Execution of Conradin in 1268.

Battle of Benevento

In the time of Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, northern Italy was divided between factions loyal to Frederick and the supporters of the Church. The Ghibellines, Frederick’s partisans, take their label from an Italianate version of the word ‘Waiblingen’, the name of a Hohenstaufen castle. Guelphs, partisans of the Church, are so-called from the German ‘Welf’, the lineage and war cry of the Bavarian dukes. This simple dichotomy hardly scratches the surface of the complex political situation in northern Italy. There were any number of freebooters faithful to no one but themselves, and even Guelphs could become Ghibellines and Ghibellines Guelphs in certain circumstances. One of the greatest works of literature of all time, Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in Italian, may be read in part as a commentary on the political strife of the period. The writer’s avowedly prescriptive works, like his Latin De Monarchia, are explicitly concerned with the overarching political problems and how to correct them – in Dante’s view by the restoration of strong imperial authority.

It should be recalled that life was not everywhere and always lived according to political labels, no matter how fierce the strife was and how compelling the loyalties to particular political factions. Reading the Divine Comedy as a political commentary is possible, but perhaps not recommended, for it would turn a rich and provocative poem into a flattened and tedious screed. Similarly, while violence and factionalism played themselves out in the Italian cities and to some extent characterized urban life, though not to the point of undermining economic growth, the thirteenth century also saw the expansion of the mendicants (especially Franciscans) into every town, bringing with them their concerns for the poor, for right belief, for the conversion and reform of prostitutes and Jews, indeed for nothing less than a call for total religious renewal. Something of the sort seems to have occurred as early as 1233, that is, even before the mendicants had achieved their evangelical hegemony. The so-called ‘Great Alleluia’ swept the region of the lower Po in that year; it seared the land like pietists’ exuberance in eighteenth-century Germany or the Great Protestant Awakenings of nineteenth-century America.

As far as political stability goes, though, southern Italy and Sicily were in better shape than the north. Frederick II, besides spending a great deal of time on the island in particular, maintained a gifted group of administrators to deal with governmental problems. The institutions within which they worked were remarkably stable and efficient.

The principal political challenge for the Church was how to control Frederick, how to induce him to act as the popes thought a Christian emperor should act. But Frederick, the ‘Wonder of the World’ (Stupor Mundi), was not a man to accept control by anyone, even the pope. Recognizing that the Church would never be successful in inducing Frederick by peaceful or diplomatic means to modify his policies in conformity with its political agenda, Pope Innocent IV decided to try to remove Frederick from the political scene. Formally deposed in 1245, Frederick nevertheless defied his opposition, retained enormous power and continued to threaten what many churchmen regarded as the liberty of the Church.

It was the emperor’s death in 1250 that seemed to provide the papacy with the opportunity to redistribute power in such a way that no single man could ever command at once the resources of Germany, northern Italy, southern Italy and Sicily. Moreover, the desired corollary, so far as the Church regarded it, was that no Hohenstaufen in particular should possess authority in any of these territories ever again. The alternative, again from the papacy’s perspective, would provide for the frightening possibility of the revival of Hohenstaufen claims to all of the territories sometime in the future.

The evident reluctance of Frederick II’s offspring to accept disinheritance motivated the popes to support various non-Hohenstaufen claimants to the German throne, which, being technically elective anyway, did not de jure threaten the inheritance rights of Frederick’s children. Sicily was different. Frederick held it by blood right and presumably could pass it on by blood right. The popes needed in this case not a candidate willing to stand for election but a designated warrior determined to destroy the last vestige of Hohenstaufen claims.

They cast about far and wide for a champion and after many false starts found an effective one in Charles of Anjou, the brother of the French king, Louis IX. Charles had his brother’s grudging support; Louis preferred a political settlement but none was forthcoming. Charles was wealthy. He possessed the income from two great fiefs in France, Anjou and Maine, as well as the income of the county of Provence, which he came into through his wife, Beatrice of Provence. And he had the ambition.

In a series of military engagements, culminating in the battles of Benevento in 1266 and Tagliacozzo in 1268, Charles routed Hohenstaufen forces. Hohenstaufen claims appeared to expire with the deaths of the last direct male Hohenstaufen claimants, one in battle (Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son) in 1266, the other by judicial execution (Conradin, the great emperor’s grandson) in 1268. In Constance of Hohenstaufen, however, Manfred’s daughter, there remained the possibility of the resurrection of Hohenstaufen pretensions. This Constance married Peter, the son of James I the Conqueror, of Aragon, who came to the Aragonese throne on the death of his father in 1276. What was needed for Charles of Anjou, since 1266 King Charles of Sicily, was time, enough time for memory of the Hohenstaufen era to fade and for loyalties to the family in Germany, Italy and Sicily to ebb away.

For a while, it seemed as though time was on Charles’s side. But his initial successes were compromised by a style of rulership that dismayed even subjects disposed to be loyal. Charles spent little time in Anjou and Maine; they were administered like other royal provinces of France, although he rather than the Crown received the surplus income from the counties. The centre of his ambitions and concerns was the Mediterranean. Where he suspected resistance to his rule he was brutal. His treatment of Marseilles, the greatest city in his Provençal domains, reduced the port and its government to abject dependency in the 1250s and 1260s. The intense economic exploitation of Sicily and southern Italy led to widespread dissatisfaction, and the tensions between the Angevin military forces that now dominated Sicily and the local inhabitants were rarely far from exploding point. Added to this was the papacy’s apparent distress over some of Charles’s actions, particularly his penchant for picking up titles, like senator of Rome, overlord of Albania, suzerain of Tunisia and King of Jerusalem.

Some of the titles had more of show than substance in them. Charles purchased the title King of Jerusalem from one of the many claimants to the throne of that truncated kingdom, and by doing so he became king in (contested) name only. His senatorship was a particular sticking point in his relations with the papacy, and he wisely abandoned it. The overlordship of Albania did give him some leverage in the Adriatic, but it was inevitable that the great maritime power, Venice, would act if it thought its interests were being threatened.

Charles’s suzerainty over Tunisia came about as a result of his brother’s last crusade (1270). That crusade had been planned under the misapprehension that the Bey of Tunisia would convert if threatened by a major crusading army. The submission of Tunisia would then provide a secure north African staging point for continued Christian expeditions into Muslim lands. In fact, the Bey had not converted and Charles, who arrived at the siege of Tunis just after his brother died from disease, persuaded the army commanders, including his nephew, the new king of France, to abandon the siege and return to France with the pestilence-stricken army. The Bey was willing to make formal obeisance to Charles to expedite the raising of the siege. In the short run this gave Charles and Mediterranean Christians some commercial advantages and religious privileges in Tunisia.

Shallow, temporary and problematic as some of Charles’s claims and titles were, his determined rulership in Provence, southern Italy and Sicily, as well as his extraordinary wealth, raised the spectre that he might some day make the claims and titles meaningful. He thought he had found the way to do so by redeeming French arms in Greece. Following the crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Franks, specifically a cadet branch of the French royal family, ruled the Byzantine Empire. Their rule was never very stable, however, because hostile Greek forces continued to operate in many of the provinces, and under Michael Paleologus would retake what was left of the much weakened empire in 1261.

By the time Charles became active in the central Mediterranean the Greeks had had what was left of their empire back for almost a decade, but they feared a counter-attack from the West, and this at a time when Muslim forces in Anatolia were also attacking the outposts of the resource-depleted Byzantines. One way to keep the Latins at bay was to reassure the papacy that despite the Greek military reconquest from the Catholic French, Michael Paleologus’s intention was to preserve or re-initiate the union of the Churches along the lines of that achieved in the years 1204–61.

Many Greek prelates were vehemently opposed to their emperor’s policies, and he felt compelled on occasion to silence them. Islam seemed on the verge of wiping out the Crusader States. If and when that was achieved, the full force of Islamic retaliation would fall on a truncated Byzantium. The abatement of military hostility from western – Roman Catholic – Christendom was absolutely essential for survival. Anything more than this from the Latins could hardly be expected, but it was better than nothing, and the alternative, a war on two fronts, was too awful to contemplate. Was union with the papal church too high a price to pay for the survival of the empire? Those Greeks who continued publicly and stridently to say ‘yes’ were made to suffer for it.

To the popes, however, Michael Paleologus seemed worth listening to, and in the circumstances Charles of Anjou could scarcely have got the kind of full backing he wanted for an invasion of Greece to reestablish the Latin empire. His dream seemed all the more hopeless in 1274, when Greek prelates sent by Emperor Michael Paleologus to the Second Council of Lyons were ordered to subscribe to the plan that was to be presented there for the union of the Churches. Events in the years after 1274 kept Charles’s hopes alive, though. Greek ecclesiastical and popular resistance to union increased in intensity. The emperor resorted to draconian measures, like cutting out the tongues of dissidents who were undermining the process of reunion. Yet the papacy grew restless and suspicious of what it regarded as the Greek emperor’s feeble efforts to enforce the union.

With papal support Charles, therefore, began to make secret preparations to invade the Byzantine empire. He would justify himself morally by the need to avenge the expulsion of the French from Constantinople in 1261; he would justify himself legally by the Paleologoi’s failure to carry out the agreed-upon protocols of Lyons II. But his preparations were less secret than he wished. A network of spies inhabited Mediterranean political, military and naval circles. Even while Michael Paleologus was pleading his sincerity through emissaries to the Holy See, he was trying to destabilize Sicily through spies and agents provocateurs.

Coincidentally, Charles’s exploitative rule in Sicily, and the behaviour of the Angevin forces that were being built up there for the invasion of Greece, were bringing native resentment to the flashpoint. Other interests operating commercially in the Mediterranean, like Aragonese merchants, were also finding Angevin pretensions and interference in their activities distressing. Moreover, in Aragon it became clear, largely through ambassadorial accounts and spies’ reports, that conditions might soon be ripe for raising the matter of Queen Constance’s claim to Sicily. The French king, fully supporting the family interests of his uncle Charles of Anjou, became suspicious of Aragonese actions, including what seemed to be military preparations. Most historians credit the claim that the Aragonese would certainly have intervened in Sicily sooner or later.

It was sooner, for a native uprising began in Palermo on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282, known as the Sicilian Vespers. The trigger was an Angevin soldier’s insult to a Sicilian woman. Bells rang out the rebellion. Angevin troops were killed in numbers, and Charles’s forces had to deal with the insurgents, while at the same time trying, more or less successfully, to preserve rule in the other cities of Sicily and confine the rebellion to the island. The papacy saw its hopes of a re-establishment of Latin hegemony in Greece and the vigorous reunion of the churches temporarily suspended. Michael Paleologus died in 1282, without knowing the outcome of these unexpected events.

At this moment, Aragon intervened, ostensibly in the name of the Sicilian people and the Aragonese claim to the Hohenstaufen inheritance. Now, Charles had to fight ill-organized but determined rebels as well as the considerable land and naval forces of the Crown of Aragon. The pope denounced Aragon; the French king fulminated and brought pressure on the pontiff to excommunicate and depose the Aragonese king, in favour of the French king’s younger son. Preparations began in northern France to raise an army to invade Aragon in a war that would come to have the status of a crusade against the Christian Iberian kingdom.

Efforts were made to prevent the bloodshed. A plan to have the king of Aragon, Peter III, and Charles of Anjou meet in single combat fell through in a farcical (deliberate?) mix-up of dates. In France the failure to find a way to prevent war was especially exasperating for the royal heir. He, the future Philip IV the Fair, opposed the war. In the days of St Louis his father had married an Aragonese princess, to symbolize the end of tensions between France and Aragon that had been brought about by Louis and James the Conqueror. Philip worshipped the memory of his Aragonese mother and despised his stepmother, a Brabantine, and her entourage, all of whom supported the war. The boy also found solace in the fact that his grandmother, St Louis’s widow, despised Charles of Anjou and bemoaned the war against Aragon.

These matters are important because both at sea and overland the French invasion forces were routed in 1285. The French king died on the retreat from the Pyrenees, and Philip IV came to the throne nurturing an abiding dislike for the papacy’s propensity to shape French foreign policy, an attitude that would have long-term implications for papal-French relations in the later thirteenth century and beyond. The crusade against Aragon was succeeded by the status quo ante on the continent, with drawn-out negotiations meant to save the face of the various contending parties (Philip the Fair’s younger brother eventually gave up his claim to Aragon). To a degree, the negotiations were eased by the deaths of so many interested parties in 1285: besides the French king, who perished in the military campaign, others who died that year included King Peter III of Aragon, Pope Martin IV, who had authorized the campaign, and Charles of Anjou himself.


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