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Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens & Rebels. Meet a timeless sisterhood of pious Roman
maidens, steadfast Sicilian queens, and a Jewish mother who faced the horrors of the Inquisition. Find an island's feminine soul
in the first book about Sicily's historical women written in English by a Sicilian woman in Sicily. (224 pages on acid-free paper,
ebook available) Read more.
She remains a footnote
to Sicilian history, her role perhaps close to that of the typically sheltered,
if not passive, medieval European noblewoman, bound by a sense of duty all
but abandoned in our modern world. Nothing like the bold image of her mother,
the crusading Eleanor of Aquitaine, the strong-minded Constance of Aragon, wife of Frederick II, or, in a much later age, Maria Sofia of the Two
Sicilies. That Joan of England never produced a surviving heir to the
Sicilian throne is historically significant because it heralded the effective
end of the Hauteville dynasty of Norman kings of Sicily. Yet, she is an
interesting figure, and part of a wider Anglo-Norman influence in twelfth-century
Sicily - and a witness to great historic events that shaped the destiny
of Sicily, England and France. Her quiet courage despite a lifetime
of difficulty is, in itself, a lesson in the virtue of steadfast strength
in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Born at Angers Castle (Angers, Anjou) in France in October 1165, blond-haired Joan
was the seventh and youngest surviving child of King Henry II of England
and his queen consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Henry fathered illegitimate
children as well.) As one of their three surviving daughters, Joan (or Joanna)
spent her earliest years in England but mostly in France, where her mother
lived in Poitou, effectively separated from her father. Joan was attractive - fair with brown
but faintly reddish hair - and, according to what few accounts exist, rather
intelligent even as a child. Her brother, the future Richard I Lionheart,
was the only one of her siblings known with certainty to have visited her
in Sicily; King John spent more time in England. As a young girl at the
Abbey of Fontevrault, Joan learned English, Norman French, and at least
the rudiments of Latin, in addition to a range of skills deemed appropriate
to the mistress of an aristocratic household. Like Joan, her sisters were
betrothed to European monarchs: Matilda wed the Duke of Saxony in 1168 and
Eleanor married the King of Castile in 1177. In the case of Joan's marriage
to William, however, there was a very special Norman link.
Shown at the right is the lion depicted near the throne in mosaic in the palatine
chapel of the Royal Palace of Palermo; the image, associated with
the Norman dynasties of Sicily and England, may have an Arab
or Byzantine origin. Heraldic ambiguity is not the only anomaly in Joan's
familial identity. In retrospect, her father's dynasty is
called "Plantagenet" (from the nickname of Joan's grandfather Geoffrey of Anjou), a term
not used as the royal family's formal surname in the twelfth century
but linked to them by later historians. As king, Richard I used a coat of arms with three
lions, but there is no evidence that any heraldic device was ever formally
associated with Joan herself --though her Sicilian husband's family used
such identifying symbols as the the fleur-de-lis and the lion "passant
A great-grandson of William I "the Conqueror," the French-born
Henry was Norman to the core, often occupied with his dominions in France,
some of which he ruled by virtue of his marriage to Eleanor, an heiress.
So busy was he with foreign matters that in 34 years as King of England,
Henry spent a mere 14 years in that nation. Eleanor was the divorced consort
of King Louis VII of France (and kin to both her husbands), who later fought
a brief war against Henry. Such were the complexities of medieval court
life, shadowed by equally complicated international alliances in which inter-dynastic
marriages were thought to cement loyalties. (Officially, Eleanor's marriage to Louis was
annulled for close consanguinity, but in reality the French monarch seems to have been most
worried about his wife's propensity for producing daughters, rather than any canonical formaility.)
Henry II is noted for his legal and administrative reforms, leading to
the development of fundamental English institutions such as common law and
trial by jury. His Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) re-established
royal prerogatives not unlike those embodied in the "Apostolic Legateship"
of the Kings of Sicily. A coincidence, perhaps, but contact between the
"Norman" courts of London and Palermo were remarkably close considering
the geographical distance between them. In view of the increasing power
of the Crown and its juridical institutions, a legal dispute with the Church
was inevitable. This fostered ill feeling with the Archbishop of Canterbury,
Henry's former friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket, leading to Thomas'
exile from 1164 to 1170. The archbishop's close relatives were likewise
exiled, and some found refuge in Palermo as guests of the King of Sicily,
William I, later referred to as William "the Bad." (By the middle
of the twelfth century, many Norman families had relatives in both Sicily
Joan's relationship with her father probably left something to be desired,
and this may partly account for her later devotion to Saint Thomas Becket,
the archbishop her father's nobles murdered. True, Henry did public penance
for this act at Canterbury in 1174, but this could not attenuate the impact
of such dramatic events on an impressionable girl raised in a society where
respect for religious institutions was part of daily life. The mosaic icon
of Saint Thomas Becket in Monreale Abbey is the earliest public image of the saint known to survive, and
several twelfth-century churches in Sicily are dedicated to the saint soon
venerated across western Europe. In 1173, coincidentally the year Becket
was canonised, Joan's mother, the strong-willed Queen Eleanor, led a revolt
against King Henry II, supported by their three surviving sons (Henry's
illegitimate sons supported their father). Following the failed rebellion,
Eleanor, at the age of 50, was imprisoned (in "house arrest" in
a castle) for what was to stretch into a 15 year incarceration, and Joan
was living with her at Winchester in early 1176 when a Sicilian delegation
arrived to confirm, among other things, the exceptional beauty of the ten
year-old princess, before formally requesting her hand from Henry. William
himself was reasonably attractive, of average height with reddish hair.
His father was William I, his grandfather Roger II.
As a young girl, Joan had been formally betrothed to William II on the
basis of a prior agreement (in 1168) and provided with a feudal dowry in
Italy. In the event, the Sicilian Hautevilles were not haunted by the money
problems that plagued the English "Plantagenets." In the 1170s,
the royal tax revenue of Palermo, a prosperous and cosmopolitan city of
some 200,000 people, probably exceeded those of all England. It wasn't long
after their defeat of Saracen (Moorish) forces at the Battle of Messina
in 1061, five years before the Battle of Hastings, that the "poor cousins"
of William the Conqueror had emerged as the wealthiest sovereigns of Europe,
standing among the most powerful rulers of the Mediterranean, with control
over southern Italy, Sicily, Malta and (occasionally) parts of Africa and
the Balkans. William ascended the Sicilian Throne upon the death of his
father (William I) in 1166.
Led by Bishop John of Norwich, the embassy of King Henry II arrived in
Palermo in mid-1176 in advance of Joan's party, which stayed behind in England.
The Bishop of Winchester handled details for Joan's voyage, and Henry met
William's delegation in August.
Joan's voyage to Sicily, accompanied by a large suite of ladies-in-waiting, knights,
clergy and various retainers (everything from cooks and seamstresses to grooms and blacksmiths),
was typical of the travels of royalty and the highest-born nobility in the
Middle Ages. What distinguished it was the exceptional youth of its
protagonist. Following a feast, Joan bid farewell to her mother
and father. The trip began with the short stretch
from Winchester to Southampton, escorted by the archbishops of Canterbury and Rouen,
the bishop of Evreux and her uncle, Hamelane, natural brother of King Henry. Then
Prince Henry, her oldest brother, the 20 year-old heir apparent, accompanied her
across the Channel and into France to Poitiers. There she was met by her brother
Richard, who escorted her through the Duchy of Aquitaine (nominally his), across
the allied County of Toulouse to Saint Gilles Port,
where Bishop Richard Palmer welcomed her in the name of the King of Sicily.
Twenty-five Sicilian ships awaited the young princess. It
was mid-November, and the gales had already decimated the fleet of Bishop John
of Norwich, returning from Messina with King William's gifts for his future father-in-law.
(It seems typical of what King Henry believed to be his own poor luck that most
of the royal treasure destined for him was lost.)
Some six weeks later, Joan's suite, following the coast, finally arrived at
Naples, then the fourth-largest city of William's kingdom (which encompassed almost
half the Italian peninsula). She was ill - probably seasick - and the remainder
of the journey, with the exception of the crossing of the Strait of Messina, was
completed overland in early January through Campania into Calabria. She crossed
into Sicily and reached Cefalù in the last days of January. The journey
of a prince with a small escort of knights would have been quicker, but more time was required when
travelling with a large group of "civilians" including numerous women,
of whom Joan was probably the youngest. More than half of Joan's journey, and nearly
the entire overland segment, traversed the domains of her father and her future husband.
The evening of 2 February 1177, William greeted Joan. The future queen was riding
a docile palfrey, and met William at one of the city gates - probably in the
Kasr district not far from the palace. The city was splendidly illuminated, and William
accompanied his fiancée and her suite to their temporary quarters - for the ladies possibly the
Zisa, one of the other fortified palaces
in the vast Genoard royal park.
The child bride married William II "the Good" at Palermo Cathedral
on 13 February 1177 (Monreale Abbey was not yet complete) and was then annointed and crowned Queen
of Sicily by her countryman Walter of the Mill, Archbishop of Palermo, in the Palatine Chapel (shown here).
She was just eleven, her husband now twenty-three. Strictly speaking,
she was "queen consort," as she was not a sovereign in her own
right and was not meant to ever actually rule. Nevertheless, medieval queens
of her era sometimes found themselves in positions of power, particularly
in the absence of their husbands. A typical example was William's mother,
Margaret of Navarre, widow of William I. Still alive to witness the wedding
in 1177, she had served as Queen Regent during her son's minority, and continued
to exercise influence following the coronation of her very young daughter
Despite a few surprising similarities, Palermo and Sicily were very different
from London and England, and this cannot but have made an impact on Joan
and her suite of ladies-in-waiting, accustomed to the lifestyle - and even
the flora and fauna - of England and northwestern France. (Could she speak to us today, Joan would recognise the Byzantine-style mosaic shown here, adorning a wall in the Royal Palace in Palermo, based on actual scenes in the royal gardens
and zoo nearby, complete with palms, peacocks and leopards.) Norman-Arab architecture, a true Romanesque synthesis of Northern European and North African styles,
with a strong Byzantine influence, reflected the culture of the people themselves.
Sicily's Anglo-Norman bishops included Walter of the Mill, Richard Palmer
and Hubert of Middlesex, with canons bearing names like John of Lincoln
and Richard of Hereford, as well as dozens of others unknown to us. Yet, a growing Latinisation and the presence
of a few Anglo-Norman clerics could not erase certain eternal Eastern (Orthodox)
traditions, and much of Sicily was Muslim. William II commissioned Monreale
Abbey as a Latin (Catholic) church in the Benedictine tradition, yet his
likeness (in mosaic) on its wall is just as Byzantine as earlier representations
of his father (William I) and grandfather (Roger II), showing typically
"Constantinopolitan" crown and robes. Palermo itself was largely
Arab, with souks, mosques and veiled women. Adding to the mix were large
Jewish and Orthodox Christian districts, and with the constant flow of traders
and other travelers (as well as visiting scholars like Abdullah
al Idrisi), the city's polyglot population was nothing if not ecletic.
Sicily's sunshine seemed as endless as England's clouds. It was here, under
the gaze of pine forests, palm trees, citrus orchards, olive groves and
the snowy shadow of an active volcano, that Europe met Africa, while the
eastern "Asian" Mediterranean met the western "European"
waters of the same mystical sea.
Superficially, the essentially Romanesque style of the castles and cathedrals was Norman
enough (and two-light windows abounded), though embellished by Byzantine
elements and interpreted in Moorish style. Indeed, some of the smaller churches
strangely resembled mosques. Along the winding, narrow streets
were houses made of stone and tiles rather than timbers and
thatch. It was all decidedly Mediterranean; medieval Palermo looked
more like Jerusalem than London. Owing to its Sicilian, Greek, Italic
and Arab origins, the cruisine was different, too. In daily life, silk and cotton took
the place of wool, paper replaced parchment, honey
surrendered to the joys of sweet sugar, and a unique hybrid of Latin, Greek
and Arabic (with just a touch of Norman French) was becoming popular among
a new generation of people called "Sicilians." In the countryside,
the feudal barons were an unruly, and often illiterate, Norman lot, whose
chivalry and loyalty were encouraged by a royal bodyguard of Saracen soldiers.
What would Joan's father have thought of a country where there was a separate
legal code for each ethnic group?
And if all that were not enough, there was the personal harem of the
young queen's husband, William "the Good," full of shapely, dark-haired,
ebony-eyed Arab women who spent their free time bathing and weaving - a
holdover from the days of the Emirs of Bal'harm, as the Arabs called Palermo.
The exotic ambience fashioned by the flavors and pleasures of this eccentric
island in the sun, presented as a fait accompli to a girl of tender years,
was a long way from the one Joan had known.
One chronicler mentions that Joan bore a son, called Bohemund, in 1182,
but that the child died in early infancy. She may also have had miscarriages
during this period. Her father, Henry II, died in July 1189. In November
of the same year, Joan was widowed when William died, following an illness,
in Palermo, at the age of thirty-six. Though he was, in many ways, a sovereign typical
of his era, William's expansionist Mediterranean politics and unenlightened
local government have led historians to regard him as a mediocre monarch. He was
also an heirless one.
The only potential legitimate heir was William's aunt, Constance,
a posthumous daughter of King Roger II now wed to the Emperor Henry VI of
Germany (by whom she eventually bore a son, Frederick II). The Sicilian Crown
was contested, claimed by Tancred, an illegitimate
grandson of Roger II who for a few years managed to impress the advantages
of his leadership upon the unruly Norman barons of southern Italy. Knowing
Joan to support the dynastic claim of Constance of Hauteville, and probably
fearing her influence among the Sicilians, Tancred marginalized her (restricting
her movement around the Kingdom), depriving the Queen of her feudal revenue
from the County of Mount Sant' Angelo she had received at marriage.
These facts did not set well with her brother, Richard, at thirty-three
now King of England and making his way to the Holy Land for a Crusade. From
Salerno, Richard made it known that he wanted his sister freed and her revenues
restored immediately. Furthermore, he wanted her to be provided with the
golden throne which he believed to be her right as a Norman queen. His threats
were not idle ones; his army of Crusaders probably could have defeated Tancred's
disloyal - though enfeoffed - Norman barons, and he may have had his own designs on Sicily. He may also
have been annoyed that Tancred refused to honour his successor's
promise to the late King Henry of ships for the present crusade. Richard
indicated that he would not leave Sicily until
his demands were met. Arriving at Messina in September 1190 to
meet King Philip II of France, Richard ordered his troops to construct a fort of timbers
on a hill overlooking the city where he would be staying for several months.
Native speakers of French, the three kings - Richard, Philip and
Tancred - were equally fluent in the cynical language of the sly and opportunistic
medieval European sovereign. Truth be told, Philip, contemporary of the late
King Henry, was (if we are to base our judgement on his politics over previous decades)
probably the least honest of the three kings present in Sicily in the Autumn of 1190,
while Richard was the most colorful and Tancred, owing to trying circumstances, the most dour.
It would be unfair to attribute to Tancred an excessively negative character
based solely on what seems to have been his politically necessitated treatment of Joan.
Nevertheless, the young English king was known to be fond of his youngest sister, and he was well
able to enforce his threats. Tancred complied immediately, though in the
end he kept Mount Sant' Angelo and compensated Joan for its loss, and Joan
arrived at Messina a few days later. Richard took her to an abbey founded
by Roger I a century earlier near Bagnara, in Calabria across the Strait of
Messina, and left her under the protection of a strong garrison. Returning
to Messina, Richard 's army occupied an Orthodox monastery for lodging. This was
only the most recent in a series of English outrages that offended the citizens
of the predominantly Orthodox city, who were already annoyed at things like
the English knights' obviously lustful treatment of the local women. A popular revolt ensued.
In response, the English (and some of the French) sacked the city, and Tancred, in nearby Catania, could
do nothing to stop the violent riots, though Richard finally restored order.
Meeting "en famille" at Catania a few days later, Tancred and
Richard made peace. Tancred's dynastic position was difficult, and an alliance with the English king
might prove effective in curbing the ambitions of Constance and her German husband,
keenly watching Sicilian events from afar. In April,
Eleanor (who Richard had freed following his father's death) arrived at
Messina with Berengaria of Navarre, Richard's future wife, to visit her
son and daughter; Eleanor had called on King Roger II at Palermo forty-four
years earlier while returning from a pilgrimage (actually a crusade) to the Holy Land. Now sixty-nine,
Eleanor, visited Sicily briefly before returning to England. Joan left with
Berengaria to visit Palestine, followed by Richard.
In the Holy Land, Richard proposed that his sister marry Saladin's
brother, an idea which fortunately was cast aside. (However, the incident does lend
credibility to the thesis that Richard "liberated" his sister from
Tancred not out of fraternal affection but as a pretext for a dispute
which might justify his own full-scale conquest of Sicily.) In December 1192, returning
from Palestine, Joan and Berengaria (now Queen of England) visited Palermo
to be received en fête with a properly royal reception from Tancred and his wife, Sibylla.
Past acrimonies, if indeed they were ever very serious, had been set aside.
The two young queens then set off to France and England.
Joan preferred France, where she spent some time among the cloistered nuns of the
order of Fontevrault. In October 1196 she wed, as his fourth wife, Raymond
VI, Count of Toulouse, a cousin (through her mother), by whom she bore three
children, namely Raymond (VII) in 1197 (died 1249), Wilhelmina in 1198, and Richard
in 1199 (died in infancy). Joan died in childbirth in September 1199, still
a young woman. She is buried at Fontevrault Abbey (Fontevraud, Berri, France)
with her mother, Eleanor, who died in 1204, her father Henry, and brother
Richard. Count Raymond VII of Toulouse named his daughter, Joan (1220-1271), for the
mother he barely knew.
Joan is commemorated in Elizabeth Fries Ellet's Scenes in the Life of Joanna of Sicily, published in 1840.
About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women
of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.