The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

14
The Muslim revolts and the colony
at Lucera

The death of William II and the ‘Sicilian Tragedy’

William II unexpectedly died on 18 November 1189 aged thirty-six, with no child as heir to the throne, and the kingdom was plunged into a succession crisis. If the crown were to pass to Roger II’s middle-aged daughter, Constance and her husband Henry VI of Germany, then the two kingdoms faced a likely union – that is, the encirclement so often feared by the papacy and by some factions within Sicily, particularly among the remaining familiares in Palermo. An alternative solution was offered by the potential elevation to the throne of the illegitimate grandson of Roger II, Tancred. He had been one of the ringleaders of the anti-Muslim riots in 1161 and was subsequently exiled for his part in the rebellion. He had, however, been reaccommodated as count of Lecce from 1169, and as the Great Constable and Master Justiciar of Apulia and Terra di Lavoro. Having largely defeated his mainland rivals, led by Roger, count of Andria, and following an unprecedented assembly of barons, Tancred was elected king and crowned in January 1190. Such were the complex, transEuropean machinations of the fraught years of 1190–1 – with Henry VI beset by baronial revolt in Germany; the death of his father, Frederick I Barbarossa, in June 1190 en route to Jerusalem; the arrival of Richard I of England at Messina in October with a crusader army demanding inheritance for his sister, William II’s widow, Joanna; the southward advance of Henry’s army deep into the Italian peninsula; and Tancred’s subsequent reconsolidation of rebellious areas on the mainland – that when a major Muslim revolt broke out in western Sicily on William’s death it attracted little attention in the primary sources.1 The Annales Casinenses recorded briefly that, ‘trouble arose at Palermo between Christians and Saracens. After many of their men had been massacred, the Saracens fed and went to live in the mountains’.2 These remarks were echoed by Roger of Howden, who added that substantial numbers of Muslims were involved.3

The sense of impending disaster facing the kingdom in the spring of 1190 was recorded by Falcandus in his Letter to Peter Concerning the Sicilian Tragedy, voicing a vain hope that both Muslims and Christian leaders might offer a

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