Margaret’s Later Regency
Margaret’s power did not outlast Stephen’s departure for very long. Soon afterwards, ten men of her court, including Henry, Bishop Gentile, Matthew of Aiello, and Caid Richard formed a regency council. One of the council’s first acts was to expel Margaret’s cousin, Gilbert, from the kingdom, despite her opposition. During this time, Margaret exchanged letters with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. She also welcomed his nephews to her court.
In February 1169, a catastrophic earthquake hit eastern Sicily, causing much damage and death. Margaret and her sons traveled to Catania, close to where the epicenter was. There, William gave his first public speech to his subjects. The exiled Stephen of Perche died in Jerusalem that summer. Even though her power was now limited, Margaret appears to have remained in charge of the royal court, and peace and stability was restored to Sicily.
By 1170, Margaret was negotiating with the English king, Henry II, for the marriage of William to Henry’s daughter, Joanna. However, the murder of Thomas Becket in December 1170 temporarily stopped these plans, since Margaret supported Becket. Instead, Margaret looked back at an earlier proposal, the marriage of William with Maria, the daughter of Byzantium Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. In 1171, William, at seventeen was considered old enough to began his personal rule. Therefore, Margaret’s regency ended in 1171.
Overall, Margaret was considered to be a successful regent. Her regency was not easy, but the revolts she faced were rebellions started by power-seeking aristocrats rather than popular revolts motivated by injustice. Margaret was successfully able to stop these revolts and kept her son on his throne.
William’s Marriage Arrangements
In May 1172, William and his younger brother Henry left for Taranto, in southern Italy, to meet William’s chosen bride, the Byzantine princess Maria. It was the first time William and Henry were away from Margaret for more than a day or two. Maria was expected to arrive in Taranto with a large entourage. William waited for about ten days, but no one came. Leaving some of his nobles and prelates in Taranto, William went on to make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Saint Michael on Mount Gargano, and then he spent a few days in the city of Barletta.
There was still no arrival of William’s bride. It soon became clear that Maria was not going to arrive. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel had broken of the betrothal without letting William or his mother know. This angered William and Margaret.
Eventually, William and Henry began to head back to Sicily. On the way, twelve-year-old Henry fell ill. William sent Henry to Salerno, where there were good physicians. Henry soon returned to Palermo, Sicily, but only got sicker on the way. Unfortunately Henry died in June 1172. Margaret and William did not take his death well. Out of the four children Margaret had, only William remained.
Henry’s death left William without an obvious heir. The closest legitimate heir was his young, unmarried aunt, Constance. Since the Byzantine proposal fell through, it was now very important to find William a bride. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, offered William the hand of his daughter, Beatrice. This match was considered for some time, but ultimately, Margaret and William decided on the English proposal. The canonization of Thomas Becket in 1173 seems to have revived Margaret’s interests in ties with England.
After her regency ended, Margaret spent much of her time sponsoring and building monasteries and churches. One of her biggest projects was assisting William in founding a Benedictine abbey at Monreale. Margaret also seems to have continued being one of her son’s best advisors.
In 1176, the betrothal between William and Joanna of England was confirmed. They were married in Palermo early the next year. Around this time, a small gold reliquary pendant was gifted to Margaret. The pendant contained some relics of Thomas Becket. On the front of the pendant is the only known image of Margaret, although it may be just a symbolic depiction. The image shows the queen being blessed by a bishop. The pendant came from England, and there is debate on whether the bishop depicted is Beckett or Reginald, Bishop of Bath, who gifted her the pendant.
In 1183, William visited the mainland part of his domains, and Margaret and Joanna were left in charge of Palermo during his absence. Unfortunately, we do not know anything about the relationship between Margaret and Joanna. Margaret died that summer, on the night of 31 July-1 August. She was buried in Monreale Cathedral.
Even though Margaret is not well-known today, she was one of the most powerful women of her time. She was also the most powerful queen consort and regent in Medieval Sicily. During her regency, she faced much opposition, yet she managed to keep her son in his position as king.1