The medieval kingdom of Sicily comprised not only the island of Sicily but also the south of mainland Italy. However, when Sicily and southern Italy were conquered by the Normans in the eleventh century, Sicily at first was a county. The first Count of Sicily to combine all of the Norman territories in southern Italy was Roger II. His first wife, therefore, the first Queen of Sicily, was Elvira of Castile.
Elvira of Castile was born around 1100 to Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon, and his fourth wife, Isabel. Her mother was probably the same person as Zaida of Seville, who had previously been Alfonso’s mistress. Zaida was the widow of a Muslim prince. After her first husband’s death, she sought refuge at Alfonso’s court and converted to Christianity, taking the name ‘Isabel”.
Alfonso died in 1109 and was succeeded by his daughter, Urraca, Elvira’s older half-sister. Elvira was eventually betrothed to Roger, the Count of Sicily. Both Castile and Sicily had some cultural similarities. One similarity is that they were both multicultural and multireligious societies. Both Castile and Sicily had a diverse population of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The marriage of Elvira and Roger began a connection between Spain and Sicily that would last for centuries to come.
Countess of Sicily
Elvira married Roger I, Count of Sicily, in 1117. Over the next decade, she would give birth to at least seven children:
- Roger, Duke of Apulia (1118-1148)
- Tancred, Prince of Bari (1119-1138)
- Alfonso, Prince of Capua (1120-1144)
- William I, King of Sicily (1121-1166).
- Adelisa (c.1127- after 1184) Married firstly to Jocelyn, Count of Loreto, secondly to Robert, Count of Loritello and Conversano
- Henry (1130-1145)
- At least one daughter who died in infancy
Not much information is available on Elvira’s activities. However, she seems to have spent most of her time raising her family. Elvira and her children spent most of their time in Palermo, Sicily’s capital.
Queen of Sicily
When Roger’s cousin William II of Apulia died childless in 1127, he acquired the Hauteville lands in mainland Southern Italy. Roger wanted to carve out a kingdom with these territories, but the papacy was not willing to let Roger have so much power at first. However, the antipope, Anacletus II, was willing to recognize Roger as a King. Roger and Elvira were crowned as King and Queen of Sicily on Christmas 1130 in Palermo Cathedral.
After being crowned Queen, Elvira’s day to day activities changed little. She seems to have never been powerful in her own right, and what she is usually credited the most with is bearing Roger’s children. Elvira and Roger seemed to have enjoyed a close relationship, but Roger was often away, dealing with rebellious subjects in mainland Southern Italy.
The King and Queen were both infected with an illness at the beginning of 1135. Roger survived, but Elvira died on 6 February 1135. Roger, along with the entire city of Palermo, mourned her death. Elvira was buried in a chapel that she had founded in the cathedral. Roger seems to have been so devastated by her death and he refused to leave the palace for months. This caused rumours to spread that Roger had died as well.
Having five sons, Roger saw no need to remarry. However, four of his sons would die young. When his oldest son, and heir apparent, Roger, died in 1148, leaving just an illegitimate son, Roger saw it was time to remarry. He married Sibylla of Burgundy in 1149. She died in childbirth the following year, leaving no surviving children. He next married Beatrice of Rethel in 1151, who bore a daughter, Constance, after Roger’s death. Roger died in 1154 and was succeeded by his only surviving son, William.
Even though not much is known about Elvira of Castile, she holds a special place in history, being the first Queen of Sicily.
Alio, Jacqueline; Queens of Sicily, 1061-1266
Salerno, Vincenzo; “Elvira of Castile – Sicily’s first Queen” on BestofSicily.com.