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with a generous dose of legend, tells us that the War of the Vespers, a signal
event in the Mediterranean and Europe during the late thirteenth century,
began as a popular revolt on Easter Monday (30 March) 1282 when a French
soldier decided to search a Palermitan woman for weapons, offended her modesty
and enraged some local people into a spontaneous uprising near what is now
a local cemetery.
The revolt quickly spread around the capital and across the island. The
frenzied populace killed Frenchmen wherever they found them. Even monasteries
were not exempt from their fury. French monks and nuns were killed. There
seems to have been at least one case of a Sicilian woman pregnant by her
French husband being cut open based on the idea that her unborn child was
French. In a largely multicultural society, it was necessary to identify
the French, so the revolutionaries devised a simple linguistic test: pronounce
the word "ciciri" (not "Cicero" as some "internet
writers" have stated). No Frenchman could pronounce it with an acceptably
Sicilian accent (by now a Latin-based Sicilian language existed). As the
weeks passed, some French were simply deported.
A few who should have been deported were killed. The justiciar for western
Sicily, John of Saint Rémy, took refuge in the mountains and was
killed at the castle of Vicari when an overzealous archer fired an arrow
upward into a window and hit him. Saint Rémy otherwise would have
been allowed safe conduct off the island. (His residence in Palermo,
now part of Saint Ann's Monastery, the modern art gallery near Palazzo Gangi,
is commemorated by an inscription shown below.) In contrast, the vice-justiciar
for western Sicily, the benevolent William de Porcelet, like Saint Rémy
a Provençal, was escorted with his family from Calatifimi to Palermo
and permitted to leave. At Sperlinga, the French garrison was permitted
to depart for Messina, which did not join the movement for several months.
Whether the revolt began in the evening, around the time of Vespers,
is not known with certainty, but the Church of the Holy Spirit, once set
in a park outside the city walls, still stands. (Shown here, it is in the
middle of the cemetery today, thus rarely visited by tourists.) Thousands
of Angevin-French were killed as the revolt quickly
spread around Sicily and the populace, led by the baronage, took control
of civil and military affairs, eventually offering the island to Peter of
Aragon, whose wife, Constance, as the daughter and heir of King
Manfred of Hohenstaufen, represented the Swabian
dynasty of Frederick II. The Aragonese
fleet eventually arrived and for the next five centuries Sicily found herself
in the Spanish orbit.
The revolt stands out in the annals of medieval politics as a unique
and unprecedented example of a general population successfully removing
its monarch from power. In the geopolitical sphere, the Vespers war literally
changed the face of European and Mediterranean power politics, effectively
rearranging the pieces of a complex chess board. It also served as a warning
to European rulers that under certain circumstances the ruled, including
not only the aristocracy but also the common people, could seize power,
in the process causing a dynasty or two to tumble. What saved Charles of
Anjou (and his immediate successors) was that the fall of the island of
Sicily did not precipitate his deposition in southern mainland Italy, the
northern half of what, following the Vespers, became known as the "Two
Sicilies." Until then, under the Normans and
Swabians, the entire region south of Rome (including Sicily proper) was
collectively the Kingdom of Sicily.
Charles of Anjou, better known for being the younger brother of Saint Louis, had ruled Sicily from Naples (as "Charles
I") since 1266. With Papal support, Charles aspired to control much
of the central and eastern Mediterranean, including Byzantine
and Arab lands. His plans for a "crusade"
to take Constantinople were thwarted by the Vespers war which, in fact,
was the result of at least some form of planning, if not outright conspiracy,
by nobles sympathetic to the Ghibelline cause.
The Ghibellines supported the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor
in Italy while the Guelphs supported the authority of the Pope and
later Charles' House of Anjou, which was "appointed" by the Papacy
to the Sicilian-Neapolitan throne; these movements were more evident in
the patchwork of cities and fiefs of northern and central Italy than in
the south, where there was wider support for the Hohenstaufens. By 1268,
following the Hohenstaufens' defeat by Angevin forces at the Battle of Tagliocozzo
and the execution of the young Conradin, the last male Hohenstaufen, the
rivalry between Guelphs and Ghibellines seemed to have been relegated to
the pages of historical chronicles.
It would be imprecise to view modern ideas of "French" or "German"
nationalism in these medieval parties. However, by 1266 the Ghibellines
were essentially a party of Swabian sympathy while the Guelphs were supporters
of Angevin rule. After 1268, though the Ghibelline movement doubtless existed
in some form, it had moved "underground" and began to exploit
the growing mood of rivalry between the Angevins and Aragonese. Charles
felt confident enough in his own authority to move the capital of the Kingdom
of "Sicily" to Naples. This was to prove a fateful decision, though
just one of several major errors.
The Vespers uprising of 1282 was followed by a series of sea battles
and raids, and a few skirmishes on land between Angevin and Aragonese knights
which continued into 1283. At one point Charles "the Lame," Prince
of Salerno (later Charles II), eldest son and heir of King Charles, was
captured and imprisoned in the fortress overlooking Cefalù.
Perhaps the most bizarre "non-event" was the duel scheduled between
King Charles and King Peter to resolve the conflict at Bordeaux; each suite
conveniently arrived at the designated site in the French domain of King
Edward I of England at the wrong hour, and could thus claim the cowardice
of the opposing side.
Only in August 1302, with a treaty known as the "Peace of Caltabellotta,"
peace finally achieved between the Angevins and Aragonese, agreed between
Charles II of Naples (his peninsular realm referred to as "Sicily")
and King Frederick of Sicily (or "Trinacria," according to the
terms of the treaty), a son of Peter of Aragon. Thus did chroniclers coin
the phrase "the Two Sicilies," which later denoted the Bourbons'
unified Kingdom of Naples and Sicily from 1734 until 1860.
Yes, the uprising and subsequent war destroyed the strategic Mediterranean
ambitions of Charles I, and this was probably the reason for the initial
conspiracy undertaken by John of Procida with the aid of the Emperor of
Constantinople and the King of Aragon, even if the details and scope of
this planning may never be known. There is, however, little doubt regarding
Byzantine financial assistance and Aragonese military support. In the event,
it was widespread resentment of Charles' ruthless policies and methods that
facilitated the co-operation, in such a grand plan, of baron and peasant
On another level, the Papacy seems to have envisaged, through Charles'
proposed "crusade" to Constantinople, a unification (under the
Pope of Rome) of what by 1282 had become the Catholic and Orthodox churches,
a result of the deeply divisive Schism of 1054. Leaving aside the theological
implausibility of this idea, it was not to be realised. As it happened,
the War of the Vespers diverted military attention away from Palestine and
the Crusader states. The fall of Acre in 1291 signalled the end of the Christian
presence in the Middle East, and while the Vespers were not directly responsible
for this, the Christian position would have been bolstered greatly had Charles
and his contemporaries been able to send reinforcements instead of becoming
hopelessly entangled in what was essentially a domestic war. At the very
least, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem might have survived for a few more
Dante was not very charitable to Charles and his ilk. More recently,
Giuseppe Verdi's opera was inspired by the Vespers war. The definitive history
is Steven Runciman's book, The Sicilian Vespers - A History of the Mediterranean
World in the Later Thirteenth Century. John Julius Norwich authored
a book (The Middle Sea - A History of the Mediterranean) which also
places the Vespers into a wider context.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa.