The Normans in Italy

The Normans in Italy during the 11th Century – the other Norman Conquest

I discovered J.J. Norwich’s “The Other Conquest” many years back and was thoroughly fascinated by this era in southern European history. For those who are not familiar with this period, Normans first began arriving in southern Italy in the early 1000s. A group of Norman pilgrims returning from the Holy Land helped defend the Lombard city-state of Salerno from a raiding Moslem fleet in 1016. Lured by the tales of adventure and wealth waiting in southern Italy, more adventurers, mainly younger sons who could not inherit under the laws of primogeniture, arrived. Several de Hautville brothers quickly established themselves at Aversa near Naples as “robber barons.” Gradually expanding their power bases at the expense of the fragmented Lombard city-states of Apulia and Calabria and the Pope, they soon became a force with which to be reckoned. The Byzantines even employed a number of Normans when the Byzantine general George Maniakes invaded eastern Sicily in 1038.

By the early 1050s, Pope Leo IX grew tired of their depredations and put together an alliance of Lombard’s, Papal vassals, and Swabian mercenaries to crush them. In the Battle of Civitate in 1053, the smaller Norman force under Humphrey and Robert de Hautville quickly routed the Italians, but the Swabian double-handed swordsmen weren’t so easy to crack (shades of Hastings still to come). The Swabia’s were finally slaughtered almost to the last man and the Pope was captured. In 1059, in return for assistance in his struggles against the German Emperor Henry IV, Pope Nicholas II invested Robert de Hautville (called Guiscard or “cunning”) as the Duke of Apulia and Calabria and gave him permission to add Sicily to his territories. It was currently occupied by fractious Muslim overlords. Between 1061 and 1091, Robert, his younger brother, and his son campaigned on and off in Sicily, finally subduing the island. In the meantime, Robert fought a series of campaigns against the Byzantines to take control of their provinces in Langobardia (southeastern Italy), which culminated in the fall of the port of Bari (the last Byzantine stronghold) in 1071.

Robert then set his sights on the Byzantine throne, crossing over to present-day Albania, and laying siege to the Byzantine stronghold of Dyrrachium (Durazzo) in 1081, whose garrison was commanded by George Palaeologus. Robert’s fleet was defeated by a combined Byzantine-Venetian fleet. But that didn’t deter Guiscard for he maintained the siege during the winter of 1081/1082, a remarkable feat at the time. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, led a relief army out and fought Robert in 1082, losing badly. One of Robert’s generals was his Lombard wife Sichelgaita, who helped rally one of the Norman flanks and led them back into the fray. The Byzantine army had a contingent of Varangian Guard made up almost entirely of dispossessed Saxons. They got out ahead of the main host and were cut off by the Normans. Retreating to small church on a hill, they were surrounded by the Normans, who set the church on fire and then proceeded to cut down the Saxons as they ran from the burning building. After the battle, Robert returned to the siege of Dyrrachium causing it to surrender not long after. Robert tried to continue the war against Byzantium but terrain, weather, unrest in Italy, and his own sickness prevented him from making much progress.

The unrest in Italy was caused by the continuing strife between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire led now by Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry V, respectively. Robert returned to Italy and raised an army of Normans, Lombards, and Sicilian Moslems. With them he marched to Rome to raise the Germano-North Italian siege. Henry withdrew in the face of this force and retired into Northern Italy. In the meantime, Bohemund, Robert’s son had been defeated by the Byzantines at Larissa and retreated to Epirus. Robert died in 1085 and Bohemund returned to Italy, abandoning his father’s dream of a Byzantine throne.

Bohemund had been superseded in his father’s succession by his half brother Roger, who went on to found a joint kingdom of Sicily and southern Italy which lasted until 1194. Bohemund and his son Tancred joined the 1st Crusade and carved out the Principality of Antioch for themselves. Roger at one time or another fought against the Papacy, Emperor Lothair of Germany, Pisa, Genoa, Venice, the Byzantine Empire, and the Moslems of North Africa (Tunisia and western Libya). His successors were gradually weaker and less effective. The German Hohenstaufen Emperor Henry VI, husband of Roger’s legitimate daughter, seized the throne upon the death of Tancred, Roger’s illegitimate grandson. Henry was in turn succeeded by his son Frederick II. Thus ended the male line of the House de Hautville who had been powers in southern Italy, Sicily, the Balkans, and North Africa for over 100 years.

To give you some other dates of reference, Hastings was fought in 1066, the flower of the Byzantine army was slaughtered at Manzikert in 1071, and the First Crusade started in 1095.