The Sicilian Vespers are one of the Isle of Sicily’s most famous historical events. In the years leading up to the start of the revolt, a struggle had broken out between the House of Hohenstafen and the Papacy in Rome over the control of Italy. The former ruled Germany and claimed authority over most of northern Italy; the Papal States were situated between Northern Italy and the Island of Sicily in the south. Pope Innocent IV had declared Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the head of the House of Hohenstafen as deposed and raised opposition against him within Germany and Italy.
When Frederick died in 1250 his lands were inherited by his son Conrad, who ruled for only four years before his death, at which time Frederick’s other son Manfred became ruler, seizing power from Conrad’s son Conradin by spreading false rumours of his death. Manfred wished to reconcile with the Papacy, however neither Pope Urban IV nor his successor Pope Clement IV were prepared to recognise him as the lawful ruler of Sicily. Manfred was excommunicated and the Papacy sought to depose him by force of arms.
After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade England to champion their cause, the Papacy enlisted the aid of Charles of Anjou who invaded Italy and defeated and killed Manfred at the Battle of Benevento in 1266. The papacy now had their candidate for the throne of Sicily and Charles was crowned King. Conradin, now an adult, attempted to seize his throne by invading Italy, but he was defeated at the Battle of Tagliacozzo and executed shortly afterwards.
Charles’ ambition went much further than Sicily, which he viewed as merely a springboard from which to launch his greater plans, the capture of Constantinople, which was at the time the richest city in the world, and the overthrow of the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII Palaiologos. The Sicilians resented their subordinate role in Charles’ Empire, and their noble’s lack of involvement in the governing of the Island. Unrest simmered over the high taxes Charles imposed in order to fund his wars outside of Sicily, which were viewed by the Sicilians as having no benefit at all to them. Byzantine agents added fuel to the fire in order to put a stop to Charles’ planned invasion, and the Aragonese King Peter III laid claim to the throne in the name of his wife Constance, the daughter of the deposed and defeated King Manfred.
On March 30th 1282, unrest turned to all out rebellion. Versions of events differ slightly but most only vary in minor details. At the Church of the Holy Spirit just outside Palermo, the people had gathered at Vespers to mark the beginning of the night vigil into Easter Monday, a group of French officials arrived to join in the festivities, one of the men approached a married Sicilian woman, and dragged her from the crowd, her husband subsequently attacked the man with a knife and stabbed him to death. A fight then broke out between the French officials wishing to avenge the death of their friend and the Sicilian crowd wishing to break free from the iron rule of the Angevin King. The French men were murdered and a riot began. Within six weeks 3000 French men and women were massacred by the rebels, and Charles I had lost control of the Island.
Apparently the word “Cicero” was used by the rebels to distinguish between native Islanders and their French enemies… if it was mispronounced when said, the speaker would have effectively signed their own death warrant. Charles’ fleet in the harbour of Messina was burned. The last stragglers of the Angevin army were given shelter in the Castle of Sperlinga by the townspeople, where they survived for a year, a testament to this kindness remains engraved into the walls of the castle “Quod Siculis placuit sola Sperlinga negavit” (Sperlinga alone refused what pleased the Sicilians).
Charles I declared war on the rebellious Sicilians, however having no army of their own, the Island inhabitants had to turn to various outside sponsors for protection. They made the mistake of first turning to the Pope for aid; his reply was to excommunicate the entire Island. Eventually the Sicilians turned to Peter III, King of Aragon for aid, he accepted and took Sicily into his Kingdom, launching a war against the Angevin King that would last for 20 years.
The Spanish would dominate Sicily for the next 400 years.