Constance, Queen of Sicily

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Heinrich VI - Konstanze von Sizilien.jpg
Henry VI and Constance of Sicily (from Liber ad Honorem Augusti by Peter of Eboli, 1196)
Queen regnant of Sicily
Reign 1194 – 27 November 1198
Predecessor William III
Successor Frederick II
Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire; Queen consort of the Romans
Tenure 1191–1197
Born 2 November 1154
Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Died 27 November 1198(1198-11-27) (aged 44)
Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Spouse Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor
Issue Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
House Hauteville
Father Roger II of Sicily
Mother Beatrice of Rethel

Constance (2 November 1154 – 27 November 1198) was the heiress of the Norman kings of Sicily and the wife of Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. She was Queen of Sicily in 1194–98, jointly with her husband from 1194 to 1197, and with her infant son Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1198.

Background and Marriage[edit]

Constance was the posthumous daughter of Roger II[1] by his third wife Beatrice of Rethel.[2]

Rather strange for a princess, Constance was not betrothed until she was thirty, which later gave rise to stories that she had become a nun and required papal dispensation to marry. Boccaccio cited in his De mulieribus claris that it was a prediction that "her marriage would destroy Sicily" led to her celibacy. Her betrothal to Henry was announced 29 Oct 1184 at the Augsburg episcopal palace.[2] In 1185 Constance traveled to Milan to celebrate the wedding, accompanied by a grand procession of princes and barons. Henry accompanied her to Salerno but had to return to Germany for the funeral of his mother. They were married on 27 January 1186 at Milan.[3]

The death of her younger nephew Henry of Capua in 1172 made Constance heiress presumptive to the Sicilian crown,[4] after her elder nephew King William II, who did not marry until 1177, and whose marriage remained childless.[2] Abulafia (1988) points out that William did not foresee the union of German and Sicilian crowns as a serious eventuality; his purpose was to consolidate an alliance, with an erstwhile enemy of Norman power in Italy.

The papacy, also an enemy of the emperors, would not want to see the kingdom of southern Italy (then one of the richest in Europe) in German hands, but Henry pressed Pope Celestine III to baptize and crown his son: the Pope put him off.

Claim to Sicily[edit]

Nor would the kingdom's Norman nobles welcome a Hohenstaufen king. William made his nobles and the important men of his court promise to recognize Constance's succession if he died without direct heirs. But after his unexpected death in 1189, his cousin (and Constance's nephew) Tancred seized the throne. Tancred was illegitimate, but he had the support of most of the great men of the kingdom.

While Constance's father-in-law Frederick Barbarossa was on a crusade Henry and Constance were forced to stay in Germany and could not maintain their claim to Sicily. Emperor Frederick died in 1190, and the following year Henry and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress. Constance then accompanied her husband at the head of a substantial imperial army to forcefully take the throne from Tancred under the support of loyal Pisa fleet. The northern towns of the kingdom opened their gates to Henry, including the earliest Norman strongholds Capua and Aversa. Salerno, Roger II's mainland capital, sent word ahead that Henry was welcome, and invited Constance to stay in her father's old palace to escape the summer heat. Naples was the first time that Henry met resistance on the whole campaign, holding well into the southern summer from May to August, by which time much of the army had succumbed to malaria and disease and the imperial army was forced to withdraw from the kingdom altogether. Constance remained in Salerno with a small garrison, as a sign that Henry would soon return.

Once Henry had withdrawn with the bulk of the imperial army, the towns that had supposedly fallen to the Empire immediately declared their allegiance to Tancred, for the most part now fearing his retribution. The populace of Salerno saw an opportunity to win some favour with Tancred, so they besieged the defenceless Constance at Castel Terracena. Constance presented herself on a balcony and spoke to them in the tone of mild remonstrance and admonition, before being arrested by nobleman Elia di Gesualdo and delivered to Tancred in Messina by Admiral Margerito on a typical bireme galley or dromon, thus she became an important prize given that Henry had every intention of returning. When meeting Tancred, Constance was in her attire as empress and when angrily blamed for invasion, she proudly responded that she was taking back her dominion robbed by Tancred. Constance was taken to Palermo supervised by Queen Sibylla, and after the populace of Palermo showed sympathy on Constance, Sibylla, who had once quarrelled with Constance, suggested Tancred put Constance to death, but Tancred disagreed, worrying this would harm his popularity; so Sibylla discussed the matter with Chancellor Matthew of Ajello and under their suggestion Constance was locked in the water-surrounded Castel dell'Ovo in Naples in the custody of nobleman Aligerno Cottone instead. During her capture Tancred always treated her with honorable courtesy. Sibylla strongly opposed Tancred honoring Constance, believing this would implicitly acknowledge the claim of the latter.

Henry VI constantly refused to make peace with Tancred despite the capture of his wife while he did not have the power to rescue her. However, Tancred was willing to give up his negotiation advantage, that is, the Empress, in return for Pope Celestine III legitimising him as King of Sicily, after Henry complained to the Pope for the capture of his wife and the Pope threatened to excommunicate him if he did not release the Empress. In turn, the Pope was hoping that by securing Constance's safe passage back to Rome, Henry would be better disposed towards the papacy and he was still hoping to keep the Empire and the Kingdom from uniting. Constance was released in January 1192 with all her suites and some gifts, sent through Strait of Messina and once reached Ceprano. However, on June imperial soldiers were able to intervene before Constance made it to Rome just at the borders of the Papal States, and they returned her safely across the Alps, ensuring that in the end, both the papacy and the kingdom failed to score any real advantage in having the Empress in their custody.

Henry was already preparing to invade Sicily a second time when Tancred died in February 1194. Later that year he moved south, leveled Salarno to the ground in revenge of detaining Constance, entered Palermo unopposed, deposed Tancred's young son William III, and had himself crowned instead.

Queen of Sicily[edit]

While Henry moved quickly south with his army, a pregnant Constance followed at a slower pace. On 26 December, the day after Henry's crowning at Palermo, she gave birth to a son, Frederick-Roger (the future Emperor and king of Sicily Frederick II) in the small town of Iesi, near Ancona.[1]

Constance was 40 after a marriage of 9 years, and she knew that many would question whether the child was really hers. Thus she had the baby in a pavilion tent in the market square of the town, and invited the town matrons to witness the birth.[citation needed] A few days later she returned to the town square and publicly breast-fed the infant. Later she was crowned as queen of Sicily.

In 1196 Henry VI had Richard, Count of Acerra brother of Sibylla hanged in revenge of the capture of Constance.

However, the tyranny of Henry for Sicily initiated revolts, especially around Catania and southern Sicily. Provoked by the neglect of Henry and pitying on her countrymen Constance also joined the revolts against her husband and besieged him in a castle, forcing him into a treaty.

Crowning of Frederick II and Her Death[edit]

Constance's grave, in the Cathedral of Palermo.

Henry died unexpectedly in 1197 - some said he was poisoned by Constance. The following year Constance had the three-year-old Frederick crowned King of Sicily with herself as regent, and in his name dissolved the ties her late husband had created between the government of Sicily and the Empire. She adopted very different policies from those of her late consort. She surrounded herself with local advisors and excluded the ambitious Markward von Anweiler from a position of power, attempting to restrict him to his fief in Molise, as well as Walter of Palearia and Conrad I, Duke of Spoleto. She made no mention of any claims to the German kingship and empire when her son was anointed and crowned at Palermo, May 1198. Constance made warm overtures to the new pope Innocent III, abandoning the long-contended principle that the king was the apostolic legate, a central principle of Norman autonomy in the regno. Faced with the dangers that surrounded any child-king, Constance placed Frederick under the protection of Pope Innocent III. While always maintaining her title of Holy Roman Empress Dowager, she expected her son to be raised as a Sicilian, and to be nothing more than King of Sicily, without distracting claims to Germany or even to the title "King of the Romans" to which her brother-in-law Philip of Swabia was acclaimed by the Roman nobles. That he became much more than that could not be predicted when she unexpectedly died in late November 1198. In her will she made Innocent, who was the child's feudal suzerain, his guardian, a reminder to all of the inviolability of his inheritance.

Constance was buried in the Cathedral of Palermo near the tomb of her father.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante places Constance in Paradise (though he subscribed to the story that Constance had been a nun):

"This other radiance that shows itself
to you at my right hand, a brightness kindled
by all the light that fills our heaven-- she
has understood what I have said: she was
a sister, and from her head, too, by force,
the shadow of the sacred veil was taken.
But though she had been turned back to the world
against her will, against all honest practice,
the veil upon her heart was never loosed.
This is the splendor of the great Costanza,
who from the Swabians' second gust engendered
the one who was their third and final power."
Paradiso, Canto III, lines 109-120, Mandelbaum translation


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Italy and Sicily under Frederick II, Michaelangelo Schipa, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. IV, ed. J.R. Tanner, C.W. Previté-Orton and Z.N. Brooke, (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 131.
  2. ^ a b c The Marriage of Henry VI and Constance of Sicily: Prelude and Consequences, Walter Frohlich, Anglo~Norman Studies: XV. Proceedings of the Battle Conference, ed. Marjorie Chibnall, (The Boydell Press, 1993), 100-101.
  3. ^ Walter Frohlich, 109.
  4. ^ Walter Frohlich, 102.

External links[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

  • David Abulafia, Frederick II, a Medieval Emperor, 1988 (Oxford University press)
  • Walter Fröhlich, "The Marriage of Henry VI and Constance of Sicily: Prelude and Consequences", Anglo-Norman Studies XV, 1992
  • Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, ISBN 0-521-26911-3
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, reprinted as part of his The Normans in Sicily, ISBN 0-14-015212-1
  • Costanza, sacred opera performance at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Bronx, NY on 26 October 2008. John Marino, distinguished composer conductor, arranger, pianist, coordinated the performance. The libretto was written by Florence Bocarius.
  • Mary Taylor Simeti, Travels with a Medieval Queen, 2001. ISBN 978-0-374-27878-6.

Regnal titles
Preceded by
William III
Queen of Sicily
With: Henry
Succeeded by
Frederick II
German royalty
Preceded by
Beatrice of Burgundy
Queen consort of Germany
Succeeded by
Irene Angelina
Empress consort of
the Holy Roman Empire

Succeeded by
Beatrice of Hohenstaufen