Battle of Benevento – Charles I defeats Frederick II’s son, Manfred, in 1266, to secure Sicily and put an end to Italian Hohenstaufen rule. The importance of this victory to the Angevins finds testimony in this painting, made almost 200 years later.
Italy witnessed mounting opposition between emperors and popes in the 12th and 13th centuries. The northern states banded together in the Lombard League, and the focus switched to the south after the “Sicilian Vespers” uprising. The Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two fluctuating alliances, fought these wars.
Neatly resolving some political and institutional issues, the creation of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a masterstroke. However, this new union invited power struggles, and tensions were quick to show. The Hohenstaufen dynasty in Germany came to power in 1138 with the Emperor Conrad III determined to avoid a repeat of the humiliations visited on his predecessor, Henry IV. In 1155 Pope Adrian IV made Frederick I (“Barbarossa”) emperor. After several incursions into northern Italy, he chose representatives from the region for an assembly, the Diet of Roncaglia (1158).
Victory at Legnano
In Italy prominent cities like Piacenza, Milan, Padua, Venice, and Bologna were trying to extract themselves from the intrusive local bishops. They found an ally in the pope, since the bishops were appointed by the emperor, not by Rome. Frederick served notice of the callous way with which he intended to rule when he launched an invasion, seizing Crema in 1159 and Milan in 1162. When Frederick’s men played football with severed heads at Crema, the people responded by slaying captured soldiers. Pope Alexander III was outraged, and sent out the army of the Commune of Rome, but it was severely mauled at Monte Porzio in 1167. Thwarted, the pope gave his support to the cities when they formed a defensive alliance, the Lombard League.
In 1174 Frederick’s forces swept over the Alps again, besieging Alessandria. Its people fought frantically: even when the imperial sappers dug their way beneath the city walls, they beat the attackers off. The siege finally ended and the Lombard League was victorious.
Peace negotiations began but broke down in 1176. Battle was joined at Legnano. Frederick’s army had more than 4,000 armored knights; that of the Lombard League comprised mainly infantrymen. Their 1,000 or so knights were outnumbered: when the imperial cavalry charged, they fled. The infantry had dug in behind the defenses, however, forming a phalanx around the carroccio (ox wagon). They presented their long spears like pikes and stood firm; behind, crossbowmen and archers wore down the enemy. The Lombard cavalry now regrouped, before charging back in to defeat the emperor.
Guelphs and Ghibellines
Frederick had to endure the humiliation of signing the Peace of Venice, a treaty with the Lombard League that had been brokered by the pope, but tension between the two sides continued. The situation was made worse by the fact that some Italian people supported the emperors: the cities and landowners in central Italy were more worried about the papacy’s interference in their affairs than about any encroachments by the emperor from the north. This group came together as the “Ghibellines”-the name is supposed to have been a corruption of Waiblingen, the title of a famous Hohenstaufen stronghold, and they were strong supporters of the emperor. The papal party christened themselves the “Guelphs” and took their name from the Hohenstaufen opposition, the Bavarian House of Welf. Conflict between the two factions continued for the rest of the 12th century and well into the 13th. In the 1230s the Lombard League (now part of the Guelph faction) suffered defeats at the hands of Frederick II. The most severe came in 1237 at the Cortenuova. Certain victory was snatched after the new emperor brought 8,000 Muslim archers from Apulia in the southern “toe” of Italy-a region where Arab influence was still strong.
The Sicilian Vespers
In 1262 Pope Urban IV conferred the throne of Naples and Sicily on Charles of Anjou. This was highly provocative, given the opposing claim of Manfred of Sicily, who was related by marriage to the Hohenstaufen family. Even so, Charles enforced his case, defeating Manfred’s army at Benevento in 1266. Manfred himself was killed in the fighting.
Charles did not convince Sicilians of his right to rule. At Vespers (the evening service) in Palermo’s Church of the Holy Spirit on Easter Monday 1282, this resentment erupted into rioting. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of people associated with the Angevins (the House of Anjou) were killed. Charles cracked down, and Manfred’s heir (by virtue of their relationship by marriage), Peter III of Aragon, came into the conflict on the Sicilians’ side. He landed with an army in Sicily and had himself crowned at Palermo. What had been a local insurrection was soon spiraling into a full-blown war and spilling over onto the mainland of southern Italy. As their armies slugged it out, the pope added to the chaos by excommunicating Peter and inviting Philip III of France and his son, Charles of Valois, to invade his kingdom in the “Aragonese Crusade.”
Battles at sea
Philip and Charles hoped to find allies in a nobility already known to be at odds with their king, Peter III. In the event, though, a full-scale French invasion was defeated, the people rising up in support of Peter and his lords. The French were stopped at sea as well, Peter III with an immense advantage-Roger di Lauria commanding his fleet.
The dashing Admiral di Lauria had already proved his worth, winning a great victory over the Angevins at the battle of Malta on July 8, 1283. Now his victory at the battle of Les Formigues, off the coast of Catalonia in 1285, was observed as a decisive reverse for the crusade. The admiral was disciplined and daring, and could trust the captains of his galleys to break formation, feign flight, and lead enemy vessels out of position in the knowledge that they could be commanded back to order at a moment’s notice.
But when, on Peter’s death in 1285, Pope Urban IV tried to restore Sicily to the Angevins, the conflict flared up all over again. While James, the elder of Peter’s surviving sons, was happy to agree to the terms, the younger, Frederick III, was preparing to fight. Their father’s admiral was again decisive. Fighting now for James, in favour of the treaty, Roger di Lauria defeated Frederick’s fleet at the battle of Cape Orlando in 1299, and then again at Ponza, on June 14, 1300.