Rome, late May 1073
A stern-faced tonsured chamberlain marched Matilde through the Triclinium, the dining hall of the papal residence, oblivious to the beauty of the refined frescoes and the polychrome floor. In the mosaics of the bottom niche, a gold and green-and-gold-clad Charlemagne and a long-dead pope were kneeling at Saint Peter’s feet. Relics of a different era when popes and kings worked in harmony for the common good.
To the right of the Triclinium, a discreet wooden door led to the pope’s private study. To Matilde’s surprise, the chamberlain took a left turn, crossed a short corridor and an antechamber covered in marble slabs, and stopped by two grandiose bronze doors decorated with gilded crosses and eagles. ‘The Holy Father will see you in the Council Hall.’
The door hinges creaked, and he disappeared inside the room, to check if Ildebrando was ready for their audience. Should the choice of meeting place worry her? Perhaps. Instead, she felt gratitude. She was not ready to see someone else working at Pope Alexander’s table, sitting on his carved chair, praying by his cherished Madonna icon painted on wood from the Gethsemani. Besides, the Council Hall suited the new pope, his self-important and harsh personality.
Ildebrando di Soana had been enthroned at terce the previous afternoon, in the Lateran Basilica, the official seat of the bishop of Rome. A clear sky had blessed the coronation, and the incense emanating from precious golden holders had mixed with the scent of the first roses of the year, but all throughout the ceremony Matilde’s attention had been elsewhere, curled around thoughts of today, of what to say, and how – to compel him to listen and give her back her life.
Over the years, as the head of the papal diplomacy, Ildebrando had cast aside the Christian virtue of compassion with surprising ease to further the power of the church. Matilde had been one of his pawns, betrothed at eight to Duke Godefroy of Lotharingia, and later forced to marry him, to secure military support for the Eternal City. Now, at twenty-seven, she could see a short-lasting chance to escape Ildebrando’s chessboard. She had to seize it.
The gilded eagles on the bronze door spoke of Rome, of law, of justice. She had not ceased fighting for justice after the bishop of Verdun had pronounced her a wedded wife, turning her into the property of Godefroy of Lotharingia. Piece by piece, she had come close to dismantling the political edifice that had caged her. Fleeing her husband had been easy in comparison to other choices she had had to make, such as denouncing his breach of the non-consummation clause stipulated in their marriage contract. Not many princes of the church would view marital rape as a crime. Pope Alexander had trusted her, though, and refused to allow political considerations to obfuscate his judgement. Sadly, a month ago – a month that felt like a lifetime – he had joined his predecessors in their everlasting sleep under the vault of Saint Peter’s.
The gilded eagles shone, the shapes of the mighty birds a reflection of the strength she needed to summon – if she were to extract from Ildebrando a commitment to complete his predecessor’s unfinished work. The odds were stacked against her, but now was the time to try, while he felt blessed by God’s will, and he needed political support for his anomalous election. She prayed he would not bring up the other matter. Her mouth dried at the prospect.
Inside the room, steps approached; the eagles came forward and sideways as the bronze doors opened. Even before crossing the threshold, she saw the change. Pope Alexander had been a brave and humble man. There was no humility on the face and in the garments of the man sitting on a mosaic-encrusted throne, raised on a dais. The red robe with a gold embroidered hem imitated the clothes of an ancient Roman emperor.
Joining her palms in prayer, she knelt at the feet of the throne. ‘Father,’ she said in a whisper, unable to address him as ‘Holy,’ a word that in her heart still belonged to Pope Alexander alone. ‘Thank you for making time for me when your duty must call you in so many directions.’ She kept her head bowed, submissive, for now. ‘My mother sends her most heart-felt apologies.’
‘Another bout of her gout?’
‘I am afraid so.’
His right hand, covered in a gem-studded glove, blessed her from the distance. ‘Raise, daughter. We have a lot to talk about.’
They certainly did. As she stood up, the awareness of being alone in the middle of the room made her feel exposed. That was the effect he wanted to achieve, surely, to weaken his opponents before they could deal him any blow. Before confronting him, she visualised an imaginary shield. ‘Holy Father, you would be aware of the progress made by our beloved Pope Alexander towards the dissolution of my marriage.’
Ildebrando’s eyes were black darts. ‘You should pray, daughter. Prayer will remind you of your duty to support the holy Roman church through your union with Lotharingia.’
It had been three years since she had escaped Godefroy’s claws, and she still had nightmares. She would not endure being raped over and over for the good of Rome. Surely Jesus would not demand that of her. She suppressed a bout of nausea. Ildebrando senses fear like a dog, her mother had warned her. Never cry, never break in front of him. But she had to stop him. ‘Father—’
‘You should not interrupt me, daughter.’
For once, wearing a veil was useful; it concealed the anger that must be chasing fear off her face, the urge to hit him.
Clenching the ruby-encrusted cross on his chest, he let out a deep sigh. ‘Prayer teaches me the limits of my faith. It shows me the way, the Via Dolorosa the Lord has called me to walk.’ He paced the dais. ‘The church is under attack from all sides: the Normans south of Rome lifting their heads, and across the Alps the wretched king of the Germans insultingly appointing bishops as if he had some God-given right.’ A piercing glance, as if to search the recesses of her soul.
Her cheeks blazed, and she bowed her head to conceal her unease with a display of humility. As she did so, she glimpsed his feet, clad in magnificent golden slippers - probably not suited to walking a Via Dolorosa in Jesus’s footsteps.
He kept talking. ‘Worse even is that since the Infidels have slaughtered the Byzantines at Manzikert, the land road to Jerusalem is closed.’
Relieved that the conversation had moved on from Heinrich of Germany, she struggled to fathom what the events in the Eastern Mediterranean had to do with her request to divorce. Going to Jerusalem was not completely impossible. ‘God in his mercy has kept the sea route open,’ she said. Pisa, a city she loosely ruled over, was growing rich transporting pilgrims and goods to the East and back.
The golden slippers stilled. ‘The sea route is not enough,’ he sentenced. ‘The Holy Roman Church needs a champion.’
His words filled her with dread. For decades, Godefroy’s father had held the title of 'Sword of Saint Peter.' After his death, the honour had remained vacant, mainly because Ildebrando mistrusted Godefroy and his motives. What had changed? Nausea surged through her at the idea of her estranged husband commanding armies in the Roman countryside, physically near her.
Ildebrando was studying her, his brow slightly arched. Then the smile came, as unsettling as his gaze. ‘I am paying you a compliment, daughter. Pope Alexander was right: God has carved a unique path for you. Despite your sex, you can become the most glorious Christian leader, now that your father-in-law is in the arms of our Lord.’
He stepped off the dais, and down to her level. He was shorter than her and not someone who enjoyed feeling diminished, so the action startled her.
‘When you were barely a woman, you led the fleet that rescued Pope Alexander from the Germans; six years ago, you joined your father-in-law’s expedition against the Normans in the Campagna.’
She was surprised he even remembered. He had never acknowledged her as anything more than a dynastic pawn.
He was still smiling. ‘In both instances, our Lord blessed you with victory. These are signs I cannot ignore: He believes in you. So you, of all princes, should support my holy mission. Together, we will lead a fleet to the Holy Land, convert the Turks and restore Jerusalem to the Christians.’
Did he really believe that possible? The East had been at peace for a couple of decades, and the Turks seemed to tolerate Christian pilgrims. That did not mean that they would welcome a foreign fleet with open arms. Eyeing him under the veil, she gathered her thoughts. If you highlight the dangers, he might decide you are a weak woman and call on Godefroy. She needed to fashion an unobjectionable reply.
‘I am grateful, Holy Father, for the tremendous honour you are paying me. However, an expedition of such magnitude requires funding on a scale—’
‘Pisa is the mightiest sea power in the Western Mediterranean; their bishop is your vassal. Apply pressure and you will have a magnificent fleet assembled and ready to sail before the summer is over.’
‘The Pisans use their galleys for trade. They would rebel rather than lend them to me – unless I pay compensation commensurate to the riskiness of the expedition.’
The moment of complicity was over. With an impatient shrug, he slipped back onto his throne on the dais. ‘Will you tell the Lord that He is beyond your means?’
‘Of course not.’ She could not afford a straight refusal. ‘I am trying to say that this is an extremely complex mission, which it may take years to organise. I fear —’
‘You should not fear.’ His eyes reduced to slits and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Why do you think I secured the return of your dowry from your husband when he came to Italy last year? Your mother needed to have her Holy Blood relics back, ready to be placed in the service of God.’
‘I do not think I understand.’
‘We will place the Holy Blood at the head of your army.’
‘The… Sacred Vessels? My mother will never part from them again.’
He eyed her with a slightly amused expression. ‘She will – to protect you.’
So that was the reason he would offer a woman the leadership of the expedition. It was not her skill she wanted; it was her relics. The realisation was sobering. She was being charmed by a snake, by the glare of a basilisk. Time to steer the conversation back to her divorce plea.
He did not give her the chance. ‘I hear you are not taking Communion.’
How did he even know that? Unspoken between them, the sin that was making it impossible for her to take Communion hung in the air in all its magnitude. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears. Was he about to corner her into remaining married to Godefroy or face excommunication? Between them, the silence dragged on, heavy.
‘Not every day,’ she said. ‘Lately, I tend to seek my comfort in prayer.’
The strange smile reappeared on his lips. ‘When you search your heart in prayer, consider this. A mission to Jerusalem would atone for all your sins in the eyes of God and allow me to pronounce you free of your marriage.’
Goslar, mid-June 1073
Heinrich made the sign of the cross before his sister Tilda’s tomb and bowed to the urn containing his father’s heart. In prayer, he struggled to speak to a parent he barely remembered but whose shadow had loomed over his whole life, whereas Tilda’s death at thirteen, after an unnaturally early marriage to the devilish Duke Rudolph of Swabia, never failed to fill him with regret and bitterness. Time to go. At that hour of the day, Gottschalk would be in the cloisters, giving his fingers and hands a pause from the task of writing.
After his studies at the foundation of St Peter and St Jude there in Goslar, the young monk had trained for two years in the royal chancery. He had sharpened his skills writing diplomas before moving on to speeches, but he was also a poet, and hence a great reader of human minds. Gottschalk had only joined court two years ago, recommended by Adalbert of Bremen, the great Saxon archbishop, devout to the Salian cause, who had agreed to take charge of Heinrich’s education after his kidnapping. Because he was a Saxon, and a loyal one, each stone in Goslar carried memories of Adalbert. Thankfully, Heinrich did not need them. He had Gottschalk now. He had been surprised but grateful when, on his deathbed, Adalbert had confessed to him that the young monk was his natural son. The secret had made their bond strong.
Recently, Heinrich had put Gottschalk in charge of the chancery briefings, so every morning, wherever the court was, he would meet him immediately after Mass and start the day with his updates. As always, the young monk’s fingers and even his face were stained with ink.
‘It is good you do not paint manuscript initials, Gottschalk! Your face would look like a rainbow!’
Gottschalk would normally have laughed at the joke, but his jaw seemed tense against the sharp summer light.
‘What is troubling you?’
The young monk opened his mouth slightly but said nothing.
‘Has it got anything to do with that snake of my brother-in-law?’
After burying Tilda, Duke Rudolph of Swabia had re-married to no-one else than the sister of Heinrich’s wife Berta, thus squeezing himself back in the royal family.
‘Not exactly, my lord.’ Gottschalk paused. He had inherited his father’s intense blue eyes, but he had not yet mastered the art of disguising his feelings. ‘We just received reports that Duke Rudolph has left his lands a week ago,’ he added nervously.
‘Where is he?’
‘Headed for Rome.’
‘For Rome? Without my permission!’
‘We have received news that Pope Alexander has passed away.’
‘I am sorry,’ was his first thought, spoken aloud. Pope Alexander has been harsh with him, but he was a man of integrity. His successor may not be a better human being, nor better disposed towards him. ‘What has this got to do with Rudolph?’
‘Apparently, he wants to congratulate the new pope in person.’
‘So, there is a new pope already?’
Gottschalk’s features froze for a moment. There was a new pope, and Rudolph, risking his overlord’s wrath, had dashed to meet him. The more Heinrich examined the facts, the less he liked them. A sour taste spread in his mouth. ‘Gottschalk, who is the new pope?’
The monk tugged at his beard, his limpid gaze flickering with uncertainty or fear.
‘Who is it?’
‘It is Ildebrando di Soana, my lord.’
Heinrich stared at his own clenched fists. ‘This is the beginning of the end, for me or for him.’
Ildebrando: the devious monk who had never shown an ounce of Christian compassion towards him, not even at the lowest moments of his life, when, as a child, he had been kidnapped and held hostage by so-called regents for three years; who had done everything in his power to force him to remain married to a woman he could never love and to deny him the right to be with the woman he loved; who had conspired for decades to destroy the power of the Salians, denying them the right to nominate the Roman pope and even the bishops of his kingdoms; who had plotted behind Heinrich’s back with Rudolph of Swabia and his erstwhile kidnapper Duke Otto of Nordheim to deprive him of Saxony and weaken his grip on Germany
‘God has allowed a devil on the Holy Seat,’ he snapped.
‘Allow me to acquaint you with the facts, my lord.’ Gottschalk sounded almost relieved now that the truth was out. ‘His election was somewhat irregular.’
Maybe there was hope. ‘Tell me more.’
‘The empress your mother has written on the subject.’
‘Spare me her lies.’ Since moving to Rome, she had become completely unreliable. This spring just passed she had even backed Pope Alexander’s decision to excommunicate his advisors – to save him, allegedly. Did she really expect him to believe her?
‘I would recommend you read her letter this time.’ Gottschalk drew a scroll out of his document box. ‘She says Ildebrando di Soana is considering your imperial coronation.’
Heinrich’s laughter filled the room. ‘I am not in the mood for jokes, Gottschalk.’
‘It is not a joke, my lord. Beatrice of Tuscany has written as well, using her usual cypher, and stating the same thing.’
He stopped in his tracks. Margravine Beatrice was the most trustworthy of his princes. With a grin, he patted Gottschalk on the shoulder. ‘Now that is interesting.’
What a great story! I'm right there straightaway in the 11th century and I like the way you pepper the prose with descriptions of the objects of that world. You combine the pomp of the pope;s office with the day to day - the mother's gout. That makes it an intriguing read. You pack a lot into the first few thousand words that gives the reader a good sense of what is to come for the protagonist. Great stuff!