Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The last of the Hohenstaufen and the end of the Sicilian kingdom

Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen family, was simultaneously Holy Roman Emperor (meaning that he ruled Germany and much of northern Italy) and King of Sicily and southern Italy. He spent much of his reign in bitter struggles with the Pope and with the independent-minded Italian cities. 

When he died in 1250 he left his kingdom of Sicily to his son, Conrad, who had already been elected "King of the Romans" by the German princes, but not crowned Emperor by the Pope. Frederick also left vast territories in southern Italy to his illegitimate son, Manfred, with the title of Prince of Taranto. The two were inevitably suspicious of each other, and Pope Innocent IV was hostile. Conrad was soon strong enough to advance from Germany into Italy, to re-establish Imperial control over the north. In January 1254 he accused the Pope of usurpation and heresy, and Innocent responded by excommunicating him. War seemed inevitable; but that April Conrad died of fever, aged just 26, leaving only a 2-year-old son, known as Conradin.

Manfred now moved quickly to take control of southern Italy and Sicily, initially claiming to be regent for Conradin, but having achieved this, he had himself crowned King of Sicily in 1258. The Popes were determined to get rid of him, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of Henry III of England, initially turned down the Pope's offer of the crown of Sicily, but then, aided by massive bribery, was elected "King of the Romans" (that is, prospective Emperor) and crowned at Aachen. He never got to Rome to be crowned Emperor by the Pope: in the face of growing opposition in Germany and hostility from France, he hurriedly retreated to England. 
        In Italy, Manfred reigned supreme. The cities of the north were deeply divided between "Guelfs" (who supported the Pope) and "Ghibbelines" (who had supported Frederick, and now supported his son). Manfred destroyed a vast army financed by the Pope at Montaperti in 1260, (many of Manfred's soldiers being Sicilian Moslems), occupied Sardinia the next year, and also took Corfu and bases in Albania. A sign that he was a significant figure on the European stage came when he married his daughter Constance to Peter, son and heir of King James of Aragon in Spain. How was the Pope to get rid of Manfred? The crown of Sicily was offered to Edmund, younger son of Henry III, who promised vast sums to help achieve this, but then the English barons revolted at tax increases and the scheme was abandoned. Everyone ignored the claims of young Conradin back in Germany!

  The new pope, Urban IV, a Frenchman, then offered Sicily to Charles of Anjou, the younger brother Louis XI, the King of France. Charles had already turned down a previous offer, because Louis (soon to be canonized as Saint Louis) was devoting all his resources to crusading and did not want to be distracted by any fighting in Europe. But eventually Papal advocates won Louis over to support his brother's cause. Charles promised to pay the Pope vast sums if the plan succeeded.
      In 1265, Charles eluded Manfred's fleet to land in Rome, where he was crowned King of Sicily, and assembled a massive force to march southwards. Manfred tried to buy time by retreating, until finally in February 1266 the two armies met at Benevento in southern Italy. After a hotly contested battle, Manfred was killed and his army slaughtered or driven away. As an excommunicate, Manfred was denied burial in consecrated ground, though it is said that Charles had a cairn erected over his body in tribute to his fighting qualities. This courtesy was not, however, extended to Manfred's wife and children, who were carted off to prison, where they soon perished.
    Charles now ruled all Italy south of papal territory, and promptly forgot most of the promises he had made to the Pope. He was an efficient ruler, not unduly cruel by the standards of the time, but his taxes were high and his rule was not popular in Sicily. He soon faced revolts there, and also in southern Italy and in the Ghibbeline cities further north.
        In Germany Conradin, now aged 15, handsome and attractive, decided to claim his rightful kingdom.. He gathered forces and crossed the Alps in autumn 1267, against the advice of wiser relatives. Moved through the Ghibbeline cities; Verona, Pavia and Siena; and arrived in Rome amidst wild rejoicing in July; the Pope having retreated to Viterbo. In August he met Charles’s forces at Tagliacozzo. Conradin’s army was on verge of winning the battle when Charles spotted him, isolated with few supporters, many of his undisciplined troops having dispersed to seek plunder. Charles and his knights charged at him, smashed his bodyguard and drove him in flight from field. The rest of Conradin's army, disorganized and now leaderless, was heavily defeated with great slaughter.
      Conradin and other leaders were captured soon after. Charles set up a puppet court to try them for treason, and in October 1267 Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen, aged just 16, and his equally young friend Frederick of Baden, were publicly beheaded in Naples. This violent breach of the normal rules of chivalry shocked most contemporaries. Even the Pope said to be uneasy; and Dante, writing fifty years later, was still upset by it (Dante, who had strong Imperialist views, places Manfred in Purgatory, not Hell, in his "Divine Comedy").

            Charles was a man of limitless ambition. He now obtained for himself the meaningless title of “King of Jerusalem”, and planned an attack on Constantinople, to make himself Emperor of the west. But his grandiose schemes overthrown in Sicily! The last surviving descendant of the Hohenstaufen, and of the old Norman Kings of Sicily, was now Constance. When her husband Peter became king of Aragon in1276, he began to think of taking Sicily for himself, and by 1280 had put together an invasion-force (under pretense of launching crusade against Tunis) But then, a sudden crisis was precipitated! 

At Easter 1282 French official in Palermo pestered a Sicilian lady, and her husband stabbed him to death. This developed into a massacre: within the day, two thousand French had been murdered in Palermo. The massacre, to be known as “the Sicilian vespers”, soon spread throughout whole island. (One of the many explanations of the mysterious word "Mafia" is that it is code for "Death to the French!" All one can say is that it is no more improbable than other explanations) The rebels quickly organised themselves and called upon Peter of Aragon to help: he landed forces that summer, soon controlled the whole island, and then moved to invade the mainland. Charles in Naples was slow to respond, and the Ghibbelines in northern Italy again began to cause trouble. 
       Pope Martin IV did his best to help Charles by excommunicating the Sicilians and anyone who tried to help them. In 1283 he proclaimed the war against Aragon to have the status of a Crusade, and tried to get Philip III of France to invade the country. Charles of Anjou in no way moderated his ambitions: he now initiated a scheme, to  become king of Hungary, where the ruling dynasty was about to die out. He eventually succeeded in this, but died in 1285; his grandiose plans for world domination ruined by events in Sicily.
     Desultory warfare continued in the island for twenty years, without clear results. Even the Aragonese were ready to give up on Sicily: but in the end the island did survive as more or less self-governing, under the overlordship of Aragon. Eventually Sicily, along with Naples and southern Italy, became part of the kingdom of Spain.. But the whole character of the island had changed. The ancient multiracial culture of Arabs, Greeks and Jews had vanished under successive waves of invaders; Normans, Germans, French and Spaniards; who transformed it into a land dominated by immensely rich and powerful feudal nobles, barely controlled by any central government, ruling vast estates of poverty-stricken oppressed peasants, against a background of endemic banditry. Although Naples and Palermo were still very large cities, the region had been left behind by events, and from being the richest and most culturally vibrant part of Italy was now the poorest and most backward. The would be little reason for historians to concern themselves with Sicily again before Garibaldi’s expedition there in 1860.

       The struggles in Italy left the country so hopelessly fragmented that the unity so desired by Dante was impossible to achieve until the nineteenth century, and even then had to be brought about by force. For this the Papacy must be given much of the blame. ("The Papacy, with its creatures and allies, was strong enough to hinder national unity in the future; not strong enough itself to bring about that unity". - Jacob Burckhardt: "The Civilization of the Renaissance"). At an international level, the extreme partisanship of various Popes for Charles of Anjou (especially Martin IV, a fellow Frenchman), and their readiness to use spiritual weapons, such as excommunication and crusading, for purely political disputes with other Christian rulers, and furthermore to use them ineffectively; served to discredit the Papacy. It was said of Pope Innocent  IV, who first began the campaign to destroy the Hohenstaufen in Italy; “He took the church at her highest and best, and in eleven years destroyed half her power for good, and launched her irretrievably upon a downward course“. Within 25 years of the Sicilian Vespers, the Popes were no longer in Rome, but at Avignon, mere puppets of the kings of France. It could be held to serve them right.  

The Sicilian Vespers lived on in the popular memory.  When in the early 17th century Henry IV of France contemplated invading Italy and boasted, "I shall breakfast in Milan and I shall dine in Rome", he was told, "In that case your majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for the Vespers". Perhaps responding to this hint, Henry did not pursue his invasion plan.  The purge of the older generation of American Mafiosi by Lucky Luciano in 1931 was also nicknamed "the Sicilian vespers" by journalists. 

1250   Death of Frederick
1254   Death of Conrad
1258   Manfred crowns himelf
1266   Battle of Benevento;  death of Manfred
1267   Defeat and execution of Conradin
1282   “Sicilian Vespers”
1285   Charles of Anjou dies


Innocent IV   1243-54
Alexander IV   1254-61
Urban IV   1261-64
Clement IV   1265-68
Gregory X   1271-76
Martin IV   1281-85
Honorius IV   1285-87

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