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Chapter 16

The Monkey King


William II’s great failure uncharacteristically for a Hauteville was that he didn’t produce a son. When he died suddenly at age thirty-six the kingdom was thrown into a succession crisis. Thankfully, the absence of a king didn’t initially disrupt day-to-day affairs since Roger II’s magnificent civil service kept things temporarily running. No state, however, could afford to be headless for too long, and while there were no shortage of ambitious pretenders, there were only three serious claimants. The official heir was the late king’s aunt, Constance. A few objected because of her gender, but what made her unsuitable to most Sicilians was the fact that she was currently married to Henry VI, crown prince of Sicily’s mortal enemy the German Empire.  

The opposition party crystallized around two noblemen, Tancred of Lecce and Roger of Andria. On the surface they seemed evenly matched. Both were decorated war heroes with plenty of titles and awards, and could boast long careers of service to the state. Roger drew support from the nobility while Tancred was popular with the minor barons and the masses. The real distinguishing feature, however, was one of blood. Roger could only muster a distant link to the throne; he was a great-grandson of Drogo de Hauteville, while Tancred was the illegitimate grandson of Roger II. Proximity to the loved Roger – no mater how tenuous the legitimacy – was a stronger claim. The pope, desperate to prevent a German take-over of Sicily, threw his support behind Tancred, and in January of 1190 he was crowned king of Sicily.  

The new king was short, swarthy, and unusually ugly. A contemporary historian nicknamed him ‘Tancredulous’ and snidely remarked that he resembled a monkey. “Behold,” he wrote at Tancred’s coronation, “an ape is crowned!”  If physically lacking, however, Tancred was also energetic, smart, and ambitious. He had been involved in the coup of 1161, personally storming the palace and taking William the Bad prisoner. When the rebellion collapsed he had accepted exile in exchange for official pardon and, given the king’s less than sterling reputation, emerged from the whole ordeal with his name unscathed.  

He had need of every bit of his political skills almost immediately. At the news of his coronation the kingdom’s long simmering religious tensions boiled over. The Muslim population had been declining since the Normans had first conquered Sicily. Under Roger II they had been an influential and respected minority, but with each year they had been steadily disenfranchised with the influx of Italians from the mainland. After William II had died, they threw their support behind Constance, figuring that the foreign Germans would be glad of allies, and Tancred’s success was therefore a crushing blow. When a group of Christians unwisely assaulted a mosque in Palermo, the entire Muslim population of Sicily erupted.  

Tancred sent soldiers to stabilize the situation, and the Arabs fled to the surrounding hills where they seized several castles. Somehow Tancred managed to confine the rebellion to the western part of the island, but it took the better part of a year to suppress it.  

Part of the reason that it smoldered on for so long was that Tancred was distracted with ominous news from northern Europe. The German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, had drowned while on crusade, leaving the empire to his energetic son. Henry VI had been an intimidating enemy when he was merely a prince, now he was an emperor. As the Muslim revolt blazed in Sicily, Henry crossed the Alps and invaded Italy. He had two aims. The first was to claim the Iron Crown of Lombardy, a golden diadem that had once belonged to the Roman emperor Constantine and was called ‘iron’ because it supposedly contained a nail from Christ’s Crucifixion.53 The second was to install himself, with his wife Constance at his side of course, on the throne of Sicily.  

Lombardy posed no obstacle. When Henry appeared in Rome with his army in 1191, the frightened pope crowned him master of northern Italy and the Western Empire. Henry’s second objective also looked within easy reach. News of his approach had the usual effect, throwing the south into chaos. Besides the familiar rebellious barons, there were now a growing number of Normans in the kingdom who supported Henry’s invasion. Most of them were fatalists who believed that the smart play was to get in the emperor’s good graces, but some had also made the calculation that a distant ruler in Germany would be less intrusive than a local king in Palermo. When Henry entered Norman territory in the spring, he found virtually the entire southern part of the peninsula in open revolt.  

Tancred couldn’t leave Sicily to restore the situation because he was too pressed with the Muslim revolt and was still consolidating his power. Nevertheless, he acted quickly. A large amount of gold was sent to his general on the mainland to raise troops and bribe towns to stay loyal. This decisiveness and a stroke of luck saved Tancred. The summer heat, always Sicily’s greatest defender, took its toll on the Germans and when Tancred’s army sharply defeated their advance force, Henry decided to withdraw. Without imperial support, the rebellion collapsed as well. Their ringleader, the same Roger of Andria that had earlier contested the throne, was captured and executed.  

Tancred’s nerve had saved the situation, but he understood that he had merely won a short reprieve from Henry’s invasion. He didn’t have long to savor the victory. Richard the Lionheart, king of Norman England was heading for Sicily.  

Although he had been on the throne only a year longer than Tancred, Richard’s reputation as a heroic adventurer was already well known. He had been commanding armies in the field since he was sixteen, more than half his life by 1191, and was widely viewed as the one figure who could rescue Jerusalem from the Saracens. The Holy City had fallen three years before in 1188 triggering a call for a new crusade, and the kings of Europe had immediately pledged their support. Richard, to the pope’s delight, had agreed to lead it on the condition that Philip Augustus, the king of France, would go with him. This wasn’t done out of a sense of royal fraternity but because Richard didn’t trust his colleague and rightly suspected that Philip would confiscate his French lands the moment he was out of the country. William the Good, seeing a potential windfall from the increased trade that would follow in the crusade’s wake, had written to the pair before his death, suggesting that Sicily would make an ideal launching point. They had both agreed and it now fell to Tancred to play reluctant host.  

King Richard was a difficult guest at the best of times. Despite his reputation as the pinnacle of chivalry, he was easily bored and far more interested in adventuring than ruling. During his ten-year reign he spent barely six months in England. As the historian Sir Steven Runciman put it, “he was a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier”.  He was also temperamental, and by the time he reached Sicily he was in a foul mood.  

There were several causes. He had a tendency to get seasick, and the crossing from Italy had been an unpleasant one. Then, when he arrived in Messina he discovered that Philip had beaten him there and in typical fashion had helped himself to the palace leaving more modest accommodations for Richard. These annoyances would have been enough to sour his temper, but they were accompanied by a more serious diplomatic problem.  

William the Good had, in typical fashion, promised lavish gifts to induce Richard to Sicily and Tancred, who had spent a fortune defending Italy, was refusing to provide them. Even more seriously, however, was Tancred’s treatment of William’s widow Joanna. She believed that Constance was the rightful sovereign and had somewhat foolishly vocally supported the Germans against Tancred. In response, Tancred had put her under house arrest and confiscated her vast estates. If Joanna had been a minor noble that would have been the end of the matter, but she happened to be Richard’s sister. 

When Tancred’s envoys came to welcome the English king to Sicily, therefore, Richard demanded both Joanna and her entire dowry, and threatened not to leave until he was satisfied. Tancred gave in immediately. He had more than enough on his plate without risking a conflict with a crusading army. Joanna was brought to Richard’s residence carrying every cent of her dowry, with a bit extra thrown in as a mark of Tancred’s esteem. This should have satisfied Richard’s pride, but he was enjoying the Sicilian climate and decided that it would make a splendid base. He raided Calabria, seizing the small town of San Salvatore to settle Joanna in style, and then returned to Messina and evicted the Greek monks of its finest monastery to garrison his soldiers. 

The largely Greek citizens of Messina were horrified. They had welcomed the famous Lionheart with open arms, provided him with entertainment and living quarters, and he had repaid them with hostility and cruelty. The sight of the monks being forcibly removed was the last straw. The populace took to the streets, bringing whatever crude weapons they could find, and rushed Richard’s villa.  

The English counterattack was merciless. Richard ordered his men to burn any Sicilian ships in the harbor so the mob had nowhere to flee, and then told them to destroy the city. The only thing spared was the great palace at the center where an alarmed Philip Augustus was staying. When it was over, Richard rounded up the survivors and forced them to construct a massive wooden fortress. Just to make sure everyone got the point he named it ‘Matagrifon’ ‘the Greek Killer’.  

Such atrocious behavior rallied all of Sicily around Tancred, but surprisingly he didn’t even send a formal protest. He was playing a larger game. No matter how irritating Richard’s behavior was, he wasn’t a long-term threat. Tancred’s real enemy was Henry VI, and he needed any ally that he could find. If he was forced to swallow his pride in his own kingdom to secure Richard’s friendship, then that was an acceptable price. So instead of soldiers, Tancred sent a vast sum of gold, enough to allow Richard to travel to the Holy Land in style, and implored him to winter in Sicily.  

Richard was enjoying himself, but tensions with the French king were nearly at the breaking point, and there was still the matter of his crusading vow. He therefore refused to stay, but in exchange for another round of gifts, he agreed to recognize Tancred as the rightful king. After Christmas the two met in Palermo and sealed their alliance with a marriage contract between Richard’s four-year-old son and Tancred’s teenaged daughter. As a sign of his new friendship Richard presented his brother-king with a sword that he claimed was Excalibur.54  

Tancred’s patience had paid off, and with the news that Henry was again on the march it seemed just in time. He again begged Richard to stay, but the English king had made up his mind. By April both he and Philip were gone, leaving Sicily alone to deal with the German Empire.  

Henry VI was taking his time. He had brought with him his wife, Constance and the bulk of his army, and knew exactly how weak Tancred’s support was on the mainland. When he crossed into the Sicilian kingdom’s territory in southern Italy, there was no resistance. Aversa, the first territory the Normans had conquered in Italy, surrendered without a struggle, as did the entire northern part of the kingdom.  

Tancred was disappointed, but he probably wasn’t surprised. He had concentrated his defenses on the south, and opted to make his stand in Naples. While Tancred’s admiral Margaritus kept the port open, the citizens of Naples put up a heroic defense. Even Henry was impressed. He couldn’t effectively cut off the city from the sea, which made his siege pointless. With the summer heat making everyone miserable, he decided to withdraw to regroup. As a sign to the Normans that he fully intended to return he left his queen, Constance, with a full garrison at Salerno.  

As an act of bravado, it was an impressive show, but it was also a foolish mistake. Henry had badly misjudged the people of southern Italy. The towns and cities that had so quickly joined him were now desperate to prove their loyalty to Sicily. The citizens of Salerno wasted no time massacring the imperial garrison, and delivered Constance to Palermo.  

Norman Sicily had been improbably saved. Without Constance, Henry didn’t have the slightest claim to Sicily’s throne, and the price of her release would be the recognition of Tancred’s kingship. All that was left was for Henry to realize he was beaten, and the long war would be over.  

The pope, who was equally pleased that his all-powerful northern neighbor had been checked, wrote to Tancred immediately, offering his endorsement. His letter, however, also contained a devastating request. Amicable relations, it said, could never be achieved if one party held the other’s wife prisoner. Tancred was instructed to send Constance to Rome, and the pope would act as arbiter.  

Tancred was now caught. If he kept Constance in Palermo he would antagonize his new ally and allow Henry to pose as a righteous crusader against the enemy of the Church. If, on the other hand, he let her out of his control, his one bargaining chip was lost. After a week of agonizing he reluctantly allowed her to cross the straits of Messina that separated Sicily from the mainland and begin the journey to Rome. It took less than a month for his worst fears to be realized. A party of imperial knights ambushed the Normans as they crossed out of Sicilian territory and freed Constance. Within two weeks she was back with Henry and he was making preparations to restore her to her throne.  

The silver lining in this disaster was that the pope was now actively campaigning for Tancred. He managed to keep Henry busy by endorsing several rebel German barons, and it took more than nine months for the emperor to finally crush them.  

Tancred used the breathing room to search for other allies. Richard the Lionheart was of no use. After the limited success of the Third Crusade, he had been captured by Henry trying to return to England and was now held captive at the German court. Richard’s brother, John, was in no great hurry to ransom him, but did send several shipments of silver which Henry was busy using to buy and equip a fleet to invade Sicily. Tancred had few other options but to reach out to Byzantium, the one power that was naturally hostile to the German Empire. After some hurried negotiations Tancred convinced the emperor, Isaac II, to agree to a marriage alliance. Unfortunately for Norman Sicily, however, the Byzantines were not in a position to help. Isaac was a weak emperor of a weak dynasty and the empire was a hollow shell of its former self. The Byzantine state had less than a decade to run before being wrecked by the terrible blow of the Fourth Crusade.  

Tancred’s one capable ally, the pope, was eighty-seven, in frail health, and unlikely to be of any help in the coming storm. The Sicilian king struggled bravely on alone. In the summer of 1193 he crossed to the mainland and began to prepare his defenses, but most of the peninsula was in open revolt, and the few towns that weren’t had an air of defeatism. Yet with a combination of diplomacy, bribes, and shows of military force, Tancred slowly began to make progress in restoring his authority.  

Had he continued, there might have been a chance to stop Henry, but in the midst of his campaign he caught a fever. He returned to Palermo in the hopes that the climate would improve his health, but it only got worse. In early February his eighteen- year-old son and heir died. A few days later the grieving Tancred followed him to the grave.  

Without him there was no hope for Sicily. The sudden death of both king and heir robbed the kingdom of its will to resist. Tancred’s three-year-old son, William III, was crowned, but it was a depressing ceremony. Those attending were more intent on coming to terms with Henry than fighting him, and even Tancred’s queen, Sibylla, recognized that the end had come. She installed herself and her son in a castle and waited for the final blow to fall.  

It didn’t take long. Henry’s progress through Italy was more triumphal procession than military campaign. Most cities threw open their gates and willingly turned over hostages as a guarantee of good behavior. Naples, which had bravely resisted the last invasion, capitulated before the first German soldier arrived. Without the energy of Tancred, morale everywhere had collapsed. In October Henry crossed to Messina after offering the city generous tax breaks to soften them up, and landed in Sicily unopposed. A month later the abandoned Sibylla surrendered and Henry entered into Palermo. After only six decades, Hauteville rule in Sicily had come to an end.  

Henry VI was crowned on Christmas Day 1194 with Queen Sibylla and young William III in attendance, probably watching with a mixture of relief and sadness. The German emperor had been surprisingly mild in his treatment of the deposed Normans, promising adequate estates for them to live out their lives in a comfortable style. There was a vague hope that a distant emperor would be a moderate ruler and his kindness to the queen supported that. Only four days after the coronation, however, Henry abruptly changed tactics. Claiming an assassination plot, which may or may not have been the case, he had Sibylla and young William III arrested and shipped off to Germany. Any Norman noble who had attended King Tancred’s coronation was rounded up and executed, while the emperor’s tax officials looted the island. The Norman treasury at Palermo was packed onto mules and sent north, where the most famous pieces (among them King Roger’s coronation cloak) still remain.   

For Queen Sibylla at least, there was a happy ending. After five years in captivity she was released to live out the rest of her life in obscurity. Her son, William III, however, wasn’t so fortunate. The last Norman king of Sicily died in a German prison. Some sources say he was castrated and blinded on Henry’s orders, others that he was forcibly tonsured. Perhaps it was both; either way he was dead within four years. 

The Norman kingdom of Sicily was only sixty-four years old when it died, and for the people of Sicily the loss was tremendous. The island was, as its most perceptive citizens had feared, lost within the vast German Empire. Never again would it run its own affairs or have the luxury of native rule. Henceforth it would always be just a part of some larger kingdom or state. The real tragedy in this was that its own rulers had thrown away that independence.  

The achilles heel of Norman Sicily had always been the absolute power of its kings. Everything depended on the character of the person on the throne. Under the brilliant Rogers, Sicily was wealthy and prosperous, under the Williams it actively decayed. Tancred may have made a worthy king, but he didn’t have the chance to prove himself. Norman Sicily had blazed brilliantly; the island would never be so prosperous or happy again.    

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