Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, November 2, 2018

Constance of Hauteville, "A Brightness Kindled by All the Light That Fills Our Heaven"

Constance of Hauteville, Queen of Sicily (born 2 November 1154)

The daughter of Roger II, king of Sicily, and his wife, Beatrice of Rethel, Constance was born nearly nine months after her father's death--Beatrice of Rethel had only been married to the king of Sicily for three years, and she was just a few weeks pregnant when he died on 26 February 1154.*

A twelfth-century manuscript illustration of
Beatrice of Rethel, queen of Sicily, and her infant daughter,
Constance, born posthumously
(from Peter of Eboli, Liber ad Honorem
But the succession in Sicily did not have to wait for the birth of the king's posthumous child. Beatrice of Rethel was Roger's third wife. His first, Elvira of Castile, had given birth to six children, including five sons. The eldest, Roger, died before his father, and had had no children with his wife, Isabella of Champagne, but he had two with his mistress, Emma, the daughter of the count of Lecce. (This illegitimate family will become important later.) Roger II and Elvira of Castile's second and third sons, Tancred and Alfonso, also predeceased their father.

So when Roger II died in 1154, he was succeeded by his fourth son, William, who became William I, king of Sicily. William and his queen, Margaret of Navarre, had four sons--but, just as William's elder brothers had died before their father, William's two oldest sons predeceased him. When William I died, he was succeeded on the throne of Sicily by his third son, who became William II of Sicily. William II ruled until his death in 1189. He and his queen, Joan of England (who was one of the daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine) had no children. 

And that brings us back to Constance--because, it seems, Tancred of Lecce, one of the illegitimate sons of Roger, believed that he, rather than the legitimately born Constance, should succeed to the throne of Sicily. 

Tancred had already caused his share of trouble in Sicily. In 1161, he had rebelled against William I, taking the king, his queen, Margaret of Navarre, and their sons as prisoners. And then there was his involvement in a massacre of Muslims. Once order was restored and William I was back in control, Tancred was exiled to Constantinople. 

Pardoned on the accession of William II, Tancred seems to have behaved himself reasonably well until the king's death in 1189, when he once more rebelled and this time succeeded in seizing power. (And imprisoning Joan of England.) He settled himself uncomfortably on the throne, which he had to defend until his death in 1194. Tancred was succeeded as king of Sicily by his son, William, who reigned as William III of Sicily for only ten months, under the regency of his mother, Sibylla of Acerra. 

Throughout these decades, not much information is available about Constance. In 1168, when she was about fourteen, a rumor circulated that the chancellor had plans to depose William II, put his own brother on the throne, and marry him to Constance--he had to flee, his plot, if it were more than a rumor, coming to nothing.

Some two centuries later, the writer Giovanni Boccaccio would write, of Constance, that there was a monk present at her birth who predicted that Constance "would cause the destruction of the Kingdom of Sicily." Boccaccio claims that her father "believed this prediction." And so, in "amazement and terror," 
he began anxiously to brood on how this could be caused by a woman: the only possibilities he could visualize involved a husband or a child. Out of compassion for his kingdom, he formed a plan to prevent, if possible, this outcome. To remove all hope of marriage and children, he shut up the little girl in a monastery and made her promise God eternal virginity.
Boccaccio says that this "would not have been a reprehensible plan if it had succeeded." But, "powerless fools," our designs are frustrated. 

In her narrative study of Constance, Mary Taylor Simeti offers a version of Constance's life that is no less fanciful: "Constance grew up in Palermo amidst the gilded mosaics of churches and palaces, her youth blooming and fading among the flowers and fountains of Moorish cloisters and gazebos; as a potential heir to the throne, she was too valuable a pawn to international diplomacy to be ceded lightly."

Henry VI and Constance of Hauteville,
Holy Roman emperor and empress
(from Peter of Eboli, Liber ad Honorem
Whatever version of these years is closer to reality, it is true that no marriage was arranged for Constance until she was thirty years old, and her brother, William II, had no heir.

In 1184, Constance was betrothed to Henry of Hohenstaufen, king of the Germans, the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Boccaccio claims that Constance objected to the marriage--she "held fast to her religious vows," and she also thought her advanced age "seemed to pose an obstacle."

Nevertheless, because of the "deadly tumult" that might erupt in Sicily--and with the approval of the pope--Constance of Hauteville married in Milan in 1186. Or, as Boccaccio kindly puts it, "Thus did a wrinkled crone abandon the sacred cloister, discard her monastic veil, and, royally adorned, marry and emerge in public as empress." (Constance was only thirty-two at the time of her marriage, and Henry did not become emperor until 1190 . . . )

Recognizing that there would be opposition among Sicily's Norman elite to the influence of the Hohenstaufen family of Constance's husband, the childless William II, who had forged this alliance with the Holy Roman emperor, sought to have Constance's succession in Sicily recognized. 

Although Constance's rights to the succession were widely accepted, Tancred wrested control of Sicily after William's death, as we've seen. Because William II's widow, Joan of England, supported Constance, Tancred imprisoned her. (When he arrived in Sicily, Richard the Lionheart freed his sister--a story I related in an earlier blog post; click here and scroll down.)

After Frederick Barbarossa's death in 1190, Henry and Constance were crowned in Rome as Holy Roman emperor and empress. The two proceeded to Sicily in order to take the crown from Tancred. During the fight that followed, Constance was taken prisoner by Tancred--seeing the support for her among the Norman aristocrats and the people, Tancred's wife suggested he kill her. He did not, but he moved her to Naples, where she could be closely and securely guarded in the Castel dell' Ovo. 

The emperor found himself unable to liberate or ransom the captive empress. Pope Celestine III threatened Tancred with excommunication, so he finally freed Constance, who was reunited with her husband in 1192.

The couple returned to their imperial realm until 1194, when Tancred died. With the aid of the enormous ransom that had been paid for the captive Richard the Lionheart, who had been turned over to the emperor in 1193, Henry immediately turned his attention to Sicily and invaded, deposing Tancred's young son, William III. For her part, Constance followed Henry to Sicily, but she traveled slowly, since she was pregnant. Henry had himself crowned king of Sicily on 25 December 1194. 

Constance, giving birth to her son in front of witnesses
But Constance still wasn't queen of Sicily. She gave birth to her son, Frederick, on 26 December, the day after her husband had made himself king of Sicily. She was finally crowned as queen regnant on 2 April 1195.

(Boccaccio thinks Constance is far older than she really is--he thinks she's fifty-four when she is pregnant, and relates the story of the emperor inviting "all women in Sicily who so desired" to come to witness the birth in order "to remove any suspicion." And thus a multitude of women witness the birth of Frederick, "the monster and scourge not only of Sicily but of all Italy. Thus was the prophecy [made at Constance's birth] fulfilled."**)

Having at last secured the throne, Henry at first offered generous terms to Sibylla and her son, William III. But a conspiracy against the emperor and now king of Sicily was revealed, and Henry took vengeance on those who had supported Tancred, his wife, and his son. 

Henry is said to have had William blinded and castrated; that may or may not be true, but the boy was sent off as a prisoner to Germany, where he is believed to have died in 1198. Many of his supporters were burned alive, some hanged, including Sibylla's brother. Sibylla herself was imprisoned and sent to Germany with her other children, but she eventually escaped and wound up in France, where she died in 1205.

Henry, however, proved to be an unpopular ruler in Sicily, surrounding himself with German troops, who who occupied themselves by looting and pillaging, and he severely repressed the Norman elite who had ruled in Sicily. Nor could he bring peace to the greater Italian peninsula. Sympathetic to the sufferings of the people of all classes, and herself a member of the Norman Hauteville ruling dynasty, Constance rebelled against her husband--she turned the tables on all those who had held her captive and she besieged her husband, keeping him holed up in a castle, eventually forcing him to agree to a treaty.

Henry died in 1197--it was whispered that he had been poisoned, perhaps by his wife. In April 1198, with her son's election as queen of the Germans disputed, Queen Constance of Sicily had Frederick crowned as king and herself named as regent. She died just a few months later, however, on 27 November 1198. She was just forty-four years old.

Her son, Frederick, would marry another Constance, Constance of Aragon, who would also serve as regent of Sicily.

The quotation in the title--"a brightness kindled / by all the light that fills our heaven"--is from Dante's Paradiso, where he includes a few lines about "the great Constance" (Canto 3, 109-20). 

Constance of Hauteville's tomb,
Cathedral of Palermo
(photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)

There are many translations of Bocaccio's Famous Women--I've used Virginia Brown's here. 

Much of the information about Constance of Hauteville can be gleaned from histories of Sicily, like Donald Matthews's The Norman Kingdom of Sicily and biographies of various men in her family, like David Abulafia's biography of Frederick II. 

Mary Taylor Simeti's Travels with a Medieval Queen narrates a year in Constance's life, her journey as Holy Roman empress from Germany to Sicily, beginning in May 1194 and ending with her coronation. I'm not crazy about this book--it's a combination of history plus Simetti's own travels with friends--but it does offer the most detail about a critical period of Constance's life. You may also want to consult Jacqueline Alio's Queens of Sicily, 1061-1266 for its chapter on Constance of Hauteville.

*Although Beatrice was only about twenty years old when Roger II died, she did not remarry--she survived her husband by more than thirty years, dying herself on 31 March 1185.

**I'm not sure why Boccaccio thinks Frederick was awful--by all accounts, he was an enormously successful ruler. Here's just one modern historian's view:
This Germany king who was born and bred a Sicilian . . . was one of the most remarkable monarchs in history. A man of extraordinary culture, energy, and ability--called by a contemporary chronicler stupor mundi (the wonder of the world), by Nietzsche the first European, and by many historians the first modern ruler – Frederick established in Sicily and southern Italy something very much like a modern, centrally governed kingdom with an efficient bureaucracy. (Donald Detwiler, Germany: A Short History, 43)
Update, 6 February 2023: John Phillip Lomax's biographical essay on Constance of Hauteville is available online via Routledge Resources Online. Access is free (click here).