The other Norman con­quest

More than one is­land’s his­tory was trans­formed by a Norman in­va­sion in the 1060s

BBC History Magazine - - Sicily And Britain -

The year 1066 is heavy with mean­ing for Eng­land: it marked the bloody mo­ment a for­eign leader over­threw the na­tion – and, in so do­ing, changed the course of its his­tory. But Wil­liam’s was not the only Norman con­quest at the time.

The Nor­mans launched an as­sault on Si­cily, the largest is­land in the Mediter­ranean, in 1061 – five years be­fore Wil­liam set off across the English Chan­nel. At the head of the in­va­sion force were Roger de Hauteville and his brother Robert, called Guis­card, mem­bers of a group of Norman mer­ce­nary sol­diers who had set­tled in south­ern Italy in the pre­ced­ing decade. Sup­ported by Pope Ni­cholas II (who had, rather pre­ma­turely, made Robert the “duke of Si­cily yet to be con­quered”), they sought to cap­ture Si­cily from its Arab rulers.

In May 1061, Robert and Roger crossed from main­land Italy to Messina, at Si­cily’s far- east­ern tip, with a small force of 150 knights and their mounts, plus 450 aux­il­iaries. Un­like Wil­liam’s light­ning con­quest five years later, it took the broth­ers 30 years to fully con­quer Si­cily – not least be­cause Robert was of­ten dis­tracted by threats to his power in south­ern Italy.

The Norman con­quest of the is­land would, though, prove to launch a golden age for Si­cily – not sim­ply be­cause it au­gured a pe­riod of strong lead­er­ship, but be­cause un­der the Nor­mans the is­land was a bea­con for tol­er­ance and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism in an in­creas­ingly di­vided world. Roger, who ruled Si­cily un­til his death in 1101, kept many of the lo­cal Arab rulers in place and main­tained their bu­reau­cratic sys­tem. He also es­tab­lished the is­land as an in­ter­na­tional mar­ket, en­cour­ag­ing trade with peo­ple from all points of the com­pass.

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