The Normans in Italy
The Normans were the “Men from the North”; in other words, Vikings, who terrorised north-western Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries. Eventually they moved from being raiders to settlers, and just as in England Alfred the Great allowed them to settle in north-eastern England, which became the “Danelaw”, similarly in 911, Rolf the Ganger sailed his longboats up the Seine and the King of France, Charles the Simple, gave him land around the mouth of the river, which became known as Normandy: the land of the Northmen. Rolf was baptised a Christian & became Duke of Normandy. Within a generation, his people had forgotten their own language, spoke French, and adopted French law. They retained usual Viking habits of pillage and destruction; but were now keen always to have some legal excuse for their ravages. Their Christianity was of a very basic kind: to save the soul from hellfire by periodically attending mass, going on pilgrimage or endowing churches, but without any need for religion to interfere with a life of violence: indeed, they were always eagerly searching for some legal or religious quibble to enable them to pilage with a clear conscience. They soon abandoned Viking fighting methods (including seafaring), becoming instead the most deadly armoured knights in Europe; ferocious fighters able to endure great hardship. They were always proudly conscious of themselves as Normans, with a strong sense of solidarity: Norman barons who rebelled against. Norman overlords, as frequently occurred, were usually forgiven once they had submitted. At the same time they showed no racial exclusiveness, being always happy to marry the sisters or daughters of local rulers if there were political advantages to be gained. Consequently within a couple of generations had ceased to be “Norman” in any genetic sense; though they always retained the self-identity. They proved enormously prolific, with huge families, obliging younger sons to wander in search of new lands to conquer, in England, Scotland or Ireland, but also Italy.
Italy in the 11th century was a turbulent region without any central authority. The north was subject to the Holy Roman Emperor, whose power was based in Germany. The centre was Papal territory, but the Popes wielded little force of their own. Rome itself was torn by feuds between rival clans of nobles who attempted to control the Papacy for their own ends, with the result that Papal elections sometimes led to disputed results, with two or more candidates claiming the See of Saint Peter. Powerful Emperors might march on Rome to depose a Pope by force, and a Pope might retaliate by proclaiming an Emperor excommunicated and his subjects freed of their oaths of obedience. Southern Italy was the scene of endless small wars: there were outposts of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, Moslem Saracens occupying Sicily (also fighting each other), and local Lombard lords who were often little better than bandits; men like Pandolpho, Prince of Capua, “the wolf of the Abruzzi”, whose savage cruelty over his very long reign was remarkable even by standards of time. This was a scene tailor-made for people who could combine skill in warfare with ruthless cunning in politics - people, in other words, like the Normans. They first appeared in southern Italy around 1016, and soon found employment as mercenary soldiers. In 1030, after much strong fighting and well-timed changing of sides, a Norman chief, Rainulf, , was invested as Count of Aversa by Sergius, Duke of Naples, who gave him his own sister as wife. This meant Rainulf was now an officially-recognised nobleman, not just a mercenary captain.
More significant in the long term were Hautevilles. An obscure Norman knight , Tancred of Hauetville in the early 11th century, fathered at least 13 children by two marriages. Seven of his sons marched off to Italy to seek their fortunes from 1034; not all together, but when each was old enough. The oldest, William, acquired the nickname “Iron-arm” by his fighting prowess. By the usual methods of intervening in battles between Lombards and Byzantines, and exploiting civil war and palace revolutions in Constantinople, William was in 1042 hailed by the Normans as Lord of Apulia in the south-eastern "heel" of Italy, and his title recognised by the Lombard Duke of Salerno, who claimed sovereignty over the region. William died in 1046, followed by his brothers Drogo in 1051 and Humphrey in 1057, but there was another brother on hand, the most successful one yet: Robert, nicknamed Guiscard (“the cunning“). Meanwhile Pope Leo IX, alarmed at power of the Normans, raised a massive army from northern Italy and Germany and marched south to wipe them out. The two armies met at Civitate in June 1053, and after a day of ferocious fighting the papal army was eventually slaughtered. Pope Leo was taken prisoner by the Normans - who then, typically, fell on their knees before him to beg forgiveness, and later escorted him back to Rome! From this, the Popes realised the advantages of allying with the Normans against troublesome locals, heretic Greeks and the threatening power of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Normans in turn henceforth always stressed their firm support of the Pope.
Robert Guiscard was born about 1016, half-brother to the earlier Hautevilles. He came to Italy 1036: a blond, blue-eyed giant, ferocious soldier, ruthlessly sceming and entirely untroubled by conscience. In 1057 after the death of Humphrey he was acclaimed ruler of Apulia, and next year joined by yet another brother, Roger. He quickly gained control over all southern Italy and launched an invasion of Moslem Sicily.
The Byzantine empire at Constantinople enjoyed a revival from the ninth to the mid-eleventh centuries, but was never able to recover lost ground in Italy. Then suddenly the empire fell into chaos after a catastrophic defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071 and the consequent loss of almost all of what is now modern Turkey. Robert’s response to the crisis was to seize last the Byzantine bases in Italy and launch an attack on Byzantine-held Albania in 1081. He then took advantage of the great dispute between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII (known to history as the “Investiture Contest”) to swear homage to the Pope and in return to be officially recognised as Duke of Apulia in 1080.
In 1084 Henry’s armies entered Rome, called a conclave of sympathetic cardinals who declared Gregory deposed and appointed their own pope as Clement III. Gregory took refuge in the Castel San Angelo (Hadrian’s tomb), and appealed to Robert Guiscard’s Normans to rescue him. Henry withdrew at Robert’s approach. For three days, Norman troops (including many Moslem auxiliaries from Sicily) stormed through the city and inflicted on it the most appalling pillage: churches, palaces and ancient temples were destroyed, the area between the Coliseum and the Lateran was burnt down, and thousands of Romans were slaughtered or taken prisoner to be sold as slaves. This was the greatest devastation Rome had ever suffered; far worse than anything perpetrated by the Goths or Vandals. Pope Gregory was taken to safety in Salerno, where in 1085 he died. On his deathbed he said, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile”. It may be doubted whether the Romans would have agreed with this assessment.
Robert Guiscard died in the same year. He left as his successor a rather inadequate son, Roger Borsa; but also an older illegitimate son, Bohemond, a ferocious warrior like his father. He caused much trouble for Roger, but 1096 elected to lead the Italian Norman forces on the First Crusade, taking with him no fewer than seven younger Hautevilles. Bohemond was one of the greatest war-leaders of the age, leading the crusaders to victory at over the Turks at Doryleum and then to the taking of Antioch, but he then proclaimed himself Prince of Antioch and refused to go any further, leaving Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert of Normandy and Raymond of Toulouse to lead the crusading army to the storming of Jerusalem. One unfortunate result of the sudden irruption into the east of warriors like Bohemond was the deep and lasting mistrust which built up between crusaders and the Byzantine Greeks of Constantinople, which was to play a major part in the ultimate failure of the crusades. But the Normans from Italy would not have been surprised: they had always fought the Greeks!
Meanwhile Robert Guiscard’s younger brother Roger undertook the conquest of Sicily, ruled by Moslems from North Africa since 902. After a protracted campaign he completed the task, and in 1098, after once again assisting the Pope out of difficulties in Rome, Roger was given title of “Great Count of Sicily”. Roger died aged 70 in 1101; last of his generation of Hautevilles.
(The story of the Normans in Sicily will be covered in Part 2 of this essay)
Footnote: While all this was going on, interesting events were taking place in 1087 in the city of Bari in south-east Italy. The city fathers realised Bari needed a tourist attraction, which in the Middle Ages meant the bones of a famous saint to be a centre of pilgrimage. They fixed their attention on St Nicholas, a 4th-cetury bishop and theologian, whose tomb was in Myra in what is now Turkey. Accordingly, a gang of professional tomb-robbers was employed to steal St Nicholas's bones from Myra and bring them back to Bari. The enterprise was a great success, immense numbers of pious tourists began to trek to the new shrine and Bari’s fortunes were made. The city fathers then double-crossed the tomb-robbers and refused to pay them! The man henceforth known as St Nicholas of Bari became one of the most famous and beloved of all saints, though better known today as Santa Claus (a name of apparently New York Dutch derivation) or simply as Father Christmas.