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The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to a rebellion on the island of Sicily in 1282 against the rule of the French/Angevin king Charles I, who in 1266 and with Papal complicity, had taken control of the entire Kingdom of Sicily, which stretched from the southern suburbs of Rome, down the entire Italian boot and included the Island of Sicily. It was the beginning of the eponymous War of the Sicilian Vespers.


The rising had its origin in the struggle between the House of Hohenstaufen, who in the 13th century ruled Germany and most Northern Italy, versus the Papacy for control over Italymarker, especially the Church's private demesne known as the Papal Statesmarker, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was squeezed between Hohenstaufen lands in northern Italy and the Hohenstaufen Kingdom of Sicily in the south. The last Hohenstaufen crowned by the church, Frederick II, King of Sicily and the Holy Roman Emperor, died in December 1250 and in his will he bequeathed the Kingdom of Sicily to his infant son by Isabella of Brienne named Conrad, but known to all as Conradin. (See Runciman @ p. 26, et seq.)Upon receiving news of Fredrick's death in January 1251 Pope Innocent IV rejoiced, for now was finally the time for the church to forever separate the Hohenstaufen from the Kingdom of Sicily. (See Runciman, infra @ p.16, et seq.)

Completely ignoring Conradin's rights, in June 1264 Charles of Anjou and Pope Urban IV came to terms of a contract to sell the crown to Charles, brother to the King of France Louis IX for an annual tribute of 10,000 ounces of gold, inter alia, however Urban died while only an unsigned draft had stated the terms. (See Runciman, infra @ p. 69-81) In 1265 Charles renegotiated the terms with Pope Clement IV, who was being hard pressed in the Guelphmarker cities in northern Italy and Rome itself by Manfred of Sicily, a bastard of Fredrick's by Bianca Lancia, (Runciman @ p. 33). Manfred had fought his way to the throne during the interregnum, but had sent ambassadors to Germany announcing that he recognized Conradin as his king. (Runciman @ p. 34).

Clement's new contract reduced Charles' payment to 8,000 ounces of gold per annum to compensate him for the expenses he would incur in defeating Manfred. After the terms of the sale were signed, on June 21, 1265 Charles was solemnly invested with the Kingdom of Sicily by four cardinals especially selected by Clement thus becoming the ruler of the Kingdom, de jure. (Runciman @ p. 85) Thereafter, he engaged and eventually defeated Manfred at the battle of Benvenuto on 26 February 1266, thus obtaining the crown in fact.(See Runciman, infra @ p.91, et esq.) Thereafter, in 1268 Charles was challenged by and defeated Conradin at the battle of Tagliacozzo; he was the last Hohenstaufen male directly in the line of succession to the Sicilian throne. (See Runciman, infra at p. 96-115.) Both Charles and Clement had forgotten that there was another lawful heir in the line of succession, Constance of Aragon, Manfred's daughter who at the time of Conradin's death was married to the Infant Peter, the son of King James of Aragon, (Runciman @ p. 27) and she would eventually play a large part in Charles' future demise.

Charles regarded his Sicilian territories as a springboard for his Mediterraneanmarker ambitions, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, and the capture of Constantinoplemarker, then the richest city in the Western World.

There are two interpretations - not necessarily exclusive - of events. One stresses the weltpolitik of Michael Palaeologus and the Aragonesemarker king Peter III, Manfred's son-in-law, in fomenting the revolt through the intercession and guidance of the Chancellor of Aragon John of Procida. The other concentrates on the unpopularity of Charles' rule among native Sicilians, a view that gained popularity during the Risorgimento, when it was propounded by the patriot Michele Amari. Regarding the former, Michael VIII in his autobiography wrote: "Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth."

The uprising

The church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo.

The event takes its name from an insurrection which began at the start of Vespers, the sunset prayer marking the beginning of the Night Vigil, (see The Catholic Encyclopedia at [38069] and[38070]) on Easter Monday, March 30, 1282 at the Church of the Holy Spirit just outside Palermomarker. Because the city's borders have expanded over the centuries, the church's location is now within the city limits. Beginning on the night of the Vespers, thousands of Sicily's French inhabitants were massacred within six weeks. The events that started the uprising are not known for certain, but the various retellings have common elements.

According to Steven Runciman in his opus magnum The Sicilian Vespers, 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 best describes 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" ('Moranu li Franchiski' in the Sicilian language). 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 the Dominican and Franciscan 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." (Runciman, supra @ p. 115, et seq)

In the version according to Leonardo Bruni (1416), the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check for weapons, and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot, the French were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily. "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".

There is also a third version of the events that is quite close to Runciman's, varying only in the minor details. This story is part of the oral tradition on the Island up to the present time. However, as an oral tradition, it cannot be verified and is of little interest to Historians, but is of much interest to Sociologists. (See Tournatore, Matteo G. C., Arba Sicula {Sicilian Dawn}, a journal of Sicilian Folklore and Literature, Vol XXV, Numira 1 & 2 at p.47 et seq.)

Immediate Aftermath

After leaders were elected in Palermo, messengers were sent to spread word across the island for the rebels to strike now before the oppressor had time to organise resistance. It took a fortnight for the rebels to gain control over most of the island, and within six weeks it was all under rebel control, with the notable exception of Messina as it was well fortified, and its leading family, the Riso, remained faithful to Charles. But on 28 April it too had broken into open revolt(Runciman @ p. 218) and, most significantly, the islanders first act was to set fire to Charles' fleet lying in the harbor. (See Runciman @ p. 218) Charles' Vicar Herbert and his family were safely within the castle Mategriffon, but after some time for negotiations the rebels granted Herbert and his family safe conduct to leave the island upon a promise that they never return. After the restoration of order in the city, the townsmen announced themselves a Free Commune answerable only to the Pope. They elected leaders, one of whom was Bartolomeo of Neocastro who was prominent in the unfolding events and would later chronicle much of the the revolt in "Historia Sicula", a rich if sometimes contradictory source of information to historians. Again significantly, the leaders next act was to send word, via a Genoese merchant named Alafranco Cassano, to the Emperor Michael advising him that his nemises Charles had been badly hobbled.(Runciman @ p. 219) Only thereafter were ambassadors sent to Pope Martin IV pleading for each city on the island to be recognised as a Free Commune under the sole suzerainty of the Holy Church. The islanders were hoping for status such as enjoyed by Venice, Genoa, Pisa and other cities, free to form their own government, but morally answerable only to the Pope who would hold a vague and unstable suzerainty.(See Runciman, supra, at p. 216; citing Nicholas Specialis, Historia Sicula at p. 924, et seq.). However the French Pope was firmly in Charles' camp and he directed the Sicilians to recognize Charles as their rightful King.(See Runciman, supra at p.214, et seq.) However Martin underestimated the Sicilians' hatred of the French, especially Charles because he ruled their Kingdom from Naples rather than the traditional Palermo where he could have seen the suffering caused by his officials. Charles' island officials were far removed from his oversight; he did not see the avarice, the abusive behavior manifesting itself as rape, theft and murder, nor did not see the high taxes levied against the meagre possessions of the peasants, which kept them impoverished, but made no improvement in their lives.

The Search for a Savior

Frederick I, King of Germany, King of the Romans and Emperor of the West was known to the world as Barbarossa. He had been the most powerful member of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, he often quarrelled with the Pope and he often won these quarrels with a large army as his persuasive force. His son Henry VI was married to Constance of Sicily the daughter of Roger II King of Sicily and when the last Norman King, William the Good, died in 1189, she became the lawful heir to the Sicilian throne, but her husband Henry could do little to advance her claim at that time, as he was acting as Regent for his father in Germany while he was on Crusade. After Barbarossa died, Henry was crowned Emperor at Rome in 1191, and later was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo, in recognition of his wife's claim, on Christmas day 1194. Constance's claims to the Sicilian throne had been previously admitted by Parliament at the time of her engagement to Henry, so there was no doubt of the legality of Henry's claim, and the kingdom passed into Hohenstaufen hands. (See Runciman, at p. 10) Constance could not join in the coronation as Queen of Sicily as she was in labor, and the day after Henry's coronation she gave birth to Frederick II, later to be known as AntiChrist, whose death would give the church the chance to reassert control over the southern mainland of Italy without worry of Hohenstaufen power, and control over the island.(Runciman, supra at p.11)

After the rebels' unsuccessful pleas to the Pope were met with a refusal of status as Free Communes, the Islanders sent for King Peter III of Aragon whose wife Queen Constance of Aragon was Manfred's daughter, Henry VI's great-granddaughter; and the sole surviving heir of Frederick II who was not in captivity and was in a position to assert her rights. King Peter championed his wife's claim to the entirety of the Kingdom of Sicily. (See Runciman, supra @ p. 201)

Prior to the Vespers, Peter had constructed and outfitted a fleet for war and upon the Pope's inquiry of the need for such a great war fleet, Peter stated that it was to be used against the followers of Islam along the Northern coast of Africa as he had legitimate interests in trade there and he needed to protect them. So when Peter received a request for help from the Sicilians he was conveniently on the North Coast of Africa in Tunis just 200 miles across the sea from the Island. At first Peter feigned to be indifferent to the request of the Sicilians and to the plight of the Islanders, but after several days to allow a proper showing of insouciance made for the Pope's consumption, Peter took advantage of the revolt. He ordered his fleet reboarded by the army, sailed for Sicily, landed at Trapani on August 30, 1282 and disgorged his troops. While he marched towards Palermo, his fleet followed close by the coastal road. Peter's involvement changed the character of the uprising from a local revolt into a European War. (See Runciman, supra at p. 227, citing Bartholomew of Neocastro, Historia Sicula @ p. 24, et seq). Peter arrived at Palermo on September 2nd and initially he was received by the populace with indifference, it was merely one foreign King replacing another; they much preferred a Free Commune under a vague suzerainty of the Pope. However, after Pope Martin made plain his orders for the populace to accept Charles, Peter made a promise to the islanders that they would enjoy the ancient privileges they had had under the Norman King, William the Good. Thereafter, Peter was accepted as a satisfactory second choice and was crowned by acclamation of the people at the Cathedral in Palermo on September 4th, thus becoming also Peter I of Sicily. (See Runciman, supra, at p. 228).

With the Pope's blessing the counter-attack from Charles was not long in coming; his fleet from Naples arrived and blockaded the port of Messina and made several attempts to land troops on the island, but all were repulsed.

Prelude to a Kingdom: Guelf vs Ghibelline

Prior to the ascension of Charles, Pope Urban IV had followed the policy of his predecessors in seeking to deny the crown to the heirs of Barbarossa because of his rightful fear of Hohenstaufen power. The Hohenstaufen controlled Germany and traditionally, whoever held this crown was then lawfully selected by a council of electors as the "King of the Romans". For historical reasons, the person elected as "King of the Romans" was entitled to eventually be crowned by the Pope as the "Holy Roman Emperor" and charged with the responsibility of protecting the interests of the church, especially its tithes, in the lands stretching from Rome to the Northeast, through the Marches, Tuscany, Latium and towards Venice...this constituted the Papal States, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, although its borders varied depending upon the ability of each Pope to protect the land from encroachment. With the Hohenstaufen in control of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, and the entirety of the Kingdom of Sicily, they could and often did, ride roughshod over the church's temporal interests. The people who supported the Emperor in trying to reconstruct the ancient Imperial Roman Empire were known as Ghibellines, named after the Hohenstaufen castle of Weibling in Germany (Vid. Runciman, supra at p.19). Their weapon was temporal power and the vestige of respect that still attached to the title of Emperor. (Cfr. Runciman, supra at 19). They were at odds with the supporters of the Pope, known as Guelfs, named after the Welf-Saxon Dynasty who supported the Popes against the Hohenstaufen (Cfr. Runciman, supra at p.19) in its clashes with the Imperialists throughout the cities of Italy. (Runciman, supra at p. 19) The Guelfs longed for a Pope who would use moral persuasion, and the spiritual powers of Excommunication, Interdict, and Anathema to unite and preside over all the crowned heads in fulfill the goals of the Hildebrandine Theocracy. The idea of a Theocracy had been the dream of a monk named Hildebrand from Cluny France who eventually became Pope Gregory VII. (Cfr. Runciman, supra at p.22). Throughout Italy the Ghibellines and the Guelfs clashed for control over towns, cities and the countryside. It was a fight for the minds of populace, much akin to the clash now ongoing in the Islamic world. There was the dilemma as to whether the people should be governed by a moral but rigid religious law, or a secular law that had the flexibility to change with the times.

King Frederick II was the last crowned Hohenstaufen ruler of the Kingdom of Sicily and he had kept his court at Palermo, its traditional home. During his lifetime he had been known as AntiChrist by the popes because, although he had been well educated by tutors sent by the Pope, upon his majority he showed ingratitude by engaging in immoral and unchristian like behavior, thus when he died on December 13, 1250 Pope Innocent IV established a papal policy that dictated that the church must be protected from the Hohenstaufen vipers and be denied the crown of Sicily at all costs. Successive Popes followed this policy, Pope Alexander IV literally shopped around for a buyer of the crown of Sicily. There was much interest, but it was not until 1256 that King Henry of England agreed to buy the crown for his son Prince Edmund in exchange for 135,541 German marks. He raised secular and church taxes in England and paid the Pope 60,000 marks, but could raise no more. The people and clergy of England refused to be taxed any further to enable an English Prince to sit on the Sicilian throne. In addition to the payment to the church, Edmund would now have to fight Manfred, a bastard of King Frederick, who had literally fought his way to the throne during the interregnum. On December 18, 1258 Pope Alexander issued a Bull releasing Henry from his obligation to buy the throne, but he kept the 60,000 marks already paid.(Runciman at p. 60).

Alexander died in May of 1261. His successor to the throne of St. Peter was Urban IV, a Frenchman who had spent most of his years in the Holy Land in the Middle East and was unschooled in the politics of Europe. His instincts were to choose a Frenchman as King of Sicily and he offered it to King Louis of France, also known as St. Louis. However, Louis hesitated because he knew of the lawful right of inheritance of Conradin, the grandson of Barbarossa, however, the Pope refused to recognise Conradin's rights simply because he was a Hohenstaufen. The Pope in turn offered the crown to Louis' brother Charles, the Count of Anjou and Maine, who had inherited these appanages at twenty years old in 1247, and had become Count of Provence and Forcalquier by virtue of a very wealthy dowery and titles from his wife. (Runciman @ p. 72) There was much gossip that he accepted the Sicilian crown because his wife was a mere countess, while all of her sisters were Queens by virtue of better marriages and she longed to be their equal. But in the event, Charles had an even greater desire to be a King. He had proven his worth to the Pope by virtue of his conquest of rebellions that had erupted in Provence and northern Italy in Piedmont. (Runciman @ p. 75). The Pope believed that a man of such vigor could be counted upon to strike a blow for the church; he did not know that Charles would strike such a blow only so long as his desires and the church's interests did not diverge.(Runciman at p. 76)

In the ensuing war for control of the Sicilian Kingdom, Charles would win important battles at Benvenuto against Manfred, and at Tagliacozzo against Conradin. Not being satisfied in conquering all armies laid against him, he set out to make an example. Conradin had escaped the battlefield at Tagliacozzo, but had been apprehended shortly therafter and, contrary to the custom of the time, Charles placed him on trial for treason against his lawful king, using as a pretext his invasion of the Sicilian Kingdom. The hand-picked judges knew what verdict Charles expected them to find and ordered Conradin's death. To the horror of all European nobility, on 29 October 1268 the eighteen-year-old Conradin and his principle followers were beheaded in the public square in Naples. (Runciman, @ p. 115). Charles' Italian and Sicilian subjects were shocked and took note ... their new king would be merciless. Charles moved his capital to Naples from Palermo and to the people on the Island of Sicily, wittingly or not, he continued to show his merciless attitude by naming abusive Frenchman to rule there as Justicars, Tax Collectors and bureaucrats. After many years of high taxes, rape, theft and injustice, the Sicilian people rose as one on the Night of the Sicilian Vespers.

The Aftermath for Europe

Lost in the interpretation of the events on the island is its effect on world affairs. The Vespers were to the 13th Century what World War II was to the 20th Century. At the time of the Vespers in 1282, Charles was the most powerful crowned head in all Christendom ... King of all of Sicily, Jerusalem and Albania; Count of Anjou, Maine, Forcalquier, and of Provence. (see Runciman, supra at p. 201) And yet he was still looking for more. The wealth he collected from his lands he used to build a fleet with the intention of invading Constantinople, ruled by the Emperor of the East, Michael Palaeologus. The bulk of the fleet was built and lying in the harbor in Messina awaiting Charles' arrival with the rest of the fleet that had been built in Naples. The Pope was in communication with the Emperor Michael, and had told Charles that he was not to invade Constantinople as it was a Christian kingdom and the Pope hoped for a reconciliation between the Eastern Church and the Church of Rome - an aspiration that is still alive today. So Charles did what many ambitious and diplomatic men might do: he lied. He told the Pope that he had built the fleet in order to go on crusade against the infidel in the Holy Land. Like King Peter he had lied about the true uses of the fleet, hoping that after the event he could placate the Pope with a share of the spoils. After the first night of the rebellion leaders were elected and messengers were sent hurriedly to all towns and villages to join the rebellion before the French could counter-attack, and by 13 April most of the island was in rebel hands, except Messina which held out because its leading family, the Riso, there supported Charles, and it was heavily fortified. (Runciman, @ p. 217) But on 28 April Messina too joined the revolt and it is significant that the first act of the rebels was to burn Charles' fleet in Messina, thus dashing any attempt Charles may have had in investing Constantinople. Their second act was to send a Genoese, thus safely a neutral, messenger to the Emperor Michael with word that his enemy had been hobbled. Byzantium diplomacy was the best in the world at that time and the Emperor was very relieved to have received word of the destruction of Charles' fleet, for it was he who had paid for much of the conspiracy of the rebellion, and the construction of King Peter's fleet in Spain through the intercession of King Peter's Chancellor, John of Procida. (Runciman, @ p. 219) Years later, in his autobiography and with no need to boast, the Emperor wrote the famous line quoted above, that proclaimed himself as God's instrument in the rebellion. But as Runciman observes, with or without Byzantium gold, it was the proud people of Sicily alone who fought against their armed oppressor; and "However it may have been plotted and prepared, it was that one March evening of the Vespers at Palermo that brought down King Charles' empire" (Runciman, supra at p. 256)

Charles remained in control of the mainland Kingdom of Naples and continued to make numerous attempts to retake the island, but all were unsuccessful. Long before he died, Charles realised the serious consequences of the loss of his fleet at Messina and is reported by Runciman (@ p.220) to have said "Lord God, since it has pleased You to ruin my fortune, let me only go down in small steps." 1285 was a noteworthy year because all the principals died. On 7 January Charles died, on 28 March Pope Martin died, on 5 October Charles nephew Philip who was now the King of France died, and on 10 November King Peter of Aragon died. (Runciman @ p. 255-259). Still Charles' heirs attempted periodic invasions, but all for nought. Finally, on 31 August 1301, the Treaty of Caltabellotta was signed and the island formally given to Aragon, while Charles' heirs continued to reign on the mainland, until Peter's successors reunited the territories in 1442. (Runciman @ p.275)


  • Runciman, Steven The Sicilian Vespers, Cambridge University Press, 1958 ISBN 0-521-43774-1. All page numbers referenced in this article relate to the softback, or "Canto" edition, which is still in print and can be found at most major book-stores.

  • Runciman, Steven The History of the Crusades, Cambridge University Press.

  • Lu Rebellamentu di Sichilia, lu quale Hordinau e Fichi pari Misser Iohanni in Procita contra Re Carlu is still located in the Central Library in Palermo. Whether it is a contemporary narrative or not hinges on the interpretation of one word in the text. Runciman (@ p.329) describes these words as "putirini", the first person plural, vs "putirisi" the impersonal tense.

  • Besides these there are two Florentinemarker chronicles of importance. The Leggenda was once thought to be a source for the Nuova Cronica of Giovanni Villani, itself a source for the Vespers. Brunetto Latini, in his Tesoro, similarly adopts the Sicilian version of events, which includes the earliest version of the rape. The Tuscan Liber turns the rape story around, suggesting the Sicilian woman had pulled a knife on her French suitor when his friends came to aid him.

Sicilian Vespers (1846), by Francesco Hayez.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia, can be found at "". A description of all prayer 'Offices' is given therein...Vespers, Matins, Laudes...etc.

  • Jordan, L'Allemagne et l'Italie, at p. 219-221; and Robinson, (infra) pp. 255-266. These are the two best sources of the blasphemous and cunning character of Frederick II as king.

  • Bathgen, Die Regentschaft Papst Innocenz III im Konigreich Sizilien describes his Frederick's minority. See also, Van Cleve, Markward of Anweiler; and Luchaire, Innocent III, vol. III; and Rome et l'Italie, p. 153-204.
Jordan, (supra) at p. 272-274 discusses the origin of the Geulf and Ghibelline factions. See also, Hefele-Leclercq, Historie des Conciles vol VI, I, p.6-9.

  • Chalandon, Historie de la Domination Normande en Italia, vol. I, p 189-211, 327-354. These are excellent sources describing the Norman Conquest of Italy and Sicily by the Guiscard family. For their rule in Sicily, see vol. II, passim.

References in culture

Other uses of the term

  • In 1594, when the French King Henry IV was taking some tedious peace negotiations with the Spanish ambassador in France, bored with the unwillingness of the Spaniards to accept his terms, he stated that the King of Spain should behave with more humility, for if not, he could easily invade spanish territories in Italy, stating that "My armies could move so fast that I would have breakfast in Milan and dine in Rome." Whereupon the spanish ambassador replied "Now then, if that is so, Your Majesty would surely make it to Sicily in time for Vespers".
  • Having previously arranged the murder of mafia boss Joseph Masseria on 15 April 1931 in order to consolidate organized crime in New York City under Salvatore Maranzano, mafia boss Lucky Luciano then ordered the murders of Maranzano and those capos of Maranzano and Masseria whom Luciano saw as threats. These murders occurred on September 10, 1931 which marked the end of the Castellammarese War in New York Citymarker and in mafia parlance is known as the Night of the Sicilian Vespers.
  • Sicily-born brothers David and Francis Rifugiato named their short-lived band "The Sicilian Vespers" after this event. They released one album on Profile Records in 1988.


  • Steven Runciman (1958),The Sicilian Vespers, ISBN 0-521-43774-1.
  • Leonardo Bruni (1416), History of the Florentine People, Harvard, 2001, ISBN 0-674-00506-6. Regarded as the first history book to be called "modern", and the first modern historian, it also happens to cover the events of this period.
  • Michael VIII Palaeologus, De Vita sua Opusculum, (ed. J. Troitsky in Christianskoe Chtenie, vol. II). St Petersburg, 1885.
  • "Sicilian Vespers". In Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
  • John J. Robinson (1991), Dungeon, Fire, & Sword The Knights Templar in the Crusades ISBN 1-56731-645-X


  1. M. Palaeologus, De Vita sua Opusculum, 9, IX, p. 537-8
  2. allmusic ((( Sicilian Vespers > Overview )))
  3. CD Baby: THE SICILIAN VESPERS: The Sicilian Vespers
  4. The Catholic Encyclopedia can be found at

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