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century was a chaotic one even by Sicilian standards. Ruled since 1282 by
junior branches of the dynasty of Aragon, the island's sovereignty was contested
by rival pretenders and home-grown nobles. It was into this environment
that Queen Mary of Sicily was born in Catania in 1363, daughter of Frederick
III "the Simple" by his first wife, Constance of Aragon.
Though succession to the Sicilian Crown was governed by Salic Law (so
there were "queen consorts" rather than queens who actually ruled
by right), several Sicilian queens - such as Margaret
of Navarre - acted as regents for brief periods. However, in the absence
of a son as heir, a king's daughter might be considered his hereditary "repository"
and the man she eventually married could claim to rule in the name of her
patrimony. This was the case, for example, of Constance Hauteville, daughter
of Roger II and wife of Henry VI of Swabia, who
claimed Sicily by right of his wife. Viewed in this light, Mary was a significant
figure, more than a mere footnote to history.
With the death of Frederick III in 1377, young Mary was effectively "kidnapped"
by the so-called "Four Vicars," powerful feudal lords who sought
to govern Sicily without royal authority by controlling the princess.
Frederick III had named Artale of Alagona his daughter's regent and guardian.
Alagona was coerced into forming a government with three other "vicars,"
namely Francis Ventimiglia, Manfred Chiaramonte and William Peralta. Apart
from greed, the vicars had their own political allegiances - either to Aragon
or to the Papal-Neapolitan influences who still entertained designs on Sicily
a century after the Vespers. Their jealous disputes
across Sicily often led to destructive raids if not pitched battles.
Who Mary wed was a matter of obvious importance in these designs. In
1379, with the approval of King Peter IV of Aragon, she was kidnapped by
William Moncada to prevent her planned marriage to the Duke of Milan. She
then resided at Licata until 1382, when she was rescued by an Aragonese
fleet. Following a sojourn in Sardinia, she was taken to Aragon, where she
wed, in 1390, Martin "the Younger," grandson of Peter IV. Martin
ruled, in effect, by right of his wife, who was also Duchess of Athens.
Sensing a royal reaction to their traitorous actions, the barons met
at Castronovo in 1391, but in typically Sicilian fashion they betrayed each
other, with Alagona, Peralta and Ventimiglia negotiating secretly with the
king to the exclusion of the Chiaramonte clan.
With Martin and his father, also Martin, Mary returned to Sicily in 1392
with a fleet led by Bernard Cabrera. It was time to rein in the disloyal
Sicilian barons who had violated their oaths of homage and fealty to the
crown, generally eroding the island's economic prosperity in their private
Here we encounter an interesting medieval principle, for disloyalty -
however frequent in practice - was intolerable where it led to a feudal
vassal usurping royal prerogatives. Specifically, the vicars imposed taxes
and annexed crown (demesnial) lands to their own. While it was true that
the Chiaramonte family, in particular, had governed reasonably well and
built castles which still stand today (among them Fort Sant'Angelo on Malta, the Steri in Palermo,
the hilltop fortress at Mussomeli), they had become too powerful and too
arrogant. In fact, they had taken control of Palermo, to which Cabrera laid
siege for a month. Following this blockade and battle, Andrew Chiaramonte
was executed in June 1392 in front of the Steri, his stronghold, which became
the residence of King Martin.
Seeking to accommodate the nobility, Martin held a parliament at Catania
in 1397 and another in Syracuse in 1398.
Mary's only son, Peter, died in 1400 at the age of two years. Mary herself
died at Lentini, near Syracuse, the following year. She is sometimes referred to
as "Mary of Aragon" or "Maria di Catalonia."
When Mary's husband, known as Martin I, died in 1409, he was succeeded by his
father (who by then was King of Aragon), who became Martin II of Sicily. This signal year marked
the true loss of Sicily's political independence forever. Henceforth the island would
be administered - for the most part - by viceroys sent from Spain and then Naples; there was rarely
anything like "home rule" although the island remained a kingdom. We may speculate that, had
young Peter survived to marry and perpetuate his dynasty in Sicily, he would have ruled from Palermo and
history would have taken a different course.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa.