The History of Sicily

William II (1155-1189)

When William I died in 1166, his eleven-year-old son, William II (later known as “The Good) assumed the throne under the regency of his mother Margaret. He officially took power in 1171. Six years later, William married Joanna (1165-1199), the youngest daughter of Henry II of England (1138-1189), the king who gave the order to murder Thomas of Becket (1120?-1170).

Early in William’s reign, Walter of the Mill (1160-1191), an Englishman who was Bishop of Palermo, conspired with the local barons to challenge the King’s authority. As a counter-measure, William created a bishopric at Monreale, whose new prelate and clergy, whom William had transferred there from Palermo, would be loyal to the crown. The cathedral the King built on a mountaintop overlooking Sicily’s northeastern coastline is now a World Heritage Site, which boasts over an acre and a half of brilliant mosaics portraying numerous people and events from liturgical history. As a way to expiate her father’s murder of St. Thomas Becket, the Queen asked her husband to include a mosaic of the martyr, which is still easily spotted on one of the church’s walls. It is the earliest portrait of the saint.

As in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Cathedral at Cefalù, the Byzantine influence in the interior is clear. The cloister, on the other hand, has a Saracen motif with 104 Arabic arches sitting on slender columns, each of which displays a different mosaic pattern. Scenes from the Bible and Church history can be seen on the column capitals, the most famous of which depicts William handing a model of the Cathedral to the Blessed Mother, to whom the church is dedicated.

William II was not as gifted a diplomat as his grandfather, nor was he as able a soldier as his father. In 1184, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa of Swabia (1122-1190), proposed that his son Henry marry Constance (1159-1198), Roger II’s posthumous daughter and aunt to the King; she was one year younger than her nephew. This was a risky proposition, for if William died without an heir, the throne would go to Constance and her German husband. William’s court was dead set against the match, but the King agreed because he was counting on Barbarossa’s support in attacking Byzantium and making himself emperor. In 1180, in fact, a Sicilian fleet carrying 80,000 men and led by the King’s cousin, Tancred of Lecce (d.1194) sailed from Messina and successfully attacked Thessalonica, the second most important city in the Empire. When the fleet sailed to Constantinople, however, the Sicilians were repulsed, ending William’s dream of eastern conquest.

Two years later, when Saladin (1137-1193) retook Jerusalem from the Christians, the Papacy called for a Third Crusade. Led by the brilliant Sicilian general, Margaritus of Brindisi (1149-1187), a Christian army saved both Tripoli and Tyre from the Arab onslaught. In 1189, however, William II died at age 34 in Palermo before he could raise the kind of army he had hoped would re-conquer the Holy Land.


William II Delivering Monreale Cathedral to the Blessed Mother