Robert Guiscard is claimed by Pope Nicholas II as a Duke.
Robert Guiscard (c. 1015 – 17 July 1085) was a Norman adventurer remembered for the conquest of southern Italy and Sicily. Robert was born into the Hauteville family in Normandy, went on to become Count of Apulia and Calabria (1057–1059), and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria and Duke of Sicily (1059–1085), and briefly Prince of Benevento (1078–1081) before returning the title to the Pope.
Following William’s death his younger brother Drogo was elected to his position of Count of Apulia while a third brother, Humphrey, was given some of William’s former estates. Back in Normandy the seven sons who had stayed behind were watching these developments with considerable interest. These were the children of Tancred’s second marriage and in 1047 the eldest of them, Robert, decided to join his half-brothers in Italy.
He arrived to a cool reception. Drogo didn’t particularly like his father’s second wife and detested her children, so he sent Robert off with a small band of followers to cut his teeth in a frontier fortress deep inside Byzantine Calabria, the heel of the Italian peninsula. The castle overlooked a coastal plain which held the picturesque ruins of the ancient city of Sybaris, but if Robert expected anything approaching luxury he was quickly disillusioned. The small, dank fortress was malaria-ridden and dark, languishing in a particularly sparse region of Italy. Calabria was much poorer than Apulia, with a heavily forested, mountainous interior and little land suitable for agriculture. The coastal regions had been desolated by centuries of malaria and Saracen raids, and since the local populations were thoroughly Hellenized they were more loyal to the Byzantines and less likely to welcome the Normans as deliverers.
To survive, Robert was forced to live off the land, which he managed to do with a combination of cunning and brutality. A favorite tactic was to set crops on fire and then charge money to extinguish it, a scheme which did not improve his popularity with the local populations. Before long he was being called ‘Guiscard’, ‘the crafty’, and had acquired a reputation among the other Normans as someone to watch. He was shrewd enough to understand that a good leader should be feared by his enemies and loved by his allies. To this end he shared every hardship with his men, eating at the same campfire and sleeping on the same hard ground, but was also remarkably generous. Wealth for him was always a means, and almost never an end to itself. When a visiting Norman bishop mentioned that he was building a cathedral back home, Robert, whose own resources were stretched, loaded him down with every bit of treasure he owned. The financial loss was more than compensated by the public relations gain. The cleric returned to Normandy and brought with him stories of the wealthy, generous knight of Calabria, and Robert, who was chronically short of men, was inundated with fresh recruits.
Before he had had a chance to expand his power, however, he was swept up into a larger conflict. When the Normans had first arrived in Italy they had been greeted as liberators by a Lombard population that was eager to escape the imperial tax collectors. As time when on, however, they had discovered that the rapacious Normans were a good deal worse than the Byzantines that they had replaced, brutally suppressing any sign of independence and squeezing their provinces for every drop of money. When Byzantine agents entered Apulia looking for a way to destabilize Norman control to neutralize the threat in Calabria, they found a very receptive audience. A massive conspiracy was hatched to assassinate every major Norman in Italy and in 1051 it was carried out. Drogo was cut down as he entered his private chapel, and by nightfall all of Apulia was in uproar.
The surviving Normans, still not fully understanding how much public opinion had turned against them, responded by brutally ravaging the lands of anyone who was involved, thinking that they could restore the status quo with a display of strength. This was the final straw, and it provoked a response from the most powerful figure in Italy, Pope Leo IX.
The papal palace in Rome had been deluged for years with woeful tales of rape, murder, and robbery along the major routes of southern Italy, all begging for assistance against the footloose bands of Norman mercenaries who respected no law but that of the sword. Such concerns might normally have been better directed towards the local secular authority, but Leo was uniquely suited to lead the charge. Already renowned for holiness in an age of worldly pontiffs, he alone had the charisma and standing to pull together the scattered powers of Italy into a cohesive force. The blood and death of battle didn’t shock him – as a bishop he had led the field armies of the German emperor, Conrad II, in a raid on northern Italy and saw no reason why his new position should bar another outing.
The pope had had experience with the Normans before. They were uncomfortably close to the Papal States, were notorious for their simony – a practice he was doing his best to stamp out – and had already proved so irritating that he had refused William the Conqueror’s request for a marriage in order to humble them. If something wasn’t done to stop these lawless and uncontrollable Normans, they would begin to encroach on Vatican territory. If the pope couldn’t find some way to bring them to heel, his reputation would suffer accordingly and he would face the real danger of being surrounded by a sea of Normans.
His first thought had been to awe the Normans into submission. He had traveled to southern Italy where he summoned Drogo de Hauteville before him. Dressed in the full robes of his office, the Holy Father had coolly ordered him to rein in his men. Drogo had seemed appropriately chastened, but a few months later he had been assassinated and southern Italy was plunged into chaos.
For Pope Leo, now was the perfect time for him to strike. The Normans were leaderless and frustrated, flailing in all directions, and nearly every non-Norman baron of southern Italy, from Abruzzo to Calabria, had risen up against them. But he had to act fast before tempers cooled. Writing to the Byzantine emperor, Constantine IX, Leo offered a joint alliance and then traveled to Germany to discuss matters with his cousin the western emperor. Having shorn up imperial support for the anti-Norman coalition, he raised an Italian army as quickly as possible and marched into Apulia, proclaiming that he would put an end to the ‘Norman menace’.
News that an invading army was on the way – led by the Vicar of Christ himself – finally woke the Normans to the danger. A desperate call went out for every able-bodied man and Robert hurried back from Calabria. Under the circumstances everyone was willing to put aside their past differences, and the united Normans elected the blunt, soldierly Humphrey, the oldest surviving Hauteville, as their leader. His first action was to send a message to Leo asking for terms, but Leo was in no mood to hear an appeal. He had his enemies right where he wanted and didn’t intend to let them escape.
Humphrey and Robert held a hasty conference to decide what to do. They were heavily outnumbered, and the fact that the pope was there in person unnerved them. But as bad as the situation was it would only grow worse if they delayed. A Byzantine army was heading down the coast and if it were allowed to link up with Leo, the odds would become too great. There was a serious food shortage; the local population had gathered up the harvest despite the fact that it was still green, and there was simply nothing to eat. If they didn’t attack now they faced the threat of starvation.
With no realistic alternative, the Normans drew up by the Fortore River near the little town of Civitate and sent another emissary to the pope. This time, however, it was only a ruse, and in the middle of the negotiations they attacked. Leo’s Lombard allies were caught by surprise and fled in a panic, and were soon joined by the bulk of the army. Only the pope’s German regiment stood their ground against the Norman charge, but they were now outnumbered and were slaughtered to a man. The pope, dressed in distinctive flowing white robes, watched the entire debacle from a nearby hilltop with growing horror. When it became apparent that his forces were beaten he rode to a neighboring town and anxiously demanded sanctuary. The townsmen, however, were aware of what had just taken place and had no intention of offending the victors. The moment a Norman soldier rode up to the gates Leo was unceremoniously tossed out.
The pope suffered his defeat graciously, walking proudly out to meet his enemies, and those watching from the walls might have wondered just who had won the recent struggle. The Normans fell down before him, begging for forgiveness and swearing that they were faithful Christians. Some knelt to kiss his ring, and still others ran to fetch him a horse, and some refreshment. When he had dined they escorted him to the town of Benevento – maintaining a respectful distance – and installed him in its finest apartments. Their courtesy never slipped an inch, but not all the deference in the world could hide the fact that Leo was now a captive, and the news quickly spread throughout Europe: the Vicar of Christ was a prisoner of the Normans.
Their victory was more complete than they knew. The pope was humiliated and broken, but even if he had wanted to mount another challenge he would have found it impossible. Just a few months after the battle, the churches of Rome and Constantinople suffered a serious break and the threat of a vast anti-Norman alliance vanished along with any hope of cooperation between the eastern and western halves of Christendom.
The only thing that threatened the Norman position now was tension between the brothers, which was rapidly mounting. Humphrey tolerated his younger sibling better than Drogo had, but his patience was wearing thin. Robert was enjoying himself in Apulia and had no intention of hurrying back to impoverished Calabria. Things came to a head at a banquet hosted by the elder brother. He accused Guiscard of dragging his feet, and the furious Robert was offended enough to draw his sword before being restrained by his friends. Feeling bitter and humiliated, he made his way back to Calabria, and began the work of expanding his influence.
Happily for him, he found the situation had greatly improved in his absence. Byzantine power in Italy was in the middle of a spectacular collapse; shrinking budgets and dithering rulers in Constantinople had left much of the local population feeling abandoned, and the garrisons left behind were demoralized and easily convinced to surrender. One town after another submitted to Guiscard, and those that resisted were either overwhelmed or fell prey to one of his famous ruses. In Otranto he managed to talk his way through the gates, and by the fall had seized Calabria’s one productive agricultural region. Each success gave him a greater reputation, which in turn brought in more recruits that allowed more fortresses and more victories. By 1057 even Humphrey had to admit Robert’s ability.
The elder Hauteville was dying of malaria and exhaustion, and was well aware that the Normans were in desperate need of a new type of leader. Their stubborn independence made their conquests unstable, and their harsh rule fueled the anti-Norman feeling among the populations they dominated. It was no longer enough to be a good soldier; leadership of the fractious Normans now required diplomacy, statesmanship and vision if they were ever to become more than petty barons. Humphrey was determined to leave his people in the hands of someone who saw a greater destiny for them, and there was only one serious candidate. Swallowing his pride, he summoned Robert and the two had a public reconciliation.
Not everyone was pleased with the selection, however, and Robert had to spend several months putting down various Norman barons who contested his election. For good measure he forced even the loyal nobles to re-swear allegiance to him, then returned to the toe of Italy to complete the conquest of Calabria. Here his youngest brother Roger joined him. Barely twenty-five, Roger had the same broad Hauteville shoulders and large frame, but was more easy-going than Robert. Where Guiscard was calculating, Roger was convivial, but that merely masked an iron-willed determination.
At first the two of them worked together well. They made a stab at Reggio which commanded the straits between Italy and Sicily and Robert felt comfortable enough to leave the campaign in Roger’s hands as he returned north to put down yet another rebellion. They were too similar, however, for the partnership to work for long. Perhaps recognizing the family ambition in his brother, Robert refused to grant him land or an independent source of income. Roger was eager to build up his wealth so he could marry, and his frustration turned to anger when Robert started slowing down the payments for his garrisons. When he formally complained, Guiscard dismissed his concerns, suggesting that his brother would benefit from the same rough conditions that he had had to suffer in his early days.
This kind of response only made things worse, and before long the animosity escalated into a full-blown war. Roger went on a rampage through his brother’s Calabrian lands, burning crops, pillaging the countryside and kidnapping merchants for ransom. Not one to back down, Robert responded in kind, and the resulting devastation caused a famine that provoked a massive popular revolt. The scale of the rebellion caught the Normans completely by surprise and soon threatened to spread into Apulia. The alarmed brothers hastily patched up a truce, agreeing to share all further conquests equally.
Peace was restored just in time for Robert to receive a papal ambassador summoning him to Melfi for a personal meeting. When he asked what the pope wanted, the answer must have seemed too incredible to be true. It had been barely five years since a pontiff had led an army to crush the Normans, and now one of his successors was asking for an alliance.
The reason for the about-face in Vatican policy was the election of Nicholas II, a reforming cleric who wanted to end simony, the practice of buying church offices, and free the papacy from external control. The German emperor had traditionally been the pope’s protector, but in practice that had usually meant that the pontiff was a German puppet. The only way for the pope to break free was to find a counterbalancing power and the closest one available was the Normans.
Nicholas called a synod to meet at Melfi, and there made the alliance official. Robert pledged his loyalty and promised to defend him against the emperor. In return the pope confirmed his right to hold the land he had already seized and gave him the suggestive title ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria as well as Sicily yet to be conquered’. The fact that he didn’t actually control all of Calabria – or any of Sicily for that matter – hardly bothered Guiscard. The pope had given him the legitimacy to conquer everything he could and he didn’t intend to waste the opportunity.
He spent the next year evicting the Byzantines from Italy, reducing the imperial holdings to the single city of Bari in the heel of the Italian peninsula. There they stubbornly resisted, clinging on to their ancestral homeland, and Guiscard was willing to let them be for the moment. He already had a more tempting target in mind – the rich fields of Sicily – and could wait for the rest of Italy to fall into his grasp. It must have been a heady feeling as he looked across the straits to the island just off the coast. The son of a minor lord of France had raised himself to the same level as his contemporary, Duke William of Normandy. There were now two Norman duchies at opposite ends of Europe, both planning to invade an island kingdom. Sicily was ripe for conquest and exerted an irresistible pull on Robert. Things had only become more chaotic since his eldest sibling, William Iron-Arm, had left, and the island was now divided between warring Arab and Berber factions. Even more promising, one of the Berber emirs had actually invited Robert to come, asking for his assistance in fending off his rivals. The two brothers crossed to Sicily in 1060 and immediately seized Messina, then plunged deep into the interior. By the end of that year they controlled most of the east coast and were making inroads towards Palermo.
In the second year, however, the advance abruptly halted. Besieging fortresses took time and Robert was impatient to bring the Muslims to battle. The stress of a long campaign was also beginning to show as the brothers started arguing about the division of spoils. Neither could completely agree about who was actually in charge, so they settled on an awkward joint rule. This was a particularly bad idea as Robert had no patience for consolidation and was easily bored. His attention in any case was needed on the mainland; long absences invited revolts and his restless barons hardly needed the encouragement. For the next ten years he put in sporadic appearances, leaving the conquest of Sicily largely in Roger’s capable hands.
In the meantime Robert continued to put pressure on the southern Italian city of Bari and in the spring of 1071 it finally fell, extinguishing the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in Italy. Guiscard entered the city in triumph, dressed in the Greek style, and surrounded by his closest supporters. He was the sole master of southern Italy, and had at last made his dukedom a reality. For another man this might have been enough. His enemies at home were cowed and peaceful, the pope had turned from being a rival into an ally, and there was no one left to challenge his authority throughout the south. But Guiscard was already dreaming of greater things. Something in the pageantry of Bari had caught his imagination. He had seen it in the palaces and churches of Sicily and in the luxury of captured imperial baggage. The landless knight who had made himself a duke turned his eyes thoughtfully to the East. There, glittering Byzantium, the biggest prize of all, was waiting.