Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily

(This follows on from an earlier essay about the Normans in southern Italy)
By 1080 Normans warriors, under the leadership of Robert Guiscard of the powerful Hauteville family, were in control of southern Italy and Robert was recognised by the Pope as Dukes of Apulia. The next step was to be the conquest of Sicily, which had been ruled by Moslems from North Africa (conveniently referred to as “Saracens”) since 902. Under their government, north African farming methods suitable for a dry climate and many new crops had been introduced to the island, such as sugarcane, oranges, lemons and pomegranates. Their capital, Palermo, was perhaps the largest cities in Europe, with 300,000 inhabitants. But by the 11th century the Sicilian Saracens were wasting much of their energies fighting each other, opening the door for invasion.

Even so, conquest took years of fighting, The key city of Palermo was taken 1072, and the rest of island fell bit by bit. After a protracted campaign Roger 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 was no just a warrior but a man of high intelligence, and so, uniquely for his time, he followed policy of religious toleration for the Moslems, Jews and Greeks who made up most of his new territory, the island’s prosperity soon revived. He died aged 70 in 1101; the last of his generation of Hautevilles.

Roger’s territory inherited by son, another Roger, aged just 5 at his father’s death He had been brought up in Palermo by his Lombard mother Adelaide and educated by Greeks and Saracens, and grew up speaking all theses languages. He took an elevated view of his authority; and was intent on ruling autocratically in the traditions inherited from the Byzantine Empire and the Saracen Sultans. (Norman traditions, by contrast were more democratic, with a king effectively elected by his nobles, who reserved the right to resist him if he tried to coerce them unjustly). This, combined with the fact that Roger always preferred diplomacy to war, made him appear hardly a Norman at all!

Roger’s authority was helped by a lack of serious rivals: of his cousins, the sons of Robert Guiscard, the great warrior Bohemond was away on crusade, and Roger Borsa, who had inherited the Dukedom of Apulia, was a weak ruler. When Roger Borsa died in 1111, followed by his childless son William in 1127, Roger of Sicily was able to reunite all the Norman territories in southern Italy under his rule. In 1130 he achieved the summit of his ambitions. Once again, there was a disputed election to the Papacy. The rulers of France and Germany, together with most leading churchmen favoured one candidate, Innocent II, so his rival, Anacletus II (who was part-Jewish in ancestry) fled to Roger for help. Roger swore homage to Analectus and gave him a tribute of gold, and in return was given a crown: he was now officially King of Sicily, Duke of Apulia and Calabria, with the principality of Capua and the honour of Naples. The comparison which springs to mind is his Norman near-contemporary, William the Conqueror in England. But at that time southern Italy and Sicily were vastly richer and more important than England.

King Roger is crowned by Christ. A mosaic by a Greek artist in the Martorana church in Palermo.

Roger’s position secure in Sicily, but not on mainland, where barons always welcomed an excuse to rebel, thus giving outside forces a chance to intervene. In 1137, Pope Innocent II, angry at continued Norman support for his rival Analectus, called on the Emperor Lothair to assist him, and Imperial troops swept through southern Italy, storming any city that resisted and hanging and mutilating opponents. (The citadel at Salerno, which held out, was governed for Roger by an Englishman, Robert of Selby). Even religious shrines were pillaged by the invaders. (The great abbey at Monte Cassino was left unscathed, but the abbot, who was friend of Roger, was deposed) After initial defeats, Roger did not attempt to do battle, and in the end his patience paid off. In late 1137, the Emperor Lothair fell ill and died and most of his army retreated back to Germany, and this was followed a month later by death of Pope Anacletus. The way now open for a deal, especially when April 1139 Pope Innocent was ambushed and taken prisoner by Roger’s troops. Typically, Roger now swore homage to the Pope, agreed to pay tribute, and in return was officially recognised as King of Sicily.

Roger ruled a peaceful multiracial kingdom in Sicily, very much on Byzantine/Arab lines, unlike the turbulent mainland, . His most trusted advisor was a Syrian Greek, George of Antioch, who bore the title “Emir of the Sea”, Emir-al-bahr, from which comes “Admiral”. His financial system was largely run by Saracens, the administration bearing the Arab name “divan”, from which comes the French word for Customs, “douaine”. He was a great builder: the Palatine Chapel in Palermo (below)

and the cathedral at Cefalu being magnificent examples, where Saracen craftsmen provided the decorative woodwork of the ceilings and Greeks the mosaics. He was deeply interested in the sciences, especially geography, and employed Arab scholars to compile all that was known about the world in a production known as “the Book of Roger”; the first page reading “the world is round, like a sphere”. In fact, he hardly behaved like a Norman at all, and did not encourage Norman knights to settle in Sicily, mistrusting their tendency to start rebellions and feuds against each other.
In 1147 came the Second Crusade, which proved a fiasco. Roger, typically, refused to get involved, and instead took the opportunity to plunder the Greek coast, carrying away vast quantities of goods and hundreds of silk workers, mostly Jewish, to boost Sicilian production. He also seized Malta, plus Tripoli and other bases in North Africa.

Roger died in 1154, aged 58. His three eldest sons had predeceased him, leaving only William, known as “the Bad” (to distinguish him from his son, William II, “the Good“ - though the epithet “bad” was only given by chronicler much later) William was not so much wicked as lazy and irresolute, though he was a brave soldier, physically extremely strong, and capable of bestirring himself to sudden violent action at moments of crisis. His reign was a troubled one, with major rebellions by Norman barons on the mainland, perpetual danger of war with the Byzantines and with new Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. In Palermo itself, his unpopular chief minister was assassinated in 1161 by Norman nobles, who then arrested William himself and attempted to force him to abdicate. William survived, at the cost of pardoning the murderers, but in the fighting the royal palace was pillaged of its treasures and William’s eldest son was killed. Equally dangerously, interracial tension built up during the troubles, with massacres of Saracens by Christians, and the bases in North Africa were lost. William died of dysentery in 1166, aged 46, leaving as his successor his son, William “the Good”, aged only 12. After a chaotic regency under his mother Margaret, young William’s reign was generally peaceful, but he made no efforts at reform, and the great multiracial civilization of Sicily gradually declined. But in 1182, William thought he saw a dramatic opportunity for greatness.

In Constantinople, the Emperor Manuel Comnenus had died, leaving only an 11-year-old boy, Alexis. He seems to have been an unpleasant youth, and his mother Mary, left as regent, was even worse. A member of the royal family, Andronicus, aged 64, who had lived in internal exile after a thoroughly disreputable and violent life, marched on the capital & seized power. The young Emperor, his mother and their supporters were arrested and soon expired with official assistance, and Andronicus then married Alexis’s betrothed wife, Agnes, daughter of the King of France, who was aged only 12!

It is difficult to know what to make of Andronicus. He was an energetic Emperor who attempted serious reforms, but he also initiated a reign of terror, torturing and executing suspected enemies. Soon surviving members of royal family appeared in west, begging for help. Ever since the days of Bohemond on the First Crusade, Normans had held visions of themselves as the rulers of Constantinople. Now in 1185 William assembled enormous force: 80,000 soldiers & 300 ships: for an invasion of the Byzantine Empire. William did not lead the expedition himself: in fact he never commanded forces in battle, showing how un-Norman the family had become! The army landed unopposed at Durazzo, in what is now Albania, and marched to Thessalonica, the second city of empire. Andronicus seemed incapable of organising resistance, and in August, Thessalonica fell, with appalling scenes of looting and the slaughter of perhaps 5,000 civilians. But then epidemics set in and the invaders were decimated before the march was resumed eastwards. The fleet was sent on ahead, to wait off Constantinople for the arrival of the land forces. But the army never got there! In September, the citizens of Constantinople, provoked beyond endurance, rose in revolt & proclaimed a nobleman, Isaac Angelus, as Emperor. The Great Palace stormed by mob and looted of the treasure of 800 years. Andronicus was caught trying to escape and was taken to Hippodrome, where he was publicly tortured to death. With sudden energy, the Byzantine army first turned back the Sicilian advance forces, put the main army off-guard by proposing peace talks, then suddenly turned on them and routed them. With the fleet not there in support, the army had to retreat back to the Adriatic coast over winter, through hostile territory, and only a few made it back home.

In 1186, William did a strange and ultimately fatal thing. He was married to Joanna, daughter of Henry II of England, but had no children, so the heir to his kingdom was thus his aunt, Constance, aged 31 but still unmarried. William now decided to marry her off to Henry, aged 21, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. This seems inexplicable. The Emperors always been enemies of the Sicilian kingdom, and were currently involved in a violent attempt to crush the independent cities of northern Italy: If Henry claimed the Sicilian throne through his wife, this would end the independence of the kingdom, and the Pope was unlikely to be happy at such a gigantic increase of Imperial power!

But for the moment, everyone’s attention was fixed on other matters. In July 1187 in Palestine the largest army the crusaders had ever put together was destroyed by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, and in October, Jerusalem itself was forced to surrender to the conqueror (though without any violence). The new pope, Gregory VIII, at once proclaimed a new crusade, and all leading kings of Europe took up the call: Frederick Barbarossa, Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lionheart of England, and William of Sicily, who, unlike his ancestors, was an enthusiastic crusader. The Sicilian fleet was already crucial in defending the remaining crusader cities against Saladin, and William began to raise forces; but then in 1189 he died, aged only 36 and still childless. He became known to posterity as “William the Good”, and in later years his reign was looked back on as a peaceful golden age for Sicily, but really had not been a success at all; especially in his failure to provide for the future! He is nowr emembered mostly for building the great cathedral at Monreale, which caused the Archbishop of Palermo, an Englishman, Walter of the Mill, to retaliate by himself building a new cathedral in the capital.

Could the Sicilian kingdom survive? Everyone knew Henry would try to take the throne in name of wife. But for the moment, this hung fire because of the start of the Third Crusade. Frederick Barbarossa was the first monarch to set off, but he never reached Palestine, for after leading his German forces across Turkey he was in June 1190 mysteriously drowned in little river Calycadnus, and his army, dispirited, mostly came home. In Sicily, hatred of the Germans meant for the moment, Tancred, an illegitimate grandson of King Roger, was able to take power. He at once faced a strange situation. William had offered the Sicilian fleet to the kings of England & France for their expeditions, and in September 1190 they both arrived in Messina. Philip of France got there first, in typically low-profile style, and was lodged in royal palace in the city. Richard arrived a few days later, in typical maximum-profile style, was disgusted to find Philip had taken the best quarters, and so seized a Greek monastery outside the walls, evicted the monks, and took it for himself. In early October, the two kings met Tancred’s ambassadors, but there were riots in the city and Richard summoned his men for an assault. Soon much of Messina was looted or in flames, and Richard built a huge wooden castle nearby named the “Mategrifon” - “Dominate the Greeks!” Philip of France carefully stood aloof from all this, but his worst suspicions of Richard were probably confirmed. Was Richard wanting to take Sicily for himself? As it was, Tancred had little option but to buy him off - and probably also calculated that when the Germans attacked, as they undoubtedly would at some time, Richard was only leader likely to be able to resist them. So Tancred and Richard were formally reconciled; Tancred supplied Richard with ships for his crusade, and Richard, according to some sources, gave Tancred an amazing present - none other than the sword Excaliber, found at Glastonbury earlier that year! In May 1191, to everyone’s relief, Richard sailed from Sicily on his crusade.

Barbarossa’s son, now the Emperor Henry VI, did not go on crusade. He had to start by securing control of Germany. In 1191 he invaded southern Italy and took several cities, but was halted by resistance at Naples; and with the Pope, as ever, intriguing against him and stirring up trouble in Germany, he had to withdraw. Tancred fought on, but in early 1194, he fell ill anf died. Could he have made a go of it, had he lived? This will never be known. As it was, his eldest son was already dead, and to rule the kingdom there was only an infant, “William III”. The child’s mother, Sibylla, was reluctantly forced to act as regent, but really there was very little point, as Henry gathered forces and marched south. This time Naples surrendered at his approach, but he ignored them: instead headed for Salerno. This city had changed sides once too often, so Henry stormed and destroyed it and, massacred the inhabitants. He met no further resistance as he headed for Sicily. Richard might have been willing to help, but his crusade had failed, and in trying to get back home overland from Venice he was caught by the Duke of Austria and handed over to Henry. Richard was freed only in return for an enormous ransom and the promise of 50 ships and 200 knights to serve in the Sicilian campaign. Faced with overwhelming force, Sicily surrendered without a fight, and on Christmas Day 1194 Henry was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo cathedral.

Where was Constance, in whose name he was ruling? She was not there, because at age of 40 & after nine years of marriage she was, for first time in her life, pregnant! She travelled slowly down through Italy, and on Boxing Day 1194, she gave birth in little town of Jesi. The event took place in large tent specially erected in the main square, with any respectable ladies of Jesi invited to attend as witnesses! The child was a boy, christened Frederick Roger after his grandfathers. Only then did Constance proceed to Sicily, and was crowned queen April 1195.

Henry proved to be worst-ever king of Sicily. Opponents were immediately arrested and imprisoned, often blinded. As for the little boy called William III, he simply disappeared: no-one knows what happened to him: some accounts say Henry had him blinded and castrated, others that he was merely confined to a monastery; all of which might both be true. In any event, we can be sure he did not survive very long. The island’s wealth was plundered for benefit of Germany (amongst other treasures, King Roger’s great ceremonial silk robe, woven for him by Saracen textile workers, was taken away and is now to be found in a Vienna museum). Ruthless taxes eventually led to rising in spring 1197, when locals attempted to overthrow Henry and give the crown to one William Monaco. The revolt was put down by German troops, and the conspirators publicly crucified or burnt alive, with William Monaco symbolically executed by having a red-hot iron crown nailed to his head. The unhappy Constance was forced to watch this edifying ceremony. Possibly Henry suspected her of complicity: certainly she would have known many of the conspirators from her childhood. That September, to everyone’s relief, Henry died of dysentery. Queen Constance survived him by just a year, dying in November 1198.

But it wasn’t the end! There was Constance’s baby son, Frederick. The little orphan was prudently placed under the guardianship of the Pope for safekeeping. He was now by inheritance Frederick II, King of Sicily and prospective Holy Roman Emperor, but with his mixed ancestry he proved to be far more Sicilian than German in outlook. He went on to become the most spectacular monarch of the Middle Ages: “stupor mundi“ he was nicknamed: the wonder of the world; though considered by the Popes to be the very incarnation of the devil upon earth. But that’s another story.


1017 First Norman mercenaries in Italy
1034 Hautevilles appear
1054 Pope Leo XI leads campaign vs. Normans, but is captured
1060 Conquest of Sicily starts
1071 Battle of Manzikert
1072 Palermo taken
1084 Robert Guiscard pillages & burns Rome
1087 Bones of St. Nicholas taken to Bari
1130 Roger crowned king of Sicily
1147 Start of 2nd crusade
1161 Attempted coup in Palermo
1187 Battle of Hattin & fall of Jerusalem
1190 Kings Richard & Philip land in Messina
1194 Death of Tancred, Henry crowned king. Birth of Frederick II
1197 Death of Henry

Norman rulers

William, Lord of Apulia, 1041-6
Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia, 1080-5
Roger I, Great Count of Sicily,1098-1101
Roger II, King of Sicily, 1130-54
William I, “the Bad”, 1154-66
William II, “the Good”, 1166-89
Tancred, 1190-94


Honorius II, 1124-30
Innocent II, 1130-43 & Anacletus II 1130-37
Eugenius III 1145-53

Byzantine Emperors

Basil I 867-86
Leo VI 886-912
Basil II, Bulgaroctonus ("The Bulgar-slayer") 976-1025
Alexius Comnenus 1081-1118
Manuel I 1143-1180
Andronicus I 1183-85
Isaac Angelus 1185-1195

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