Constance, Queen of Sicily

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Constance
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 related in his De mulieribus claris that a prediction that "her marriage would destroy Sicily" led to her remain celibate. 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] since her elder nephew King William II did not marry until 1177 and his 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, did 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]

Knowing that Sicily's Norman aristocracy would not welcome a Hohenstaufen king, William made the aristocracy, and the important men of his court, promise to recognize Constance's succession if he died without direct heirs. Nevertheless, 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 such as Vice-Chancellor Matthew of Ajello. On the other hand Archbishop Walter of the Mill, and most of the aristocracy, supported Constance. Eventually however, Matthew was able to induce Walter, along with other barons, to support Tancred.

First Expedition[edit]

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 her 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 Sicilian throne from Tancred with the support of the loyal Pisa fleet. The northern towns of Sicily 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, and take treatment from doctors for her infirm health. At Naples Henry met the first resistance of the whole campaign, and were held up well into the southern summer from May to August, by which time much of the army had succumbed to malaria and disease. As a result the imperial army was forced to withdraw from Sicily altogether. Constance remained in Salerno with a small garrison as a sign that Henry would soon return.

Brief Captivity[edit]

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. Nicholas of Ajello, son of Matthew and former Archbishop of Salerno, who was helping defend Naples, wrote letters about the events to his friends in Salerno. Thus the populace of Salerno saw an opportunity to win some favour with Tancred, so they besieged the defenseless Constance at Castel Terracena. Constance presented herself on a balcony and spoke to them in the tone of mild remonstrance and admonition, trying to tell them that the situation might improve and the defeat of Henry might be exaggerated by Nicholas, but the Salernitans were determined to capture her for Tancred, so they continued the siege. Constance locked herself in her room, locked the windows, and prayed to God for help and revenge. After a rapid negotiation with Elia di Gesualdo, a distant relative of Tancred, Constance voluntarily went out under the condition that her German garrison were to be allowed to leave unharmed. She was then arrested by Elia (and some barons of Apulia who were related to her) and delivered to Tancred in Messina by Admiral Margaritus of Brindisi (her brother-in-law who had helped in the defence of Naples), on a bireme galley or dromon with 200 rowers. She was in her attire as empress, wearing a dress quilted with gold and decorated with roses, a cloak covered with precious jewels, and her hair was strewn with gems, making her look like a goddess. Thus she became an important and valuable prize given that Henry had every intention of returning. When meeting Constance Tancred blamed her for the invasion, but she proudly responded that she was just taking back her dominion robbed by Tancred.

Constance was taken to Palermo, supervised by Queen Sibylla; Tancred had her eat with Sibylla and sleep in Sibylla's bedroom. Sibylla, who had once quarrelled with Constance, and seeing that the populace of Palermo showed sympathy to Constance, suggested that Tancred put Constance to death. Tancred disagreed, worrying that this would harm his popularity. So Sibylla discussed with Matthew of Ajello, who had been promoted to Chancellor, where to imprison Constance. Matthew wrote a letter to Tancred in her presence, suggesting him to lock Constance in the Castel dell'Ovo in Naples in the custody of nobleman Aligerno Cottone so as to be better-guarded since the castle was surrounded by water. Tancred accepted their suggestion. In addition Matthew wrote to Aligerno ordering him to "ut imperatricem in Castro Salvatoris ad mare bene custodiat" (guard the empress in Castle of the Savior (i. e. Castel dell'Ovo) in the sea properly).

Although Tancred always treated her with courtesy during her captivity, Constance was under extremely careful guard. Sibylla strongly opposed the deference Tancred showed to Constance, believing this would implicitly acknowledge the claims of the latter.

Henry VI consistently refused to make peace with Tancred despite the capture of his wife. While he did not have the power to rescue her, Tancred would not permit Constance to be ransomed. Henry complained to Pope Celestine III about the capture of his wife, so the Pope threatened to excommunicate Tancred if he did not release the Empress. (The Pope hoped that by securing Constance's safe passage back to Rome Henry would be better disposed towards the papacy and Celestine would be able to keep the Empire and Sicily from uniting.) Finally, Tancred was willing to give up his negotiating advantage (i.e. possession of the Empress) if the Pope would legitimize him as King of Sicily.

Constance was released in January 1192 with all her suites and some gifts, and delivered to Egidio Cardinal of Anagni from the Papal States. Traveling through the Strait of Messina they arrived at Ceprano, but before they made it to Rome imperial soldiers were able to intercept them and escorted her safely across the Alps, ensuring that in the end neither the papacy nor Sicily scored any real advantage in having had the Empress in their custody at all.[5]

Second Expedition[edit]

Henry was already preparing to invade Sicily a second time when Tancred died in February 1194. Later that year he moved south, leveled Salerno to the ground in revenge for arresting 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 was crowned at Palermo, she gave birth to a son, Frederick-Roger (the future Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily) in the small town of Iesi, near Ancona.[1]

There is a story that Constance, being 40 after a marriage of 9 years, 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 for 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 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

Ancestry[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[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.
  5. ^ An Introduction to the History of the Principal States of Europe, Vol. 2, p. 129, Samuel Pufendorf (Freiherr von), Antoine Augustin Bruzen de La Martinière, Joseph Sayer

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
1194–1198
With: Henry
Succeeded by
Frederick II
German royalty
Preceded by
Beatrice of Burgundy
Queen consort of Germany
1186–1196
Succeeded by
Irene Angelina
Empress consort of
the Holy Roman Empire

1191–1197
Succeeded by
Beatrice of Hohenstaufen