Roberto il Guiscardo e Ruggero I, Lemercier - Early 19th century print by Lemercier


“Nordmaenner”, men of the north, were a people who had origin in the Scandinavia and in the Denmark. They were farmers but also great navigators, able to cross the Atlantic Ocean with their small boats called “Drakkar”.

Under the name “Norman” was included three populations, the Vikings who populated the banks of the Norwegian fjords called in Old Norse “Vik”, the Danes who lived in Denmark and the Varangians who occupied the Swedish territory.

The Vikings, skilled sailors and valiant warriors, covered the northern seas. Around the tenth century they occupied Iceland, the Faroer Islands, East Greenland and Newfoundland-Labrador that the Vikings called Vinland. In the ninth century the Danes occupied the French Atlantic coast, who took the name of Normandy, and occupied Britain, excluding Wales, in the eleventh century. The Varangians, originating in Sweden, crossed the Baltic Sea and occupied the territory of Poland, the current Baltic republics, Belarus, the western territories of Russia and the Ukraine, founded the oldest state in Eastern Europe, known as “Rus of Kiev” in the ninth century.

At the beginning of the tenth century the Danes, that were led by Viking Hrolf, were granted by Charles the Simple, King of France, the land on the delta of the River Seine, in time managed to expand seizing almost the entire coast French Atlantic and constituting the Duchy of Normandy. The Norman knights being poor, comparing the French nobility who claimed descent from the Carolingian, and being great fighters lent their work of mercenaries for the various French lords.

The Drengot were four Norman brothers: Gilbert (Buatere), Rainulf, Asclettin and Osmond; Osmond was accused of murdering a representative of Richard II Duke of Normandy, the Drengot family was condemned to exile for this reason. The Drengot united other Normans who for various reasons had to leave the Normandy forming a band of about 250 knights. They made their way to southern Italy headed to the sanctuary of the Archangel Michael at Monte S. Angelo in Puglia to fulfill a vow under the command of Gilbert Drengot.

Arrived in Puglia, they offered to the pilgrims their protection from the raids of the other criminals for a fee, earning with their ability of fighters. They were hired by Melo of Bari, a leader of a Lombard faction, for their reputation as warriors. Melo needed the brave soldiers to oust the Byzantines from their positions in Puglia. The Lombard, with their allies, were however defeated at the Battle of Cannae in 1018; Gilbert Drengot was killed in battle. His brother Raniulf Drengot replaced Gilbert becoming the new head of the Normans.

Drengot and his men moved in Campania where he made alliances with various local lords, always fighting with each other to conquer new territories. The Normans, who in the meantime had increased in number with successive arrivals of their countrymen from France and Scandinavia, conquered their living space with a shrewd policy which did not allow to any of these lords to overtake the other: Sergio IV , Duke of Naples, in return for the services rendered, gave them the town of Aversa.

Rainulf Drengot, appointed Count of Aversa, sought to strengthen his position by marrying a sister of the Duke Sergio. The damsel unfortunately died a few years after marriage. Then Rainulf married to the daughter of the Duke of Amalfi. He began to expand the territory in his power with this network of family alliances, especially at the damage of the abbot of Monte Cassino, who had the lands bordering the county of Aversa. In 1038, He became prince uniting his possessions with the principality of Capua that belonged to the uncle of his wife Pandolfo IV, with the consent of Emperor Conrad II. Aversa became the capital of the Normans in southern Italy.

Another Norman family stated in Melfi (Basilicata), the Altavilla (by Hauteville, Hauteville La Guichard today in Normandy, France), the family originated with Tancred Count of Hauteville, its sons Robert the Guiscard (the crafty), Roger and William came at southern Italy to found their kingdom. After several clashes with the Lombards were able to settle in the town of Melfi from where they tried to expand. The two most important Norman families in southern Italy led by William of Altavilla and Rainulf Drengot established an alliance between themselves, merging their possessions which formed the most important state of south of Italy. This alliance was confirmed over the years with several marriages among the exponents of the two families.

Guaimario V, Prince of Salerno, convoked an assembly of Lombard princes and Norman in the year 1043 to take shelter from clashes with Altavilla and the Drengot and avoid wars aimed at territorial conquest, adjusting the relationships among the various principalities. Guaimario managed to break the alliance between the two families. Normans recognizing William the territory of Melfi also appointed him Count of Apulia; Rainulf had the title of Count of Aversa expanding its possessions with Siponte and Gargano. To consolidate the agreement William of Altavilla married Guida, daughter of the Duke of Sorrento and nephew of Guaimario. Rainulf Drengot died at Aversa in 1045; he was succeeded by Asclettin II, son of Asclettin brother of Rainulf. The following year also William of Hauteville died, who was succeeded before his brother Drogo died in 1051, then the other brother Humphrey died in 1057. On the death of Humphrey was appointed Count of Puglia the half-brother of William, Robert the Guiscard.

Robert the Guiscard began a policy of conquest in southern Italy. In 1077 he defeated the Lombard Prince of Salerno seizing of his reign, then walked the rest of the south of Italy sending away the Byzantines and conquered Apulia and Calabria. Melfi became the capital of the kingdom which included all southern Italy. In a council held at Melfi in 1059 the pope appointed the Guiscard Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Campania including Naples and Salerno, occupied by the Lombards, and the Sicily that was occupied by the Arabs.

Roger, brother of Robert, went to the conquest of Sicily at the head of a military expedition, he managed to land in Messina with the help of his brother, he arrived in Palermo after several clashes conquering the city only in 1072, taking control of the island, in alliance with the emir of Syracuse and always with the help of Roberto and his army. He had the title of Count of Sicily under the name of Roger I by his brother Robert.

Robert, meanwhile that he helped Roger in the conquest of Sicily, returned several times in Apulia and Calabria to face the Byzantines, who were trying to regain their lost possessions leaving from their stronghold, going so far as to besiege the kingdom capital, Melfi. In 1071 Guiscard freed definitively Apulia with the conquest of Bari. In 1076 he completed the conquest of Campania, excluding the Duchy of Naples, with the defeat of the principles of Salerno.

In 1081 Robert Guiscard went to the conquest of the Byzantine Empire with a strong army of 16,000 men. In October he collided in battle in Durres with the army that defeated Byzantium, occupying the island of Corfu. In 1083 he had to interrupt the expedition because he was called to the aid of Pope Gregory VII was besieged by German troops of Emperor Henry IV in Castel S. Angelo.

Robert organized a formidable army of 40,000 men and attacked Rome with fire and sword until Henry IV did not retreat. After freeing Pope Gregory VII from the siege took him to safety in Salerno. Back in Corfù where he had left his son Bohemond, he died during the siege of Kefalonia on July 17, 1085. He was succeeded by his second son Roger Borsa, son of the second wife Sichelgaita.

Meanwhile the Count Roger I began a policy of peace in Sicily among the large Muslim presence that kept its social structures and the Basilian Christian presence that preserved its rites even if it was subjected to a Catholic bishop. These two populations were framed in the “platee”, sort of the land registry, as “villani”, they could not bring weapons and had no political rights. Roger received by the pope the privilege of the bishop’s nomination for the dioceses of the island, according to this privilege, he appointed bishops mostly French and Provencal. He favored a large immigration from the rest of Italy and Provence, immigrants were mostly Lombards of Piedmont belonging to Aleramica country; dialects of Gallo-Italic origin are still present in some countries of Sicily. Roger married Adelaide del Vasto, belonging to “Aleramica” nobility.

In 1101 he was succeeded at his death by his wife Adelaide as regent, because the sons of Roger were at an early age. Adelaide abolished feudal land ownership, transferring the entire territory of Sicily in state ownership in her regency. In 1112 she moved the capital to Palermo.

In the same year her son Roger, came of age, became Count of Sicily with the name Roger II of Altavilla. He began a wise policy of integration of the various peoples on the island, he had people of all nationalities and religions as advisors in his government: the curia was entrusted to Thomas Brun, a Norman English, the command of the fleet was entrusted   to a Muslim and the command of army was entrusted to a Byzantine.

He became king appointed by Pope Anacleto II at the suggestion of its dignitaries and he was crowned on Night of Christmas of the year 1130 in the Cathedral of Palermo by the same Anacleto. He united together all duchies of Campania, including the Duchy of Naples in his Kingdom, constituting one of the most powerful states of Europe. Between 1135 and 1153, he founded the Norman Kingdom of Africa thanks to its powerful fleet, bringing together the coastal regions ranging from Algeria to Libya, making them a Sicilian protectorate.

In 1154, at death of Roger II, he was succeeded by his fourth son William I said “il Malo” who reigned until 1166, the year of his death; He was followed on the throne of Sicily by his son William II, called “il Buono”, both had to oppose the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, which aimed to conquer the kingdom of Sicily. A marriage between Henry, the son of Emperor, and Constance of Hauteville daughter of Roger II served to settle the matter. In fact, after  Tancred of Sicily and William III, the first king of Sicily from 1189 to 1194 and the second for a few months, the crown passed to Henry VI, and in 1197, to the death of her husband, passed to Costanza d’Altavilla.

In 1198 Frederick II of Swabia, son of Henry and Constance, came to the throne of Sicily following the death of his mother; he was only 4 years old and was the last Norman king, at least on the part of the mother, to rule on the southern Italy. In 1214 Frederick II called “Stupor Mundi” became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

(Picture at the top: Roberto il Guiscardo e Ruggero I, Lemercier – Early 19th century print by Lemercier)