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Matilda, Duchess of Saxony, Queen of Germany, Saint

Matilda was married to Henry the Fowler. After the death of Henry’s father Otto she became Duchess of Saxony and with Henry’s election as King Queen of Germany (or more correctly Queen of the Eastern Franks).

Matilda is known as Matilda of Saxony or of Ringelheim. She was born a daughter of the Count of Westphalia probably in 895. For her education, she was sent to the Damenstift (convent) of Herford where her grandmother Matilda was abbess. These convents (Damenstift) weren’t nunneries as we think of them today, but rather institutions where noble ladies could retire to. They were used to get rid of surplus widows, sisters, and to park daughters until a suitable marriage could be contrived, or indefinitely if not.

She was married to Henry the Fowler of Saxony in 909. For Henry, this was the second marriage. His first marriage had been to Hatheburg, daughter and heiress to the Count of Merseburg. Hatheburg was a widow and by claim of the bishop of Halberstadt a consecrated nun (which would mean that her inheritance would fall to the church). Henry had a son with her, Thankmar. He acceded to the demand of the bishop only when the marriage to Matilda was secured, sending Hatheburg back to the convent, but keeping her inheritance.

Upon the death of Henry’s father Duke Otto the Illustrious, the Duchy of Saxony passed to Henry, making Matilda Duchess of Saxony. After the death of Conrad I in 918, Henry was elected King of the Eastern Franks making Matilda Queen. Against custom, Henry declined to be anointed King by the bishop of Mainz. This had nothing to do with the holiness of his wife, and a lot with a precarious power balance with the other dukes.

With Matilda, Henry had three sons and two daughters. The daughters would be married to the opposing grandees in the Western Frankish Kingdom, King Louis IV and Hugo the Great. Of the sons, Otto would be King and Emperor; Henry would become Duke of Bavaria, and Brun bishop of Cologne.

With great care, Henry aligned the dukes of the realm behind him, using a mixture of bribes and force of arms. His policy allowed him to supplant the old law of conjoint inheritance of all sons in favour of a single titular heir. This allowed his son Otto the Great to ascend the throne without much opposition.

Matilda’s involvement into politics at that point was rather unfortunate. She preferred the old customs to Henry’s new inventions, and thereby seemed to favour her son Henry. This sent out all the wrong messages to the nobles in the realm, and her brother in law and several other nobles got involved with Thankmar in a bid to wrest power from Otto. They lost, and Thankmar lost his life. Matilda was requested to retire from the Royal Presence to her widow’s lands.

It took the intervention of Queen Edith to bring her back and to grant her wish of a Damenstift (convent) at Quedlinburg dedicated to the prayers for King Henry the Fowler and his successors. She took up the administration of the convent herself without becoming its abbess. But she was made lay-abbess of Nivelles, one of several convents founded by her.

Upon her death, she was acclaimed a popular saint for her good deeds in founding many churches and convents as well as her generosity towards the poor. The papal canonization followed only later. Her feast day is the 14th of March, the day she died in 968 in Quedlinburg. She was buried beside her husband in the church of St. Servatius.

A nice anecdote blamed Matilda’s exile on her giving away too much Royal money, forgetting that she was a very rich woman thanks to the morning gift she had received upon her marriage to Henry. A strikingly similar anecdote was told of Queen Edith, too. Matilda was sometimes called an Empress, which she wasn’t except in Widukind’s contemporary writing. But Widukind wanted to express the independence of the Imperial crown from any external (especially papal) approval and therefore conveyed the honour where and when he saw fit.

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