The County of Sicily was a Norman feudal state comprising the islands of Sicily and Malta from 1071 until 1345. The county began to form during the Christian reconquest of Sicily (1061–91) from the Muslim Emirate, established by conquest in 965. The county is thus a transitionary period in the history of Sicily. After the Muslims had been defeated and either forced out or incorporated into the Norman military, a further period of transition took place for the county and the Sicilians.
The County of Sicily was created by Robert Guiscard in 1071 for his younger brother Roger Bosso. Guiscard himself had received the title Duke of Sicily (dux Siciliae) in 1059 from Pope Nicholas II as encouragement to conquer it from the Muslims. In 1061 the first permanent Norman conquest (Messina) was made and in 1071, after the fall of Palermo, the capital of the emirate and future capital of the county, Guiscard invested Roger with the title of count and gave him full jurisdiction in the island save for half the city of Palermo, Messina, and the Val Demone, which he retained for himself. Roger was to hold the county which comprised conquests yet to be made under Guiscard. In February 1091 the conquest of Sicily was all but completed when Noto fell.
The conquest of Malta was begun later that year; it was completed in 1127 when the Arab administration of the island was expelled. Notably, the same year, the last Arab outpost on Sicily was annexed by the county.
Setting the Stage
By the year 1000, the Byzantines had absorbed all of the minor southern Italian states, consolidating their holdings in Italy and annexing the Principality of Capua, Principality of Salemo, Duchy of Almafi, and Principality of Benevento. The Arabs, meanwhile, still controlled Sicily and Malta, the 'soft underbelly of Europe'.
In 1045, many Normans were serving as mercenaries in southern Italy. However, the pope decided it was time to expel the stiff-necked Orthodox Byzantines from the Italian mainland and the infidel Arabs from Sicily. He tasked several Norman adventurers with doing so. The Duchy of Spoleto was the first to fall to a Norman expedition in 1048, and was donated to the Papal States. The Normans then launched a series of invasions against Sicily, dispatched by Robert I, Duke of Normandy.
By 1127, both Malta and Sicily had fallen, and the islands were merged into the County of Sicily. The Normans made several minor expeditions into Byzantine territory, but the Greeks were far too powerful to be sufficiently dislodged. Stiff resistance around Naples quickly drove the Norman forces back into Sicily. Robert Guiscard left Roger in an ambiguous relationship with the Byzantines, and this led to constant warfare over the next few decades.
In 1134, seeing the Byzantines recalling many of their border troops for conflicts in faraway Russia and Syria, the Normans launched an invasion from the tip of southern Italy, hoping to strike out towards Naples and crush the Greek garrison. However, their onslaught was repelled with such tenacious violence that the count was forces to withdraw his troops. A pitched battle near Croton doomed the ravaging Norman army, and destroyed the bulk of the county's forces.
The Normans continued to keep Byzantine Italy in mind, however. They harassed Greek ships in the Adriatic and continually launched probing expeditions into southern Italy. In 1160 they blockaded Naples itself. The Byzantines had had enough. In 1164, the last straw came when the Normans pushed upward into southern Italy again. By this time, the Byzantine emperors had made dealing with the Sicilian pest one of their top priorities. In 1167, the entire Norman fleet was destroyed off the coast of Sardinia. By 1168 they had been driven back to Sicily itself. The Byzantines then made a massive land and sea invasion into Sicily. A number of ferocious battles were fought along the coast, including the Battle of Alcantara River, in which nearly five hundred Norman knights were slaughtered by heavily armored Byzantine infantry wielding pole-arms.
After a siege lasting nearly two years, Palermo fell to the invaders. The count requested a peace, but instead the Byzantines rejected his offer outright. In 1171, the count himself was captured by Greek agents and beheaded. All of Sicily was then swiftly overrun by Byzantine forces. After the Greeks had crushed remaining resistance with brutal force, many Sicilians welcomed imperial rule as they had been taxed heavily under the count and had suffered under the strict Norman feudalism, which was managed only by the count and his associates.
The Norman County of Sicily continued to survive on Malta. It has since fallen into serious weakness and decay, although left alone by the Byzantine Empire on the Sicilian mainland. In 1345, the county was dissolved, and replaced with a fresher duchy of Malta, managed by the local Maltese aristocracy through a Norman puppet ruler.