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