Episode 79 – Return to Sicily

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This week we look in a bit more detail how Frederick II regained his beloved kingdom of Sicily. For 30 years after the death of the last Hauteville king in 1190 the institutions of that kingdom had been eroded, the crown estate squandered, and powerful local forces had been riding roughshod over the royal administration. Fredrick will bring this land back under his firm control. That is however not your usual return of the king story, because the way he does it is no longer typically medieval…..


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 79 – Return to Sicily

I have to start with an apology. Last week there was no episode even though there should have been one. What happened is quite simple – I was not happy with the what I had produced. And that was not just a problem with the new Episode I was recording but also the one before, Episode 78.  It simply wasn’t doing justice to the story. The Crusade of Frederick II and the creation of Frederick’s kingdom in Sicily are amongst the events in medieval history that I had really, really wanted to tell and tell them well. So I went back to the drawing board, rewrote the script for the last and this episode and I hope this is now more up to scratch. .

This week we look in a bit more detail how Frederick II regained his beloved kingdom of Sicily. For 30 years after the death of the last Hauteville king in 1190 the institutions of that kingdom had been eroded, the crown estate squandered, and powerful local forces had been riding roughshod over the royal administration. Fredrick will bring this land back under his firm control. That is however not your usual return of the king story, because the way he does it is no longer typically medieval…..

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Last time we left Frederick II leaving the Holy Land where he had gained Jerusalem for Christendom only to be pelted with manure and hounded out of town by the patriarch of Jerusalem..

Today, we need to wind the clock back to 1220 and the days after Frederick II had been crowned emperor by pope Honorius III in Rome. As we heard before, Frederick almost instantly ignored all the concessions he had made to the pope in the run-up first to the coronation as king of the Romans and then the coronation as emperor. The most significant of these concessions was his promise not to rule Sicily and the empire simultaneously thereby encircling the Papal states.

And it is also the concession he is most thoroughly disregarding. Frederick is first and foremost a Sicilian and giving up his home and his inheritance is inconceivable. Plus, the Sicilian crown could be incredibly valuable, though at this point, in the winter of 1220, it was nothing but.

His ancestors, the Norman kings, in particular Frederick’s grandfather, King Roger II had created one of the richest and most tightly run states in 12th century Europe. On the island of Sicily and in the former Byzantine provinces of Puglia and Calabria, the Normans were able to continue with the institutions that dated back to ancient Rome. The population was accustomed to paying taxes. And I guess by now you know my view on taxes; a political entity that collects taxes can establish a bureaucracy staffed with officials, keep sizeable armies and fleets in the field and is no longer dependent upon its vassals. Simply speaking it can create a state as opposed to a medieval kingdom that is a loose confederation built on ritual and personal relationships.

But most of these institutions had collapsed in the 30 years after the death of the last of the Norman kings, William II. In the wars between Tancred and Henry VI and later during the minority of Frederick, local barons as well as German Ministeriales occupied the vast crown estates whilst the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa monopolised the trade in grain and other foodstuff. The Muslim population in the centre of the island asserted itself, set up emirates independent of the crown and forged alliances with their brethren in North Africa and southern Spain. Royal authority, such as it was rested initially in the hands of Frederick’s wife, Constance of Aragon and then with the chancellor William of Pagliara, a wily politician with a keen eye on his own purse.

When Frederick returns to his homeland in 1220, he comes with a fully formed plan how to regain control. The first step was to get the crown lands back. And for that he goes back to a legal model his other grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa had once deployed in Italy, but with a twist.

On December 20th, 1220, Frederick calls the barons of Southern Italy to an assembly at Capua. There he proclaims his Law of Privileges. This law states that everyone who currently occupies former royal lands is to come to the chancery and request a re-issue of the charter that granted him possession in the first place. That automatically wipes out all of those occupants who never got a piece of paper granting them the land, very similar to what Barbarossa did with his laws of Roncaglia – Episode 55 if you want to check back.

But Frederick II goes not just one, but two steps further. Step one is that even if a baron shows up with a privilege issued after 1190, it is at the emperor’s discretion whether or not the baron can keep it. This discretion is guided by the necessities of the state, which, unsurprisingly in the majority of cases suggested the lands and rights should be given back. And finally, those few that were allowed to keep their lands did receive them with the caveat that the emperor could at any time demand them back. Alongside the law of privileges came the rule that no vassal of the king could build or hold a castle, neither on crown land nor on his own. All castles are to be handed over immediately or destroyed.

That sounds great in theory. But as we have seen with Laws of Roncaglia, an emperor can announce all sorts of far-reaching laws, enforcing them is a entirely different kettle of fish. And that is where Frederick goes a completely different path to his grandfather.

Barbarossa had managed the empire by supporting the largest of his magnates, Henry the Lion against the smaller princes. Frederick turns this policy on its head. He uses the smaller barons to tackle the largest one. Once Mr Big is removed the focus shifts to the second largest and so on and so on until the last of the barons is broken. In 1220 the most powerful of the Southern Italian barons was the count of Molise. Against him he fielded Thomas of Aquino, the father of the great scholastic thinker, Roger of Aquila, Jacob of San Severino and other lesser Barons.  By spring 1221 the count of Molise was reduced to his last stronghold where he surrendered two years later. In the settlement he had to hand back all the crown lands and go into exile. However, he was allowed to keep his personal property. A further two years later, he was summoned to court for some infringement to the settlement, failed to appear and subsequently the remaining Molise property was confiscated and ended in Fredericks hands. Frederick did not even have to fight these campaigns in person. He left this to the barons who, blinded by greed, were all too happy to oblige.

Once the campaign against the larger barons was over these lesser barons, Roger of Aquila, Jacob of San Severino and others were called to fight the next war, this time against the Saracens on the island of Sicily. When they arrived late, or with insufficient troops, Frederick had them tried for treason, convicted and their lands confiscated. Their sentence was commuted to exile, and they joined their former foe, the count of Molise in Rome.  Now their land fell to the crown too.

The push to return all castles into royal hands also went surprisingly smoothly. Usually it was enough for two royal officials to come to the castle gate, point out that their neighbours would be happy to sack his castle, rape his wife and murder his children upon royal orders if he did not hand it over and hey presto the castle was in royal hands. Once enough castles were acquired and most of the local barons deprived of their defensive walls, all the officials had to do was point at the imperial garrisons nearby and the last of the private fortifications fell.

Many of the once immensely powerful German Ministeriales who had conspired with Otto IV caved almost instantly. The unfortunately named Diepold von Schweinspeunt had once been the effective ruler of the kingdom but found himself now imprisoned in his own castle until he had handed over all his vast territories. Only then was he allowed to join the Teutonic Knights, never to be heard of again.

Within just months Frederick was in possession of a whole string of castles in the North of his kingdom and this network grew and grew over the next decades. He built allegedly as many as 200 castles and towers, of which 37 are still in existence.

Frederick’s citadels in their majority lack any of the picturesque that you associate with medieval castles. They are blocky, designed to hold a garrison of soldiers in wartime. There is no space here for a seigneur and his family to live and entertain guests. The castle is a fortress of the state, meant to defend the realm against enemies from without or from within. They were forts held by a small detachment during peacetime and to be reinforced by the local lords and their retinue in wartime. They could therefore be built like a Roman castrum, based on a single uniform ground plan with slight variations – representing the latest in simplicity, utility and rectangularity. A stone square or rectangle with a tower at each corner. This is what most of his castles look like. However his most famous castle, the Castel del Monte looks entirely different. We will talk about it at a later stage.

But let us get back to Frederick’s reconquest of his kingdom. In 1221 the subjugation of the barons on the mainland was running on its own momentum so that he could set off for the island of Sicily itself. The island was structurally different from the mainland in as much as feudal lords had historically been less powerful. The challenges here were the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa on the one hand and the Muslim population on the other.

The maritime republics were interested in two things. The first was to have staging posts for the extremely lucrative crusader trade. Ship travel on galleys was an unmitigated nightmare. The ships were rammed full with people, passengers as well as rowers and sailors. A later traveller Konrad Grunenberg describes the scene below decks. People got seasick or picked up other diseases that made it impossible for them to reach or empty their chamber pots. The whole floor was covered in human waste, was crawling with fleas, lice, gnats and worms. Moreover, the galleys also transported animals, horses for the knights and sheep, goats, calves, pigs etc as food, all making noises and adding to the ever-present dirt and rodent infestation. That meant for passengers to survive the ordeal they needed to go ashore at regular intervals, breathe fresh air, clean up and sleep. To make that possible and to virtual and repair their ships Genoa and Pisa needed safe harbours along the Mediterranean coasts, in particular in the Kingdom of Sicily.

The other thing they cared about was the grain trade. Ever since ancient Rome, Sicily was one of the breadbaskets of the Mediterranean. By 1220 the Pisans and Genoese had established an oligopoly for the transport of grain, paying minimal amounts to Sicilian farmers and selling the goods at high prices in Rome, Florence or Milan.

 When we think about these merchants from Venice, Genoa or Pisa, we see them depicted in their finery, kneeling before a beautifully painted cross or admiring the Madonna. In their daily life, a 13th century Genoese merchant was more corsair than confrere. Their vessels were good for both transport and war and they thought nothing of attacking competitor’s ships or, if there were enough of them, unsuspecting cities. That is what happened to Syracuse. A Genoese merchant-corsair, Alaman da Costa had captured a Pisan ship laden with weapons. When he met up with other Genoese in Crete, they decided to put these to good use. The sailed on to Malta, convinced the Genoese commander of the harbour to lend seven war galleys and made themselves masters of the ancient Greek colony of Syracuse.

Frederick could not leave that standing, even though he did feel a lot of gratitude towards the Genoese who had helped him to get to Germany and his destiny in 1212. Frederick drove the Genoese out of Syracuse and also recalled many of their privileges under the laws of Capua.

But he went a lot further. He passed regulations that forbade foreigners to have preferential treatment on the island, in particular as tax and dues are concerned. That diminished their trading profits because it created a level playing field with the locals.

But the final blow to their dominance came when Frederick decided to rebuild the Sicilian fleet. Ever since Robert Guiscard the Hautevilles had been a sizeable maritime power, sometimes stronger even than Venice. For Sicily and the crown of Sicily to prosper, the kingdom needed a fleet. A fleet consists of ships and building and operating ships is skilled work and takes time. Frederick needed a fleet now. He got there by hook and by crook. He confiscated Genoese and Pisan ships first as prizes in the military conflict, but later by offering to buy them, or else. He hired sailors and ships officers from the Italian cities. His admirals were often Genoese, like the famous Henry of Malta who had been a pirate like Alaman da Costa but could be bought into imperial service. With time shipbuilding in the kingdom sped up so that by 1225 the emperor could send a fleet of fifty warships and a hundred transport vessels to Damietta. By 1228 he had enough to ship 3000 knights and their retinue to the Holy Land.

This is the first time a medieval emperor had a fleet. Otto III had an admiral but not a single ship. Barbarossa was allegedly defeated in a sea battle by Venice according to the great fresco of Spinello Aretino in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, but that did not happen, because Barbarossa did not have any ships. Frederick II is the first, and the last medieval emperor to fly the imperial standard from one of his own vessels. The next one will be Charles V in the 16th century. Not that Germany lacks maritime tradition, not at all. It is just that the emperors had no hold on the famous Hanseatic fleets.

Having merchants ships and war galleys to protect them, Frederick could enter the grain trade himself, buying up grain in Sicily and selling it at a major profit In Northern Italy, Spain and Provence, thereby squeezing out the Pisans and Genoese.  

Frederick embarked on all sorts of mercantilist economic policies that would much later be employed by Louis XiV’s minister Colbert. Precious metal exports were banned. The manufacture and export of luxury goods encouraged. Silver coins introduced to facilitate trade that until then had relied on heavy Byzantine cold coins. In one year he banned all export of grain to bankrupt the foreign traders, cancel their remaining privileges and take over their facilities, creating state monopolies.

And – you guessed it, taxes were re-introduced, still crude based on the total amount the emperor specified as needed and allocated to subjects based on some arbitrary measure. Like Louis XIV, Frederick would leave the tax collection to private individuals, a sure way to make taxes harder and even more unfair.

But remember we are in the 1220s and in France during the Ancien Regime 500 years later tax farmers were squeezing the last out of the population.

With the barons subdued, tax income being raised and economic policies pursued, the government no longer relies on vassals and their fiefs to administrate the realm. Frederick’s kingdom is run by officiales, people who serve because of their skills not because their father had the same job. They serve for exactly as long or as short and in whatever capacity Frederick orders. It is almost the diametrically opposite of the Holy Roman Empire where the archbishop of Mainz is by convention always the imperial arch chancellor. The chancellor of the Kingdom of Sicily is whoever Frederick appoints.

That leaves the question, where do these officiales, these medieval civil servants come from? Bologna, the great law faculty once endowed with special rights by Barbarossa would be the natural source. But these jurists are scarce, and they have options. Four of the last 6 popes had been jurists trained in Bologna. What would you like to become, pope or civil servant in the imperial chancery? It is a no-brainer. And in case you disagree due to the obvious downsides of becoming pope remember that many of the medieval popes had not taken holy rites before ascending the papal throne.  It really is a no-brainer.

To overcome this shortfall Frederick founds the university of Naples, the first secular, state sponsored and state-maintained university in the world. The existing universities at the time, Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Salerno have emerged organically. A group of scholars and their students would form a union, a “Universitas” and ask for recognition from an emperor, king or pope. They would receive a charter that grants  special legal status and regulate the operation of the university.

Naples is different. Frederick founds it as a branch of the state that provides him with officialis. It is a secular institution. The church has no control over it. It has a monopoly for higher education in law in Sicily. That means his subjects are banned from going to any other university. He offers generous support to foreign students, and he pays the professor, not the students. It is, like most things in Frederick’s Sicily, in his control and serves his purposes. Very different to many medieval institutions that are created by and for its members.

Now we get to the last set of opponents to the emperor, the Muslim population on the island. They had come as conquerors in the 9th century and ruled the place for nearly 200 years. They had inflicted a terrible defeat on emperor Otto II in the battle of Capo Colonna in 972. It had taken the Normans decades to conquer the island but once they had, they did not have either manpower nor inclination to force them to convert. In particular under Roger II the Muslim population even flourished. The Normans had taken over the machine of government, but the  Muslim bureaucrats and officers remained. The Saracen guard of Roger II was a legendary force, entirely immune to excommunications and other papal weapons. Muslim craftsmen worked on the great churches of Palermo and you find Arabic script all over the output of the great manufactures of Palermo, including on the imperial coronation mantle.

One of the reasons nobody forced conversion was that Muslims and Jews were paying a special tax in exchange for being allowed to maintain their religion. That is pretty much the same the Muslim rulers did with the Christian population when hey conquered Egypt, North Africa and Syria.

By 1220 this rather idyllic coexistence had gone quite comprehensively sour. In 1190 Christians massacred their Muslims neighbours in Palermo. The survivors either converted or fled into the mountains. A state within the state sprang up around mountain fastness. The original population mixed with the refugees from Palermo and newly arrived North Africans. Their base was in the centre and south of the Island near Agrigento and in the Valle di Noto.

During Fredricks minority the Saracens were hostile to the king, largely because they feared the influence of pope Innocent III who had no time for coexistence between Muslims and Christians.  During that time their raids stretched sometimes as far north as Monreale just outside Palermo.

In 1222 when war breaks out between Frederick and the former rulers of the island. The concern now is less about papal influence and religious persecution. Frederick does not have the slightest bit of religious fervour in his bones. He famously will only erect one church in his entire life despite an otherwise massive building programme. His faith, if he has one, is the belief in the necessities of the state..

Hence the conflict is political not religious. Frederick cannot tolerate the existence of a political entity that is not obedient to him – full stop.

The war goes on for almost a decade. As Frederick’s army take the cities and larger villages, the Muslim forces retreat into the mountainous hinterland. This is territory even the modern Italian state struggles to control.

What makes this one of the most famous stories in medieval European history is how Frederick resolves the impasse. There was no chance they would ever give up fighting as long as they stayed in the hills and mountains of central Sicily. So he has them shipped them off to the plains of Puglia. He makes no difference between combatants and the general Muslim population. All are rounded up and put on ships to go across the the Mainland. A near abandoned ancient Roman military colony, Lucera was chosen to house them. How many were moved is uncertain. Somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000 might have been brought across. In Lucera they were allowed to live as their religion and custom demanded. They were allowed to build mosques and minarets. They could elect their own leadership and were given the surrounding lands to cultivate.

In Lucera there was no chance for them to resume the guerrilla war. They were surrounded in all directions by Christian communities that even if not openly hostile were unlikely to help them. The Saracens quickly realised that the only guarantor of their survival in this environment was the emperor himself, the one they had fought and the one who had forced them here. To protect themselves they became their enemy’s closest allies. Frederick allowed them to arm themselves and train for war. In  return he received what no western monarch could command, a standing army. Yes, the templars and knights of St. John too were standing armies, but they weren’t loyal to the king of Jerusalem. Frederick was the only king who could snap his fingers and an army would appear by his side, an army feared throughout the western world. An army that would happily fight the pope and mother church itself.

The existence of Lucera, the deal Frederick made with sultan Al Kamil over Jerusalem and rumours he had connections to the Order of the Assassins all added up to a picture of man in thrall of the Followers of mohammed. The emperor, the sword of Christendom a closet Muselman? And even if not, was he a good Christian when he is doing all this? Pope Gregory IX and his successors will use this narrative when the struggle between emperor and pope is hurtling to its climax.

Next week we will pick up the narrative in 1229. Frederick had liberated Jerusalem but is still excommunicated. Pope Gregory IX has put a mercenary army in the field to conquer Sicily for the church. At the same time things are stirring in Germany where Frederick’s oldest son, Henry reigns as king. Duke Ludwig of Bavaria once guardian of the young king is encouraged by the pope to contest the crown. Will Fredrick’s empire hold together against papal wrath? I hope you will join us again.

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