Normans in Sicily
Updated: Jan 28
It has been a long time since my last visit to the Cloisters in NY. It is an oasis of medieval history, strangely out of place on the northern end of Manhattan. The money of John D. Rockefeller, architecture of Charles Collens, and the medieval artifacts of sculptor, collector George Bernard create a unique place. There is a romance of childhood stories of knights and kings and a contemplative setting of nature and a reconstructed monastery. Tapestries on the walls include this one of King Arthur from a series of Nine Heroes.
My coin today is a small AE follaro which is interesting also for its juxtaposition of languages and cultures. It is a coin of a Norman King, from northwestern France, in Sicily with both Latin and Arabic legends. It even has a connection to Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur.
"By the time that the Normans began to arrive, the Muslims had controlled Sicily for nearly two centuries. Sicily was, in fact, a thoroughly Muslim island, with a spoken language much like the Semitic tongue of Malta."
The Normans were Viking settlers in 911, allowed by the French king to settle in exchange for protection from other invaders. The words "Norman" and "Normandy" both deriving from "Northmen". The English and Normans were joined by marriage when Æthelred the Unready married Emma of Normandy. When I was in Normandy in 2019, along with the beaches, war memorials and war museums, I visited the Bayeaux Museum which displays a long tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror).
Another conquering Norman nobleman, Roger I, headed to Italy and formed the Kingdom of Sicily from Apulia, Sicily and Malta. His great, great, grandson was Tancred - king of Sicily which takes us to my unassuming coin for today:
Tancred, King of Sicily, reigned 1189-1194, Æ Follaro
Obv: +ROGERIVS:; in center, REX; dots above and below
Rev: Arabic (Kufic) legend on two lines - المالك تنقرير (al-malik Tanqrir; the King, Tancred)
Tancred has quite a story, that starts as the bastard son of Roger the III with mistress Emma of Lecce, and from there I'll only offer a brief glimpse. Short, ugly and mocked by his critics as the "Monkey King", a small but fierce soldier he was called "Tancredulus". He battles for the throne in Sicily, is exiled to Constantinople, sails a fleet to Alexandria, Egypt, only to retreat quickly, and via coup becomes king of Sicily, a reign of 5 years that included battles with Richard the I of England and Philip the II of France which led to a treaty at Messina and a gift of friendship in AD 1191 of the sword Excalibur (purported to be King Arthur's) from Richard I (The Lionheart). The sword was apparently discovered with the tomb of Arthur and Guenevier in 1191 in Glastonbury Abbey (or perhaps this was just a publicity stunt to raise money to rebuild the Abbey which had suffered a serious fire in 1884). Despite the battles, Richard and Tancred seem to have become fast friends.
"On the other hand the king of England gave Tancred that best of swords which the Britons call Caliburne (or Excalibur, as it is called in the "Idylls of the King"), formerly the sword of Arthur, once the noble king of England. Moreover king Tancred gave the king of England four great ships that they call ursers and fifteen galleys; and when the king of England was departing he brought him on his way as far as Taormina, two stages from Catania."
To conclude Tancred's story: more battles with his Aunt Constance and her husband Emperor Henry the VI for the throne, more battles in Apulia, and ultimately his death in Palermo in 1194 at the age of 56. The fate of King Arthur's sword, unknown (at least to me).