28 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Lara Byrne - Writing Lotharingia: Charlemagne's Heir

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Holy Roman Empire, AD 1062 One day Countess Matilde will rule like a man, and inherit her mother's mysterious relics, but she cannot escape the marriage arranged for her. When her enigmatic overlord King Heinrich rescues her from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love. But her personal journey has only just begun. A medieval tale of love, political intrigue, and relic hunting.

Through Lotharingia, the first volume of a trilogy dedicated to Countess Matilde of Canossa, I attempt to breathe new life into the rich tapestry of the Holy Roman Empire at the dawn of the second millennium. The period bursts with remarkable characters, not widely known outside academic circles, intrigues and history-changing events.

In the 11th century, women of all classes became their husband’s property at marriage, and, in cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida’s re-wording of St Paul’s, were forbidden even to speak in church. Nevertheless, a handful of these silenced women – all heiresses of Carolingian blood – rose above the legal and religious constraints of their sex to find their own voice and claim power for themselves.

Comitissa, Ducatrix, Marchionissa, Matilde of Canossa was famed throughout Europe for her wealth, her political influence, her controversial lifestyle – and for repeatedly defeating the Holy Roman emperor on the field.

Yet she remains elusive, the patina of time thick on her. The drawn-out conflict between Holy Roman Empire and Rome known as the Investiture Controversy was bloody and marked by vitriolic attacks between the two parts sadly familiar in our ‘age of fake news.’

In these propaganda wars, Matilda was not exclusively a victim. She played an active part, re-writing herself and others, in the process shielding her personality and motives. The veil she wears in her surviving portraits is an apt metaphor of her self-representation.

 Yet what we know of Matilde, and what is hinted, or unexpectedly surfaces here and there in the chroniclers, unleashes the imagination, invites us to fill the gaps, to re-write her as our own, to resort to fiction for answers that history cannot give us.

In an age when divorce was not an option, not once but twice she walked down the path of estrangement, living apart from her husbands. To my knowledge, she was also the first woman to lead armies since Roman times. A third-born girl who ended up inheriting her father’s rights, Matilde must have felt God had chosen her for a special mission. So, clearly, did the Roman Church. She was in her mid-twenties when, twenty-five years before the First Crusade, Pope Gregory asked to lead an expedition to Jerusalem.

Then there is her complex relationship with her overlord, Heinrich of Germany, future Holy Roman emperor.

If we try to extrapolate the bare facts from the sources, they were both raised by exceptionally powerful Carolingian mothers after losing their fathers at an early age – and to add a Romeo and Juliet dimension Matilde’s father may have been ordered by Heinrich’s father. 

They spent a year together in Germany as children, and, after Matilde returned to Italy, they faced similar fates. They were both married against their will, after resisting their lot with unusual determination. Matilde was dispatched to take her vows just, just as Heinrich was trying, unsuccessfully, to divorce from his wife.

 There was, undeniably, a bond between Matilde and Heinrich, which continued even after his death. In surviving letters, he claimed to trust Matilde and her mother above all other princes. Although contemporary imperial propaganda alleged that she was Pope Gregory’s lover, when I suspect there was a deep feeling between Matilde and her king, I walk in the footsteps of literary giants. The German poet Heine, the Italian playwright Pirandello, and more recently the novelist Mancinelli have all sexualised Matilde and Heinrich’s relationship.

My decision to place their forbidden love in 1070-71 is based on factual considerations. Heinrich’s movements since his coronation are documented, whereas Matilde’s whereabouts before she inherits her lands in 1076 are only limitedly recoverable. Still, as an illustrious imperial heiress and a political leader in her own right, after marrying the Duke of Lotharingia at the end of 1069, she is likely to have spent time at court.

As far as I could establish, no contemporary sources suggest that their dealings in 1070-71 went beyond the customary feudal relationship. There is also o backing in the sources for the possibility that Matilde’s stillborn daughter, born in early 1071, may have been a lovechild. But soon after the birth Matilde ran away from her husband and escaped to Italy, at great personal risk.

I also asked myself whether the Church’s determination to marry Matilde and Heinrich off to their betrotheds concealed a decision to prevent them from marrying each other. A matrimonial alliance between Matilde and Heinrich could have had negative repercussions for the Church, and that may well be the only reason. But I focused on another.

Mediaeval piety is marked by an obsessive fascination with relics. The German Crown owned the Holy Spear, a mysterious weapon, bought at enormous cost by one of Heinrich’s predecessors and reputed to have talismanic powers – a belief that run throughout German history all the way to the Third Reich. Heinrich’s predecessors had won decisive battles after placing the spearhead before their armies. His devotion to the Holy Spear is hard to dispute. He had an inscription added to it, stating that a nail hammered into the blade was a relic from the Crucifixion.

As for Matilde, we know she had relics of her own that may have reinforced her belief that she was fit to be a military leader in the name of God, turning her femininity into a negligible consideration. Her mother had been involved in the rediscovery of the Holy Blood relics (which remain in Mantova to this day).

 I have tried to “connect the dots” – and the relics above - by inventing the prophecy of the child of Charlemagne. Prophecies were a mediaeval political tool, leveraged mainly by hermits and preachers. The millenarist impulse has yielded a few variations on the theme of the birth of a child who would usher a golden age. Could political rulers have devised their own prophecies? Heinrich’s grandfather, the Faustian Emperor Conrad, rumoured to have made a pact with the devil to secure the empire for his dynasty, seems an attractive candidate.

Although Lotharingia ends in 1072, the tapestry of eleventh century continental politics continued to be defined by Matilde and Heinrich into the new century. It will form the subject of my next book, in which the king and countess meet again, in vastly different circumstances.

Lara Byrne

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About the Author

Lara Byrne is a Londoner with European roots. Too many years in the corporate world taught her that so much still needs to be done to raise the profile and the opportunities for women, and that women gain strength from finding historical role models to identify with. Lara is currently hard at work on a sequel to Lotharingia, provisionally entitled The Road to Canossa. Find out more at larabyrneauthor.com and follow Lara on Twitter @larafbyrne

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