Margaret of Navarre – Medieval Sicily’s most powerful Queen (Part one)

margaret of navarre
(public domain)

For several years, Margaret of Navarre, Queen of Sicily, was the most powerful woman in the Mediterranean. Then, widowed in 1166, with a 12-year-old son as the new King, she became regent. But the notable events in her life did not start there. During her time as queen consort, it was clear that she was an influential woman.

Early life

Margaret was born around 1135, to King Garcia Ramirez IV of Navarre, and Marguerite de l’Aigle.  Her father became King of Navarre just a year prior to her birth. She had a sister, Blanche, who married Sancho III, King of Castile, and two brothers, Sancho VI, King of Navarre, and Rodrigo, also known as Henry. Margaret’s mother was accused of adultery in 1139, and Garcia refused to acknowledge Rodrigo, who was born that year, as his own son. The disgraced Queen Marguerite died just two years later.

Duchess of Apulia

In 1148, ambassadors from Sicily arrived in Navarre to negotiate a marriage between Margaret and William, the son and heir of Roger II, the King of Sicily. Margaret’s father agreed to this marriage. In the late spring of 1149, Margaret left for her new life in Sicily. Margaret and her entourage travelled through Aragon and Catalonia and the southern French coast. Around Nice, she boarded a ship that took her to Sicily. In the summer of 1149, Margaret arrived in Palermo, Sicily, where she met and married William, Duke of Apulia.

At the time, it was common for kings to crown their eldest sons as junior or co-kings to ensure a smooth succession. In April 1151, William was crowned junior King.  Margaret was thus now a queen consort. For some time, she was the only queen consort in Sicily until the twice-widowed Roger II married Beatrice of Rethel later that year.

During these early years, Margaret proved to be a fertile wife. She gave birth to three sons in quick succession; Roger in 1152, Robert in 1153, and William in 1154.

Queen Consort

Roger II died in February 1154. William and Margaret were crowned as King and Queen of Sicily in Palermo on Easter of that year. Their eldest son, Roger, was made Duke of Apulia, the title for the heir apparent of Sicily. At his succession, William appointed Maio of Bari as his chancellor.

Unfortunately, William would not prove as strong a king as his father, and his reign was filled with many rebellions and conspiracies. The first conflict of his reign was an attempted invasion of Sicily by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, aided by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel and encouraged by the pope, Adrian IV. The planned invasion of the Holy Roman Emperor came to nothing, but the Byzantine Emperor was still launching attacks on Sicily. In addition, rebellions were also breaking out. Finally, in the spring of 1156, William was able to quash the rebellions and disprove those who had underestimated him. Margaret seems to have been a loyal wife to William during this time.

In 1158, Margaret gave birth to a fourth son, Henry. The second son, Robert, was named Prince of Capua, a title used for the second sons of the kings of Sicily. Having borne four sons, Margaret now seemed to be a respected queen consort. While William and his chancellor Maio were absent from Palermo for long periods of time, the people of the city looked to Margaret for leadership. In 1159, Margaret welcomed her cousin, Gilbert of Perche, to Sicily, and he was soon created as Count of Gravina.

Tragedy struck in late 1159, when Margaret’s second son, the six-year-old Robert, died of an illness. Around this time, another plot against the King was growing. The main target in this plot was the chancellor, Maio. This plot was led by the powerful baron, Matthew Bonello.  In November 1160, Bonello assassinated Maio.  The King and queen were quickly informed about what had happened and were obviously angry about it.

A coup against the King

Margaret grew more and more suspicious about Bonello. He soon was invited to court less frequently. Bonello believed that the King was trying to marginalize him and that Margaret had supported this. Bonello soon began to conspire with other nobles against the King. Among them were two illegitimate members of William’s family, the House of Hauteville. They were Simon, William’s half-brother, and Tancred, Count of Lecce, an illegitimate nephew of the King.  Margaret’s cousin, Gilbert of Perche, also joined the plot.

In March 1161, Bonello and his co-conspirators set out on their plan to attack the royal palace in Palermo. They were even aided by the palace’s castellan, who controlled the entrances. In addition, Simon, who had grown up in the palace, was familiar with its layout.

On the morning of 9 March, Margaret, William, and their children were at mass in the palace’s chapel. The conspirators saw this as the perfect time to enter the palace. First, they reached the dungeon and freed all of the prisoners. After mass, Margaret and the children headed to the royal apartments for the day’s lessons, and William headed to his chamber with a couple of his advisors. While heading down the corridor, William was crossed by an armed group of men, which included Simon and Tancred, whom he previously denied entrance to the palace. With them were the noblemen who had just been freed from the dungeon. Outnumbered, William and his advisors tried to flee but were caught by the rebels. They then demanded that William abdicate.

The rebels placed William under guard in one of the rooms and proceeded to loot the palace. They found Margaret, the children, and some servants in a room together and made sure that they would not escape. The rebels then proceeded to attack the city of Palermo, killing shopkeepers and tax collectors and burning records, such as tax rolls.

Bonello, Simon, and Tancred wanted to replace William with a king they could control. They reached the room where Margaret and her children were taking shelter and demanded that she hand over her eldest son, nine-year-old Roger. Having no choice, Margaret gave in to this request. The rebel leaders proceeded to dress Roger in royal robes and led him around Palermo, proclaiming him as the new King. They did the same with Roger the next day. This failed to satisfy everyone, and many believed that William should remain King.

Two days after the coup started, a large group of local men stormed the palace and threatened to besiege it unless the rebels freed William. The conspirators eventually gave in, and William promised them safe conduct if freed. However, sometime during the commotion, a stray arrow hit Prince Roger, who was standing near a window. He died soon afterwards. The crisis soon ended, but Margaret was devastated that she had lost a second child. Another theory of Roger’s death says that William, enraged at Roger’s role in the coup, repeatedly kicked him until he died. This story, however, seems to be made up by William’s enemies.

Bonello still wanted to overthrow the King and marched towards Palermo. He was eventually arrested, blinded, and thrown into a dungeon, where he died later that same year. William exiled Tancred and Simon while Margaret’s cousin Gilbert was pardoned for his role in the revolt at her own urging.

William’s Later Reign

After the revolt, Margaret was one of the few people whom William could trust. After it, he more frequently turned to her for counsel. In early 1162, William travelled through Sicily and onto the mainland portion of the kingdom to put down some disturbances. Margaret stayed behind and governed Palermo until his return that summer. One of Margaret’s primary advisors was an Arab eunuch named Martin, who converted to Catholicism.

In March 1166, William came down with dysentery. Fearing that he was dying, he set out his plans for succession. His eldest surviving son and namesake was named as his heir. Since the boy was only twelve years old, he put together a group to rule until he came of age. This included his trusted counsellors, Richard Palmer and Matthew of Aiello. As for Margaret, she was named as “keeper of the entire realm”, which meant she was regent. King William I of Sicily died on 7 May 1166. His twelve-year-old son, William II, succeeded to the throne, with Margaret as his regent.1

Read part two here.

  1. Sources:

    Alio, Jacqueline; Queens of Sicily, 1061-1266

About CaraBeth 57 Articles
I love reading and writing about the royals of medieval Europe- especially the women. My interest was first started by the Plantagenet dynasty, but I decided to dive deeper, and discovered that there were many more fascinating royal dynasties in medieval Europe. Other dynasties I like reading and writing about are; the Capets, and their Angevin branch in Naples and Hungary, the Luxembourgs, the early Hapsburgs, the Arpads, the Piasts, the Premyslids and many more!

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