Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Matilda of Tuscany

Episode Summary

Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) was a powerful feudal ruler, who is remembered for her military prowess. Her castle was the site of one of the most iconic moments in medieval times.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s warrior was a powerful feudal ruler, who greatly influenced history. Her castle was the site of one of the most iconic moments in medieval times. We’re talking about Matilda of Tuscany.

Matilda was born in 1046 in Lucca, Tuscany. She was the daughter of a prominent ruler in Northern Italy. When she was only six years old, her father was assassinated. Her siblings died soon after, making Matilda the sole heir to her family’s fortune. 

Matilda’s mother then married the Duke of Upper Lorraine, an enemy of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. In response, the emperor kidnapped Matilda and her mother and brought them to Germany. He kept them as hostages for a year until he eventually reconciled with the Duke. That experience marked the beginning of Matilda’s lifelong animosity toward the Holy Roman Emperor.

Matilda married the Duke’s son in 1069, and they had a child who passed away as an infant. After that, Matilda moved back to Italy with her mother to rule.

Like her father, Matilda was a stringent supporter of the pope. She became close friends with Pope Gregory VII, and was involved in his conflict with the emperor.

When Henry IV became Emperor, he and Pope Gregory clashed over the power balance of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry pushed to increase the power of the emperor over the clergy, insisting that he had the right to appoint new bishops. But Pope Gregory wanted to preserve his power and excommunicated Henry. Pope Gregory also passed a resolution that stunted Henry IV’s power, stating that Henry’s underlings had no obligation to obey him. 

Henry feared the possibility of a rebellion, so in the harsh winter of 1077, he made the long journey to Matilda’s castle in Canossa to meet Pope Gregory and beg his forgiveness. After being forced to wait in the cold for three days, Henry was permitted to enter the gates. The Pope humiliated Henry further by making him walk barefoot through the snow and kneel at his feet in penance. This became an iconic historical scene, right on Matilda’s doorstep.

Gregory revoked Henry’s excommunication, but the conflict didn’t end there. Henry was excommunicated two more times for other offenses. After his excommunication in 1080, Matilda remained at war with him for over two decades. Sometimes, she would don armor and personally lead her troops into battle. She also helped finance the Pope’s military operations.

Matilda battled against Henry until his death in 1106. In her final battle against the emperor, Matilda gathered an army of local small landowners who were familiar with the territory. Their quick communication gave them an edge over the emperor’s soldiers. Matilda herself rode in the battlefield, surrounded by a small group of loyal men. Henry’s battalion found difficult terrain and watchtowers raining spears at every turn. 

Though the imperial army was strong, these small advantages turned the tide in favor of Matilda, allowing her to hold the territory of Northern Italy. Not only was Matilda victorious, her winning strategy won over several towns to her side, united against imperial rule.  

Henry never put up much of a fight again. Matilda forced his soldiers to retreat whenever she showed up at the head of her army. Matilda also led successful sieges of several more cities.

In 1093, Matilda convinced Emperor Henry’s son to rebel against him and seize the crown.

Eventually after Henry IV’s death, Matilda made peace with the imperial establishment

Matilda passed away in 1115. She was initially buried near Mantua, but future popes considered her such an important figure that her grave was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1634.

Matilda of Tuscany is a unique historical figure, as few medieval women are remembered for their military accomplishments..

Join us tomorrow to hear the story of another powerful warrior!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!