Tancred of Hauteville

Tancred of Hauteville, an 11th century crusader, by Jenny Dolfen

1: Norman miles, Hauteville family 2: Robert ‘le Guiscard’ d’Hauteville 3: Swabian miles, papal army

4: Lombard miles, Benevento

After the defeat of the rebellion, many of the knights who had traveled to Italy were once again adrift. Some returned to northern Europe, but others had begun to see that southern Italy, with its many disputes, weak central rule, and generally unwarlike population, might be a land of opportunity. Many turned for employment or adventure toward the Lombard principalities and the city-states along the western coast. The opportunities were there. The rulers of those states were a quarrelsome and fratricidal lot, rich economically but weak militarily, who were ready to hire the newly arrived Norman warriors to fight their feuds.

The three Lombard principalities of Benevento, Capua, and Salerno had many internal weaknesses. Over the years, they had lost power and capability as a result of their own internal divisions, through periodic efforts by Holy Roman emperors to assert their authority, and because of the resurgence of Byzantine power to their south and east. The princes competed ceaselessly against each other, against a background of internal faction and intrigue that was often encouraged by their neighbors. Brother plotted against brother, cousin against cousin, in a seemingly endless cycle of coups and struggles for dominance among the intricately interrelated princely families. The princes, moreover, no longer ruled unified or militarily powerful states. Over the years, their power had eroded to the benefit of a class of landholding but militarily feckless counts, or gastaldts, who often lived not on their lands but in the towns, and who did not owe their prince any military duty or, it appears, much loyalty. The princes were weakened still further by the fact that many Church enclaves in their territory were not only free of taxation by the princes, but enjoyed virtual independence as a result of papal or imperial protection. As a result of all these factors, the princes were often unsure on their thrones, had little control over much of their territories, and commanded only token armies.

The Lombard princes also had discordant relations with their coastal neighbors, the duchies of Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi. Though small, those city-states were inordinately rich; through their ports flowed the luxury goods of the East, not only from Constantinople but also from Arab capitals in Sicily, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Levant.’ The profits of this commerce benefited the Lombard states, which provided capital and the channels by which the goods found their way into northern Europe. But the princes were constantly at odds with the polyglot merchant oligarchies of those city-states and their elected dukes. Not satisfied in enjoying the silks, spices, perfumes, and jewels of the east, or their share in the benefits of the trade, the Lombard princes lusted to take over their smaller but temptingly rich neighbors, and maneuvered endlessly to do so.

Complicating the picture still further was an element of local competition between the two emperors and the popes. The popes had a particularly close interest in the affairs of the principalities, as they bordered the papal territories and contained important Church properties. The most important of those was the vital abbey of Monte Cassino in Capua, home to the Benedictine order of monks which was active at the time in promoting Church reform. But the emperors, too, had interest in Church properties, many of which over the years had been put under imperial protection. Popes and emperors clashed regularly over appointments, grants and rights of the southern Italian religious establishments, their mutual dependence at the strategic level put aside when it came down to specific issues of patronage or revenue. Similarly, the popes in Rome and the patriarchs in Constantinople fought over organization of the Church in southern Italy which, nominally united, was increasingly divided between Greek rite and Latin rite congregations. This competition between the major powers gave the local rulers some room to maneuver and to play the powers against each other, but it by no means improved their long-term security. In sum, the political situation in the region as well as inside each state, if not already unstable, was ripe for destabilization.

The Normans provided a new element in this witch’s brew of conflicts and weaknesses. In a practice that would in the end prove self-defeating, the local rulers each tried to gain advantage over his rivals by hiring these proven mercenaries. The suddenly footloose Norman knights found it relatively easy to find employment. Ever alert to the chances for self-advancement, they then found themselves in good vantage points from which to observe the problems and weaknesses of the Lombard states.

The Norman mercenaries found that the central issue of the moment in Lombard politics was the effort by the spectacularly predatory and unscrupulous ruler of Capua, Pandulf-called the Wolf of the Abruzzi – to dominate his neighbors. Pandulf, who had so preyed on his neighbors that he had been deposed and imprisoned for four years by Emperor Henry, had been released in 1027 by the successor emperor, Conrad, in a mistaken gesture of clemency. Seizing the opportunity, Pandulf immediately returned to the south, where he hired the most important of the Norman bands to help him reclaim his principality. He soon had regained Capua, dominated Salerno, and seized the Duchy of Naples, whose Byzantine protectors had been unable to defend it because of the recall of Katapan Bojoannes. Pandulf, much to the dread of his remaining neighbors, had rapidly become the dominant leader of the region. Emboldened but not sated, he also began a campaign of harassment and pillage of Church properties, including those of the imperially protected abbey of Monte Cassino. While these depredations further enriched him, they cost Pandulf in the long run, as they both infuriated the pope and made Emperor Conrad regret his decision to release him from his captivity.

Norman mercenaries had provided the muscle for Pandulf’s remarkable resurgence; he needed them if he was to continue to pursue his quest for domination. As a result, they suddenly found themselves in a position of some potential leverage. Their leader was a knight called Rainulf Dregnot, brother of a knight who had fought at Cannae. Rainulf had been elected leader by his fellows, under the old Norman custom, and had subsequently, through generous and competent leadership, attracted the largest and most loyal following of any Norman leader in the area. Rainulf was also the first of the Norman leaders to take a long-range view of his prospects, and to study how to position himself and his knights to best advantage.’ By 1029, Rainulf saw that it might not be in the long-run Norman interest to continue to help the unloved and unscrupulous Pandulf gain a commanding position in the region.

Other offers, as it happened, were available. The ex-ruler of Naples, Sergius, who was seeking help to recover his rights in that city, sent messengers to Rainulf suggesting that they make common cause. Negotiations led to an alliance, and Rainulf and his men changed sides. In short order, Pandulf had been expelled as lord of Naples, Sergius was back in his palace, and Rainulf was ready to accept the prize that presumably had been promised in the negotiations.

As a reward for the Normans’ services, Sergius granted Rainulf a newly created fiefdom at Aversa, a hamlet only eleven miles north of Naples but strategically located near the border with Capua. There, his mission would be to build a fortress to defend Neapolitan territory, as well as to raid into Pandulf’s lands and harass him militarily and economically. Sergius, overoptimistically as it turned out, also attempted to reinforce the tie with his new vassal both by raising him to count, and giving him the hand of his sister in marriage.

The County of Aversa thus became the first land directly controlled by a Norman in southern Italy. The place seems insignificant today, swallowed up as it is in the metropolis of Naples. But it was both strategically important in the struggle between Naples and Capua, and a key breakthrough in the Normans’ story in Italy. The status of Rainulf, now a landed man with ties to the ruling family of one of the Italian states, had changed entirely; he had joined the local power structure and was no longer merely an instrument of others’ power. Establishment of a Norman polity in southern Italy also marked a major turning point for the other Norman knights there. No longer were they required to dine at other lords’ tables as hired hands. They now had a foothold of their own and a rallying point, as well as a leader who had a sense of long-range mission, and was able to attract new recruits by his fair and resolute leadership. From his new fortress, Rainulf could build up his influence and wealth by raiding into Capua, and could strengthen his forces by attracting additional knights from the North. (The two elements indeed were inseparable, as it was the promise of booty from raiding that attracted new recruits.) The word was passed back to Normandy that these new opportunities existed. The response was rapid. In just a few years, the number of Rainulf’s knights had increased remarkably.

Rainulf’s new status as landholder and leader of a powerful band of armed men gave him increased bargaining power vis-a-vis the princes who wanted his services, or needed his neutrality. Profiting from his enhanced position, Rainulf embarked on a series of moves that, however perfidious they might seem to modern readers, succeeded in expanding his power and aligning him with the ascending power in each turn of fortune. His first move came after only five years’ service to Naples and followed, if it did not result from, the death of his Neapolitan wife. He deserted his sponsor Sergius to go back into alliance with Pandulf. This crassly opportunistic act, which led to the ruin of Sergius, can be explained in part by a prize which Pandulf dangled before the new widower’s eyes: another advantageous marriage, this time to Pandulf’s niece, daughter of the ruler of Amalfi. By this marriage, Rainulf created still another claim to respectability within the kinship-oriented Lombard ruling class. But Rainulf and his men in turn soon deserted the Capuan ruler. Perhaps disturbed by Pandulf’s gratuitous cruelty, tyrannous behavior and arrogance, or perhaps just looking to join forces with the ascending power of the region, they left Pandulf to take up alliance with the increasingly powerful Prince of Salerno, Guaimar IV. That young prince had taken up arms against Pandulf – his uncle – when the latter had tried to rape one of Guaimar’s nieces.’

Through each of his changes of loyalty, Rainulf managed to hold onto his fief of Aversa, and in fact to expand it. In this rank opportunism Rainulf, like many of the Normans in Italy, was not deterred by petty matters of loyalty in deciding where his self-interest lay. The general objective for those soldiers of fortune seems to have been to take sides when it benefited them to do so, but mostly to maintain some sort of balance of power between the rival states, so that there should always be a market for their services, and an opening for their advancement.

Among the knights who came to Italy around 1035 were two brothers from a knightly family in western Normandy, William and Drogo. From the small town of Hauteville near Coutances, on the Cotentin peninsula, the two were the elder sons of a minor knight by the name of Tancred. Tancred, a second-generation Norman whose grandfather had come at the time of Rollo, had little to distinguish himself other than a remarkable virility. Indeed Tancred succeeded, over the years, in fathering no fewer than twelve grown sons and an unknown number of girls. His first wife, Muriella, bore William, Drogo, Humphrey, Geoffrey, and Serlo before she died, while the second wife, Fressenda, gave birth to Robert, Manger, another William, Aubrey, Humbert, Tancred, and Roger. Of the boys’ family life, or of their mothers’, we know little. According to the later chroniclers, Fressenda raised all the sons in a spirit of even-handedness, but it must have been a difficult job to retain harmony amongst such a crowd of young men, trained for combat and assertiveness. Subsequent events, indeed, would point to a certain amount of friction between the sons of the first and second marriages, as well as the brothers as individuals.

To produce and raise a family of such a size was a rarity even in those days. The effort to train and equip twelve sons for a knightly career was a major one, and we do not know how Tancred managed it. His could not have been a wealthy family, so there must have been a good deal of scrimping as well as pooling of family resources to outfit the sons as new knights. Probably, the boys were sent, as was a normal custom, to the households of wealthier lords, where they served their apprenticeships in the bearing of arms and courtly behavior. Here also they would eventually have earned their knighthoods in a simple ceremony -the passage to knight was not yet as freighted with chivalric symbolism as it was in later centuries. They also learned the basic set of political skills necessary for success in the competitive atmosphere of large feudal households. Wherever and however Tancred’s sons were trained, they apparently developed few if any lasting ties from their early days, retaining their loyalty, once embarked on their knightly careers, primarily for their family and their own self-interest.

What was even rarer was that so many of the sons distinguished themselves in life. Through good genes, good training, or a happy combination, they succeeded. Not the least striking element of their success was the fact that most of Tancred’s sons who went to Italy managed to remain, by and large, in robust good health in a time of appalling disease and disastrous healthcare practices. But their military, and later political, achievements set this large group of brothers apart from their contemporaries. The history of Norman successes in Italy and Sicily is in many ways the story of this family of Tancred’s, and the remarkable relations that united and at times estranged the brothers.

The dilemma of Tancred’s family was simple: not enough land, not even for half the number of sons who passed to adulthood. Tancred had at one time performed a feat of arms that had drawn him to the duke’s notice and provided a livelihood in the duke’s household for some time. It had not, however, gained him more land, the necessary key to his sons’ future. They would have to become household knights, earning their living at another lord’s table if they could even find such work, or else strike out to find opportunities on their own. According to the chronicles,’ they were all too aware that other Norman families in similar circumstances had either divided the land among the sons in holdings so small as to be incapable of supporting a knightly household, or had been torn apart by family feuds after one son had been chosen to inherit the family land. Accordingly, they reached a family decision: each son, on reaching his maturity, would go off and seek his living as he could. To the great good fortune of the Hautevilles, the successes of the first Normans in Italy opened up attractive possibilities for employment in the south, and an uncle who had recently returned from pilgrimage in Italy advised the young Hautevilles to take their chances there.

William and Drogo, the elder two sons, were the first to leave for Italy, followed not long afterwards by a third brother, Humphrey. In the end, eight of the twelve sons of Tancred would find their fortunes- and fame for their family – in Italy. Only Serlo of the first set of brothers stayed on in Normandy, where he served in the household of Duke Robert -but only after having spent a three years’ exile in England as punishment for some infraction against the duke’s peace. Still, as we shall see, even his son Serlo eventually traveled to join his increasingly successful uncles in Italy, lured by prospects much brighter than trying to make a living in Normandy.

Three of the second set of brothers- Aubrey, Humbert, and Tancred, it appears- stayed in Normandy but left no mark on history. At least two of the daughters married knights who also went to Italy. Indeed, the family’s line in Normandy eventually disappeared, even Fressenda having gone to join her sons and grandsons in Italy after the death of the senior Tancred. Today, nothing in the little Norman village of Hauteville la Guichard would remind a visitor that it was the place of origin of the kings of Sicily, were it not for a small plaque erected in recent times.

In Italy, however, the newly arrived knights from Hauteville did not sign up with Rainulf of Aversa. At first they hired to Pandulf of Capua. But, like Rainulf and many other Norman knights, they eventually gravitated to the service of Guaimar of Salerno and in opposition to the prince of Capua. The move was fortuitous, because Pandulf was about to suffer another turn in his fortune. His attacks on Church property, added to Guaimar’s newly declared opposition, had contributed to another of those climactic descents into Italy of a Holy Roman emperor, this time Conrad II. Conrad, acting to restore order in his southern realm and to protect the property of the Church against Capua’s depredations, deposed Pandulf once again during a lightning trip south in the summer of 1038. Pandulf, beaten but scarcely vanquished, fled to Constantinople where he began plotting still another comeback, this time with Byzantine support.

Before returning to Germany, Emperor Conrad placed Guaimar of Salerno on the princely seat of Capua. Backed with this imperial authority and the force of his new Norman auxiliaries, Guaimar moved rapidly. He helped the newly installed abbot of Monte Cassino begin a long effort to drive out Pandulf’s appointees and restore the Church’s authority over its usurped or occupied lands. Guaimar also reestablished Salerno’s overlordship over Sorrento, and succeeded as well in getting the Amalfitans to elect him as their ruler.

Soon, Guaimar had become the leading Lombard ruler, and he would lead Salerno into its coming golden age. In this popular and gifted leader, the Normans had found a sponsor who was prepared to enter with them into a long-term and mutually enriching alliance. His first step had been to assure that the emperor, before his return to Germany, confirmed Rainulf as Count of Aversa. There was, however, one important change in that confirmation: the fief was to be held as a dependency of Guaimar’s Salerno, rather than of Naples. Thus Rainulf, linked to his new sponsor and now an imperial vassal, rose still another step up the ladder of respectability. The Normans were in southern Italy to stay.

For Tancred of Hauteville’s sons William and Drogo, service with Prince Guaimar would soon provide the opportunities by which they would come to distinguish themselves, and to begin the remarkable success story of the Hauteville clan.

1 thought on “Tancred of Hauteville

  1. Pingback: Tancred of Hauteville – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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