Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Capture of Messina, Sicily 4 October 1190

by Char Newcomb

Richard Couer d' lion
“And storm and slash with fearsome shout,
And wound and smite and lay about.
They had seized Messina long before
A priest had said his matins o’er.” - Ambroise.

King Richard I of England, the Lionheart, had taken the Cross in 1188 and within weeks of his coronation in September 1189 began planning for the crusade to re-capture Jerusalem from Salah al-Dīn. Richard and King Philip of France set aside their quarrels to join forces. After a meeting in Vézelay in July 1190, the two kings’ armies marched overland to Lyon. From there, the kings parted ways - Richard to Marseille, Philip to Genoa. They agreed to assemble their armies in Messina, Sicily, to prepare for the voyage to the Holy Land.

Richard expected to rendevouz with his fleet in Marseille, but his ships had been waylaid in Portugal. Hundreds of crewmen sat in Portuguese gaols after running rampant through Lisbon. Not aware of their fate, Richard hired a number of busses (cargo ships) and twenty well-armed galleys. He finally set sail for Messina in mid-August. The fleet stopped at Genoa where Richard found Philip ailing and in want of five of his ships. Richard offered three. Philip turned up his nose at the offer. It was the first of many incidents that surfaced old hates and rivalries. Would the territorial wars and the question of Richard’s long betrothal to Philip’s sister Alais wend their ways into the temporary peace the men had agreed to at Vézelay?

From Genoa, Richard’s fleet skirted the coastline, dropping anchor at numerous ports including Portofino, Naples, and Salerno. Whilst in Salerno, Richard learned his ships detained in Portugal were nearing Messina, so he set out to rendezvous with them.

Messina was a busy seaport. Philip had arrived a week earlier without fanfare. But Richard’s fleet, now comprised of more than a hundred galleys, busses, and esneccas (descendents of the Viking longship), must have been an awe-inspiring sight when it entered the harbour. The chronicler of the Itinerarium describes the scene:

“…the people rushed out in crowds, wanting to see [the king]. Pouring on to the shore, they struggled to stand where they could see him coming in. …the sound of war trumpets echoed in their ears… Galleys…adorned and laden…with weapons, with countless standards… The prows of the galleys were each painted differently, with shields glittering in the sun hung on each bow. You would have seen the sea boil as the great number of rowing oars approached.”

Richard I and Joan greeting Philip Augustus
Was that auspicious entrance meant to inspire or to send a warning? Tancred, the king of Sicily, had been granted the crown by Pope Clement III when William II had died the previous November. It had been a political move, which left Tancred with rebellious barons who supported the rightful heir, Constance. She was married to a German, Henry VI. (The Pope had no desire to be surrounded by Germans to the north and south of Rome.) Tancred made matters worse - William’s widow was Joan, Richard’s younger sister. At William’s death, Tancred had placed Joan under house arrest. He had refused to give Joan the money and property due her as dowager queen. William had been a staunch supporter of Richard’s father. His will had stipulated galleys, monies, and provisions to Henry II for the purpose of the crusade. Tancred was not so keen to follow his predecessor’s wishes - after all, Henry was dead. He felt no obligation to provide support to Richard. He did, however, agree to release Joan.

Tensions remained high. The local populace - a diverse people of Norman, Lombard, Greek and Muslim descent - felt overburdened by the imposition of two armies. Inflation was rampant. Tempers as well as food, drink, and goods were stretched to the limit, and fights erupted.

For the townsfolk. . .
Did heap upon our pilgrims scorn
Fingers to eyes, they mocked at us,
Calling us dogs malodorous.
They did us foulness every day:
Sometimes our pilgrims they did slay,
And their corpses in the privies threw.

The locals weren’t entirely to blame. Richard’s men admired the Sicilian women, more to irritate their husbands than to seduce them according to Ambroise and other contemporary accounts. One of Richard’s men was nearly killed when a group attacked him for refusing to pay the price demanded for a loaf of bread. Richard sought calm and reason, which lasted a day. Matters escalated when Richard took over a monastery to house provisions from his ships. The locals feared they were staring a conqueror in the face.

Tancred von Lecce
By the third day of October, fights erupted anew “to such a pitch did the exasperation on both sides increase, that the citizens shut the gates of the city, and putting on their arms, mounted the walls.” Richard met with the kings, Philip and Tancred, and Messina’s governors to reach a peaceful solution, but when the home of one of his own barons was attacked, Richard had had enough and ordered his men to arms. Richard implored Philip to commit his own troops against the locals. Philip complained Richard’s army was to blame for the troubles and refused to lift a finger to help.

The locals “filled the ramparts of the city walls, throwing rocks, firing arrows and a rain of crossbow bolts, and attacking their besiegers in any way that they could.” Whilst his army attacked the main city gates, Richard led a small force of knights to a western postern he’d seen during an inspection of the city. It was not well guarded. The men climbed a steep hill and “boldly made a great charge through this gate and entered the city, broke down the city gates and let the rest of the army enter... The victors swept through it led by the king, who was first in every attack. He was first to enter the city; he was always at their head, giving his troops an example of courage and striking fear into the enemy.” The army plundered the town and burned the locals’ ships in the harbour until Richard called a halt to the pillaging. His banner was hoisted on the towers and city walls to the ire of the French king, prompting the author of the Itinerarium to claim “The king of France was so violently shaken by this that he conceived a lifelong hatred for the king of England,” which led to his later attacks on Normandy.

Philip argued the treaty signed by the two kings in Vézelay in July had stipulated all spoils of the crusade would be split in half. He insisted his own banner be erected over the city. Though Philip had not assisted in the taking of Messina, and despite his men’s accusations that the French helped the locals, Richard settled the disagreement by lowering his banner and placing the city under the Templar and Hospitaller knights. (The Itinerarium claims the banners of both kings flew over the city.) Richard and Philip met to iron out their differences. They enacted an agreement that included: the disposition of property of people who might die on the pilgrimage; rules for gambling by clerics, knights and nobles (common soldiers were forbidden to play); and provisions for the sale of certain foods, including fixing the price of bread at a penny per loaf.

Richard also sent terms of surrender to Tancred seeking compensation for the ills suffered by his troops and for Joan’s dower. His request contained a laundry list: a gilded chair for Joan, a gilded table twelve feet in length for his own use, a tent of silk large enough to seat 200, dishes, cups, corn, wine, and a hundred galleys - many items that had been promised by William II to Richard’s father. Messengers came and went between the kings, and again, the English claimed Philip was conspiring to convince Tancred to reject Richard’s demands.

Tancred recognized Richard’s superior military might, and realized he had few options if he wanted to keep his crown given the threats of a German invasion to secure the throne for Constance. Tancred needed to seek a peaceful solution rather than antagonize Richard. On the 6th day of October, two days after Messina’s capture, a peace was reached. Richard promised to defend Tancred’s territories “so long as we shall stay in your kingdom.” He offered Arthur, his nephew and heir (should he die without issue), in marriage to Tancred’s daughter. Tancred agreed to grant Joan 20,000 ounces of gold for her dower, and another 20,000 for his daughter’s dowry.

The agreement may well have inspired the peaceful co-existence that ensued until Richard sailed for the Holy Land the following April.


Image: "Richard coeur de lion" by Merry-Joseph Blondel - [1] (orginally: 1 avr 2004 à 20:42 . . Kelson (13505 octets) at fr.wikipedia). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Image: "Richard I and Joan greeting Philip Augustus" by Unknown - Histoire d'Outremer, British Library Yates Thompson MS 12, fol. 188v. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Image: "Tancred von Lecce." Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

De Hoveden, R. The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn, 1853. (Original work published 1201?)

Gillingham, J. Richard the Lionheart. New York: Times Books, 1978.

Ambroise. The crusade of Richard Lion-Heart. (Trans. by M.J. Hubert.) New York: Octagon, 1976.

Miller, D. Richard the Lionheart: the mighty crusader. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

Chronicle of the third crusade : A translation of the itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi. Nicholson, H., & Stubbs, W., trans. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997.


Charlene Newcomb is the author of Men of the Cross, book 1 of Battle Scars, a historical adventure set during the Third Crusade. It is a tale of war’s impact on a young knight serving Richard the Lionheart and of forbidden love. Book 2, For King and Country, will be published in spring 2015. For more information about Charlene, please visit her website,, find her on Facebook at CharleneNewcombAuthor, and on Twitter @charnewcomb.


  1. Wonderful post, Char. I enjoyed reading it!

  2. Fascinating post. Thank you! This proves while historical topics and writing is about the past, it cannot be said to be in the past . Human nature does not change that much. History is about now as much as then.

  3. So true, Anne! Thank you for reading/commenting.

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


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