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Normans in Africa: the 12th-century attempt to forge a north-African Norman kingdom

Less than a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, his compatriots embarked on another ambitious military assault – on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Levi Roach tells the story of the Norman kingdom of north Africa

Roger II of Sicily, depicted in an Arabic-style image in the Palatine Chapel of the Norman Palace in Palermo
Published: July 12, 2022 at 6:46 am
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One day in the early 1070s, the Norman count Roger I of Sicily was hosting a meeting of his advisers when something they said irked him. “Roger lifted his thigh and made a great fart,” reported the Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Athīr, “saying: ‘By my faith, here is far better counsel than you have given’.”

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The Normans are best known for their conquests. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Roger’s flatulence signalled his contempt for advice that he should join a planned invasion – of Africa, the great continent across the Mediterranean to the south.

In the years preceding this incident, Roger’s influence along the seaboards of southern Europe and north Africa had been growing steadily. Indeed, the Normans represented a rising power on both sides of the Mediterranean and, by the second half of the 11th century, their neighbours were beginning to sit up and take notice.

It was in this context that messengers from Genoa and Pisa had arrived at Roger’s court, inviting him to join them in a military expedition against Mahdia, the capital of the Zirid rulers of north Africa (now on Tunisia’s east coast). The two Italian city-states were looking to muscle in on the lucrative trade between the western and eastern Mediterranean, much of which passed along the north African coast, and they rated their chances of success far higher with the Normans at their side.

The rocky shore of the Tunisian city of Mahdia
The rocky shore of the Tunisian city of Mahdia – conquered by the Normans in 1148. (Image by Dreamstime)

Roger’s advisers were keen to join the expedition but, as we know from Ibn al-Athīr, the count was sceptical. As Roger noted, if the expedition against Mahdia were to succeed, then the profits would go mostly to Pisa and Genoa. But if it failed, it was the Normans who would face the consequences. Roger had recently concluded a peace with Tamīm ibn al-Mu‘izz, the Zirid ruler. He did not want to risk this truce for a speculative venture.

So the count watched from the sidelines as the attack on Mahdia went ahead in 1074 – but the Normans would not sit on their hands for long. The following century, they did go on the offensive in north Africa and – thanks to their own skill and a divided enemy – established a kingdom there.

That Norman outpost in the heart of Muslim north Africa – the region then known as Ifrīqya – is among the least studied yet most fascinating episodes of their many conquests throughout the Middle Ages. It’s a tale far less famous than those of their campaigns across southern Italy and, of course, England. Yet it’s a story that richly deserves to be told.

Conquest and settlement

Norman mercenaries had been plying their trade in southern Italy since the early years of the 11th century. And, starting in the 1040s– two decades before that other celebrated Norman conqueror, William of Normandy, faced Harold II at the battle of Hastings – they began a systematic process of conquest and settlement. The first places to fall were the provinces of Calabria and Apulia (Puglia) on the mainland. But by the time of the Mahdia campaign in 1074, much of Sicily (including the capital, Palermo) was in Norman hands.

Once the Normans had secured southern Italy, they began looking farther afield. In the 1080s, Robert Guiscard – Roger’s elder brother (and nominal superior) – led a set of daring attacks on the Byzantine-ruled Balkans and Greece. And in 1091, Roger himself secured the strategically significant island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean. The island was soon lost, but that would prove a temporary setback.

In 1105, Roger’s son, successor and namesake, Roger II, became Count of Sicily. Under his stewardship, Norman power around the Mediterranean surged to new heights. He retook Malta in 1127 and, that same year, secured control of Calabria and Apulia, succeeding his relative Duke William II. Until that point, Roger had held Sicily under William’s oversight; now he ruled in his own right. Three years later, Roger declared himself king of Sicily.

The result of these changes was that political power and authority within the new Norman domains in Italy shifted decisively south-west from Apulia and Calabria to Sicily. Now the royal court lay just a short boat ride away from the north African coast. Roger was clearly looking to expand in that region. His position there had already been strengthened by the dependence of north Africa on grain supplies from Sicily, caused in part by the increasingly severe droughts suffered by the region. Roger had already locked horns with the Zirids in the early 1120s – and in 1135, internal divisions within Ifrīqya provided the ideal pretext for intervention. The local emir, al-Hassan, appealed for Roger’s help against the Hammadid rulers of Bougie (now Béjaïa, Algeria) to his west. Roger acceded to the request – but his fleet did more than just assist al-Hassan: it also seized the strategic island of Djerba, just off the coast south of Mahdia.

This was a statement of intent. At an assembly in Merseburg, north-eastern Germany, Byzantine and Venetian emissaries reported – with some exaggeration – that Roger had now “seized Africa, which is acknowledged to be the third part of the world”.

Coastal attacks

Over the next few years, divisions continued to dog the Zirids. In 1141/42, Roger leveraged these to secure the Zirids’ formal submission, and over the following months the Normans attacked coastal towns across the region. These actions ostensibly aimed to shore up al-Hassan’s regime, but Roger soon shifted from supporting his Zirid allies to replacing them. In 1143, Djidjelli (now Jijel, Algeria) on the north coast was sacked. The following year, Bresk in the west was taken, and the island of Kerkenna, off the coast south of Mahdia, was seized.

When Roger’s troops took Tripoli (now in Libya) in 1146, the foundations were laid for a new Norman kingdom. So far, his expeditions had been little more than acts of banditry. Now he began the transition from raiding to conquest. Roger’s men were careful to work with the local Islamic population. Though Muslims were forced to pay an additional tax, they were allowed to continue worshipping much as they had before. This took the sting out of Christian rule.


On the podcast | The Normans famously conquered England, but did you know they also had a short-lived kingdom in North Africa in the 12th century? Professor Levi Roach explains to David Musgrove how the Normans established a presence in southern Italy and Sicily and expanded south towards Africa:

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For the Zirids, the final blow landed in 1148, when a large Norman-Sicilian fleet appeared off Mahdia. Realising that the game was up, al-Hassan fled inland. Fearing Norman rule, many of the inhabitants followed suit but, when they heard of Roger’s even-handed treatment of the local population, most returned.

Momentum was now with Roger and his men, and they soon secured Sūsa (Sousse) and Sfax, strategic port cities lying north and south of Mahdia, respectively. Elsewhere, Tunis was reduced to tributary status and Gabès, south of Sfax, also acknowledged Roger’s lordship. Impressed by this progress, Pope Eugenius III consecrated a new “arch- bishop of Africa” (ie Ifrīqya) to oversee the region. The domains of the radical Almohads – who, in contrast with most Islamic powers, did not tolerate Christian minorities – had recently been expanding in north-western Africa. Roger’s realm promised to act as a welcome bulwark against them.

The Normans seemed unstoppable. Ibn al-Athīr, whose account conveys sentiments within Zirid circles, notes that Roger would have conquered “all of the lands of Ifrīqya” had he not been distracted by “many battles” with the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Roger’s men had been making quick work of the province, so the Second Crusade (1147–49) – during which Roger set his sights on the Byzantine empire, taking Corfu and plundering Greek cities – must have come as welcome relief to many in north Africa.

Roger’s own pride in these conquests is clear. He had coinage issued in north Africa and experimented with the title “king of Africa/Ifrīqya”, particularly in Arabic documents in his name. (In Roger’s trilingual realm, documents were issued in Latin, Greek and Arabic.)

Yet Roger’s new north African kingdom was dangerously exposed. To the west were the Almohads, who wouldn’t tolerate a Christian neighbour for long. To the east were the Fatimids, the nominal overlords of the Zirids. They had given their tacit approval to Roger’s establishment of a north African enclave but, as his domains grew, cracks started to appear in that relationship. The weak Zirids had been of little use to the Fatimids, but the rapidly expanding Normans presented an altogether different problem.

In spring 1153, a large coalition backed by Roger was defeated by the Almohads at Sétif, in what’s now Algeria. In response, Roger sent a fleet to take the port of Bône (now Annaba), 200 miles to the north-east, aiming to create a buffer zone. However, the long-term prospects for his African kingdom were starting to look bleak. His death in early 1154 sealed its fate.

A decisive threat

The ensuing years were marked by political instability. Roger’s son and heir, William I, rushed to secure his Sicilian and Italian dominions; only once that had been achieved could he turn to affairs in north Africa – but by then it was too late. During the mid- to late 1150s a set of revolts were launched against Norman control, as native rulers sought to re-establish independence, their cause strengthened by the continuing Almohad threat. In the end, it was this factor that proved decisive.

In 1159, a strong Almohad force moved against the coastal cities that had been the linchpins of Norman authority in the region. Tunis soon surrendered, followed by Tripoli, Sfax and Gafsa (in central Tunisia). The Normans offered greater resistance at Mahdia, where the garrison held out for more than six months, but that only delayed the inevitable. Soon, Roger’s kingdom of Africa had been swallowed up by the rapidly expanding Almohad caliphate.

Some at the Sicilian court felt that William had done too little, too late – and there may be an element of truth in this. The chronicle attributed to Hugo Falcandus reports that William was easily manipulated by his chief minister, Maio, who often contravened his commands. “Many think that this is why he [William] allowed Africa to be taken,” Hugo wrote. But with Almohad pressure mounting, it simply wasn’t worth the time, money and manpower necessary to maintain the precarious Norman toehold in north Africa. Roger’s original conquests of the 1140s had been opportunistic affairs, assisted by Zirid weakness and Fatimid acquiescence. There was little sense in maintaining them in the face of sustained resistance.

Still, the eclipse of Norman rule was not inevitable. Had Roger lived longer, or the Fatimids proven more amenable, there’s no way of knowing how much longer the Norman kingdom might have survived. Had it lasted, Norman influence would have taken an altogether different form.

Consider the fate of Sicily. Here, early Norman rulers – including Roger II – were keen to conciliate the local Muslim population. However, this was pragmatic toleration, not self-conscious multiculturalism. Chris- tians – where possible, Latin (ie Catholic) Christians – were still preferred for senior administrative roles. The result was a slow but steady population shift away from Islam (and also, to a degree, the Greek Orthodox rite). Christian Lombard settlers from the mainland were encouraged, as was conversion. By the 1160s, toleration started giving way to coercion, and such efforts were stepped up the following century, when massacres, forced conversion and expulsions became common.

In 1148, this potentially lay in store for the inhabitants of Ifrīqya. Thankfully for them, it was not to be. Roger II’s conquests in the southern Mediterranean constitute a remarkable chapter in medieval history, but also a fleeting one. The Norman kindgom of north Africa was gone – and soon forgotten.

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Levi Roach is associate professor of history at the University of Exeter. His new book, Empires of the Normans: Makers of Europe, Conquerors of Asia, is published by John Murray and is out now

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