Monday, March 18, 2013


Umberto II

The Sicilian Kingdom of Africa

King Roger II

To hear many modern commentators, even some claiming to be historians, speak about the expansion of the Kingdom of Italy into North Africa in the early years of the last century, one would think that Italian troops had never set foot on the continent before. Any Italian alive during the colonization of Libya, for example, would have laughed at such an idea. The Italian presence in northern Africa goes back, of course, to the time of ancient Rome but, more than that, even after the fall of the Roman Empire, Italian forces were never long absent from the “fourth shore”. The Italian acquisition of the provinces that became Libya as well as the frustration at the colonization of Tunisia by France are often painted today as simple aggression, yet, when one understands the very long history of close Italian association with this region one can see why, when the Kingdom of Italy began to colonize at least part of northern Africa, the Italians were not “arriving” but rather “returning” to lands that had long been ruled from the Italian peninsula. One of the most overlooked periods that serves as one example was that of the Kingdom of Africa under the Norman King of Sicily Roger II.

The story, starts much earlier, with Norman-Sicilian forces making forays into northern Africa in 1123; the first of many. Even then, Count Roger I of Sicily was already keeping troops in Mahdia in Tunisia to collect export duties. By 1135 King Roger II already had what amounted to a defacto Sicilian protectorate over most of the north African cities closest to southern Italy based simply on their economic interdependence. Having conquered Pantelleria in 1123, Roger II captured the pirate island of Djerba in 1135. By 1142 he established a protectorate over Mahdia after they were unable to make their grain payments on time. The local emir remained on the throne but was forced to accept the King of Sicily as his overlord as he had already become deeply beholden to Roger II because of the vast sums of money he had borrowed from him. In 1146 Norman-Sicilian forces captured Tripoli which, after suffering a terrible famine, had fallen into civil war. After that, numerous other local chieftains came forward to recognize Roger II as their overlord, valuing the security and economic prosperity that came with association with the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1148 Norman troops led by George of Antioch conquered Tunisia after the emir of Mahdia rose against Roger II. The Sicilian forces soon took control of the entire north African coast between Bona and Tripoli.

The strongest support for Sicilian rule came from the Christian minority in north Africa and these people still spoke a local variation of Latin and were actually the remnants of the original population from the time of the old Roman Empire. This is something to keep in mind when people dismiss Italy pointing to the Roman roots of the Italian imperial presence. The links of the chain go right back to Rome and the original Roman communities lasted much longer than most realize. In any event, under Sicilian rule, the economy of north Africa prospered and there was a measure of religious freedom too. Once he took direct control of the area, Muslims had to pay a special tax for their right to worship, just as the Christians had been forced to do previously when under Islamic rule. However, it was less than the tax imposed on the Muslim refugees living on the island of Sicily itself. This was because the King wanted to encourage the Muslims in Sicily to resettle in north Africa, both to remove them from Sicily and because their presence would help show their co-religionists the way forward.

The rulers of Tunis feared a Sicilian attack and sent Roger II tribute in an effort to persuade him to desist (so that their own rule could continue) but, although he had planned further expansions in Africa, the King was diverted by a war with the Byzantines and died in 1154 without returning to his ambition to restore the former Roman lands of Africa to Christian rule. Roger II was succeeded by his son King William I and the reign of King William I was one marked by rebellions on the part of local nobles, both in the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Africa. In Africa it came in the face of the rising power of the Almohad Caliphate out of Morocco. The local Muslim rulers were discontented because the Sicilians gave them little autonomy when it came to taxation and, as has long been the case the world over, whoever collects the taxes tends to become quite rich (somehow). With the Almohad forces gaining strength on the horizon, many decided to change allegiance, turn against the Sicilians and appeal to the Almohad Caliphate for protection.

At first, King William I was successful in suppressing native rebellions and even struck out at the Egyptian coast and launched raids on the Muslim-held Balearic Islands in an effort to disrupt the supply lines of the Almohad invasion force he knew was coming (already Christian refugees were pouring into Sicilian Africa as the Almohad forces advanced). However, the Sicilian position was quickly seen as a lost cause. The loyalty of local leaders could not be counted on, supplies were low from all the recent conflict and the Almohad forces seemed unstoppable. Soon, almost everything in north Africa had been abandoned save for Mahdia in Tunisia. In 1158 Tripoli fell and the following year Mahdia was besieged. It held out until January of 1160 when the walls were breached and the city taken. The conquerors gave the local Christian population a simple choice: convert to Islam or be executed. Christendom tended to blame King William for the atrocities, for not fighting harder to defend the Kingdom of Africa. Under the circumstances, however, there was little he could have done and few were willing to support him at the time. Indeed, many Christian powers had long been jealous of the success of King Roger II and his grand aspirations. Eventually, under King William II, Sicily and the Almohad Caliphate even became allies of a sort as they battled other Islamic forces that posed a threat to both of them.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam

Today His Eminence Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio was elected to the See of St Peter, the new Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff, taking the name of His Holiness Pope Francis I. As the new pope said himself, the cardinals went to the "end of the earth" to find a shepherd. He is the first Latin American pope, the first pope from the "New World" but is also obviously of Italian ancestry as a great many Argentinians are and he is the first member of the Society of Jesus to be elected to the Holy See, making this an historic moment on many fronts. He is also the first pope since the earliest leaders of the Church not to take the name of one of his predecessors, choosing instead the name of St Francis, a symbol of his famous humility. At home in Argentina he is known for his refusal to live in the episcopal palace, for carrying his own luggage and for riding the bus, making him known already as a pope of the "common man" or a "people's pope". He is known for being rather liberal when it comes to economic issues but conservative on social and religious issues. His new style was evident from the very start, his first words being, in Argentinian accented Italian, "good evening". He appeared without the usual red mantle and stole, donning the stole only temporarily for the apostolic blessing which he gave after asking the people to pray for him and leading the public in the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It remains to be seen how he will rule but, for now, the wait is over, the See is no longer vacant, Francis I is the new Vicar of Christ and Successor of St Peter. Viva il Papa!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Savoy King of Britain?

It is my official policy that the legitimacy of any reigning monarch today is not to be questioned. In these modern times, any royal house that falls would be replaced by yet another cookie-cutter republic and not some rival royal house or royal bloodline. In the past, however, there were a number of heroic struggles to restore a legitimate royal line whose place on the throne had been usurped by another and one such example is the struggle of the Jacobites in Britain. This, as most know, was the effort to restore first King James II and later his heirs of the House of Stuart to the British throne after they were replaced by another royal line and later the House of Hanover. However, though the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, carried forward mostly by the highland Scots, were not successful, a minority of Jacobites continued to recognize the Stuart line as the legitimate heirs to the British throne. Interestingly enough, had things gone differently in history, England, Scotland and Ireland might have had an Italian monarch of the House of Savoy if the Jacobites had been able to have their way.

The last direct heir of the deposed Stuart King James II was Prince Henry, Cardinal York, known to Jacobites as “King Henry IX”. He was the younger brother of the famous Prince Charles Edward Stuart or “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, grandson of King James II and, to Jacobites, “King Charles III”. Having no heirs of his own, when he died, his claim passed to his brother, Prince Henry, who had entered the Church and risen to the rank of cardinal. Obviously, he had no heirs either and so when he died in 1807 the claim then passed to his second cousin twice removed the former King Carlo Emanuele IV of Piedmont-Sardinia (he had abdicated in 1802) of the House of Savoy. So, if the Jacobites had their way, he would have been “King Charles IV” and he was, of course, a remarkable man, known for his devout faith and heroic opposition to the aggression of the French revolutionary forces. He had also been close friends with the Cardinal, his predecessor in the Jacobite succession. There is also no doubt that the Cardinal intended for King Carlo Emanuele IV to succeed to his rights according to the will he left behind. However, had he been in a position to accept the British throne it is unlikely he would have done so as, after the death of his beloved wife in 1802, he abdicated the throne he did have and devoted his life to religious work, taking vows in the Society of Jesus.

When King Carlo Emanuele IV died in 1819 his rights to the British throne passed to his brother, King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia. A very traditional man, he is remembered for being the one to see the House of Savoy restored in Turin after the defeat of France and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia expanded by the addition of the territories of the former Republic of Genoa. He put an end to all of the revolutionary laws enacted by the French but, despite being a military man by nature, would not shed the blood of his own subjects and abdicated the throne in 1821 rather than suppress an uprising or break his word to the Austrians who he had made peace with. However, after the death of his brother, the Jacobites regarded him as “King Victor” of England, Scotland, Ireland and France and his abdication of the Piedmontese throne did not affect his status among the Jacobites as the legitimate British monarch. To them, he remained “King Victor” until his death in 1824 when his rights to the British throne passed to his daughter.

That daughter was Princess Maria Beatrice Vittoria Giuseppina di Savoia, born in 1792 when her father was still Duke of Aosta. When her father died the Jacobites recognized her as their legitimate Queen, referring to her as “Queen Mary III” or “Queen Mary II” depending on who one asked. In 1812 she married her uncle Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria, Duke of Modena, making her the Duchess of Modena. She had an eventful life thanks to the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Italy and far from aspiring to the idea of actually becoming “Queen Mary III (or II) it was only by Austrian military assistance that she and her husband were able to regain their place in the Duchy of Modena. She died in 1840 at the age of 47 in Castello del Catajo as the last Jacobite heir of the House of Savoy. Upon her death the Jacobite claim fell to her son, Duke Francesco V of Modena (House of Hapsburg-Lorraine) who the Jacobites recognized as “King Francis I”. So, after two kings and one queen of the House of Savoy the British throne would have been taken by the Hapsburgs, though a branch still, at that time, at least nominally Italian. He was eventually overthrown and Modena was later incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy, the Jacobite claim going to the Austria-Este line of the Hapsburgs after his death.

Interestingly enough, the daughter of the Duke of Modena married King Ludwig III of Bavaria and so, when she died, the Jacobite claim passed to her son Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and the heir to the Bavarian throne (today Duke Franz of Bavaria) is still technically the heir to the legitimist Jacobite legacy. Of course, that is what it is all about: legitimate bloodlines, but still, one cannot help but appreciate the irony of all those Jacobites in 1715 and 1745 fighting for the Stuart heir against a German (Hanoverian) monarch who came to London to reign over them now having their ideological successors of today at least theoretically proposing that another German come to London to replace the native-born monarch to reign over the British Isles. These are the strange twists and turns of royal genealogy and it is these same twists and turns that, had things worked out just a little differently, might have made the House of Savoy the British Royal Family and given England, Scotland and Ireland an Italian monarch.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Patriotic Pontiffs

Pope Alexander III
It is unfortunate that the whole issue of the "Roman Question" ever happened and was a dark cloud over the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy before Church and State finally reconciled in 1929 but it would be wrong for any proud, patriotic Italian to take a negative view of the Papacy because of this. It was the exception rather than the rule in the wider history of Italy and part of the reason why so many were shocked at the opposition of Pope Pius IX to Italian unity was exactly because it had been the Roman Pontiffs who taken the lead in that direction so often in the past. Here are a few examples (though by no means an exhaustive list) of notable Popes who were early leaders in encouraging Italian unity and independence.

One such example was Pope Alexander III, a native of Siena, who was faced by an invasion on the part of the famed German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. More than that, he also faced an attempt to usurp his spiritual authority as the Emperor appointed his own anti-pope and tried to have Alexander III deposed. Pope Alexander III rallied the city-states of northern Italy, behind the leadership of Papal Rome, to create a coalition of about fifteen cities known as the Lombard League to oppose the German invasion of Frederick Barbarossa. In 1176 at the Battle of Legnano the combined Italian forces of the Lombard League administered a crushing defeat on Emperor Frederick in one of the most famous victories in Italian history. It was also Alexander III who clearly defined the rules for the election of the Bishop of Rome. The Lombard League that he organized was not permanent but it did reform on more than one occasion, sometimes with somewhat different membership, as the states of northern Italy banded together to fight off foreign attacks, usually coming from Germany.

Pope Julius II approving plans for St Peter's Basilica
One of the most famous was the Sixteenth Century "Warrior Pope" Julius II, sometimes called 'Julius the Terrible' but they did not mean "terrible" in the sense that we use the word today but more like 'awesome'. During his reign he sought to solidify the Italian peninsula under papal leadership, recovering states the Church had lost previously, and to arrange alliance against the major powers that threatened Italy. Toward that end, throughout his reign he formed several variations of the Holy League with different countries joining and leaving the alliance over the years. His goal and his often-repeated slogan was to "drive out the barbarians" from Italy. He fought constantly to maintain not only Papal leadership in political terms but also to remove the French and the Germans from Italian soil in order to maintain the independence of the Church (he did not want to be reduced to being the German Emperor's chaplain). Many at the time looked at his building projects, his wars and thought that Julius II seemed more than willing to play the part of Julius Caesar as a great Roman champion.

Pope Clement VII
Not long after, in the War of the League of Cognac, the Medici Pope Clement VII did his best to rally the states of Italy behind his leadership, in alliance with King Francis I of France, to repel a German-Spanish invasion by Emperor Charles V. France, Milan, Venice and Rome were the primary allies but Italian patriotic fervor was also revived by the struggle. The people had become extremely tired of their lands being ruined and their sons and husbands being killed by the wars that feuding foreign powers brought to Italy and, for all too brief a moment, there was some hope that Clement VII might have started a truly historic national movement. Niccolo Machiavelli saw promise in the crisis and urged the Pope to call up a national militia of all Italians to replace the armies of professional mercenaries in the hope that this would further encourage Italian unity. The Pope, however, declined that suggestion, as he did not wish to appear bellicose as he wanted to avoid warfare with the Emperor if at possible (which it wasn't). When war did come, real unity proved difficult to maintain and the promised support from France never materialized. Still, Giovanni de' Medici ('of the Black Bands') carried on a brilliant struggle against the invaders and might have pulled off an Italian solo victory had he not been struck by a canon ball and killed.

The problem with these early efforts at unification was that the coalitions they were built around proved impossible to maintain. Invariably, local rulers would drop out to join the side of some foreign power that would promise them some special favor. This was part of the reason why it became clear that if real unity was ever to be achieved there could only be room for one government with one monarch. Still, even in the case of Pope Pius IX, there was still a considerable number of people who looked for the papacy to take the lead in the cause of Italian unity, Gioberti being perhaps the most prominent example. When Pius IX was elected to the See of Peter many thought he would be the ideal man for the job and, early on, the Pope gave every indication that this was the case. He had shown sympathy for the Italian nationalists and had spoken in public of the "Italian nation". The Austrian Empire was so nervous that he would be a leader in this area that they planned to use the imperial veto to prevent his election but their cardinal arrived too late. It was not to be however and Pius IX eventually turned against the unification movement. Still, with such a long history of papal support, it would be wrong to view the Church or the Papacy itself as being solidly opposed to the concept and, with the signing of the Lateran Treaty, the two finally came together. It should also be remembered that when the choice between the monarchy and a republic came up after World War II the Church under Pius XII (himself from a "Black Nobility" family) was firmly in support of the monarchy and the House of Savoy. Catholics and monarchists should march together toward the goal of restoration for a united, independent and Catholic Kingdom of Italy.