Sicilian Normans (Normans of the South) 1035 to 1194

By Dan Johnson

By the early eleventh century Southern Italy had been in ferment for decades, Italians, Lombards, Byzantines and Muslims were all fighting each other to maintain and expand their holdings.  Norman mercenaries had been active in the area for some time fighting for different factions but it was the arrival of sons of Tancrede d’ Hauteville in 1035 that marked a change in the Normans from simple mercenaries to state builders in their own right.

William, Drogo and Humphrey arrived first and did very well for themselves but in 1046 another brother arrived and it was this man, Robert, known as Guiscard (the Cunning or Sly). These were determined, ruthless and very talented commanders; men who were not only capable generals but who were also skilled politicians and in just 60 years managed to weld the disparate bands of Norman adventurers into a single powerful kingdom capable of threatening the Byzantine Empire in its own land.

At various times the Normans were allied with and fought all the existing powers across Italy, Sicily and the Balkans including the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Moslems of Sicily and North Africa and although based on a feudal model they quickly adapted to their location and their armies contained elements of the native forces as well as mercenaries and pure Norman adventurers.

The core of the army is the potentially overwhelming Norman cavalry and their crushing charge, sources refer to “knights” although at this time knighthood would have more to do with the ability to acquire armour, a horse and the where with all to use them rather than noble birth.  The actual number of Norman cavalry may have been relatively modest but their impact on the existing power structures and military systems was overwhelming and their presence gave Norman armies an undeniable edge. 

Backing up the heavy cavalry were a wide range troops from Muslim light cavalry to Viking heavy infantry, these men were drawn from a variety of sources including freebooters, mercenaries and, as the Norman holdings expanded, local militias and feudal levies.  This variety gives the Southern Normans a different look and feel to their Northern brethren. 

Despite a very brutal start, within a hundred years of their arrival the Normans of the South had built a glittering and relatively tolerant kingdom with Normans, Byzantines, Italians, Lombards and Muslims all existing in relative harmony.  This harmony, guarded by the strength of the Norman Kings of Sicily allowed the kingdom to prosper and developed into a beacon of civilisation and relative tolerance; a beacon which lasted until the death of King Tancrede in 1194 when the kingdom was absorbed into the Hohenstaufen Empire of Henry VI.

The d’Hautevilles

No army list for the Normans in Southern Italy would be complete without mentioning the remarkable d’Hauteville family who rose from minor Norman landholders to a dynasty holding sway over Kingdoms, Principalities, Dukedoms and Counties across Sicily, Southern Italy and the Holy Land.

The original Tancrede had twelve sons, eight of whom went to Italy and all of which attained at least the rank of Count the most important being William, Drogo, Humphrey and Robert, known as Guiscard (the Cunning or Sly) .  For one family to rise to such power over such a wide area in only a couple of generations speaks volumes about their individual talents and the drive of the Normans in the Mediterranean.