Five Norman brothers, sons of Tancred of Hauteville, carved out a principality in the Byzantine Empire’s territory in Southern Italy in the eleventh century. Normans first arrived there as mercenaries, found rich pickings and started to take the country for themselves. In 1042 they chose the oldest of the Hauteville brothers, William ‘Iron Arm’, as their Count of Apulia with his base at Melfi, on the lower slopes of the Apennines.
He was succeeded in turn by two younger brothers, Drogo and Humphrey. Around 1047 a more fearsome figure still arrived on the scene, their half-brother Robert. Then in his early thirties, he was to earn himself the nickname Guiscard, meaning ‘the crafty’ or ‘the resourceful’ and his tombstone would call him ‘the terror of the world’. For the moment he lived by pillage and protection racketeering in Calabria.
Pope Leo IX, a vigorous reformer from Alsace and a close ally of the Emperor Henry III, set out against the Normans with an army in 1053, but was routed at Civitate by 3,000 Norman horsemen, led by Count Humphrey with brother Robert commanding the left wing. According to one story, they took unfair advantage by attacking when a parley was in progress. The pope was taken prisoner and kept in polite captivity for nine months. Humphrey then personally escorted him as far north as Capua, but the experience is thought to have contributed to Leo’s death a month later.
The battle was effectively the founding moment of the Norman empire in the south and the future kingdom of the Two Sicilies. When Humphrey died in 1057, Robert succeeded him, brushing aside his brother’s young sons. The papacy changed tactics and at Melfi in 1059 Pope Nicholas II invested Robert Guiscard as Duke of Apulia and Calabria and future lord of Sicily. Sicily was held by Arabs, the Hautevilles were zealous Christians and the pope wanted to encourage the recovery of the island from Islam.
Robert Guiscard and yet another brother, Roger, duly obliged, though it took thirty years to achieve. Meanwhile Robert completed the conquest of Southern Italy – the last Byzantine stronghold, Bari, fell in 1071 – and even began an abortive attack on the Byzantine Empire itself. The insatiable Robert planned to crown himself emperor in Constantinople, but he died on the island of Cephalonia in 1085.