Undertaken in an
era of widespread religious fervour, the Crusades were a series
of wars launched by medieval European Christians to reclaim from Muslim
control various regions along the eastern and southern Mediterranean. Sanctioned
by the Popes beginning in 1095, the first Crusades sought to occupy the
Holy Land, comprising parts of what are now Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan
and north-eastern Egypt. Immediately prior to the great Muslim-Arab expansion,
the greater portion of this territory had been part of the
(christianised) Byzantine Empire ruled from Constantinople. In that respect, the history of the region was not unlike
that of Byzantine Sicily before the Arab incursions onto the island beginning in 827; the Muslims had
taken Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 637. Jerusalem, of course, was a special objective of the Crusaders.
Later Crusades took European expeditions of knights to Tunisia and Turkey,
and a series of sea battles against pirates and the Ottoman Turks during
the sixteenth century are sometimes referred to as "crusades."
So were the Reconquista wars against the Muslims in Spain. The
infamous Albigensian Crusade (of 1209) sought to reform or eliminate
the heretical Cathars in southern France and the wars of the Teutonic
Order against the Slavic and Baltic peoples are sometimes called the
Over time, any military campaign called by a Pope came to be defined
as a crusade, so in 1284, when Pope Martin IV declared "holy war"
against Peter of Aragon (who became King of Sicily
with the War of the Vespers in 1282), the subsequent
debacle became known as the "Aragonese Crusade."
For our purposes, the word Crusade refers to organised Christian
expeditions against Muslims before 1300. To glance at the map, one might
expect the Kingdom of Sicily, poised along a kind of Christian frontier,
to have lent particularly great support to the Crusading Movement. Such
a supposition would be mistaken.
While its geography inevitably linked Sicily to the Crusades and the
crusading military-religious orders (Hospitallers,
Templars and Teutonic Knights)
were present on the island, Sicilians themselves rarely participated either
as combatants or pilgrims. Though this position bears explanation, its basis
will be comprehensible to anybody familiar with the multicultural climate
that existed in Sicily from around 1060 until circa 1270. As we shall see,
the single crusade led by a Sicilian King, Frederick
II, was a military campaign in name only.
Led by Bohemond of Taranto, a number of Norman
knights participated in the First Crusade, launched in 1095. These Normans
were part of the so-called "Frankish" contingent. (The word Frank
came to refer to many of the "Western" peoples of twelfth-century
Europe, not only the French and Germans.) Among Italo-Norman lords, Bohemond's
escapade was an isolated case. His uncle, Count Roger of Sicily, ruled a
polyglot kingdom where Muslims were not considered enemies. Over time, Sicily's Norman kings occasionally
led expeditions into Muslim territories in Tunisia and the Balkans, but
these attempts to control bordering territories and waters cannot be said
to have reflected any religious conviction or philosophy. Their scope was
mostly military and political. They were not Crusades.
Beginning with the Battle of Palermo in 1071,
the Normans cultivated what was perhaps medieval Europe's first multicultural
society. The Arabs - Muslims comprising around
45% of the island's population - were accommodated, at least initially,
and so were the "Byzantines" or Greek "Orthodox"
Christians (another 45%) and the Jews (something
under 10%). Occurring as they did in the wake of the Great
Schism between the Greek "Orthodox" East and the Latin "Catholic"
West, the Crusades sometimes embodied ugly sentiments toward the Eastern
Christians on the part of the Franks, leading to the bloody Sack of Constantinople
- a Christian kingdom - during the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Amidst such
religious zeal, attitudes toward Jews were not always much more enlightened.
Such religious intolerance was generally unwelcome in Sicily. Indeed,
there are few records - or indications of any kind - attesting to any significant
number of Sicilian knights of the Norman era (circa 1060-1200) "taking
up the Cross" and going on Crusade, a fact that contrasts sharply with
the situation in Norman England during the same period. This may seem difficult
to reconcile with the existence of the military-religious orders in Sicily,
but these orders established a solid presence in Sicily only during the
"Swabian" era around 1200, which is to
say during the reigns of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry VI and his son Frederick
II. In stark contrast to their economic power in France and England (the
Templars come to mind), the military-religious orders in the Kingdom of
Sicily - Europe's wealthiest realm - were kept firmly under control. In
Sicily the Templars, Teutonic Knights and Hospitallers were never allowed
to forget that they were guests, and King Roger II
had little use for the Crusades.
Which Crusades touched Sicily?
Speaking literally, the important port city of Messina
was often a springboard for the crusaders who chose a sea route over a land
route across the Balkans and Greece. It is important to remember, of course,
that most of the Italian peninsula south of Rome was part of the Kingdom
of Sicily, so a departure from Brindisi or Taranto (in Apulia) would also
be undertaken from "Sicily."
A number of Crusaders
passed through Messina during the First Crusade,
which in 1099 led to establishment of a Crusader state in the Holy Land
that came to be known as the "Latin" or "Frankish" Kingdom
of Jerusalem. This state would have much contact with the Kingdom of Sicily,
which - though separated from it by half the Mediterranean - was the nearest
"western" state of any stability. The nobility of the Kingdom
of Jerusalem spoke the same tongue as the kings and
feudal classes of Sicily, England, France and Normandy, namely the French
language. There were also several smaller Christian states in the Holy Land,
linked by tenuous lines of communication to Constantinople.
This "Mother of All Crusades," led by Godfrey of Bouillon,
Baldwin of Flanders, Raymond of Toulouse, Robert of Normandy and Bohemond
of Taranto, marched south through Anatolia. It is interesting that Jerusalem's
Muslims and Jews joined forces against the invading Franks.
Launched in 1147, the Second Crusade was a response to
the re-conquest of certain territories by the Muslims, particularly Edessa.
This Crusade by French and German armies, under Louis VII and Conrad III,
reached Jerusalem in 1147 but without having won any major battles.
The Third Crusade (1187-1192) was a response to the Muslim
occupation of most of the territory gained by the Christians nearly a century
earlier. This found the colourful King Richard I "Lionheart"
with King Philip II Augustus of France in Messina en route to Palestine
to fight the formidable Saladin. (Richard's exploits
in Sicily are described elsewhere.) On this occasion, the population
of Messina was molested and attacked by the foreign troops, and King Tancred
of Sicily, whose power was contested by the Pope and others, had to seek
peace with Lionheart. The Third Crusade was a failure in that it did not
lead to Christian control of Jerusalem, but Richard did capture the city
of Acre and the island of Cyprus (which remained in Christian hands until
Begun in 1202, the poorly organised Fourth Crusade is infamously
remembered for the sack of Constantinople. The ridiculous Children's
Crusade of 1212 was also a debacle. The Fifth Crusade
(1217-1221), though a military failure, led to an eight-year peace with
the Europeans and Christian access to the Holy Places.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) was the only one led by a
Sicilian king, Emperor Frederick II, despite being
excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX in 1228. Federick set sail from Brindisi,
while some ships departed from Messina. By now, with most of Sicily's Muslims
converted to Christianity, Sicilian knights participated in the Crusade.
In the Holy Land Frederick signed a peace treaty with the sultan Al-Kamil.
This pact permitted Christians - with Frederick as King of Jerusalem by
virtue of his marriage to the young heiress Yolanda - control over most
of the city of Jerusalem as well as corridor between this "Holy City"
and the military stronghold of Acre. Though granting freedom of access to Christians and Jews,
the Muslims kept control over high ground that included the Dome
of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This parlous peace lasted for all of a decade. Most of the Muslims were
never happy with Al-Kamil relinquishing control of Jerusalem. In 1244, following
a siege of the city, the Muslims seized control.
Frederick's dynasty did not long survive him, and by 1268 a branch
of the Angevin dynasty of France ruled Sicily from
In 1270, when his younger brother Charles was King of Naples and Sicily,
King Louis IX of France (later canonised as Saint
Louis) led a Crusade to Tunisia, having previously undertaken a disastrous
one to Egypt. This is usually called the Tunisian Crusade.
It achieved little except to establish favourable trading rights in Tunis.
Louis died (probably of dysentery) and was given a funeral in the Cathedral of Monreale overlooking
Palermo, where his heart is kept. His son and heir, Philip III, returned
to France following the Sicilian coast to Messina and crossed into Calabria
where his pregnant wife fell from a horse and died whle crossing a stream outside Cosenza.
Louis' brother, Charles, eventually lost the Sicilian throne during the
War of the Vespers in 1282, and the "Aragonese Crusade" against
his rival, Peter of Aragon, met with even less
success than most of the Crusades to the Holy Land.
During the sixteenth century, Charles V revived
something of the "crusading tradition" through his exploits in
Tunisia and his support of the Hospitallers ("Knights of Malta")
as a bulwark against the Ottoman Turks, but in truth crusading died with
Saint Louis. Despite much effort, the Crusades
had little lasting effect in Europe.
Sicily's Norman-Arab churches and palaces resemble
many of the churches and castles erected in the eastern Mediterranean during
the Crusade era.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written
for various publications, including this one.