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March 30, 1282 - The War of the Sicilian Vespers

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

March 30, 1282. The people of Sicily have had enough. After almost 16 years of rule by the French, insults to a married woman by a French soldier spark an uprising. Within six weeks, over 13,000 French men and women are massacred by the rebels, an incident that becomes known as the Sicilian Vespers. The War of the Sicilian Vespers will shake the Mediterranean for two decades; “Death to the French!” is its rallying cry.

The problem with medieval wars and medieval history is how convoluted they always end up being. It’s hard to explain in short, because for *this* to make sense, you have to explain this, and it’s causes and consequences all the way back to who knows where. I can tell you guys about Germany or the Ottomans, and most people will have an inkling of what I’m talking about, but the minute I start talking about Guelphs and Ghibellines everyone is suddenly out to sea. It's complex even to me, I’m not God, I don’t know EVERYTHING despite my pretensions.


I say all this so you’ll bear with me if anything’s inaccurate or confusing. I’m trying.


The struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperors had resulted in turmoil. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, with his powerbase in Sicily, had seen the height of Imperial power in Italy. (See my post on February 18 for Frederick II). The Pope, still struggling with Frederick’s successors, had called in allies to come in and seize the Kingdom of Sicily – southern Italy and the island of Sicily itself. That ally was Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX of Sicily and a powerful nobleman and crusader in his own right. Charles was fiercely ambitious, notoriously vain, and a brilliant general. Charles invaded Sicily, defeated the other claimants in several battles, and was now undisputed master of the Kingdom.


Charles wasn’t after Sicily itself; he regarded it as a means to an end. He had visions of a vast Mediterranean empire, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople. After that, there would be a final great Crusade that would throw Islam out of the Holy Land and reestablish the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The new King of Jerusalem, naturally, would be Charles. He even bought a claim to the Kingdom in 1277 from Maria of Antioch, who was probably just fine with selling her claim to a land no Christian had any real hope of retaking.


The Sicilians were not chuffed at being the pawn in Charles’s fever dream of conquest. Local nobles had no share in the government of their own lands like Charles’s French subjects, who he brought in to take over all major positions. The heavy taxes imposed on the poor island went to Charles’s military adventures abroad, with no benefit to the locals. All things considered, Sicily was now ruled by an alien French tyrant out for his own glory without a single thought for the land he was supposed to care for.


March 30, 1282, was Easter Monday. At the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo, both Sicilian locals and French officials were celebrating the holiday. A young French soldier began harassing a young married Sicilian woman, dragging her away from her husband and making lewd comments and propositions. Her husband killed the soldier with a knife, freeing his bride. As the French soldiers and officials tried to intervene and arrest the wronged husband, the Sicilians descended on them, killing them to a man.


As the bells of the Vespers – the Sunday evening prayer service in Catholic Churches – rang out, the uprising turned general. The people of Palermo ran roughshod throughout the city, shouting “Death to the French!” and murdering every Frenchmen they ran across. The hunt inundated the city, with angry Sicilians demanding that any suspect pronounce the word “ciciri,” the Sicilian word for “peas” that French-speakers found difficult to pronounce. If someone failed the test they were killed. By the morning 2,000 French men and women were dead.


The rebellion spread like wildfire, with the people of Palermo electing representatives for the liberation of Sicily. Within six weeks the rebels had full control of the island of Sicily, and had burned Charles’ invasion fleet in the harbor of Messina. They proclaimed themselves a free commune and sent a message to the Pope asking for recognition. The Pope, a Frenchman and firmly in Charles’ camp, refused and ordered them to beg forgiveness and accept Charles as their sovereign.


The Sicilians would never accept Charles as their king, and knew that alone they had no real hope against the power of France. They decided instead to approach Peter III, King of Aragon, whose wife was the last surviving heir of Frederick II. This gave Peter a claim he could press on Sicily but he had never had the opportunity – until now.


(Aragon was one of the two kingdoms that unified into Spain; its capital was Barcelona, and it made up most of eastern Spain.)


Peter was a warlike Crusader King in his own right; he had conquered the Balearic Islands from the Muslims and begun building a great war fleet. When the Pope questioned him about this fleet, he assured the Pope that it was *totally* directed at the Muslims. *Totally.* So when the Sicilians approached him for help, Peter had to pretend to wrestle with the question, but after a few days his patience ran out. In August 1282, Peter landed on Sicily. After promising the Sicilians that he would restore their rights and privileges, they proclaimed him King of Sicily on September 4.


Now there were two Kings of Sicily, and that was not going to last. There can’t be two kings of anything. One of them has to be wrong. That's one of The Rules. So it was war: the War of the Sicilian Vespers.

Am I going to tell you every detail about this twenty-year war? …no. No, I’m not, and I can hear my wife’s sigh of relief already.


What I will tell you is that it was a big ole brawl. It outlasted both Charles and Peter, who both died in 1285. The war fell to their sons. The King of France came in on his kinsman’s side, and the Byzantine Empire came in on Aragon’s side. The Pope excommunicated Peter III and declared a crusade against him, which was one of the most blatantly political uses of the “Crusade” label ever undertaken in Medieval Europe. Peter and Charles almost fought a duel, but both backed down, realizing that it was a stupid idea.


The War of the Sicilian Vespers swirled into all sorts of other conflicts. Peter’s brother James joined the French, hoping they could place him on the Aragonese throne. The enormous French invasion of 1284 was thwarted by a huge peasant uprising that threw him back. Peter died and his kingdom fell to his son James II, who gave the throne up to Charles’s son Charles II. Then James’s brother Frederick seized the throne, violating the treaty, which brought James into the war alongside Charles against Frederick...

Ok, ok, I'll stop, that’s enough. Big old medieval war, lasted twenty years, everyone changed sides a lot. Doesn't help that everyone shares the same six names.


What *did* mark this war out was the huge number of naval battles. Most medieval wars didn’t have a large naval aspect, but in a way this was a war for the whole Mediterranean, and the Aragonese fleet under the great admiral Ruggiero di Lauria (Roger of Lauria) routinely whipped its foes. This was what ultimately guaranteed Aragonese victory; Roger served throughout the entire war and in multiple battles tipped the scales of war in favor of the Spanish kings.


In 1302, the peace was finally signed. French ambitions for a great Mediterranean empire were forever curtailed, as well as the last ambitions for a glorious Crusade to the east. The seeds were sown for the next few centuries of French and Spanish struggle over Italy, which would carry into the Renaissance and even later. Southern Italy was ravaged in the war; previously the richest part of the peninsula, the struggles of the conflict set it permanently back against the wealthier, more cultured north. Byzantine connections in Italy would permit the transfer of learning and books, which along with the new preeminence of northern Italy would kick-start the Italian Renaissance in a few decades.


And all this because some soldier got a bit too handsy with a local civilian. What would probably have ended up in the modern day as a sad #metoo hashtag turned into a twenty-year war, but that’s Italy for you.


Book Recommendation: The War of the Sicilian Vespers is a strange one, with few good histories. The only fair history in English is Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958). Runciman is quite biased, so take everything with a grain of salt.


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