© Jeff Matthews entry Sept. 2003,
box added Aug 2018
By the year 1000 Italy south of Rome was a hodge-podge of Lombard duchies plus a number of small city-states such as Naples as well as various Byzantine provinces; there was also a massive Arab presence on Sicily and the southern mainland. Into this already complicated setting rode the Normans, only a few generations after wading ashore in France as the justifiably feared warrior-race, the Vikings.
The nicest thing ever said about the Vikings was that, yes, they were ferocious, cunning and absolutely ruthless—completely given to pillaging and plundering—but not because they liked it! It was because they realized that ruthless pillaging and plundering was the most efficient way to get what they wanted: namely, the property and possessions of others.
If the Vikings were only
half as nasty as their reputation, it is little wonder
that within 150 years of their first raids on Britain and
the continent they had maneuvered the French king, Charles
the Simple into the wise move of ceding to them in 911 the
land in the north of France which would become known as
Normandy, named for them, the Northmen or Normans. The
real wonder of it all is that they decided to settle down,
and even more wondrous was that in a few generations'
time, all their fire and rage would be diluted by southern
climes, and their empire in southern Italy would be known
for its tolerance, culture and laid-back way of life. But
that is precisely what happened.
If you stand in front of the royal palace in Naples and look at the statues of the rulers of the city, Roger II, the Norman, is the first one (photo, above). He is the monarch who represents the beginning of modern history in Naples. He was the beginning of what might be called a European dimension in southern Italy.The feudal redistribution of land in Normandy had meant that a number of young Norman knights wound up with nothing, so they sought their fortunes elsewhere. By the early eleventh century, bands of them were already wandering around this area, fighting for anyone who would pay them —Lombards, Byzantines, the Papacy, the Dukes of Salerno, Capua or Naples. In return for helping the Neapolitan Duke, Sergio IV, in 1029, they were given the hill-fortress in Aversa with its dependencies, and that area soon became a jumping off point for Norman adventurers who wished to take part in the struggles going on for control of the south. In the middle of the eleventh century they were fighting for and against everyone, managing to take over piecemeal much of what had been Lombard land. By 1090 they had taken Sicily from the Arabs.
Robert of Hauteville arrived in 1047. He was described as very tall with eyes that all but emitted sparks and a voice that put his enemies to flight. His ambition and lust for adventure are said to have been an inspiration to William ("the Conqueror") back home and so, at least second hand, he may have played a part in the invasion of Britain in 1066. [Also, see this entry about Robert's wife, Sichelgaita.]
The Papacy, originally glad to have Norman help against the Byzantines and Lombards, realized that the Norman tail was now wagging the Papal dog. Normans were raiding monasteries in Italy with as much abandon as had their Viking grandfathers a few generations before in Britain and France. The Normans consolidated their gains in a victory over the combined Papal forces of Lombards, Italians (from the Papal States) and German mercenaries at Benevento in 1054. The Pope as well as the Western Empire were forced to ratify Norman gains. It was a brilliant move by the Normans: they now pledged allegiance to the Church, in return for which, of course, the Papacy consecrated the Norman Empire in the South, now virtually all in Norman hands, anyway.
By 1060 there were three separate Norman holdings: Aversa, Capua and Apulia, the last of which was the most important, because it was from there that the Normans, under Roger I, (Robert's brother) went on to take over Sicily and, by default, all Norman holdings in the South.
Shortly after William the Conqueror had successfully invaded Britain, Robert, who saw himself as eventual lord of the whole Mediterranean went on to try and mop up the entire Byzantine Empire in Greece, and failed. His less ambitious sibling, Roger, stayed on in Sicily. Roger's third son became Roger II, and was crowned King of Sicily in 1130.
added: 27 August 2018
The early article, above and below this green box, may have left the impression that the Normans who founded the Kingdom of Sicily were just happy-go-lucky warriors out on a quest to grab whatever land they could down south, and things just turned out the way they did. That is, the phrase "Robert of Hauteville arrived in 1047" requires some explanation. Here.
Vikings in the South & How they Affected the Founding of the Kingdom of Sicily
Everything in red is land that was the object of Viking incursions, some more lasting
than others. For our purposes, note that the island of Sicily and the bottom (the "boot"
of the Italian peninsula) are shaded red. That has to do with the "Sicilian expedition" of
the year 1038 and not with earlier Viking expansion in the Mediterranean of the previous
Not to bury the lead, the salient point of this information is that, yes, the existence of Vikings was in a broad historical sense responsible for the presence of Norman knights in Sicily (that is, if A had not happened, then there would have been no B and no C). But the Viking expansion to the south is also NOT related in a narrower sense (see 1038 in the time-line below).
Vikings were Scandinavians, Norse seafarers who raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of northern, central, eastern and western Europe, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries. This mercantile and demographic expansion for 300 years is important in the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, early Russia, and -- here it is-- even Sicily. The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age.
Though not commonly associated with southern expansion into the Mediterranean, Viking presence on the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal was considerable, and later, their ventures farther into the Mediterranean were crucial in the history of Sicily and, consequently, southern Italy (eventually to become the kingdom of Naples). Many histories distinguish between Danes and Norwegians. For simplicity, since they generally acted in concert, I am calling them both Vikings (a word that actually meant "adventurer" in old Scandinavian languages. (The word, itself, may actually derive from a place name, Vik.) They generally referred to themselves as Norwegians and Danes. Below is a brief time-line of Viking and related activity that includes other relevant historical events and activities in the south. Those "other" events are in red like this.
711: pre-Viking activity: Islam (the Omayyad Caliphate) crosses over into Spain, thus beginning a presence of Islam on the Iberian peninsula that lasts more than 700 years;
793: the Vikings begin their expansion with an attack on the Lindisfarne monastery in England;
814: Charlemagne dies;
831: Muslims seize control of Sicily and establish an Emirate. It will last until 1091, when they are defeated by the Normans (see year 1038, below);
844: In what is "probably the most significant episode of the whole period of Viking activity in the south,"* Vikings raid the Galician coast (north-eastern Spain) and are repulsed by the recently established Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the NE, (an early manifestation of the Reconquest of Spain). The Vikings then go south to attack Lisbon and Seville and are defeated by "Saracens" (that is, Muslim defenders of the still largely Muslim Spanish peninsula);
*(According to Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean by Ann Christys)
850: Vikings spend their first winter in England;
859: They again attack the same places as in 844 and are again met with stiff opposition. They head for the coast of Morocco and possibly pass the straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean to raid parts of the European and African coasts;
865: Danish Great Army arrives in East Anglia;
870: Danes rule over one half of England;
873: Ingolf Arnason founds Reykjavik, Iceland;
911: The Duchy of Normandy is established, and the Vikings become "Normans". (They would eventually retake Sicily from the Arabs -- see 1038);
930-980: First Viking invaders in England become established as settlers;
964:-971: further attacks on the Andalusian coast;
980-1050: Vikings launch series of attacks on England;
985: Norse farmers led by Erik the Red settle Greenland;
1000: Leif Erikson finds North America;
1016: Danish King Cnut named king of England, Denmark and Norway;
1038: The Sicilian expedition;
1066: The Normans win the Battle of Hastings and take England. The year is also the date of Harald Hardråde's death in England. He was an important part of the Sicilian expedition. He and other Normans were mercenaries serving the Byzantine Empire's agenda to repulse the Arabs in the Mediterranean (further details, below). Hardråda's death traditionally marks the end of the Viking Age;
1091: The Normans finish taking Sicily.
When one speaks of Vikings in the Mediterranean, it is crucial to distinguish between Viking activity in the western Mediterranean, specifically the Iberian peninsula and the later presence further east in the so-called "Sicilian expedition" (1038) that brought the Normans to Sicily. It is important to note that the expedition was at the behest of the Byzantine Empire and was specifically aimed at dislodging Islam from Sicily. It was NOT an expedition driven by the northern Vikings. It was driven by the east, by the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium. It was commanded by a Greek general, George Maniakes, and staffed largely by Norman mercenaries and members of the co-called "Varangian guard", a band of warriors in the service of Byzantium. (Varangian: a strange term, but ultimately from old Norse, vaeringi, "Scandinavian." The use of that term reflects just how many northern mercenaries were employed by the Byzantine empire.)
That is the force that retook Sicily, an enterprise that was complete by 1091. Two lieutenants were prominent in the force that invaded Sicily: one was William de Hauteville, a Norman knight (see paragraph 3 main article above this box). The other was Harald Sigurdsson, more famous as Harald Hardråde (1015-1066), the commander of the Varangian Guard. He was born in Norway and was actually on a 15-year hiatus from northern activities and had sold his services to Byzantium. After the collapse of the expedition in 1042, Harald went back up north and became king of Norway as Harald III, and died while attempting to invade England in 1066 (nothing to do with the famous Norman Invasion and Battle of Hastings that year -- England was simply getting roundly hammered on many fronts that year). The expedition may have collapsed in 1042 due to internal infighting, but it lasted long enough to land Norman forces on Sicily to begin to retake the island, a process that took half a century. They had help from the Lombards in Byzantine-held Apulia to the north. Harald's death in 1066 was well before the final battles to dislodge the Muslims from Sicily, mostly by the 1070s and definitively in 1091.
credit: The graphic in this box is from the European Council Cultural Routes website.
Roger II marched north in a campaign to unify Sicily with the southern Italian mainland. He entered Naples in September 1140. Story has it that he got on the good side of his Neapolitan subjects immediately by calling them together and asking them how long the city wall was. No one knew, so he personally marched it off at 2,373 paces and announced that he was going to enlarge it for the good of Naples and it citizens.The city thus lost its independence, but gained a king who called himself Rex Siciliae et Italiae, and membership in an ambitious empire, one with designs on North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. The capital was Palermo, one of the richest and most opulent cities of the day, efficiently and benevolently ruled by a mixed aristo-bureaucracy of Greeks, Sicilians and Arabs. It was a place where your god, language and race took a back seat to whether or not you could get the job done. For a brief period, the overused phrase "Golden Age" truly applied to this empire, as the collective voices of centuries of Mediterranean cultures joined together almost as if to announce the coming of the Renaissance
Roger died in Palermo in 1154, and a few years later the Norman Kingdom of the South fizzled out because of lack of male issue. One of Roger's granddaughters had married the son of the German emperor Barbarossa. Their child would become Frederick II and, thus, the Kingdom of Sicily (eventually to become the Kingdom of Naples and then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would pass to German rule. (There is a chronological chart of dynasties here.)It was a strange end for the Normans. In the South they were victims — fortunate ones, perhaps — of their own flexibility. They started out as almost caricatures of themselves: ferocious, aggressive, asking no quarter and certainly giving none. They wound up as a blend of cultures, languages and faiths, a society apparently ruled by "an aristocracy of talent" (to use Thomas Jefferson's choice phrase) In hindsight, coming as it did on the eve of that atrocity known as The Crusades, their rule here seems to have been one of the last great periods of understanding and tolerance in European history, one in which there was a fortunate and rare reversal of the roles described by Yeats: This time it was not "the worst," but "the best," who were "full of passionate intensity."