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The Historical Conflicts of Religion and Politics - an Editorial Review of "The Road to Canossa"

Book Blurb:

A.D. 1073. A new pope sits on Saint Peter's throne. He knows about Charlemagne's prophecy, and he knows about Countess Matilde's sins. He is determined to crush King Heinrich of Germany. Can Matilde save a kingdom by negotiating between a love she lost and a pope who denies her a divorce?

Love and politics, betrayal and survival, male and female power, relics and prophecies, against the backdrop of the Investiture Controversy.


The characters of Lotharingia return for another early medieval drama, inspired by the events that led the king of Germany to seek the intercession of the most powerful woman in Europe.

From the royal halls of Germany to the papal Curia, to the walled cities, mighty fortresses, and rolling hills of Central Italy, The Road to Canossa is a journey through the characters and events that convulsed the Holy Roman Empire at the dawn of the second millennium. 1073 - Italy

Countess Matilde prepares to take over the rule of Tuscany from her formidable mother Beatrice, whose health is failing. Her beloved Pope Alexander dies before finalising her divorce from her estranged husband. The election to the Holy Seat of Ildebrando di Soana, the architect of her marriage, could shatter her plans. The new pope makes her a surprising offer. He will grant her a divorce if she agrees to lead a papal expedition to Jerusalem. Matilde is tempted. The journey is dangerous, but she needs a fresh start, as far as possible from her former lover King Heinrich of Germany. Ildebrando's motives, though, are not what they seem. The East is a treasure trove of relics... 1073 - Germany The news of Ildebrando's election spells doom for King Heinrich of Germany, who is in the middle of a civil war. He has not forgotten Matilde, but his life has moved on. The new pope seems more reasonable than expected, and even offers to crown Heinrich emperor. Has he truly abandoned his schemes to bring down the Salian house? In the 11th century, Countess Matilde of Tuscany was the most famous woman in Christendom, a trailblazer who defied the gender expectations of her age to become the most powerful prince of the Holy Roman Empire for two generations. Exploiting the gaps and contradictions in medieval chronicles, The Road to Canossa weaves history and fiction into an alternative account of the world and the challenges she faced, as she grappled with the constraints of femininity in her quest for self-definition, power, and love. PRAISE FOR THE AUTHOR

'Byrne writes beautifully and brings the politically unstable world of 11th-century Europe to life.' Historical Novel Society 'The Road to Canossa is another rich tapestry of a novel from Byrne and a worthy successor to Lotharingia. Sumptuous, involving, and an absolute page-turner.' Rose Auburn ''Something between the Medici and the Tudor, with a tad bit of Shakespeare thrown in.' Ink & Insights 'Historical fiction at its very best and a highly recommended read.' GoodReads Review

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Author Bio:

History, especially ancient and medieval, has always been my passion. There was, after all, a castle in my village, which one day will become the setting of one of my novels. When I was little, I loved reading about the great men and the occasional great women of history, and the moment I finished a book my mind would start journeys of its own, turning historical figures into the heroes and heroines of stories.

Lotharingia and The Road to Canossa, part of the Comitissa of Tuscany series, are a blend of romance, Machiavellian political intrigue, and mystery. They whisk you away to medieval Europe, introducing you to some fascinating historical characters who deserve to be better known, including some trailblazing women who changed European history at the turn of the first millennium.

Lotharingia won the 2021 HFC Book of the Year contest in the World Historical Fiction Category, was shortlisted for the Page Turner Awards and is a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice. It has climbed the charts, making it to #1 on multiple Amazon Best Seller lists in the UK, Canada and Australia, and being selected by Amazon Prime in the UK and Australia.

Lotharingia's sequel, The Road to Canossa, released in late March 2023, has topped the Amazon US Best Sellers chart in multiple categories.

Sign up to my mailing list, or follow me on Amazon and Bookbub for updates on the release of the third volume of the Comitissa series.

Visit my website for your free copy of 'The Keeper', a Judge's Favourite at the Ink & Insights award. You can also subscribe to my mailing list for insights into my historical research and the lives of my characters, as well as the odd Italy/Germany/France travel tip!

You find me at:

Twitter: @larafbyrne

Thank you for your time and happy reading!

Editorial Review:

''The Road to Canossa' by Lara Byrne is the sequel to her first book on the subject of Matilde, Countess of Tuscany - 'Lotharingia'. A third book to complete the trilogy ''The Magdalene's Path' is expected in the Spring of 2024 and is doubtlessly being eagerly awaited by a growing army of readers and followers. This latest book , a gem, on the subject of Matilde, historically known as the ''Comitissa'' or ''GranContessa'' is truly and in every respect an impressive and towering account not simply of the remarkable subject of the trilogy, Matilde herself, but also a thoughtful insight into the workings of the Medieval mind, a study of its nuances, complexities and failings, and the towering leaps of faith demonstrated by the protagonists involved! This reviewer for one is anxious to read Lara Byrne's third novel on the subject! Readers are also urged to waste little time in also enjoying the remarkable first book in the series. One of the undeniably great strengths of 'The Road to Canossa' is the sheer wealth of historical research and its translation into powerful and instructive and, above all, eminently readable historical fiction that springs out on each of its many pages; a feat of writing and a hypnotising blend of historical fact and imagination that has not been equalled by many in recent Historical Fiction; and this is not a claim that is made lightly. The book is, in other words, a spell binding page turner!

It takes a deft, sensitive and sure hand indeed to attempt to explore the issues of the ''Investiture Contest'' and the quarrel between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as to which of these two powers is entitled to appoint High ranking Church Officials. Lara Byrne takes the reader through the fog of nearly ten centuries to examine the true motives and individual agendas that actually lie at the root of this seemingly arid and dour sounding dispute, traditionally the province of learned medieval scholars and historians. Lara Byrne, instead, adds a new dimension. Power, control and prestige, as she shows, lie at the true heart of this subject; the towering ego of individual personalities, their pride and the strength of their beliefs. Equally, the sheer potency of their devout and deeply held religious beliefs. Readers may note in this book how often and for how much time the individuals concerned spend on their knees praying as they invoke the Almighty, either for pious guidance such as the saintly and wise Abbot Hugh of Cluny or for the furtherance of their own individual objectives, such as Ildebrando of Soana is at times capable of. This is, of course, a pious age and, as more than one Medievalist has noted, Religion is Politics and Politics is Religion. 'The Road to Canossa' more than adequately reveals this, a truly Byzantine tale of twists and turns of love, tragedy and thwarted plans that is reminiscent of a carefully crafted mixture of Greek and Jacobean tragedy.

It is April of the year 1073. In Rome, in a highly disputed election, Ildebrando of Soana, a previous master of engineering Papal elections and a particularly politically minded individual,, dons the robes of the Prelate and becomes the Pope Gregorius ['Guardian'] VII, taking the post from his dead and much loved predecessor Alexander. In his initial inaugural letter to the faithful, Ildebrando states his position clearly and so that there may be no doubts of his intent and resolve. Quoting from the Prophet Jeremiah, he lays out his stall so that all should be in no doubt:

''See, I have set you this day over Nations and over Kingdoms, to pluck up and break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.''

Ildebrando is consumed by a number of passions, one of the chief of which is his towering hatred of the German 'Salian' line of KIngs and as personified by the young King Heinrich, the present incumbant. He is determined to crush the impetuous King and destroy his aims and objectives forever. In Germany, the hated Salian and the object of Ildebrando's deep hatred [throughout 'The Road to Canossa,' Ildebrando provides the reader with a truly excellent villain!] is currently in the throes of a violent and very damaging Civil War - principally with his rebellious Saxon Nobility - and is very surprised to learn that the seemingly implacable new Pope is prepared to at least entertain the notion of crowning him Holy Roman Emperor! In Italy, the Countess Matilde is now thirty years of age. She is damaged not only by her hateful marriage but by a seemingly devoted and tempestuous love affair with the young KIng Heinrich that had resulted in the tragic death of a baby daughter. She wishes to put as much distance between her former lover as possible. Matilde 'Resplendens'' is a truly complex personality and exceptional character in any age. In the Medieval period she is truly a blazing figure indeed, a feminist role model and paragon, the pre-eminent female personality of the whole of the eleventh century! These books remain, above all other of the many individuals involved, her story. Matilde is something of a 'blue stocking'. The then facts of politics and geography would have necessitated her being fluent in both German and French and her understanding of Latin must have been exceptional. All of her siblings now being dead, she is also the richest heir in the whole of the Holy Roman Empire; heir of the lands of Lotharingia, stretching from the North Sea Coast to southern Italy and a rich prize indeed in an age that viewed in the political sense women as mere pawns. But Matilde, clearly, is made of sterner stuff indeed, as this book more than adequately reveals! Through her ailing but still formidable mother [as formidable as is the mother of Heinrich - the Empress Agnes], she is wholly aware of her sacred duties and responsibilities. Through her mother she has a blood link to the great Emperor Charlemagne and as such she has an overpowering sense of duty to the maintenance of the Holy Roman Empire and her duty as 'the Sword of Peter' to protect the Church and the sacred city of Rome. She sees this as a sacred and superseding responsibility that takes all of her energy, skill, determination and passion. It is her responsibility, therefore. to attempt to broker peace between a former lover whom she seeks to avoid and a new Pope whom she does not trust and who has up to now denied her all hope of a divorce from a despised husband.

If Heinrich is surprised at the apparent willingness of Ildebrando to officiate at his Imperial Crowning, then Matilde is equally surprised at the Pope's suggestion that she should lead an armed Papal army to Jerusalem - thirty years before the actual First Crusade. In return for so doing he will make all the necessary arrangements for her divorce from the despised Godefroy of Lotharingia. This, at first glance, would appear to be a satisfactory arrangement but, as with all his schemes, there is a secret agenda that Ildebrando is working towards. The reader by now is fully aware of the extent to which Ildebrando is prepared to go to in order to achieve his aims, both personal and in search of the dominance of Holy Church - especially if 'Lotharingia' has also been carefully and thoroughly read and enjoyed. In 'The road to Canossa' we see this as unbridled passion and absolute determination! A word of warning to the reader here. Attention and concentration is required to successfuly traverse the many deep thickets of deception and intrigue in this very long book. It is a rich tapestry indeed, and containing a wide variety of rich characters, be they heroes, knaves or villains. Each of these is fleshed out in great detail, allowing the careful reader an understanding of the role they play, be it major or minor, and we are left with an insight into their characters and their particular motivations. Above them all, of course, rises the personality of the often thwarted Pope, forever in search of the realisation of his plans, the proud and fearless and equally obsessive figure of Matilde, a young woman who forever fights against what is expected of her as a mere woman in an age utterly dominated by men. There is also, the third member of this triumvirate, Heinrich, King of Germany and aspiring Emperor. He is proud, arrogant and wilful, fighting to survive in a brutal civil war, beset by enemies and determined to succeed.

One of Ildebrando's many obsessions, like many of his time and regardless of status held, is his obsessive reverence and passionate search for Holy relics. For a person of the twenty first century it is very hard indeed to grasp the potency of the reverence shown to these objects and to the importance attached to their possession. People would go to truly extraordinary lengths to possess them and to harness their supposed power Both Matilde and Heinrich are in separate possession of two such: the Holy Blood of the Magdalen and the prophecy of Charlemagne in the case of Matilde and of the Holy Lance of the Legionnaire Longinus [present at the Crucifixion] in the case of Heinrich. Through her extraordinary mother Beatrice, Matilde is of the blood of Charlemagne and through him, the blood of Mary Magdelen herself, of whom a dangerous and higly heretical sect has arisen with a core belief that she was in fact the First Apostle of Christ and therefore superior to Saint Peter himself, upon whom the very Papacy has been constructed. The idea of Matilde and Heinrich combining to have male issue is of course unthinkable to Ildebrando, with all the implications that that would involve. He knows, however, that in Jerusalem there exists an ancient map that would lead him to the discovery of a more potent relic yet, the Sacred Chalice. It is his hope and plan that in Jerusalem Matilde would find this map, and then simply and obediently hand it to him as a dutiful female pawn so that he might secure the ultimate prize! Such is the essence of Ildebrando's desire and, seen in this light, the mere issue of who, King or Emperor, had the authority to appoint senior figures of the Church - the essence of the 'Investiture Contest' - seems rather lightweight in comparison. It is Ildebrando's misfortune that he does not know the full extent of the threat facing him in the joining of the bloodlines of Heinrich and Matilde, but he certainly is justified in his fears and suspicions. In the event, Matilde knows far more than he and, much later, Heinrich is also apprised of the facts of the power of his own bloodline by his equally extraordinary own mother, the Empress Agnes.

In the event, the journey to Jerusalem does not take place. It had been Matilde's understanding that she would lead this Crusade at the Pope's urging, but his ill judged appointment of her deeply loathed and estranged husband, Godefroy, as leader at the last moment means Matilde's refusal to remain involved, which brings about the collapse of the whole scheme. The Pope, thwarted, is determined to drive a wedge between the former lovers and a rumour spreads implicating Ildebrando and Matilde in an amorous relationship. Whatever and whoever the cause of this rumour, the story reaches the ears not only of Heinrich but also of Godefroy himself, who then attempts a botched kidnap and murder of the Holy Father himself. Though there is long distance tension between the two former lovers [they do not actually meet again in person until very late in this novel and in a climactic conclusion], Matilde remains aware of her sacred duties and is of strong resolve to be the Champion of both the Empire personified by Heinrich and Holy Church personified by Ildebrando and nothing will shake her from this purpose. On her deathbed, wise old Beatrice advises her to trust Ildebrando less and Heinrich more. Heinrich does not, however, make this easy for her. A further wedge is driven beween she and Heinrich when he refuses to grant her the lands of the truly huge Estate and inheritance upon the death of her mother; a further major source of tension and grievance. Heinrich's personal position itself is under great threat due to the great threat of the Civil War raging and of the machinations of his evil and devilishly handsome brother in law, Rudolph of Rheinfelden, Duke of Swabia and the equally treacherous Otto of Nordheim, Duke of Bavaria. Whilst the Kingdom burns. Ildebrando is tireless in his attempts to add fuel to the flames and the communications between each other grow increasingly vitriolic, leading to a final showdown between the two at Canossa in January and February of 1077. Never mind Heinrich's possible raising to the status of an Emperor: he and his principal Church supporters have been denigrated and actually excommunicated - divorced from the protection of the Church! Again, it is hard for the modern mind to fathom the extent of this punishment; to be denied the Sacrament and denied the blessed Salvation of the life hereafter! From here we have a sorry tale indeed of Heinrich's calls for forgiveness and repentance and of Ildebrando's utter determination to crush the Salian anti-Christ; and of Matilde's ceaseless efforts to bring about peace and harmony between the two, with the aid of the monumentally important figure of Abbot Hugh of Cluny, her dear friend and the Confessor and former colleague of Ildebrando. Lara Byrne has - very considerately for the reader - included a map of the Holy Roman Empire of 1073 that indicates the principal cities and centres involved. The three central protagonists of this epic tale of love, treachery, betrayal and redemption are constantly on the move, and vast and extremely uncomfortable and dangerous journeys are undertaken by them all. The final confrontation between King and Pope takes place in the high fortress of Canossa; in deep snow and killing temperatures. It is where a personal and political reconciliation of sorts is patched up and where the lives of Heinrich and the redoubtable and altogether admirable Matilde take on a whole new dimension!

Make no mistake, ''The Road to Canossa'' is a truly monumental and epic work that places Lara Byrne in the front ranks of contemporary historical novelists. It is highly instructional in the issues of the Eleventh Century to the newcomer and a book to be treasured for the sweeping panorama that the story tells and, at the same time, the touching and delicate insight it offers into the minds of long lost people. Lara Byrne's characterisation of these people, their hopes and their fears and their aspirations, is dealt with sensitivity and compassion, and woe betide the reader who strays in attention. The author is to be congratulated on such a magnificent book.


“The Road to Canossa” by Lara Byrne receive five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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