Battle of Civitate

In the year 1048 the duchy of Normandy is the most tightly run state in western Europe outside the empire. Like in the empire central power is able to maintain order, prevent the construction of castles and stop the nobles from feuding. That is great for peasants but not great for the second, third, fourth and fifth sons of the Norman knightly class.

One outlet for their ambition had been to take service as mercenaries in Southern Italy. Southern Italy was a perennial mess where Lombard dukes, Byzantine viceroys, independent cities and the emir of Sicily were tied up in near incessant fighting. The Normans, the superheroes of the 11th century, show up for the first time in 999 as pilgrims to Mount Gargano but soon everyone wants them in their army. Initially they work for cold hard cash, but as that is scarce, accept land and fiefs as payment. Konrad II for the first time enfeoffs a Norman lord with the county of Aversa in the 1030s.

From there it goes bang, bang, bang. Ranulf of Aversa takes over the much bigger Capua. Then the 7 Hauteville brothers arrive. They were the sons of a Norman nobleman, Tancred of Hauteville. The first to come to prominence was William, called Ironhand. The name came about when he decapitated the emir of Sicily with just one stroke of his sword. He becomes count of Puglia in 1042 after taking it from the Byzantines. William and his brother Drogo then attacked Calabria. William died in 1046 and was succeeded by Drogo who was murdered by a local mercenary. On whose orders, nobody knows. But there were still a lot of Hauteville brothers left. The next count of Apulia was Humbert. Humbert goes after Bari and by now, large parts of Southern Italy are in the hands of various Norman lords, with the Hauteville family the most powerful.

The rise of the Normans concerns Pope Leo IX a lot. The last couple of hundred years the papacy’s neighbours to the south were the Lombard princes of Benevent, Capua and Spoleto. These guys may be well armed but spent most of the time fighting each other or the Byzantines or the Emir of Sicily, leaving the pope well alone. Projecting the development of the last 15 years forward Leo IX concluded that soon the Byzantines and Lombards would be gone, and he would look down the barrel of a heavily armed force of Scandinavian giants.

In 1053 he decided to act. Leo IX raised an army amongst the Lombards and Northern Italians supported by a small contingent of imperial troops. Near the town of Civitate in Puglia, the papal army meets the Norman forces led by Humbert of Hauteville and another Hauteville brother, Robert Giuscard (“The Cunning”).

The Normans were outnumbered and undersupplied. The situation was so dire that Humbert asked for a truce which Leo IX refused. When the two sides met the Normans did however win quite unexpectedly. The Norman troops displayed the discipline and cohesion needed to hold the line, something the motley crew of Papal allies lacked. Only the Imperial troops in the centre fought all the way to the end but were ultimately defeated. Pope Leo IX was captured and brought to Benevento, which the Normans quickly annexed.

Leo IX was held for nearly a year and treated with all the honours of his office. He finally made an agreement with Humphrey and Robert Giuscard, the contents of which are not known.

One man in Leo IX’s company directly observed these developments and drew his own conclusions, Hildebrand Cardinal priest of the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls. He realised the Normans were not only a military force that could counterbalance any troops the emperors could bring down to Italy but also that they craved acceptance by the Holy See. Even before Hildebrand ascended the papal throne as Gregory VII did he forge an alliance with Robert Giuscard which made the Hautevilles Kings of Sicily and the former the most powerful Pope the world had ever seen.

If you want to know what that has to do with Germany, check out Episode 28 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on this website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or

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