Whoosh! Issue 53 - February 2001

XENA ON ROME'S SIDE:
THE WARRIOR PRINCESS & LA GRAN CONTESSA


Page 2

Her Courage

[35] Xena as a military commander has always favored surprise attacks, ambushes, deception, rapid movement under cover, and taking the initiative. No soldier would argue with this approach, especially since Xena's armies, when she has one at all, consist mostly of peasant levies and villagers [A GOOD DAY (73/405), THE SIEGE OF AMPHIPOLIS (104/514), etc.] up against soldiers and warriors. Only stealth and deception could counter the weight of superior force. Moreover, she has well understood the old military saying, that "Follow me" works better than "Go attack that enemy". For peasants to so quickly trust their lives to her, Xena must possess great personal charisma, born of equally great courage.

[36] Matilda as a commander followed the same pattern. Being outnumbered obliged her to pick her battles carefully and rely on cunning to tip the balance. We have already seen how she used a small force to give the Emperor a parting kick-in-the-pants on his way out of Italy. However, she could also abandon subtlety and use a headlong charge when the time was right, as she did in her youth. After Henry's devastating campaign, she had more battles to fight, and she would need all the charisma she could muster.

[37] Henry's invasion had not gained Italy, but he had not lost much either. He kept up political and military pressure on Matilda through his ownership of Lombardy, and Guibert was in St. Peter's chair. Pope Gregory VII died in exile from Rome, leaving Matilda without the friend for which she had endured so much. Nevertheless, she threw her support behind his successor Victor III. He needed it: eight days after his coronation, Victor was driven out of Rome by Guibert's partisans, and Matilda had to send in troops to restore him. [Note 14] The rival Popes contested Rome for most of the next decade.

[38] When Victor died, Pope Urban was elected Pope and also driven out of Rome. He wrote more letters to Matilda than had Gregory, looking to her for support against Henry. Possibly at his suggestion, at the age of 43 Matilda remarried. She took Duke Welf V of Bavaria and Carinthia, age 17, as her husband. It is another measure of her loyalty that she married for the papacy's advantage instead of her own. [Note 15] It gave the Pope a friendly contiguous state from Tuscany into Germany, between him and the Emperor, but as a marriage it was no more successful than her first. Henry could not know that, however, and so to abort the alliance he invaded Italy again in 1089.

[39] This time his target was not Rome but Matilda's domain. He besieged Mantua for almost a year before taking it by treachery and bribery. Ferrara surrendered without a fight. Then Minervia and many other small towns and castles in between fell to the invaders.

[40] Matilda attacked Henry at Tricontai in Padua, but she was betrayed by Ugo del Manso, her new husband's uncle, who warned the Emperor. The imperials were ready and routed her forces, destroying part of her army. With Matilda in retreat, Henry took the castles at Monte Morello and Monte Alfredo, then marched on Montebello, and laid siege to it. All summer in 1091 the castle stood him off. Then word came that the anti-pope Clement was bringing reinforcements. Once he arrived, Matilda would be unable to either re-supply Montebello, or keep Henry out of the central part of her domain.

[41] From this position of strength, Henry offered peace terms: all Matilda had to do was acknowledge Clement and renounce Urban, and Henry would withdraw, return her lands, and grant her his favor. Matilda's lands had not recovered from the earlier campaign, and the people were tired from years of fighting and looting. Under pressure from her own subjects, Matilda had to call a council of her vassals to discuss Henry's terms.

[42] It was a gloomy meeting. Henry had made sure to publish his terms far and wide to gain support from the war-weary Tuscans. Bishop Heribert of Reggio spoke for most when he praised Matilda's constancy, but said it was time to use gentler methods. Better to take Henry's terms now and, hoping for better days, try to persuade him to reforms in the court rather than in battle.

[43] At this the lowest point in her fortunes, Matilda simply refused to give in. An earthly peace was not worth the loss of one's soul, she and a hermit named John argued. Moreover, Henry had shown for years that he never felt bound by any promise he made. There was no reason to think he would keep his word now. It is a measure of her courage and charisma that Matilda's vassals were convinced to keep fighting. [Note 16]

[44] At this refusal, Henry built a large siege engine, a rolling wooden tower to storm Montebello. However, raiders sent by Matilda succeeded in burning the tower. Henry called off the attack, feinted at Parma but suddenly turned on Canossa itself in October of 1092. Canossa was a strong castle, but Henry rightly knew that Matilda alone was the source of the resistance to his peace terms. If he could remove her, there was no one else to persuade the Tuscans to resist. Besides, he probably relished the chance for revenge: "Remembering the ills he had suffered there, when he stood barefoot in the snow and cold, he deemed that an opportune moment had arrived to avenge his wrongs" wrote Donizo. [Note 17] Henry ordered his men to seal off the castle and prepare for a long siege.

[45] It did not last long at all. Unknown to Henry, Matilda had divided her army before his arrival and sent half of it to Bianello, a fortress near one of the mountain approaches to Canossa, where it could not be seen. Henry was now between the proverbial hammer and anvil. Early one morning, Matilda put on armor, picked out her finest men-at-arms, and led them out a secret postern gate at the base of the castle walls. As she probably knew it would, a dense fog came up off the valley and covered their movement. The only sound was the faint jingling of chain mail.

[46] Advance scouts slit the throats of the Emperor's pickets, and then the whole force charged the camp screaming their battle cry "St Peter!" The imperials were caught off guard and cut down in huge numbers. In a case of life imitating art, Matilda and her men battled to musical accompaniment, provided by monks on Canossa's walls. The Emperor called retreat, but Matilda's men from Bianello charged them from the rear. Order dissolved and his men were slaughtered. Floundering through the fog the imperials fled in a rout. The Emperor's battle standard was captured and paraded as a trophy, later dedicated to St. Apollonia in the church of Canossa. [Note 18]

[47] Although he escaped, Henry never recovered from his second humiliation at Canossa. From then on his fortunes waned and Pope Urban's rose. In 1096 the Pope re-entered Rome in triumph, with Matilda riding by his side.

[48] This event is a footnote in history, but in fact it was a major turning point that shows Matilda's true legacy. For it was Pope Urban who organized the First Crusade in 1098. Matilda did not take part and so is now overlooked, but it never would have happened without her.

[49] Western historians now deride the Crusades as a cruel adventure in plundering, looting, and imposing Christianity by force. In actual fact:

  1. Christianity has never been as pacifistic as is now supposed. Christ Himself cleansed the Temple with violence when it was necessary.
  2. There was plenty of cruelty on both sides. The Holy Land was itself seized by force by the Muslims, and the Turks had just conquered Anatolia and were slaughtering the peasants to make room for their cattle. This event prompted the first Crusade.
  3. The Crusades were never intended to 'impose' Christianity, and no contemporary ever argued that they should. Conversion was to be done by preaching and holy living. Many opposed crusading on the grounds that it prevented preaching.
  4. Crusading was not a privilege, but a penance for sins. It was expected that most crusaders would die before returning home.
  5. So far from getting rich, crusaders usually had to mortgage their possessions to afford crusading at all. One crusade cost six times the annual income of France.
  6. Most crusades were fought not in Palestine, but in Europe, as defensive measures against the Turks, Mongols, and other invaders.
  7. "Kill them all, God will know his own" is widely touted as a 'typical' Crusader statement, originally spoken by a french knight at Beziers. Leaving aside the question of whether a complex movement should be judged by the words of one man, in fact the quote is entirely false. This has been proven since 1866, but it is still given widespread belief[Note 26].

[50] For the next 500 years, the only way to assemble a large, multi-national army capable of repelling the Turks was to call a Crusade. Without them, Europe would have succumbed to either Mongol or Turkish invasion and might today be a satellite of the Sultans or Khans. Along the way, they profoundly affected European culture: the Knights of Christ and the Code of Chivalry for the first time made warriors something higher than armed thugs; the Templars and Hospitallers created the first system of hospitals; industry and taxation were reorganized along modern lines; surgery and medicine improved to deal with the wounded; the Mercedarians rescued and ransomed thousands of Christians enslaved by the Saracens; the Crusades drove technological and political development; and for the first time since the fall of Rome people began to think of European unity.

[51] An imperial toady like Clement could never have brought off a crusade. Only an independent papacy with a canny statesman like Urban could have started it at all. Moreover, none of it would have happened without Matilda.

Matilda, crouching
Henry IV at Canossa in January 1077, asking Matilda to intercede for him with Gregory. The red-robed figure is Abbott Hugh of Cluny, Henry's long-suffering godfather.
From the Vita Mathildis

A Good Day

[52] Matilda's victory induced the cities of Milan, Cremona, and others to unite with her against Henry. She was granted control of all the passes through the Alps and kept the imperials out for the next twenty years. Henry predictably took Duke Welf's side when her second marriage ended, and she returned the favor by encouraging Henry's son, Conrad, in warring against him. [Note 19] Henry succeeded against Conrad, but then his favored son Henry betrayed and deposed him. [Note 20] Henry spent the remainder of his days as a vagabond, forced to seek charity from the Church.

[53] Now into her sixties, a tremendous age for that time, Matilda was famous throughout Europe, and many travelers called on Canossa with an air of veneration. The new Emperor Henry V concluded a peace treaty with her in 1110, and she willed to him her non-feudal possessions.

[54] In 1114 she rose from her sickbed and took up arms one last time, to put down another rebellion by Mantua. The citizens were so astonished at the sight of her they surrendered on the spot and begged her forgiveness. Although ready to raze the city, she relented and punished no one. After her usual Lenten fasting in 1115, she became so weak she could not even write. On July 24, 1115, she kissed a cross and died in mid-prayer. She was buried in the church of St Benedict in Mantua. Only then did Henry V find that, as a parting nose-thumb to the imperials, she had already given her non-feudal possessions to the Papacy. This prompted another string of quarrels between Pope and Emperor. [Note 21]


Previous Section
Table of Contents
Next Section
Return to Top Return to Index