Post-classical history

The Sicilian Absurdity

IT WAS December 7, 1254, and an old man lay dying in the ornate brick and colored-marble palace of Peter della Vignia which looked out over the Bay of Naples. In his wasted face above a straggling white beard the old man had none of the gentleness which so often accompanies the passing of the aged. The aggressiveness of purpose which had governed his life had left too strong a mark. His sunken eyes turned restlessly and unhappily as he thought of all the great projects, the plans and intrigues for papal aggrandizement, which he was leaving unfinished.

Close around his couch were relatives, weeping and bewailing the loss which’ confronted them. There was in the noisiness of their grief more than a hint of appreciation on their part that the era of the golden eggs was drawing to a close. Farther back stood the priests, prominent churchmen for the most part, one of whom at least wore a red hat, the papal physician who is sometimes designated as John of Toledo and sometimes as the English Cistercian, John Tolet. The churchmen were ranged in a circle, a silent group, their minds on the problems which would soon have to be faced.

The dying man made a gesture with one hand, a weak movement which expressed, nevertheless, impatience. “What are you crying for, you wretches?” he asked in a low whisper. “Don’t I leave you all rich? What more do you want?”

He had indeed made them all rich, these demanding barnacles. He had plucked benefices for them from all countries of Europe, most particularly from England. He had found glittering sinecures for them in the offices of the papacy. He had even been stuffing the kingdom of Sicily full of his incompetent nephews and needy in-laws, where they reposed like so many wormy raisins. For this old man, dying not in proper peace but in irascibility, was Sinibaldo Fiesco, who had been Pope for eleven years as Innocent IV.

Although the archexponent of nepotism, he had been a strong pope, bringing the struggle of the Vatican against the ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick, to a new pitch of intensity; and had emerged, in the main, the victor. To carry on the war he had been draining the Church of its gold, and such blame as attaches to his name may be traced to the relentless nature of his exactions. He it was who had stared straight through the English envoys at Lyons and had refused to relieve their country of the payments to Rome which were impoverishing the national Church. He it was who had hated Robert Grosseteste so bitterly.

Innocent had ruled the Vatican through tumultuous years, sometimes riding triumphantly on the crest, sometimes driven into exile, a period which would remain long in the memories of men; and yet the one accomplishment which would be linked with his name after everything else had receded into the mists of time was a simple enough matter. He had introduced the red hat as the distinguishing mark of the cardinal. Even here he cannot be given credit for originating the idea. It is recorded that the Countess of Flanders, that mature and active lady of great wealth whose hand in marriage had once been sought by Simon de Montfort, made two social errors in one day in Rome; she mistook a mere bishop for a cardinal, which annoyed only herself, and then addressed a cardinal as a bishop, which was much more serious because it annoyed the cardinal. Accordingly she proposed to the Pope that something be done to make a cardinal stand out unmistakably from his fellows and, it is said, she even proposed that one way to do it would be to give him a red hat to wear.

When Henry of England learned of the death of Innocent he must have experienced mingled feelings of apprehension and relief. The harsh old titan with the face of a weary mastiff had involved the King of England in a desperate gamble. The venture to which Henry was committed had been weighing heavily on him and causing him many uneasy moments, perhaps even a twinge or two of conscience. Would the death of Innocent make his position easier? Or, disturbing thought, would his successor go on with the gamble and prove as sternly demanding as Innocent had been? Would he even adhere to the latter’s threat of laying England under an interdict and excommunicating Henry himself if he failed in his obligations?

It was a difficult situation for Henry, because the transaction had been hatched more or less in secrecy. The impulsive King, knowing full well that his Council would not agree, had not consulted his advisers when he decided to take the gamble in partnership with the Vatican. The barons did not know of the letters which had passed back and forth nor of the nature of the negotiations conducted by the King’s representative in Rome, Peter d’Aigueblanche. They had no conception of the staggering obligations which their headstrong ruler had assumed.

One thing was certain: the death of Innocent would bring some of the truth out into the open. And this was what Henry, above everything else, did not want.


Six years before William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, a youth “of the greatest beauty, strong and brave and furious in battle,” who was also a Norman and was known as Count Robert, began the conquest of Sicily. As a result of the efforts of this surpassingly able young man, the island was turned quickly into a Norman possession. The conquering maw drew in gradually all of the southern portions of the Italian boot, Naples, the Abruzzi, Apulia, Calabria. This was the greatest achievement of the roving seamen, more spectacular than the setting up of the duchy in Normandy, weighing much more in the medieval world than the conquest of England. It was a brilliant period, ending after a little more than a century, when Henry I of Germany added Sicily and its mainland possessions to the Holy Roman Empire.

In England the glory of the century of Norman rule in Sicily had been a legend. It was part of the dream of Henry II to unite all Norman possessions into one empire, and it was with this in mind that he married his daughter Joanna to William the Good of Sicily. Henry III, who talked much of great wars and feats of statesmanship but, like all weak men, never progressed from talk to the tremendous personal labor of preparation, had a vague idea that it might be possible to redeem there the loss of the duchy and the Angevin possessions in France. When Frederick of Germany died in 1250 it was reported about that Innocent IV had offered the imperial succession to Richard of Cornwall, although it was more likely the crown of Sicily. There was, of course, a great deal of excitement and interest, but Richard, cool and closemouthed, neither confirmed nor denied the story. If an offer had been made, he showed no signs of accepting. Two years later the papal purpose took a definite form, and one Master Albert, a Vatican notary, arrived in England to negotiate with Richard.

As Conrad, son and successor of the great Frederick, was a friend of Richard’s, the answer of the latter was that he would not be a party to a plot for his removal. It is unlikely, however, that this consideration weighed too heavily; Richard was probably actuated instead by a different train of reasoning. His sound judgment would tell him that it was hopeless to conduct a war in distant Sicily against the power of the Holy Roman Empire, and that only disaster and financial ruin would come of it. Then in 1254 Conrad died, leaving as heir Conradin, an infant of two years. Manfred, an illegitimate son of Frederick, assumed the rule of Sicily, acting outwardly as the agent of the infant heir. This was generally believed to be no more than a pretense. Manfred, the son of the beautiful Bianca Lancia, took after his imperial father in many respects. He was a man of great ability and furious ambition. Having no faith in the disinterestedness of Manfred, Innocent decided that, as the kingdom of Sicily was a fief of Rome, the time had come for him to act. Having failed with Richard of Cornwall, he offered Sicily to Charles of Anjou, a brother of Louis of France. Charles would have grasped at the chance but had no means of financing the venture. As a last resort the Pope then approached Henry and proposed that he accept the throne for his second son, Edmund.

Henry was thrilled to the marrow of his bones. The opportunity of which he had dreamed, of redeeming the calamity of Normandy’s loss, had come at last. Perhaps he consulted his own inner circle of advisers, perhaps only Mansel. The barons heard there was some talk connecting the young prince with the Pope’s deep scheming, but even this had not become general knowledge when the agreement was made. There had been a fast and furious exchange of letters. The upshot was that at Vendôme on March 6, Master Albert, acting for the Pope, formally ceded the kingdom to Edmund. This was confirmed at Assisi two months later by Innocent himself.

The news of what had happened stunned the disgruntled men who were called the magnates of England, even though they did not suspect the truth, which was that Innocent would fight the Germans in Sicily as Henry’s agent and that the responsibility for the total cost had been assumed by the English King.

While Henry was thus keeping his magnates in the dark he was almost certainly being misled himself by Peter d’Aigueblanche as to the exact nature of the agreements the latter was entering into as his representative. It had been understood from the first that the grant of a tenth of all national church revenue for five years which Innocent had offered the kings of England and France as the price of their participation in a new crusade would now be allowed Henry for the Sicilian adventure in lieu of taking an army to Palestine. Unfortunately for Henry and the Pope, the bishops in England were resolutely refusing to give the tenth for any purpose whatever, declaring boldly that they had already been bled white. What Henry may not have known was that his agent in Rome was pledging revenue from English bishoprics and monastic houses, without their knowledge or consent, and was using this as security for loans which he was raising from Italian bankers and merchants. The money raised on these false promises was being applied to the costs of the Sicilian campaign.

Not knowing any of this, the barons nevertheless watched and waited with intense anxiety.

Innocent sent an army into the south of Italy under the legate William, and Manfred hastily decamped from his headquarters in Naples. It looked as though the shrewd and resourceful Pope was thus, at the close of his career, on his way to a great triumph. Taking his physician with him, because he was sick enough to realize that he had not much longer to live, Innocent went to Naples. As he crossed a bridge into Sicilian territory, the bearer of the cross which was always carried before him allowed it to slip from his hands. This was a bad omen, and the papal party arrived at Naples in a less confident mood than when they set out. The worst of news awaited them there. Manfred had secured possession of treasure which Frederick had been storing in Apulia at the time of his death and with it had hired more troops. With the army thus improvised he had encountered the legate William at Foggia and had soundly beaten the papal army. He was already marching across country to take possession of Naples.

This unexpected reverse hastened the death of the Pope and perhaps prompted the irritability of the last words he addressed to his greedy relatives. He died with the bitter conviction that his final effort to curb the Hohenstaufen power had been a failure.

Henry waited for news of the election of a successor with great anxiety. When the word came that Cardinal Rinaldo of Segni had been the selection of the conclave and had assumed the name of Alexander IV, he was filled with mixed feelings. Alexander was well liked in the upper reaches of the Church, a stout, ruddy-faced, amiable man. But had he the capacity and the strength of purpose to take up where Innocent had left off and turn what looked like a rout into victory? There was room for much doubt on that score as reports kept coming in of the successes Manfred was scoring. On the other hand, Alexander’s more generous character might incline him to be less demanding. It might even be possible to secure from him some lessening of the terms exacted by his predecessor.

One of the new Pontiff’s first acts was to repeat Edmund’s confirmation as King of Sicily. No progress was made, however, in the matter of ousting Manfred, and each passing month made the situation more desperate. Henry was loaded down with debts, and the whole country was sternly united against any further exactions. He had no money to pay the cost of the futile campaign the papal forces were waging, and the demands from the new Pope became increasingly sharp and insistent.

Finally Alexander sent to England the Archbishop of Messina, accompanied by Rostand Masson, the papal nuncio, to insist on the fulfillment of the agreement into which the King had entered. The men who made up Parliament assembled in the chapter house at Westminster on the Sunday after mid-Lent, 1257, to consider the situation which had brought these distinguished visitors. They were a sober lot. They knew that the King’s operations in Gascony had involved him in expenditures in excess of three hundred thousand marks and that much of this staggering total was still waiting to be paid. The barons met on this occasion, therefore, more grimly determined than ever before to put an end to such squandering of public revenue.

Before the papal delegates were heard Henry staged a diversion which he hoped would create a more friendly attitude on the part of his magnates. He brought his son Edmund before the meeting, dressed in Apulian costume, and introduced him to the assemblage as the King of Sicily. Edmund was twelve years old and had developed into a handsome and engaging youth.

“Behold my son Edmund,” said the King, beaming with pride, “whom God of His gracious goodness hath called to the excellency of kingly dignity. How comely and well worthy he is of all your favor! How cruel and tyrannical must be they who would deny him effectual and seasonable help, both with money and advice!”

Knowing Henry so well, the assembled magnates were convinced that this was a prelude to more sweeping demands than they had yet encountered. They were not prepared, however, for what followed. The Archbishop of Messina took the floor and laid bare the details of the agreement which had been entered into between the King and Innocent IV. This was the first public acknowledgment of the obligation Henry had assumed to pay all the costs of the Sicilian war, and the magnates sat in a stunned silence while the papal representative presented a balance sheet. England now owed Rome the sum of 135,000 marks. This was not all. Henry, it developed, had promised to lead an army into Sicily to assist in establishing his son on the throne, and the demand was now formally made that he appear with eighty-five hundred men in Naples the following year.

The barons, under these circumstanes, proceeded to show how cruel and tyrannical they could be by refusing all financial aid and advice. They had not been consulted and they considered themselves free of all obligation in the matter. Henry protested stormily that in entering into partnership with the Pope he had acted with the consent of the bishops of England. He demanded that the Church give him the tenth which Innocent had pledged and, in addition, the income of all vacant benefices for five years. The bishops declared that they had not been consulted before the agreement was entered into and they asserted their unwillingness to pledge the tenth demanded of them until the lower orders of the Church had been consulted. This was followed by the presentation of a bill of complaint over the administration of national affairs in which fifty specific charges were made.

The outcome of the series of meetings which followed was that the bishops agreed to pay the King fifty-two thousand marks in lieu of the tenth. Henry accepted the offer, although with the greatest reluctance. The barons remained adamant, however, in their refusal to give any form of aid. The King’s efforts to make forced loans were not successful, even Richard of Cornwall refusing to accommodate him. The amount finally assembled was so much less than the Pope was demanding that it was decided to send to Rome to represent the nation in this crisis a body of proctors consisting of the Archbishop of Tarentaise, Peter of Savoy, Simon de Montfort, and John Mansel. For some reason, this committee did not reach Rome, and the negotiations with Alexander seem to have been conducted by Rostand, who had taken back with him a full appreciation of the King’s difficulties.

Alexander might present an outward suggestion of kindliness, but he acted in this matter with such sharpness and dispatch that Westminster was thrown into a state of dismay. First the Pope discharged Rostand and appointed one Arlotus in his place. Then he made it clear that, although some additional time would be allowed, the money due Rome must be paid. Finally he notified Henry that if he did not appear in Sicily with his army by March 1, 1259, he would be put under the ban of excommunication.

Henry threw up his arms in a rather abject surrender. He made it clear that he would be happy to be rescued from his unenviable position by any means that his devoted subjects might devise. He seems to have wanted nothing so much at the moment as a chance to get out of his bargain and to relinquish for his son the right to the Sicilian throne. The magnates accordingly took matters in hand, making it clear first, however, that their willingness to assume the task was contingent on his agreement to a reform of the whole basis of administration for the future. To this Henry gave his assent.

The negotiations with the Pope resulted in a cancellation of the grant of the kingdom to Edmund, although with the understanding that the King’s son could at any time, prior to the crowning of a new king, seek the restoration of his rights by payment of the balance of the debt to Rome. The balance of the debt went unpaid, and thus came to an official end the Sicilian Absurdity.

In later years Henry was wont to say that he would have brought the venture to a successful issue if the barons had not interfered. It became a favorite complaint of his that they had robbed his son of his chance for a crown. He talked continuously of reviving the project but of course never took any definite steps to do so.


The immense castle of Wallingford, in the building of which a large part of the town had been demolished, was the favorite residing place of Richard of Cornwall. He was there a great deal, at any rate; and there he was when a party of emissaries from Ottocar of Bohemia arrived to announce that he had been elected King of Germany. It was a cold day in January 1257, and the ambassadors were summoned to a long hall where, in front of a roaring fire, the brother of the English King and his beautiful wife Sanchia were dining in considerable elegance and state.

Richard rose to hear what the men from Bohemia had to say and at the finish he burst into tears. He would accept the crown, he said, but it was not through greed or ambition. His sole object was to assist in restoring prosperity to the German states; his honest desire was to rule justly and well. It was clear to the German delegation, and to the throng of adherents and servants who swarmed into the hall to listen, that he was happy over the fulfillment of his great wish. It must have been quite apparent also that the gentle Sanchia was delighted beyond measure. Now she would be a queen as well as her two older and patronizing sisters.

The news was in no sense a surprise. The death of William of Holland, who had been the leader of the Hohenstaufen interests, had thrown the election open, and Richard’s qualifications were such that he had been from the start the leading candidate. He had the support of the Pope, he came from the country which supplied the industrial provinces of Germany with the wool they needed, he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Europe and could maintain the office with proper splendor. Only one other candidate was actively supported, and this was none other than Alfonso the Wise. The ambition of the Spanish monarch, balked in Gascony, was stirring again, and he would gladly have taken the overlordship of the Empire. Richard had thrown himself into the contest with a right good will, first calling in twenty-five thousand marks which he had out on loan and cutting off much of his wood to raise revenue. He was well aware that it was a costly business to secure the imperial crown.

There were seven electors, and the votes of some of these at least would have to be purchased. Richard’s gold won the adherence of the three who governed the industrial West: Conrad of Cologne (his vote cost eight thousand marks), Count Palatine (he was to have one of Henry’s daughters as his wife), and the Archbishop of Mainz. On the other hand, the Archbishop of Trier and the electors of Brandenburg and Saxony declared their allegiance to Alfonso. This gave the deciding vote to Ottocar of Bohemia and, when he came into Richard’s camp, the victory had been won.

It was part of the tradition that the election be formally declared at the city of Frankfort-am-Main, and accordingly the four assenting electors made their way to that city. The opposing forces, refusing to acknowledge defeat, gained possession of the city and closed the gates to the other party. This made it necessary for the majority electors to stage an unusual ceremony. Riding up in front of the gates, the four raised their arms in the air in token of their agreement that the imperial crown should be tendered to Richard of Cornwall. The honor of notification was given to Ottocar.

The next step was for Richard to appear at Aachen for his coronation, and be proceeded to make the most elaborate of preparations. He was reaping his reward now for all the years of careful financial planning, the vigilance with which he had policed his loans, his expert farming of the English coinage; there was plenty of money available for a truly triumphal entry into the wide-flung dominions over which he was to exercise suzerainty.

Fifty vessels were needed to transport his party to Dordrecht because an imposing train of English nobles went with him. He carried rich gifts for everyone of importance in his domain and had even commissioned the making of a new crown and insignia. Flanders was properly impressed by this magnificence, and the reception accorded at Aachen was all that could be desired. The coronation took place in that city on May 17, Conrad of Cologne placing on the head of the new monarch the costly crown which he had himself provided.

With commendable energy Richard then proceeded to visit other parts of his domain, covering all of the Rhineland in less than a year. Wherever he went he distributed gifts with an almost spendthrift hand. He won the good will of the important officials by confirming grants in their favor, he greased the palms of minor officers, he handed purses of gold to the burghers and jewels to their buxom wives. This prodigality was necessary because he was a stranger to the people of Germany and they had not been prepared to accept him with any degree of enthusiasm. Richard does not seem to have shown any hesitation about the freehanded scattering of the wealth he had accumulated so slowly and carefully. Perhaps he had always kept this end in mind. He seems to have been happy in his bargain, finding the touch of a gold rim on his brow an exhilarating sensation. And then there was Sanchia, happy, radiant; no longer would she need to sit on a stool in the presence of her two older sisters.

While Richard, pompously subscribing himself Dei gratia Rex Romanorum semper augustus, was enjoying the fruits of victory, Henry was struggling in the mire of his own feckless contriving in the Sicilian matter. The usual story had been repeated again. Henry and Richard had gone into the monarchial market together, the former to buy a crown for his son Edmund, the latter to buy one for himself. Henry had failed as usual and had succeeded in getting himself into a sorry mess; Richard had achieved his aim and now was seated, insecurely, it is true, on the imperial chair.

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