The Road to Canossa
Rome, late May 1073
Countess Matilde of Canossa had reached the age of twenty-seven but still felt uncomfortable wearing veils and gowns. If only she could visit the pope in her hose and tunic riding attire. But that would not go down well with the new holder of the Holy Seat.
A stern-faced tonsured papal chamberlain preceded her through the Triclinium, the dining hall of the pope’s residence, oblivious to the beauty of the delicate frescoes and the polychrome floor. In the mosaics of the bottom niche, for a couple of centuries, a green-and-gold-clad Charlemagne and a long-dead pope had been kneeling at Saint Peter’s feet. Relics of a different era when popes and emperors worked in harmony for the common good.
She had never come across this long-faced chamberlain when visiting the late Pope Alexander. Perhaps he was a recent appointment. He seemed uncomfortable escorting women through the rooms of power. He was marching ahead of her, as if scared that even small talk could expose him to the sins of Eve, the contamination emanating from any kind of intercourse with human beings who happened to be female.
When they reached the end of the room, instead of opening the inconspicuous wooden door to the right of the Triclinium hall which led to the pope’s private study, her nervous escort took a left turn. After crossing a short corridor and an ante-chamber covered in marble slabs, he stopped by two grandiose bronze doors with gilded crosses and eagles. There, he finally felt safe enough to exchange a few words. ‘The Holy Father will see you in the Council hall.’
That was a surprising choice of meeting place, and perhaps she should worry instead of feeling relieved. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and she meant it.
It was too early to see someone else working at Pope Alexander’s table, sitting on his carved chair, praying by his beloved Madonna icon painted on wood from the Gethsemani. Besides, the Council hall suited the new pope, his self-important and stern personality.
The door hinges creaked, and the chamberlain disappeared inside the room, presumably to check if the Holy Father was ready.
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, the incense emanating from the gilded 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 force him to listen and give her back her life.
She knew what she was up against. In his years as chief of the papal diplomacy, Ildebrando had cast the Christian virtue of compassion aside with remarkable ease to advance the power of the Church. She had been once of his pawns, betrothed as a child to the Duke of Lotharingia, and later forced to marry him, to secure military support for the Eternal City.
The gilded eagles on the door spoke of Rome, of law, of justice. She had not stopped fighting for justice after the bishop of Verdun had pronounced her a wedded wife. Piece by piece, she had come close to dismantling the political edifice that had caged her.
Running away from Godefroy had been the simple part, far easier than disclosing to Pope Alexander that her husband had raped her, breaking the non-consummation clause in her marriage contract. Thankfully, Pope Alexander had believed her. He had heard her grievance without letting political considerations or the usual beliefs in the innate sinfulness of the daughters of Eve obfuscate his judgment. But a month ago – a month that felt like a lifetime – he had joined his predecessors in their eternal sleep under the vault of Saint Peter’s.
Steps inside the room, perhaps the chamberlain’s, approached. The gilded eagles shone, reflections of the strength and hope she needed to summon and infuse in her speech. Her purpose was obvious: extracting from Ildebrando a commitment to complete his predecessor’s unfinished work.
The odds were stacked against her, but she had to try, and try now, while he felt blessed by God’s will, and while he desperately needed political and military support for his anomalous election. She prayed that he would not bring up the other matter. Her lips dried at the prospect. The eagles came forward and sideways, as the bronze doors finally opened.
Even before crossing the threshold, she took in 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 was copied from the clothes of an ancient Roman emperor. That was a message she could read well. She knew who it was aimed at.
She knelt at the feet of his throne, by the edge of the dais. ‘Father,’ she said in a whisper, unable to precede the word with ‘Holy,’ a word she still felt belonged to Pope Alexander alone. She pressed her palms together to find strength in her submissive pose. ‘Thank you for making time for me when your duty must call you in so many directions. My mother sends her most heartfelt greetings. She intended to join me, but she is indisposed.’
‘Another bout of her gout?’
From under the veil, she could feel his eyes on her. ‘I am afraid so.’
He weighed her reply, and then reached out his right hand, covered in a gem-studded glove. He blessed her swiftly 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 intensified and made her feel exposed. That was the effect he wanted to achieve, surely, to weaken his opponents before they could deal him any blow. She visualised an imaginary shield, before facing him. ‘Holy Father, you would be aware of the progress made by our beloved Pope Alexander, towards the dissolution of my marriage.’
Ildebrando looked down on her from his throne, his eyes black darts. ‘You should pray, my daughter. Prayer will remind you of the importance of your union with Lotharingia, and of your duty to support the Holy Roman Church.’
It had been three years since she had run away from Godefroy and she still had nightmares. She was not going to endure being raped over and over for the good of Rome. Surely Jesus would not demand that of her. She repressed 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. ‘Holy Father—’
‘Perhaps you should not interrupt me, daughter.’
She lowered her head, for once grateful for the veil that concealed the turmoil, the anger wiping the fear off her face. She wished she could hit him.
He clenched the gem-encrusted cross on his chest. ‘Prayer never fails to teach me the limits of my faith. It shows me the way, the Via Dolorosa the Lord has called me to walk.’ He rose from the throne and paced the dais. ‘The Holy Mother Church is under attack from all sides: the Normans south of Rome raising their heads, and across the Alps the wretched king of the Germans insulting us and nominating bishops as if he had some God-given spiritual right.’ A piercing glance, as if to search the recesses of her soul.
Her cheeks blazed, and she bowed to conceal her unease with a display of humility. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of his feet, feet clad in sumptuous golden slippers - probably not suited to walking a Via Dolorosa in Jesus’s footsteps. His voice reached her from above as he paced the dais. ‘What pains me, even more, is that after the Infidels have slaughtered the Byzantines at Manzikert, the land road to Jerusalem is closed.’
Although relieved at his change of topic, Matilde struggled to fathom what the recent events in the Eastern Mediterranean might have to do with her request to divorce. ‘God in his mercy has kept the sea route open,’ she said.
She ruled loosely over Pisa, and the city was growing rich over transporting pilgrims and goods to the East and back.
The golden slippers stilled. ‘The Holy Mother Church needs a champion.’
Her mother’s hunch had been right. Despite not trusting Godefroy, Ildebrando still intended him to become the sword of St Peter – just like his father had been. She placed her hand on her stomach, sick at the idea of Godefroy commanding armies in the Roman countryside, interfering with the ruling of her lands, physically near her. Only last summer her mother had persuaded him to return part of her dowry and go back to Lotharingia with Ildebrando’s backing. What had changed?
He 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 special 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.’
‘I?’ She had certainly not expected that.
He stepped off the dais and came down to her level. He was shorter than Matilde and not someone who enjoyed feeling diminished, so the action was surprising.
‘When you were barely a woman, you led the fleet that rescued Pope Alexander from the Germans, and six years ago you took part in your stepfather’s expedition against the Normans in the Campagna.’
‘I did.’ They were some of the best memories of her youth. For the first time in her life, he was acknowledging her as more than a dynastic pawn.
He was still smiling, unperturbed. ‘In both instances, God blessed you with victory; these are signs I cannot ignore. He has favoured you, giving you a unique destiny. So you, of all princes, should support me in my holy mission. Together, we will lead a fleet to Jerusalem, 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, but the Turks barely tolerated Christian pilgrims. They would most certainly not welcome a fleet with open arms. Eyeing him under the veil, she tried to form a coherent reply, choosing her words carefully. If she highlighted the dangers, he might call on Godefroy.
‘Holy Father, this is a tremendous honour that you are paying me. However, an expedition of such magnitude requires funding on a scale that may be beyond my financial means.’
‘Pisa is the mightiest sea power in the Western Mediterranean, and their archbishop is your vassal, so he cannot refuse you. You can assemble a magnificent fleet, ready to sail before the summer is over.’
That would never happen. She joined her hands to deliver her argument as meekly as she could. ‘Holy Father, the Pisans use their galleys for trade. They would rebel rather than lend them to me. I would need to offer fair compensation for the riskiness of the expedition—’
He gave an impatient shrug and stepped back on the dais so he was level with her. The moment of complicity was over. ‘Will you tell the Lord that He is beyond your means?’
Of course, she could not afford a straight refusal. ‘The Lord will never be beyond my means. But this is an extremely complex mission, it may take years to organise properly. I fear —’
‘You should not fear.’ His eyes tightened, and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘God has chosen you. Why do you think I secured the return of your dowry from your husband when he came to Italy last year? So your mother could have her Holy Blood relics back, ready to be placed in the service of God.’
‘I do not think I understand.’
He clearly thought he was speaking the obvious. ‘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 true reason he would entrust troops to the leadership of a woman. 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. He was luring her into leading this impossible mission, whilst eluding her divorce request. Time to steer the conversation back to where it had started. ‘Holy Father, as you said, I need to search my heart through prayer. I am both surprised and honoured by your proposal, but I have duties to my mother, to my lands—’
‘I hear you are not taking Communion.’
How did he even know that? Her expression did not change, but a shiver went down her spine. Unspoken between them, the sin that was making it impossible for her to take Communion hung in the air, in all its magnitude. Was he about to hit her in the face with her past, to corner her into remaining married or face scandal, or worse, excommunication? The silence dragged on, heavy.
‘Not every day,’ she said eventually. ‘Prayer is my comfort at the moment.’
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.’