The Norman Invasions Of Sicily- Part 1: The Rise of the Norman Counties

When we hear Norman we automatically think of the Norman invasion of England, however, these excellent navigators, also made incursions into southern Europe, like Spain and Sicily. Learn more about their presence in Italy in this article.

The Normans (In French “Men of the North”), often called Vikings, were German tribes who lived in Scandinavia and were known for their fantastic knowledge of the seas, allowing them to explore, trade and pillage different lands and kingdoms. From Constantinople to Newfoundland in Canada, these mighty seafarers left their mark, either by their martial abilities or due to their drive to explore new lands.


Reproduction of Vikings seafaring.

By Oskar Arnold Wergeland – Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline) (1909). Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. London : Harrap

Their naval tradition went back to the V Century C.E as they were isolated in Northern Europe. The German kingdoms that established themselves in the former lands of the Roman Empire prevented the Scandinavian incursions into Europe by land. As such, they turned to the sea to survive.

Viking ship

Viking longboat in Museum in Oslo, Norway.

This naval expertise together with their ancient martial tradition made the Vikings, ruthless and cunning sea raiders as well as ambitious merchants.

However, the activity of the Vikings only started to gain momentum at the beginning of the IX Century, as the Carolingian state focused itself on internal wars and divisions, instead of regularly stabilizing their frontiers with the Scandinavian and Slavic peoples.

Viking Exploration

Viking Exploration.

By Mediatus in Züge, Landnahmen und Siedlungsgebiete der Nordmänner während der Wikingerzeit zwischen 800-1050. Die Quellen befinden sich in der Zeichnung selbst.

It is thought that a combination of factors like overpopulation, the prospect of riches, lust for adventure and struggles for power were behind the reason of this various incursions, that only became bolder as the Vikings brought more and more riches after each successful raid, attracting many Scandinavians to Western, and Mediterranean Europe.

Moreover, the Scandinavians were not a homogenous group (much like today), and so different peoples went on different journeys. The Danes focused themselves on the British Isles, pillaging and invading the British lands. The Swedes, known as Varangians or “Rus,” focused themselves on the Baltic seas, navigating the river Volga, Dona, and the Dnieper; mingling and fighting the Slavic peoples and, ultimately, founding, or at least participating in the foundation, the Kievan Rus.

Viking invasion of England

Danish invasion of England.

Source: Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund (MS M.736 fol. 9v ). Bury St. Edmunds, England, ca. 1130.

The Norwegians not only colonized Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland but also marked their presence in Northern France, where the gain control of the duchy of Normandy, which bore their name, Spain, and Italy, which we will explore more today.

Around the X Century the Vikings that had settled in Normandy, the Normans, were experiencing an overpopulation within the nobles houses which led them to seek adventure and glory, much like their ancestors before them. No doubt that Viking blood ran through their veins, although they were being acculturated in French traditions.

Norman Vests

Victorian illustration of Norman Vests 1000-1100.

By Albert Kretschmer and Dr. Carl Rohrbach – Costumes of All Nations (1882)

They became mercenaries, seeking to serve the Christian Lords of Southern Europe. Here Muslims, Byzantines, and Christians battled for supremacy, the perfect battleground for the Normans.

Their History in Southern Italy begins in 1016, when, supposedly, 40 Norman pilgrims stopped in Salerno, as they were returning from the Holy Land. Prince Guaimar III, ruler of Salerno, was being sieged by Saracens, so he requested the Normans for help. And, indeed they helped,  as they were able to break the siege.

Italy before the Normans

Map of Italy at the arrival of the Normans.

By MapMaster in Political map of Italy in 1000 AD (CE).

Seeing that the Normans were extraordinary warriors, after the pilgrims went home, he sent emissaries to Normandy to recruit more Knights for the defense of his Lands.

About 250 knights heeded his call and, although they had some early setbacks against the Byzantines, they still managed to gain a foothold in Aversa.

As years passed more and more Normans came to Southern Italy.

Amongst these warriors were the ten sons of a Norman noble, Tancred of Hauteville, that brought around 300-500  knights with them and were led by William Iron Arm, a Hauteville brother.

The brothers soon became more interested in their own benefit, than in serving Guaiamar III, and so they captured territories for themselves. William became count of Apulia which, after his death, was inherited by his brother Drogo of Hauteville. Another of the brothers, Robert Guiscard, managed to take control of Calabria, defeating both Saracens and Byzantines.

Norman Robert of Guiscard

A portrait of Robert Guiscard.

By Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781–1853).

As their holdings expanded, they sought to gain legitimacy for their temporal power, and so they searched for Papal and Imperial (Holy Roman Emperor) recognition. The latter, Henry III, didn’t have many problems in recognizing them as sovereign kingdoms, but the former, Leo IX, wasn’t planning to accede to their wishes.

Pope Leo IX

Pope Leo IX.

By Artaud de Montor (1772–1849).

As such, Leo IX assembled an army of bandits and robbers and attacked the Normans. This was the first time a Pope would command a military campaign, and it did not end very well.

It was at the Battle of Civitate, in 1051, that the Pope’s pseudo-army was defeated, and the Leo IX was taken prisoner. He was, nevertheless, released but this was only due to the Norman need for recognition and legitimacy. Paying their “respects” to the Pope only contributed to recognizing them as a legitimate Christian Kingdom, and so they did.

After this incident with the Pope, the sons of Tancred of Hauteville only furthered their conquest in Southern Italy. Capua, Benevento, Dalerno, Averso, all fell at the hands of the Normans, and, by 1060, Robert of Guiscard and his brother Roger controlled virtually all of southern Italy.

Norman Roger I agaisnt the Saracens

Roger I of Sicily at the Battle of Cerami in 1063.

By Antonino Buttitta in “Les Normands en Sicile”.

However the Island of Sicily still had Muslim presence, and although Roger eventually drove them out, it took him 12 years to do, as the Muslim proved to be arduous fighters.

The majority of Sicily and southern Italy were under Norman Rule. Sicily was the domain of Roger “The Great Count, ” and the duchy of Apulia was the domain of his brother Robert of Guiscard.

Norman conquest in Italy

Norman territories in Southern Italy: Capua, Apulia & Calabria, and the County of Sicily are Norman.

By MapMaster in Map of Italy and the Illyrian coast in the year 1084.

However, the official title of the Kingdom of Sicily was only created with Roger’s son, Roger II (Very Original names indeed). Roger II inherited the lands of Sicily from his father, but he still wanted more, he wanted to unify the Hauteville territories under his rule. So, upon his cousin’s (William II, grandson of Robert of Guiscard) death, we laid claim to all of the Hauteville territories and unified both Sicily and southern Italy into a single kingdom.

Here it began the period of the Normand rule in Sicily. Come back next time to know more about the origin of the “de facto” Kingdom of Sicily.

What to know more about the Normans? Click here to buy cheap books with free shipping!


Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Fried, J. (2015). The Middle Ages. London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Eco, U. (2010). Idade Média – Bárbaros, cristãos e muçulmanos. Milan: Publicações Dom Quixote.

Fourquin, G. (s.d.). História Económica do Ocidente Medieval. Lisboa: Edições 70.



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