The word ‘Norman’, from an old Germanic, means ‘man of the north’. So, Normans were actually the descendants of the dreadful Vikings that from at least two centuries had invaded Europe and then temporarily settled in France, in the region called ‘Normandy’. The Normans who invaded Sicily were actually French, in fact Tancred’s dynasty, father of Robert and Roger (the two conquerors of Sicily), was called ‘Hauteville’ (Altavilla), from the name of the French land he ruled as a count.
Normans came to Italy to work as mercenary. Robert Guiscard stopped fighting and started to conquer south Italy in the second half of the 11th century and instructed his brother Roger to occupy Sicily.
Normans were helped by the conflicts between Muslim potentates. Roger succeeded with only 1000 knights. His first ‘capital’ was Troina (1064) that was easy to defend because it is on an elevation, but already in 1072 Normans arrived in Palermo that was then governed by Robert Guiscard himself. Robert’s first problem was finding a new bishop for the city, because there were very few priests. Because of the lack of men of the Latin church, he appointed old Nicodemo as firs bishop of free Sicily and entrusted him with Palermo Cathedral, which under Arabs had become a mosque. Nicodemo was an old Greek priest still celebrated mass near Monreale, in a ruined church in the mountains.
Robert’s governance was broad-minded and enlightened as well as his brother’s, Roger. Palermo was divided in various areas and each of them belonged to an ethnic group: ‘Kalsa’ for the Arabs, Cathedral district to Greeks, Albergheria to Latin people and Ponticello to Hebrew. Norman Palermo became a model of peaceful coexistence between different cultures. Roger let every person to be judged according to the laws of their ethnic group.
Roger started feudalism in Sicily. For the first time Sicily had a parliament: actually it was an assembly regularly summoned and attended by the most influential ‘lords’, but it started a new kind of feeble democracy.
In 1101 Count Roger died and his body was buried in the Cathedral. He was succeeded by a few regents and one of them was his wife Countess Adelaide, who prepared the succession of her son Roger II and in 1130 he was crowned as king of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria in Palermo Cathedral. Roger II governance was authoritarian and he approved a new legislation taking as model the Roman civil law issued by order of Justinian (Corpus iuris civilis). He ordered the construction of the wonderful Palatine Chapel, located in the Royal Palace (nowadays known as ‘Norman Palace’).
When Roger II died, William I succeeded him (1154), he was called ‘the Bad’ probably because he did not favour Sicilian aristocrats. It was difficult for William to manage the political power. After a riot broke out in the city, he was caught and deposed. Nevertheless, when the leaders of the protest realised that they had overreacted, William returned to his seat until his death a short time later, at the age of 46.
William I was succeeded by William II, called ‘the Good’, who set an almost ‘theocratic’ government like Constantinople Emperors. He was the one who wanted the construction of the amazing Monreale Cathedral, of Zisa Palace and the Norman Arab Cuba Palace. His reign did not last long. He died at the age of 36 (1189), and with him ended the Norman governance of Palermo and Sicily.