On this day, March 30, 1282 Sicilians decided that they had had enough and in a brutal uprising known as the War of the Vespers turned on their oppressors: the result was a conflict lasting 20 years and a balance of power shift that went on for 400 years.
French King Charles I invaded the Italian island of Sicily in 1266 and through conquest became the King of Sicily. As a result, the French imposed a rule of iron with high taxes and the Sicilian population were constantly insulted and treated harshly by French soldiers.
On Easter Monday in 1282, citizens of the capital city, Palermo, were flocking to vespers in the church of Santo Spirito (Church of the Holy Spirit), when, the story goes, a Sicilian woman was dragged from the crowd by a French soldier allegedly to be searched for weapons.
According to Italian scholar, historian and statesman Leonardo Bruni (1370 – 1444) the French used the pretext of searching for weapons to fondle the breasts of Sicilian women. This, he reported, began a riot.
The French were attacked, first with rocks, then weapons, and all were killed. The news spread to other towns leading to revolt throughout Sicily.
Bruni added: ”By the time the furious anger at their insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had given up to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches but their lives as well.”
A more detailed and slightly different account came from the respected 20th Century historian and author Steven Runciman.
He wrote that the Sicilians at the church were engaged in holiday festivities and a group of French officials came by to join in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband then attacked Drouet with a knife, killing him.
When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for vespers. Runciman described the mood of the night:
“To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were filled with angry armed men, crying ‘Death to the French.’
Every Frenchman they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands.
The rioters broke into convents and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word “ciciri”, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed the test was slain.
By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead and the rebels were in complete control of the city.”
In any case, King Charles was furious. War was declared and the Sicilians, not having an army of their own, eventually turned for help to the Spanish king known as Peter the Great, or more formally as Peter III, King of Aragon.
He agreed to take Sicily into his kingdom and launched a war against the French that lasted 20 years. And so started 400 years of Spanish domination in Sicily.