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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
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.
|"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."|
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
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.
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.