Matilda of Tuscany was born around 1046 as the daughter of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany and Beatrice of Lorraine. She knew Latin and was possibly also versed in German and French.
Her father was assassinated in 1052, and his heir was Matilda’s brother, Frederick, under the regency of their mother. Matilda was the youngest child, but her sister Beatrice died in 1053, which made Matilda her brother’s heir. Her mother remarried to Godfrey the Bearded in 1054, which her first cousin, Emperor Henry III, took quite badly. Both Beatrice and her daughter were arrested in 1055. Her brother Frederick died a suspicious death not long after. Matilda was now the last surviving member of the House of Canossa. They were taken to Germany, where they were kept until Godfrey reconciled with the crown, now under the underage Henry IV. Mother and daughter returned to Italy where Matilda was recognised as the heiress.
The date of her first marriage is unclear, but she is recorded as the wife of her stepbrother, Godfrey the Hunchback at the deathbed of her stepfather in 1069. They had a single daughter named Beatrice who died shortly after birth in 1071. She repudiated her husband that same year and returned to Tuscany, where she ruled jointly with her mother. Her husband protested the separation, but she repeatedly refused to return to him. By 1074 he appears to have given up on her. Godfrey was assassinated on 26 February 1076, and Matilda was suspected in his death. Just two months later her mother also died. Matilda travelled to Lorraine to claim her husband’s lands, which he had willed to his nephew. The Bishop of Verdun eventually found in favour of Matilda.
Matilda’s first military endeavour was with Pope Gregory VII as she protected him as he travelled north. Emperor Henry VI wished to intercept him, and Matilda urged the pope to flee to the Castle of Canossa, owned by her. She finally brokered a deal between the two men after Henry was forced to walk penance in the snow. He stood in the snow for three days before he was allowed to see the Pope. Troubles were not over for her, and she remained on unfriendly terms with Henry IV, to say the least. She defeated forces allied to Henry IV at Sorbara on 2 July 1084. Gregory died in 1085, and she again led an army in an attempt to support the new pope, Victor III, but she was forced to withdraw from the city of Rome after clashing with Henry IV’s forces.
By 1088 Matilda realised she had to marry again to form a political alliance. She married Welf V, Duke of Bavaria in 1089. By then she was in her early forties, and Welf was just a teenager. Their wedding was magnificent with 120 days of wedding festivities. The marriage was not a success, and the couple separated in 1095 without having children.
She again challenged Henry IV by allying with his rebellious sons, Conrad and Henry. Henry returned to Italy, but he was again defeated by Matilda in October 1092. He attempted to seize the Castle of Nogara, owned by Matilda. He was forced to retreat, and he withdrew from Italy completely in 1097. His power was weakened when Matilda freed Henry IV’s wife Eupraxia of Kiev, who made a public confession that he forced her to participate in orgies.
Matilda continued to lead expeditions to restore power in cities that had remained loyal to the Emperor. One of her legacies is the founding of around 100 churches, monasteries and hospices.
Matilda died from gout in 1115, and without an obvious heir, the leading citizens of her cities took control. She was first buried in the Abbey of San Benedetto in Polirone, but she was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica in 1645 at the behest of Pope Urban VIII. She is one of just three women buried in St. Peter’s Basilica (the others are Queen Christina of Sweden and Maria Clementina Sobieska).