Normans in Italy: The Imperial Crown

Norman progress in Sicily during Robert’s expeditions to the Balkans: Capua, Apulia and Calabria, and the County of Sicily are Norman. The Emirate of Sicily, the Duchy of Naples and lands in the Abruzzo (in the southern Duchy of Spoleto) are not yet conquered.

At sixty-five-years-old (elderly by medieval standards), Robert Guiscard deserved a rest. Most men his age were settling down to enjoy the fruits of their labours, which in Robert’s case were plentiful. There were always the pleasures of hunting in the Apulian countryside or relaxing in one of his many palaces to distract him. But Guiscard had no intention of retiring. He was far too easily bored; he infinitely preferred fighting to governing and in any case he had become obsessed with the Byzantine Empire.

The past two decades of fighting Byzantium had left their mark. He had started by copying parts of the imperial seals into his own, and had then graduated to using the Byzantine title ‘dux imperator’ in his public decrees. This was equal parts vanity and shrewdness. Most of his subjects were thoroughly hellenized and posing as a Byzantine successor added a bit of legitimacy to his rule. Just in case anyone missed the point, he had a copy made of the imperial robes of state that he was careful to don at every opportunity.

All this strutting gained the attention of Constantinople, which was under disastrous attack by the Turks and wanted to make peace with the Normans as quickly as possible. Emperor Michael VII had a young son named Constantine, and Guiscard had a young daughter named Helena; a marriage proposal was arranged and the Norman duke was promised a fancy new title. He could now call himself nobelissimus – only a step below a Caesar – could wear the color purple, and could reasonably hope that one day a descendant of his would sit on the imperial throne. Young Helena was shipped off to Constantinople, and Guiscard sat back to congratulate himself on a nice bit of diplomacy.

Unfortunately for him, events in Constantinople moved faster still. Just after Helena arrived, the emperor was overthrown by an old general named Nicephorus III. The Norman princess was dispatched to a convent and her prospective husband, Constantine, was exiled. The news of it all was disappointing for Guiscard, but only momentarily. The Byzantines were weak, overextended against the Turks, and vulnerable. An attack now would almost certainly yield great fruit. In the meantime Helena was a convenient pawn to provoke a war.

The first step was to make an ultimatum that would be rejected out of hand. Playing the part of aggrieved father, Guiscard demanded that his daughter be instantly restored to favor, married to Constantine and crowned empress. This would have been political suicide for Nicephorus. He could hardly start honoring the son of the man he had displaced, so he sensibly refused. Guiscard immediately declared war and started marshalling a great invading army. To bolster his effort, he found a wandering monk whom he claimed was the deposed emperor Michael – somehow escaped from captivity just in time to give an official blessing to the invasion. The ruse didn’t fool anyone since the monk wasn’t a particularly good actor, but Guiscard hardly cared. He had gotten his war and now he was going to claim his throne.

It took nearly a year to raise an army, but the effort produced a magnificent result. Medieval western armies didn’t tend to be particularly diverse, but Robert had recruited soldiers from all over southern Italy: Muslims from Sicily mixed with Lombards and Greeks from Apulia and Calabria, while French and Norman adventurers filled out the rest. Cities all along the Italian coast were conscripted to build ships, and when they couldn’t fill the demand, additional ones were bought from the heavily forested Croatian coast. By the spring of 1081 there were one hundred and fifty ships waiting to transport twenty thousand soldiers, horses and besieging equipment across the Aegean. All that was needed was the command from the sixty-four-year-old Guiscard. However, before he could give it, the ground in Constantinople shifted again. Nicephorus III was overthrown by a brilliant young general named Alexius, who sent word that he was prepared to recognize all of Guiscard’s demands. The disgraced Constantine was to be restored as co-emperor, Helena was to be rescued from her convent, and the pair would be married.

Guiscard’s temper was legendary, and his rage on this occasion was especially fierce. The poor emissary who brought the news expecting that it would be gladly received had to flee from the chamber in fear for his life, and for two days the Norman duke sulked in his tent in a black mood refusing to see visitors. Alexius had neatly cut the ground out from under his feet, but the preparations had come too far to stop. Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, was sent with an advance guard to form a bridgehead, and a month later Guiscard followed with the main army.

By June the Normans had reached Durrës, the second largest imperial city, nestled at the head of the old Roman road that led to Constantinople. It was well defended and seemingly impregnable, situated on a high peninsula and guarded by marshes on the landward side. Guiscard attempted to talk it into submission and nearly succeeded, but the defenders were confident they could hold out and that the emperor wouldn’t abandon them to their fate. A few days later, they were given dramatic evidence of the imperial attention. The Venetian fleet, bribed by Alexius, showed up without warning and engaged the Norman ships in battle. Using submerged pipes, they funneled Greek Fire underneath the Norman vessels, burning them below the waterline. 

Guiscard was now in a difficult position. Without naval support an effective blockade was impossible and there seemed to be little hope of taking the city by storm. Even worse, winter was approaching with the familiar problems of shelter, fuel, and maintaining supply lines in a hostile country. Morale plummeted, and an outbreak of dysentery swept through the ranks, further demoralizing everyone. Soldiers began to talk openly about retreat, but Guiscard wasn’t the type of man to back down and burned his remaining ships to prevent desertions. For the common knight it must have seemed as if they were trapped in a nightmare. The defenders of Durrës sensed the mood and began an ominous new chant. The emperor Alexius was on his way, they said, at the head of a massive relief army.

Alexius Comnenus was a formidable opponent. Claiming descent from one of the patrician families of ancient Rome, he was a rare combination of military and political brilliance. At the age of forty he had never lost a battle and was the empire’s most acclaimed general. Byzantium was in desperate need of such a man. Marauding Turks were overrunning the eastern frontiers, Slavs and Bulgars were invading from the west, and incompetent leadership in Constantinople only accelerated the pace of disintegration. By the decade’s end there had been frantic appeals to the one general capable of stopping the bleeding, and Alexius obliged, easily expelling the elderly occupant of the palace.

Despite the new emperor’s unblemished military record, however, the Norman invasion presented a serious problem. The chaos afflicting the empire had reduced the army to a disorganized mess and it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. There was still a highly effective core – the famous Varangian Guard – but the rest was a mix of undisciplined militias, mercenaries, and private bodyguards. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring force, but for the moment it would have to do. The empire was under attack and there was no time for training or drills. 

Both Alexius and Guiscard had reasons to avoid the battle. While the Norman lines were weakened with disease, they were still frighteningly potent, and the emperor would have liked to let the coming winter soften them up a bit more. He also doubted the loyalty of his mercenaries, and had good reason to suspect that they would desert at the first sign of trouble. Robert, on the other hand, was now caught between the imperial army and a heavily fortified city, and was unenthusiastic about initiating a battle. His normal practice would have been to withdraw to find a more suitable position to attack, but thanks to his rash decision to scuttle the fleet that was no longer an option. 

The only ones actually looking forward to the fight were the Varangians. Fifteen years earlier, William the Conqueror had burst into England, killing the rightful king and subjecting the Anglo-Saxons to an increasingly brutal reign. Many of those who found life intolerable under the Norman boot eventually made their way to Constantinople where they enlisted in the ranks of the Guard. Now at last they were face to face with the hated foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions. Hastings could finally be avenged. 

Guiscard led the first attack against the center of the Byzantine line. The Normans had never yet encountered an enemy that could stand up to a cavalry charge, but against the wall of Varangians, it was the Normans who broke. Repeated charges were no more effective, and the Varangians began to slowly advance, wading into the Norman line with their wicked, double-headed axes. Unfortunately for Alexius, the rest of the Byzantine army failed to follow their lead. His turkish auxiliaries chose this moment to desert, and the hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were left exposed and surrounded. The few that managed to escape fled to a nearby chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael, but there was no sanctuary against the Norman fury. The church and all within were burned to the ground.

The defeat seemed to sap the remaining strength from Byzantine territory. Durrës surrendered after another week of symbolic resistance and the rest of northern Greece wasn’t far behind. When Guiscard reached Macedonia, the town of Kastoria surrendered without a fight, despite being guarded by three hundred Varangians. If even the elite forces of the empire were not loyal, then Constantinople was as good as won, and Guiscard boasted that he would be in the capital in time for Christmas. For once, however, he had met his match. Alexius couldn’t stop the Normans with a sword, but he still had his pen, and where armies had failed, diplomacy would succeed.

Southern Italy was a tinderbox waiting to explode, filled with barons and nobles who resented the Norman yoke and who despised their subservient status. They were held in check only by fear, each of them unwilling to take the first step. Alexius merely had to provide some motivation. Byzantine agents were sent to Italy loaded down with bags of gold whispering that now was the time to strike. Almost overnight the peninsula flared into open revolt. The man Guiscard had left to represent him southern Italy wrote desperately to his master that if he didn’t return soon he wouldn’t have a home to return to.

Guiscard hesitated as long as he could. The longer he let the rebellion fester, the more difficult it would be to suppress. But he had Byzantium on its heels and the invasion was sure to falter in his absence. Valuable ground would be lost and the wily Alexius would have time to recover. Finally in the early months of 1082 news arrived that forced his hand. The German emperor, Henry IV, was marching on Rome and the frantic pope was calling for Norman protection at once. Taking a public oath to remain unshaven and unwashed until he returned, Guiscard left the army in his son Bohemond’s care and left for Italy.

Pope Gregory VII was a strange ally for the rough Norman duke. Idealistic, principled, and inflexible, he was the last person who would be expected to stand by the morally ambivalent Guiscard. Necessity, however, had driven them together. Gregory was involved in a great controversy, which had thrown Christendom into turmoil. He was attempting to break the Church free from secular control and had clashed with the German emperor, Henry IV. The first victory had belonged to the pope. Henry had been excommunicated and had been forced to trek barefoot in the middle of winter to the remote castle of Canossa in northern Italy, and beg Gregory to lift the sentence. That had merely been the opening salvo, however, and as soon as he was strong enough the emperor had threatened to bring his army to Rome and appoint a new pope if Gregory wouldn’t back down. Gregory needed a defender, and there was only one figure in Italy capable of being one. Swallowing his pride, he had offered Guiscard legitimacy and papal support in exchange for protection. The deal worked well enough until Guiscard left to invade Byzantium. A letter from Alexius, along with a few bags of gold, had found their way to emperor Henry urging him to descend on defenseless Italy. The emperor, of course, hardly needed to be asked twice.

Henry’s army had little problem breaking into Rome. Gregory fled to Hadrian’s mausoleum, and just managed to hold out. His supporters still controlled the left bank of the Tiber, and disease began to decimate the imperial ranks. Henry withdrew with most of his forces to higher ground and settled in for a siege.

Guiscard meanwhile was busy trying to stamp out the revolt in southern Italy, ignoring the pope’s increasingly panicked letters. By the end of 1084 he had crushed the last resistance, and could have come to Gregory’s aid but he hesitated. As he had feared, the Byzantine campaign was in serious trouble, and if he didn’t return immediately there was the real possibility of a complete collapse. On the other hand, his attention was simultaneously needed in Rome, where a valuable ally was fighting for his life. For one of the only times in his life, Robert Guiscard didn’t know what to do.

Once again, however, the decision was made for him by outside forces, this time by the Romans themselves. They were tired of Gregory, blaming his inflexibility for the long siege and severe privation, and they opened the gates and invited Henry to take full possession of Rome. The emperor entered in triumph, declared Gregory deposed, and appointed his own candidate. Guiscard now had no choice but to act. If Gregory was destroyed than so was the Hauteville legitimacy. Byzantium would have to wait. Gathering a massive army from every part of his domain, he marched on Rome.

Henry was not foolish enough to be there when Guiscard arrived. His weakened army was no match for the Normans and he knew it. Three days before Guiscard appeared, the emperor advised the Romans to defend themselves as best they could and then slipped away. The panicked inhabitants of the city barred the gates, but they were doomed. The walls of the city had been built 800 years before during the reign of the emperor Aurelian and hadn’t been significantly updated since. Within minutes of Guiscard’s first attack, his soldiers broke in and fanned out through the city killing and looting as they went. Gregory was escorted from Hadrian’s mausoleum to the Lateran in triumph and once again seated on the papal throne.

The victory, however, was a pyrrhic one. The Muslim and Greek contingents of Guiscard’s army saw the city as their prize to plunder and started a frenzy of rape and murder. After three days of this treatment the cowed citizens were pushed to their limit and took to the streets, waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the invaders. Any semblance of order vanished in the chaos and the Normans, realizing they had lost control, started setting fires in an attempt to flush out their enemies. The damage was immense. What wasn’t burned down was despoiled. From the Lateran to the Coliseum barely a building was left standing. Neither churches, nor palaces, nor ancient pagan temples were spared.

Gregory had been restored, but he was now so universally hated that he had to accompany Guiscard’s army when it withdrew. He found a new home in Salerno, where he set up his court in exile, and concentrated on his reform of the Church. He died the following year and was buried, as was fitting, in a Norman tomb. He was defiant until the end, but his last words were bitter: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile”.

Robert Guiscard, meanwhile, was finally free to concentrate on Byzantium. The war had not gone well without him. His son, Bohemond, was a superb knight and a good general, but he lacked his father’s ability to inspire. Despite demolishing three successive armies that the emperor had sent against him, the mood in the Norman camp was increasingly defeatist. It had been nearly four years since they had sailed from Italy, and yet they were no closer to taking Constantinople than on the day they had arrived. Most of them were exhausted and homesick, beginning to feel as if this long campaign would never end. Bohemond managed to hold them together for a few more months, but at the end of the campaigning season he committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his opponent. As he was crossing a river in northern Greece, Alexius lured him into attacking a decoy force while the main imperial army plundered the Norman baggage. After an afternoon spent chasing shadows, Bohemond returned to his camp to find that four years worth of spoils had vanished. For the weary army it was the last straw. The moment Bohemond’s back was turned the men surrendered en masse to Alexius.

It was a severe setback, but Guiscard was nothing if not persistent. Although he was now seventy, he had lost none of his vigor and he immediately gathered another army. He spent the winter in Corfu, but typhoid fever struck the camp killing thousands. When it finally abated, he gave orders to sail to the Byzantine island of Cephalonia as the first step of the campaign. In the middle of the crossing, however, Guiscard himself was struck by the fever and was barely strong enough to stand when he arrived. He died on July 17, 1085, having never lost a major battle.

The body was taken back to Italy, but just off the coast of Otranto the corpse washed overboard in a storm and was badly damaged. The sailors managed to recover it, but the decision was made to remove the heart and entrails and bury them in a small chapel while the rest was embalmed and completed the journey to the Hauteville mausoleum in Venosa, Italy. There it was interred in the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in a magnificent tomb.

He had lived an extraordinary life, and his accomplishments had earned him a spot as one of the greatest military adventurers. With a mixture of vision, political skill, and force of personality he had taken a small barony and turned it into one of the great powers of Europe. Along the way he had evicted the Byzantines from Italy, the Muslims from Sicily, saved the reformed papacy, and held two emperors at bay. An anonymous stone worker put it best in an inscription above his tomb: “Here lies Guiscard, Terror of the World…”