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Margaret of Navarre, Queen of Sicily
by Jacqueline Alio

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Coat of arms of the Kings of Navarre.For a few years she was the most powerful woman of Europe and the Mediterranean. During the Middle Ages a number of women, at one time or another, found themselves ruling kingdoms or other dominions in lieu of their husbands or sons for what was usually just several years - usually as regents because they were widowed and their sons had not yet come of age.

This was the case with Margaret of Navarre (1138-1183), Queen Consort and then Regent of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily during the end of the twelfth century.

Margaret was the daughter of King Garcìa Ramìrez of Navarre, called "the Restorer" for having restored the independence of the Navarrese crown from the Kingdom of Aragon, and of his first wife Marguerite de l'Aigle, daughter of Gilbert de l'Aigle and Juliana du Perche. (The coat of arms of Navarre and its royal dynasty shown here came into use late in the twelfth century.)

When she was still very young, she married Prince William of Sicily, the fourth son of King Roger II. Although eyewitnesses at the Norman court of Sicily described her as a woman of extreme beauty, William (nicknamed "the Bad"), who was said to have kept a harem of concubines in his palace (ostensibly these women were silk weavers), appeared to take little interest in his wife after his coronation notwithstanding the fact that he

"She kept a continuous correspondence with Thomas Becket, who trusted her enough to send some of his kinsmen to her court for safety when they were exiled from England during his troubles with Henry II."
fathered four sons with her: Roger, Duke of Apulia, who was killed at the age of nine during a rebellion brought on by Mattew Bonnellus and some royal conspirators; Robert, who also predeceased his father; William II, the future king of Sicily, later known as William the Good; and Henry, Prince of Capua.

Margaret though apparently had a very strong personality, and on several occasions she was the driving force behind the king's finally taking action as he was often slow and passive with making decisions. But she was often not alone in this decision-making: Maio of Bari, William's governor, referred to as "Emir of the Emirs" in Sicily, was the man who was truly running the kingdom at the time almost like a dictator, and who was disliked by the people, but for whom the queen seemed to have an infatuation, and with whom she often allied against her husband's opponents.

King William I had the misfortune of ruling during a time in which there was political dissent and rebellion in the Kingdom of Sicily. A key reason for this unrest was Maio of Bari, who the king trusted completely as his right-hand man, but who did not have a strong following amongst the Sicilian people as mentioned above. One of the reasons for this ill-feeling was that during King William's reign the kingdom lost its possessions in Northern Africa where rebellion against the Sicilian king's men began in 1156 and ended in January of 1160 with the surrender of Mahdia, the Sicilian Normans' last North African stronghold. During the rule of Roger II such an outcome would have been highly unlikely considering the king's vast military and naval resources headed by his then extremely competent "Emir of the Emirs" George of Antioch.

Thus such a devastating outcome as the total loss of the king's North African territories was certainly a blow not only to King William's image, but also to that of Maio of Bari, who from now on could no longer even compare to the kingdom's previous governor, George, during the rule of William's father Roger.

This was the scenario that led to a plot to kill Maio of Bari. Incredibly, this plot had as one of its main conspirators Matthew Bonnellus, a wealthy Norman nobleman, who was Maio's intended son-in-law having asked the hand of the governor's daughter. During his time on the mainland section of the kingdom, Matthew fell to the pressures of conspirators headed by Countess Clementia of Catanzaro, who is described as breathtakingly beautiful, and who apparently had a strong influence on Bonnellus.

The plot succeeded in eliminating the much-hated governor: in November of 1160, Maio of Bari was killed by Matthew Bonnellus in the city of Palermo. At first, considering Bonnellus' popularity among the aristocracy, King William was compelled to grant him pardon for having killed his governor and a political position. But soon after, William became irritated with Matthew's arrogance, and, with the help of the Queen's support, he eventually moved against him just in time before Matthew fell under the conspirators' pressure to also kill the king himself.

In particular, Bonnellus conspired with two direct relatives of the king himself: his half-brother Simon (an illegitimate son of Roger II), who was removed by King William as prince of Taranto, thus his hatred for the king; and his nephew Count Tancred of Lecce, who had been thrown into the palace dungeons for a few years after having started a revolt against his sovereign.

Matthew and his conspirators bribed their way into the Norman Palace in Palermo, for a coup d'état. It seemed easy enough with Simon and Tancred who knew the palace well. At this point, though, Queen Margaret herself and two of her sons were made prisoners in her private apartments, while the rebels started plundering the palace and killing helpless servants, including the king's concubines, who were violated and slaughtered in the palace harem. The massacre extended also out into the streets, and it included the killing of people of different ethnic backgrounds including Arab merchants, coin-minters, and silk-weavers, and this brought on an angry response among the citizens of Palermo who sided with the king, who had always been tolerant and fair with all his people.

Within just a few days, the King and his men were able to put an end to the rebellion, but not before William lost his son and heir, little nine-year-old Roger, who had been struck by a stray arrow. After just a few months, Matthew Bonnellus was eventually arrested, mutilated and thrown into the dungeons where he died soon after.

This time King William put his kingdom into the hands of three men, each having different ethnic roots, who formed a kind of triumvirate: the Englishman Richard Palmer, a layman at the time, but who would later become Bishop of Siracusa; the Muslim-Arab Qa'id Peter, who became Great Chamberlain of the Palace; and Matthew Ajello, a notary of the Italian-Lombard bourgeoisie.Reverse of gold pendant of Becket's relics made for Margaret circa 1176.

The King at this point went back to living his previous life of leisure and pleasure, without having to worry any longer about governing his kingdom, but he had a short time to enjoy it all: in 1166 he died of dysentery at the age of forty-six.

In the long run, William was not remembered as a good king for he had lacked confidence in his own power and capabilities in ruling the kingdom. It must have come as a surprise to his people when, as Queen Regent, Margaret started making decisions immediately after the king's death, notwithstanding the triumvirate's doubts about a woman effectively ruling in place of her twelve-year-old son, the future William II.

The first thing Margaret did, right after her young son was crowned, was to declare a general amnesty and to abolish the "redemption money" which was supposed to have been paid by rebellious towns of the Kingdom of Sicily, which at that time extended northward up the Italian peninsula to a point just south of Rome. She harboured serious doubts about the ruling triumvirate, and she felt it important that she and her son not be associated with them as they represented the previous rule of her unpopular husband.

In the beginning, she gave full power only to one member of the triumvirate, Qa'id Peter, who of the three was the one furthest from the local Sicilian aristocracy. At first, it seemed like a good choice, but soon the kingdom started to fall out of control, and the worse happened when Peter fled to Tunisia and converted back to Islam. Out in the streets, people spoke against her and began to call her "the Spanish woman," regretting the loss of King William, who, though never particularly popular, had never seemed so foreign to them.

After such a blow, the Queen had an even more difficult choice to make, but in the end she replaced the triumvirate, not with the most likely candidates chosen from the local aristocracy, or from men within the Church who hovered among the court, and not with her half-brother Rodrigo who had recently arrived in Palermo, or her cousin Gilbert who she could not trust, but with a young cousin of hers: Stephen du Perche.

Upon arriving in Palermo, Stephen did not seem to harbor any ambitions of running the kingdom. He had just finished preparing to leave for the Holy Land and had with him a retinue of thirty-seven French soldiers. Before leaving on Crusade, together with his men he decided to come visit his cousin Margaret after being asked to do so by another of the Queen's cousins, Rothrud, the Archbishop of Rouen.

After a short while, Margaret was able to persuade him into staying, and she appointed him Chancellor in November of 1166. This decision did not fair well with the local nobility. It seemed to them that the court was becoming more and more foreign especially because, besides his original French entourage, a number of Frenchmen were invited by Stephen to move to Sicily and they were granted fiefs on the island. Now that he had decided to stay, Stephen wanted to surround himself with people who understood his language and customs, so unrest was bound to happen among the local noblemen.

At least in the beginning Queen Margaret probably believed she had made a wise choice with the new Chancellor. In fact, it seems that Stephen du Perche was actually an idealist and the first thing he did was to think up new reforms, which would have been impossible for a Sicilian to do because they were not as neutral and detached as a foreigner such as Stephen would have been. But although the people liked him, this was obviously something that started to render him extremely unpopular among the local aristocracy.

As if the problems in her realm were not enough to render her life complicated, another intruder started to move in closer: the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick had opposed the election of the new Pope, Alexander III, and had given his full support to the anti-pope Victor IV. In the meantime, when he was still alive, King William had always been the most precious ally of Pope Alexander, and had continuously made his support felt, not only politically, but also by sending the pope money and gold up until his final days. This meant that the Queen had a precious ally after the death of her husband, and she kept up a continuous correspondence with the pope and with one of his faithful English followers, Thomas Becket, who trusted her enough to send some of his kinsmen to her court when they were exiled from England during Becket's troubles with King Henry II. It seems in fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury's close friend Richer de Laigle was actually a relative of Margaret's mother Marguerite de l'Aigle.

Fortunately for the Sicilians, Emperor Fredrick's army was forced to stop its progression towards the Norman Kingdom by a plague that hit it during the hot month of August of 1167, and the Holy Roman Emperor had to make his way back home over the Alps.

In the meantime, Margaret chose Stephen as the new Archbishop of Palermo and had him anointed just a few days after he had been ordained a priest, although Stephen seemed not to ever have had a calling for the Church. Now as both Chancellor and Archbishop, not only the local aristocracy, but also the clergy was against him. Even Matthew Ajello made no secret of despising him, and Stephen suspected everybody except for his French entourage of continuously plotting against him.

Rodrigo, the Queen's half-brother, who now called himself 'Henry' (Henri or Enrico) in order to seem less a foreigner, returned to Palermo in the hopes of regaining some power, only to find Stephen in his previous position. Thanks to his natural charm, Stephen won him over, and soon his cousin Henry was one of his strongest supporters. But as time went by, Stephen's enemies eventually convinced Henry that his sister was having an incestuous affair with handsome and young Stephen, and that it should have been Henry, the Queen's brother, heading the Kingdom's government, and not du Perche.

In an extreme attempt to protect his power and the kingdom from all the conspirators which included not only Henry, but also a large number of Spaniards and locals, Stephen moved the court to Messina in the winter of 1167 with the excuse that it was preparing to take young King William to the mainland the following year. Here Stephen was able to unmask Henry and the others, and to arrest them.

The plotting against him, though, had not yet come to an end. Just before the court returned to Palermo, Matthew Ajello and Qa'id Richard were ready to kill Stephen. Fortunately the Chancellor was informed of this plot just before his arrival, and so he arrested Matthew and the others as soon as he set foot in the city. But Stephen's rule was not meant to continue: the Sicilians' distrust of the French had grown deeper. Rumors about incest between Stephen and the Queen had gotten worse.

Although Matthew was locked up in prison, he continued to plot against Stephen, who fortunately had spies that warned him before the plot could succeed. Unrest continued in the city and both Christians and Muslims were hoping for the chance of getting rid of the French Chancellor. Stephen had a group of people and army in his defense, but it did not stand a chance against the crowds that rose up against him outside the palace. Even the young King, who was still an adolescent at the time, tried to speak to the crowds and get them on the Chancellor's side. In the end, Matthew Ajello and his people decided to give the Chancellor and his French followers a chance to escape. The terms were set and signed and du Perche, who by now had no other choice, agreed. They were to leave rightaway for the Holy Land, never to set foot in the Kingdom of Sicily again.

Margaret of Navarre was downcast: her cousin Stephen, the only person who she felt she could have trusted completely with governing her kingdom, was gone, forbidden to ever return again, and gone were his French entourage which made her feel less foreign in Sicily. Her son still had a few more years to go before he could take command of the kingdom. She was no longer allowed to make any decisions as Regent regarding the government, as none of the nobles, the clergy or the palace officials wanted her or her relatives involved in Sicilian affairs. A council was constituted without her say, and it included all three of these factions: aristocrats such as Richard of Molise, bishops such as Richard Palmer of Syracuse and Walter "Offamilias" (a royal cousin sometimes mistakenly referred to by modern scholars as Walter "of the Mill") who was soon to take the place of Stephen as Archbishop of Palermo, and of course Qa'id Richard and Matthew Ajello.

Margaret hoped that one day her dear cousin Stephen would be able to come back and take up his old government positions again, but all her letter-writing to Pope Alexander and to Thomas Becket was done in vain. Stephen himself arrived safely to the Holy Land with his small group of followers, but we know from the historian William of Tyre that he would expire just a few years later after falling seriously ill.

After the election of Walter "of the Mill" as the new Archbishop, Margaret realized that she could no longer hope to command the government ever again. In 1171, William II came of age and was finally able to rule his kingdom. A few years later, in 1177, he married the young Joan of England, daughter of King Henry II 'Plantagenet.'

Having achieved this important political alliance between the English and the Sicilian Norman families, Margaret of Navarre continued to live for another six years. During her last years she built a Byzantine monastery in Eastern Sicily next to the eleventh-century Church of Santa Maria di Maniace, north of Mount Etna. In 1183, she passed away at the age of fifty-five, and today she rests in the transept of the glorious Cathedral of Monreale that her son built, amid the splendor of golden and colorful mosaics.

About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.

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© 2009 Jacqueline Alio