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In 1282 bloodthirsty Sicilians cast off the hated French yoke

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Thursday, 28 February 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

Sicilian Vespers, picture, image, illustration

In Palermo a young Sicilian stabs a French soldier which triggers the notorious massacre of the Sicilian Vespers, by John Millar Watt

The Crusading spirit was blossoming out in France again. The reigning king, Louis the Seventh – called Louis the Young because his reign began when he was 18 – was, like his father, a zealous Christian and he had not long been crowned before he had taken the Cross and was on the march to Jerusalem.

With King Louis went his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a romantic, capricious and beautiful Queen who bestrides the medieval European scene like a story-book princess.

Eleanor was a determined woman, very fond of her own way. Her way, however, was not the way of her pious husband. Much more to her liking was fiery-tempered Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Divorce and its complications counted little to Eleanor; she simply left her King and married her Count.

The result of this marriage was that when her new husband became King Henry the Second of England, Eleanor achieved the remarkable feat of having been separately Queen of France and England.

Her second marriage and Henry’s inheritance of the English throne boded ill for France. For Eleanor was a powerful woman in her own right, lord of a large part of France that included the duchy of Aquitaine. To this territory Henry was able to add his own French possessions, Maine, Anjou and Normandy, as well as England.

One day in 1154, therefore, King Louis woke up in his bed with the sombre realization that the King of England and his Queen, Louis’s own late wife, owned a good deal more of France than he did.

This was the precarious state of France which Louis, when he died in September 1180, bequeathed to his 15-year-old son, Philip the Second.

A boy made of lesser stuff might have been excused for surrendering what little he had in the face of all the power gathered around him. But not so Philip. His first trump was that his potential enemies, the Plantagenets, were hopelessly divided among themselves; the sons hated their father and spent their youth so busily fighting him that Philip had no cause for fear.

And his second trump was that the oldest of the Plantagenet sons, Richard, was his best friend.

Faced with his family’s hostility, King Henry of England had to make peace with young King Philip. Several times they met under a French elm tree and vowed their friendship; holy crusades, they agreed, were much more important than European strife.

Between men of their temperament, however, peace could not last. Savagely Philip ordered the elm tree – the scene of their friendly exchanges – to be felled, and in 1188 Henry and Philip were at war. Again Henry’s own sons were against him, and again he had to make the peace.

Appalled by all the treachery that surrounded him, King Henry died a heartbroken man and Philip’s old friend Richard became King of England. Off went the two monarchs to the Crusades, where Richard’s courage earned him the soubriquet of the Lion Heart. There were no such flattering titles for Philip and as he journeyed home nursing his jealousy he resolved to make a new friend of Richard’s brother, Prince John, who in Richard’s absence was trying to make himself King of England.

Richard’s journey home was a famous and fateful one. Crossing the Continent he was taken prisoner by his old enemy the Archduke of Austria. When Philip heard this he and John at once attacked Richard’s duchy of Normandy. But their plans to pillage Richard’s possessions received a jolt when the English king was ransomed and released.

As soon as that happened the Lion Heart went after Philip. Again fate played her hand and in Normandy, where he had landed with an army, Richard the Lion Heart received an arrow wound from which he died.

John was now King of England and, he proudly proclaimed, also Duke of Normandy. Philip decided otherwise. He accused John of murdering his own nephew Arthur to gain the crown and ordered him to stand trial in a French court. But there was no fight in this new English king. As Philip triumphantly invaded Normandy John packed up his things and left for England. In 1204 Philip announced that Normandy belonged to France. Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Poitou were similarly declared to be the property of France – and suddenly no one in Europe was strong enough to say otherwise.

Thus, in a few years, Philip reversed the situation which had existed when he came to the throne. It was he who was now the great King; the English Plantagenet who was the pawn.

Philip’s enemies tried one more plot to humble his power. King John, the Emperor Otto of Germany, and the Count of Flanders were the leaders of a coalition which met Philip’s army at Bouvines, near Tournay, in 1214. They were angry men, these three. Philip, flexing his muscles, had announced his intention of invading England, and only the Pope’s intervention had stopped him. Otto was King John’s nephew and the Count of Flanders had suffered the humiliation of having his territory invaded by Philip because he refused to obey the French King, his overlord.

Last week in this series we saw how the people of certain French towns, called communes, had been given important privileges which made them semi-independent, for their loyalty to their King, Philip’s grandfather, in his struggle for power with his barons. Now Philip was to see this investment reap its dividend as the new bourgeois of the communes charged the knights of Flanders and England. Before the sun set that day at Bouvines Philip was victorious and France was Europe’s most powerful nation.

When the King returned to Paris the people poured out into the streets to welcome him, singing songs and hymns. They hailed him Philip Augustus, likening him to the great Roman Emperor, and when darkness fell night was turned into day in the city by the lighting of thousands of lanterns, so that the celebrations could continue.

England, by contrast, was on the downswing of fortune’s pendulum. Frustrated beyond relief by King John’s rule, the English barons offered their crown to Louis, Philip’s eldest son. Delighted, Louis went to England, and for the first time since the days of William the Conqueror there was a French army on English soil.

Unfortunately for Louis, King John died and the barons changed their minds about having a French king. Instead they made John’s little son Henry their monarch, defeated Louis, and made him a prisoner until terms were made for his return to France.

Louis eventually wore a crown – but it was the French one that he received for a three-year reign after the death of Philip his father. It was his son, Louis the Ninth, who was to increase still further the greatness to which Philip Augustus had led France.

The story of Louis the Ninth, or Saint Louis as he is better known, was told in LOOK AND LEARN (February 20, 1965) and reflects the importance of the French contribution to those holy wars. Saint Louis, you remember, led the Seventh and Eighth Crusades and died on the last in North Africa. Through hardships and terrible suffering his piety and kindliness towards his soldiers made him unique among kings of his time, and a few years after he died he was canonized.

After him came his son, another Philip, this one surnamed the Bold. These surnames that adorn French kings do not always ring true to their lives, and such was the case with this Philip. He is supposed to have been involved in a bold incident in his childhood which must have earned him his title, for the weak and reticent Philip, who chose for his court favourite and guide his former barber, is not recorded as having been involved in another bold incident in his life.

Much more attractive to the French was his uncle, Charles, the Count of Anjou. Charles ruled over Naples and Sicily, called the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with a ferocity that made him hated by his people.

The easy-going Sicilians brooded on their resentment and talked of rebellion against all the injustices forced upon them by Charles and his French nobles. Their day came in the town of Palermo in the evening of Easter Monday, 1282.

As the bells rang out for evening prayers – or vespers – the Sicilians of Palermo made their way to church. Among them was a young man with his girl friend. The French soldiers of Charles were, as usual, everywhere, and when the courting couple neared the church an argument broke out between the churchgoers and the soldiers. The French, exercising their authority, manhandled the girl, whereupon her young man drew his dagger and stabbed one of the soldiers to death.

Pandemonium broke loose then that warm spring evening. The Sicilians fell upon their French oppressors, killed all the soldiers in sight, then ran amok through the town, beating and killing anyone who swore allegiance to Charles.

The massacre of the Sicilian Vespers, a horror page in Europe’s story, had far-reaching effects. Charles, bent on revenge, was about to crush his rebellious people when they offered their crown to King Pedro of Aragon, in Spain. Pedro naturally accepted, and defeated the French in a sea battle in which he took prisoner Charles’s son. From the effects of this the deposed Count Charles never recovered, and three years after the incident of the Sicilian Vespers he was dead.

Philip the Bold of France made a weak bid to avenge his uncle’s humiliation by attacking Pedro’s kingdom of Aragon. Typically for this French king it was a half-hearted attempt, and retreating homewards across the Pyrenees the king who was not so bold died, leaving behind a future Capetian monarch whose reign was to be best remembered for his sheer cruelty.

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