Joan of England, Queen of Sicily

Sicily is an island steeped in history. The English have always had a love affair with Sicily and the island boasts a lot of British history but did you know that there was once an English Queen of Sicily?

At school in England we were taught medieval history and in particular about the Norman conquests in England and Europe, also the Crusades and Holy wars. So when I first started visiting Sicily I already had a good knowledge of Norman rule and culture. History was my favourite subject and I passed my exam with flying colours.

In 1066AD the Normans were busy invading England but what is not so well known is that they were also doing the same thing in sunny Sicily.

The Norman conquest of Sicily was accomplished through a long and bloody warfare and the reign of Roger de Hauteville was a long succession of battles. By 1079 he had conquered the whole island and by his death in 1101 he was awarded with the title the Great Count of Sicily. After his death his son succeeded the throne as the first king of Sicily, King Roger II.

The Norman Kingdom only lasted for 100 years but it left its mark on the island and the monuments that remain are among some of the most beautiful in the world. At the end of their reign the Normans left the island endowed with splendid buildings and an exotic culture. Across Sicily you will find many buildings that are of Arabic Norman construction.

Under Norman rule they lived harmoniously alongside the Greeks and Arabs, Lombards, Jews and Englishmen creating a cosmopolitan culture unlike any other in Medieval Europe and the era has been described as one of the happiest and most glorious chapters of the islands history.

King Roger II had many children during his lifetime including King William I, known as William the Bad, who succeeded the throne of Sicily after Roger's death. After the death of William I his son William II took on the role of King of Sicily sometime during the Summer of 1171, he was known as William the Good.

William was only 12 years old at the death of his father and he was placed under regency of his mother Queen Margaret of Navarre. It soon became apparent once crowned King of Sicily that he should be married in order to keep a royal line.

There was no shortage of prospective brides.

At some time during 1168, King Henry II of England suggested his third and youngest daughter, Joan. Joan was the little sister of the future Richard the Lionheart.

Joanna Plantagent, known as Joan, was born in 1165 in Anjou in France. She was the seventh child of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. By the time of Joan's birth her parents tumultuous relationship was breaking down. Eleanor would eventually join a rebellion against her husband, after which she was imprisoned for sixteen years.

Joan's youth was spent growing up at her mothers courts at Winchester in England and Poitiers in France where she was taught several languages including English, Norman French and Latin. To all Sicilians of Norman/Anglo origin an alliance between England and Sicily seemed very attractive even though she was still a baby.

Pope Alexander raised no objection against the marriage and then in December of 1170 the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral after they overheard an angry outburst by King Henry II whose long standing feud with Thomas Beckett had resulted in a desire to get rid of him.

Thomas Becket had previously been exiled to France and had at one point found refuge at Williams I's court in Sicily but had returned to England after a reconciliation with Henry.

A black time now hung over the monarchy in England and King Henry was forbidden to enter any church until the Pope saw fit to absolve him. All of Europe was shocked by the murder of the popular archbishop and then suddenly little Joan seemed a less desirable bride.

The wedding was off.

Three months later a Byzantine emperors daughter was offered as a potential wife, however, whilst William waited for his new bride to arrive in Sicily the emperor had a change of mind and again another wedding was off.

But William still needed a wife .....

Whilst the murder of Thomas Becket caused much shock and dismay it had no lasting effect on Anglo/Papal relations and after a public penance and various promises for the future, King Henry II received his absolution and was reconciled with Pope Alexander.

King William of Sicily was one of the first rulers to re establish connections with England however the marriage proposal of Joan was never resurrected, therefore Pope Alexander intervened.

In 1176 King William dispatched ambassadors to England to ask King Henry II for Joan's hand in marriage, however there was one stipulation, that there would be no formal commitment until he received some assurance as to the physical attractions of his bride.

Ambassadors were sent to Winchester where Joan was living with her mother and it was reported back to Sicily that Joan was very pleasing to them. The betrothal was confirmed and the wedding was back on and so Joan set sail for her new life in Sicily, she was just ten years old.

King Henry was adamant that his daughter should travel in a state appropriate way according to her rank and the occasion. Seven ships were ordered to be made ready to cross the English channel to France. The King of England held a special court before the entourage left and showered the Sicilian ambassadors with sumptuous presents.

Joan was escorted by the Bishop of Oxford and her fathers half-brother the Earl of Surrey. She was then escorted by her brother Henry at Poitiers who then passed her over to her brother Richard Plantagent, where she was taken to Saint Giles a French port on the Mediterranean Sea. There she was met by the bishop of Syracuse and other representatives from the Kingdom of Sicily with twenty five ships waiting in the harbour.

Her entourage must have been a sight to see.

It was the second week in November and a winter storm was not working in the royal entourages favour at sea so the decision was made to sail along the coast as close to the shore as possible. After six weeks the fleet was no further than Naples and poor little Joan was suffering severely with sea sickness so it was decided that they stop in Naples so that she could regain her strength and her beauty after being quite green in the face. Thereafter the journey carried on overland.

Joan finally reached Palermo in February 1177 where William was waiting for his new bride with much jubilation. Eleven days later they were married on Valentines Day where Joan knelt in the Cathedral of Palermo in a stunning bejewelled gown before her fellow countryman Walter of the Mill, who was now the Archbishop of Palermo. Joan's gown cost £114 a large sum in medieval times. She was then anointed and crowned Queen of Sicily. By this time she was eleven years old and her husband twenty three.

History tells us that their marriage was a happy one and she was taken into the hearts of the Sicilians and Sicily continued to prosper and be happy. The couple had one child in 1181 however sadly he did not survive infancy.

Queen Joan was described as beautiful and spirited but unfortunately she did not provide William with an heir however due to his love and dedication to her he did not seek another wife. Traditionally a royal husband in such a situation may have annulled the marriage for a chance to marry another woman to bear him a son. Instead he named his Aunt Constance daughter of King Roger II as his heir.

When William II sadly died in 1189 Joan became a pawn in the race for his succession. Constance was the rightful heir but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and the Normans feared being overtaken by his empire. Williams bastard cousin Tancred of Lecce took the initiative and claimed the throne of Sicily and desperate for money, imprisoned poor Joan stealing her dowry, treasures and land left to her by her beloved husband.

Finally Joan's brother Richard I, now King of England, arrived in Italy in 1190 on the way to the Holy Land. He demanded her return along with every penny of her dowry. When Tancred balked at these demands, Richard decided to spend the winter in Sicily attacking the city of Messina. Finally Tancred agreed to Richard's terms and returned Joan's dowry and released her from prison.  In March 1191 her mother Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived in Messina with Richard's bride, Berengaria of Navarre. Eleanor returned to England leaving Berengaria in Joan's care.

Joan was Richard's favourite sister but he was not above using her as a bargain in his political schemes. He offered her as a bride twice but both schemes failed and eventually she married Raymond VI of Toulouse in October 1196. She was the mother of his successor Raymond VII born in 1197 and had a daughter also named Joan. It was an unhappy marriage and whilst pregnant and fleeing to her brother's domains she learned of Richard's death. She died overcome by grief.

Joan had asked to be admitted to Fontevrault Abbey in France which was an unusual request for a married pregnant woman but her request was granted. She died in childbirth and was veiled a nun on her deathbed. Her son, born by caesarean section after Joan had died lived just long enough to be baptised receiving the name Richard.

Joan was just thirty three years old and had only been the Queen of Sicily for thirteen years.


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Palermo is the capital city of Sicily.

The splendid Norman kingdom in Palermo was marked by an exotic mix of cultures as manifested in their administration and in the architecture they commissioned. Their monuments are grouped around a fortified site in the heart of the city. The last and most spectacular of the Norman monuments to be built is the Cathedral of Monreale which is one of the wonders of the medieval world. It was built during William II's reign and it is where he is buried.

Palermo is a wonderful city to visit,
you can discover what to see and what to do in my post
"My Top 35 Palermo Travel Tips"

Cover Photo: 
Cathedral of Palermo

Photo credits: Wikipedia
William II dedicating the Cathedral of Monreale to the Virgin Mary
Arrival of Joan in Palermo
Queen Joan of Sicily


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