Badass of the Week.

Matilda of Canossa

"Now there appeared in Lombardy at the head of her numerous squadrons the young maid Matilda, armed like a warrior, and with such bravery that she made known to the world that courage and valor in mankind is not indeed a matter of sex, but of heart and spirit."

Matilda of Canossa gets her epithet from the name of her family fortress. It's a rare badass indeed who can claim that they're named after a castle, but if anybody in Medieval Europe is worthy of that distinction, it's probably Matilda. For 60 years, this hardcore warrior woman kicked asses in Northern Italy, providing the main military defense force for none other than the Roman Popes, single-handedly taking on any challenges to the Papacy. She's now one of the few women from the Middle Ages known for her prowess in combat, and her role as the Pope's personal badass isn't the sort of honor that got handed out to any douchebag with a castle. She was tough, nobody fucked with her, and – more importantly – as long as she was around nobody fucked with the Pope without thinking twice about it first.

Matilda was the daughter of a super-powerful lord named Boniface who owned a dickload of land in Northern Italy. When Matilda was six, her pops was shot through the neck with a poisoned arrow, a tragic and unnecessarily-over-the-top death that left young Matilda to inherit the entirety of her father's vast domain. Her mother soon married a presumably-awesome guy named Godfrey the Bearded, who stepped in to serve as regent until Matilda was old enough to be useful as a ruler. This was fine and all, but when she turned sixteen Godfrey tried to cement his place as a powerful dude by marrying Matilda off to his son – a less-than-attractive assburger known as Godfrey the Hunchback, which was significantly less cool with her. Matilda played along and stayed with that Quasimoto motherfucker for a couple years, but eventually got sick of his crap and shipped his ass off to Germany, where he was murdered shortly thereafter in a probably-unrelated incident. From that point on Matilda ruled alone, and as the sole inheritress of her father's Northern Italian Dukedom Matilda quickly fell into her now-famous role as the iron shield of the Papacy – her armies and castles conveniently fell directly between the Vatican and the German armies that were almost constantly seeking to invade it and send the pontiff screaming out of town on a donkey.

Matilda chilling with a monk and a soldier.

In case you're curious what sort of antisocial jerkwad would try to send an army to beat the hell out of Popes, I suppose I should mention that nearly the entire lifespan of the Holy Roman Empire ultimately breaks down to little more than a never-ending pissing contest between the Medieval Catholic Church and the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. On one side, you had the Emperors – a powerful line of German warrior-kings with unstoppable armies and righteous beards who wanted the official rubber-stamp from the Church so that they could go around telling people they were kicking ass for the Lord and everyone would jump on their holy-face-wrecking bandwagon. On the other hand, you had the Popes – a revered line of Italian priests who commanded the hearts and minds of the people, and who wanted the Emperors to provide the necessary muscle to carry out the will of the Church. Ultimately, while the Popes and the Emperors both needed each other's help to make this whole Holy Roman Empire thing both Holy, Roman, and an Empire, neither of them could agree on which one was supposed to be giving out the orders and which one should be following them. In the end, this jacked-up pseudo-alliance resulted in a lot of strong language and hurt feelings, which then resulted in a lot of severed limbs, burninated cities, and bloodshed, which then resulted in the two sides deciding to make amends and team up again. If "frenemies" was a word I could legitimately use in a sentence without wanting to retch up my cranberry juice, this would be a good place for it.

From an early age Matilda was at the center of this incessant conflict, thanks largely to the fact that spent six decades ruling over a half-dozen imposing castles situated along the road from Berlin to Rome. Being a good Catholic princess, Matilda took an oath to defend the Church to death, and was willing to back it up with enough zeal and conviction to make even the most hardcore churchgoers look like whiny apostates. Any time any jerkass wanted to get to Rome to fuck with the Pope, Matilda took it on herself to ride out at the head of an army and lay the smack-down on them, no matter how formidable their armies may have been. When some douchey pretentious king somewhere proclaimed a bullshit anti-Pope (which I should mention is just the term for a false Pope, rather than some crazy/awesome Satanic demon-Pope), she didn't put up with that papal bull – she overthrew the pretender pontiffs, crushed their armies, and erased them from history. In addition to leading troops in the field, managing her castle resources RTS-style, and intelligently mediating disputes between clergymen and noblemen, there are many rumors that she rode out on the battlefield personally, wearing a custom suit of armor and fighting hand-to-hand with axes, pikes, and swords. When this over-the-top head-cleaving ultra-paladin wasn't impaling unholy knights on the tip of her lance or crushing heretic skulls into protoplasm, Matilda also provided safe refuge for persecuted clergymen, donated money and weapons to the Church, and somehow found time to make herself fluent in Italian, French, German and Latin.

Matilda, seen here giving advice to the Pope.  Seriously, that's what's going on.

The big shit in Matilda's reign came down in 1077, when Pope Gregory VII got all pissy about something and excommunicated the German king Henry IV, an ultra-tough warrior-ruler who had just completed a bloody campaign in Saxony where he pacified barbarians by de-braining them with a sword. Henry, understandably worried that his soldiers and peasants weren't going to be too keen on submitting to the unbreakable iron will of a king who had been disowned by God, freaked the fuck out, crossed the Alps, and went to Matilda's castle (where the Pope was hiding), to beg the pontiff for forgiveness. Matilda wasn't impressed – as penance for upsetting the Pope, she made the fucking German king wait outside in the freezing-cold snow for three days before finally letting him in. She was just hard like that.


Henry and Gregory made amends, Henry was allowed back into the Church, and was then promptly re-excommunicated again a year later. This time, instead of coming dressed in rags and begging forgiveness, Henry rolled into Italy packing a huge fucking army and looking to beat the shit out of the Pope. Matilda fought this huge onslaught of battle-hardened warriors bravely, delaying the invasion as long as she could, but her forces were eventually overwhelmed. Henry broke through Matilda's lines, reached Rome, and took the Papal seal. Hilariously, it didn't end up doing him a whole lot of good – as soon as Henry seized the seal, Matilda wrote a letter to all the kings of Europe telling them that the Pope just got his identity stolen by the German king, and for the next year or so Matilda alone was recognized as the official voice of the Pope. Awesome.

Henry installed an anti-pope in Rome and headed back home to Germany telling everybody he was now a Holy Roman Emperor or some shit, but that didn't fly with Matilda. As soon as he left, she put together what was left of her army, crushed Henry's cronies, retook the capital, and punted the anti-pope into the ocean. Henry came back looking for revenge, and this time she crushed his forces' balls and drove him back out across the Alps. Henry would later die alone and deposed, and his excommunication would mean doom him to being buried on unhallowed ground – a huge insult to any self-respecting European king.

After sending Henry running crying back to his mama, Matilda kept on rocking out with her frock out in Italy, ever-vigilant for un-Popely douchebags in need of having swords jammed up their nostrils. She conquered several counties that failed to recognize the Papacy's power, built churches, donated a lot of money to the Vatican, and cougared it up by marrying a German Prince that was 26 years younger than her. Her last days were spent in peace, and she was so chill by the end of it that she was eventually proclaimed Viceroy of Northern Italy by Emperor Henry's successor, a dude who was unoriginally also named Henry.

Matilda died of gout in 1115 at the age of 69. She left her lands to the Church, which in turn used it to protect itself from future Holy Roman Emperors who found themselves leaning towards tendencies that were somewhat less than Roman or Holy. Her body now lies in St. Peter's Basilica – she is one of only three women entombed in the Vatican, and she was the first non-Pope/non-Saint person of any gender to be interred there. Her legend was so cherished and she was so beloved among her native Italians that even the great Michelangelo claimed to be descended to her (though most genealogists today pretty much agree that he was full of shit), and she is still a popular figure even today.

"At this time only countess Matilda was found among women who scorned the power of the king, who opposed his cunning and power even with military conflict… who surpassed even men by the virtue of her spirit."



Medieval News

Mighty in War

St. Peter's Basilica

Catholic Encyclopedia



Grant de Pauw, Linda.  Battle Cries and Lullabies.  Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Hay, David J.  The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa.  Manchester Univ. Press, 2008.

Kagay, Donald L. and J. Andrew Villalon.  Crusaders, Condottieri, and Cannon.  BRILL, 2003.

Keates, Jonathan.  The Rough Guide History of Italy.  Rough Guides, 2003.

Williams, Nicola.  Tuscany & Umbria.  Lonely Planet, 2008.


The Complete List

About the Author

Miscellaneous Articles