne itself. This would influence many of the actions of Matilda over the years, as she took an independent line in Italy for almost all of her years.
As you can see, Matilda grew up both controlled and pampered by her mother and the tales of the greatness of her family, and by the bishops and prelates who ran her counties, cities and castles, as well as the major offices of state. She came into her majority in 1062, we don’t know much about the early years of her reign as sovereign Duchess, but is seems that she kept her Council in place, and worked to establish herself firmly on ducal seat.
At age 20, all that changed, and she burst upon the Italian scene with a dramatic entrance.
That year (1066), the Emit of Cadiz sent a party of merchants and diplomats throughout the French and Italian courts in an attempt to establish diplomatic relations the counts and dukes, as well as the Italian trading cities of Pisa and Genoa. The Emir was attempting to maintain his independence from the Emir of Sevilla (and in fact, failed to do so, and within a few shorts years lost his holdings to the Emir.) One of the members of the party was a minor nobleman, or perhaps just a wealthy merchant names Abu-Bakr bin Hijar. He was one of the “golden men” of the age - tall, dashing and by all accounts irresistible to the women of every court he visited. He was superb with finances, and seemed, in later years, to be another Midas. He was with the delegation when they arrived at the court of Duchess Matilda in Brescia; he did not leave the court when the delegation moved on. Somehow Matilda managed to overcome what must have been loud and perhaps violent objections, and she married Abu-Bakr, 10 years her senior.
The benefits to Abu-Bakr are obvious - he rose from a place of relative obscurity to become the Duke Consort over vast domains. But he was a Muslim, something he did not give up immediately. So he was reliant on Matilda for support and protection, and this is something she readiliy gave. What did Matilda get in return? First and foremost, Abu-Bakr agreed to a matrilineal marriage, where his children would carry the family name of his wife - so Matilda in one fell swoop satisfied her need to carry on the dynasty, escaped the potential control a marriage to duke or a count from the Empire would undoubtedly bring, gained a handsome, dashing and talented husband, and could rule in security knowing her husband, as a foreigner would not, could not, attempt to overthrown or overpower her.
Matilda and Abi-Bakr had 6 children - clearly a marriage of great love. Their five sons and 1 daughter were all accomplished in their own rights. Below is their family tree, showing the children as adults.
The Politics of Matilda’s Reign
Given the location of Matilda’s realm, and the precarious nature of her claim to the Duchy of Spoleto (the Pope in Rome had in his possession two of the three counties of the Duchy, and could easily have made a de facto claim on the title), one of Matilda’s over-riding objectives throughout her reign was to maintain positive relations with the Holy Father. The fact that many of her best and closest advisors certainly helped.
And the fact that in 1069 a new Holy Father was elected to the office at the age of just 24 also helped.
Matilda was charismatic, a born negotiator, and brought a spirit of zeal to her discussions with her spiritual and temporal advisors. The Pope remained steadfast in his support for Matilda throughout his pontificate. The only moment of tension came early, when he pointed out that she was married to a Muslim - he demanded that she renounce him. She replied that she ruled in Tuscany, and sent the Pope’s herald speedily back to Rome. But fast on the heels of that herald came one from her household, announcing the joyous news of Abu-Bakr’s conversion to Catholicism - a clever way to assert her power while defusing the challenge that could easily have risen from the Pope.
For a few years, Matilda and Abu-Bakr settled into their lives as rulers of the Duchy and parents. Their first three children were born quickly, and Abu Bakr took an active hand in raising the first two - a fact that will lead to unexpected implications in the life of his second son much later. But more on that in future chapters. In short, they were were happy couple, sitting at the pinnacle of the political world of Italy. They built up their domains and presided over a period of peace and prosperity.
In 1072, Matilda began the aggressively pursue her political objectives. Her very effective chancellery discovered the first of many ducal claims to castles and towns through the Italian peninsula. The first of these claim was directed against the wealthy trading city of Venice. Matilda’s forces easily overcame the merchants, and by 1073 she was able to add to her domain the Duchy of Venice.
In 1073, Matilda also basically “took up the cross” of the Crusades. She declared war of the Emir of Tunis, who had broken from his liege the Sultan of Tunis. Her husband, Abu-Bakr must have violently disagreed with this - we know that he was sent by Matilda to Venice as governor of the city at that time; he took the older two boys with him. Within the year, the lands of the Emit of Tunis were added to Matilda’s domains, and within another, the lands of the Sultan of Africa’s coastal holdings were also added.
In 1075. the powerful Norman Duke of Apulia died while attempting to unite his lands with territories in Sicily. His realm split in two - the Dukedoms of Apulia and Calabria, both led by minors.
With her effective chancellery working non-stop, Matilda received document after document that established her rights to rule over territories throughout the Italian peninsula. First, she saw her chance to take advantage of the power vacuum by moving against the rich county of Capua. She quickly subdued the Count and annexed lands and title. This was quickly followed by the acquisition from the Duke of Lombardy of the lordship of Cremona - the Duke’s father died in an aborted rebellion against the Holy Roman Emperor, and the minor duke was unable to effectively resist. Padua, briefly independent of the powerful Duke of Baden, was brought by the force of arms into her demesne, although a brief war followed with the Duke of Baden, in which he suffered defeat.
Finally, the Count of Napoli was brought into her realm.
By 1086, Mathilda had established control over lands reaching from the Alps to the southern reaches to the Italian peninsula, and stretching across the peninsula from the costs of Lucca to the shores of the Adriatic Sea. In fact, it is at this time that the secular and religious documents begin referring to her as Matilda the Great. She was the Duchess of Toscana and Spoleto from inheritance, and was through the force of arms the Duchess of Tunis, Modena, Capua and Venice.
Marcellus II rose to the Papal throne at the age of 34 in this year - and Matilda established warm relations with the Holy Father through the combination of her native charisma, the loyalty of her loyal bishops, and Crusade. In the years since the splintering of the Norman Duchy of Apulia, the Emirs of Palermo and Cyrenacia had actively been eating away at the remains of the Norman lands. The Duke of Palermo had absorbed most of the lands in Sicily and even Salerno (ruled by the uncle of the young Dukes Roger and Guy). The Emir of Cyrenacia had completely conquered the lands of Duke Guy, and ruled from Messina to Apulia.
Matilda declared a Crusade against the Emir of Cyrenacia for the lands of Calabria. Within the year the Emir’s lands were under the control of the Duchess, and they were added to her growing estate. In that same year, the Prince-Bishops of Ravenna surrendered their castles to the Duchess - balancing out her zealousness for the Catholic cause and her eagerness to expand her holdings in Italy.
Three years later, Matilda took her Crusade to the shores of Africa again, and brought down the arms of the Crusaders on the lands of the Emir of Cyrenacia. The Emir, faced with complete defeat at home, removed himself to the arch or Italy, and gave up his African lands to Matilda.
However, the Sultan of Palermo, from the power-base of his rich cities of Sicily, took most of Apulia from Duke Roger, and declared himself the Sultan of Sicily - with lands stretching from Sicily, through Salerno and to the Apulian coasts of the Adriatic. The Norman Dukes were reduced to just two provinces, wedged between the lands of the Duchess and the Sultan.
It’s clear that at around the turn of the century that Matilda’s chancellery alerted her to a potential royal claim. Sicily was taken by the Sultan, and her Italian possessions were not significant enough to claim one of the titles that she surely was pursuing - that of the King of Italy, like her distant ancestor King Rudolf I. They pointed out that with the addition of the county of Syrte, wedged between her holding the Cyrenacia and those of HRE Henirich in Tripolitania, she would be able to declare herself Queen of Africa.
The crusade was called, and within the year, Matilda had assumed the royal title, and moved her capital to Capua.
The years after her Accession were filled with excitement and drama, both within and beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire.
Pavia was acquired by Matilda from the Duke of Lombardy in 1103. This would be the last of the Italian acquisitions of Matilda.
In 1104, the Duke of Bohemia came to Matilda, and playing upon her new found status as the only Royal vassal of the Emperor, convinced her to join him in an effort to lower the crown authority of the Emperor (which would allow her greater freedom of action within the Empire.) She agreed. Matilda also went to the Pope, and convinced him to issue a judgement of excommunication against the Emperor - thereafter called Henirich the Cruel. Shortly after that, the Duke of Bohemia rise in rebellion against the Emperor, and Matilda joined him.
Matilda’s forces quickly overran the territories of the Emperor south of the Alps - Bologna and the lands south of Pisa quickly fell, as did the Tripolitanian territories held by the Emperor. But corresponding victories were elusive in the north, and Matilda’s court heard only rumors of defeats and the loss of castles and towns to the Emperor’s forces in Bohemia.
It was at this point, after a reign of exactly 40 years, that Matilda, Queen of Africa, died.
State of the World at the death of Matilda
France had been pushing down the Mediterranean coasts of Spain; Castille was making progress in the interior. Against the Christian progress, the Kingdom of Maurentania had consolidated the central Muslim powers, and the Emir of Beja was holding the middle Atlantic territories against the King of Galicia.
Pope Marcellus, desiring to leave a glorious monument for his everlasting fame and the glory of God, called upon all Christendom to undertake a crusade to capture Acre from the Muslims Caliphate of Egypt. In response, the Caliph, al-Mustansir of Egypt called of the armies of Islam to recover Tyre from the Byzantine Emperor.