Chapter 13

Rogerios Rex

The stability of the Sicilian government immediately after Count Roger died was surprising partially because the Hautevilles were unusually prolific. In addition to his sons Roger had had at least twelve daughters, which meant a dozen son-in-laws potentially fighting over the succession. It would not have been difficult to wrest control from either of Roger's sons. The older one, Simon, was only eight when his father died, and although he was dutifully proclaimed Count of Sicily and Calabria, real power was held by his mother, Adelaide. 

To an outsider looking in, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Adelaide was completely alienated from the people she ruled. She was from the north of Italy vastly different from these southerners struggled with Latin, spoke only a touch of French, and had no Arabic or Greek at all. To her, the Norman barons must have seemed almost as alien as the Sicilians, forever quarreling and only cowed by a more dominant personality. For anyone to impose their will, much less a foreign woman, must have seemed a hopeless task.  

But somehow, Adelaide was able to do it. Not merely to hold her own, although that would have been accomplishment enough, but to provide a stable and peaceful regency for her sons. The surviving accounts gloss over her methods, but Adelaide deserves to be remembered as one of the unsung heroes of Norman Sicily.  

Her tenure wasn’t without its challenges. Young Simon died after only four years and Adelaide took the most important step of her regency by moving the government from Messina to the great trading city of Palermo. There she had the ten-year-old Roger II knighted, and raised him among a mix of Italian, Arab, Greek, and Lombard courtiers. The change could be seen throughout the rest of young Roger’s life. The men who had created his world Count Roger, Robert Guiscard, and William Iron-Arm had been Norman through and through. Roger II, growing up without a father in the most cosmopolitan city in Western Europe was something new: a Sicilian.  

When he turned sixteen, his mother decided that he had come of age. The economy was booming thanks to the success of the First Crusade and the immense volume of trade that now flooded through Sicilian markets. There seemed little point in holding Roger back; she had raised him to be a leader and it was time to step aside. But she was also motivated by new plans of her own. Baldwin, the king of Jerusalem, had recently put aside his wife and was actively courting Adelaide (or more accurately the money and soldiers she would bring with her). In the spring of that year he had sent emissaries to Palermo and rashly told them to agree to any demands she might have. As expected, she drove a hard bargain. Baldwin was childless and Adelaide, as always looking after the interests of her son, stipulated that if it remained that way Roger II would inherit Jerusalem on her death. With great pomp befitting a woman of her station, she boarded a ship for the Levant and a new age for Sicily began.  

Roger II was wealthy and secure, but like any of his ambitious ancestors he wanted to turn that money into military strength. The most practical way of doing this on an island was to build up a navy and he was fortunate to have a gifted civil servant at his disposal. The man’s name was Christodulus, and Roger, recognizing his abilities, created a new title to reflect his status as the highest member of the navy. He Latinized the Arab word ‘emir’ to ‘ammiratus’, and created the first admiral in history.  

Christodulus didn’t disappoint. He produced a well-trained navy that was easily the finest in the western Mediterranean. Roger II just needed an excuse to use it and one was helpfully provided almost immediately. The city of Mahdia in North Africa had been a major trading partner for Sicilian ports from the days when the Arabs controlled the island, and the resulting wealth had allowed it to control much of the surrounding coast. This dominance had earned Mahdia plenty of enemies and when one of them was given a friendly audience in Palermo, the Emir of Mahdia responded by raiding Roger’s territory in Calabria. Even by the standards of the time the brutality was unexpected. The town of Nicotera was wiped off the map. Its women were raped, its men and children were slaughtered, and everything of value that wasn’t nailed down was carried off to the waiting ships. As a final warning the entire town was then burned to the ground.  

This was more than just a simple raid; it struck at the heart of medieval authority. The loyalty of a people to their lord was directly proportionate to his ability to protect them. To leave the strike unavenged for too long was to risk a serious erosion of his power. There was also a threat from his barons. None would confront him directly, but they would be happy to exploit the disaster for their own ends. If the people of Calabria didn’t feel protected by Palermo they would switch their allegiance to one of the closer nobility. Christodulus was ordered to sail for Mahdia at once.  

The situation in North Africa looked increasingly promising every day. The Emir of Mahdia died and although his fourteen-year-old son managed to hang on to the city, the region dissolved into chaos as petty strongmen tried to settle old scores and seize control. As Christodulus approached, not a single Saracen ship appeared to contest the landing. Just as it appeared that the Normans would have an easy victory, however, their luck deserted them. A violent storm drove them ten miles off course, forcing them to seek shelter on some sandy islands off the coast. The next morning Christodulus left to scout out the strength of Mahdia’s defenses and while he was gone a Muslim force discovered his camp and sacked it. The dispirited Normans tried to salvage the situation by seizing a castle on the coast but instead of cowing the Mahdians it had the opposite effect. The squabbling North Africans now had a common enemy, and when the young emir declared a jihad they all responded. Most of the Normans managed to make it back to their ships, but those that were left behind were slaughtered to a man. Christodulus had no choice; he cut his losses and headed back to Palermo, but even then his tribulations weren’t over. On the voyage home another storm hit and barely a third of those who had set out managed to return home.  

Roger’s first youthful flexing of power had been painfully rebuffed, and the loss of prestige that he suffered was enormous. Not only had he refused to lead the raid in person, which was enough to raise eyebrows among the barons of his father’s generation, but his vaunted navy had been bested by a fourteen-year-old. There was immediate pressure to find a scapegoat and Christodulus was a natural one, but to his credit Roger refused. There were no reprisals or purges. He would never forget the humiliation, but he was a patient man. Revenge would come, but it would arrive at a time of Roger’s choosing and not a moment before.  

In the meantime there were more promising opportunities in Italy. The entire south was in chaos. Roger’s formidable uncle Guiscard had ruled with an iron hand, but his son Roger Borsa had been too weak to impose his will on the stubborn barons. When Borsa had died, he had been followed in turn by his even less competent son William. By 1121, Calabria was completely lawless and William, who was chronically short of money, had little authority beyond the walls of his own castle. Roger wasn’t above a little opportunistic grabbing and he invited his cousin to a lavish banquet. After casually displaying his wealth with an impressive feast, Roger dangled the prospect of financial aid in return for being named heir to William’s territory. This was eagerly agreed to and Roger withdrew to Palermo to wait out events.  

In the meantime he turned his attention to Malta. His father had invaded the island and forced its Arab masters to pay tribute, but Roger wasn’t comfortable having an area so close to Sicily under Muslim control. In 1127 he sent his refurbished navy to end the threat once and for all. This time the naval operation was commanded by a young Byzantine, George of Antioch.  

As a teenager, George had left Asia Minor and moved to North Africa where he gained employment with the Muslim rulers of Mahdia. He fell out of favor with the emir’s son and decided to defect to Sicily on the eve of the Norman invasion. To make good his escape he waited until the Arabs were at their Friday prayers, then disguised himself as a sailor and managed to slip aboard a merchant ship. When he arrived in Palermo he marched up to the palace and asked for a job. His boldness paid off. Roger, always a good judge of character, saw immediately the usefulness of a man who was an expert in both the language and politics of North Africa. He was appointed as Christodulus’s second-in-command and in the years after the Mahdia expedition he increasingly outshone his superior.  

The expedition to Malta was carried off flawlessly, a foretaste of the triumphs that lay in store. The Muslims were expelled and the island was added to Roger’s growing domain. George’s return to Palermo was greeted with celebration, and even better news followed on its heels. In Calabria, Roger’s cousin William had suddenly died and, as promised, Roger stood to inherit his lands.

The trouble was that William, like many weak rulers before him, had made the same promise to a number of people including the pope.  The only point everyone could agree on was that Roger shouldn’t get a thing. The idea of a single figure controlling all of southern Italy and Sicily was the stuff of papal nightmares and the Norman barons of Italy had no desire to exchange the freedoms to which they had grown accustomed for a strong central authority. Roger had to act quickly before his enemies had a chance to organize themselves.  

To start the offensive he sent George of Antioch to seize the port of Salerno. The city was ready for him and had the gates shut tight, so the admiral sailed his fleet back and forth in full view of the walls for ten days. The silent procession unnerved the defenders. The last time Salerno had resisted a Norman it had been Guiscard at the walls, and he had shown no mercy when he finally managed to enter. The Salernians weren’t ready to tempt fate again. Figuring it was better to come to terms with a determined Hauteville while he was still in the mood to make an offer, they surrendered.  

Guiscard probably would still have executed a few leading citizens for daring to hold out ten days, but when it came to war, Roger was more Byzantine than Norman. Diplomatic victories were the kind he liked best; they left his army completely intact and didn’t wreck the governmental machinery of the conquered place. After installing a small garrison, Roger hurried inland to capture Benevento. When he arrived he was pleasantly surprised to find his chief rival the pope with only a small retinue. Leaving a besieging force to keep him occupied, Roger took his army on a leisurely tour of southern Italy, mopping up all resistance. Like Salerno, this was largely a bloodless campaign. The rebellious barons were too fractured to band together and not foolish enough to engage Roger alone. Some of them made a show of resistance but inevitably they all cut their losses and swore to accept Roger as their feudal lord.  

The only holdout now was the pope, and although he was too independent to give up so easily, he couldn’t do much mischief while cooped up in Benevento. So Roger, who never liked to be gone from Palermo for too long, returned to his capital well satisfied with his work.  

Victory celebrations, however, were premature. The moment Roger’s army departed, the barons had second thoughts about their oaths, and the pope, who had managed to escape from Benevento, found it easy to rally them into an immense anti-Sicilian league. Just two months after the nobility of southern Italy had pledged oaths of fealty to Roger, they were down on one knee again promising not to rest until all of Roger’s agents were thrown out of the peninsula.  

Despite the obvious danger, Roger acted with deliberate calmness, taking time to gather his army and make his way through the heel of Italy where his support was strongest. His wealth gave him a great advantage. Unlike his opponents he could afford to keep a large army in the field almost indefinitely. But his greatest weapon was time. He knew that if he was patient enough to not force a major battle, the hot sun and restless nature of feudal42 levies would do the rest.  

The pope, meanwhile, was beginning to discover that his allies were impossible to control. The independent streak that had led them to revolt also made them incapable of working together, and they were constantly threatening to withdraw from the league. Each day that passed without action the grand papal army disintegrated a little more.  

As the weeks dragged by Roger refused to deviate from this tactic. Even when the two armies ran into each other the vanguard of the papal army stumbled into the Norman line while it was crossing a river Roger merely withdrew to higher ground and waited. For the entire month of July both sides stared at each other as the summer sun beat down. Tempers flared as the feudal levies, who had no use for sitting around, grumbled and the barons started quarreling about what their next move should be. By August, with his army shrinking, the pope was having second thoughts. This alliance was too unstable and exhausting to maintain, and in any case Roger, whose own camp looked depressingly disciplined and orderly, was too powerful to crush. Perhaps the better strategy would be to embrace the Normans. A strong ruler was a potential threat that every pope since William Iron-Arm’s day had tried to avoid in southern Italy, but the peninsula needed peace, and the danger of an over-mighty ruler was preferable to the current chaos. Besides, these stubborn barons were impossible let them be Roger’s problem.  

The pope withdrew and sent a messenger to the Norman camp saying that he was willing to officially recognize Roger’s claims to southern Italy. Without their papal sponsor holding them together the rebellious barons melted away, and the levies dissolved. Roger had managed to defeat his enemies without engaging in a single pitched battle.  

The pope’s one attempt to salvage his dignity was to insist that the ceremony formally investing Roger with his cousin’s territory not be held on papal territory. So, on the evening of August 22, 1128 he met Count Roger on a bridge outside of Benevento. In the presence of twenty thousand spectators, each carrying a torch, he elevated him to Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily.    

The Norman barons present, as the pope had suspected, were not impressed with their new feudal lord. No one doubted Roger’s intelligence his recent campaign was proof enough of that but he had shown a reluctance to fight that didn’t sit well with the warlike Normans. Waiting for an enemy to fall apart seemed somehow cowardly; Norman respect was won on the battlefield.  

By nature these men hated central authority. They would bow down to Roger’s armies, but the moment he was gone they would rise up again in revolt. Even the formidable Guiscard had never really managed to change that. Almost as if to prove that point, even as Roger was receiving his new title another revolt was already underway.  

It took a year to put down in a mostly bloodless campaign. Roger picked off the barons one by one, taking his time to make sure that the country was pacified before moving on. When the last one had surrendered, he surprised them all by offering generous pardons, and called a vast assembly of all the nobles and clergy of southern Italy and Sicily. He had thought long and hard about how to solve the structural instability of the Norman lands, how to break the feuding tribal society that had evolved over the last century, and had come up with an ingenious combination of propaganda and law to wield the patchwork of territories into a single state.  

The entire assembly, clergy and nobles alike, were treated to a glittering display of ducal wealth, and then made to swear new oaths to Roger and his two sons. All the old promises were repeated to respect the duke and his property and a new one was added. The nobility had mistaken Roger’s diplomacy and pardons for softness, now they discovered that there was iron underneath the velvet. Each of them was forced to swear not to engage in private warfare, to allow no acts of lawlessness on their lands, and to surrender all brigands to the duke’s justice. To ensure this last part (Roger knew better than to trust their honor) he gave his courts teeth. If any noble failed to comply, they would be hunted down like a common criminal. The traditional way of life of the Normans since they had come to Italy, the ‘right of feud’, had abruptly come to an end. From now on the nobility, like the peasants they controlled, were bound by the rule of law. This was the most significant development in southern Italy since the coming of the Normans themselves.  

Most, no doubt, hoped that it was only a phase that would pass as soon as Roger returned to Sicily, but he was in deadly earnest. On every public occasion for the rest of his long reign he had those oaths repeated and renewed lest any of his nobles should be tempted to forget.  

Roger was now thirty-two and had accomplished more than any Norman since Guiscard. Against stiff papal and local resistance he had united all Norman lands in Italy, and had tighter control over the area than Guiscard had ever managed. But like any good Hauteville he had bigger dreams. For all intents he already had a kingdom; now he wanted a crown.  

There was no chance that the current pope would agree to any such thing, but fortunately for Roger the pope died the following year. The expected successor was a popular cardinal of Jewish descent who took the name Anacletus II, but before his supporters had a chance to organize, a group of rival cardinals hastily elected a reformer named Innocent. The outraged cardinals, who made up a majority of the electing body, went ahead and installed Anacletus anyway, and for a few months there were rival camps in Rome each claiming that the other pope was illegitimate.  

Anacletus, whose family was very wealthy and had made frequent donations to public entertainment, was far more popular than Innocent, and a few armed street fights between the sides convinced Innocent of that fact. He fled from Rome to France where he pleasantly discovered that the situation was reversed. Thanks to the reform movement that was sweeping through Western Europe, the exiled pope found himself a cause célèbre. No one outside of Italy had any desire to return to the bad old corrupt days when the papacy was the plaything of Roman aristocrats, and the well-connected Anacletus seemed to promise just that. The most respected voice in Christendom, Bernard of Clairvaux,43 took up Innocent’s cause. Bernard, a seemingly minor abbot of a small French monastery, dominated all of Europe for nearly two decades through the sheer force of his personality.  The result of his championing of Innocent’s cause was that the kings of France and England as well as the German emperor hurried to pledge their support.  

Anacletus, who had paraded through the streets of Rome in triumph just a few months before, now suddenly found virtually all of Christendom united against him.  Terrified, he turned to the one power which had characteristically not declared for either side Sicily.  

Roger’s only condition, equally predictably, was that Anacletus give him a crown. Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily were still vastly different places and he needed the mystique of royalty to bind them together.  The pope wasn't in a position to argue and both sides knew it. After a modest show of contemplation, he agreed without reservation.  

Roger, however, was careful to stage the coronation in a way that made it clear that his crown was not at the whim of a pope.  The title of king may have been granted by a pontiff, but it could not be taken away by another occupant of St. Peter’s throne. A mass meeting of the important nobles, abbots, and bishops was called and he formally presented them with his argument for being elevated to king. Sicily, he claimed, had once been the seat of an ancient kingdom and therefore this was not a new creation bestowed by the pope, but a restoration. The assembled nobles agreed unanimously by loud acclamation and the meeting broke up. Roger could now claim that the people had urged him to become king; there would be no whiff of the charge of usurpation. As always, he drove this point home with official propaganda. A mosaic was commissioned showing him receiving the crown not from the pope, but from Christ himself.  

The ceremony took place on Christmas Day 1130 in Palermo, and anybody who was anybody tried to cram into the city. The nobility competed to outdo each other with ostentatious displays of wealth, and the locals hung silks and threw flowers from every balcony and upper window. It was, as one eyewitness put it, as if the whole city was being crowned. As was fitting, Roger himself outshone them all.  Dressed in a cloth of red and gold he presided over a vast banquet. The servants were dressed in finer silks than many of the watching nobility, and the food was served on settings of silver and gold.  

When it was finished, he processed to Palermo’s cathedral and stood before the high altar for a service almost unique in Christian history. The Catholic archbishop of Palermo presided, with Greek Orthodox priests attending, and the pope’s representative held the holy oil. Roger knelt and was anointed with sacred oil, and then his chief vassal placed the crown on his head. When it was over he stood, and the great doors were thrown open to Palermo’s population.  

Sicily had been a witness to most of the great Mediterranean empires. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs had in turn ruled over the island. But for all of these it had been a mere conquered province exploited for its grain, forever passed between more powerful neighbors and considered important only for what resources it could provide distant capitals. Now, for the first time in its long history (despite the claims of Roger to the contrary) it had a king of its own, and on that Christmas Day in 1130 the citizens of Palermo caught their first splendid glimpse of him.  

Roger's crown, however well earned, had come with a fearsome cost. To get it he had backed an antipope and defied the rest of Christendom. At the time, of course, it wasn't clear which of the rival popes, Anacletus or Innocent, would emerge the victor, but as the months passed more and more crowned heads moved to Innocent’s camp. 

This was largely due to the influence of the tireless Bernard of Clairvaux who convinced both the wavering French king and Henry I of England – along with the majority of the population outside of Italy - to support Innocent. The one important holdout was the German king Lothair who was being heavily courted by both sides. As far as the German was concerned, Anacletus' great advantage was that he controlled Rome. Lothair could only be crowned emperor in the eternal city, and he wouldn’t be completely secure on his own throne until that was done. Since popular opinion was clearly on Innocent’s side he waffled as long as possible until a personal visit by Bernard changed his mind. Poor Lothair tried to resist, but a public tongue-lashing soon had him promising to lead an army down to Rome to evict Anacletus, overthrow Roger, and install Innocent.  

When Lothair finally arrived in Italy in the spring of 1133, he found the situation unexpectedly in his favor. Roger’s coronation was deeply unpopular in southern Italy. The great Norman barons of the peninsula saw no reason why they should have their wings clipped by a man whose family had only been there for a generation, and in anticipation of Lothair’s arrival they had gathered a rebel army and stormed several royal castles. Roger, in a rare miscalculation, had taken the field against them. He had shown great personal valor, cutting a swath through the opposing infantry, but his own army had been smashed. The defeat shook even his closest supporters. Venosa, the bastion of Hauteville power where four of the most famous members of his family lay buried in state, joined the rebels. Across Apulia and Calabria royal garrisons were slaughtered, and men flocked to the imperial banner. The long-dreaded clash between empire and island kingdom was at hand.  

Roger was clearly the weaker of the two, but he kept his head. The size and speed of the rebellion had taken Lothair by surprise as well, and he wasn’t prepared to take full advantage of it. When the rebel leaders met with him they were disappointed to find that the size of his army had been greatly exaggerated. He had only brought with him some two thousand men, hardly enough to capture Rome or topple Roger from his new throne.  

Lothair had expected his presence to be enough to rattle Anacletus, but instead he dug in his heels. The Norman-supported pope and his supporters controlled the right bank of the Tiber including the fortress of Castel San’Angelo and St Peter’s, and refused to budge. The German king had to settle for installing Innocent into the older Lateran Palace where he was dutifully crowned emperor while being taunted by Anacletus’ supporters across the Tiber.  

The newly-minted emperor proved a grave disappointment to his Italian allies. Any hopes that he would stay to lead a grand offensive against Roger were dashed a few days after the ceremony. Lothair had pressing business in Germany and had obtained what he wanted from Italy. Making a promise to return in force, more as a sop to Bernard than a serious pledge, he withdrew over the Alps as quickly as he could.  

His departure left the rebels stranded. Roger had rebuilt his army and was in no mood to show them any mercy. Innocent tried to assist the barons as much as he could by excommunicating any soldier who participated in Roger’s army, but the clever Sicilian had recruited his troops from the island’s Muslims who couldn’t care less about the pope. Every major rebellious town in Apulia was burnt and its leaders executed. Roger had customarily shown generosity in victory but now there was only the mailed fist. The two barons who had started the rebellion were rounded up and publicly humiliated. The first was hung while the second was made to hold the rope, then he too was dispatched. Roger returned to Sicily well pleased with himself. Despite the disastrous start to the year it had ended in triumph. His papal candidate was still secure in Rome, his entire kingdom was at peace, and he had successfully defied the emperor.  

Unfortunately it proved to be only a short respite. Within a few weeks of his return to Palermo a fever swept through the city leaving the queen dead and Roger broken with grief. He shut himself up in the palace, refusing to see anyone, and the resulting rumor that he was dead awoke all the rebellious dreams in southern Italy. More seriously still was the news from the North.  

Lothair had been quite pleased with his Italian adventure. He had technically fulfilled his oath to install Innocent as pope in Rome, and had gotten his crown. Unfortunately for him, however, Bernard of Clairvaux wasn’t amused by his half-hearted performance. The abbot had come to the sensible conclusion that Anacletus would never be ousted from Rome while Roger was king of Sicily, so he demanded that Lothair turn around, re-invade Italy, and properly finish the job.  

Bernard wasn’t the only one worried about Roger. Southern Italy had been at least partly under control of the Byzantine Empire for the better part of the last thousand years and now the Sicilians had started raiding Byzantium’s rich Dalmatian coast. How long before Roger had the same idea as his uncle Guiscard and invaded the imperial homeland? The Byzantine emperor John the Beautiful didn’t want to wait around and find out. He wrote to Lothair offering his support in a joint attack on Sicily.  

The Byzantine ambassador found a second ally when he stopped by Venice on his way to Germany. The Venetian trading empire had been considerably hurt by the growth of Palermo and the Doge offered the full support of his navy.   

In Germany, the situation had also considerably improved for Lothair since his coronation. The imperial crown had cowed his potential rivals and he could now afford to throw all of his considerable resources into an Italian campaign. He spent a year gathering his forces, and when the snows cleared he crossed the Alps and descended into northern Italy.  

This time there was no resisting the Germans. The northern cities fell with barely a struggle and the Norman barons again rose up in revolt. Pope Innocent, together with his court, joined Lothair as the emperor received the submission of the Italian cities. With any luck they would mop up the mainland before winter hit and the next spring invade Sicily.  

Despite the seriousness of the threat to his kingdom, Roger didn’t panic. He had two great advantages; the summer heat, and the feudal underpinnings of Lothair’s army. The German emperor wasn’t an absolute monarch. He could command several months of military service from his vassals, but couldn’t hold them forever. The longer the campaign wore on, the more restless they would become, so Roger carefully avoided any battles. Every time Lothair advanced, he retreated. At the same time, he constantly offered to meet separately with his antagonists to strain the relationship between pope and emperor.  

By the late summer his efforts had paid off. The heat was oppressive, malaria had decimated the ranks, and Lothair’s vassals were openly demanding to be released from service. Virtually the only thing they could all agree on was their distaste for the pope and his Italian court who complained constantly and for whose sake they had been dragged hundreds of miles from their homes. Things got so bad that there was an attempt on the pope’s life44 that was only thwarted by the Lothair’s personal involvement. In a last ditch effort to force a decisive battle, the emperor besieged Roger’s mainland capital of Salerno, but the Sicilian king calmly stayed where he was.  

The annoyed emperor told his Italian allies to look after themselves and returned across the Alps. The entire campaign had been a colossal waste of time. He hadn’t managed to accomplish anything permanent, there were still two popes arguing over Rome, Roger was still secure as ever, and without the imperial army the Italian rebels couldn’t hope to stand against the Normans. When Lothair died suddenly two months after returning to Germany, the Sicilian king had already recovered most of his territory.  

The emperor was followed to the grave a few months later by Roger’s pope, Anacletus II. Innocent was now the rightful pontiff by default, and Roger did his best to come to terms with his old enemy. As he stamped out the last traces of revolt he was careful not to cross into papal territory. He also officially recognized Innocent as the rightful pope and sent letters to all his supporters to do likewise. 

As far as Innocent was concerned, however, this was far too little too late. Without Roger’s meddling he would have been the accepted pope for years now, and the Church wouldn’t have had to go through the pain and embarrassment of a schism. Roger was officially excommunicated (for the second time) and, since no emperor was handy to lend an army, Innocent raised one himself and invaded the Norman kingdom.  

Papal armies had never fared well against the Normans, and this one was no exception. On July 22, 1139 the forces of Innocent were ambushed by Roger as they crossed the Garigliano River. By nightfall the pope, his cardinals, and his entire treasury were all in Roger’s hands. Like his predecessor Pope Leo IX who had been captured by Robert Guiscard, Innocent bore his defeat stoically. The Normans treated him with excessive respect, almost enough to disguise the fact that he was a prisoner, but he was under no illusions as to what he had to do. Three days later he officially confirmed Roger as King of Sicily, Duke of Apulia, and Prince of Capua, and recognized term by term what Anacletus had agreed to nine years before. He was powerless to do otherwise, but he did have one last spark of defiance. At the ceremony celebrating the occasion, with Roger in attendance dressed in the heavy robes of state and the summer sun beating mercilessly down, he preached a sermon of enormous length.  

The return to Sicily was a happy one for Roger. Southern Italy had finally been pacified it was never again to offer serious resistance to him for the remainder of his reign and he left it in the capable hands of his son Roger III. It had taken him ten years to win his kingdom against the strenuous opposition of two emperors and a pope, and now he meant to make sure it endured. The first step was to give it a constitution; uniform laws that would create a strong, centralized state. The German invasion had shown him the limitations of a feudal arrangement, so he patterned his kingdom on autocratic Byzantium. In a flurry of laws he created his idea of the divine monarchy, an all-powerful sovereign who never let the mask of authority slip. Reinforcing this was a new uniform coinage copied directly from Byzantine coins, which showed Roger in imperial robes on one side and Christ Pantocrator45 on the reverse. The old Norman coins had displayed St Peter to show their loyalty to the pope, but the king of Sicily had a more direct connection to the divine.  

Along with the internal reforms came a rash of architectural and scientific activity. The two crown jewels of Norman Sicily, the Palatine Chapel and the Martorana, were built with royal funds, each a unique fusion of Byzantine, Arab, and Norman culture. A great commission based in the busy port city of Palermo was appointed to study geography. For over a decade every ship that requested entry to Sicily was boarded and questioned about what they had seen. The geographical information collected was recorded in two places, a large globe of pure silver inscribed with the known world’s continents and countries, and a thick tome called The Book of Roger.  

The effort was surprisingly accurate. Scandinavia is described as having few hours of sunlight in the winter, and the sister Norman kingdom of England is described as cold and wet. It even correctly describes the earth as round some three and a half centuries before Columbus. Palermo became the center of a mini-Renaissance, the one place outside Spain or Constantinople where scholars had access to Greek, Arab, and western learning.  

During this period Roger also managed to neutralize his most outspoken critic, Bernard of Clairvaux. Before he had returned to Germany, Lothair had made it quite clear what he thought of the pope, and Bernard, a zealous guard of papal dignity, had been offended. Roger, on the other hand, was a generous patron of the Church, and his donations to the Cistercian order had swung the abbot of Clairvaux over to his side.  

Byzantium and the Western Empire, however, the two other great enemies of Norman Sicily, had not forgotten their humiliations. They had left Roger in peace so far only because each power had been swept up in its own problems. Both imperial thrones suffered sudden vacancies. Just six years after Lothair expired, his Byzantine counterpart John Comnenus was killed in a freak hunting accident. The new monarchs, Conrad of Hohenstauffen in Germany and Manuel Comnenus in Constantinople, solemnly agreed to a joint campaign, but just as they mobilized their armies one of the Crusader kingdoms fell to the Turks and a new crusade erupted. The imperial relationship was severely strained when German forces marching through Byzantine territory failed to distinguish between Greeks and Turks, bringing the two empires to the brink of war.  

Somehow, through it all, Conrad and Manuel managed to strike up a genuinely warm friendship. When Conrad was injured during the crusade Manuel personally nursed him back to health, and the two renewed their pledge to go to war against Roger. Two years later the imperial families got closer still when Manuel married Conrad’s daughter Bertha.  

The nuptials were a warning to Roger of the determination of his enemies, and a public rebuke. He had been trying to get Manuel to marry one of his daughters for years, although frankly his behavior hadn’t helped his cause. During the crusade he had taken advantage of Manuel’s distraction to have his admiral George of Antioch sack Athens, Thebes, and Corinth, the three richest cities of Byzantine Greece.  

The provoked Manuel raised a huge army thirty-thousand strong, but just as the long-awaited campaign was about to get underway a horde of barbarians came pouring over the Pindus Mountains into northern Greece, and the emperor was forced to divert his army to deal with the threat. Manuel was a capable general,46 but by the time he had driven the barbarians out, the snows had ended the campaigning season.  

In the spring he tried again, but again was delayed. This time it was Sicilian gold that financed an uprising in the Balkans,47 threatening the empire’s western border. Manuel sent the fleet to deal with the problem and while it was away Roger cheekily had his admiral sail into the waters off of the coast of Constantinople and fire some arrows into the gardens of the imperial palace.  

Such delaying tactics could only last for so long. By 1152 both Conrad and Manuel had dealt with their respective obstacles and were ready to march. The two emperors made plans to meet in northern Italy and then continue south where the Venetian fleet would be there to ferry them across the straits to Sicily. The moment was perfect; Roger’s son and namesake had recently died and Roger, who had now outlived five of his six children, seemed suddenly old and vulnerable.  

There seemed little that could save the Norman kingdom from the coming storm, but this time it was spared by luck. In the spring of 1152, just as Conrad was starting his march, he abruptly died, and as Germany convulsed in a power struggle the war against Roger was quietly abandoned. Manuel had too many enemies closer to home to risk it alone, and in any case he had already realized that Venice posed a far more serious threat than Palermo. Even now he was considering the first strike against the Sea-Republic that would lead inexorably to the tragedy of the Fourth Crusade.48  

That was some years in the future, but it already seemed as if an age was ending. Conrad was merely the first of the great figures to exit the stage. He was followed the next year by Bernard of Clairvaux and then George of Antioch, the remarkable admiral who had won the Normans their North African empire. The loss of his most able advisor seemed to sap the last of Roger’s energy. He retired to his pleasure dome in Palermo, a mix of exotic zoo, garden, and palace, and died quietly two years later.  

The king’s body was laid to rest in a simple porphyry tomb in Palermo’s cathedral, fittingly dressed in the ornate robes and drooping pearl crown of a Byzantine emperor. Across his chest was laid his sword, emblazoned in Latin with the words “The Apulian, Calabrian, Sicilian, and African all obey my will”.

He had been a remarkable ruler, and Sicily was never to see one like him again. If his behavior at times left much to be desired (his infidelity was famous) he never shirked the responsibilities of kingship. He was a unique blend of northern energy and southern refinement, the product and inspiration of the Norman kingdom in full bloom. After him it would slide into dissolution, but he still possessed that fearsome drive of his ancestors that had won them two kingdoms at opposite ends of Europe. As one courtier wrote, he ‘accomplished more in his sleep than others did in their waking day’. 

That accomplishment had been the seemingly impossible task of forging a petty, tribal land of diverse cultures and religions into a single united kingdom. Compared with the rest of the Italian peninsula, which remained stubbornly divided and quarreling for the next seven centuries, Roger’s territory was a beacon of hope of what was possible. It was also surprisingly enduring. It was battered and squandered, tossed around between the crowned heads of Europe, but the kingdom of Sicily remained intact until the unification of modern Italy in the nineteenth century.

The great king may have been buried in the cathedral of Cefalù in Sicily, but it is in the church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio that he is most appropriately remembered. There, the gift he bestowed to his beloved island is enshrined in marble and gold, a fusion of art and architecture that even after eight centuries still manages to catch the breath. 

Each of the three great civilizations of Sicily’s past is blended in this penultimate church, a fitting tribute to the man who created Norman Sicily. Built in the traditional form of a Greek cross, the interior drips with gold, covered by a magnificent cycle of Byzantine mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Beneath the Greek icons and the Norman arches, Fatimid artisans of North Africa carved two immense wooden doors and left a hymn to the Virgin Mary inscribed in Arabic at the base of the main dome. Most impressive of all is a mosaic found on an unassuming interior wall of the nave. There the Christian king who dressed as an Arab and decorated his church in the Byzantine and Muslim styles, had himself depicted.

It remains the only surviving likeness of Roger II that was produced by men who had seen him, and it captures completely the spirit of Norman Sicily. Adorned with the dalmatic and stole of a Byzantine emperor, the ‘baptized Sultan’49 leans forward slightly to receive his crown from the hands of Christ. Above his head simple Greek letters spell out the Latin phrase ‘Rogerios Rex’ Roger the King. 

It was a title he had struggled most of his adult life for, wrenching it from the unwilling grasp of no less than two opposing popes. Yet there was no statesman of the twelfth century who deserved it more. He had found an island torn apart by religious and cultural divisions and had welded it into the most prosperous and effectively run kingdom in Europe. In doing so he had provided an invaluable guide on how to govern a modern state, to unite seemingly irreconcilable parties into a strong and functioning whole. His reign was a rare oasis of peace on an otherwise turbulent medieval stage. After him, the sun began to inexorably set on the Sicilian kingdom.   


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