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Jan. 21, 2023

74 Chapter 9: Hidden Knives in Every Hand

74 Chapter 9: Hidden Knives in Every Hand

Queen Marguerite of Navarre rules the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, but she faces constant conspiracies that threaten to overthrow the realm.

Queen Marguerite of Navarre rules the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, but she faces constant conspiracies that threaten to overthrow the realm.


Chapter 9: Hidden Knives in Every Hand


            “Sicily is to be faulted because of its air, and it is to be faulted for the malice of those who live there; I consider it hateful and almost uninhabitable…Who, I ask, could live there free from care— where, aside from other perils, the mountains are always spewing hellfire and steaming with a sulphorous stench? [. . .] I tell you, the mountains of Trinacria are the gates of hell and of death, where men are swallowed up by the earth, and descend alive into hell.”

-Peter of Blois to Richard, bishop of Syracuse, Epistolae,


Pass round the golden carnelian-red

and join the morning to the evening

No living is serene,

save in the sweet heights of Sicily . . .

Already its gardens have burst into bloom,

from amongst them emerge radiant robes

The fragrance of its earth is overspread

with an ornamented silk brocade

Its breaths are wafted to you

fragrant with the perfume of amber

And its trees, well-ordered

with an abundance of harvest fruits

            -Al-Buthayri and Ibn Bashrun, panegyric poem in honor of King Roger II [quotes read by The History Cache Podcast]


            Thus far our narratives have focused on those male Normans who travelled to the Mediterranean as pilgrims and soldiers of fortune who later became conquerors. While these men made up the majority of the Norman diaspora they were not alone. Norman women also travelled abroad, notably as brides for foreign lords. During the 11th and 12th centuries a number of Norman families intermarried with the Christian lords of northeastern Spain who were then engaged in the Reconquista. In the early 12th century the young Norman noblewoman Marguerite de l'Aigle married García Ramírez. Ramírez was from an illegitimate offshoot of the royal house of Navarre. Four years after his marriage to Marguerite, King Alfonso died and the nobles elected Ramírez as the new king, making Marguerite Queen of Navarre.

            Marguerite gave birth to three legitimate children: the future king Sancho VI, a daughter, Blanche, and another daughter who she named Marguerite after herself. Queen Marguerite had many lovers, something which was acceptable for men but scandalous for a woman at the time. With one of these she gave birth to a boy, Rodrigo, who she raised as a prince even though her husband refused to recognize him.

The young princess Marguerite was raised in Pamplona, a large and wealthy multicultural city where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side. Tensions existed between differing ethnic and religious communities, especially during periods of conflict between Christians and Muslims. However, for practical reasons Christian rulers had to appeal to their Islamic vassals. While Spanish lords carried the cross to justify their wars they were often fairly tolerant of other faiths within their territories.

Marguerite grew up speaking Norman French as her first language. French was the dominant language at court because so many French-speaking soldiers, often Normans, travelled to Iberia to win fame and fortune fighting the divided Islamic powers. That, and there was no unifying ‘Spanish’ language at the time but a collection of regional languages. Marguerite also spoke the local aristocratic language of Navarro-Aragonese, while royal tutors taught her Latin. Finally, she probably knew some Basque and Arabic.

            Princess Marguerite was barely a teenager when her parents arranged a marriage between her and the 28-year-old Guillaume I, the Norman heir to the throne of Sicily. In 1149 her retinue sailed from Pamplona to Palermo where she married Guillaume at the Palatine Chapel. Marguerite was comfortable in Palermo because it was very similar to Pamplona; like Pamplona, it was a multicultural, multi-faith and multilingual city. However, it was far grander than any city in Iberia, or anywhere in all of Europe, save only Constantinople.

Resting on the top of a hill overlooking the city was the fortified royal palace. Behind its crenellated walls and many towers lay a residence more opulent than anything Marguerite had ever seen. Historian Jacqueline Alio writes that, “there were walls covered with ornate mosaics depicting the peacocks and palm trees of the Genoard. The designs themselves were simple yet sophisticated, combining traditional Byzantine worksmanship with Islamic symmetry, so one encountered such elements as twin leopards rendered in profile, facing each other. For the most part, the background of the mosaic designs was a vast sea of gold tiles. One wall of a room used as a kind of throne chamber and office by Marguerite’s father-in-law [King Roger II] was covered in these tiny gold tiles of uniform lustre.

The capitals of the stone columns were carved into ornate Fatimid motifs inspired by local creatures and plants…

The walls of some rooms, including the royal sleeping quarters, were covered by tapestries of velvet in colors ranging from the deepest crimson to a light pastel green. Silk drapes concealed some of the windows. Oil lamps were suspended from the vaulted ceilings by seemingly endless chains.

…In Palermo’s palace the top of every table was a polychrome field of pieces of inlaid marble formed into…[Fatimid-style] motifs. The floors bore some of the same geometrical designs, only larger.

The Muslims at court said that Palermo’s palaces and mosques were similar to those of Baghdad and the cities of Andalusia.”

            Marguerite of Navarre was a perfect fit for Palermo. She was beloved by aristocrats and the people alike, who she loved in turn. The princess soon added Arabic to her many languages alongside some Greek. She was respected for her intelligence, which was remarkable amidst a court filled with the greatest minds in the Christian and Islamic worlds. She was revered for her beauty. During this time she may have developed a friendship with the queen and her mother-in-law Beatrix de Rethel, given that they were around the same age. Finally, she accomplished the most important job that a woman could achieve in that period: birthing heirs. In 1152 she bore Roger IV. Shortly afterwards she became pregnant again and in early 1153 delivered Robert III. Sometime afterwards she became pregnant again and delivered another son, Guillaume II.

            Marguerite proved a godsend to the Hauteville family. Before she had arrived the only legitimate adult male capable of succeeding Roger II was Guillaume I. Given that Guillaume’s four brothers all died young, many probably expected the prince to follow them to an early grave, ending the ruling house of southern Italy and plunging the heart of the Mediterranean into violent civil war. Instead, Guillaume I had survived, and he now had three heirs to the kingdom.

            On 26 February 1154 Roger II died. On Easter 1154 he and his wife were crowned king and queen of Sicily. Their titles, however illustrious, did not fully convey the immense territory they ruled. At this point the kingdom was more of an empire which included the southern half of Italy, Sicily, central North Africa and all the islands in between. Yet, the kingdom’s vast size proved more of a challenge than a blessing. Roger II’s ambitions had gone too far and the Hauteville had many enemies, among them two actual empires, one caliphate and occasionally the papacy. Adding to this was the constant threat that the king’s Norman vassals would revolt.

In an era when politics was personal, the individual leader can determine the success or failure of their state. Thus far, the Hauteville family leaders had evolved with the times. The first generation, led by Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso had arrived in Italy as mercenaries & transformed into conquerors. The second generation, under Roger II and Roger Borsa, had been rulers who learned how to manage a complex state so that their rule was based on laws rather than plunder. Guillaume I was the scion of the third generation and he followed a path that so many born into wealth take: decadence. For Guillaume I the palaces and harems were not an occasional retreat from military campaigns; they were his whole life. The new king did not care about governing his kingdom. Upon his ascension he sacked Thomas Brun as the head of government and named Maione of Bari amiratus. His only other major act was to make his cousin Robert de Bassonville Count of Loritello. With those two deeds accomplished he returned to the finer things of poetry, art and otherwise not giving a ducat about what happened outside the palace walls.

Guillaume I’s complete lack of interest in running the country meant that Maione of Bari made all the important decisions, which galled the Norman lords of Italy. The Kingdom of Sicily was run much like a caliphate or the Byzantine Empire in that the central state was controlled by bureaucrats loyal to the monarch rather than aristocrats. The Norman lords looked to the rest of Europe, namely France, and expected to have a say in governmental affairs rather than having edicts passed down to them by Italians, Greeks or Arabs who they viewed as their inferiors. Roger II had managed to nullify this tendency among his vassals by literally suppressing them and forcing them to accept what were truly his orders. With the new king out of sight the aristocracy sensed that this was their time to insert themselves into the halls of power.

            In 1155 Guillaume I’s cousin Robert, who the king had just appointed Count of Loritello, recognized how upset the lords were. Robert decided he would lead the Normans against his do-nothing overlord. He raised an army of 500 knights and rode throughout Italy, fighting royal forces and stirring the nobles to revolt. Guillaume I’s general Asclettin led the counter-offensive, which got off to a bad start when he unsuccessfully besieged the Papal enclave of Benevento. Failing, Asclettin broke off and attacked Papal-held towns in the hopes of intimidating Pope Adrian IV. Adrian IV then excommunicated Guillaume, who was in Palermo with his children.

            That summer the King of Germany, Friedrich I descended upon northern Italy. He subdued his territories before entering Rome where Adrian IV crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. Friedrich I, who the Italians called Barbarossa, ‘Redbeard,’ wanted to march still further to support the rebellious Normans against the King of Sicily. However, his German lords did not like the Italian heat, nor the plentiful mosquitos that summer brought. Fearing disease, the Germans returned north. But if one emperor abandoned the rebels, another took up the cause. The Byzantine leader Manuel Comnenus sent gold and troops to Robert de Bassonville. Greek-speaking citizens of Bari took control of the city and declared their opposition to the Norman king of Sicily. Speaking of, Guillaume I fell ill, probably with pneumonia, preventing him from appearing in public for an extended period of time. The king’s absence during a crisis led to rumors that he was dead, and revolts spread even to the island itself.

By 1156 Guillaume I recovered. Either Guillaume I realized he had to take charge of the situation or his advisors told him that a kingdom needed a king, and he led an army to quash a rebellion at Butera. Then Guillaume I imprisoned Asclettin for his assaults on papal territories. Given a lack of sources we don’t know if it was Asclettin’s idea to attack papal lands or if he was just following orders; it is likely that the general was made a scapegoat for his failures. The king arrived in southern Italy, marching from town to town, gathering strength and punishing traitors, often with death. Guillaume I successfully besieged the ever-rebellious city of Bari and destroyed much of it, though he left its churches intact. With no hope of victory, the king’s cousin Robert de Bassonville fled to Friedrich I’s court.

With his secular opponents in check, Guillaume I turned upon his holiness. The Normans besieged Benevento, which surrendered in June. There Adrian IV agreed to a truce; he un-excommunicated Guillaume I and recognized his claim to kingship and appoint bishops. He also made Palermo a metropolitan see with its own archbishop. Finally, Guillaume I decided to teach the Byzantines a lesson and sent a navy to harass Greece, which forced the Emperor to sign a treaty, ending the war.

While Guillaume I subdued Italy, his African kingdom was collapsing. Caught between local rebellions and Almohad invasion, Norman Ifriqiya was doomed. In 1158 while the king was futilely organizing the defense of northern Africa, his wife gave birth a fourth son Henri. Joy gave way to sorrow the following year when Robert fell ill and died at the age of 7. In 1160 Mahdia fell to the Almohads. The Norman barons of Apulia probably did not care about the loss of an African city across the Mediterranean. They were incensed that they had so little power in government and used the loss of Africa as an excuse to revolt yet again. This time they claimed that they were not opposing the king but his corrupt and incompetent officials, namely the emir Maione of Bari. The barons accused him of lecherousness, corruption and blinding and torturing rebels during the previous revolt.

Maione aimed to calm the barons and stave off war before it began. The emir sent Matteo Bonello, a wealthy lord who was engaged to marry Maione’s daughter, to speak with the barons, listen to their complaints and show the Normans that he sympathized with them. But Bonello was too good at his job. Not only did he listen to the conspirators but he ended up agreeing with them! Bonello became allies with Roger of Martorano and Gilbert of Gravina, Queen Marguerite’s cousin. Roger and Gilbert absolutely hated Maione, claiming that he tried to poison Hugues, the Archbishop of Palermo, and of scheming to have the new Pope Alexander III depose King Guillaume I. 

Maione’s agents in Italy relayed the grave news that his future son-in-law had joined the conspiracy he was supposed to squash. But Bonello assured Maione that he was merely listening to the lords as he had been instructed to and returned to Palermo. On 10 November Bonello and his associates cornered Maione and his followers at Old Saint Agatha’s Gate. There they stabbed him to death, and attacked his followers, including his protégé Matteo of Aiello, who was wounded but escaped with his life. A crowd gathered in the wake of the assassination and dragged the unpopular emir’s corpse through the streets. This was a whole new challenge to royal authority; if the Norman lords had failed on the battlefield; now they turned to the streets. Their novel strategy of spreading disinformation to enflame anti-government sentiment caught Guillaume I off-guard. Queen Marguerite demanded Bonello’s arrest, but the king refused to allow it, fearing what might happen if he moved against such a popular figure.

Guillaume I’s refusal to act might seem like cowardice though he may have known more than he was letting on about the deceased emir’s tenure. Shortly after Maione’s murder his former assistants revealed that he had been corrupt; he notably used the royal treasury to bribe church leaders. When this knowledge became public, Guillaume I granted Bonello clemency. The Italian assassin returned to Palermo to a cheering crowd before marching triumphantly into court.

Bonello had literally gotten away with murder. Yet, he still had enemies, most notably the queen. Moreover, he owed a fortune to the king. When one of his main allies, Archbishop Hugues, died the royals no longer invited him to court, in what was de facto political exile. Recognizing his position, Bonello formulated another conspiracy. He gathered a “who’s who” of frustrated nobles, among them the king’s illegitimate half-brother Simon, the king’s nephew Tancred, and the queen’s cousin Gilbert of Gravina. In March 1161 Bonello organized a meeting at his palace at Caccamo where they hatched a most ambitious plot. They agreed to bribe the castellan and captain of the guard of the royal palace at Palermo.

            On the morning of 9 March the royal family were at chapel when the castellan opened the gates to a band of armed conspirators led by Simon and Tancred who marched to the dungeons and released the prisoners. The royal family finished with religious services and walked towards the Pisan Tower at the center of the palace complex. The conspirators finished their labor at the same time and likewise headed towards the inner sanctum. Guillaume I was talking with Enrico Aristippo, Maione’s replacement as the head of government and archdeacon of Catania, when the rebels found him. They seized the king and demanded that he abdicate. With the king captive some of the conspirators broke off and began stealing the crown jewels. Others went to the harem to enjoy the concubines. Despite being the head of government and a priest, Enrico joined the conspirators in the harem, even taking some of the women for his own house. Meanwhile some of the plotters decided to hunt down the palace eunuchs, though they had all fled to the Sari al Kadi district outside the city walls. Finally, some rebels gathered the tax rolls and burned them.

            When the various conspirators had finished their ransacking of the palace they seized the 9 year-old Roger. They placed him on a pony and paraded him through Palermo, declaring him the new king to adoring crowds of Christians. Many of the Christians of Palermo were angry that the government was filled with Muslims, prejudice which the Norman nobles stoked to increase their power. The Muslims of Palermo were content with the tolerant government and supported Guillaume I. Violence erupted between people of both faiths as armed Christian knights attacked Muslims. Unfortunately for the loyalist Muslims, one of Maione’s last acts the year that he died was to have the Muslims disarmed. Perhaps Maione forbidding Muslims from carrying weapons was a concession to Christians who, by this point, were the majority in Sicily and demanding special treatment. Maione’s concession was not enough to win the Christians’ love and now the people most loyal to the government had no swords, while much of Palermo’s Christian majority sided with the traitors. Despite this the Muslims fought bravely in the narrow streets and repulsed the Christian knights.

            The conspirators could not control the chaos they created. Violence between the two major faiths continued in the streets for two days. Bonello still had not arrived with reinforcements, and Tancred rode out to coordinate with his fellows. On the third day local clergy organized a crowd of armed Palermites to storm the palace and free the king. Guillaume I spoke to the crowd from a palace window, thanking them and reassuring his subjects that he would restore peace. When the crowd demanded he execute the rebels he instead promised to grant them clemency if they promised not to revolt again. True to his word, the king let Simon and his followers leave for Caccamo. However, even as the traitors were getting a way, there was still fighting in the streets. The young prince Roger looked out the window to see what was happening, was shot with an arrow and bled to death. Queen Marguerite was in an agony only a mother could feel after losing her second son in two years. Now, there could be no leniency.

            Bonello had assembled a force at Caccamo when news arrived that the conspiracy had failed. Undeterred and realizing he had few options, he led his army to Palermo. Even as his troops approached the city they saw the navy pull into harbor with reinforcements. The king sent out messengers summoning Bonello. Defeated, the traitor entered the city where he was thrown into prison until his death later that year. Guillaume I exiled Simon and Tancred and the two fled to Constantinople. The only major conspirator shown mercy was Gilbert of Gravina, the Queen’s cousin. Guillaume I pardoned him and sent him to Apulia to put down a revolt by Robert of Loritello who was again stirring the Normans into rebellion. The following year Guillaume I travelled to the mainland to fight his cousin and again Robert fled north to the court of Friedrich I Barbarossa.

While her husband was away, Marguerite ruled alongside Qaid Martin, a former Muslim eunuch who converted to Christianity and adopted a Christian name. The Queen and Qaid were not as forgiving as the king and cracked down on their enemies. The most high-profile arrest was of Enrico Aristippo, who was thrown into a dungeon. Even worse, the government seized his partially-stolen miniature harem. These arrests largely targeted Christians, who made up most of the traitors, further enflaming tensions in Sicily. Following the rebellion in Palermo, many Muslims decided to convert to Christianity for protection. The central government tried to maintain peace between religions, but as the Christians became the majority they oppressed their Muslim neighbors leading to conversion or emigration.

            When Guillaume I returned from war he was ready to settle back into his life as a “baptized sultan” to borrow a phrase from Jacqueline Alio. He appointed Richard Palmer, the English-born Bishop of Syracuse, and Matteo of Aiello to head the government with specific instructions not to bother him unless it was an emergency! Then he retreated to the comfort of his harem. When the king was not enjoying young women, poetry and other courtly delights he sponsored the construction of palaces. The most famous of these was the palace complex of the Genoardo, whose crowning achievement was the Zisa, from the Arabic word aziz, meaning “beautiful” or “splendid” a word which developed into the Sicilian word azzizare, “to make attractive.” Construction on the Zisa only just began during Guillaume I’s reign, leaving his successor to finish his great projects. Meanwhile, Guillaume I sponsored a record number of churches and cathedrals. Despite the loss of Ifriqiya and internal chaos, the Kingdom of Sicily remained one of the most prosperous in the Mediterranean.

            Guillaume I and Marguerite were estranged for the last years of his rule. While we do not know exactly why, the king gave her ample reason. His lack of interest in governance, constant harem visits and leniency to rebels who threatened the family all weighed upon the noblewoman from Navarre. Likely, their relationship never recovered from their son Roger’s death.

            In 1163 there was a brief scare at the palace when the prisoners bribed the guards to release them. They tried to escape but the castellan saw them approach and locked the gates. In retrospect this was an odd choice as he had locked the men inside with the royal family. The prisoners marched to one of the towers, even going into the room where the royal tutor was educating Guillaume II and Henri. Yet, just before they entered, the tutor rushed the children out. Qaid Martin managed to trap the prisoners in a room until guards arrived and slaughtered them. Then they threw the corpses to the palace dogs. From then on, no more prisoners were held at the royal palace.

            In March 1166 Guillaume I fell ill with dysentery. He recovered briefly only to relapse. Sensing his end was nigh, he appointed Marguerite, “Keeper of the Entire Realm,” making her regent for their 12 year-old son Guillaume II. On 7 May 1166 the king died at the age of 46, having ruled for 12 years. He is known to history as “Guillaume the Bad.” In truth, he was not a great or even good king, effectively or morally. While he accepted the title of ‘king’ he never wanted to do the job. He spent much of his reign reacting to events rather than leading. However, much of the problems Guillaume I faced were not of his own making but holdovers from his father’s reign. Roger II had overstretched the Normans with his African venture. While Roger II did establish his rule over southern Italy, the nobles only grudgingly accepted his dominance and that at the point of a sword. When the nobles recognized that Guillaume I was not the energetic martial leader his father was rebellions naturally followed.

            Marguerite took to rule with gusto; unlike her husband she actually thought she should do the job. She worked to eliminate her political enemies and establish a strong central government so that future rebellions would not endanger her surviving sons. Marguerite wisely chose to prevent revolts by targeting their source and addressed some of the Norman nobility’s grievances. She began by offering clemency to men who had been imprisoned or exiled and gave their lands back; this was to offset the often arbitrary justice that was common in Sicily under her late husband. She also abolished unpopular taxes and generously doled out land to nobles and monasteries. While the queen was kind to her obedient vassals she made clear that she would not hesitate to imprison unrepentant troublemakers.

            Marguerite uplifted Qaid Pierre, a Berber eunuch, to the position of head of the royal diwan. With administration and the treasury in his portfolio Pierre was effectively the second most powerful person in the kingdom behind only the queen herself. This did not sit well with the born-and-raised Christians in government. They resented taking orders from a eunuch, especially since it was widely believed that the palace eunuchs’ conversions were merely for show, meaning he was both a Muslim and not a real man in their view.

Palace intrigue always threatened to tear apart the government. Shortly after rising to power some bishops tried to convince Qaid Pierre that Richard Palmer was plotting to kill him. In all likelihood the Sicilian bishops were trying to rid themselves of someone they did not like, though whether it was Pierre or Palmer we don’t know. Both men were personally loyal to the queen since Pierre was a palace eunuch, while Palmer was from England and thus had no power outside the position the royals gave him. Pierre recognized how disastrous it would be if he moved against a Christian lord when so many thought he was a closet Muslim and wisely chose not to act on the rumors.

If the central government held firm against internal threats, it faced a major challenge when the queen’s cousin arrived with his own demands. Gilbert of Gravina was serving as governor of Southern Italy when news spread of the king’s death. He raised a sizeable entourage of knights and sailed to Sicily with the aim of replacing the queen as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. When Gilbert arrived at court he denounced the palace eunuchs and demanded he be given Pierre’s position. The queen defended the eunuchs and instead offered him a position as a familiare, giving him power in the government. The offer outraged Gilbert who refused to be subordinate to a eunuch. The Norman lord exploded at his cousin, hurling insults at her, telling her that the Apulians hated her, that she needed him, that she could not manage a kingdom like he could. Marguerite weathered the storm, calmly offering him the same role. This only infuriated him more and he left in a huff.

            Gilbert and his knights still posed a serious threat to the government. If Gilbert convinced some locals to join him he could possibly seize power. But Qaid Pierre came up with a brilliant solution to the problem: he recognized that Gilbert’s small army was actually two companies: one was Gilbert’s own knights, the other were mercenaries under Richard of Mandra. Upon the qaid’s suggestion, the queen held the first major ceremony of her reign in which she made Richard Count of Molise. Richard’s land and titles depended on the queen and he became personally loyal to her. In a single stroke, Gilbert lost the ability to threaten the palace. But if the queen was safe Pierre believed he was in more danger than ever. The last head of government had been assassinated and he had been an Italian Christian. What would the nobles do to a Berber eunuch and Muslim? One night Pierre quietly hopped on a boat to Africa alongside a chest filled with tarís, gold coins. Upon arrival he renounced Christianity, reconverted to Islam and took up his old name of Ahmed. In Ifriqiya he entered the service of the Almohad Caliph Yusuf I as an admiral and was forever after known as Ahmed es-Sikeli “the Sicilian.”

            The qaid’s flight was an embarrassment for the queen. Moreover, she had lost a powerful ally. Marguerite called a meeting of notables to inform them of what happened and ensure a continuance of government. If she had hoped for a calm luncheon she was soon disappointed. Gilbert veraciously denounced Pierre as a traitor. Before he could launch into another long-winded tirade, Richard of Molise defended Pierre. Richard understood that he depended on the queen’s patronage and so he rose to defend her honor, even though Marguerite neither wanted nor needed his defense. The two former allies began shouting at each other and Richard offered trial by combat to anyone who would defame the Queen’s chosen. After exchanging insults the two men drew their swords. The queen had had enough and ordered her guards to intervene before the lords could kill each other.

The near-fatal news brief signaled a new era in Norman Sicily’s political structure. As long as there was not a strong king to keep the nobles in check powerful aristocrats would try to control the government. To keep the country from falling into chaos Marguerite would have to play a subtle political game, undermining her opponents and playing them off of each other. For the moment her main rival was her hot-tempered cousin. The Queen and her inner circle knew that the German Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa was planning an invasion of southern Italy. She had a scribe forge a letter which claimed that this invasion was imminent. The northern threat gave her the excuse she needed to send Gilbert back to Southern Italy to defend the peninsula. She also elevated him to Count of Apulia and Campagna to assuage his ego. Even if Gilbert suspected that the Queen was playing him he could not defy her, not with the kingdom in danger. Meanwhile, Marguerite made Richard a familiare due to his impeccable loyalty. She uplifted two new palace eunuchs, Qaid Martin who oversaw the diwan, and Qaid Richard who became palace chamberlain. Together with Matteo of Aiello, Richard Palmer and Richard, Count of Molise these five familiares ran the government under Marguerite. 

As if the year 1166 wasn’t enough of a whirlwind, Marguerite’s half-brother Rodrigo and a cadre of knights sailed into Palermo. Rodrigo, who took up the Italian version of his name Enrico, claimed that he had come to support Marguerite during her regency. In actuality, the bastard and his band of soldiers were looking to take advantage of her. The queen could not be bothered with her audacious and impolitic relative so she made him Count of Montescaglioso, gave him some money and sent him eastward. Marguerite probably did not give her oafish half-brother a second thought, expecting him to travel to the peninsula and enjoy his completely unearned new title. Unfortunately for her, to get to Italy he had to stop by Messina. The eastern Greek metropolis had quite a reputation. Even among port cities it was legendary for gambling, prostitution and other vices. While there Enrico spent or lost all his money, thoroughly embarrassing the queen who had to order him to leave Messina and govern his new lands.

With her problematic relatives on the mainland, Marguerite got back to the business of revamping the government. She appointed councils of clergy to oversee areas not under the control of a serving bishop, taking power from local secular lords who were more easily corrupted. Then she asked her cousin Routrou, archbishop of Rouen, to send an intellectual known for integrity who might be an ally of hers. Routrou recommended Étienne of Perche. Étienne was conveniently already in Italy visiting his nephew Gilbert of Gravina, on his way to crusade in the Holy Land. Marguerite summoned him to Palermo and he came with a retinue of knights and lords. Near the end of 1166 the queen made him a familiare; the following year he became Grand Chancellor and Archbishop of Palermo, giving him remarkable power.  

Étienne became a warrior against corruption both secular and religious. He imprisoned corrupt officials and banned them from holding public office. Incredibly, he opened his doors to common people to lodge complaints with corrupt officials; this led to crowds approaching him every day. His actions made him incredibly popular with commoners but unpopular with the elite, many of whom profited from abusing their offices. Étienne was fairly harsh against Muslims. He also prosecuted Christian apostates who converted to Islam. This angered Muslims who balked at the head of government also being the leading Catholic functionary. But Sicily’s Islamic population was in a bind; while they did not like Étienne, they could not oppose him and the central government unless they wanted the Norman lords to exercise more power, which would be far worse.

The most controversial case that Étienne pursued was over the palace jailor, Roberto of Calatabiano. During King Guillaume I’s reign, Qaid Martin and Roberto made a despicable pact: Martin would bring false charges against wealthy people, arrest them and hand them over to Roberto who would hold them until they signed over their estates. Roberto also regularly tortured his inmates. The people hated Roberto, though the palace eunuchs defended him as one of their own. Marguerite interjected into the delicate situation and opted on a compromise: Roberto would be tried for crimes against the country but not against individuals. These were more than enough to have him publicly flogged, imprisoned and his estates seized. However, the fact that the jailed former jailor wasn’t executed was a concession to the palace eunuchs. Originally, Roberto was to be paraded through the streets on his way to prison but so many people tried to stone him that the knights escorting him had to stop at a cathedral and wait for days until the people left. In dark poetic irony, Roberto was put in prison where he was tortured to death.

Meanwhile in Apulia, Enrico was living a good, if underwhelming life as a decently-powerful count. But Enrico wanted more out of life. His new Norman drinking buddies agreed with him, saying that as a member of the royal family he deserved to have an exalted position. The Normans especially slandered the queen’s loyalist Richard of Molise as unfit for a role in the central government. The emboldened and brash bastard gathered his Spanish knights and sailed to Palermo to demand more wealth and power from his half-sister. Thankfully, Étienne calmed the situation by bringing Enrico to the palace without his men for a meeting. There the queen and Enrico were reconciled and the crisis averted. Well, not averted, more like redirected. Seditious rumors by enemies of the queen claimed that she had taken Étienne as her lover, something which Enrico quickly believed. Aside from Enrico, Qaid Richard was working behind the scenes to smear the chancellor and even raise fighting men against him when the time arose.  

Étienne was aware of the conspiracy and wherever he went he was accompanied by a bodyguard of at least 20 French knights.

The kingdom appeared to be in a constant state of political turmoil. As a woman Marguerite did not command the same respect that a king would, opening the door to more conspiracies. Yet, Marguerite was a wise, capable and energetic ruler who always looked to solve a crisis before it began. In late 1167 the queen decided to tour the kingdom with Étienne, stopping at each major city to hear the people’s grievances and engender goodwill. She also saw this as a good opportunity for hands-on instruction for the heir Guillaume II. As a loving mother of the country’s scion, she wanted Guillaume II to grow up to be a strong and just king…hopefully better than his father.

Messina was understandably one of the most troubled cities. Queen and chancellor listened to the people’s many complaints against corruption and administered justice. Even as they held court in Messina, delegates from Aversa could not wait. They arrived at the port and demanded the queen do something about their corrupt count. The queen did her best to stall for time so that any prosecution would be fair. But the Aversans were in no mood to wait and walked the streets with signs protesting. Eventually, the street demonstrations forced a trial, at which point the queen had Richard of Aversa imprisoned, winning the love of the people, if not the corrupt nobles. Just as a precaution, Étienne had his nephew Gilbert of Gravina join them with one hundred knights to protect against any sudden mob attack.

The royal retinue decided to winter in Messina. Early in January 1168 a local lord informed Étienne of a plot to kill him. The plot was led by none other than Enrico who aimed to replace the chancellor as head of government. Royal guards seized Enrico. A trial of a count was no small thing, and the queen called a gathering of clergy and lords from across the kingdom to mete out justice and make an example of a conspirator.

The trial was a comedic spectacle. The proceedings opened with the accusations of conspiracy to murder. Enrico responded by bemoaning how little wealth he had, how Montescaglioso was not enough and how he should have the royally-held city of Taranto. Gilbert of Gravina could not stand the man’s blathering and launched into another of his famous tirades. He berated Enrico, saying that if only he had behaved better the queen might have given him those lands anyway. He further claimed that the Spaniard deserved no lands in Italy, lands that the Normans had won with blood and toil. Gilbert called Enrico an abuser of peasants and a traitor who should be executed.

When Gilbert finally finished, the prosecution restated the charge of conspiracy to murder the chancellor, which Enrico denied. Then the prosecution summoned the informant who testified that Enrico was a leader in the conspiracy. At this Enrico flew into a rage and condemned the informant for betraying him, further accusing the man of having been part of the conspiracy too. That was not smart, but neither was Enrico, having just confessed to the plot. The queen placed her half-brother in prison in Reggio upon which he revealed the names of his fellow conspirators, resulting in their exiles. Those Spanish knights who had accompanied him were ordered to give up their weapons and return to Calabria. The Spaniards handed over the weapons and returned to the mainland. When Enrico’s knights arrived the locals, who had long suffered their abuses, saw they were unarmed, beat them, and robbed them of all their possessions. The knights then fled north into the Sila Mountains where they died in the winter cold.

The queen and chancellor still had to deal with the conspiracy of notables. Here Marguerite and Étienne had to tread carefully as some of the most powerful people in the kingdom had been involved in the plot, even the familiare Matteo of Aiello. Matteo had resented being passed over for the chancellorship and was spreading rumors that Étienne was going to raise taxes in an effort to turn the people against him. Matteo was put on trial and arrested. Étienne wanted to move against his ally the Qaid Richard, but Marguerite believed that this was a step too far. Instead, she confined the qaid to the palace and banned him from communicating with his knights.

A third conspirator involved in the plot to assassinate the chancellor was Gentile, bishop of Agrigento. After Matteo’s arrest Gentile tried to incite the people against the government. From his pulpit he accused Étienne of planning to marry the queen and usurp power from the rightful heir Guillaume II. While Gentile commanded the loyalty of many Christians the Muslims in the city remained faithful to the Hauteville and relayed his treasonous words to the authorities. It was no small thing to arrest a bishop in the Middle Ages; the Hauteville had frequently been excommunicated and Marguerite did not want to create a rift between herself and the church. It was this clerical immunity which probably emboldened Gentile to so brashly act against his overlords. The queen had the authorities seize him and take him to San Marco d'Alunzio. The queen informed the Pope of the errant bishop’s actions and turned the affair over to his Holiness.

The queen and her chancellor had dealt with the conspiracy so successfully that other nobles even tried to use the investigation to do away with their own enemies. Two aristocrats came forward and accused Richard of Molise of being a conspirator. Richard did what he always did when he was outraged; he threatened a trial by combat. He and one of his accusers even set up a duel though this proved unnecessary. Richard was innocent of conspiracy, though his rivals, probably led by Gilbert, managed to take him down in another way. The exiled former Qaid Pierre had given Richard lands while he was in power, lands which Richard kept even after the man’s abrupt departure. In what was probably a sham trial, his peers found Richard guilty and he was imprisoned, never to return to power again, though his son did manage to inherit his title.

While Queen Marguerite had lost one ally the conspiracy against her government was otherwise unraveling beautifully. Its leaders were imprisoned, save Qaid Richard, whose power was severely reduced. There was only one final act remaining to wrap up the treasonous plot: what to do with Enrico. Queen Marguerite always had a soft spot for family members. She offered her half-brother 1,000 ounces of gold to return to Spain if he promised never to set foot again in Italy. Enrico reasoned that this was better than imprisonment or execution and he accepted.

            Marguerite sent a French priest from Chartres named Odo Quarrel to escort Enrico to Spain. The priest arrived in Messina but instead of hopping the boat to Reggio he decided to stay and enjoy everything the city had to offer. Odo lost himself in debauchery. Moreover, Odo used his royal authority to tax ships going in and out of the harbor to pay for his vices. This caused a considerable amount of anger with locals, merchants and pilgrims going to the Holy Land. Odo’s French-speaking soldiers were just as bad as he was and frequently abused the Messinians.

Over a week passed and Étienne sent a message to the wayward priest, chiding him for indulging in such ungodly activity when he had a royal mission to accomplish, but by then it was too late. One night the French soldiers went into a gambling house completely intoxicated. They caused a raucous, insulting the Greek patrons. The Greeks had enough and assaulted the unruly French. When Odo heard about this he demanded the governor of the city go to the gambling house and arrest those involved for assaulting the authorities. With few options left, the governor of Messina went to the establishment and explained what was happening, at which point the angry Greeks drove off him and his guard.

Messinians’ anger went well beyond a few recent cases of abuse. The Greek, Eastern Orthodox people were disgruntled that their overlords were French-speaking Catholics. As violence spread through the streets, rumors spread that Étienne had married Marguerite and led a coup against Guillaume II. The queen sent a letter to be read in public, assuring the people that all was well. But before the letter could be read an armed crowd attacked the governor before marching on Odo’s house which they put under siege. Simultaneously, a number of armed Messinians sailed to Reggio. There they gathered outside the prison and demanded Enrico be set free, which the meager guard could not refuse. The company then sailed back to Sicily with Enrico, who they hoped would come to the aid of his nephew Guillaume II and save the country from the conniving chancellor.

Once in Messina the people hailed Enrico as their champion and tasked him with overthrowing Étienne and saving Guillaume II. But first, there was the issue of Odo. Realizing that he had no other choice, Enrico agreed to bring the priest to justice. Enrico ordered Odo stripped naked and dragged along the streets, after which he was to be imprisoned. Odo never made it to jail, as the angry crowd stabbed him to death, chopped up his body, placed his head on a pike and paraded it around the city. Their bloodlust was still unsated and the crowd ran through the streets killing everyone who wasn’t Greek, Italian or Arab. Their anger was directed mostly against the French, though they also killed a number of Germans and English. After this final outburst of violence Enrico demanded order and threatened to punish any wanton killing. With Messina mostly pacified Enrico raised a force and took control of the northeast of the island.

Queen and Chancellor raised an army to fight Enrico. Even as they were ready to move and put down the troublemaker once and for all, Guillaume II told them to wait. Unlike his mother, Guillaume II was an ardent follower of astrology and the royal astrologers warned him not to move out too soon. Thus, the loyalists had to wait for the stars to align before they could launch a counter-offensive. But they were not entirely idle. Étienne sent out the navy to blockade Messina, cutting off their grain supply.

            Time was running out for the rebels, but in Sicily events happened quickly. Anti-Étienne conspiracies spread throughout the streets and the chancellor had to dodge an assassination attempt. When this failed, conspirators told Palermites that Étienne was planning on taking the royal treasury and fleeing the island, prompting an angry and armed crowd to assault his house. The crowd were out for blood and killed a French knight by stabbing him to death. Guillaume II watched the proceedings from a nearby palace window and ordered the people to go home but they ignored their king. Étienne’s men could not defend the house, forcing him and his guards to flee to a nearby church where they held the belltower. A group of the king’s knights tried to break through the crowd to assist Étienne but failed. Even as Étienne and his guards held out, Matteo of Aiello and Qaid Richard slipped out of the palace and goaded the crowd to continue the attack. As twilight approached there was an impasse and the two sides agreed to compromise: Étienne would leave on a galley to wherever he chose while those defending him would be granted clemency. With no other option, Étienne sailed for the Holy Land. Later on, Marguerite tried to recall him, though he would never return, as he fell ill and died in Jerusalem the following year.

            A few days after Étienne’s departure, Enrico and Bishop Gentile of Agrigento arrived at Palermo at the head of a fleet of ships. The queen had no choice but to uplift Enrico and Gentile as familiares. But this was not enough for Enrico, who demanded more land. Marguerite conceded and made him lord of the Principate, a region which forms the ‘shin’ of the Italian boot and which included Salerno, a city which had by then replaced Bari as the most populous in southern Italy. Enrico, Gentile, Qaid Richard and the restored Matteo all agreed that their mutual enemy Gilbert had to go. Thus, Gilbert was exiled to the Holy Land with his family, where he would live for the rest of his days. If Enrico got the shin, Gilbert got the boot.

            And that was that. Despite his breathtaking vice and stupidity, forces beyond Enrico’s control conspired to make him one of the greatest lords in the kingdom, which he was until his death, upon which his son inherited his titles. Étienne of Perche, the incorruptible chancellor, died in exile. Richard of Molise, the queen’s most ardent supporter, who was personally in love with her, was imprisoned in a sham trial, and died a year later. Even Gilbert, whose loyalty was dubious, but not non-existent, died in exile as well. Instead, conspirators took control of the government and at no point did they get their come-uppance. They had won and ruled as great lords.

History is not a morality play; governments and societies, rarely fall because they are immoral or decadent. Very often the ‘bad’ people win. In this case, the queen’s loyalists failed because they staked out a weak position: they supported the central government against the nobility and church. Meanwhile, the opportunists rode a wave of anger against the exclusionary government, anger which they themselves often amplified.

There is a silver lining to this story though: the government of Sicily improved remarkably after these ongoing series of conspiracies. Enrico’s rebellion meant that the government expanded to include nobles and clergy. This meant that these groups had more say in political affairs. Before, Sicily operated like a caliphate, or the Byzantine Empire, in which politics was the purview of the monarchy and their chosen bureaucracy. The rebellion forced the kingdom to incorporate the previously-silenced voices of powerful leaders, giving them an outlet for their grievances that did not involve assassination. It also put those familiares on the defensive. Rather than conspiring against the government from the outside, they had to defend their power from the inside, meaning that conspiracies were far less frequent. Moreover, Queen Marguerite and her son Guillaume II were wise leaders who played the familiares against each other. The incoming familiares may have been conniving, treasonous opportunists, but their challenge to the Sicilian government made it more sustainable. Human beings are strange creatures, and the more of them there are the weirder it gets, which makes history interesting.