In 1166, on the death of King William I of Sicily, Margaret of Navarre was now regent for their twelve-year-old son, William II. Sicily was a rich and powerful kingdom, and this made her one of the most powerful women of her time. But she was surrounded by many ambitious men vying for power, so her regency was not to be easy.
Starting the Regency
Margaret was definitely not inexperienced when she became regent. She was already used to governing when her husband was absent from Sicily’s capital, Palermo. On her husband’s death, Margaret immediately started to rule the kingdom. When she became regent, she released many prisoners and ended the exiles of barons who had rebelled, restoring their lands. She granted lands to nobles and monastic orders. She also abolished some taxes.
The First Plot
Margaret was also surrounded by multiple men to help her in the regency. The leading figure in this group was the eunuch, Caid Peter. However, there were also some who desired power for themselves, such as Richard Palmer and Matthew of Aiello, who were not happy about having to answer to Peter. Peter was eventually convinced that Richard Palmer was plotting to kill him. Margaret was urged to remove Richard from power, but she refused to do it, even though she did not like him.
Margaret’s cousin, Gilbert of Gravina, made his way to Palermo in the hope of displacing Peter as the head of Margaret’s inner circle. When Gilbert arrived, he spoke to Margaret, defending Richard and spoke against the court eunuchs and told her that some changes had to be made at court. Margaret offered Gilbert to join her circle, but he would still be underneath Peter, something that did not please Gilbert. Enraged, Gilbert stormed out of the palace and thought about ways to displace Peter.
At Peter’s suggestion, Margaret allied with Richard of Mandra, a mercenary leader and made him Count of Molise. Margaret presided over Richard’s investiture, where the nobility could see her use of royal power. Gilbert and his followers were not happy about Richard’s new position, so they conspired to kill Peter. Seeing that his life was endangered, Peter fled to Africa, where he renounced Christianity and returned to Islam and now went by his original name, Ahmed.
In order to settle things, Margaret called some barons, including Gilbert and Richard of Molise, to the palace. Soon, an argument about Peter broke out between Gilbert and Richard. It even got to the point that the two men pulled out their swords against each other. Some knights intervened before anyone could get hurt.
Arrival of Margaret’s kinsmen
Margaret decided to remove Gilbert from her court. She sent him back to Apulia, where she made him governor. Richard of Molise was promoted by Margaret into the position formerly held by Caid Peter. Soon Margaret invited her brother, Rodrigo, and her cousin, Stephen of Perche, to court. At Margaret’s encouragement, Rodrigo changed his name to Henry, which was more pronounceable to the Norman French-speaking court. Margaret made her brother Count of Montescaglioso, which was a prosperous county. She also arranged for Henry to marry an illegitimate half-sister of her late husband.
When Margaret’s cousin Stephen of Perche arrived, she welcomed him warmly and made a speech praising him in front of her court. It was clear that she was happy to have him there. At first, Stephen showed no desire to remain in Sicily for long. Stephen and his company actually planned on travelling to the Holy Land, and Sicily would just be a stop along the way. However, Margaret encouraged him to stay, and eventually, Stephen and most of the men in his company decided to remain in Sicily. Margaret then appointed Stephen as her Grand Chancellor. This meant that he would have authority over the rest of the court.
Stephen quickly became one of the most powerful men at court. In 1167, Stephen was appointed as Archbishop of Palermo. By this time, it was apparent that Margaret favoured Stephen, and soon rumours started that Stephen was actually Margaret’s lover.
Margaret’s brother Henry believed he needed a higher position at court. Soon Henry came back to Sicily from the mainland with the intention of intimidating Margaret and Stephen into his demands. Henry eventually heard the rumours about Margaret and Stephen’s liaison and joined the plotters against them. In January 1168, Henry, encouraged by others, plotted to assassinate Stephen so that Henry could seize power. It was not long before Margaret found out about the plot.
Margaret had her brother arrested and put on trial. Henry’s knights were ordered to surrender their weapons and leave Sicily. Henry was imprisoned at Reggio in Calabria. However, he was not the only one in Margaret’s court who plotted against Stephen.
Soon, three of Margaret’s most trusted advisors, Matthew of Aiello, chamberlain Caid Richard, and Bishop Gentile of Agrigento, conspired to kill Stephen on Palm Sunday 1168, while he was leaving Palermo Cathedral with the royal family. The plot did not last for long, and eventually, several of the knights involved in the plot were arrested and confessed the details. Matthew was soon arrested and imprisoned. Stephen also wanted to arrest Caid Richard, but Margaret forbade it from happening. However, Caid Richard was confined to the palace and forbidden from communicating with his knights.
Bishop Gentile was the only one of the plotters who remained free. He proclaimed that Matthew of Aiello was imprisoned illegally and that Stephen planned to usurp royal power by marrying Margaret. The Queen soon ordered Gentile to report to the court, where he was arrested.
Eventually, rumours spread that Stephen had married Margaret, and the young King William was in danger or even dead. There were also rumours that Stephen had been crowned King, and his brother, Geoffrey, was coming to Sicily to marry William’s young aunt, Constance and to rule in her name. An uprising broke out, and a crowd freed Margaret’s brother Henry from prison. Henry soon seized control of the city of Messina and led its citizens in an uprising. Henry soon released Richard of Molise, another imprisoned court member. Together, they planned another plot against Stephen.
Soon a revolt rose up against Stephen in Palermo. Margaret and William witnessed the fighting in the streets. Margaret wanted her and William to leave the palace and speak to the rebels, but she was warned about the dangers, and she remembered how an earlier revolt claimed another of her sons’ life.
It soon became apparent that Stephen needed to leave Sicily if he wanted to live. He would be safely escorted out of the kingdom. It was decided that Stephen would go to Jerusalem, where he initially planned on travelling. In the summer of 1168, Margaret and Stephen bid each other a sad farewell, and Stephen renounced his position as Archbishop of Palermo and sailed for Jerusalem.1