Robert Guiscard & Sichelgaita
(c. 1015-1085) & (?-1090)
This warrior couple led their soldiers on some of the most daring raids and battles of the early Middle Ages. Born in Normandy, Robert (known as Guiscard which means “astute”) was the son of Tancred de Hauteville, a minor noble.
Guiscard came of age at a time when the Norman warriors (only three generations removed from their Viking ancestors) were the fiercest in Europe. While William the Conqueror led the Norman conquest of England (see no.26), Guiscard carried out invasions in Italy and the central Mediterranean.
Guiscard was first married to Alberada of Buonalbergo, but he had the marriage annulled so he could marry Sichelgaita, a Lombard princess, in 1058. Like the Normans, the Lombards were a war¬ rior people and Sichelgaita was foremost among them.She was a towering woman, imposing, mus¬ cular, and extremely courageous. She and Guiscard became true warrior partners.
Guiscard met Pope Nicholas II at Melfi, Italy, in 1059. Guiscard bowed to the pope’s authority and swore to protect papal interests. Pope Nicholas invested him with the lands of southern Italy and urged him to root out the Byzantines, who held important towns there.
Guiscard and Sichelgaita took 10 years to push their way down to the bottom of Italy; they expelled the last Byzantines from Bari in 1071. That was not the end of their ambi¬ tions, though. They also paved the way for a Norman invasion of Muslim Sicily, which would be carried out by Guiscard’s brother, Roger the Great.
Guiscard and Sichelgaita threatened the papal fiefdom of Benevento in 1074; in return, they were excommunicated by the pope. The couple regained favor when Pope Gregory VII decided he needed their assis¬ tance to fight against Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire.
Guiscard, Sichelgaita and Bohemund (Guiscard’s son by his first mar¬ riage) crossed the Adriatic Sea to attack the Byzantine posses¬ sions in western Greece. They captured the cities of Corfu and Durazzo. Sichelgaita played an important role in the lat¬ ter battle. Seeing some of the Normans fleeing, she galloped after them and shouted, “How far will you flee! Stand, and quit you like men!” Shamed by her words, the Normans turned, fought and won the battle.
Guiscard returned to Italy and rescued Pope Gregory from a siege conducted by the troops of Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard went back to Greece and was ready to expand his conquests when he succumbed to an epidemic at Cephalonia on July 17, 1085. Sichelgaita was with him at his death. The warrior princess played an important political role for the remaining five years of her life.