Guillaume II dies, plunging Sicily into chaos. Norman rule gives way to German overlordship. The great kingdom declines but survives.
Guillaume II dies, plunging Sicily into chaos. Norman rule gives way to German overlordship. The great kingdom declines but survives.
"This other radiance that shows itself
to you at my right hand, a brightness kindled
by all the light that fills our heaven - she
has understood what I have said: she was
a sister, and from her head, too, by force,
the shadow of the sacred veil was taken.
But though she had been turned back to the world
against her will, against all honest practice,
the veil upon her heart was never loosed.
This is the splendor of the great Costanza,
who from the Swabians' second gust engendered
the one who was their third and final power."
-Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Canto III
“The [Muslims] of this island suffer, amongst other tribulations, one that is very sore. Should a man show anger to his son or his wife, or a woman to her daughter, the one who is the object of displeasure may perversely throw himself into a church, and there be baptised and turn Christian. Then there will be for the father no way of approaching his son, or the mother her daughter. Conceive now the state of one so afflicted in his family or even in his son. The dread of their falling to this temptation would alone shorten his life. The Muslims of Sicily therefore are most watchful of the management of their family, and their children, in case this should happen. The most clear-sighted of them fear that it shall chance to them all as it did in earlier times to the Muslim inhabitants of Crete. There a Christian despotism so long visited them with one (painful) circumstance after the other that they were all constrained to turn Christian, only those escaping whom God so decreed. But the word of chastisement shall fall upon these infidels. God's will shall prevail: there is indeed no God but He.”
-Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr [Quotes read by Mike Corradi of A History of Italy]
Guillaume II the Good died on the 11 November 1189. He had left his followers specific instructions to submit to his aunt Constance as their new leader and not his illegitimate cousin Tancred of Lecce. He should have known that outside of the battlefield the Normans were not good at following orders, though in fairness they did have a legitimate grievance with Constance. Four years prior she had married Heinrich, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa. While Constance would rule during her lifetime, any heirs she had would be part of House Hohenstaufen, not Hauteville. The Norman aristocracy in Italy had fought the Germans for over a century to win their autonomy; the idea that what the Normans won by blood they would lose by marriage infuriated them. Pope Clement III was likewise worried about the possibility of having German power on his northern and southern borders. Vice Chancellor Matteo Aiello agreed with the notables and led the familiares to support Tancred.
Fortunately for the rebellious nobility, Constance was in Germany with her husband when the king died. Heinrich had been left in charge of the Holy Roman Empire while his father fought in the Third Crusade. The Italo-Norman aristocracy pulled off a mostly bloodless coup and made Tancred their new king, crowning him in early 1190. A handful of loyalists rallied around Roger of Andria who led a rebellion in favor of Constance but he was easily defeated and executed.
The most powerful of Tancred’s opponents remaining in the kingdom was Jeanne of England, who was Guillaume II’s widow and had vast territories which she inherited as part of her dowry. Moreover, Jeanne was well-connected. Her older brother was Richard Cœur de Lion, (in English Richard the Lionheart), King of England, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Count of Anjou, Poitiers, Nantes and Maine, and a fair number of other titles. Jeanne did not raise an army or lead an uprising against Tancred but she vocally condemned his seizure of power. Tancred had Jeanne confined to the Zisa palace and seized her dowry.
On 10 June Friedrich I Barbarossa drowned while travelling to Acre. This made Heinrich heir to the empire. However, Heinrich had many affairs to settle before he could invade southern Italy. In the meantime, Tancred had to deal with some unexpected guests. That September Kings Richard I of England and Philippe II of France arrived in Messina with their armies en route to join the Third Crusade. The Messinians were famously hostile to foreigners, particularly from the north. The locals fought with small groups of soldiers, prompting reprisals. The fighting escalated into open warfare. The French and English armies easily defeated the Messinians and proceeded to sack the city, plundering, burning, raping and killing at will. After the initial outburst of violence, the Crusader Kings brought order to their men and assumed control of the eastern Greek capital.
The recently-crowned King of Sicily could only watch as the two kings ravaged the eastern coast of his island; that is, until the emissaries arrived. Richard I sent messengers to Palermo with a long list of demands. First, he demanded compensation for the violence that the Messinians inflicted on his soldiers. He further demanded that Jeanne be freed from her palatial imprisonment and her dowry restored to her. His list went on. In the words of historian Jacqueline Alio, “On his sister’s behalf, Richard further demanded a golden throne to which she was entitled, along with two dozen silver goblets and plates. For himself, he wanted a golden table, a silk pavilion large enough to cover two hundred knights seated at dinner, and some ships and provisions.”
Tancred immediately released Jeanne who joined her brother. The King of Sicily tried to stall for time over the dowry, hoping that Richard I would leave in short order. When Richard I’s demands were not met promptly he built a castle overlooking Messina. Tancred took the hint and gave back much, though not all, of her dowry. Richard I then met Tancred at Catania where they made peace. Richard I and his army wintered in Messina much to the people’s chagrin. In March 1191 the Crusaders finally sailed eastward, along with Jeanne who later went to France where she met and married Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse.
No sooner had one hostile occupying force left then another arrived. Heinrich and Constance travelled to Rome and on Easter they were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Then they continued southward to conquer southern Italy. The Germans won a number of victories and Constance took control of Salerno, capital of the southern half of the peninsula. However, Heinrich VI’s army suffered heavy casualties during the siege of Naples. Then the old scourge of disease struck the German camp. Beset by three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Emperor Heinrich VI retreated northward to put down a rebellion in Saxony. In his absence the cities he had conquered switched their allegiances back to Tancred, including Salerno whose inhabitants captured Constance.
The Salernites sent Constance to Messina where Tancred received the Holy Roman Empress as his prisoner. Despite her situation she remained defiant and rebuked Tancred for taking what was rightfully hers. From Messina, Constance went to Palermo where she was held hostage in the Geonardo. Tancred ordered the palace servants to treat Constance with all honors. He hoped to pacify Constance and her husband by patronizing her lavish lifestyle while simultaneously threatening her should she and the Emperor act against him. While Tancred returned to affairs of state, his wife, Queen Sibylle, acted as Constance’s jailor. He had hoped that the two would become friends and had the women eat together and even share a bedroom. The rival women did not develop a healthy relationship. Constance was beloved by the people and Sibylle grew jealous. The queen told Tancred that Constance should be executed or at least thrown into a dungeon, not held in honor for dissidents to rally around. Tancred had enough sense not to harm his relative and endured his wife’s displeasure.
Emperor Heinrich VI tried to accomplish through diplomacy what he had failed to do militarily. He petitioned Pope Celestine III to recognize Constance as the rightful ruler of the Kingdom of Sicily and Tancred a pretender. The Pope wanted to improve relations with Heinrich VI while simultaneously fearing what would happen to the Papal States should the Hohenstaufens take control of the kingdom at his southern border. Celestine III took a middle-road: he did not proclaim anyone the ‘rightful’ ruler of Sicily but he did threaten Tancred with excommunication if he kept Constance hostage. Tancred folded to his Holiness and released Constance who travelled north to meet her husband in 1192.
Tancred then crowned his 27-year-old son Roger III co-king and heir to the throne. He then arranged a marriage between Roger III and Irene Angelina, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelos II. Roger III’s future looked bright; he was set to inherit one of the greatest kingdoms in the Mediterranean and finally unite the ruling houses of Norman Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. Then, on Christmas Eve 1193 Roger III died. On the 20 February 1194 Tancred followed him after succumbing to illness. In the wake of these sudden deaths, the nobility proclaimed Tancred’s son, the 8-year-old Guillaume III, king under the regency of his mother Sibylle.
That summer Heinrich VI launched a second invasion of the kingdom with money he had raised from ransoming Richard I, who one of his vassals had captured as he returned from the Holy Land. The Emperor seized Naples in August. The rest of the lower peninsula and the island rapidly surrendered to him. Queen Sibylle tried to organize the defense of Palermo but its citizens refused to die for a ruler they did not love. On 20 November 1194 they welcomed Heinrich VI’s forces into the city with the promise that Constance would be their new queen. The queen was then on her way through Italy albeit at a slower pace as she was heavy with child. On Christmas Day Heinrich VI had himself crowned king of Sicily in a ceremony that Sibylle and Guillaume III were forced to attend. The following day Constance gave birth to a son, Friedrich II.
Initially, Heinrich VI let the deposed Guillaume III keep Taranto in exchange for renouncing his claim to kingship, but shortly after ascending to power, Heinrich VI claimed that Sibylle and the boy were plotting against him. He seized their lands and sent them to a prison beyond the Alps. Sibylle and her daughters eventually made it to France. Guillaume III’s fate is unknown, though some sources claim the boy was blinded and castrated. Heinrich VI then had Sibylle’s brother hanged as payback for capturing Constance at Salerno during the first invasion. As a final act of vengeance, Heinrich VI had Tancred’s tomb removed from the Magione cathedral and destroyed.
Heinrich VI had no intention of honoring his promise to leave the Kingdom of Sicily to its own devices. The German ruler petitioned the Pope to recognize the union of the kingdom with the Holy Roman Empire, even offering to launch another crusade as compensation. The incorporation of the Kingdom of Sicily into the Holy Roman Empire was a strange idea given that the two states were so different. The southern kingdom was one of the single largest countries in Europe at the time, with a unified code of law. Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire was possibly the most confusing conglomeration of states in human history, comprising hundreds of different polities, each with their own laws, and only vaguely united under the martial power of a central monarch.
The Pope refused Heinrich VI’s audacious plan to unify the two states but the German Emperor still used his southern kingdom to assert claims across the Mediterranean. He declared suzerainty over Cyprus, whose governor had broken away from the Eastern Roman Empire, and even claimed territories in greater Greece that the Normans had previously conquered. Then Heinrich VI was humbled when his Pisan vassals lost a naval battle against Venice, ending his unrealistic claims to Greek territories.
Heinrich VI’s kingship had a major impact on the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. The Emperor increasingly put Germans in positions of power while raising taxes on the wealthy lords to pay for his wars. Furthermore, he was not as tolerant towards non-Christians as the Normans had been and the Muslims of the island were harassed like never before. These harsh actions led to a rebellion in 1197. Heinrich VI travelled to Sicily to put down the rebellion, at which point he fell ill, possibly of malaria, and died on 28 September 1197 at the age of 31. Heinrich VI’s death calmed tensions since his possessions split, with his brother becoming the Holy Roman Emperor while Constance ruled the Kingdom of Sicily. After being promised Constance for 8 years the beloved queen finally ruled in her own right.
Constance was regularly ill, and her reign was short, though she did everything she could in the limited time left to her. She had the nobles recognize her son as the rightful heir. She named Pope Innocent III as the boy’s guardian and granted him an annual payment of 30,000 gold tarí as a means of calming his Holiness’ fears about being politically encircled.
On 27 November 1198 Constance died, one month before Friedrich II’s fourth birthday. She was the last Norman ruler of the kingdom. The Queen’s death symbolically marked the end of the kingdom that the Normans had created. When Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso conquered southern Italy and Sicily they created a whole new country made up of Normans, Italians, Lombards, Greeks, Arabs, Berbers and Jews, following Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism, and speaking a variety of languages. Throughout the Normans’ rule the pluralism of the country slowly declined due to soft pressure, though each community coexisted in relative peace; perhaps moreso than anywhere else on Earth. Hohenstaufen rule brought about the swift end of non-Catholicism and non-Romance languages through royal policy. Friedrich II patronized the Sicilian language while pushing Arabic into a small minority language; Greek practically ceased to exist on the island within a few generations. Norman French declined at court in favor of German.
The once-thriving Islamic population was harshly repressed. Rich Muslims and intellectuals fled the island. Those that could not followed one of two paths: they could convert to Christianity or join an armed resistance. The devout Muslims of Sicily used the rocky terrain of the island to set up bases in the countryside where they could defend themselves and live free of Christian dominance. But these were hopelessly outnumbered. When Friedrich II came of age he was determined to end Islam within the kingdom. In the 1220s he deported tens of thousands of Sicilian Muslims to Apulia, most notably to the city of Lucera. There the Muslims lived in ghettos where they could be sequestered, monitored and controlled. In Sicily, Friedrich II crushed the autonomous Muslim communities in the hills, destroying the last holdout in 1246.
Under Hohenstaufen rule Eden was no more. The German lords stamped out the cosmopolitan kingdom and transformed the country into one more Latinate Christian realm. Some remnants of the great Norman kingdom lingered. There were the monuments and legal codes. There remained Jewish communities who continued speaking Arabic into the 15thcentury. But the country’s uniqueness was a thing of the past. Friedrich II overhauled the laws to make himself an absolute monarch. The Hohenstaufen, and later Angevin rulers, built palaces and cathedrals in the mainland European style, and imposed local Romance language on the population. Moreover, the kingdom declined in relative power in the Mediterranean due to the rise of northern Italian city-states, notably Venice, Genoa and Pisa.
If the great Norman kingdom was no more, its political accomplishments remained. From its foundation in 1130 with the crowning of Roger I, the Kingdom of Sicily lasted until Italian unification in 1860. The country had many rulers from many houses and from 1816-1860 its name changed to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies…despite only having one Sicily. Yet, it remained one of the longest-lasting polities in European history.