Who are Normans

Sicily under Norman rule

In just four generations, the Normans made Sicily the richest region in Europe and drove trade, science and architecture to an unimaginable bloom. When they disappeared from the scene after a good 100 years, they should have been the last rulers who brought prosperity and wealth to the island.

Call for help from the Arabs

It is the year 1061. The Emir of Syracuse travels to Apulia and reports to the Norman Count Robert Guiskard about the utter chaos in Arab-occupied Sicily. He himself had been expelled by his brother-in-law and is now asking for military assistance.

The belligerent Norman cannot be said twice and he gives the island to his younger brother Roger, who has been making the south of Italy - and thus Robert's empire - unsafe for some time.

However, Roger still has to conquer Sicily. In the same year the young Norman crossed over from Calabria to Messina. In just 30 years, Roger took control of the entire island. An achievement that took its predecessors 100 years to complete. But what prompted Vikings from the far north to seek their fortune so far from home?

A large family

Vikings from Northern Europe have been visiting France again and again since the 8th century. The warriors, called Normans by the French, sail the rivers with their ships, devastate entire stretches of land and leave with rich booty.

In 911, the French King Charles the Simple has had enough of it. He makes the Normans an offer: The areas they invade belong to them from now on.

The Normans gratefully accepted this offer, settled in France and quickly incorporated themselves into the French feudal system. They become little nobles who cultivate land and set up village communities.

At some point, however, the population pressure becomes too great and the often numerous sons of the Normans set off again in search of areas that they can raid.

One of those village nobles is Tankred d'Hauteville. He has twelve sons, among whom it is impossible to divide his land. Three of the older sons set out early to look for new fields of activity.

They land in southern Italy, take possession of a few tracts of land and henceforth call themselves counts. They are soon followed by their fourth brother, Robert Guiskard, who, after the early death of his older brothers, ruled the whole of Calabria and Apulia as a duke.

His youngest brother Roger will soon follow him with a band of warriors to Italy. But there is not enough space in southern Italy for the two ambitious men. The news of the quarreling Arabs in Sicily comes at just the right time.

Roger I - Sicily becomes Norman

Roger first conquered the city of Messina, which is the closest to mainland Italy. In the course of a few years, one Sicilian city after another fell until, in 1091, the city of Noto, the last Arab stronghold, was also defeated.

Roger carries out the conquests with brutal force. He sold numerous children and women as slaves, killed prisoners and deported thousands of Arabs.

But when the entire island is under his control, the tide turns. The small group of Normans cannot permanently control the sometimes highly explosive mixture of peoples in Sicily by force. So Roger gives the population extensive freedom. He leaves most of the Arabs their properties and castles and maintains the moderate Arab tax system.

Jews, Greeks, Latins and Arabs can continue to practice their religion freely and judge according to their own laws. However, he always filled key positions in church and administration with Norman followers.

However, the titles he gives are not hereditary. This means that no new aristocratic dynasties can establish themselves in Sicily from the start. Roger I rules Sicily as a count and absolute ruler.

With the fortunes that he has amassed during his raids and the conquest of the island, he can afford a standing army and the strongest fleet of his time. When he dies in 1101, Sicily is pacified and immeasurably rich.

Roger II - at the height of power

Heir to the throne Roger II is only four years old when his father dies. His mother Adelasia took over the affairs of state for twelve years.

During this time, the widow can hardly save herself from marriage offers. Rich Sicily would be a welcome dowry for many of Europe's rulers. However, she refuses all offers and in 1113 hands over power to her 17-year-old son.

Roger II is very educated, speaks fluent Greek and Arabic and knows how to use his power from an early age. He continues to keep the landed gentry small, makes all the decisions in his empire himself and sees his authority - in contrast to other European rulers - as God given. He doesn't avoid trouble with the Pope any more than trouble with various Byzantine and German emperors.

In contrast to his father, he pursues an expansive foreign policy. In North Africa he brought large stretches of coastline in what is now Tunisia and Libya under his control and even calls himself the "King of Africa". At the height of his power, with the approval of Pope Honorius II, he was crowned King of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria in 1130.

The wealth of Roger II is based on extensive trade throughout the Mediterranean. In addition, he can afford a strong war fleet and levies taxes on all ships that want to pass Sicily. The production of silk and the extraction of salt and sulfur bring enormous profits. In addition, Roger II continues to drive agricultural production forward.

He expanded his court into a center of science, scholars from East and West came and went in Palermo. Roger II is considered the richest man in Europe in his day; Outsiders describe Sicily as a peaceful and prosperous empire.

Disintegration of the Norman Empire

When Roger II died in 1154 after 40 years of sole rule, his son Wilhelm I took over the throne. However, he shows far less interest in state affairs than his father.

Wilhelm I preferred to leave decisions to his ministers and followers. He loves lavish parties and exuberant luxury. Over time, he turns the petty nobility against him and turns out to be insufficiently authoritarian to reject their claims.

His reign did not only include the loss of all North African territories. Numerous Arabs are also driven from the island by the rebellious Christian nobles, their property confiscated and divided among the Christians. Religious tolerance seems to be coming to an end in Sicily at this time.

Even his son Wilhelm II, who ascended the throne in 1172, can no longer counteract this tendency. The power of the nobility and the self-appointed archbishops has become too great. In addition, the decades of flourishing trade are stagnating. Sicily goes into debt for the first time under the Normans.

When Wilhelm II died childless in 1194, the end of Norman rule was finally sealed. Sicily falls to the royal family of the Hohenstaufen from Germany.

Norman legacies

Today you can still admire numerous legacies from the Norman era in Sicily. By the time the Normans took control of the island, the art and culture of Sicily were Greek, Byzantine and Arabic.

The Normans combined these artistic styles with the Romanesque style they knew from northern and central Europe. They built numerous churches and palaces that are a unique mix of Eastern and Western style elements.

Most of the buildings are outwardly built in the simple and massive Romanesque style. Inside, however, there are Byzantine mosaics, Greek-style columns and Arabic ceiling constructions.

The most beautiful examples of Norman architecture are the Norman Palace and Cathedral in Palermo, the Abbey and Cathedral in Monreale, Rogers II Cathedral in Cefal├╣ and the pleasure palaces Cuba and Zisa on the outskirts of Palermo.