The Norman Conquest brings forth visions of William the Conqueror landing on English shores and going on to defeat Harold at Hastings. There is another lesser known Norman Conquest, that of the Southern Italy and Sicily. Overall, the region has better weather and wine, so why not?
Roots of this invasion go back quite some time. In 1054, the “western” church led by Rome and the “eastern” church led by Constantinople officially separated. This had been in the works for some time, but the final blow just happened to land on this date. The Pope did not like the Byzantine expansion in Southern Italy, and raised an army to kick them out. Normans and Lombard second sons flocked to this army. A pair of Norman brothers also joined, William and Drago, sons of Tacred d’Hauteville. Northern France had a glut of militarized nobles with nothing to do. Some were sent on crusade, but most feuded with each other and caused all kinds of problems. The losers were exiled, and struck out to new lands to make their fortune. Such was the story of the d’Hautevilles. William d’Hauteville, Iron Arm, became the leader of the Norman forces in Southern Italy and eventually became the Count of Apulia. More d’Hauteville brothers came to Apulia, the most famous being Robert Guiscard, or “the crafty”.
The Pope realized he only exchanged one enemy for another by using the Normans to expel the Byzantines and sent an army to nip Norman power in the bud. That army was handily defeated at Civitate in 1053 and the Pope was eventually taken prisoner. The d’Hauteville brothers consolidated their power and controlled not only Apulia but Calabria as well. The Pope realizing he had painted himself in a corner made a treaty with the d’Hautevilles recognizing their rights to Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. One problem. Sicily wasn’t his to give. At that time, Sicily was under control of Saracen Arabs. In 1060, Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger D’Hauteville began the original Norman Conquest…not of England but of Sicily.
The Normans fought their way through Northern Sicily exploiting the fractures between the Saracens and the native Gr
eek population. After ten long years, they captured the capital of Palermo in 1071. There were twenty more long years of war where the tide went for and against the Normans and cities exchanged hands on a regular basis. Finally in 1090, the last Saracen city fell and the Normans were in complete control of the island.
The two brothers unbelievably came to an amiable agreement and split their new kingdom between them. Roger took the island of Sicily and Robert took Southern Italy. Their descendants were not as amicable. Feuds went on between them until Roger’s youngest son Roger united Sicily and the d’Hauteville lands on mainland Italy into one kingdom- Kingdom of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria, and later as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. He was crowned King Roger I in 1130, and under his rule Sicily became one of the most cosmopolitan kingdoms in medieval Europe. The Normans retained much of the Arab society and combined them with governing improvements from France and England. It was a syncretistic society that combined the best of the conquering cultures of the island.
However, this was only a brief interlude before Sicily became another chip in the game of European politics.
Sources available on request