30 March 1282: Sicilians revolt against their French oppressors

A sunset prayer service turns into a mass riot, kicking off 20 years of war


As the people of Sicily celebrated Easter in 1282, the mood was tense. For more than a decade, the island had been ruled by the French magnate Charles of Anjou, whose heavy taxes and Gallic hangers-on were much resented by the locals. After years of growing unrest, passions were running high; all that was needed was a spark.

Giulio Piatti’s depiction of the Sicilian Vespers, an uprising that took its name from the evening prayer service at which it began in Palermo, Sicily. The bloodshed that night led to a much longer campaign to overthrow the island’s French rulers

It was on Easter Monday, just before the evening Vespers service at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Palermo, that the moment came. As crowds gathered outside the church for the annual festival, a group of swaggering, tipsy French officials, with a man called Drouet particularly prominent, made overtures to some young Sicilian women. In the ensuing melee, one outraged husband plunged his knife into Drouet – and all hell broke loose.

“To the sound of the bells,” wrote the great historian Steven Runciman, “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’… They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child.” Whenever they found a suspected Frenchmen, the mob demanded that he pronounce the local word ciciri, which outsiders invariably found difficult. Anyone who failed the test was killed.

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By the next morning, 2,000 people lay dead. The War of the Sicilian Vespers had begun; it would last for another 20 years. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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30 March 1912

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