“In his Custody and Protection”: The Imprisonment and Marriage of Maria, Queen of Sicily

Miniature of Maria of Sicily, Privileges Bestowed by the King on the city Palermo, Fifteenth Century, Biblioteca Comunale di Palermo (Palermo, Italy).

In 1379, Ramon Guglielmo Moncada approached the residence of the sixteen-year-old queen of Sicily, Maria, with the intention of kidnapping her and taking her to Barcelona. Maria – as a young ruler and the head of the Sicilian cadet branch of the House of Barcelona –  represented the future of her kingdom as it was caught between the expansionist desires of the Crown of Aragon, the neighboring Angevin Kingdom of Naples to the north, and the desires of the Sicilian aristocracy to become an independent kingdom free of Aragonese influence. Maria’s position made her marriage and potential to produce an heir important for her grandfather, Peter IV of Aragon, since he wished to marry her to his son and heir, John “the Hunter,” and unite the crowns of Aragon and Sicily through their marriage and John’s eventual accession. The capture of Maria in 1379 began a new phase in her life since her imprisonment lasted over a decade.[i]

Prior to moving her to Barcelona, Maria was imprisoned in two cities: Licata in Sicily and Cagliari in Aragonese-controlled Sardinia. In both places, Maria remained under the control of King Peter and his various prison guards as her autonomy and personal freedoms were taken from her. The letters between King Peter and Maria’s captors discuss her supposed willingness to “consent” to her imprisonment and the degree to which King Peter was focused on keeping her away from influences outside of the castle walls. One of these letters reads:

“He [Peter IV] orders his niece, the queen of Sicily [Maria], to be in his [Giovanni de Montbui, governor of Cagliari] custody and protection at night and at day in the Castel of Cagliari, without anyone being able to take her away from the said Castel.”[ii]

While Maria’s consent here is pretended due to her imprisonment, Peter emphasizes the importance of keeping her under the supervision and “protection” of royal officials in Sardinia. Over time, Maria’s hopes of marrying Prince John were thwarted. Without his father’s approval, John married Violante of Bar in the mid-1380s and ruined the arrangement between himself and Maria. Now that Maria remained imprisoned and without a potential match, plans were quickly made for her to marry Peter’s grandson, Marti, the son and heir to Peter’s second son, Martin. With this new plan in place, Maria was moved from Cagliari to the Monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona in 1388, where she remained until her marriage to Marti in 1390.

Miniature of Marti of Sicily, Privileges Bestowed by the King on the city Palermo, Fifteenth Century, Biblioteca Comunale di Palermo (Palermo, Italy).

Upon the marriage of Marti and Maria, the new couple set their sights on Sicily and its monarchy since during her imprisonment, the island kingdom was ruled by four regents known as the “Four Vicars” – Artale Alagona, Manfredi III Chiaramonte, Guglielmo di Peralta and Francesco Ventimiglia. Taking control back from the Four Vicars was more challenging than the Aragonese anticipated due to Marti’s position as Maria’s co-ruler, since, in the minds of the Sicilian aristocracy, Marti represented the further encroachment of the Crown of Aragon in the affairs of the Sicilian government. By this point in the 1390s, Sicily has been controlled by an Aragonese cadet branch since 1302 following the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302). The continued influence of Aragon began to weigh on the Sicilian aristocracy as many noblemen wished to win the kingdom’s political independence. Ultimately, Maria and Marti were successful in retaking their throne in 1392 and begin a period of co-rulership in Palermo.

This rocky start to their co-reign characterized the next decade of Maria’s life until her 1401 death. Considering the point of Maria’s abduction was to ensure that she could marry an Aragonese prince and give birth to an heir for Sicily and, eventually, for Aragon, the pressure to reproduce bore greatly on the new royal couple.[iii] By November 1398, Maria did give birth to a son named Peter – the namesake of his great-grandfather, Peter IV of Aragon – whose destiny it was to inherit both the Sicilian and Aragonese crowns and merge Italian interests with Iberian ones in the Mediterranean.

This happy news lasted only for a short while since Peter’s life was cut short due to an accident at a jousting tournament in November 1400. Young Peter was hit in the head with a spear and died in his mother’s arms, thus ending his hopes of fulfilling the expansionist plans of Peter IV. This tragic accident sent Maria into a depression and illness that she would never recover from, as, on 25 May 1401, Maria died and left her throne and the future of her kingdom on Marti’s shoulders.

Map of the Crown of Aragon in 1385 during the period of Maria’s captivity in Sardinia.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maria of Sicily’s story of abduction and violence highlights a growing issue for women in the medieval world since Maria’s imprisonment was far from the first incident of this happening to a reigning or consort queen. From the early Middle Ages to the early modern period, other royal women such as Isabella of Jerusalem (1190-1205), Isabeau of Bavaria (1385-1422), Blanca of Navarre (1409-1415), and others, were either forced into marriages or abducted to force a favorable alliance or to allow a male noble figure to gain access to power. This problem of abduction, imprisonment, and coercive marriage for royal women emphasizes the degree to which royal figures like Maria were pivotal for the function of expanding kingdoms, such as Aragon, and that they were made vulnerable due to the importance of their position, marriageability, and reproductive potential. Maria – as both a young heiress and queen of a strategically important kingdom – was one on whose shoulders the fate of Mediterranean kingdoms, rivalries, and authority weighed on until 1401, when that responsibility shifted to her husband and his new wife, Blanca of Navarre (c. 1387-1441), another woman whose reign was disrupted by abduction.[iv]

By Jessica L. Minieri, Binghamton University, USA.

Jessica is a PhD candidate at Binghamton University in the Department of History. Her project focuses on the abductions, imprisonment, and forced marriages of royal women in the Crown of Aragon from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Jessica’s work focuses on this problem of abduction and its implications for female succession, political culture, and political theology in the high and later Middle Ages. You can follow her on Twitter at @jessica_minieri and visit her website, www.jessicalminieri.com.

[i] It is worth noting here that there is little published on Maria of Sicily in the English language. Due partially to her imprisonment and short reign following, she has not captured the attention of scholars writing outside of the Italian, Spanish, and Catalan contexts. The art historian Kristen Streahle discusses her and the politics of fourteenth-century Sicily in her 2017 dissertation titled, “Crafting Nobility in Trecento Sicily: The Painted Ceiling of the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.” Her important work sheds light on Maria, the Chiaramonte family, and political culture in the late medieval period in Sicilian and Italian history. For more on Maria of Sicily and the political culture of late medieval Sicily see: Kristen Streahle, “Crafting Nobility in Trecento Sicily: The Painted Ceiling of the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri” (PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2017); Maria Rita Lo Forte Scirpo, C’era una volta una regina: Due donne per un regno: Maria d’Aragona e Bianca di Navarra (Napoli: Liguori Editore, 2003); Clifford R. Backman, The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily : Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Stephan R. Epstein, An Island for Itself : Economic Development and Social Change in Late Medieval Sicily (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[ii] Luisa D’Arienzo, Carte reali diplomatiche di Pietro IV il Cerimonioso, Re D’Aragona, riguardanti l’Italia (Padova: CEDAM, 1970), 398.

[iii] By this point in 1398, the son of Peter IV, King John “the Hunter” died and passed his throne to his brother and Marti’s father, Martin. Following Martin’s accession, Marti was now both the king of Sicily and the heir to his father’s throne in Barcelona.

[iv] The history of captivity, hostageship, and abduction is a growing field in medieval and early modern historiography. For more on this history beyond Sicily see: Caroline Dunn, Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Angeliki E. Laiou, Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1993); Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning Medieval Women: The Non-Judicial Confinement and Abduction of Women in England c. 1170-1509 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); Adam J. Kosto, Hostages in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Matthew Bennett and Katherine Weikert (eds), Medieval Hostageship, c. 700-c. 1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker (New York: Routledge, 2017).

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