Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Six


The Sicilian Vespers

Between 1274 and 1288, the parts of the Holy Roman Empire go in different directions

RUDOLF OF HAPSBURG, now king of Germany, had been crowned in Aachen in some disorder. The ceremony was already underway when someone realized that the royal regalia, the scepter and crown of Frederick II, had disappeared sometime during the anarchy of the previous decade. Forced to improvise, Rudolf grabbed a nearby crucifix: “The symbol of our redemption secures us heaven,” he told the electors, “it will certainly confirm to us a parcel of earth.”1

The chaos of the ceremony was only a foretaste. Germany was wrecked. The treasury was empty, the countryside afflicted by roving bandits, the dukes engaged in private warfare. One of the most powerful electors, Ottocar II of Bohemia, was in open revolt. Since early in the century, the Dukes of Bohemia had been granted the right by the emperor to claim the title of king of Bohemia, a lesser monarch subject to the German throne; this had only confirmed their desire to push back against imperial demands on their loyalty. Summoned to an imperial diet in 1274 to do homage to his new overlord, the King of Bohemia refused to show up, and instead fortified his boundaries for war.

For the next four years, Rudolf was forced to defend himself against Ottocar’s intermittent attacks, while destroying the headquarters of robber bands, reestablishing the rule of law in Germany, and reorganizing a kingdom that had been left in shambles by its boy king and the challenger for the imperial throne. By 1278, he had managed to do all three. Ottocar had finally been killed, fighting his lord on the banks of the Danube. Rudolf had destroyed sixty castles occupied by bandits and private warlords; he had whipped the troublesome kingdom of Moravia into line; he had made a marriage alliance between Ottocar’s son Wenceslaus and his own daughter, and made another treaty with the king of Hungary. He had restored Frederick’s laws, and spent countless months traveling through Germany, visiting each local court. He took as his motto the Latin Melius bene imperare, quam imperium ampliare: Better to govern the empire well than to enlarge it.2

Meanwhile, Charles of Anjou was ruling his double kingdom of southern Italy and Sicily (“The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”) with equally close attention to detail. In Charles’s case, though, the attention was paid to his own power.

In 1280, after the sudden death of the current pope (Nicholas III, who had lasted all of three years as pontiff), Charles meddled directly in the papal elections. He favored the election of the Franciscan Simon de Brion, a native of Tours. When the Italian cardinals objected to the election of another Frenchman, Charles imprisoned two of them. The rest, properly intimidated, elevated Brion to the papal seat. The new French pope, who took the name Martin IV, was so unpopular in Italy that he did not dare enter Rome; he had to be consecrated at Orvieto, north of Saint Peter’s city.

As supreme head of Christ’s church, Martin IV was ruled by two overwhelming considerations: how to find his next gourmet meal, and how to please Charles of Anjou. His greed was relatively harmless (although in the Divine Comedy, Dante’s narrator encounters Martin IV, in purgatory, still doing penance for his overindulgence in eels and rich Muscadel wine). His willingness to further Charles’s ambitions was less benign. He gave Charles the position of Senator of Rome, promoted pro-Anjou French priests into positions of power, and threw his complete agreement behind Charles’s newest scheme: to conquer Constantinople for himself.3

For this scheme, Charles had recruited two allies. The Doge of Venice, still smarting over the Genoese monopoly in Constantinople, agreed to send ships; the defeated Latin emperor Baldwin, who had taken refuge in Italy after fleeing from Michael VIII’s troops, hoped to regain his throne under Charles’s protection. In 1282, Charles was given the perfect opportunity to launch his war against Byzantium. Michael VIII, still attempting to whip his anti-union protesters into line, died; and his son Andronicus II, a staunch Orthodox believer, took the throne as second emperor of the restoration. He refused to let his father, traitor to the Byzantine church, be buried in consecrated ground; and he at once he revoked the Union of Lyons, which had brought the eastern and western churches together. At the news, bells rang all through Constantinople, and cheering crowds thronged the street.4

But before he could head towards Constantinople, Charles’s plans were disrupted by catastrophe at home.

Neither half of his kingdom, awkwardly united across the Strait of Messina only by his personal rule, was firmly pro-French. But in Sicily the simmering resentment against French rule, combined with hatred for Charles’s drastic policies of taxation, had become a rapidly rising boil. While Charles was plotting the capture of Constantinople, the Sicilian nobleman John of Procida and an alliance of anti-Anjou soldiers and officials had been secretly plotting revolt against him.

They had a powerful ally: the king of Aragon. James of Aragon, whose reign had begun in such disorder, had finally died in 1276, aged nearly seventy. His son, Peter III, inherited his throne; and Peter III was married to none other than the daughter of Manfred, killed by Charles of Anjou’s men at Benevento during the French takeover. This gave Peter an indirect but perfectly valid claim to the Sicilian throne. He agreed to join in the overthrow of Charles, in return for the crown of Sicily.


56.1 The Sicilian Vespers

Their chance came suddenly, in Easter week of 1282. Most of the conspirators were in Palermo for the holy services, when a French soldier insulted a Sicilian woman in the presence of her husband-to-be. “A Frenchman in his insolence laid hold of a woman of Palermo to do her villainy,” writes Villani. “She began to cry out, and the people being already sore, and all moved with indignation against the French . . . began to defend the woman, whence arose a great battle between the French and Sicilians.” The riot spread, with the Sicilians shouting, “Death to the French.” The headquarters of the royal government in Palermo were rapidly overrun. The conspirators, seizing their opportunity, carried the war across Sicily. “Each in his own city and country did the like,” Villani says, “slaying all the Frenchmen which were in the island.”5

Villani claims that over four thousand French soldiers and civilians fell in the massacre, which became known as the Sicilian Vespers. Charles of Anjou, in Italy when the revolt broke out, was forced to besiege his own capital city by sea. Peter of Aragon, who had been waiting for the signal, brought his own fleet across the Mediterranean and wiped out Charles’s ships. In the fighting, Charles’s oldest son and most trusted officer, the thirty-year-old Charles II (“Charles the Lame,” apparently nicknamed for a slight limp), was taken prisoner.

Peter then landed at Trapani. On August 30, 1282, he was proclaimed king of Sicily and Aragon at Palermo. The younger Charles was thrown into a Sicilian prison.6

Charles retreated back to Naples in a fury. Pope Martin IV obediently excommunicated Peter of Aragon and, for good measure, preached a crusade against both Aragon and Sicily. Philip III of France, son of the dead Louis and thus Charles of Anjou’s nephew, joined the fight against Peter of Aragon and the Sicilian rebels, bringing France and Aragon to open war. Charles even challenged Peter of Aragon to single combat for the kingdom, a plan that came to nothing when no neutral referee could be found to supervise the match (although Edward of England contemplated taking the job).

Three years of fighting ended, abruptly, when all of the players died within months of each other in 1285.

In January, Charles of Anjou—nearly sixty, after a lifetime of ambitious struggle, distraught over the continuing imprisonment of his son—died unexpectedly in Italy. He controlled nothing more than southern Italy, his capital at Naples; the only title he still could claim, king of Naples, now belonged to the son in chains.

As soon as news of his death reached them, the Venetians began peace talks with Andronicus II of Constantinople, aiming to get their trading quarters in the east back through negotiation rather than war.

With Charles dead, Pope Martin IV had no support. Afraid for his life, he fled from Rome to Perugia. He died there in March, still indulging in eels and wine. The cardinals elected an eighty-five-year-old Roman priest, Giacomo Savelli, in his place.

Philip III of France had marched through Languedoc into the eastern Aragonese territory known as Roussillon with an enormous army—over a hundred thousand foot soldiers, cavalry, and bowmen, supported by a hundred French ships offshore. But the Aragonese, joined by the people of Roussillon, put up a fierce resistance. The Aragonese admiral Roger of Lauria led a sea attack that dispersed the French fleet. Battling forward, the land forces began to suffer, once again, from dysentery. Philip III himself grew sick, just as he had outside Tunis, from the disease that had killed his father. Winter approached; cold rain soaked the troops.

Finally Philip decided to retreat back across the Pyrenees. But before he could lead his army to safety, an Aragonese army came up behind them and blew through the ill, footsore, exhausted French army from the rear. The assault, known as the Battle of the Col de Panissars, lasted for two days. When it was over, little more than the royal vanguard itself remained.

Philip himself made it no farther than Perpignan. On October 5, four days after his army had been slaughtered, he died there of dysentery.

A month later, Peter III of Aragon died of fever, aged forty-six. He left the crown of Aragon to his oldest son Alfonso III, the throne of Sicily to his second son James.

CHARLES OF ANJOU’S OLDEST SON, Charles the Lame, remained in prison in Sicily.

This was hardly ideal. Young James hoped to be a Christian monarch; keeping the rightful king of Naples, who also happened to be the first cousin of the king of France, in prison was not the act of a God-fearing king. Nor was it a good way to keep peace with France. But the liberation of Charles the Lame was a complicated and drawn-out process. Edward of England, serving as mediator, helped to hammer out the details (making up, perhaps, for his decision not to preside over the proposed duel between Charles of Anjou and Peter of Aragon). Charles the Lame would agree to a peace with Sicily and Aragon; he would pay fifty thousand marks of silver for the expenses of the war his father had started; and he would acknowledge that Sicily and southern Italy were now two separate kingdoms, the one ruled from Palermo, the other from Naples.7

Charles himself agreed to all of the conditions. But as soon as he had signed the treaties and returned home, he breached the conditions.

Ancient Giacomo Savelli, who had become Pope Honorius IV by unanimous election, had lasted only two years before dying. His successor, Nicholas IV, was a peace-inclined Franciscan. But his actions suggest that he was uneasy on the papal throne. In 1288, he agreed to release Charles the Lame from the entire elaborate, carefully worked-out treaty, in exchange for Charles’s acknowledgement of the final and supreme authority of the pope in Sicily and any other lands he might rule.

His stated reason was that no ruler should be forced to abide by conditions that were made in captivity; a not unreasonable position. But his nullification of the treaty began another war between Naples, Sicily, and Aragon. And this one would drag on for a full twenty-four years, folding itself around the turn of the century and lasting into a time of much greater catastrophe.


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