10 May 2024

William II - Sicily’s last Norman king

Young monarch who enjoyed prosperous reign

Images of William II of Sicily, such as the above, can be found in the mosaics at Monreale cathedral
Images of William II of Sicily, such as the above,
can be found in the mosaics at Monreale cathedral 
William II, the last Norman king of Sicily, succeeded his father, William I, as the island’s monarch on this day in 1166.

The succession was brought about by the death of his father. William II was only 12 years old at the time and was placed under the regency of his mother before ruling in person from his 18th birthday in 1171.

History does not remember him as a particularly effective ruler, certainly not able to arrest the decline of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, but he became known posthumously as William the Good on account of the peace and prosperity that the kingdom enjoyed during his 23-year reign.

This was largely a result of his policy of clemency and justice toward the towns and the barons, in contrast with his father’s time, when the rebellious barons across Sicily grew more powerful and demanded greater autonomy from the crown.

The new king spent much of his time in seclusion, enjoying the pleasures of  palace life at Palermo, where his court became a centre of culture and learning, attracting scholars, poets, and artists from across Europe and the Arab world.  

His own contributions to the cultural and architectural heritage of the island include commissioning the magnificent cathedral at Monreale, just outside Palermo, which is considered one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in the world. One of the chapels contains a statute of William II dedicating the church to the Virgin Mary.

In contrast with his domestic policies, which seemed mainly to be focussed on keeping the barons happy, William II's foreign policy was ambitious. 

He maintained his father’s friendship with Pope Alexander III and with the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus. However, in 1172, when the proposed marriage of William to Manuel’s daughter, Maria, was vetoed by the emperor, William immediately turned against the Byzantines.

William II's dedication statue in
a chapel in Monreale cathedral
In 1177 he concluded a truce with his father’s old enemy, the German king Frederick I Barbarossa, who had been defeated by the Lombard League at Legnano in 1176 and no longer seemed dangerous to Sicily.

In June 1185, William commenced a military campaign against the Byzantines. His forces crossed Macedonia and captured Thessalonica (modern Salonika), but when his fleet was in sight of Constantinople (now Istanbul), his army was ambushed and defeated. 

William attempted to strengthen ties with other states through marriage and alliances, notably his own marriage in February 1177 to Joan, daughter of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. This underpinned his status as a major player in European politics.

He also showed his diplomatic skills by negotiating treaties with Genoa and Venice in 1174 and 1175, strengthening Sicily’s importance in the Mediterranean political landscape.

William II died in November 1189 at the age of 36. He had no heir, which led to a succession crisis. He had previously appointed his aunt Constance as his heir, but this decision paved the way for the eventual rise of the Hohenstaufen dynasty through her marriage to Henry VI, son of Frederick Barbarossa.

After William’s death, Norman officials supported his cousin Tancred to succeed him, instead of Constance.

Under the Normans, the Kingdom of Sicily, which included the bottom third of the Italian peninsula as well as the island of Sicily itself, had reached its cultural, economic, and military zenith under the rule of Roger II, William II’s grandfather, but by the time Tancred came to power its decline had set in.

The kingdom's administration suffered economic challenges, not least because of the costs of William’s foreign escapades, while discontent among the powerful barons continued to fester, leading to internal strife and weakening the central authority of the kingdom.

In 1191, Henry VI, King of Germany and newly anointed Holy Roman Emperor,invaded on behalf of his wife. He had to retreat after his attack failed with the siege of Naples, but Tancred died in 1194 and the kingdom fell in 1194 to the House of Hohenstaufen. 

William III of Sicily, the young son of Tancred, was deposed, and Henry and Constance were crowned as king and queen. 

Monreale's Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova is considered a masterpiece of Norman architecture
Monreale's Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova is
considered a masterpiece of Norman architecture
Travel tip:

The town of Monreale is located on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking a valley known as La Conca d'oro (the Golden Shell), which produces and exports orange, olive and almond trees. It can be found approximately 10km (six miles) inland from Palermo, to the southwest. The town is famous for its cathedral, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture anywhere in the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The cathedral combines Norman, Byzantine, Italian, and Saracen architectural styles, making it one of the most beautiful churches in Italy.  It is particularly famous for its stunning mosaics. Monreale became an important ecclesiastical center after the Norman conquest in 1072.  William II chose the area as a hunting resort. Today, the town itself serves as a market centre for the agricultural produce of the surrounding valley.

One face of the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo
One face of the Palazzo dei
Normanni in Palermo
Travel tip:

Palermo’s Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) is also called the Royal Palace of Palermo. It was the seat of the Kings of Sicily and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Today, the Sicilian Regional Assembly has its home there.  The building, originally built as a castle, is the oldest royal residence in Europe; it was the private residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and the imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV.  After the Normans invaded Sicily in 1072 (just six years after they conquered England) and established Palermo as the capital of the new County of Sicily, the palace was chosen as the main residence of the kings. In 1132 King Roger II added the famous Cappella Palatina to the complex.

Also on this day:

1548: The birth of Doge of Venice Antonio Priuli

1784: The birth of military general Carlo Filangieri

1922: The birth of journalist Antonio Ghirelli

1931: The birth of screenwriter and director Ettore Scola

1949: The birth of fashion designer Miuccia Prada


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