[Miniature from the Vita Matildis, 1115, source: Wikimedia Commons]
Her father, Boniface III of Tuscany died* when she was eight. Her mother, Beatrice of Bar, married Godfrey the Bearded, Duke of Lorraine and betrothed Matilda to his son, Godfrey the Hunchback. Godfrey and Beatrice saw to it that she was educated not just in governance, but also in military matters and fighting. When the Duke died in 1069, the twenty-year-old Matilda and her mother ruled Tuscany together, while Matilda’s husband governed Lorraine. The deaths of both her mother and her husband in 1076 left Matilda sole ruler of not only her Italian possessions, but also of the Duchy of Lorraine.
This was right around the height of the Investiture Controversy. Matilda placed herself firmly on the side of the Pope and acted as one of his primary advisors. When Henry sought out the Pope to receive forgiveness and have his excommunication lifted, it was at Matilda’s castle of Canossa that the reconciliation took place. Matilda appears as one of the key witnesses to the events there. When Henry went south to attack Rome, he had to go through Matilda’s lands first. He defeated her and her forces, but she dealt him a more powerful blow: informing the German princes of his theft of the papal seal and encouraging their rebellion against him.**
After Gregory VII’s death in exile, Matilda took up the papal cause again, helped by a political marriage to Welf V.*** She led her armies against Henry once more and, though she was unable to drive him out of Italy entirely, she brought his influence there to almost nothing, capturing most of the towns loyal to him and humbling him at Canossa a second time, this time militarily. In between fighting Henry, she founded a number of
Matilda died of gout in 1115 and was buried at Modena. She left no heir, as her one child with Godfrey, Beatrice, did not survive infancy. Her body was later moved to the Vatican, making her the first person who was neither a pope nor a saint to be buried there.
*Was murdered, actually.
**We actually have that letter of hers, along with quite a few others. Go read it here if you have time. It's really cool.
***He was 26 years younger than her. She seems to have had no interest in him beyond the political support he brought and the marriage was never consummated.