Who is she?
Mathilda was the wife of King Henry I, the first Ottonian king of the East Frankish empire. Renowned for her piety (helped by the fact that the two most detailed sources for her life are her Lives, hagiographical works designed to prove her sanctity), Mathilda was the mother of Otto I and Henry the Younger, and played a prominent role in the Ottonian kingdom until her death in 968.
What do we know about her?
Mathilda was born into a noble Saxon family around the end of the ninth century, most likely around 895. According to her Lives, her lineage could be traced back to the famous Saxon leader Widukind, who had been defeated by Charlemagne in the conquest of Saxony in 785. Mathilda’s parents placed her as a child into the convent of Herford, where was her paternal grandmother was the abbess, so that she could be educated.
Her Lives tell us that in 909 Otto, the duke of Saxony, heard of Mathilda’s beauty and her literary skills. Otto told his son, Henry, to seek out the young girl at Herford (the Lives conveniently skip over the detail that Henry was already married to a woman called Hatheburg, and that he renounced this marriage in favour of the better-connected Mathilda). Henry, disguising himself as a commoner and hiding in the chapel of Herford to see Mathilda, ‘so burned with love for her’ that they were married straight away. The pair had 5 children:
- Hedwig, who married Hugh, Duke of West Francia and was mother to Hugh Capet, King of West Francia.
- Otto I, King and Emperor of the Saxon Reich.
- Gerberga, who married Gislebert, Duke of Lotharingia and then Louis d’Outremer, King of West Francia.
- Henry the Younger, Duke of Bavaria.
- Brun, Archbishop of Cologne.
Henry became Duke of Saxony in 912 and eventually succeeded Conrad I as king in 919.
After Henry’s death in 936, Mathilda’s eldest son Otto succeeded his father as king, though apparently not with his mother’s support. Mathilda seems to have preferred her other son, Henry the Younger, and backed his claim to become king. As a result, Mathilda was sent into exile by Otto, and was only reconciled with her eldest son, according to her Lives, through the intervention of her daughter-in-law, Edith.
Mathilda was closely involved with two convents for religious women. The most famous of the two was Quedlinburg, where her husband Henry I was buried. After being established in 936, as one of the first acts of Otto I’s reign, Quedlinburg became a place with particular significance for the rest of the Ottonian dynasty. Henry’s successors often stayed at the convent, held assemblies and celebrated Easter there, and Otto’s daughter, Mathilda (named for her grandmother), became its abbess in 966. The other convent founded by Mathilda was Nordhausen, which her Lives say she was especially fond of – although they were probably written at Nordhausen, so perhaps it’s understandable why they say that Mathilda loved Nordhausen more than any other place.
Didn’t you say she was a saint? Did she have any miracles?
Although Mathilda was considered to be a saint soon after her death, she had only has a couple of miracles recounted in her Lives, neither of which appear to be especially awe-inspiring. In one, while standing at the top of the hill of Quedlinburg, Mathilda threw a loaf of bread down the side of the hill and it landed intact into the lap of a pauper sitting in the town below; in the other she convinced a pet deer which lived in Quedlinburg to give back a small bottle of wine after all the other bystanders had chased it around to try to retrieve it.
On the other hand, Mathilda did have a strong reputation as someone of serious piety. Her devotions and prayers are listed at length in her Lives, as well as in other contemporary sources. In fact, Widukind of Corvey in his Res Gestae Saxonicae said that ‘if we wished to say something in praise of her we would fail because the virtue of such a great woman overcomes every effort of our meagre intellect.’
Mathilda died on March 14, 968, and was buried alongside her husband at Quedlinburg.
Where can I find out more?
– For the Lives of Mathilda, see Sean Gilsdorf’s translations (plus the very informative introduction) in Queenship and Sanctity: The Lives of Mathilda and the Epitaph of Adelheid, Washington D.C., 2004.
– For Widukind of Corvey’s mini-life of Mathilda, see Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach’s translation of the Res Gestae Saxonicae in Widukind of Corvey: Deeds of the Saxons, Washington D.C., 2014.
– For more on early medieval queens, including Mathilda, check out Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, Athens GA, 1983.