Post-classical history

Sicily, Kingdom of

The island of Sicily was conquered and settled by Muslim invaders from North Africa in the ninth century and was reconquered by the Normans of southern Italy in the period 1061-1091. Thereafter the island and various mainland territories came to form a kingdom that became one of the major powers in the Mediterranean region.

The Norman Kingdom

The Norman conquest was led by Robert Guiscard, duke of Apulia and Calabria, and his younger brother Roger. While Robert’s participation was important in securing the northeastern part of the island (1061-1062) and Palermo (1072), the conquest was largely conducted by Count Roger, and rule over the island was left in his hands.

Certain features of the conquest foreshadowed the First Crusade: there was sporadic papal encouragement, and contemporary chroniclers stress that this was a holy war on behalf of Christendom. Yet while Pope Gregory VII suggested to Count Roger (in 1076) that he “should seek to spread the worship of the Christian name amongst the pagans” [The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1083, trans. H. E. J. Cowdrey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 193], in practice many towns surrendered on terms that included the maintenance of Islamic worship and law, and the majority of the island’s population remained Muslim until the late twelfth century. Roger I created six Latin bishoprics and founded a number of both Latin- and Greek-rite monasteries, but Christian immigration was slow (and largely went into the east of the island), and conversion slower. Western Sicily remained largely Muslim until the 1230s, when Frederick II transferred many of the remaining Muslims to northern Apulia.

The kingdom played little part in the early crusades to the Holy Land. Roger II, count (1105-1130) and then first king of Sicily (1130-1154), was primarily concerned with consolidating his new kingdom, particularly his rule over the southern Italian mainland. Once this had been achieved (by 1140), his forces conducted campaigns against Muslim North Africa (especially in 1146-1148) and Byzantium. Garrisons were established in several coastal cities in Africa, notably Mahdia (mod. al-Mahdiya, Tunisia), Tripoli (mod. Tarābulus, Libya), Gabès, and Sfax, but while attempts were made to attract Christian immigrants, the primary purpose of these conquests was to control the lucrative trade between Africa and Sicily. Given its involvement in these operations, the kingdom was unlikely to have resources to spare for involvement in the Levant. In addition, there were cordial diplomatic exchanges between Roger’s court and the Fātimids of Egypt, and indeed the reorganization of the Sicilian administration in the 1140s drew on Fātimid practice.

While there had been a substantial southern Italian involvement in the First Crusade, thereafter interest in the Holy Land appears to have waned. Roger II’s relations with the rulers of Outremer were poor. The marriage of his mother, Adelaide, to Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1113 and Baldwin’s subsequent repudiation of her left Roger, according to the chronicler William of Tyre, with a mortal hatred against the kingdom of Jerusalem. His unsuccessful claims to succeed his cousin Bohemund II of Antioch after 1130 meant that his relations with that principality were equally hostile. Furthermore, his attacks on the Byzantine Empire in 1147-1148 also contributed to the failure of the Second Crusade in the East.

The Apulian ports, especially Bari, Brindisi, and Otranto, as well as Messina on Sicily, were key embarkation points for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but few southern Italians went there themselves. After a first flush of enthusiasm following the First Crusade, endowments to Holy Land churches in the kingdom of Sicily were relatively few, although the Church of St. Mary of the Latins at Jerusalem did have a wealthy dependency at Agira on the island of Sicily. The military orders established themselves in the kingdom relatively late and (at least at first) on a limited scale. The Order of the Hospital (of St. John) had established separate provinces for Sicily and Apulia by about 1170, but the Templars only established a local organization within the kingdom between 1184 and 1196. The kings offered protection to them and to some of the churches of Outremer, but little material endowment. During the reign of William I (1154-1166) revolts and internal dissension within the kingdom as well as the continued threat of attack from the hostile German Empire contributed to the loss of the Sicilian colonies in North Africa to the Almohads in 1158-1160.

It was only under King William II (1166-1189) that the kingdom started to take a more active part in the crusading movement. An alliance was concluded with King Amalric of Jerusalem to carry out a joint attack on Egypt, although after Amalric’s death (1174) the Jerusalemite expedition was abandoned and the Sicilians, forced to make the attempt alone, were defeated. The Sicilian fleet also attacked the Muslim-held Balearic Islands in 1182, primarily in response to Muslim piracy. However, Sicilian attention was then diverted once more toward Byzantium; a major invasion was launched in 1185 but miscarried, despite the capture of Thessalonica. This attack may well have contributed to the decision of the Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelos, to conclude an alliance with Saladin. However, the collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 revived interest in the fate of Outremer, and because of its geographical position and its powerful navy, Sicily was able to provide more immediate help to the embattled states in Outremer than other western kingdoms could. The Sicilian fleet (under Margaritus of Brindisi) played a crucial role in supplying and reinforcing the cities of Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), and Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) in 1187-1188.

Sicily under the Staufen Dynasty

The death of the childless William II in November 1189 led to a succession crisis and to the eventual conquest of the kingdom by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor from the Staufen dynasty (whose wife, Constance, was Roger II’s daughter) in 1194. Hence, direct Sicilian contribution to the Third Crusade (1189-1192) was limited. However, with the maritime route to the East becoming increasingly important, Sicily’s role as a base for crusading became crucial. Richard I of England and Philip II of France stayed in Sicily during the winter of 1190-1191, and the vanguard of Henry VI’s German crusade sailed from Apulian ports and Messina in 1197. Part of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) also sailed from these ports directly to the kingdom of Jerusalem, as did the English crusader Simon of Montfort in 1241.

Under Frederick II (king of Sicily 1198-1250), the son of Henry VI and Constance, the kingdom played a much more significant part in the crusade to the East than hitherto. Sicilian ships and troops under the counts of Lesina and Malta reinforced the Fifth Crusade in 1220-1221, and Frederick himself attempted to set off on crusade from Brindisi in 1227 but was forced back by illness, finally doing so in 1228. Frederick’s marriage to Isabella II, the heiress of Jerusalem, in 1225 and the birth of their son, Conrad (IV), in 1228 strengthened the links between the kingdoms of Sicily and Jerusalem. From 1231 until 1243 (or perhaps 1242) Sicilian troops garrisoned Tyre, and their leader, Ric- cardo Filangieri, acted as Conrad’s bailli (regent) in the kingdom of Jerusalem, although his authority was disputed by the Ibelin family and their supporters. In addition, the military orders received considerable endowment within the kingdom of Sicily in the early thirteenth century, not least from the Staufen rulers’ patronage of the Teutonic Order. Henry VI granted the Teutonic Knights houses in Barletta and Palermo in 1197, and a separate province within the order, with four subject commanderies, was established for Apulia by 1225.

The kingdom was involved not only as a participant in the crusading movement but also as a target for crusading. The precedent was set by the crusade preached by Pope Innocent III, who was then the kingdom’s regent acting on behalf of its infant king, Frederick, against the German adventurer Markward of Annweiler in 1199-1202. Markward’s alliance with the Muslims of Sicily, then in revolt, was used as a justification for this crusade. Once Frederick began to rule the kingdom in person, his relations with the papacy became increasingly difficult and caused a renewal of such crusading activity. Frederick’s excommunication by Pope Gregory IX in 1227, for failing to fulfill his crusade vow, led to an invasion of the kingdom by a papal army in 1229-1230. Whether or not this was actually a “crusade” is a moot point; the local chronicler Richard of San Germano expressly contrasted the papal troops, “the army of the keys” (that is, the keys of St. Peter, a papal symbol), with “the army of the crusaders” led by Frederick against them when he returned from the Holy Land; but certainly crusade taxation paid for the papal expedition, and remission of sins was offered to the participants. Frederick’s second excommunication (1239) led to a renewal of crusade preaching against him and even to attempts to divert those who had taken vows to go to the Holy Land to fight against him. However, while papal agents attempted to undermine his rule within the kingdom, especially on the mainland, the major theater of military operations was in northern Italy.

After Frederick II’s death (1250) there were sporadic, and unsuccessful, papal campaigns against his sons in Sicily. The coronation of his illegitimate son Manfred as king in 1258 led to a more sustained attempt to overthrow Staufen rule. The crusade was the means for this, using crusade preaching, especially by the mendicant orders, to secure recruits and crusade taxation to raise money. Attempts to transfer the kingdom to the younger son of Henry III of England failed because of the general dislike of the project, and especially of paying for it, among Henry’s subjects. Sporadic negotiations to secure a settlement with Manfred also failed. Finally, in 1264 Pope Clement IV conferred the kingdom on Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France. As in the earlier case of Markward of Annweiler, Manfred’s use of Muslim troops was one of the principal justifications of this policy. In 1266 Charles conquered the kingdom at the head of an army whose members received the full spiritual privileges accorded to those who had taken the cross.

The Angevin Conquest

As king of Sicily, Charles I of Anjou (1266-1285) pursued an ambitious and expansionary foreign policy in the Mediterranean. His involvement with Frankish Greece had been anticipated by Manfred, who had married the daughter of the despot of Epiros and in 1259 had sent troops to support Epiros and Achaia against the resurgent Empire of Nicaea, a project that was ended by the defeat of the allies at the battle of Pelagonia. By the Treaty of Viterbo (1267) Charles secured extensive rights in Greece, including suzerainty over Achaia (from Baldwin II, former Latin emperor of Constantinople), and the marriage of the heiress of the principality to his younger son, Philip, in 1271. Sicilian troops and money henceforth underpinned the defense of Frankish Greece against the Byzantines.

Charles also persuaded his brother Louis IX of France to divert his second crusade from the Holy Land to Tunis (1270). The motives for this were purely political, to ensure the continued payment of the tribute that the rulers of Tunisia had been accustomed to pay to the kings of Sicily since the time of Roger II. Finally, in 1277 Charles bought out the claims of Mary of Antioch to the kingship of Jerusalem, proclaimed himself king, and sent Roger of San Severino to Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to rule the kingdom as his representative. Mary’s claims had never been accepted by the High Court of Jerusalem, but Roger was able to displace King Hugh (II of Cyprus) and take over. Meanwhile Charles was preparing to launch an expedition against Byzantium, which, even if not actually declared a crusade, had papal sanction, the support of crusade taxation, and the participation of those vowed to the crusade.

These ambitious plans were destroyed by a revolt in Sicily at Easter 1282, known as the Sicilian Vespers, that led to the takeover of the island of Sicily by King Peter III of Aragon and thereafter to the long-standing conflict between the two rival kingdoms of “Sicily”: the island ruled by the Aragonese dynasty and the southern Italian mainland under the Angevins. Pope Martin IV declared Charles’s attempts to reconquer Sicily to be a crusade, the king of France was drawn into the conflict, and crusade preaching and taxation boosted the Angevin military effort. Yet despite this support the campaigns were consistently defeated, and eventually King Charles II (1285-1309) admitted defeat at the Peace of Caltebellota in 1302.


Despite its key central position in the Mediterranean and the wealth and military (and especially naval) power of the kingdom created by Roger II, the Sicilian contribution to the crusades in the Holy Land was surprisingly limited and at times deleterious. The circumstances of its creation meant that its early rulers were above all concerned with ensuring its survival, until peace was finally made with the Holy Roman Empire in 1177. The presence of a very substantial Muslim population on the island also acted as a brake on any Sicilian crusade against the infidel, at least until immigration, some conversions, and later forcible relocation of Muslims to Apulia made the population of the island overwhelmingly Christian. Campaigns against North Africa were undertaken for pragmatic reasons, not as part of a crusade, and those against the Byzantine Empire undermined Christian unity. The increased Sicilian involvement in the crusade from 1174 onward was hampered by domestic political problems and the conflict of the papacy with the Staufen rulers. Sicily became a target for the “political” crusades of the thirteenth century, and once Charles of Anjou became king, he used the crusade as a tool to further his own ambitions. Even as nominal king of Jerusalem, his real concern was with the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire, not the defense of his new kingdom. As the remains of the Christian states in Outremer were collapsing before the Mamlûks, the papacy was encouraging crusades against Christians within the Sicilian kingdom.

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