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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE SICILIAN VESPERS

[122] PHILIP, St. Louis's eldest son, stayed at Tunis for about two months after his father's death. He then made peace with the Turks and set sail for France, taking with him the body of the dead king. From the beginning it was a sad voyage. How could it be otherwise when King Louis was dead?

Before the fleet had been long at sea, a great storm arose and destroyed a large number of the ships. Then Philip's wife, who had been thrown from a horse shortly before, fell ill and died. It was indeed a sad company of crusaders which at length in 1271 reached France.

Philip III. was named the Bold. It is said that he gained the name when he was a child. For one day, seeing his mother. Queen Margaret, shrink back at the sight of some fierce-looking Saracens, the little prince had drawn himself up, saying bravely, "I am not at all afraid." The king would scarcely have been called the Bold from his deeds after he became a man.

King Philip was neither wise nor strong. His uncle, Charles of Anjou, who was restless and ambitious, attracted more interest and attention than his quiet nephew.

While Charles was ruling over Naples and Sicily, and, proving himself more powerful than any prince in Italy, Philip was living quietly at home, ruled by his favourite, Peter de la Brosse.

Peter had once been the king's barber, but Philip had made him a noble. The more powerful he became, the more the nobles hated him.

[123] The favourite was always to be seen at the king's councils. The barons wished he were anywhere but there, for they knew that if Peter did not approve, their schemes would soon be set aside and forgotten.

The king, you remember, had lost his wife on the way home from Tunis. Four years later Philip had married again, and the new queen, Mary of Brabant, having great influence over the king, did all she could to lessen the power of the favourite, for she hated Peter as much as did the nobles.

Peter, on his side, had no love for the queen. When Philip's eldest son, the queen's step-son, took ill and died, the favourite dared to whisper to the king that Queen Mary had poisoned the prince, that her own child might in time wear the crown of France.

At first the king listened to Peter, but he was soon ashamed that he had done so, for he knew his wife could not do so cruel a deed.

The queen herself did not rest until the favourite was punished. She and the barons watched Peter closely, and at length accused him of treason. After that even the king could not save him. Peter was condemned as a traitor and hanged. The people were not pleased at the fate of the favourite, for he had been one of themselves; but the nobles, so an old chronicler says, "took pleasure in witnessing his execution."

Charles of Anjou, the king's uncle, was, as I told you, King of Naples and Sicily. He was harsh and proud, "neither smiling nor speaking much," and the gay Sicilian people, as well as those who dwelt in Naples, hated their French king and his followers. At length they determined, whenever an opportunity came, to turn Charles and the French out of their country.

Easter 1282 dawned, while the anger of the Sicilians was still smouldering. The trees were already green, the air warm, as the bells rang that Easter day in the town of Palermo for vespers or evening prayer.

[124] The Sicilians, clad in their holiday gowns, trooped to the service.

Among the crowd were French soldiers, whom Charles had commanded to keep order. But instead of doing their duty, the soldiers behaved so rudely to the people that the Sicilians bade them begone.

"These Sicilians must carry arms or they would not dare to speak so insolently," said the soldiers one to another, and they began to search the peasants. One beautiful maiden they handled so roughly that she fainted. Quick as thought her lover drew his dagger and stabbed the French soldier to the heart.

This was the opportunity for which the Sicilians were waiting. At once a cry arose, "Death, death to the French!" and in a transport of fury the Sicilians fell upon the soldiers, and not one escaped alive. Then the crowd, too maddened with rage to know what it was doing, stormed the houses in Palermo, and killed all who were not Italians.

Throughout the island the rebellion spread, and every Frenchman that was found was put to death. We still shudder as we read of the "Sicilian Vespers," for so the massacre was called, because it began as the vesper bells rang for evening prayer.

When Charles of Anjou, who had been in Naples, heard what had happened, his anger knew no bounds. With a large force he at once set out to punish the Sicilians.

They, knowing themselves defenceless against Charles, offered the crown of Sicily to Pedro, King of Aragon, and begged him to come to their help. Pedro's own kingdom of Aragon was in the north of Spain.

Pedro accepted the crown which the Sicilians offered him, and at once sent ambassadors to Charles bidding him withdraw his troops from Sicily.

In his rage Charles gnawed the top of his sceptre; nevertheless, he withdrew to Naples, vowing to return to take vengeance on his foes.

[125] Meanwhile, Pedro defeated the French fleet, and took Charles's son prisoner. Rage and sorrow together threw Charles of Anjou into a fever from which he never recovered He died in 1285.

When Philip the Bold heard that his uncle was dead, he determined to carry on the war with Pedro. He therefore attacked him in his own kingdom of Aragon.

But the town Philip besieged was hard to take, and while the king waited with his army beneath its walls, his fleet, with provisions for the army, was destroyed! His soldiers, too. were already suffering terribly from the heat, so Philip determined to go back to France.

With his army worn out by fever and want of food, it was no easy matter to recross the Pyrenees. As the soldiers struggled homewards, the king heard that the remnant of his fleet had been destroyed. Disappointed and ashamed, Philip fell sick and died before he reached France.


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