Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Sicilian Vespers

In 1266, the French King Charles I took hegemony over Sicily.  By then, the island of my ancestors had been overrun by just about any band of marauders with steel blades and sharpening stones: The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, you name it.

How Charlie came to subjugate the Sicilians is a tale in itself.  It all began when the Hohenstaufens, who ruled Germany, started stomping around in the north of the Italian boot.   Between the Germans up north and southern Italy (all of which was called Sicily at the time) lay the Papal States.  Pope Innocent (sic) IV was seriously displeased with the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, and Il Papa said so in 1245 by declaring Freddy deposed.   Frederick failed to step aside on the Pope’s say so, but a higher authority intervened in 1250, and Frederick died.  The Pope might have rejoiced at that, but as it happened he was nearly as ticked off with Conrad, who succeeded when his daddy Big Freddy died.  You might think the Almighty was taking sides, because Conrad only lived another four years.  When Conrad kicked the bucket, turmoil ensued.

Lurking in the background the whole while was Manfred, a son old Frederick fathered without benefit of marriage.  While the political scene was boiling in Germany, Manfred saw his main chance and seized control of the Kingdom of Sicily.

By then, new Popes had taken over, first Urban IV and then Clement IV, neither of whom liked Manfred.  They cast around for help getting rid of the bastard.  The papacy eventually installed Charles of Anjou.

Charlie was a happy guy.  He had his sights set on becoming the Emperor of Byzantium, and what better geography could he have as a jumping off point than Sicily.

 But the Sicilian noblemen were peeved when Charles left them out of the goodies he had to distribute.  They got no lucrative foreign posts.  Instead he taxed them and all the Sicilian people to the hilt to bankroll his adventures in Byzantium and elsewhere.  The local population tagged him for what he was, a foreign tyrant who was bleeding them dry.  Charles should have known better than to piss off an island full of people who had already endured centuries of ever escalating oppression.

Charles’s rival, Michael VIII Palaeologus—the current Byzantine Emperor—spotted unrest among the Sicilians and found an opening.  He sent his agents provocateurs into the mix.  Insurrection was their aim.

The Sicilians got out their own whetstones.  The Sicilian Vespers ensued.

 At sunset on the eve of Easter Monday 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, just outside Palermo, they began to slit throats and otherwise do away with the French interlopers and their supporters.  Over the next six weeks, they massacred thousands of French inhabitants.

Eventually, the Pope tried to lend the French a hand, but all attempts to retake the island were repulsed.

Michael VII in his autobiography tried to claim he was God’s instrument in releasing the Sicilian people from tyranny.  But most historians conclude that the Sicilian people freed themselves.

The very best thing to come out of all this, to my way of thinking, is Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Vespri Siciliani, of which I leave you a taste here:

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. You are an amazing researcher! I stand in awe! tjstraw

    1. Thank you, Thelma. you are too kind. I imagine many historians would object STRONGLY to my tone. But most likely not to Maria Callas's!