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Historical Curiosities

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Some historical curiosities

This island has a lot of history. The two most famous eras, which have left the most impressive buildings, were the Greek-Roman and the Norman (11-12h c.) The latter is famous for its Catholic churches with Byzantine mosaics, and some work by Islamic craftmen. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily began as a "private enterprise" conquest due to the Hauteville Greater Greece, and areas of Greek language and Orthodox religion survived into and after the Norman era. Indeed, there are still a few villages in the "toe" and "heel" of Italy where the "Griko" language is spoken. They had risen to prominence amongst the Norman mercenaries who had come to southern Italy in the early 11th century, and who had eventually wrested control from the squabbling local lords and cities who had employed them, and taken over the areas remaining under Byzantine government. Their reputation as tough fighters and negotiators was well deserved.

In 1160 the emir of Catania requested their help against his rival emirs in Sicily, and in 1061 the Normans landed near Messina, and soon conquered the area. It took several decades to subdue the rest of the island, largely because they could rarely spare more than small forces from their other quarrels in southern Italy. Henceforth, until Italian unification, Sicily was usually ruled together with southern Italy. This was the area where Greek settlements formed.

One of the "might-have-beens" of history is that Syracuse might have succeeded Constantinople as the capital of the Roman empire. After the loss of most of the eastern territories to the Muslims, and with Constantinople under threat, and having failed to re-capture Rome from the Lombards; the Emperor Constance II, in 663 settled his administration at Syracuse, to resist Muslim incursions into Sicily. However, in 668 he was assassinated in his bath by a chamberlain wielding a soap-dish, and his successor returned to Constantinople.

The Norman period ended with the inheritance of the Kingdom of Sicily (including southern Italy), by the Swabian or Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, in 1195. The area became embroiled in the disputes between the Papacy, the Holy Roman Emperors, the East Roman (Greek) and Latin Emperors – all claiming to be successors of the Roman Empire. Probably the most famous of these emperors was Henry’s son Frederick II, known as "Stupor Mundi". He recovered Jerusalem, for a while, by negotiation with the sultan of Egypt, and had himself crowned there as King of Jerusalem in 1229. He is buried in Palermo Cathedral.

Some connections with Norman Britain

  • A few knights who fought at Hastings in 1066 had participated in the invasion of Sicily in 1061.
  • William the Conqueror’s brother Otto of Bayeux was buried in Palermo.
  • The design of the lions in the English royal coat of arms may have originated in Sicily.
    (Standing on three legs, with right foreleg raised – "passant guardant".)
  • A mosaic of Thomas Becket in Monreale Abbey was the first public memorial to him after his canonisation in 1173. his relatives had taken refuge in Sicily during his exile.
  • Joan, sister of Richard the Lionheart, was married to William II King of Sicily in 1177.
  • Walter of the Mill became Bishop of Palermo and advisor to William I.
  • In September 1190, Richard the Lionheart arrived in Messina on his way to the Third Crusade.
  • Richard demanded and secured the release of his widowed sister, with her dowry and inheritance.
  • In 1255 Henry III accepted the Pope’s offer to give his son Edmund the title of King of Sicily.
  • Over-taxation of England, in order to pay the vast sums of money demanded by the Pope for this title, contributed to discontent and barional revolt, leading to Simon de Montfort forcing Henry III to accept parliament. (The title was withdrawn after about half the money had been paid, and re-sold to Charles of Anjous, brother of the King of France. – who proceeded to conquer the Kingdom.)
  • The Isle of Man shares with Sicily the emblem of three legs – and may have copied it at this time.
  • Much later … in 1799 Nelson evacuated King Ferdinand from Naples to Palermo, when French revolutionaries attacked.
  • The King gave Nelson an estate at Maniace near Mt. Etna.
  • Wine production increased to supply Nelson’s fleet, based at Messina.
  • British families became prominent in producing and exporting wine from the Marsala region.
  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, members of the Whitaker family acquired the island of Motya and excavated the Phoenician settlement.
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