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The Normans and the Hohenstaufens

in Southern Italy and Sicily


1000 TO 1266


Book Gallery:  Books on Sicily and Southern Italy




The Early Normans in Southern Italy


Rainulf Drengot (?? - 1045), Norman Adventurer and first Count of Aversa (1030).


With his brothers and 250 other Norman castouts and adventurers, Rainulf established a protection business around Monte Sant'Angelo and its pilgrims in the late 1010s.   The Byzantines (who thought they were in charge) showed their displeasure by thrashing the Normans in a battle close to Cannae (where Hannibal won his greatest victory against Rome), after which the bedraggled Norman survivors headed west into Lombard lands to lick their wounds. 


Battered but not defeated, Drengot and the surviving Normans regrouped and manoeuvred themselves within ten years into a position where they had pretty much usurped the Lombards, and in the process taken over a lot of the properties of the Abbey of Montecassino.  In 1030 Rainulf was acknowledged as the first Count of Aversa - the first formal Norman presence in Southern Italy.    In 1038 he got his own back by beating the Byzantines in battle, and decided he was really a Prince.  And in 1042, in an act of poetic justice, his Norman mate from the other side (William Bras-de-Fer - see below) let him have Monte Sant'Angelo after he had removed the Byzantines from the east side of the country.  Rainulf left no sons, and it was the 9 Hauteville boys and their descendants (below) who were to stamp a lasting Norman impression on Southern Italy and Sicily.


A Norman keep overlooks the Abruzzi village of Cesoli - a town on the other side of the 'hill' from a similar Norman stronghold in Anversa degli Abruzzi (below).  The mountains and valleys of the Abruzzi provided secure strongholds for many Norman war lords.




Anversa degli Abruzzi


Tancred of Hauteville (early 1000s)


An unnoteworthy knight who lived in Normandy.  9 of his 12 sons travelled to Apulia and ended up overthrowing the Byzantine rule there and spawning the Norman Dukes of Apulia and Calabria and the Kings of Sicily ( = Sicily + Southern Italy).


William ("Bras-de-Fer" or "Iron Arm"), Drogo and Humphrey


Sons of Tancred by his first marriage and successively Counts of Apulia (Puglia).


Robert Guiscard - Duke of Apulia (?1025 - 1085 (60))

Son of Tancred by his second marriage.  Count of Apulia (1057) after Humphrey died, then in 1059 he got Pope Nicholas to sign the Treaty of Melfi.  This recognized Norman control over Southern Italy, and made Robert the Duke of Apulia, the Duke of Calabria, and the Count of Sicily - the latter was just a tad anticipative as it was not until 1072 that the forces of Robert's youngest brother Roger rolled in to Palermo to end Arab rule there.



Bohemond I of Antioch (c1058 – 1111 (53)), also Prince of Taranto


Map source - Wikipedia



Son of Robert who, encouraged by his dad, developed seriously wider geographic ambitions than Puglia, and had a go early on at subduing Greece on his way to doing the same to Constantinople.  However, this failed, and it was to be the 90s before the big fella Bohemond, at that stage attacking Amalfi with uncle Roger (below), met up with groups heading out for the First Crusade. 


Realizing the opportunities for personal power that the crusades presented, Bohemond raised his own army of South Italian Normans and joined in, ending up as Prince of Antioch in the late 1090s.  Antioch though was very much a B team place, and Bohemond never cracked the mainstream crusader power base centred on Jerusalem. 


Later he was to marry the dazzling Constance, daughter of French King Philip I, but apart from this his days in the sun were over, and he slipped from misfortune to misjudgement, eventually dying "a broken man" (as they say) in 1111. 


Bohemond did leave behind an unusual and interesting mausoleum next to the Cattedrale in Canosa (Puglia).  This includes a set of bronze doors dating from the early 1100s.


Roger I - Count of Sicily (1031 - 1072 - 1101 (70))


Youngest son of Tancred, brother of Robert - Invested by brother Robert as Count of Sicily in 1072 though it took several more years for him to establish control of the whole island.  But by the time he did, Roger had a much tighter control over Sicily than his brother did over the stroppy Norman warlords in Southern Italy.  Roger had three wives (serially) and 16 legitimate children (mostly daughters), of whom his successor Roger II, born when his dad was 62, was number 15.




Trani Cattedrale, the most evocatively sited of the dozen or so Byzantine / Norman cathedrals in Puglia, dates from 1099.



Norman Kings of Sicily


Book Gallery:  Books on Sicily and Southern Italy


Map source - Wikipedia


Norman Conquests by 1100


The Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, which contains inter alia the Capella Palatina.




Roger II (1093 - 1105? - 1130 - 1154 (61))


By the end of Roger's rule, "The Kingdom of Sicily" meant everything from Naples down + Malta


Link to the Palazzo dei Normanni, hub of the Glittering Court of Roger II in Palermo, Sicily


Roger II was the 15th child of Roger I, who took over after number 13 (Simon) lasted only 4 years as a child Count before dying.  Well actually his mum just kept on ruling because it was 1112 before Roger was old enough to be allowed to rule by himself.  He was Count, then King of Sicily (only), then King of Sicily ( = Sicily + Southern Italy).  He was also a Knight Templar (though it is doubtful if he obeyed their rules of not washing and wearing raw sheepskin underwear and he certainly did not sign up to celibacy - he knew from his father and grandfather that that was not the Norman way). 


Roger II successfully arm-wrestled Popes, Antipopes, and Emperors of West and East to achieve the position of the most significant of of the Norman rulers in Southern Italy.  He presided over the happening Glittering (Christian / Islamic / Jewish) Court of Europe in the first half of the 1100s, funded by one of the continent's richest economies and most successful navies (some say the Jolly Roger flag was named after him - unlikely in the Dom's view, but a good story). 


Roger II built the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, encouraged (and had his mosaic portrait in) the parallel masterpiece La Martorana, and started the magically located Cefalu Cathedral.  His tomb is in the Palermo Duomo



Above: Tombs of Roger II (back) and Frederick II in Palermo Duomo


Right (Left): Roger II (La Martorana, Palermo)


Right (Right): William II (Monreale Duomo)




William I (The Bad) (?? - 1154 - 1166 (??))


Fourth son of Roger II (the first three died pre 1154).  Whilst he was a shadow of his giant father, it is not clear what merited the title of "The Bad".


William II (The Good) (1153 - 1166 - 1189 (36))


Son of William I.  Builder of the magnificent Monreale Cathedral Described by Ibn Jubair, a traveller in Sicily in 1183-1185, as being surrounded by Muslim women and eunuchs, speaking and reading Arabic and living like "a Moslem king."  He had actually married one of the "Plantagenet Kids", Joan, in 1177.  Their one child died in infancy.  Joan survived William, only to be locked up by Tancred .....


The all over mosaiced Cathedral of Monreale   -   near Palermo


Tancred ( ?? - 1189 - 1194 ( ?? )


Grandson (illegitimately) of Roger II.  Physically small, Tancred must have known his luck was out when the awful French speaking Richard I of England + Army pitched up in Sicily on their third crusading way to the Holy Land in 1190.  Tancred must also have wondered what he had been thinking when he had earlier imprisoned Richard's favourite sister Joan. 


Anyway Joan got released (along with her dowry), then to complicate matters Mum Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived with Berengaria of Navarre - bride to be for the gay Richard.  Oh, and Philip II + his French army turned up as wellThe foreigners smashed up a few things including Messina, ate all the food, raped the women and generally made Sicilian winter life hell till they all moved on in 1191 to make life hell for the Muslims (all except Eleanor, who went home - she'd been there done that crusading wise).  More about what happened next to Richard and Joan ......


William III (1190 - ?? (??))


Second son of Tancred who got to rule for only a few months in 1194 (aged 4) until the forces of Swabian Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI Hohenstaufen (1165 -  1190 - 1197 (32)) (see below), bankrolled by the humungous ransom he had extracted for the release of English King Richard, prevailed.  What happened to William after he was exported to Germany is the subject of several tales but no evidence!


Constance (1154 -  1194 - 1198 (44))


Daughter of Roger II (she was actually born just after he died), thought she should rule Sicily in her own right, but hubby Emperor Henry VI Hohenstaufen knew otherwise.  Constance was 40 when she gave birth to Frederick (II), then died when he was just 4 - but before that she did make Innocent III his guardian (which is maybe what made him into a long term enemy of the church!).



Hohenstaufen Kings of Sicily




Henry VI Hohenstaufen receives the legates of Palermo - 1100s codex

from "Sicily - Art, History and Culture"


Emperor Henry VI (1165 -  1194 - 1197 (32))


Holy Roman Emperor from 1190 and King of Sicily from 1194 (see above), hubby of and joint ruler for a short time of Sicily (including Southern Italy) with older wife Constance (daughter of Roger II - see above).  His dad was Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa ("Redbeard") (1122 - 1155 - 1190 (68)), who drowned in shallow water (interesting the detail that gets passed down .... only shallow water eh ? .... makes you want to know more) on his elderly way to join the awful French speaking Kings Richard I (England) and Philip II (France) in the Third Crusade.


In a strange medieval twist of fate, Barborossa's son Henry Hohenstaufen made a seriously huge pile of money by capturing the nasty King Richard on his way home from the Crusade, and selling him back to England, who were stupid enough to pay up.


Bankrolled by the humungous ransom he had extracted for the release of King Richard Henry moved to ensure that not just his wife but also his army took over down south, and the annexation of the then wealthy Kingdom of Sicily (= Southern Italy + Sicily) added hugely to his power and economic base.  But he did not live long to enjoy it, and also failed in moves to make the emperorship hereditary (probably because he could not find a way of compensating the electors for the loss of the huge bribes paid to them every time there was an election).


Frederick II (1194 - 1215 - 1250 (56))







Frederick's coffin tomb in the Palermo Duomo


Son of Constance (hence King of Sicily from the age of 4) and Emperor Henry VI (hence King of Swabia (German region) and eventually Holy Roman Emperor, though that bit had to be bought). 


Three wives and numerous liaisons led to over 20 offspring.  Wife number 3 was Isabella of England, the daughter of the magna-cartared King John (Lackland or Sans Terre as the French liked to say) and sister of Henry III of England. 


Frederick and family on the stairway to the Ambo in Bitonto Cattedrale (Puglia)


Buried in a magnificent porphyry coffin in the Palermo Duomo just to show that he might have been Swabian and all sorts of other mean ugly things, but at heart he was a Sicilian.


More about Frederick II



Castel del Monte


Eight sides, eight rooms on each floor, eight eight-sided towers, inland from Barletta on the only decent sized hill for miles around. 


Emperor Frederick II built the Castel del Monte in around 1240.  It was one of around 200 fortresses that he erected, but the only one that was not rectangular. 


Its shape is amenable to all manner of esoteric, astrological and geometric interpretations.  Then again, it could have been just a geometrically pleasing hunting lodge.  It does not seem to have had a serious military raison d'être, although its location on top of the only high hill on a very big flat plain certainly gave it a dominating presence.


After the middle ages, the Castel del Monte enjoyed a life (and got knocked around a bit) as a prison, and was later  abandoned. 


Nowadays it has been restored and is listed by UNESCO, and you can find it pictured on the obverse of the Italian Euro-Cent !


Conrad IV (?? - 1250 - 1254 (??))



Conradin (?? - 1254 - 1258 - 1268 (??))



Manfred  (1232 - 1258 - 1266 (34))


Illegitimate son of Frederick II.  An intelligent and fair ruler who was patron of the Ghibelline cause (loosely speaking meaning that he supported the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor against those of the Pope (the Guelphs)), but he was supported by fighters from  the Saracen city of Lucera in Puglia (set up by Frederick to take his forced Muslim exports from Sicily) in dust-ups against Popes and Emperors (even though the Ghibellines, as stated above, were theoretically Emperor people).  He also supported Ghibelline Siena at the famous Battle of Montaperti where they seriously beat up Florence (ask anyone in today's Siena about that!). 


Manfred's second wife and great love was Helena, daughter of Michael II Komnenos Doukas, Ruler of Epirus, and they were married in the Hohenstaufen Castello in Trani (below).  Theirs became a celebrated love story (with five children and opera by Reinecke) - what with him being killed in 1266 at the battle of Benevento and her being betrayed (by the governor of Trani Castello), separated from the kids and then wasting in prison until she died in 1271. 


The centuries in the sun for the south were over, except in the most literal sense.   After the death of Manfred in 1266, Sicily and Southern Italy went their separate Kingdom ways into increasing poverty under imported rulers from France and Spain, Holy Roman Emperors stayed up north, and the city republics and Duchies of Tuscany and Northern Italy continued to surge onwards and upwards.



Castello di Trani, Puglia

Castello di Trani, Puglia




More about Richard and Joan (Jeanne)


We came across more on this story in a website on Languedoc, Toulouse and Aquitaine and just could not resist copying a bit of it here - it's such a medieval story and told with gusto!!  Go to the site to find out much more about Eleanor and the Dukes of Aquitaine (and Toulouse / Languedoc).


" In Saint Gilles, the home town of the Counts of Toulouse, her (Jeanne or Joan's) entourage was met by representatives of the King of Sicily: After a hazardous voyage, the party arrived safely in Sicily, and on February 13, 1177, Jeanne married William II of Sicily and was crowned Queen of Sicily at Palermo Cathedral.


They had one son, Bohemond, born in 1181, who died in infancy. Following William's death she was kept a prisoner by the new king, Tancred of Sicily. Her brother Richard I of England arrived in Italy in 1190, on the way to the Holy Land. He demanded her return, along with her dowry. Tancred baulked at these demands so Richard seized a nearby monastery and the castle of La Bagnara. Deciding to spend the winter there he attacked and subdued the city of Messina. Outclassed, Tancred now agreed to the terms and sent back Jeanne's dowry.


In March 1191 Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived in Messina with Richard's prospective bride, Berengaria of Navarre. Eleanor returned to England, leaving Berengaria in Jeanne's care. Richard decided to postpone his wedding. He put his sister and bride on a ship, and set sail for the Holy Land. Two days later the fleet was hit by a storm which destroyed several vessels and blew Jeanne and Berengaria's ship off course.


Richard landed in Crete, but his sister and fiancée were stranded near Cyprus. The Despot of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus was just about to capture them when Richard's fleet appeared. Both princesses were saved, but the ambitious Isaac made off with Richard's treasure. Richard pursued and captured Isaac, threw him into a dungeon, and sent Jeanne and Berengaria on to Acre in the County of Tripoli, an Occitan speaking state belonging to the the House of Toulouse.


Once established in the Holy Land, Richard proposed marrying Jeanne to Saladin's brother, Al-Adil, and making the couple joint rulers of Jerusalem. This excellent plan failed as Jeanne declined to marry a Muslim, Al-Adil declined to marry a Christian and neither wanted to convert (which would in any case have largely defeated the object of the plan)......... "


 Link to the whole page.



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