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Chapter 14

William the Bad


Dextera Domini Fecit Virtutem; Dextera Domini Exaltavit Me

“The Right Hand of God gave me courage; 

The Right Hand of God raised me up.”


Inscription on the Great Count’s sword after the Battle of Cerami and on his grandson’s Treaty of Benevento


In 1154 Roger II was succeeded by his youngest son, William, and by all outward appearances it was a splendid choice. The twenty-three-year-old was a magnificent physical specimen, a hulking throwback to his Viking ancestors, easily towering over his diminutive Mediterranean subjects. His face was dominated by a thick, black beard, and he was known for his massive strength, reportedly able to straighten an iron horseshoe with his bare hands. If, however, he loomed larger than his father physically, he had acquired little of his political skills. Much of this was Roger’s own fault. It’s always difficult to succeed a great man, but Roger hardly bothered to prepare his heir. He had made a point instead to constantly identify his son’s shortcomings. 

William was the youngest of the four boys from his first marriage, considered unlikely and unworthy to ever wear the crown. As such he was virtually ignored, given no important administrative or military office to prepare him for leadership. He grew up largely left to himself, enjoying the luxuries of the palace without any of its responsibilities. Within a single decade, though, his world was turned upside down. His older brothers unexpectedly died, and at the age of thirty he was abruptly thrust on the throne, completely unprepared.  

Unsurprisingly, William was more concerned with enjoying the good life than learning statecraft. While he built ever more extravagant palaces, he left the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom to others, in most cases not even bothering to appoint new ministers but simply confirming his father’s choices in their posts. The only exception he made to this general policy was to raise a young chancellor named Maio to the supreme administrative post of admiral.  

It was a wise choice. Maio was the son of a judge from the southern Italian town of Bari, and had received the best classical education money could buy. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Palermo he more than held his own, displaying a ruthless disregard of popularity or softness. Without his iron hand, William, who was far more interested in his hunting parks than governing, would have been lucky to keep his throne for more than a few months.  

The international stage had become much more dangerous since the last years of Roger II. The Byzantine and German Empires were both ruled by outstanding figures the ferocious Frederick Barbarossa in Germany, and the smooth Manuel Comnenus in Constantinople. Fortunately for William, their mutual distrust kept them checked. At his coronation, Barbarossa had announced that he would restore the Western Empire to greatness. This meant bringing Sicily and southern Italy under his control, and since both of those territories recently belonged to the Byzantine Empire, Barbarossa considered the emperor Manuel to be his principal enemy. With this in mind he signed a treaty with the pope to exclude Byzantium from any division of the Norman kingdom.  At the same time he kept up a correspondence with Manuel, dangling the idea of a mutual campaign, but always finding an excuse to delay it. Manuel only discovered the deception after Barbarossa’s army had already left Germany to win Italy without him.  

The German monarch expected trouble in the north of Italy since anti-Imperial sentiment was always strong, but when he descended from the Alps he found the entire peninsula in a religious uproar.  

Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to sit on the papal throne, was the latest in a long line of foreign, reforming popes. He had cut his teeth reorganizing the Scandinavian church, and expected to do a thorough house-cleaning of St Peter’s. His entry into Rome, however, had been a rude awakening for him. The Roman Senate had been growing in power for years – largely at the expense of the pope – and now there was a popular movement to restore the old republican traditions, divest the Church of its temporal power, and return the city to its ancient greatness.  

The leader of this movement was a monk by the name of Arnold of Brescia, and he so thoroughly whipped up public sentiment that Adrian became a virtual prisoner on the Vatican Hill. Adrian responded by adopting the unprecedented tactic of excommunicating the entire city, essentially declaring war on Rome. No tourists, church services, baptisms, weddings, or burials in consecrated ground would be allowed until the interdict was lifted. It was a daring manoeuvre for a new, foreign pope to attempt given the mood of the day, but the gambit worked. Arnold resisted until the Wednesday of Holy Week, but the prospect of an Easter without the sacrament (much less the lucrative tourist trade) undermined his support. By Thursday morning he had been expelled by his own partisans and Adrian celebrated the Easter mass in triumph.  

The victory pacified Rome for the moment, but did little to settle the rest of the North. Barbarossa, meanwhile, was in no mood to deal with republican idealists. When the northern Italian town of Tortona resisted in the name of republicanism, he demolished it stone by stone and deported the entire population. Still in a foul mood he then turned towards Rome.  

Adrian was caught in an uncomfortable position. He was painfully aware of how fragile his grip on Rome was with the populace still dreaming of self-rule, and he mistrusted an over-powerful Barbarossa. Having won a temporary victory against the republicans he had no desire to become a pawn of the German emperor. He set up camp outside of the city and waited.  

Their meeting was not a smooth one. The emperor intended to enter Rome as its master, and the pope just as stubbornly insisted on maintaining his dignity. Barbarossa began by quarreling over protocol. He refused to perform the customary act of guiding the pope’s horse on foot, protesting that he was not a groom, but Adrian made it clear that there would be no entry into Rome without it. Barbarossa withdrew in a huff, but when it became clear that the pope wouldn’t budge, he had the meeting restaged and grudgingly performed the homage.  

With that unpleasantness out of the way, the two came to an agreement. Under no circumstances would either make peace with William of Sicily, the emperor Manuel, or the republican commune in Rome. In return Adrian agreed to excommunicate Barbarossa’s enemies, while the emperor would enforce the pope’s authority.  

Adrian had chosen to meet outside of Rome for good reason. As the two rode in state towards the gates they were met by messengers from the commune who informed the pair that they would only be admitted to the city if Barbarossa first offered a ‘gift’ of five thousand pounds of gold and guaranteed their ancestral ‘rights’. They then launched into a long speech about the glorious heritage of Rome. Barbarossa interrupted mid-sentence with a curt “Rome’s greatness is behind it. I have not come to give gifts but to claim what is mine”.  

With that the two marched into the city, and Barbarossa was crowned. However, the coronation proved to be a bridge too far for the citizens. News of an imperial coronation in a city intoxicated by the thought of independence caused a frenzy, and a mob assaulted the procession as Barbarossa was leaving the cathedral. The emperor was caught unprepared and street fighting raged long into the night. By the next morning order had been restored, but casualties had been terrible on both sides. The German barons had no more stomach for Italy and made it clear that they wished to return home, and Barbarossa, a feudal monarch, was unable to resist them. Adrian begged him to continue with the original plan of invading Sicily, but within a month the Germans were gone.  

The pope was now dangerously exposed. He had weakened his own position in Rome for Barbarossa and had received nothing tangible in return. Fortunately, however, there was another emperor at hand. Manuel Comnenus had been preparing his own invasion, and he dispatched a letter to the pope with the extraordinary offer to be the ‘sword-arm of the Church’.50 It didn’t matter to Adrian who crushed the Norman kingdom; if the Germans wouldn’t help, then the distant Byzantines were an acceptable surrogate. He wrote to Manuel giving him his full blessing for an attack on Sicily.  

The Byzantine monarch was a consummate diplomat, and his agents found ready allies in Italy. The Norman barons of the peninsula had never really been reconciled to being ruled from Palermo. More than a decade had passed since Roger II had reined them in, and the relatively light hand of his successor was seen as weakness. Byzantine gold encouraged the natural desire to revolt, and before long an uprising was spreading throughout the south.  

Together, the Norman rebels and the Byzantines posed a more formidable threat to Sicily than even the Germans had. The barons provided local knowledge and an army, and Manuel provided a supply fleet and unlimited funds to raise fresh troops.  

To soften up Sicily for an invasion, the rebels turned on any mainland Italian city that remained loyal to William. The first target, Bari, was the most important Norman stronghold in Italy and Manuel was especially eager to recover it. Less than a century before it had been part of the Byzantine Empire, and most of the population was still Greek. The royalist defenders prepared to resist, but when the allied army drew up to the gates, the locals opened them, resulting in a general massacre of anyone loyal to Palermo.  

The fall of Bari was a major blow to the Norman kingdom, and it shook the loyalty of the Italian cities that hadn’t joined the rebels. To make matters worse William fell seriously ill, and in the absence of a response from Palermo, morale on the mainland plummeted. The king’s admiral, Maio, eventually sent an army to aid the beleaguered peninsula, but its general refused to engage the rebels for several months. When he finally did, the result was another fiasco. The royal army was wiped out and the few coastal towns that had wavered moved into the rebel camp. By the beginning of winter virtually all of Apulia had crumbled.  

By now William’s rule seemed on the verge of collapse. In only six short months the emperor Manuel had seemingly restored Byzantine power in Italy to the level it had been before the Normans arrived, and he showed no signs of stopping. The imperial armies were poised to enter Calabria and if that fell which it undoubtedly would the Byzantine force would be separated from Sicily by a thin stretch of water only a mile wide.  

Since the king was ill, the Normans’ poor showing was blamed completely on his powerful minister Maio. Several plots to assassinate him were launched, but Maio’s extensive network of secret police managed to foil them. When it became clear that the hated minister couldn’t be removed covertly, a rebellion broke out on the island demanding his execution.  

William had been a laconic ruler, but the direct threat to his government finally roused him to action. Gathering the royal army he descended on the rebel camp with surprising speed, Maio prominently at his side. The rebel leaders were given an ultimatum, surrender and suffer exile or be killed. A few tried to protest that they had the king’s interests at heart, but Maio clearly still had William’s favor, and an assault on him was an assault on the king. Faced with such royal determination, the revolt crumbled and its leaders accepted exile.  

Now that he had been shaken out of his lethargy, William’s blood was up. In the spring campaigning season he crossed over to the mainland with his army and navy. His timing couldn’t have been better. The inspired Byzantine general Michael Palaeologus, architect of the overall imperial strategy, had just died, bringing the Byzantine advance to a halt. Now, at the sight of the entire armed might of Norman Sicily descending on their camp, the rebels deserted their imperial allies. The Byzantines didn’t stand a chance, and in just over an hour most of them were dead. Byzantium’s gains in the entire war were revealed as illusory, based on anti-Norman feeling rather than real strength. Byzantine  power in Italy was broken permanently.  

 William marched unopposed to Bari, determined to punish the city for its massacre of the garrison. The leading citizens met him outside the gates and begged him to show mercy. He granted most of them their lives but razed the city, sparing only the cathedral of St Nicholas and a few other churches.  

The rebel barons weren’t so lucky. They had by now realized the error of abandoning their Byzantine allies as each had to face the wrath of William on their own. One by one they were captured, tied with weights and thrown into the sea. By the summer it was over. The king’s final stop before returning to Palermo was Benevento where he signed a treaty with the pope recognizing the kingdom of Sicily’s right to exist and confirming all of William’s claims in Italy.  

It had been a remarkably successful campaign, and it had the added benefit of convincing the Byzantine emperor Manuel to make peace. The emperor had come to the conclusion that Barbarossa was a more pressing threat, and that he needed to pit the pope against the German monarch. If Pope Adrian had come to terms with William, then the Byzantines would as well. Manuel initiated peace talks while at the same time cleverly funding a fresh rebellion in Italy to sweeten the eventual deal. William got the point. Convinced that a generous agreement with Byzantium was the only way to avoid perpetual rebellions, he released all Byzantine prisoners and signed a thirty-year peace treaty.  

When William returned to Palermo, he again slipped into the pleasurable stupor of palace life. Administrative responsibilities were handed over to Maio who spent his time strengthening the Sicilian position in Italy to guard against the possibility of Barbarossa’s return.  

While the king was focused on frivolity, and his chief minister concentrated on the mainland, the rest of the empire started to decay. In 1155 a Muslim revolt started in North Africa, and the badly outnumbered Normans were unable to suppress it. Urgent requests to Palermo for aid were ignored and by 1159 all of Tripoli except the trading city of Mahdia had fallen. William sent a small fleet to aid the city, but it was destroyed by a storm and he didn’t bother himself further.  

The Normans in Mahdia bravely held out for over a year waiting vainly for the expected relieving army. Finally they struck a deal; they would send a delegation to Palermo and if it returned empty handed they would voluntarily surrender. A small group set out, but when they reached the capital they were bluntly told by Maio that the city wasn’t worth the expense it would take to preserve it. The stunned ambassadors returned, Mahdia surrendered, and the Norman empire in Africa ceased to exist.  

Maio may have been correct in his assessment of the situation; certainly his efforts in Italy were paying off. With Sicilian backing, the northern Italian cities had formed the great Lombard league and successfully held off a German invasion. After several years spent fruitlessly trying to cow the peninsula into submission, even the iron-willed Barbarossa was forced to admit that Italy was outside of his grasp. 

For all the international success of Maio’s policies, however, he remained deeply unpopular in Sicily. To the local Sicilians he represented the worst type of autocrat. Over-powerful, arrogant, and unresponsive to public moods, he had sat by and watched while North Africa burned, and his coreligionists suffered. Even worse, as far as the local nobility were concerned, was Maio’s habit of elevating Greeks or Arabs to positions of power over the heads of established aristocratic Normans. The fact that these appointees were qualified, capable individuals, or that the Sicilian Normans were all too often entitled, incompetent, and boorish, was irrelevant. Maio, a foreigner himself from Bari, was the fountainhead of everything that ailed Sicily.  

In the autumn of 1160 the admiral got word that his prospective son-in-law was implicated in the latest attempt to kill him. For all his savvy, he succumbed to the conceit that someone so close couldn’t be involved, and a week later he was struck down in the streets of Palermo. The news electrified the city, and the assassin, a man named Matthew Bonnellus became an instant celebrity. Fearing reprisals from the king for killing his favorite, Bonnellus fled and serious rioting instantly broke out.  

With half of Palermo in flames, William finally stirred. The mob was suppressed with difficulty, and for the first time the king fully realized how hated Maio had been. Facing a wave of popular unrest, he was forced to pardon everyone involved in the murder of his most trusted lieutenant, even gallingly awarding Bonnellus the title ‘savior of the kingdom’ for his part in the brutal deed.  

His new status as beloved icon went straight to Bonnellus’ head. Stepping into Maio’s position wasn’t enough, he now schemed to get rid of William as well. While Bonnellus absented himself from Palermo to avoid the taint of regicide, a group of dissatisfied nobles had William seized in one of his palaces. The king desperately tried to jump out of a window to avoid his captors, but he was restrained, and the entire royal family was arrested. If they had appointed a new king at that moment, William’s reign would have been finished, but the conspirators couldn’t decide whether to kill William or simply have him abdicate in favor of his nine-year-old son Roger. While they argued about who would receive the crown, their followers began to systematically loot the main palace.  

As they squabbled, the mood in the city started to harden against them. William’s reign may have had its share of disasters, but he wasn’t directly blamed, only the men around him acting in his name. It was one thing to get rid of a hated minister, and quite another to so mistreat an anointed king. The looting of the palace and the arrest of the royal family was enough to convince the citizens of Palermo who the real villains were. The palace was stormed again, and the terrified rebels ran to the captive William and begged him to save them.  

William complied and the rebels were allowed to leave, but the ordeal broke him. During the fighting his eldest son and heir had been killed, and when the first of his guards reached him they found him huddled in a corner sobbing. 

The rest of his reign passed in peace.  In his last decade he left the capital of Palermo only once; a triumphal procession through Italy to install his candidate for pope in Rome.51 Most of William’s time was spent in pleasurable pursuits, particularly the construction of a lavish new palace complex with fishponds, fountains, pools, and well-stocked hunting grounds. In the spring of 1166 he contracted a fever and, after a two-month illness, he died. 

History has not been kind to William. His main chronicler despised him, and is responsible for his epithet, ‘the Bad’. The king’s excessive lifestyle was the root of much of this displeasure. If his father was the baptized sultan, it was snidely put, William hardly bothered with the baptism.  

In 1166, however, William was genuinely mourned. Palermo hung itself with black for three days, and the king’s body was taken reverently to the cathedral where it was placed in a simple porphyry sarcophagus. His oldest surviving son, a thirteen-year-old boy also named William was crowned, and all of Sicily seemed to be at peace.  

He was not a great king, nor perhaps even a good one. The many rebellions, the loss of North Africa, and the general shirking of his responsibility as king, all rightfully stained his reputation. But he also had the impossible task of following a legendary father, without the benefit of guidance or preparation. In the circumstances, his defense of Norman Sicily against a determined pope and two of the greatest emperors to ever sit on their respective thrones was a remarkable feat. It was a fleeting glimpse of what could have been.  

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