Chapter 8

Bras de Fer

The conquest of England profoundly changed Normandy. The old, chaotic days had been receding for nearly a generation with the exception of William’s childhood and the price of stability was the mass exodus of a good number of the duchy’s younger sons. The minor nobility that was used to having things its own way soon discovered that life under a strong duke meant much less freedom, opportunity and power. As personal castles were torn down and the power of local strongmen evaporated, more and more of them began to look for opportunities abroad.   

The eleventh century would prove to be the great period of Norman adventure, and although it was already half over by the time William the Conqueror first entered London, its greatest conquests still lay ahead. Remarkably enough they would largely be the achievement of a single family, not a noble or wealthy one, but that of a simple knight named Tancred de Hauteville. He was a second generation Norman whose grandfather had arrived with Rollo, and he settled in southern Normandy on a small plot of land. Virtually nothing is known about him other than the fact that he was remarkably fertile. In addition to an unknown number of daughters, he had five surviving sons by his first wife, and another seven by his second. This was a problem since the family was relatively poor; once they came of age there was not nearly enough of an inheritance to go around.  

Traditionally there were only two ways to resolve the issue. The boys could either divide the inheritance twelve ways making it too small to support anyone, or they could slug it out and let the victor claim the entire thing. Fortunately for the younger sons, at this point an uncle returning from pilgrimage in Italy advised them to try their luck there.  

The first Normans had arrived in the peninsula as pilgrims at the beginning of the century. On their way to Jerusalem they had paused in the little town of Monte Sant'Angelo. Perched on the slopes of a limestone massif jutting up from the rolling Italian countryside of Apulia, the town had always seemed a place of special importance. The ancient Romans set up a popular shrine to a son of the healing god, Asclepius, and legend had it that the mountain was also sacred to Chalcas, the great Greek seer of the Iliad. Thanks to a timely fifth-century appearance by the archangel Michael, the waning of paganism did nothing to dent this mystical aura and its reputation, if anything, continued to grow. By the eleventh century the cave where the angel emerged had become a major stop on the pilgrim route. Popes, kings, and saints all came calling, eager to share in the celestial mysteries, and the walls of the adjoining chapel were soon covered with the offerings of those who had been miraculously healed. Even the most powerful secular rulers felt the pull. The German emperor, Otto III, walked barefoot from Rome, while his less pious successor, Henry II, hid in the grotto overnight to see if there was any truth to the rumor that the Archangels Michael and Gabriel would appear at midnight to celebrate the mass.  

The most fateful visitors, however, arrived in 1016. An unassuming group of forty Norman knights on their way back from the Holy Land stopped at the cave to pay their respects. Just after they had entered, a small man dressed in the Greek style of flowing robes approached them and begged for help. He was a Lombard by the name of Melus who had spent his life in the cause of Lombard freedom but had been driven into exile by the Byzantines. All he needed, he claimed, was a few sturdy mercenaries to force the cowardly Byzantines back and liberate his people. To his delight, the Normans at once agreed to help. They couldn’t come to his assistance immediately of course they had come as pilgrims and it was hardly appropriate to march off to war but they promised to return within a year.  

It wasn’t the appeal to nobility or brotherhood that inspired the Normans. They had a low opinion of southerners in general and Lombards in particular. A short time before, they had witnessed a Saracen attack on Salerno and been astounded by the cowardice of the locals. As far as they were concerned the Italians were effeminate and soft, and firmly deserved their subservient status. Melus, however, knew his audience well enough to have added the inducements of money and land to his request, and it was this that fired their imaginations. Gazing at the sun-drenched Apulian countryside stretching out before them, they must have relished the chance to gain a foothold in this beautiful land.  

The alliance with the Lombards was short lived. Even with Norman arms stiffening their forces, they were crushed by Byzantine forces in the first real clash. The battle was enough to prove the worth of Norman swords to the Byzantines, however, and they immediately hired them to quash the troublesome insurgents. Abandoning the cause of Lombard freedom as easily as they had picked it up, the Normans cheerfully set to work enforcing the imperial will.

The oldest Hauteville son, William, reached Italy around 1035, just as the last Lombard resistance was being mopped up. Within months of his arrival, the Byzantine emperor decided to conquer Sicily and put out a great call for mercenaries. William, along with three hundred of his fellow knights enlisted immediately. 

Under the brilliant Macedonian dynasty of Byzantium, the empire had turned the tide against the caliphate and was engaged in a great push to clear the eastern Mediterranean of Muslim pirates. The Macedonian line had ended with the death of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer in 1025, but although the emperors who followed him were weak, the army Basil had created was still formidable and won a string of victories in Syria and along the Anatolian and North African coast. Now the imperial forces turned their attention to Sicily hoping to clear out the main pirate nest and win a rich land of grain, cotton, sugar, and fruit groves for the empire. The timing looked especially good. Civil war had erupted in Sicily, the aristocracy was divided, and central authority was collapsing. Additionally, a large part of the population was still Christian, and could be counted on to act as a fifth column.  

To command the invasion, the emperor chose George Maniaces, the rising star of the Byzantine world. Charismatic, headstrong, and larger than life in nearly every respect, Maniaces had a reputation as imposing as his physique. Even the usually unflappable members of the imperial court seemed stunned in his presence. After reporting that the general was ten feet tall and had a roar that could frighten whole armies, the imperial historian Michael Psellus concluded by saying that “those who saw him for the first time discovered that every description was an understatement”.  

His rise was as meteoric as it was unexpected. A decade before he had been the governor of Teluch, an obscure city in Asia Minor, and if not for an unfortunate imperial humiliation, would probably have remained so indefinitely. The hapless emperor, Romanus Argyrus, in an attempt to bolster his military reputation, marched to war against the caliphate, but as he was traveling through a pass just north of Teluch some Saracen cavalry ambushed him. Thanks to some quick thinking and a change of clothes the emperor managed to escape, but his army scattered in a panic. Loaded down with loot from the imperial baggage, the Saracens rode to Teluch and gleefully informed Maniaces of the debacle, adding for good measure that the emperor was dead and his army destroyed. Since night was falling they sportingly gave him until the next morning to surrender, promising dreadful retribution if he refused.  

Maniaces gave every sign of panic, assuring the Saracens that at first light he would appear in their camp with every bit of treasure the city possessed. As a gesture of his good intentions, he sent along a large amount of food and drink for the victors to enjoy. The wine in particular had the intended effect as the Saracens were parched and in the mood to celebrate. Before long they were hopelessly drunk and Maniaces’ soldiers slipped into their camp and butchered every last man. When the bloody work was done, the governor ordered the ears and nose cut off of each corpse, gathering the grisly trophies in a sack. The next morning he set out on horseback to find his fleeing sovereign, and after reporting his triumph he dumped out the contents of the bag. The delighted emperor promoted him on the spot.  

Even brash young knights like William de Hauteville must have found the army Maniaces gathered in Sicily impressive. In addition to the usual mercenary forces of Italian adventurers and grumbling Lombards who had been pressed into service, the general had brought with him a company of fierce Bulgarians and some Varangians under the command of the already semi-legendary Norse hero Harald Hardrada.  

At first the great army carried all before it. Messina was the first town to fall, followed by Troina and Rametta. Within the next two years a dozen major fortresses in the east were taken with only Syracuse managing to hold out. There, a spirited defense by the local emir frustrated every attempt to force the city walls, and each unsuccessful effort weakened the morale of the besieging army. After one particularly dismal episode the gates opened and the emir suddenly galloped out at the head of his forces. The sortie caught the Byzantines by surprise and they fell back in a panic. The retreat threatened to turn into a rout until William, seeing the danger from another section of the walls, leapt into action. Making a sudden charge straight for the emir, he struck him with all the force he could muster. The blow nearly split the man in half and sent him crashing lifeless from his saddle. The demoralized Saracens fell back to the city, but they had little more fight left in them, and asked for terms.  

William’s sword stroke had delivered Syracuse to the Byzantines, but more importantly it had provided the foundation of the Hauteville reputation. From that day on he was known as William Bras de fer, ‘Iron-arm’, and became the undisputed leader of the Normans in the south. When he returned to the Italian peninsula it would be as the most renowned figure of his day, and he would arrive with the first stirrings of a larger Norman destiny. The days of simple mercenaries were passing. From now on the Normans would serve themselves.  

This dawning consciousness of their worth came at a bad time for the Byzantines, for despite the victories, the campaign was starting to fall apart. The imperial court, as always suspicious of too successful a general, had started to slow the shipment of supplies. Pay for the mercenaries began to lapse and disputes arose over the division of the spoils. Things came to a head when the Normans sent a Lombard emissary to formally lodge a complaint with Maniaces. Characteristically, the hotheaded general saw this as a personal affront and had the man whipped and paraded through the camp. The frustrated Normans left the expedition, bitterly protesting their treatment.  

Despite the way it had ended, William's Sicilian expedition had been a great success. He had learned a valuable lesson. Sicily was rich and disunited, and there were plenty of Christian allies to aid any invasion. That bit of information was filed away for a more opportune moment. When the time was right, the Hautevilles would make good use of it.

In the meantime, William began to show his strength. Rekindling his old Lombard sympathies he encouraged a rebellion and invaded Apulia, the richest part of Byzantine Italy, with a mixed Lombard and Norman army. The town of Melfi opened its gates to the 'liberators', giving the Normans their first real foothold in Italy. Within a year William had extended his control to the surrounding territory, a string of prosperous trading and fishing towns that produced so much grain, olives, vegetables and fruit that it was known (then as now) as 'Fat Apulia'. The local Byzantine governor was provoked into instigating a battle, and the two sides met on the site of the ancient fields of Cannae.  

For the superstitious in both armies, it was an ominous location. Twelve centuries earlier the Carthaginian general Hannibal had inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats in Roman history on this spot by completely wiping out a consular army. The citizens of Rome had been so terrified that they indulged in their last recorded acts of human sacrifice, burying two people alive in the Forum and throwing an infant into the Adriatic. The Normans, however, had also experienced a disaster here. Just two decades prior to this a Byzantine force had thrashed a combined Norman and Lombard army so thoroughly that only ten Norman knights had survived.  

If William had any qualms about fighting in such a fateful locale he didn’t show it, giving instead every appearance of confidence. This was mostly due to the fact that although his forces were heavily outnumbered, they no longer had to deal with the terrible Maniaces. The great general had been outmaneuvered by his enemies at court and been recalled in disgrace. 

His troubles had started when a wealthy and well-connected Anatolian neighbor named Romanus Sclerus accused him of encroaching on his land. Maniaces, who had difficulty controlling his temper in the best of times, had forgotten himself enough to administer a savage beating to the patrician. When Romanus recovered he swore revenge and took full advantage of the general’s absence to loot his house, burn his fields and, as a final insult, seduce his wife. He spent the next year undermining Maniaces’ reputation at court, successfully persuading the emperor to recall him.  

With Maniaces gone the Byzantines could field no competent general against the Normans, and William with his usual exquisite timing knew he only needed to provoke a battle. When the Byzantines sent an emissary to his camp, William gave him a terrifying welcome. The poor man launched into a prepared speech when suddenly a Norman knight crept up and struck his horse in the forehead. The stunned animal instantly crumpled to the ground throwing its rider. As one group of soldiers grabbed the diplomat another seized the horse and threw it off a cliff. They then shook the petrified man to his feet, provided him with another mount and told him to stop wasting their time with words. “Go back to your emperor”, they said, “and tell him the Normans are ready to fight.”  

Despite having only three hundred knights and twice that number of foot soldiers, the Normans were considered a serious enough threat to warrant the presence of the Varangian Guard, Byzantium's elite fighters. Despite this, the imperial forces were unable to stand up to the Norman heavy cavalry and most of their forces were drowned trying to cross a river in a bid to escape. Two months later the Byzantines tried again, this time with regiments from Asia and a large number of the returning Sicilian forces, but were again defeated.  

The victories against the hated Byzantines gave William a tremendous amount of prestige that he used to spread a revolt throughout the remaining Byzantine territory. 

Constantinople at last awoke to the seriousness of the situation and quickly sent the one man capable of turning the tide. That spring Maniaces returned to Italy to crush his former mercenary. He did so with alarming violence, swatting aside a Norman force and engaging in a savage campaign against all the towns that had wavered in their loyalty. Dissidents were crucified, women were raped, and children were buried up to their necks and left to die. The brutal tactics worked. Local support for the rebellion evaporated and the Normans were left dangerously exposed.  

But Byzantium was no longer the force it had once been and plagued by its conspiracy-ridden court, it destroyed itself. Maniaces met his end in a suitably grand fashion, nearly bringing the entire empire to its knees in the process. His old enemy Romanus Sclerus had arranged another humiliating recall, but this time had overstepped himself. He just couldn’t resist the temptation to enjoy his enemy’s discomfort at first hand and traveled to Italy to deliver the imperial summons in person. Unfortunately for Sclerus, Maniaces didn't take the news gracefully. Seizing Sclerus, he had the man’s ears nose and mouth stuffed with horse dung, and then slowly tortured him to death. Hurling curses at the man on Constantinople’s throne, Maniaces declared himself emperor and marched on the capital. There was no general in the empire capable of stopping him, and by the time he reached Thessalonica he had all but taken the crown. Here, however, fate intervened. Riding out to a skirmish with loyal imperial troops he was killed by a chance spear throw and his army disintegrated. The surviving rebels were paraded backwards on mules in the Hippodrome25 and the empire was spared further bloodshed.  

With military options no longer viable to restore the situation in Italy, Constantinople turned to the tried and true method of bribery to weaken the rebellion. The main Lombard ringleaders were offered generous pensions to switch sides, which they eagerly accepted, and the Normans were left once again on their own.  

They were still technically fighting for Lombard freedom but they no longer trusted their allies and decided to elect their own leader. The trouble was that they all saw themselves as equals and found it hard to accept a superior authority. They did recognize the need for a united command in battle, but the same independent and ambitious streak that had led them to seek their fortunes in Italy made them virtually ungovernable. William was the military hero of the rebellions and was dutifully given the title ‘Count of Apulia’, but this was mostly wishful thinking as the Normans only controlled a small part of it, and William had little real authority over his fellow knights. He was the first among equals, able to rally them against common enemies, but little else.  

This, however, was enough for William to establish himself as a powerful figure in the region. Marrying the niece of the Prince of Salerno, he gained entry into the Lombard nobility and accepted the prince as his feudal overlord. In response, the prince officially invested him with Apulia which was divided among the twelve most powerful Normans. The town of Melfi, which they had first conquered, was to be held in common by all twelve as a sign of equality.  

William had come a long way from the landless son of a poor knight. Under his loose leadership the Normans had been transformed from simple Byzantine and Lombard mercenaries to landed barons. As a sign of the changing fortunes, he made it clear that he intended to push his old Byzantine employers out of Italy. In 1045 he invaded Calabria but was sharply checked near the southern Italian port city of Taranto. It proved to be the last campaign of his career. The following year as he was readying yet another expedition, he caught a fever and died.  

His death left the Normans of the south at a crossroads. There was clearly great opportunity, but also the beginnings of a dangerous backlash. The Lombards, Byzantines, and even the pope were by now concerned by the growing power of the Normans, and threatened by the change in the status quo. Even the native populations of Apulia, who had welcomed the Normans as liberators, now began to see them as oppressors. All it would take was a single spark to ignite this growing anti-Norman storm.  

The former mercenaries seemed oblivious to the danger. Eager for individual gain they were disunited and busy trying to squeeze every bit of plunder from their conquests. What they needed was a leader who was strong enough to enforce discipline and direct Norman energy into productive channels. Unknown to them, that leader arrived in Italy just months after William's death. 


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