▷ Norman Sicily

The subject of the June meeting of the Ancient History Group was Sicily in Norman times.

The conquest of Sicily became possible due to the crisis of Byzantium or East Rome in the 11th century. The Normans conquered the city of Bari in the south from the Byzantines and the Turks gained a victory at Mantzikert in the East. Byzantium was in a leadership crisis after Constantine VIII died. The devaluation of the nomisma, the traditional gold coin, made matters only worse.

The Normans are noted both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture and musical traditions, and for their significant military accomplishments and innovations. First arriving as pilgrims, they military skills led to them conquering southern Italy. An expedition on behalf of their duke, William the Conqueror, led to the Norman conquest of England at the historic Battle of Hastings in 1066. By the time they settled in France they had become Frenchmen and women and Christians.

Two brothers Robert and Roger Hauteville from Normandy conquered the whole of Sicily. Robert died in a military campaign. It was Roger I who began to rule in Palermo in 1072 AD. It was already a vibrant centre of commercial and cultural activity. He made it into the capital of Sicily. He married young Adelaide who ruled Sicily after his death as regent for their younger son Roger. Roger II was crowned king of Sicily in 1130. He was a gifted and charismatic ruler. He had extensions built to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the most famous historical palace in the city. Early sections date from 300 BC and had been used by the Byzantine and Saracen governors.

Roger II had the Palatine chapel built, starting work in 1132 by artists and architects from all over the Byzantine world. Although the main themes were Christian, there are Arabic mosaics, hunting scenes and designs bringing together Maghreb, Latin and Byzantine cultures. Roger II made the island into a melting pot of the most vigorous and creative artistic and inventive culture in the Mediterranean world.

His son William I married Margaret of Navarre, 1135 – 1183. She had four sons with him. He died in 1166, and Margaret took over the Regency for her son William II who was only 12, ruling Sicily until 1171. She had a difficult time politically and was in correspondence with Thomas Beckett asking for help. He son took over the reign when only 16. The new king William II, 1166-89 managed to stabilise the situation. He had the cathedral of Monreale built and the Benedictine cloister.

William II married Joan Plantagenet, the daughter of Henry II. Troubles were continuing, as they did not have any children. The Thomas Beckett murder caused furore in Sicily. The island was divided between its support for Beckett and his family, backed by the pope and Margaret and Henry II, the father of Joan. Margaret worked hard to keep relations on friendly terms. When Thomas Beckett was murdered, Sicily was the first place to introduce the cult of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. When William II died Joan became queen of Sicily. Tankred seized power at this moment and had Joan imprisoned. She was rescued by Richard Lionheart who arrived in Italy in 1190. He ensured Joan received her properties back and was freed. Joan helped Constance, daughter of Roger II to become queen of Sicily. Constance and Henry VI were married on Christmas Day 1190. She gave birth to Frederick who was crowned and became Roman Emperor in 1220. His reign lasted over half a century and brought peace and stability to the island.

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