1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vespers, Sicilian
VESPERS, SICILIAN, the revolution of the Sicilians against the Angevin domination, so called because it broke out at the hour of Vespers on Easter Tuesday 1282. Charles I. of Anjou had encountered more resistance in conquering Sicily than on the mainland, as the people were more independent and more strongly attached to the house of Hohenstaufen; and consequently his government was more oppressive and cruel. The officials and the insolent French nobility whom he established in the island rode rough-shod over the privileges of the native aristocracy and the customs of the people, and the natives were ground down by heavy taxes and degrading personal services. The debased currency ruined trade, and the government treated the Sicilians with the utmost contempt. “The outrage of personal service,” wrote Amari (Guerra del Vespro, ch. iv.), “exceeded the limits of feudalism as well as of the strangest and most brutal caprices. Noble and worthy men were forced to carry viands and wine on their shoulders to the tables of the foreigner, and many young nobles were constrained to turn the spit in his kitchens like scullions or slaves.” The administration was more regular, and therefore more unyielding and heartless, than that of the Hohenstaufens, and also more foreign. Hatred of Angevin rule grew day by day, until the people were driven to revolt. According to tradition, the leader of the rising was Giovanni da Procida, a Salernitan noble with Sicilian connexions, who had been in the service of Hohenstaufens, but, having lost position and property after the fall of Conradin, he had taken refuge at the court of Peter III., king of Aragon, and induced him to try to make good his claims on Sicily, which were based on the rights of his queen, Costanza, daughter of Manfred. But as a matter of fact the actual outbreak was a purely
unpremeditated popular movement. Charles at that time was making preparations for an attack on the East Roman empire, and extorting more money than ever from the Sicilians in order to meet his expenses. Peter availed himself of the fears which Charles's ambitions were arousing to open negotiations with his various enemies, especially with the Greek emperor, Michael Palaeologus, the Italian Ghibellines, the discontented Sicilian nobles, and perhaps with Pope Nicholas III. Suddenly the people of Sicily, goaded beyond endurance, rose against their rulers, regardless of these various plots. On the 31st of March 1282 a riot broke out in a church near Palermo, in consequence, according to tradition, of the insults of a French soldier towards a Sicilian woman, and a general massacre of the French began. The rising spread to the city, where the republic was proclaimed, and then through the rest of the island; thousands of French men, women and children were butchered (there may be some exaggeration in the wholesale character of the slaughter), and by the end of April the whole of Sicily was in the hands of the rebels. Charles at once led an expedition against the Sicilians and besieged Messina; and although the enemy had been expelled, they would hardly have been able to withstand this new invasion successfully had they not received assistance from Peter of Aragon and their own nobility, whose conspiracy they had so unexpectedly forestalled. This intervention, however, changed the character of the movement, and the free communes which had been proclaimed throughout the island had to submit to the royal prerogatives and to a revived feudalism. Peter, having reached Palermo in September 1282, accepted the Sicilian crown voluntarily offered to him, levied recruits, and declared war on Charles. Hostilities were carried on by land and sea, and the Angevin attacks on Messina were repulsed and followed up by raids on Calabria, where Reggio and other towns declared for King Peter. Charles proposed to settle the Sicilian question by a single combat between himself and Peter; but although the duel was agreed upon it never took place, owing to the mutual distrust of the two rivals. Peter created some discontent by conferring many offices in Sicily on Aragonese and Catalans, but at the parliament of Catania (1283) he undertook at his death to leave Aragon to his son Alphonso and Sicily to his younger son James, so that the two crowns should not be united, an arrangement which fell in with the Sicilians' aspirations towards independence. Pope Martin IV., unlike Nicholas III., threw the whole weight of his authority in favour of the Angevins, excommunicated Peter and the Sicilians, declaring that the former had forfeited even his rights to Aragon, conferred on Charles's expedition to reconquer the island the privileges of a crusade, and levied dimes throughout Christendom to supply the funds. The reason for this uncompromising attitude lies in the papal claim that Sicily was a fief of the Church, a claim which could only be enforced by means of the Angevins. But Charles's fleet was completely destroyed off Malta by that of the Sicilians and Aragonese, commanded by the Calabrese Ruggiero di Lauria (June 1283), and a second fleet met with a similar fate a year later in the bay of Naples, on which occasion Charles's son (afterwards Charles II., lo Zoppo) was captured. The Aragonese were now masters of the sea. Risings broke out even in the mainland provinces, and while Charles was preparing for a supreme effort to re-establish his authority he died (1285). Peter died soon after, but the war went on and spread to Aragon, which the Angevins, in virtue of the pope's excommunication of Peter, were trying to conquer. In 1287 the French encountered a fresh naval disaster at the hands of Lauria, and a force which they landed in Sicily was defeated. A two years' truce was now agreed upon, and Charles II. was liberated on his promising to renounce all claims on Aragon; but the pope Nicholas IV., who was determined that no peace should be made unless the Aragonese gave up the island, absolved him from his oath and crowned him king of the Two Sicilies (1289). Alphonso died in 1291, and was succeeded by his brother James, who took possession of the Aragonese crown, leaving his brother Frederick as governor of Sicily, thus uniting the two kingdoms, in violation of King Peter's promises. 'He then opened negotiations with Pope Boniface VIII. (they had been begun by Alphonso and Nicholas IV.), and eventually agreed to surrender the towns captured in the Neapolitan provinces to Charles II., and hand over Sicily to the Church, actually binding himself to assist in crushing the Sicilians if they resisted; in exchange he was to marry Charles's daughter, Bianca, and to receive Sardinia and Corsica, while Charles's cousin, Charles of Valois, was to renounce his claims on Aragon (1295). This treaty aroused bitter indignation in Sicily, where all classes determined to resist its execution at all costs. They found a leader in Frederick, who, rejecting all the pope's blandishments and bribes, threw in his lot with the Sicilians. For the sequel of the war see under Frederick III. of Sicily. Peace was made with the treaty of Caltabellotta in 1302, which left Sicily an independent kingdom under Frederick for that prince's lifetime; and although at his death it was to have reverted to the Angevins, he was actually succeeded by his son, and the island retained its independence for a considerable period. Undoubtedly the Vespers and its consequences revived Sicilian nationalism after the period of degrading Angevin oppression, and with the new dynasty a higher civilization, nearly rivalling that which had flourished under the Hohenstaufens, an improved constitution, and fine military qualities were the outcome.