During the Middle Ages, love matches between royalty were rare. Princes and princesses were expected to marry in order to establish a political alliance, or secure for their families more territory, or to bring in a substantial dowry. Whether the royals liked — let alone loved — each other did not enter into the equation. But Matilda (895-968) and her husband, Henry the Fowler, loved and respected each other.
Matilda had always been charitable, but as empress of Germany she could be more generous than ever before. Her favorite charities were churches, monasteries and convents, but she also gave abundantly to the poor. Matilda’s kindness even extended to criminals and prisoners from her husband’s wars. If she could not persuade Henry to release them, then she comforted them in the cells with food, light and warm clothes. Henry never tried to limit Matilda’s acts of charity; rather, he attributed his victories to his wife’s prayers and good works. Over time, the couple had five children.
St. Matilda’s troubles with her children began the day Henry died. By right, the crown would pass to their eldest son, Otto. But Otto’s younger brother, Henry, wanted to be emperor, and what he could not have by right, he tried to take by force. Young Henry raised an army against his brother, but Otto defeated the rebels easily, captured his little brother and was trying to decide what to do with him when Matilda intervened, begging for clemency. Otto gave up any plans he may have had to execute Henry, and Henry swore allegiance to Otto.
With peace restored in the family, Matilda did what she loved best: endowed convents and monasteries and built new ones. She spent so lavishly that Otto insisted she stop. Then Henry the troublemaker stepped in. For once not only did he agree with his brother, but he suggested more drastic action to prevent their mother from squandering any more money on monks and nuns: The family should take charge of their mother’s finances, including the property she had inherited from their father, the late emperor. As her sons dispossessed her, Matilda, to blunt the pain of being persecuted by her own children, indulged in a little irony, saying how good it was to see her boys working in harmony at last. Then she packed her bags and went to live at the Engern convent.
But worse was to come for Matilda. Henry made another attempt to seize the throne, this time recruiting a team of assassins that included one of Matilda’s grandsons and one of her sons-inlaw. Otto survived the plot unharmed, and once again treated Henry with forbearance. It was just as well; not long after his final conspiracy failed, Henry died. As for Matilda, she spent the final years of her life in a Benedictine convent. There, after she had given to the poor absolutely everything she still owned, including her burial shroud, she died peacefully.
She is also the patron saint of parents with large families. Her feast day is March 14.
Thomas Craughwell is the author of many books, including “Saints behaving Badly” and “This Saint will Change Your Life”.