Medieval European history is one of those subjects, I think, which can be approached only when one is still very young. All those Ottos and Heinrichs, Guelphs and Ghibellines (Welfen und Wibellingen), Hohenstaufens and Wittelsbachs, Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II the Stupor Mundi – they should be learned by rote along with the times tables, je suis, tu es, il est, and amo, amas, amat, while the infant brain is still nice and spongy and absorbent.
But as your correspondent temporarily finds herself in Palermo, a stone’s throw from the location of the Sicilian Vespers, I thought it behoved me to find out a bit more about this significant event. The classic source is Sir Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers, first published in 1958: his view is that the scuffle which arose outside the church of Santo Spirito on the evening of Easter Monday (30 March) 1282 was one of the great tipping points, or hinge factors, or ‘what ifs’ of European history.
A bunch of French soldiers, probably drunk, were loitering outside the church as the Sicilian parishioners arrived for Vespers, and a sergeant named Drouet assaulted a local woman (in some versions she (and others) were raped). Her husband stabbed Drouet to death, and a gathering crowd set upon the other Frenchmen, shouting ‘Moranu li Franceschi!’ (authentic Sicilian verb ending there!), just as all the bells of the Palermo churches began to ring for the service.
As the riot spread, the French (including foreign monks in the monasteries) were sought out all over the city and massacred. Neither women (even if they were native wives of Frenchmen) nor children were spared, with the Sicilians using a shibboleth to detect the foreigners: if they could not correctly pronounce the word ciciri (chickpeas), they were doomed.
The Palermitano rebels set up an elected governing body, and sent messages to the other towns urging insurrection, and before the French forces could be organised to respond, the Sicilians had their island back in their own hands, and had set fire to King Charles’ fleet in the harbour of Messina.
Winding back a bit: King Charles and his French followers were in Sicily in the first place because of a quarrel between the papacy and the German house of Hohenstaufen, whose lands (for dynastic, marriage, conquest and other reasons) surrounded the Papal States of central Italy to north and south. On the death of Frederick II in 1250, his son Conrad inherited the Hohenstaufen lands, but, during a period of turmoil, his illegitimate half-brother Manfred seized power in Sicily, reigning from 1258 to 1266.
To bolster his position (he claimed at first to be holding the throne for Conrad’s son Conradin), Manfred made overtures to the popes, but he was rebuffed, and, after various machinations, in 1262 Pope Urban IV offered Charles of Anjou (1227–85), the hugely ambitious younger brother of the French king Louis IX, the throne of Sicily, if he could take it. At the battle of Benevento (1266), Manfred was killed (not necessarily in single combat, as in this image from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose).
Two years later, Conradin, now of age, attempted to reclaim his inheritance, but was executed after the battle of Tagliacozzo, ending the male line of the Hohenstaufen.
The Sicilians had hoped that their rejection/ejection of the French after the Vespers would lead to their establishing a self-governing republic along the lines of Genoa or Venice, but the (French) Pope Martin IV insisted that Charles (who ruled from Naples and rarely visited the island, though he was keen to extract taxes from it) should remain king.
Step forward at this point King Pedro III of Aragon, who was married to Manfred’s daughter Constance, and supported her claim to the throne.
He was encouraged in this by agents of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos: since the disastrous sack of Constantinople by the Franks of the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204, relations between the parties had not been good, and one of Charles’ reasons for wanting Sicily (and for his support from Rome) was its use as a naval base against the Byzantines.
Pedro had already assembled a large fleet, which he disingenuously declared was for the purpose of keeping down North African pirates. After a decent period of reluctance (and backed by Byzantine gold), Pedro responded to the pleas of the Sicilians for help against Charles, and, landing at Trapani in the far west of the island at the end of August 1282, he marched on Palermo while his fleet approached by sea.
Promising to restore the liberties which the people had enjoyed under the Norman King William the Good (1155–89), builder of the cathedral of Monreale (see the image at top of post), Pedro was acclaimed and crowned in Palermo cathedral on 4 September as Pietro I. (The pope excommunicated him.)
The frustrated Charles challenged Pedro to a trial by combat, to be held at Bordeaux in June 1283, and refereed by Edward I of England. It did not in fact take place: Edward was warned off by the pope, and (according to Runciman) the two protagonists avoided losing face by arriving at the trial ground at different times and going away again. On his death two years later, Pedro left Sicily to his younger son Jaime, but his youngest son Frederick became its regent, and later (in 1296) its king. Frederick was talented, liberal (in medieval terms) and very popular: inevitably, therefore, history put a brake him on with wars, against his own brother, against the French, and (of course) against the pope – who by this time was the controversial John XXII, excommunication by whom was a bit of a badge of honour.
Frederick died in 1337, but his descendants – Aragonese, then Spanish, then Spanish Bourbons – continued to rule the island until 1860. Eventual unification with Italy did not go smoothly either. But that the Sicilians remembered their history is indicated by the memorial plaque on the Palazzo delle Aquile (the city hall) in Palermo, which links the fall of the Spanish Bourbons in 1860, the initial uprising in 1848 and the Sicilian Vespers as the three great hinge points of Sicilian history.