Not so Roman Holiday-  The Normans in Sicily

This coin of Roger I, Count of Sicily, demonstrates the centrality of military prowess to the sense of Norman rulership.  Photo Credit- Wikimedia Commons
This coin of Roger I, Count of Sicily, demonstrates the centrality of military prowess to the sense of Norman rulership.
Photo Credit- Wikimedia Commons

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

Scribes of and for the various populations of the Kingdom of Sicily: Greeks, Saracens, Latins. photo credit= By Peter of Eboli - Liber ad honorem Augusti, Public Domain
Scribes of and for the various populations of the Kingdom of Sicily: Greeks, Saracens, Latins.
photo credit= By Peter of Eboli – Liber ad honorem Augusti, Public Domain

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

Homosexuality and the Throne of England

Rumors fly when a person is in a position of power.  The royalty of England is no exception.  One of the easiest and deadliest lobs to throw was sexuality- either adultery, homosexuality or a combination thereof.  This post will take a look at two of the most pervasive rumors.

William II of England, from the Stowe Manuscript
William II of England, from the Stowe Manuscript

William Rufus

Son of William the Conquerer, William Rufus inherited England in his father’s death.  Though not a large man, he had a definite presence and was described as a “wild bull”.  Muscular and stocky with fair hair and a taste for the latest fashion, he never married, which was odd for a king of the time period.  He needed a queen for alliance, wealth and heirs.  However, William made no move to change his bachelor state.  Three chroniclers make the leap to homosexuality as to the reason why.

Eadmer of Canterbury was the Archbishop’s chaplain and had a ring side seat to court shinanagans.  He reports that many young men, including the king, wore their hair as long as women and “minced about with girlish steps”.  The Archbishop refused to distribute ashes in Ash Wednesday to men who refused to cut their hair.  The Archbishop also requested the king join him in a crusade to root sodemy out of court, however, William was offended and refused.

William of Malmesbury took this and ran with it.  He described in greater detail reports of effeminacy of the men at court, especially taking offense at shoes that curled up at the toe.  He also implied that there was more than a professional relationship between the king and Ranulf Flambard.  William did have pretty male favorites, which many chroniclers found odd.  Oderic, writing a decade after after William of Malmesbury, accuses the king of being the king of lust.  He describes the men of court having too tight tunics, pointed shoes and hair down their backs like whores.  He says court was full of “sodimites” and Williams death while hunting as judgement for his sins.

No one comes right out and accuses William of being homosexual, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence.  Sodemy could not have been widespread at court without his knowledge or at least the king turning a blind eye.  Mostly, William is accused of debauchery in general.  The fashion critiques sound like every old person lamenting “kids today”.  It has been explained the Norman nobles were wealthy from their English lands and were buying up every new fad in clothes, much to their fathers’ chagrin.  English fashion was for a man to wear longer hair, and not the famous Norman short cut.  Therefore, it was not looked highly upon by the older generation.

These accounts are all by churchman, and should be taken with a grain of salt however.  William and the Church were at odds for the entirety of his reign.  William held bishoprics empty to get the revenue, and squeezed every last shilling out of the English Church. They loathed him.  They were throwing everything to the wall and hoping something would stick.


Church of Fontevraud Abbey Richard I effigy
Church of Fontevraud Abbey Richard I effigy

Richard I

Richard the Lionheart has had his share of praise and criticism.  One of the barbs shot at him, besides the arrow that killed him, was the accusation of homosexuality.  This rumor is enshrined in literature, specifically the wonderful Lion In Winter (if you haven’t seen it, go now.  I will wait)

The first point those in favor of this theory state is that Richard had no children with his wife Berengaria.  There could be several reasons causing this that do not include homosexuality.  One or both of the couple could have been infertile or the timing just wasn’t right.  Even if Richard wasn’t attracted to his wife, he would have been expected to consummate the marriage and produce heirs.  Royal marriages were not about attraction, they were about politics and procreation.  As far as I can find, there are no whispers the marriage was unconsummated.

This brings us to point two.  The story goes that the prime mover in Richard’s marriage was his formidable mother, Eleanor.  Supposedly, Richard did not want to marry and Eleanor forced his hand.  What is not known is Richard was the one who negotiated the marriage treaty not Eleanor.  He needed allies for when he was away on crusade, and Berengaria’s brother helped put down rebellions in Aquitaine.  Richard also had Berengaria come with him to the Holy Land and went to some trouble to do so.  This is odd behavior for a man looking to escape feminine companions.

The final point, and the “smoking gun”, was that Philip Augustus, King of France, and Richard shared a bed.  The story goes:

And after this peace, Richard the Count of Poitou remained with the king of France against the will of his father; and the king of France was honoring him in such a way that each day they would eat together at one table from one dish, and in the night their bed did not separate them. And because of this exceeding love which appeared between them, the king of England [Henry II] was struck with much astonishment and marveled at this, and being on his guard for himself in the future, sent his messengers frequently to France to recall his son Richard….

However, this is not as it seems to modern ears.  Sharing a bed was a mark of honor and favor, not a sexual thing, in medieval times.  Royalty rarely slept alone and the bedroom morphed into an extension of the presence chamber.  The remark that Richard’s father, Henry, was not happy has more to do with the fact his son was cozying up to his mortal enemy as opposed to having a same sex sexual relationship.  Richard and Philip closely conspiring was bad news for Henry.

My next post will discuss two more kings rumors flew about.  I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions. (Please see part II here: )


Sources available on request


William the Atheling, son of Henry I and Grandson of William the Conqueror
William the Atheling, son of Henry I and Grandson of William the Conqueror

William the Atheling (an Anglo-Saxon term meaning prince or of royal blood) was the only legitimate son of Henry I, King of England, son of William the Conqueror. Williams’s mother was Edith whose own father was Malcolm III King of the Scots and mother was St Margaret. St Margaret was the great Niece of Edward the Confessor. This made William a prince to represent the new Norman rulers but also the old Saxon dynasty of Wessex.
Henry’s only other child was Matilda who married Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor after which she was known as The Empress.
During Henry’s own reign he invested William as Duke of Normandy, this was to ensure his succession but also so that Henry could, himself, avoid paying homage to Louis VI of France. Henry saw Louis as his equal and did not want to demean himself by paying such homage and so offered William to do it instead.

This was unacceptable to Louis so while William was only 16 in 1119 he fought alongside his father at the battle of Bremule and they won a decisive victory. Louis eventually accepted William’s Homage.
After his mother Edith’s death, William was appointed regent of England during his father’s absence and a marriage was arranged for him with Matilda of Anjou. This was merely to secure the loyalty of Anjou which had been a long-time rival of the house of Normandy.

With such great heritage William could have gone on to create a great legacy but like so many before him he met a sad and untimely death.
The White ship was the newest and fastest vessel in the royal fleet. After spending the evening drinking until after dark with friends and crew William and his half-brother and sister boarded the vessel. It wasn’t long before the merry revellers egged on the captain to catch up with the king’s ship, seeing as this was the swiftest vessel in the fleet. Unfortunately the helmsman was half blind with drink and it was so dark the ship crashed, shortly after setting sail, into rocks. Unable to rescue the ship William was able to escape the stricken vessel by a small boat.

William would have escaped but for hearing the cries for help from his half-sister, Matilda Fitzroy. He ordered his boat to turn round but sadly there were too many men in the sea desperate for rescue and as they all tried to clamber aboard the small boat it capsized and drowned them all. Henry of Huntington recorded after the disaster that William
“Instead of wearing embroidered robes….floated naked on the waves and instead of ascending a lofty throne……found his grave at the bottom of the sea”
Henry I was devastated at the loss of his son and eventually appointed his legitimate daughter Matilda the heir to England. This in itself had great consequences for England and the throne for it was to ultimately lead to a long and bitter civil war.


Reading’s Bayeux Tapestry

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

The tapestry hanging in the Bayeux Cathedral was created to commemorate the Battle of Hastings and tells the story of this major event in History. It is generally believed that the Tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half brother, although there are a number of alternative suggestions about who was responsible for the creation of this piece. There are no doubts however about the origins of a full sized replica hanging in a specially constructed gallery in the Museum in Reading, Berkshire.

The replica was acquired for the town by former Mayor, Arthur Hill in 1895. The brainchild behind the replica was Elizabeth Wardle, who was the wife of a well known Staffordshire silk dyer Thomas Wardle. Elizabeth believed that England should have it’s own copy of the tapestry and together with 35 ladies from the Leek Embroidery Society, embarked on the project.

Both the Wardles wanted to keep the work as close to the original as possible. Thomas dyed the yarns to match colours to the originals. The embroidery (The Bayeux Tapestry is in fact embroidery, as the detail is stitched. If it were an actual tapestry, the detail would be woven.) was created using the detail depicted in hand coloured photographs taken of the original, in the possession of the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Children taking part in activities
Children taking part in activities

The replica is true to the original in most ways, however there are a couple of differences. Depicted in the borders of the original there are a number of naked figures. In the replica these are shown wearing ‘underwear’. This was not the doing of the ladies from Leek though. They had copied the details as they are on the photographs. Someone at the museum had covered their modesty when the photos were coloured, and the ladies had faithfully reproduced what they believed to be the original state of the figures.

There are at various points along the 70 metres length of the tapestry the names of the ladies that worked each of the sections. Together with a credit to those involved at the end of the piece.
It is fitting that this replica should now ‘live’ in Reading. William the Conqueror gave land in Reading to Battle Abbey in Sussex, near to the site of the Battle of Hastings. Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121. As well as gifting land to the Abbey, Henry also arranged for land belonging to Battle Abbey to be transferred to the new Abbey in Reading.


Stephen of Blois

A depiction of the Coronation of King Stephen I
A depiction of the Coronation of King Stephen I

Following on from my recent post on the civil war known as The Anarchy ( ), I thought I would delve a bit further into the major players in this period.

Stephen was born in the County of Blois in central France in 1092 or 1096; there are conflicting reports of the date of his birth, probably due to the fact he was not an heir to the throne, nor a major member of the royal family, so there would not have been a lot of publicity surrounding his birth. He was however, a Grandson of William the Conqueror. His mother, Adela was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders, a pious woman, who would have a strong influence on her son. His father, Stephen – Henry was Count of Blois and Chartres, a powerful French nobleman, and an active crusader, who had gained an unfortunate reputation for cowardice during the First Crusade. He was only a part of the young Stephen’s life for a short time, before returning to the Crusades in 1101 in an attempt to redeem himself, where he was killed at the battle of Ramlah.

Stephen was one of many children, at least four brothers and one sister, three of his brothers were older than him, and so he was never expected to inherit his father’s lands or titles. His oldest brother, William, would have stepped into his father’s place but it seems he had some form of intellectual disability, and his mother chose to have the title passed over to her second son Theobold. The third brother Odo, died at a young age, probably in his early teens. Stephen had one younger brother, Henry of Blois, whom he formed a close bond with. Henry headed toward a career in the church, whereas Stephen took the path of a military career. This plan was possibly devised and encouraged by their mother in order to avoid her son’s personal interests clashing. Adela raised her children within her own household, which at the time was rather unusual, as most boys were sent to a close relative for their education. Stephen’s tutor was William the Norman, and under his guidance he learned riding, Latin, History and Biblical Stories.

Stephen formed a close relationship with his uncle, King Henry I of England, being knighted by him in around 1112 when on military campaign with the King in Normandy, and journeyed to England for the first time in 1113 or 1115, as part of Henry’s court. His uncle became a powerful patron of Stephen’s, and under this patronage he began to accumulate land in England, as well as being granted confiscated honours and titles by the King. In 1125 Henry arranged for Stephen to marry Matilda, the sole heiress of the Count of Boulogne, who owned vast estates in the north west and south east of England.

In 1120, Stephen intended to set sail on a ship along with William Adelin, the son and heir of King Henry I, to sail from Normandy to England. Whatever his reason for changing his plans, his delayed journey saved his life, that ship sank, along with the heir to the throne of England. Sources state that it was a bout of diarrhoea that forced the change of plan, however concerns about overcrowding on the doomed vessel have also been stated as his reason for awaiting another ship. This disaster changed the political landscape of England; almost 300 important nobles had lost their lives along with the King’s son. The succession was thrown into turmoil; Henry was only left with one legitimate child, a daughter, and in many parts of Europe male primogeniture was popular, meaning only a son could inherit. In the previous sixty years there had been no peaceful, uncontested succession to the throne of England, William I had taken the throne by force, his sons had fought each other over their inheritance, and King Henry I himself had only taken control of Normandy by use of force. Henry I’s daughter Matilda was at a considerable political disadvantage.

By 1135 Stephen had established himself as a major political player, known to be well mannered, pious and easy going; he was well liked by most. However, he was also powerful, and was a man capable of taking firm action if needed. Stephen’s younger brother Henry of Blois had also risen to power under Henry I, he’d travelled to England with Stephen, first becoming a Cluniac monk, then Abbot of Glastonbury and finally being made Bishop of Winchester, whilst retaining Glastonbury, the combined revenues made him the second richest man in England, after the King. Unhappy with the amount of power Norman kings had over the church, Henry of Blois was keen to reduce the monarchy’s claim on the rights of the church.

When King Henry I died in December 1135, both Matilda and Stephen were out of the country, Matilda in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, and Stephen in Boulogne. Stephen immediately set sail for England along with his military household. It seems that by this point he had already decided that he would lay claim to the English throne, public opinion was certainly in his favour, many did not want a female ruler. The crowds of London traditionally claimed the right to elect a King of England, and they proclaimed Stephen their King, believing he would probably grant them privileges in return I’m sure. Stephen’s brother was aptly placed as Bishop of Winchester to offer the support of the church, a shrewd man, he grasped his opportunity to negotiate a deal in which Stephen would grant extensive freedoms and liberties to the Church, and so Stephen was crowned King Stephen I of England on December 22nd 1135. The rest of Stephen’s reign would be remembered as a time of civil war and unrest, when the country was divided by those who supported him and those who supported the claim of Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I.

King Stephen would not pass his crown to any of his six legitimate children. His eldest son Eustace died in 1153, one year before his father. Only two of his children outlived their father, Marie and William, both would inherit the titles of Countess and Count of Boulogne. The crown instead was passed on to Matilda’s son Henry FitzEmpress, as part of a peace treaty called The Treaty of Winchester. In October 1154 King Stephen fell ill with a stomach disorder, and died at a priory in Dover. He was buried in Faversham Abbey, which he had founded in 1148, with his wife, who’d died two years previously, and his son Eustace.

Henry FitzEmpress was crowned King Henry II, alongside his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine at Westminster on December 19th 1154.