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Chapter 15

William the Worse


William I may have acquired the nickname ‘bad’, but at least he provided the kingdom with an heir. The great vitality of the Normans in southern Italy had been failing for some time. William’s father and grandfather had fathered at least thirty-two children between them while William managed only four, but at least the succession wasn’t in doubt. The young William II, just shy of his thirteenth birthday, was crowned in a sumptuous ceremony, and theoretically accepted the burden of caring for nearly two million subjects. He was by all accounts, a striking youth. Tall and dark-eyed, already showing the fair hair and height of his Norse heritage, he seemed a mixture of dynamism and gravity far beyond his years. According to several eye-witnesses, at the first glimpse of him in the streets of Palermo his subjects fell genuinely in love.

Until he came of age, however, they would be denied the pleasure of being governed by him. In the meantime a Regency Council was set up headed by his mother Margaret and a trio of the leading notables of the kingdom. It would have been difficult to pick a more unsuitable group of people to run a government. The three advisors, a eunuch named Peter, a notary named Matthew, and the English archbishop Richard Palmer, spent most of their time trying to assassinate each other. Margaret soon realized that she had to get rid of them before they got rid of her, so she promoted the least threatening one Peter above the other two, momentarily putting one of the most wealthy and influential Christian kingdoms in the hands of a Muslim eunuch.  

Peter was an intriguer, a civil servant who knew the intricacies of the bureaucracy, and who was most comfortable behind the scenes. Pushed to the center, he quickly lost control. Within a few months Sicily was in chaos, and fearing assassination, Peter fled to North Africa. To restore the situation, Margaret invited her cousin Stephen du Perche from France, who, if not wise, was at least strong.  

The choice was instantly controversial. It was bad enough that the best jobs were being awarded to foreigners, but the salary of the office of chancellor, vacant since Peter had fled, had been divided among the nobility who now angrily resented Margaret. Stephen’s appointment was both a loss of prestige and income.  

Just as tensions reached a boiling pitch, however, news came of a fresh disaster that made everything else irrelevant. The terrible German emperor Barbarossa had crossed the Alps and descended on Italy. The very survival of the kingdom was in doubt.

Sicily had been a thorn in the German side since its founding. Norman kings had offered aid and protection to the pope and the cities of northern Italy, which had time and again defied the emperor. Army after army had been sent to pacify Italy, only to have it flare up again in revolt the moment they left, aided by Sicilian gold and papal blessing. The solution, obviously, in Barbarossa’s eyes was twofold. Install a tame pontiff in Rome, and smash Sicily.  

There were many in Palermo who blamed their late king for the bad news. Barbarossa had started out the following spring and had made it explicitly clear that he was coming to stop William the Bad’s meddling and shatter the Norman kingdom once and for all. The fact that William had died in the meantime, and that his successor was a mere boy, was irrelevant.  

What had finally goaded the German monarch to action was the part the late William had played in one of the most bizarre elections in papal history seven years prior, exacerbating the rift between Aachen and Palermo. When a papal vacancy had appeared, Frederick made it clear that he supported a pliable cardinal by the name of Octavian. The assembled clergy, however, tired of imperial interference and confident of Norman support, voted unanimously for a man named Alexander. This should have settled the matter, but Octavian, thoroughly convinced that he should have been pope, wasn’t about to let an election stand in his way. On coronation day, when pope-elect Alexander bowed his head to receive the mantle, Octavian leapt forward and wrenched it from the hands of the startled cardinals. In the uproar that followed, the flailing Octavian lost control of the garment. He then produced an identical one brought for just such a turn of events, and managed to get it on backwards before bolting to the papal throne with the howling clerics at his heels. 

Octavian reached the throne just before his pursuers, managing to declare himself Pope Victor IV. With the timely arrival of some hired thugs, the newly-minted pope ordered everyone to acclaim him. His rival, the Norman-supported pope Alexander was taken to a nearby fortress and imprisoned, and Octavian settled back to enjoy his tenure. 

Despite hefty bribes by the imperial ambassadors, Octavian’s reputation plummeted as news of his shocking behavior spread throughout Rome. Appearances in public were greeted with catcalls or worse, and mobs gathered outside of his palace to taunt him. After two weeks of abuse he could take no more and slipped out of Rome. 

Barbarossa’s failure to impose his pope on Rome was galling enough, but his creature’s behaviour after being evicted had made things worse. Denied Rome, Octavian had settled in the hills surrounding the city of Lucca, and there the self-proclaimed spiritual head of Christendom became a bandit, waylaying pilgrims traveling through Tuscany.

A bit of tact from Sicily might still have prevented a war with the humiliated German monarch, but William the Bad chose instead to send an honour guard to escort the Norman-supported Alexander back to Rome, publicly broadcasting the fact that Frederick was powerless to enforce his will in Italy. William the Bad had then, with his usual timing, expired, leaving his successors to deal with the consequences of offending Barbarossa.

A combined Norman and Italian army was sent to slow the German advance, but this only enraged the emperor further. After annihilating this meager force, Barbarossa razed several towns, driving their populations into the surrounding countryside. The road to Rome was choked with refugees, all hoping that the magic of its name would somehow ward off the invaders. Its fate, however, was sealed. On July 29, 1167 the imperial forces battered their way into Rome, giving full vent to their pent-up emotions. Statues were pulled down, marble slabs were hacked from their fittings, and tombs were smashed open to get at the jewels inside. Not even the basilica of Saint Peter’s was spared. Bands of soldiers managed to force their way past the doors and slaughtered the horrified clerics as they clung vainly to the high altar. 

The very next day, before the stench of blood and corpses was cleared, Barbarossa had yet another tame antipope crowned, grimly promising that all who resisted him would experience the same fate. In Palermo his words reduced the city to panic. The defense was virtually abandoned, as nobles began to flee with what treasure they could carry. Sicily appeared doomed. It was in chaos, governed by an unpopular woman and an inexperienced foreigner. There wasn’t even a real army assembled to oppose the Germans. Only an Act of God could save the Normans now. 

Fortunately for Sicily, God obliged. Two days after Barbarossa crowned his pope, the plague struck the imperial army, devastating it. The swampy climate of Rome and the unseasonable heat only made it worse, but when Barbarossa ordered an evacuation of the city the plague followed him. By the time he reached the Alps his great army was ruined. The emperor was no longer feared, but actively mocked. Northern Italy didn’t even bother to wait until he was gone to formally declare its independence, and, as if that weren’t enough, they blocked all of the passes through the mountains. Only by dressing as a servant did the humiliated emperor manage to sneak past into Germany.  

In Sicily, news of the miraculous delivery led to a surge in popularity for Margaret and Stephen du Perche. The French escort that Stephen had brought continued to be resented by the population, but Stephen himself was proving to be a competent administrator. His reforms, however, mostly at the expense of the nobility, were intensely hated by the latter and led to numerous assassination plots. For her part, Margaret supported him completely, and it became clear that none of the nobility would ever share power while he was present. For two years things continued relatively smoothly, with Stephen nimbly evading assassination and managing the growing resentment of the population.  

All would have been well if Margaret had maintained the status quo, but she antagonized the populace by appointing Stephen archbishop of Palermo. A mob stormed the palace, forcing Stephen and his French companions to flee to the cathedral and barricade themselves inside. Bloodshed was avoided only when Stephen agreed to leave Sicily and never return. He and his companions were allowed to walk down to the harbor and board a ship destined for the Holy Land.  

The fall of her favorite finished Margaret. Although William still had three years before he reached his majority, ‘that Spanish woman’, as she was called, had no energy to continue. She remained the regent, but real power devolved to her son’s tutor, an ambitious and unscrupulous Englishman by the name of Walter of the Mill. Raised to the rank of archbishop, Walter would have a virtual monopoly of power over domestic affairs for the next decade.  

In 1171, William turned eighteen, and officially took control over Sicily. Although he had lived his life in seclusion in the palace, he already had grandiose ambitions. Sicily had once been the leading power in the Mediterranean and William intended to return it to that state. To his subjects at least, he seemed uniquely suited to the task. Tall and good looking, with a round face, dark eyes, and a closely cropped beard, he was studious, fluent in at least five languages, and deeply religious. He was also, remarkably fortunate. The upheaval of Stephen du Perche’s fall turned out to be the last serious disturbance of his reign. Sicily entered a remarkable period of domestic peace and prosperity.  

The kingdom’s trade boomed. The secret of silk production was smuggled out of Constantinople adding to the already diverse industries of iron, salt, and sulfur. Coral was harvested from the coastal waters, the Sicilian tunny fish was imported across the Mediterranean, and Sicilian farms produced wheat, oranges, lemons, melons, and almonds that were in demand across Europe and North Africa. Even Sicily’s forests played their part. Sicilian timber was well enough known for its quality that at least one pope used it exclusively to repair the Lateran’s roof.  

The turmoil of William the Bad’s reign had interfered with these industries, but it hadn’t affected Sicily’s reputation for luxury or power. When the young William II attained his majority, foreign offers of marriage rolled in. The first was from the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, offering his fifteen-year-old daughter Maria. This was especially intriguing because Manuel didn’t have a son, meaning that William’s grandchild would stand to inherit both Sicily and the Byzantine Empire. Not to be outdone, Frederick Barbarossa offered his daughter as well, and Henry II of England chimed in with the offer of his third daughter Joan, sister of Richard the Lionheart.  

With the Englishman, Walter of the Mill, advising him, William gravitated towards Joan. It was only natural, after all, that the two Norman kingdoms at opposite ends of Europe should be officially united. There were already cultural and family ties; each kingdom was a natural destination for the exiles of the other, and most of the nobility in Palermo had relatives in London.  

Just when William was on the point of accepting, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, was murdered by four of Henry’s knights, and in the resulting firestorm the matter was tactfully dropped. The emperor Manuel again offered his daughter and this time it was accepted. On the day when the princess was due to arrive, however, there was no Byzantine ship on the horizon. Manuel had evidently decided that the Western Empire would be a more suitable match, and didn’t bother to inform Sicily of the change of plan. William processed down to the harbor in state and after a day of waiting was forced to return to the palace thoroughly and quite publicly humiliated. He wouldn’t forget the insult.  

For several years the marriage issue was allowed to lie fallow before Walter of the Mill again began to suggest that William should look towards England. He received surprising help in this direction from the pope who was terrified that William would marry into Barbarossa’s family and thereby unite the two great powers to the north and south of Rome. Enough time had passed for most of the furor over Becket’s murder to die down, and inquiries were quietly made. Henry and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine accepted, and in 1177 the twenty-three-year-old William and the twelve-year-old Joan were married in Palermo.  

Politically, the match marked the highpoint of William’s reign. He was at the peak of his youth, beginning even to break free from the control of Walter of the Mill. Three years before he had started building a magnificent cathedral at Monreale, ostensibly to the glory of his grandfather Roger II, but in reality to weaken Walter’s power. When it was finished he appointed an archbishop, creating at once a rival of equal authority to his powerful advisor. Walter protested furiously, but there was little he could do. 

It was an extraordinary time. William was popular, fabulously wealthy, and young, and the international situation seemed to adjust itself for his benefit. In Italy the aging Frederick Barbarossa at last abandoned any hopes of outright conquest and decided to try diplomacy instead. He offered Sicily a permanent truce. It was too late for William to marry into the German royal family, but Frederick had another offer. His son and heir Henry was not yet married; if William could find a suitable bride, the two kingdoms would be united in peace.  

William eagerly agreed. His grandfather Roger II had a posthumous daughter named Constance who was a year younger than William himself. Since he didn’t yet have any children, his aunt Constance stood to inherit the Sicilian throne. This point was driven home by having all the nobles of the realm swear to accept her as his heir if he died without issue. He then escorted her to the harbor and sent her off to the crown prince of the German Empire.  

Even some of William’s usually adoring public recognized the sheer lunacy of what he had just done. Although there seemed to be plenty of time for heirs he was just thirty and his wife was eighteen it was a terrible risk to give Sicily’s great enemy a legitimate claim to the throne. If William or his wife were to die prematurely - and the medieval world was nothing if not uncertain - Sicily would fall into the lap of the ruler who had actively tried to destroy it for the last quarter of a century.  

For William it was worth the risk, simply because it freed him up to concentrate on his dream of foreign conquest. He had grown up on stories of his grandfather’s triumphs, and had been appalled by his father’s abandonment of Africa. Now he intended to revive Sicily’s overseas empire.  

His first probing attack was a disaster. North Africa was united under the powerful Almohads, and they easily repulsed the Norman invasion. Next, he sent thirty thousand troops to invade Alexandria, hoping to curb the power of the new Muslim strongman, Saladin, who was threatening Jerusalem. The Normans had barely disembarked when Saladin’s army showed up, easily routing the disorganized Sicilians. Most reached the ships in safety, but they had to retreat with nothing accomplished. William, however, was nothing if not determined, and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean was suddenly very encouraging in the most surprising of places Constantinople.  

1180 saw a great changing of the guard across the Mediterranean world. Manuel Comnenus died after thirty-six years on the throne, leaving an eleven-year-old named Alexius, and a deeply unpopular regent. For two years the government held on, but in 1182 Manuel’s cousin, Andronicus, raised a revolt.  

Andronicus was a curious figure, possessing all of the brilliance of his family with none of its restraint. In 1182 he was already in his sixties but looked two decades younger, and his exploits, both on the battlefield and in the bedroom were legendary. By the time he marched on Constantinople he had already seduced three cousins, been banished twice, and had acquired a reputation as an innovative – if slightly eccentric - general. His effect on the population was magnetic. Wherever he went he was greeted with open arms. Armies sent against him defected, and when he arrived at the walls of Constantinople, he was escorted through the Golden Gate by ecstatic crowds.  

The cheering didn’t last long. Within a month he had murdered the entire royal family. The young emperor Alexius was made to sign his own mother’s death warrant, before being strangled himself. Andronicus then married the twelve-year-old widow and started to systematically eliminate anyone who showed sympathy for the previous regime.  

In Sicily, William saw a chance to avenge the public humiliation he had suffered at Constantinople’s hands. Affairs at home were carefully put in order. A treaty with North Africa ensured that there would be no threat from that quarter, and the German Empire had already been neutralized by the marriage to Constance. A Sicilian Greek was found and put forward as the murdered Alexius II, and William piously announced that he would restore the youth to his rightful throne. The largest force the kingdom had ever mustered was prepared, and in the spring of 1185 two hundred and fifty ships carrying eighty thousand men set sail from Palermo.  

They reached the port city of Durrës on the Dalmatian coast in June, and thirteen days later it was in their hands. They now had access to the Via Egnatia, the old Roman road that ran across the Balkans to the city of Thessalonica and then to Constantinople itself.  

Thanks to an effective news blockade before they set out, the Norman army had managed to take Durrës by surprise, but Thessalonica promised to be a much more formidable obstacle. It was the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire, and its military governor had over a month’s warning to prepare his defenses.  

Fortunately for the Normans he failed to make even rudimentary plans beyond shutting the doors. Within a few days his archers had run out of arrows and his catapults had run out of stones. Even worse, he hadn’t bothered to check the water supply and several of the half-filled cisterns were found to be leaking badly. Instead of trying to address the situation he decided to profit from it, rationing off his personal supply for enormous sums. Morale plummeted steadily and it wasn’t long before a desperate defender opened a gate.  

The destruction was terrible. The Normans entered in the early morning and by noon more than five thousand citizens were dead. By the end of the first day, the generals had managed to reassert control of the situation, but Thessalonica was in ruins. The Norman army in any case had to keep moving. Food and water were by now scarce, and even at the best of times no city was capable of handling an influx of eighty thousand new people. The Sicilians left a small garrison behind and quickly resumed their march towards Constantinople. With any luck they would be eating Christmas dinner in the imperial palace.  

The Byzantines didn’t seem capable of stopping them. Andronicus was showing signs of mental instability, and his reign was descending into a bloodbath. As one chronicler put it, ‘he considered a day without killing someone as a day wasted’. One moment he would show remorse, seemingly tormented by the blood on his hands, and the next he would be rising to new extremes of killing. Terrified of assassination, he barricaded himself inside the palace, spending his time rooting out real or imagined conspiracies. When news of the Norman army reached him, he dispatched a force to intercept it, but since he was incapable of trusting anyone, he split it into five parts, each commanded by a minor general of equal rank. They immediately started quarreling about the best course of action, some wandering in the general direction of the Sicilians, and others taking defensive positions along the way.  

When the citizens of Constantinople woke a few weeks later to see the Norman fleet drawn up in the imperial harbor, a mob stormed the palace, and Andronicus the Terrible met a grisly end. With his fall, the empire’s luck abruptly changed. The new emperor Isaac II consolidated the splintered imperial army under its most gifted general Alexius Branas and he immediately marched two hundred miles to confront the Normans. William’s overconfident army had dropped its guard, and Branas successfully ambushed it as the Sicilians were attempting to cross a river.  

The casualties were relatively light, but the effect on morale was devastating. The Normans had expected an easy victory, but it was clear that the approach to Constantinople, to say nothing of the eventual siege that would be needed, was going to be long and difficult. Branas cleverly waited a few months for morale to dip further before offering to discuss terms. When the Sicilians hesitated, Branas suddenly attacked. The Normans were taken off guard, and since their fleet was in Constantinople, there was nowhere to run. Much of the army was destroyed. Those that survived tried to take refuge in Thessalonica, but were gleefully attacked by the citizens as payback for the sacking of the city. Only a few thousand of the grand army managed to hike over the mountain passes in winter, and return to Italy.  

The debacle was a serious blow to William’s prestige, but the silver lining was that his navy was still undefeated; they had easily conquered several islands and had brushed aside the Byzantine fleet. The campaign had even revealed an admiral of genius named Margaritus. In 1187 the entire Christian world had need of his services.  

In the late fall of that year, a Genoese trading vessel sailed up the Tiber and put in at the port of Trastevere. Not bothering to wait for a formal invitation, the two ambassadors it carried hurried straight to the Lateran Palace and demanded an interview with Pope Urban III. They brought word that the unthinkable had happened. Jerusalem had fallen to the Saracens and the True Cross Christendom’s holiest relic had been captured. It was too much for the aged pontiff to bear. Urban withdrew to his private quarters in shock and died a few days later.  

It didn’t take long for the horrified West to react. The day after Urban III was buried, his successor issued a papal bull calling for a crusade. When the dispatch reached Sicily it found the Norman kingdom already in motion. Word of the terrible events had already arrived in Palermo, and William II had lost no time in his preparations. Dressing in a rough shirt of camel hair and smearing ashes over his head, he ordered four days of mourning and pledged his immediate support for the crusade. It would take time to gather his army, but as a sign of his intentions he dispatched his gifted admiral, Margaritus, to Palestine with orders to harass the Saracens.  

The pope would have been hard pressed to find a more ideal spokesman for the crusade. Mild-mannered and deeply religious, William was immensely popular at home, and well-connected abroad. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was fluent in all three major languages of his kingdom, and was willing to accommodate his Muslim, Orthodox, and Jewish subjects. As befitted the main actor of a great movement, he was famous for his beauty more than one observer had compared him to an angel at his coronation and now in his early thirties he clearly showed his Hauteville blood, towering over his contemporaries. Perhaps most important from the pope’s perspective, however, was the fact that he had fully inherited his family’s taste for battle. If he had yet to display its corresponding traits of charisma or strategic sense, it was only because he was still young and relatively untested. Such concerns in any case could be left to subordinates; the king’s main function would be as a dashing figurehead.  

In this respect at least he performed magnificently. Firing off letters to Henry II of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, he managed to convince all of them to personally lead armies to recapture Jerusalem. There was more than simple Christian piety driving William to take pen in hand, however. If the Crusaders could be diverted through Sicily it would be a huge financial windfall for his merchants. Each letter contained not only an appeal to religious duty but also a nice bit of propaganda stressing the pleasant Sicilian climate and highlighting the numerous advantages of a sea-route to Palestine.  

These appeals were bolstered by the brilliant performance of William’s admiral in the Holy Land. With a tiny fleet of sixty ships, Margaritus was managing to keep the main Crusader sea-lanes open, building up a steady pressure on the coast, and thwarting every Saracen attempt to capture a Latin port. By the summer of 1188 he was being called the ‘new Neptune’ and was justly feared throughout the eastern Mediterranean. News of his approach off the coast of Tripoli forced the Muslims to raise the siege of the nearby Krak des Chevaliers,52 and his appearance in Tyre the next year caused an immediate Saracen retreat. The only thing preventing him from capturing new territory was a lack of knights he had less than two hundred with him but the arrival of the main Crusading armies would change that. Then in mid-November came terrible news that threw everything into chaos. William II, last of the Hauteville kings was dead.

The cause of his death is unknown. It was only reported to have been swift and relatively peaceful. His reign was remembered as a golden age of internal peace and prosperity, and he was mourned more than any king in Sicily before or after. Several centuries later Dante even put him in paradise as the ideal king. This reputation, however, is thoroughly undeserved. William II was less ‘good’ than he was fortunate; his reign was bookmarked by periods of severe instability that made his own rule seem ideal by comparison. There were incessant revolts during his father’s reign and civil war after his death. If there was peace and prosperity in between it was not due to any wise stewardship on his part. He was remarkably irresponsible. Not only did he constantly commit Sicily’s resources to ill-advised and uniformly disastrous foreign wars, but he signed away his kingdom’s future to its greatest enemy for the short-term gain of a temporary peace. His predecessors, even William the Bad, had defended Sicily against the German Empire with everything they had, and he gave it away of his own free will. Then, like all irresponsible leaders, he left his successors to pay the price.   

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