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Sicilian Vespers
Part of War of the Sicilian Vespers
Sicilian Vespers (1846), by Francesco Hayez
Sicilian Vespers (1846), by Francesco Hayez
Date30 March 1282
Result Sicilian-Aragonese victory, Sicily is separated from Angevin-controlled S. Italy
Hohenstaufen Sicily flag Sicilian rebels
 Byzantine Empire
Kingdom of Aragon flag Crown of Aragon
Capetian House of Anjou coat of arms Capetian House of Anjou
Commanders and leaders
Alaimo of Lentini Charles I of Naples (Charles of Anjou)

The Sicilian Vespers (Italian: Vespri siciliani Sicilian: Vespiri siciliani) is the name given to the successful rebellion on the island of Sicily that broke out on the Easter of 1282 against the rule of the French/Capetian king Charles I, who had ruled the Kingdom of Sicily since 1266. Within six weeks, three thousand French men and women were slain by the rebels and the government of King Charles lost control of the island. It was the beginning of the War of the Sicilian Vespers.


The Papacy versus the House of Hohenstaufen

The rising had its origin in the struggle between the House of Hohenstaufen, which in the 13th century ruled Germany and most of northern Italy, and the papacy for control over Italy, especially the Church's private demesne known as the Papal States. The Papal States were considered a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and lay between Hohenstaufen lands in northern Italy and the Hohenstaufen Kingdom of Sicily in the south. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV even declared the emperor Frederick II to be deposed and proceeded to rouse opposition to him in Germany and Italy. When Frederick died in 1250, his dominion was inherited by his son, Conrad. Upon Conrad's death in 1254, a period of turmoil followed; eventually control of the Kingdom of Sicily was seized by Manfred, Frederick's natural son, whose reign lasted from 1258 to 1266.

Manfred had no involvement in German politics, where the interregnum lasted longer and there was no emperor until 1274. He first styled himself as vicar of his nephew Conradin, Conrad's son.[1][2] However, later Manfred had himself crowned as king, following a false rumour that Conradin was dead. Manfred wished for a reconciliation with the papacy (which may have explained his support for the landless Latin Emperor Baldwin II). However, Pope Urban IV and later Pope Clement IV were not prepared to recognize Manfred as lawful ruler of Sicily and sought to depose him by force of arms, since excommunication proved to be insufficient.

After abortive attempts to enlist England as the champion of the Papacy against Manfred,[3] Urban IV settled on Charles of Anjou, as his candidate for the Sicilian throne. Charles invaded Italy and defeated and killed Manfred in 1266 at the Battle of Benevento, becoming King of Sicily. In 1268 Conradin, who had meanwhile come of age, invaded Italy to press his claim to the throne, but he was defeated at the Battle of Tagliacozzo and executed afterwards. Charles was now undisputed master of most of Italy.

Charles of Anjou and Sicilian unrest

Charles regarded his Sicilian territories as a springboard for his Mediterranean ambitions, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, and the capture of Constantinople, then the richest city in the western world. Although his rule was quite just, unrest was simmering in Sicily because the island played a very subordinate role in Charles's empire — its nobles had no share in the government of their own island and were not compensated by lucrative posts abroad, as were Charles's French, Provençal and Neapolitan subjects; also the taxes were heavy but they were spent on Charles's wars outside Sicily, making Sicily somewhat of a donor economy to Charles' nascent empire. As Runciman put it, "[The Sicilians] saw themselves now being ruled to enable an alien tyrant make conquests from which they would have no benefit" [4]

The unrest was also being fomented by agents of the Byzantine Emperor Michael Palaeologus who was desperate to thwart Charles's projected invasion of his empire, and of the Aragonese king Peter III, Manfred's son-in-law, who saw his wife Constance as rightful heir to the Sicilian throne.

The uprising

The church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo.

The event takes its name from an insurrection which began at the start of Vespers, the sunset prayer marking the beginning of the night vigil on Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit just outside Palermo.[5] Because the city's borders have expanded over the centuries, the church is now within the city limits. Beginning on the night of the Vespers, thousands of Sicily's French inhabitants were massacred within six weeks. The events that started the uprising are not known for certain, but the various retellings have common elements. Only a small village called Sperlinga protected French soldiers in a castle excavated in sandstone. According to Steven Runciman, the Sicilians at the church were engaged in holiday festivities and a group of French officials came by to join in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband then attacked Drouet with a knife, killing him. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers. Runciman best describes the mood of the night:

To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were filled with angry armed men, crying "Death to the French" ('Moranu li Francisi' in the Sicilian language). Every Frenchman they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word 'ciciri', whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed the test was slain… By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of the city.[4]

In the version according to Leonardo Bruni (1416), the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check for weapons, and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot, the French were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily. "By the time the furious anger at their insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had given up to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches but their lives as well."[citation needed]

There is also a third version of the events that is quite close to Runciman's, varying only in the minor details. This story is part of the oral tradition on the island up to the present time. This oral tradition cannot be verified, but is of much interest to sociologists.[6]

According to the legend, John of Procida was the mastermind behind the conspiracy that led to the Vespers.

Immediate aftermath

After leaders were elected in Palermo, messengers were sent to spread word across the island for the rebels to strike now before the oppressor had time to organise resistance. It took a fortnight for the rebels to gain control over most of the island, and within six weeks it was all under rebel control, with the notable exception of Messina as it was well fortified, and its leading family, the Riso, remained faithful to Charles. But on 28 April it too had broken into open revolt and, most significantly, the islanders' first act was to set fire to Charles's fleet lying in the harbor.[7] It is reported that upon hearing of the fleet's destruction, King Charles realized how serious was his plight and exclaimed "Lord God, since it has pleased You to ruin my fortune, let me only go down in small steps."[8]

Charles' Vicar Herbert and his family were safely within the castle Mategriffon, but after some time for negotiations the rebels granted Herbert and his family safe conduct to leave the island upon a promise that they never return. After the restoration of order in the city, the townsmen announced themselves a free commune answerable only to the pope. They elected leaders, one of whom was Bartholomaeus of Neocastro who was prominent in the unfolding events and would later chronicle much of the revolt in Historia Sicula, an important if sometimes contradictory source of information to historians. Again significantly, the leaders' next act was to send word, via a Genoese merchant named Alafranco Cassano, to the Emperor Michael advising him that his nemesis Charles had been crippled.[9] Only thereafter were ambassadors sent to Pope Martin IV pleading for each city on the island to be recognised as a free commune under the sole suzerainty of the Holy Church. The islanders were hoping for status such as enjoyed by Venice, Genoa, Pisa and other cities, free to form their own government, but morally answerable only to the pope who would hold a vague and unstable suzerainty.[10] However the French pope was firmly in Charles' camp and he directed the Sicilians to recognize Charles as their rightful king.[11] However Martin underestimated the Sicilians' hatred of the French, especially Charles because he ruled their kingdom from Naples rather than the traditional Palermo where he could have seen the suffering caused by his officials. Charles' island officials were far removed from his oversight; he did not see the avarice, the abusive behavior manifesting itself as rape, theft and murder, nor did he see the high taxes levied against the meager possessions of the peasants, which kept them impoverished, but made no improvement in their lives.

The Aragonese invasion

After the pope refused the rebels' pleas for the status of free communes, the islanders sent for Pedro III of Aragon whose wife Constance was Manfred's daughter, Henry VI's great-granddaughter; and the sole surviving heir of Frederick II who was not in captivity and was in a position to assert her rights. Pedro III championed his wife's claim to the entirety of the Kingdom of Sicily.[12]

Prior to the Vespers, Pedro III had constructed and outfitted a fleet for war and upon the pope's inquiry of the need for such a great war fleet, Pedro stated that it was to be used against the followers of Islam along the northern coast of Africa as he had legitimate interests in trade there and he needed to protect them. So when Pedro received a request for help from the Sicilians he was conveniently on the north coast of Africa in Tunis just 200 miles across the sea from the island. At first Pedro feigned to be indifferent to the request of the Sicilians and to the plight of the islanders, but after several days to allow a proper showing of deference made for the pope's consumption, Pedro took advantage of the revolt. He ordered his fleet to sail for Sicily, landed at Trapani on August 30, 1282. While he marched towards Palermo, his fleet followed close by the coastal road. Pedro's involvement changed the character of the uprising from a local revolt into a European War.[13] Pedro arrived at Palermo on September 2 and initially he was received by the populace with indifference, it was merely one foreign king replacing another; they much preferred a free commune under a vague suzerainty of the pope. However, after Pope Martin made plain his orders for the populace to accept Charles, Pedro made a promise to the islanders that they would enjoy the ancient privileges they had had under the Norman king, William the Good. Thereafter, Pedro was accepted as a satisfactory second choice and was crowned by acclamation of the people at the cathedral in Palermo on September 4, thus becoming also Peter I of Sicily.[14]

With the pope's blessing the counter-attack from Charles was not long in coming; his fleet from Naples arrived and blockaded the port of Messina and made several attempts to land troops on the island, but all were repulsed.

Michael Palaeologus's Commentary

Years later, in his autobiography, Michael VIII wrote: "Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth."[15] But as Runciman observes, with or without Byzantine gold, it was the proud people of Sicily alone who fought against their armed oppressor; and "However it may have been plotted and prepared, it was that one March evening of the Vespers at Palermo that brought down King Charles' empire."[16]


  • Runciman, Steven, The Sicilian Vespers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958, ISBN 0-521-43774-1.
  • Lu Rebellamentu di Sichilia, lu quale Hordinau e Fichi pari Misser Iohanni in Procita contra Re Carlu is still located in the Central Library in Palermo. Whether it is a contemporary narrative or not hinges on the interpretation of one word in the text. Runciman (p. 329) describes these words as "putirini", the first person plural, vs "putirisi" the impersonal tense.
  • The earliest narrative source for the Vespers is the Sicilian Rebellamentu di Sichilia, written perhaps as early as 1287. It credits John of Procida with organising the overthrow of the French and portrays him in a positive light. Two later Guelph Tuscan histories, the Liber Jani de Procida et Palialoco and the Leggenda di Messer Gianni di Procida, possibly relying on the Rebellamentu or the Rebellamentu's lost source, follow it in stressing John's involvement, but they portray him in a more critical light. The Liber, as its title suggests, emphasises John's negotiations with Michael VIII ("Palioloco").
  • Besides these there are two Florentine chronicles of importance. The Leggenda was once thought to be a source for the Nuova Cronica of Giovanni Villani, itself a source for the Vespers. Brunetto Latini, in his Tesoro, similarly adopts the Sicilian version of events, which includes the earliest version of the rape. The Tuscan Liber turns the rape story around, suggesting the Sicilian woman had pulled a knife on her French suitor when his friends came to aid him.

Sicilian Vespers (1846), by Francesco Hayez.

  • Jordan, L'Allemagne et l'Italie, at pp. 219–221; and Robinson, (infra) pp. 255–266. These are the two best sources of the blasphemous and cunning character of Frederick II as king.
  • Bathgen, Die Regentschaft Papst Innocenz III im Konigreich Sizilien describes his Frederick's minority. See also Van Cleve, Markward of Anweiler; and Luchaire, Innocent III, vol. III; and Rome et l'Italie, pp. 153–204. Jordan, (supra) at pp. 272–74 discusses the origin of the Geulf and Ghibelline factions. See also, Hefele-Leclercq, Historie des Conciles vol VI, I, pp. 6–9.
  • Chalandon, Historie de la Domination Normande en Italia, vol. I, pp. 189–211, 327–54. These are excellent sources describing the Norman Conquest of Italy and Sicily by the Guiscard family. For their rule in Sicily, see vol. II, passim.

References in culture

  • The present (but composed in 1847 and set to music in 1848) Italian National anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani, popularly known as "Fratelli d'Italia" (Brothers of Italy): "Il suon d'ogni squilla / i vespri sonò" (with reference to the past uprisings of the Italian people against foreign rulers, occurring again in these years).
  • Giuseppe Verdi's opera I Vespri Siciliani is based on this conflict.
  • Francesco Hayez painted a series on the Sicilian Vespers, beginning in 1821.

Other uses of the term

  • In 1594, when the French King Henry IV was taking some tedious peace negotiations with the Spanish ambassador in France, bored with the unwillingness of the Spaniards to accept his terms, he stated that the King of Spain should behave with more humility, for if not, he could easily invade Spanish territories in Italy, stating that "My armies could move so fast that I would have breakfast in Milan and dine in Rome." Whereupon the Spanish ambassador replied "Now then, if that is so, Your Majesty would surely make it to Sicily in time for Vespers".[17]
  • Having previously arranged the murder of mafia boss Joseph Masseria on 15 April 1931 in order to consolidate organized crime in New York City under Salvatore Maranzano, mafia boss Lucky Luciano then ordered the murders of Maranzano and those capos of Maranzano and Masseria whom Luciano saw as threats. These murders allegedly occurred on September 10, 1931 which marked the end of the Castellammarese War in New York City and in mafia parlance is known as the Night of the Sicilian Vespers. This was later proved to be mostly a myth in mafia culture as no hard evidence exists that all these murders - outside of Maranzano and a few others - actually occurred.[18]
  • Sicilian-born brothers David and Francis Rifugiato named their short-lived band "The Sicilian Vespers" after this event. They released one album on Profile Records in 1988.[19][20]
  • The title of one of Verdi's operas.
  • Operation Sicilian Vespers


  • Steven Runciman (1958),The Sicilian Vespers, ISBN 0-521-43774-1.
  • Leonardo Bruni (1416), History of the Florentine People, Harvard, 2001, ISBN 0-674-00506-6. Regarded as the first history book to be called "modern", and the first modern historian, it also happens to cover the events of this period.
  • Michael VIII Palaeologus, De Vita sua Opusculum, (ed. J. Troitsky in Christianskoe Chtenie, vol. II). St Petersburg, 1885.
  • "Sicilian Vespers". In Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • John J. Robinson (1991), Dungeon, Fire, & Sword The Knights Templar in the Crusades ISBN 1-56731-645-X
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia.


  1. Runciman, Steven (1958). The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 26ff. ISBN 0-521-43774-1. 
  2. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, pp. 16ff.
  3. Pope Alexander IV literally shopped around for a buyer of the crown of Sicily. In 1256 King Henry III of England agreed to buy the crown for his son Edmund in exchange for 135,541 German marks. He raised secular and church taxes in England and paid the Pope 60,000 marks, but could raise no more. The people and clergy of England refused to be taxed any further to enable an English prince to sit on the Sicilian throne. On December 18, 1258 Pope Alexander issued a bull releasing Henry from his obligation to buy the throne, but he kept the 60,000 marks already paid. (cf. Runciman, Chapter 4)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 212. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Runciman, p. 115" defined multiple times with different content
  5. "Sicilian Vespers". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2011-03-29. 
  6. Tournatore, Matteo G. C., Arba Sicula (Sicilian Dawn), Journal of Sicilian Folklore and Literature, Vol XXV, Numira 1 & 2, pp. 47ff.
  7. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 218.
  8. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 220.
  9. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 219.
  10. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers p. 216, citing Nicholas Specialis, Historia Sicula, pp. 924ff.
  11. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 214.
  12. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 201.
  13. See Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 227, citing Bartholomew of Neocastro, Historia Sicula, p. 24.
  14. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 228.
  15. M. Palaeologus, De Vita sua Opusculum, 9, IX, pp. 537–38.
  16. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 256.
  17. Runciman, Sicilian Vespers, p. 287.
  18. Critchley, David (2009). The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99030-0. 
  19. allmusic ((( Sicilian Vespers > Overview )))
  20. CD Baby: THE SICILIAN VESPERS: The Sicilian Vespers

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