King Roger of Sicily

A Play with Music in Two Acts

The Actors/Singers (in order of appearance)

King Roger II
The King’s Chamberlain
Muhammad Al-Idrisi
Chorus
Roger as a boy prince
Roger’s brother Simon, also a boy prince
Countess Adelaide, Roger’s mother
Princess (later Queen) Elvira, Roger’s wife
Archbishop of Palermo
Bernard of Clairvaux
Cardinal of Santa Sabina
Prince Robert of Capua
Young Duke Roger, the King’s son
Emir of Emirs George of Antioch
Emir of Emirs Philip of Mahdia
Chief Judge

Non-speaking/non-singing Parts

Retainers, Prelates, Nobles, two other Judges

Act One

Scene 1: Roger Meets Al-Idrisi

King Roger II’s Private Apartments, Royal Palace, Palermo. Autumn 1139

(Roger is discovered, leaning over a desk on which are maps and books. He picks up two or three, studies them, shakes his head as if dissatisfied, puts them down again. He leaves the desk and paces back and forth across the room.)

(Enter the King’s Chamberlain.)

Chamberlain

Your Majesty, the man Idrisi is outside. He awaits your pleasure.

Roger

Bring him in to me.

Chamberlain (bowing)

Your Majesty.

(Exit Chamberlain, and returns with Muhammad Al-Idrisi, who hurries forward and prostrates himself at Roger’s feet.)

Roger (to Chamberlain)

You may leave us.

(Chamberlain bows and exit.)

(To Al-Idrisi) Stand up, Master Idrisi. You are welcome to Palermo. We have heard of your distinction from our people in Cordoba. They tell me that your knowledge of the world surpasses that of any other scholar they have met.

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty, your servants are too generous. I am but a poor clerk who has read some books.

Roger

Many books, they say, in many languages. Where were you born?

Al-Idrisi

In Ceuta, Your Majesty, far to the west, where Africa and Spain are nearly touching.

Roger

And they say that you have travelled throughout the world.

Al-Idrisi

Throughout the world: no, Your Majesty. But it is true that I have seen something of foreign lands.

Roger

And which are they?

Al-Idrisi

I have known the seacoasts of North Africa. I have ventured to the edge of the Ocean of Darkness, skirted Iberia northward, and seen the mighty mountains which divide the Spanish kingdoms from the plains of Aquitaine. I have admired the beauty of the vineyards of that region, although — Your Majesty will understand — I have not tasted their juice. I have travelled on, around the rocky coastline of Armorica, in gathering cold, as far as England.

Roger

England? My kinsmen rule there now. And is it true that the native people go about in skins, and eat their meat raw?

Al-Idrisi

It is not, Your Majesty.

(Aria)

England is a considerable island,
whose shape is that of the head of an ostrich,
and where there are flourishing towns,
high mountains, great rivers and plains.
The country is most fertile;
its inhabitants are brave, active and enterprising.
But it is true that the climate is inhospitable.
It seemed to me that England is in the grip of perpetual winter.

As for the natives’ manner of eating meat: they prefer to burn it black than to eat it raw.

Roger

I see. Thank you for this surprising information. Have you also travelled in the East?

Al-Idrisi

When I was young, I toured the cities of Anatolia. It was there that I acquired some knowledge of the Greek language. Returning through Constantinople, I travelled north as far as the Kingdom of Hungary.

Roger

And after all these wanderings, East and West, you settled in Cordoba.

Al-Idrisi

Indeed, Your Majesty. For many years I studied in that great city, guided by the wisest and most learned scholars. Geography and medicine I loved; to these branches of science I have applied myself most closely.

Roger

So why have you come here?

Al-Idrisi

My teachers told me that here in Palermo there is greater wealth of knowledge even than in Cordoba; that Palermo’s libraries are veritable treasure houses, unsurpassed in all the world. And I had heard that Sicily is governed by a Christian king, yet one who loves our people and the knowledge we have given to the world: your great self, Your Majesty.

Roger

An elegant speech, Master Idrisi. I receive such compliments too often. How should I distinguish your remarks from the usual flattery?

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty knows that you may test me as you choose.

Roger

Good. I have a work in mind which will try your much admired powers to their limit. Come over here. (He leads Al-Idrisi to the desk.) You say you have applied yourself to geography. Look at these books and maps. They are honourable but inadequate. They leave great empty spaces in our understanding. Some of the information they contain is surely false. I wish to know more fully the world I partly govern. Fill in those spaces, Master Idrisi. Correct the errors. Look into every work in every library. Set down the findings of your own travels. Enquire. In short, compile for me a true geography of all the earth.

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty, this is an onerous commission. I fear my small capacities will buckle under its weight, and that I shall endure your just displeasure.

Roger

False modesty in my subjects is as tedious to me as are false compliments. Chamberlain, ho!

(Enter Chamberlain.)

(To Chamberlain) Provide this man with ships, according to his requirements. He will need secretaries, skilled in languages. Write me an act requiring every master mariner dropping anchor in our ports, upon request, truthfully to recount his recent travels, telling of the countries he has visited, the peoples he has seen. Have it copied several times. Bring me the copies to sign and then give them to Master Idrisi. Find him a house not far from here. I shall want to see him often. And summon the treasurer. I shall settle on my new geographer a salary which will enable him to apply his undistracted energies to his task. I would not wish (he looks at Al-Idrisi) his small capacities to buckle under its weight.

Chamberlain

Your Majesty.

(Chamberlain bows and exit.)

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty, I hardly know…

Roger

Deeds, man, not words. Come and see me when you have something to show. They will let you in.

(Roger leads Al-Idrisi off upstage, talking to him as they go.)

(Fade to black. Musical interlude.)

Scene 2: Our Narrator Introduces Himself

Al-Idrisi’s Library in the Castle of his Estate, a Day’s Journey from Palermo. Autumn 1164

(Al-Idrisi is both narrator and actor in this work. In his role as narrator, he is to be found at the side of the stage [lit when he is speaking, unlit when not], seated in his armchair or at his desk, or standing by the desk, surrounded by his library. The other actors, and Al-Idrisi in his role as actor, occupy the centre of the stage.)

(Al-Idrisi is discovered asleep in an armchair beside his desk. He stirs and wakes.)

Al-Idrisi

Honoured gentlemen and ladies, forgive me. I was dreaming. I am old now; every day my life becomes more dream-like and my dreams more life-like. My name is Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Abdallah Ibn Idris al-Ali bi-amr Allah al-Idrisi; but you may call me Muhammad if you wish. I bless and thank Allah that He has given me long life in troubled times.

I came to Palermo in the year of the hegira five hundred and thirty three: 25 years ago. With what a sense of awe and dread I received that summons to wait on King Roger! With what trepidation I set to work on the great task he had assigned to me! And then, what gathering joy as the work progressed and as this mighty monarch became — I hardly dare say it even now — my friend.

Scene 3: The Work is Started

King Roger II’s Private Apartments, Royal Palace, Palermo. January 1140

(Al-Idrisi moves back centre stage. He is holding some papers. Roger has appeared from upstage and awaits him. In stooping to kiss Roger’s hand, Al-Idrisi drops his papers. The two men pick them up together, and put them on the desk.)

Roger

Well, Master Idrisi, what have you done?

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty’s orders have been carried out. I have discovered the city’s libraries; their reputation is deserved. My staff are able and diligent. We have men at the ports here in Palermo, and at Messina, Catania and Syracuse. And I have made a start on the book: an outline only. (He smooths out one of the papers, and points to it.) I shall, if Your Majesty pleases, divide the world into seven climates, south to north, each with ten sections, west to east.

Roger (studies the paper)

A good beginning. Now, I have been considering. As well as the book and the maps, I should like something more solid, more enduring, as a record of your discoveries. I have commanded the silversmiths to create a disc in their metal, of great size. As your research progresses, they will engrave your findings on the disc, at your instruction.

Al-Idrisi

So precious an object... I pray that the knowledge it displays may be worthy of its value.

Roger

That is for you to ensure. How is your accommodation?

Al-Idrisi

Everything a man could wish for, Your Majesty.

Roger

And how do you find Palermo?

Al-Idrisi

A place of magical beauty, of inexhaustible ingenuity, of ever-astonishing diversity.

Roger

It is nearly seventy years since my father and uncle made themselves masters of this place. They were warriors at heart. They came from humble origins in Normandy, ascending to the heights of power by force of arms. I inherited their achievement. I hoped to govern without bloodshed.

(Aria)

For four and thirty years, as Count and King
I’ve had but one fixed purpose for this land:
To bring it just and stable governance.
Too long its people have endured the whims
Of local tyrants, blood-stained, ignorant,
Raised up by standing on the people’s necks.
My rule is different: here, in Sicily,
A plural nation lives and works in peace.
Alas, that it were so in Italy!
There, Calabria alone is loyal.
Apulia and Campania have been
The breeding grounds of traitors all my life.
And I am tired of fighting; sick at heart
That in those provinces the price of peace
Has been a sea of blood, a well of tears.

Pause.

Come to me often, Master Idrisi. I shall call on your learning, to my benefit.

(Fade to black. Al-Idrisi returns to his desk.)

Scene 4: The Friendship

Al-Idrisi’s Library. Autumn 1164

Al-Idrisi

So it happened. And more and more, each time we met, the king confided to me his most privy thoughts. He told me of his life, from earliest memories. Those meetings were the greatest honour of my life: Christian to Believer, monarch to clerk, man to man. Although the king practised and upheld the religion of the Christians, he extended loving kindness to our people, who were the most numerous of his subjects. Indeed, he relied greatly on Believers for the governance of his kingdom.

It is ten years since King Roger passed into paradise; yet his spirit lives with me daily. His son, King William, now rules these lands. I am away from the court, I thank Allah. I hear men say that William has not equalled his father’s excellence in the arts of government; that Allah may not grant to him the years He granted to his father. It may be so.

But now, with the help of Allah, I shall begin to tell you of the life of great King Roger the Second, raised up to glory by the hand of God, mighty only for that God is Almighty, King of Sicily, of Calabria and Apulia, and of a time when heaven itself, it seemed, smiled on the land of Sicily and on its brightest jewel, the wondrous city of Palermo.

Scene 5: ‘Palermo, Happy City’

(The Chorus could be located in one place, as in an oratorio, or it could move around the stage.)

Chorus

Palermo, happy city, where the world has dropped its anchor:
In every street and alleyway, in every square,
The nations of the earth have stopped and stayed.
The furrows that their ships left on the sea
Have long been covered over by the waters;
Desert winds have blown away
The tracks their caravans had pressed into the sands.
High over mountain passes, as the snows receded,
Eagerly they came: here, to Palermo!
Arab and Jew, Berber and Greek, Lombard and Genoese:
The city echoes to their mingled languages.
Here, for a moment in the violence of history,
The combatants have settled on a truce.
Here under orange trees the fountains play, the water channels run.

Palermo, in your workshops every skill and trade is practised.
Your tended gardens yield the sweetest fruit.
You are wealth to the merchant, and to the scholar, learning.
Mighty metropolis, in the cradle of the mountains,
Which other cities might compare with you?
Shall we speak of ancient Athens, ancient Rome,
Baghdad, Constantinople, Alexandria or Cordoba?
Great cities all: Palermo, happy city,
Where the world has dropped its anchor,
You are not less than any one of these.

Scene 6: From Boy…

Al-Idrisi’s Library. Autumn 1164

Al-Idrisi

Roger was not six years of age when his father, the Great Count Roger, died. Roger’s older brother Simon inherited the father’s title. Their mother, the Countess Regent Adelaide, governed her dominions well, and brought the boys up knowing that the task of government would one day fall to them. Notwithstanding, they were still children, and there was time for play. Sometimes the boys would fight, as boys will; and as, alas, will men. It is said that Roger, though the younger, always triumphed in these bouts. Yet he was magnanimous in victory.

A Courtyard in the Royal Palace. Summer 1102

(Enter Boy Roger [aged six] and Boy Simon [aged nine], running onto the stage.)

(Duet)

Boy Roger

Prince Simon, I have challenged you to battle.

Boy Simon

This impertinence, Prince Roger, is misplaced.
You should respect me as your elder and your better.
Now prepare to be defeated and disgraced.

(They fight. Roger ends up on top of Simon.)

Boy Roger

I have beaten you, Prince Simon; will you yield?
You’ll never vanquish me; a foolish hope!
Now I’m the lord of Sicily for ever
But I’ll let you be a bishop, or the Pope.

Boy Simon

I’ll be the Pope, then; I already own
The territory you think you’re fighting for.
You upstart, though I yield to you today
You’ve only won a battle, not the war!

(Exeunt Boy Roger and Boy Simon.)

Al-Idrisi

Three years later, a calamity: Count Simon died when he was twelve years old. His mother, through her tears, knelt down to do the little brother honour: Roger was the Count of Calabria and Sicily. Twelve more years passed…

Scene 7: …to Man

The Countess Regent’s Private Apartments, The Royal Palace, Palermo.
22 December 1117

(Enter Roger and Countess Adelaide.)

Adelaide

Darling boy, the feast of Christmas is approaching, and today we celebrate your birthday. It is sixteen years since your father passed into paradise; and five since we have been together on this day, for bitter reasons we both know. Thanks be to God who has preserved us.

Roger

On this day of gladness, mother, rage still burns within me for the insult you have suffered in Jerusalem. Baldwin, whom you deigned to marry, has dishonoured you. I hate him, and I am henceforth his sworn and deadly enemy.

Adelaide

Put that aside for now. My pain would be relieved if you could make a better marriage than your mother did.

Roger

I have no need of woman other than yourself.

Adelaide

A pretty speech, but insincere and — I expect — untruthful. A young man’s thoughts, at twenty-two, have long been turning towards love. The flesh is urgent. More importantly, your position requires it. Five years ago, when I returned in pride and anger from Jerusalem, I laid a sword-point on your shoulder. My regency accomplished, I named you knight and count: a man. And you have governed well. A man should have a wife, especially when he occupies a seat of power such as yours.

Roger

You insist; and something tells me you have a candidate in mind.

Adelaide

Since my return, I have indeed had conversations with your ministers. At their suggestion I should like to put a name to you.

Roger

I am listening.

Adelaide

You know how vital is our trade with Spain. Among the Christian kings there, none is greater than Alfonso of Castile and Léon. Not for nothing is he called ‘magnificent and glorious’. He has had many wives; his energies are — shall I say? — formidable. His current spouse is Isabella. She is Norman, like yourself; the daughter of Duke William, the Conqueror of England. They have a daughter named Elvira.

Roger

Elvira…

Adelaide

The advantages of such a union: need I be explicit? Our friendship with Castile confirmed; free passage thither for our merchants; an alliance with a monarch whose valour is reclaiming Spain for the True Faith. And the Princess Elvira herself is the grand-daughter of one of your noblest countrymen: William’s deeds, you know, are legendary. The girl has other virtues too, although perhaps they wouldn’t interest you.

Roger

And what may they be?

Adelaide

This sailing season, our ambassador was in Alfonso’s court. He saw Elvira. She is eighteen, and the man, on his return, informed me, with some blushing and a little breathlessness, that he had never seen, in all his years of travel, such a beauty. She was, he said, ‘a flower of loveliness but half unfolded’.

Roger

Mother, it has been your constant care to recall me to my duty. I thank you. In this matter, I have perhaps for too long neglected my responsibilities. But before I take this grave step, I should like to see a picture of the Princess. An old man’s judgments in these matters might not concur with mine. Could one be commissioned?

Adelaide

In anticipation of that thought, the ambassador did crave that favour of His Majesty while he was there. He has brought back a small portrait, and I have seen it.

Roger

And you have kept it from me?

Adelaide

Why, such impatience from a man who has no need of woman but his mother! Today, I thought, this day of celebration, was the proper time to ponder on these things. But not till after dinner. You wouldn’t want your appetite to be distracted from the birthday dishes the kitchen has prepared for you. The guests are waiting; you should go before me to greet them.

Roger

As ever, mother, I am yours to command.

(Exit Roger.)

Adelaide

(Aria)

Each time I look upon my only child
I gain some consolation as I trace
— As if a copied sketch, an echoed melody —
The likeness of his father in his face.

My plan for him from boyhood has been clear:
That he will be the master of the state;
That Europe’s princes will forced to yield to him
His place among the councils of the great.

How strong, how full of confidence he seems!
And yet how brutal is the hand of fate.
The young man thinks not of it, but his mother knows
He needs an heir, and so he needs a mate.

And when he sees her picture, he’ll decide
To choose the mate I’ve chosen for his bride.

(Exit Adelaide. Fade to black.)

Scene 8: The Bride Arrives

Al-Idrisi

The next spring, envoys carried to Castile the news that Count Roger requested of His Majesty King Alfonso the honour of the hand of his daughter Elvira in marriage. Which request was expected and accepted, and the girl informed. Negotiations over the dowry took a few weeks, and early in July Elvira bade a tearful farewell to her homeland and took ship for the first time in her life, accompanied by high officials of both nations and by some of her women. Into other ships her dowry had been loaded. Men at arms kept watch on the deck of each vessel. It was a fair crossing, and two weeks later the flotilla dropped anchor safely in the harbour of Palermo.

Elvira’s Quarters, Castilian Flagship, Palermo Harbour. A Day in Late July 1118

(Elvira is discovered in her quarters.)

Elvira

(Aria)

Across the sea, my father’s ships have brought me here.
All I have loved and known I’ve left behind.
To a Count I have been given;
Of his nature I know nothing;
They say he’s handsome; please God, he is kind.

The dowry I bring with me is magnificent
In silken stuffs, in precious stones, in gold.
But the friendship of my country
And the honour of my father
Are the rarest of the jewels that I hold.

Castile shall live in amity with Sicily.
My person is my father’s guarantee.
When I set foot in Palermo,
When I kneel before Count Roger,
My duty is to love the man I see.

Al-Idrisi

The news of Elvira’s arrival was brought to Roger. Quickly assembling an entourage worthy of his visitor, he hurried down to the port.

The Port of Palermo. Later the Same Day

(Enter Roger and Retainers.)

Roger

(Aria)

Today my bride, Elvira, has arrived from Spain.
She’ll stand before me in a few hours more.
Her ships ride in the harbour
Where my little boats are waiting
To bear their promised cargo to the shore.
For many months her picture I have kept with me.
Her beauty is the pride of all Castile.
I have loved her in her likeness
But a likeness is a poor thing;
Today I’ll know, at last, that she is real.

Next month, when we shall marry, let the world take note
That Sicily has made a worthy choice;
And two noble states of Europe
Will be strengthened by this union.
At our wedding all Palermo will rejoice.

Al-Idrisi

And indeed, a few hours later, Elvira was carried up from a boat and set down before the Count.

The Port of Palermo. Later the Same Day

(Enter Elvira, carried, and Retainers. Elvira is set down. She and her Retainers kneel.)

Elvira

My lord, I bring with me the greetings of my noble father. It is his desire that in our union the happiness of two nations should…

Roger

Enough, princess. You are welcome to Sicily. Pray let me raise you up. (He does so.) I too have had in mind the happiness of two nations. There will be time later for such considerations. But tomorrow we shall set in train arrangements for our wedding. We will marry on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; and until then we should consider only the happiness of two persons.

Elvira

As my lord wishes.

Roger

Elvira of Castile, I kiss your hands. (He does so, and gazes at her. She smiles at him shyly.) Will you ride with me to the palace? Your apartments are prepared.

Elvira

As my lord wishes.

(Duet)

Roger

For many months your picture I have kept with me.
Your beauty is the pride of all Castile.
I have loved you in your likeness
But a likeness is a poor thing;
Today I know, at last, that you are real.

Elvira

Across the sea, my father’s ships have brought me here.
All I have loved and known I’ve left behind.
But my heart is filled with gladness
At these gracious words of welcome.
I had no doubt your lordship would be kind.

(Exeunt.)

Scene 9: Roger Marries Elvira

Palermo Cathedral. Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1118

(Roger, Elvira, Archbishop of Palermo, Prelates, Nobles are discovered in the cathedral. Triumphant music. The Archbishop comes forward to join Roger’s and Elvira’s hands and pronounce them married.)

Archbishop

Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Chorus

Assumpta est Maria in caelum:
gaudent angeli, 

collaudantes benedicunt Dominum.
Alleluia.

Mary has been taken up into heaven:
the angels rejoice;
joining in praise they bless the Lord.
Alleluia.

In sight of Mary, Holy Mother, we
Give thanks that God has joined in wedlock these:
Elvira, Princess from beyond the seas
And Roger, noble Count of Sicily.

Enthroned in heaven, Lady, hear our prayer
And with Thy Son, our Saviour, intercede
To bless their union with fair progeny
As Thou wast blest, the infant Christ to bear.

Almighty God thought not His Son to spare
But caused him for us on the cross to bleed
And by the triumph of His agony
To save us from damnation and despair.

To turn our weeping into joy He died,
That on this festal morning we may pray
That God preserve Count Roger and his bride.
Gaudeamus: come, make we holiday!

Mary has been taken up into heaven:
the angels rejoice;
joining in praise they bless the Lord.
Alleluia.

Assumpta est Maria in caelum:
gaudent angeli, 

collaudantes benedicunt Dominum.
Alleluia.

Scene 10: Master of the State

Al-Idrisi

So they were married, and they were happy. It was a love match. Elvira bore Roger six children: five boys and a girl. They were conceived in winter, for during the sailing season the Count was obliged for too long to be away from his beloved. Great men bear great burdens.

Elvira’s Private Apartments, the Royal Palace, Palermo. Autumn 1128

(Elvira is discovered, reading. Enter Roger. Elvira looks up, drops her book in surprise and joy, and stands. They embrace.)

Elvira

My lord, my love, how many months you have been gone! How I have missed you!

Roger

No more, my darling, than I have longed for you. Your face is never absent from my mind. Let me renew my acquaintance with its beauty. (He holds her face in his hands, looks at her. Pause.) This summer we have gained a prize: the Dukedom of Apulia. (He makes a mock bow.) Noble Duchess, tell me how you’ve fared.

(Duet)

Elvira

Men sing the praises of Palermo’s spring;
And summer’s langour is a well-worn theme.
But I have learned to love an autumn sky;
My lord, my love is sailing home to me.

In hope and dread I’ve lingered equally.
The dread is in the thought that you might die.
The hope I cling to is the secret dream
Of winter joys your safe return will bring.

Roger

My Countess, Duchess, one love of my life:
The battles that I fight, I fight for you.
To hold you is the only victory
Which has enduring value in my eyes.

The common spoils of warfare I despise:
The plundered gold, the conquered territory.
To you alone are proper tributes due:
My wealth, my titles, all are yours, sweet wife.

Elvira

Now I am Duchess of Apulia, would my lord tell me how I have achieved this honour?

Roger

You know how my nephew William, who was the Duke, betrayed me. He knew he had not long to live. He had no children. He was a paltry man. He promised me his title in exchange for the many services I had rendered him. When I arrived last year, after his death, to claim my due, I found that he had promised it to others also, including to Honorius the Pope. Honorius gathered rebels about him: the usual malcontents and traitors. But this year I have out-manoeuvred them.

Elvira

But is Honorius not your suzerain?

Roger

He is; I honour him for that. (Elvira smiles at the pun.) Popes’ power should reside in matters of the spirit. We men of flesh are fitter for earthly rule. In August, outside Benevento, the papal city, I placed my hands within the hands of Honorius, and swore him fealty. In return, he granted me the Dukedom of Apulia.

Elvira

So I am twice countess, once duchess?

Roger

You are; and you were a princess before any of these. Yet, to my mind, these middling titles are not worthy of a lady of your excellence and beauty.

Elvira

I am content with them. How else should I be styled?

Roger

Elvira, I would have you queen.

(She gasps, and looks at him, and smiles. They embrace again. Fade to black.)

Scene 11: Two Popes

Al-Idrisi

And indeed Count Roger cherished in his soul this final desire, which by the will of God was soon granted to him.

One day in February of the following year, Pope Honorius died in Rome. By noon of the next day the imams of that city had elected two Popes, supported by opposing factions. One, Anacletus, held sway in Rome; the other, Innocent, was forced to flee the city. He took ship for France. In the months to come the King of France, together with the highest imams of that country, adhered to Innocent. Among these priests, none held greater sway over the minds of men, high and low, than the Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. He was indeed a holy man, although some said that the milk of holiness in him had curdled into madness.

Scene 12: The Power of Bernard

France. Summer and Autumn 1130

(Enter Bernard, ranting.)

Bernard

The adherents of Anacletus have made
a covenant with death and a compact with hell.
The abomination of desolation is standing in the Holy Place;
To gain possession of it he has set fire to the sanctuary of God.
Anacletus persecutes Innocent and with him all who are innocent.
Innocent has fled from his face. He has obeyed the words of the Lord:
‘When they persecute thee in one city, flee unto another.’
He has fled, and by the flight he has endured,
after the example of the Apostles,
he has proved himself truly an apostle.

Al-Idrisi

Later, Bernard also swayed the mind of Lothair, Emperor of Germany. He wrote these words to the Emperor:

Bernard

It is to the injury of Christ that the offspring of a Jew
Should have seized for himself the throne of Saint Peter.

(Lights down on Bernard.)

Al-Idrisi

…for Anacletus’ family had once been of the Jewish faith.

Amongst the princes of the world, Anacletus had only one friend: Count Roger. In September of that year, the two men met. Roger promised to adhere to Anacletus’ cause, on one condition: that the Pope accord him a royal crown. To which Anacletus agreed. He promulgated a fatwa or Bull granting to Roger and his heirs the Crown of Sicily, Calabria and Apulia. Roger called his vassals together and obtained their assent to his elevation. On Christmas Day of the year one thousand one hundred and thirty of the Christian calendar his glorious coronation was celebrated, amid great rejoicing.

Scene 13: The Coronation

Palermo Cathedral. Christmas Day 1130

Enter Roger, Archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal of Santa Sabina, Prince Robert of Capua, Prelates, Nobles

Chorus

Palermo’s winter air is steely blue and clear.
From palace to cathedral, see great Roger ride
To coronation as the common people cheer
A new king come amongst them at this Christmastide.

Puer natus est nobis,
et filius datus est nobis:
cuius imperium super humerum eius:

This joyous holiday, this first of Christian feasts,
The vast, illumined space is packed with those who wait;
The costumed vassals, high and low, the vested priests
Parade the gorgeous panoplies of Church and State.

(The Archbishop comes forward and pronounces the following words [which could be translated into English].)

Archbishop

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, Creator omnium, Imperator Angelorum, Rex regum, et Dominus dominantium: respice, quaesumus, Domine, ad preces humilitatis nostrae, et super hunc famulum tuum Rogerium quem supplici devotione in Regem elegimus, benedictionum tuarum dona multiplica, eumque dexterae tuae potentia semper, et ubique circumda.

Chorus

Et vocabitur nomen eius,
magni consilii Angelus.

(Roger kneels.)

Chorus

He kneels. A cardinal anoints with holy oil
A man whose grandsire held in fee some Norman farms.
The church bestows her blessing on the victor’s spoil,
The will of God interpreted in force of arms.

(The Cardinal of Santa Sabina comes forward and pronounces the following words as he anoints Roger with the holy oil.)

[Again, the words could be translated into English.]

Cardinal of Santa Sabina

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, tribue, quaesumus, manibus nostris opem tuae benedictionis, et huic famulo tuo Rogerio quem hodie licet indigni, in Regem sacra unctione delinimus, dignam delibutionis hujus efficaciam et virtutem concede.

Chorus

Cantate Domino canticum novum:
quia mirabilia fecit.

How few and yet how whirling since have been the years!
How short the brutal, crowded journey to renown!
How high the price in blood, destruction and in tears!
A prince lifts up and places on his head the crown.

(Prince Robert of Capua comes forward and pronounces the following words as he crowns Roger.)

Prince Robert of Capua

I, Robert of Capua, by the grace of God vassal of Roger my honoured lord and suzerain, now place upon his head this royal crown. By this my action let all men know that henceforth Roger, his heirs and successors are, inalienably and for ever, Kings of Sicily, Calabria and Apulia.

Chorus

Gloria Patri, et Filio,
et Spiritui Sancto.

(Roger rises and turns to face the congregation. He strides down the nave of the cathedral to the west doors.)

Chorus

He rises, turns. At this climacteric of pride
A shout of acclamation makes the roof beams ring.
The trumpets speak. The huge west doors are opened wide.
The folk of Sicily may gaze upon their king.

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in
saecula saeculorum. Amen.

End of Act One: Interval

Act Two

Scene 1: Chorus: Worthless Words

A liturgy of hope on Christmas Day:
And yet how worthless — sung, intoned or said —
Those words of men!
The very prince who placed upon his head
A diadem
Before next Holy Friday will betray
His sovereign.

Ten years will pass before the king will say,
‘The serpent of rebellion is dead;
We will endure.
The government is ours; through love or dread
Our will is law.’
Yet is atrocity the only way
Peace to secure?

Scene 2: The Sickened Warrior

Al-Idrisi

Alas, how weary were those years that should have been a time of joy! This was a king who loved not blood, and yet who found himself compelled to wade through it. Roger had rather use the light of his reason in the council chamber than the edge of his sword on the battlefield. But when his vassals, who had placed their hands in his to swear him fealty, had then in little time utterly betrayed his trust, the King was roused to anger. And in his anger he was terrible.

The Queen’s Private Apartments, The Royal Palace, Palermo. Autumn 1134

(Roger and Elvira are discovered together.)

Elvira

My lord, a week ago I greeted your return with joy. But since that day you have not been the man I have loved: light of spirit, gentle of word. You are not tender towards me. What ails you? Tell me.

Roger

The truth, Elvira, is that I am sick: of conquest. I have seen — indeed, I have commanded — things you would not wish me to recount.

Elvira

You do me less than justice. I am stronger than you give me credit for.

Roger

(Aria)

I fold my arms around your neck
I embrace you
As other men embrace their wives
And sometimes I command that one such man, a traitor,
Should, in public, hang another.

I play with our children
As other fathers fondly do
And sometimes at my bidding
A thousand children are made orphans.

I endow churches and chapels
I call the finest craftsmen from throughout the world
To beautify God’s houses
And sometimes I leave the Christian cities of my own kingdom
Heaps of blackened stones.

This is the man whose bed and board you share.
I am not tender, since I am not tender.

Elvira

I love you nonetheless. It may be that these dreadful happenings are in the will of God. He has called you to unite a kingdom. Perhaps one day the provinces beyond the sea will flourish in peace. But now you are in Sicily, where through your wisdom peace and prosperity are established. Enjoy your rest.

Roger

I would; and yet it is as if the infirmity of my mind has travelled to my body. I am weaker than I should be. Let me take your arm. I shall call the doctors. Perhaps they can explain this feebleness.

(Exeunt, Roger leaning on Elvira’s arm.)

Scene 3: The Death of Queen Elvira

Al-Idrisi

Honoured gentlemen and ladies, I have now to tell you of a matter so grievous that I am heavy in the telling. The King’s sickness was grave. After many weeks of suffering he regained his health, praise be to Allah, for he was attended by the wisest doctors of Palermo and Salerno. But soon his beloved Queen Elvira, light of his eyes, fell sick; in likelihood touched by the same affliction. The doctors used their skills to no avail, for the Queen at last passed into paradise. The King’s mind was consumed with grief; his heart a place of utter desolation.

The King’s Private Apartments, The Royal Palace, Palermo. February 1135

(Enter Roger, Retainers.)

Roger

(Aria)

The lady I have loved these eighteen years
Is taken from me by the hand of death.
There is no consolation; I am broken by her loss.
My mind recalls a distant morning by the waterside.
The face I saw that day was full of hope
And fair as almond blossom in Palermo’s spring.
She smile she offered as I raised her from her knees
Possessed my heart entirely, and it dwells there still.
Countess, queen, companion of my board and bed,
And mother of my children, oh how willingly
I would exchange my kingdom for your life!
How many autumns, sailing home to Sicily,
And tired of warfare, have I urged the winds of heaven
Swiftly to return me to your arms!
I shall not pray that prayer again.
I have no will, no appetite for future glory.
I desire no company, not poetry, not music even.
Nothing will help; now leave me to my sorrows.

(Fade to black.)

Chorus

Upon the body of his queen, he weeps.
For all his worldly wealth, he is bereft
Of that he valued more than anything.

He is a man accustomed to command.
He wished that his belovèd would not die.
A higher power has refused his wish.

The western breeze conveyed her to his arms.
A colder wind upon a darker sea
Now carries her beyond his last embrace.

Her mast is dropping, dropping out of sight.
She will not sail to Sicily again.
He is abandoned on the dock, alone.

‘Requiem aeternam dona ea’:
He takes but little comfort from the words.
She is in bliss; yet he is desolate.

Scene 4: Bernard Rejoices at Roger’s Grief

Al-Idrisi

For many weeks, the King withdrew his person from the sight of men. The whisper ran, from Sicily across the narrow sea, that he had followed the Queen to paradise. The priest Bernard saw in this news the hand of God. Such is the meagre charity prevailing in the breasts of some who claim to speak the holy words of love!

The Abbot’s Room at Clairvaux. Spring 1135

(Bernard is discovered writing at his desk.)

Bernard (reading his own writing)

‘In all things God is blessèd. Our sufferings are turned to joy.
Our wounds, inflamed with vinegar, receive the balm of oil.
Thieves and brigands have been torn asunder and laid low.’

(He looks up.)

The tyrant is no more. I shall inspire Pope Innocent
Together with the Emperor of Germany
To seize the moment, and take back
The lands the Norman upstart has usurped.

(Lights down on Bernard.)

Scene 5: The Widower Rouses Himself: More Years of Warfare

Southern Italy. Summer 1135 to July 1139

Al-Idrisi

And so Bernard did. But in the summer of that year of bitter loss, Roger put aside his grief, roused himself and took ship for Italy. Four more years of struggle followed. The Emperor and Pope Innocent invaded Roger’s kingdom, expending and exhausting their strength. Roger was wily, however; he would not come to battle. Cities the invaders took, indeed, and burned. But they could not hold them, and at last the old Emperor went away, and died. Next Anacletus, the other Pope, of whom the King had been the only champion, also passed from this world. Innocent now had no rival, and Roger soon acknowledged him. So the division was at an end. The priest Bernard crowed in triumph, like a cockerel.

Bernard’s Lodgings in Rome. Spring 1138

(Bernard is discovered writing at his desk.)

Bernard (reading his own writing)

‘God has given unity to the Church, and peace to the City…
The people of the anti-Pope have humbled themselves
At the feet of our lord Innocent,
And have sworn him faithful homage as his liegemen.
So too have those schismatic priests,
Together with the idol which they set up…
And there is great gladness among the people.’

(He looks up.)

Now we shall see who will prevail:
The rightful father of the church, heir to Saint Peter’s chair,
Or one who, camping at the gates of Sodom,
Puts his hand into the dish with those
Whom God will punish by eternal fire.

(Lights down on Bernard.)

Al-Idrisi

Bernard soon had his answer; and it was bitter to him. For Innocent was foolish. He renewed his fatwa of excommunication on Roger and his sons, and the next year led an army against the king, which Roger’s forces humbled at Galluccio. Innocent was taken captive. Roger named the price by which the Pope might gain his freedom.

(Enter Roger.)

Roger

Innocent must acknowledge me the King
Of Sicily, Calabria and Apulia,
As Anacletus did before him.
These titles and their honours are my own
And I shall hold them fast.

(Lights down on Roger.)

Al-Idrisi

And Innocent consented, whether with his good will or no.

Scene 6: Troia Humbled

Al-Idrisi

Now the king, triumphant, only needed to subdue two rebel cities, those of Troia and Bari, to complete the domination of his kingdom. Through all his years of struggle, the most traitorous of the king’s vassals was his own kinsman by marriage, the husband of his half-sister Matilda, Count Rainulf of Alife. At last Rainulf died of a fever in Troia. He was buried in the cathedral. When Roger arrived at Troia, and its leaders beheld the mighty royal power, they surrendered and invited the king to enter in peace. But his answer was dreadful; he would never forgive his brother-in-law’s treason.

Outside the Walls of Troia. Early August 1139

(Lights up on Roger.)

Roger (fff — directed at the walls)

I shall accept no surrender for as long
As Rainulf’s body lies within your walls.
Break open his tomb, and let his filthy corpse
Be dragged about the streets and brought up
To the citadel. Thence let it be thrown
Into a rubbish pit outside the walls.
Let Troia know that this is how a king
Treats such as wilfully betray his trust;
Who, having placed their hands in his,
Then clench the dagger when his back is turned.

(Lights down on Roger.)

Al-Idrisi

And it was done. It ill behoves me to speak a word against the king, who was so good, so noble and so learned a master, but this action was not worthy of him. The king’s eldest son, young Roger, lately invested with the title and honours of Duke of Apulia, came to plead with his father.

(Lights up on Roger. Enter Young Duke Roger.)

Young Duke Roger

This action, noble father, is not worthy
Of a Christian king. Alife was a traitor,
and his judge will be the Lord of Heaven.
Let you not presume so to usurp
God’s punishment on those who would frustrate
The work which He has summoned you to do.
Grant me this boon: that Rainulf’s body
Be once more interred in the cathedral,
With proper ceremony and benefit of priests.

(Lights down on both.)

Scene 7: Bari Humbled

Al-Idrisi

The King relented.

On went the royal army to Bari, that most stiff-necked and defiant of the rebel cities, and laid siege to it. After two months the city’s leaders came to Roger to seek terms, and indeed the king was willing to arrive at an accord. The prisoners of both parties would be exchanged without more bloodshed. Then one of Roger’s knights, who had been taken prisoner, came to the king to seek redress against the Prince of Bari. The prince had ordered that the knight be blinded in one eye. The king was thrown into a great rage, and called judges to him to debate the case. After deliberation, the judges gave the prince, together with the other rebel chiefs, into the power of the king.

Bari. Late Summer 1139

(Lights up on Roger.)

Jaquintus, Prince of Bari, shall be hanged.
So shall his leading counsellors.
Lesser offenders, who by the royal mercy
Shall escape this punishment shall, notwithstanding,
Be deprived of sight, and bear the signs
Of mutilation on their bodies.
Let their property be confiscate unto the Crown.
Go, do this quickly.

(Lights down on Roger.)

Al-Idrisi

And it was done. The king’s dominions beyond the narrow sea were subdued at last. Roger took ship once more for Sicily. His heart was heavy that so great a deal of death and suffering had been required to end the turbulence and civil strife. For, as we have told, the king’s acts of cruelty were done not because his nature was cruel, but to bring unity and peace to a kingdom in sore need of it. Also, he could not abide a traitor.

Scene 8: In Sicily at Last

Al-Idrisi

It was in that same year, praise be to Allah, that I came to Palermo. I have already told how I availed myself of the stores of knowledge in Palermo’s libraries. But the city itself, embraced by its gardens, orchards and farms, captivated me no less. It is to my mind the greatest and most glorious metropolis the world has seen. One of our poets has written well of it:

(Aria)

‘I have tasted, in its radiant gardens, to the joyous cooing of doves,
An old wine, yet more pleasing to the tongue than youth.
Yes, I have drunk deep, in a garden which, by pleasing vistas
And the warbling of birds, delights the contemplating eye.
There, camomile flowers seemed little eyes of gold set in an array of silver;
And what splendour, those oranges suspended in the branches
Like cups of wine held in the hands of cup-bearers…’

Al-Idrisi

Throughout his reign, the king commanded the building of many magnificent and beautiful works of architecture. Two of the most famous were his own chapel in the Royal Palace, dedicated to Saint Peter; and the cathedral at Cefalù. The walls of these places echoed daily to the sacred music of the Christians.

Chorus

There in the chapel Palatine, at Cefalù
And in the Admiral’s church let music play.
East speaks to West: the measures practised in Byzantium
Combine with plainchant in the Roman style.
Yet listen for the harsher jargon of polyphony;
It is a new thing…

(Music to illustrate this East/West antiphony, and the development from monody to polyphony.)

Al-Idrisi

Such music is performed to the greater glory of God. Yet in Palermo there was another music too: that of the senses, with which God in His wisdom has endowed us…

Chorus

In shady gardens they are dancing; can you hear?
These Arab harmonies seem sweet and suitable.
The lute, the flute, the cornet, castanets,
The little bells, the harp: all make accord
As bodies turn and sway, and singers use
The poetry of many languages
To tell, in unison, of love.

(Oriental/Arab/North African music to enhance our imagination of these pleasures.)

Scene 9: Travellers’ Tales

Al-Idrisi

My work of geography progressed. When he was in Palermo, the king summoned me often, to see what I had done. I think our conversation was a balm to him, still grieving for the loss of Elvira, and with the horrors of war heavy on his mind.

King Roger II’s Private Apartments, Royal Palace, Palermo. January 1145

(Roger is discovered. Al-Idrisi moves centre stage, carrying some papers.)

Roger

Entertain me, Muhammad. Tell me some of the wonders you have discovered.

Al-Idrisi

Well, Your Majesty… (he looks at his papers, finds something). In Merida, in Spain, there are great ruins. Once there were mighty aqueducts, wrought by our people, bringing water to that city. The Queen of Merida was a noble lady; and her meals were served to her by water.

Roger

How was that?

Al-Idrisi

Her dining hall was at a distance from the palace kitchens. When a dish was ready, it was arranged on its platter of silver or gold, and floated down to her table on a little canal. At special banquets, there were flotillas of these platters.

Roger

Extraordinary. But was not the food cold when it arrived?

Al-Idrisi

That our informant cannot say.

Roger

And what when the meal was finished?

Al-Idrisi

Another little canal, whose water flowed in the opposite direction, carried the platters back to the kitchens to be washed.

Roger

Remarkable. What else?

Al-Idrisi

We have had reports of the healing properties on many kinds of fish. A small fish which thrives in the lake of Nicea, in Anatolia, will cure a fever instantly when cooked and eaten. A soup of écrevisses caught from that lake and stewed with vinegar will ease a chronic cough. And in the Black Sea there is a fish which, as soon as caught, produces an effect which — Your Majesty will forgive me — should perhaps only be discussed between us men.

Roger

We are alone. You may be frank.

Al-Idrisi

The fish is called the chabria. A fisherman who finds it in his net becomes immediately tumescent in an unaccustomed manner.

Roger

How unfortunate for him… Years ago, you told me what you knew of England. What else have you uncovered in the north?

Al-Idrisi

Our informants have been as far as Norway, Denmark, Finland and Russia. In these places, the sun is rarely seen. The people of Norway are obliged to harvest their corn when it is green; it will not ripen. They take the grain into their houses, where they have lit a fire, and there they dry it until it may be milled. In that country there are freezing deserts, inhabited by savage men whose heads are fixed directly to their shoulders; they have no necks.

Roger

Terrifying. Muhammad, are you sure that all this information is reliable?

Al-Idrisi

We are most careful to compare the testimony of different witnesses; in all these cases, several men have sworn it is the truth.

Roger

So be it. I am glad we are Sicily, and not in Norway.

Al-Idrisi

A sentiment, Your Majesty, I can but echo.

(Fade to black. Al-Idrisi moves back to his desk.)

Scene 10: The Admiral

Al-Idrisi

King Roger governed with the aid of able officials, whether Christians of East and West, Believers or Jews. The greatest of these were mighty lords themselves, attended by troops of secretaries and servants. They administered the state, in the king’s name; which to do well and justly is no light matter. Among them, none was abler or more elevated than the Emir of Emirs, the Greek George of Antioch, the king’s high admiral and chief minister. I knew the man well. He carried the king’s power by sea to Africa, to Spain, to Constantinople… From that great empire he brought back much booty, especially silk, and silk weavers from Thebes to work the looms in the king’s workshop.

From the wealth he had acquired in his long service of the state, George endowed a church in Palermo: Saint Mary of the Admiral, of which our Chorus has already sung. Although I am not of his faith, and do not take part in Christian ceremonies, George did me a great honour: he invited me to visit the church on the day before its consecration.

The Church of Saint Mary of the Admiral (now known as the Martorana). The Year 1143

(Al-Idrisi moves centre stage. Enter George of Antioch. The two men walk around, pausing and admiring, looking upward.)

George

Well, Muhammad, what do you think?

Al-Idrisi

It is… wondrous. The gilded walls, the coloured marble, the mosaics: such gold, such green… (They look up at one mosaic.) Oh! His Majesty crowned by the messiah. ‘ΡΟΓΕΡΙΟΣ ΡΗΞ’. Latin words, written in Greek. (They walk a little further, to another mosaic.) And yourself, Excellency, at the feet of Maryam. (On they go.) This light descending through the glass: dazzling. Forgive me: would I be disrespectful in suggesting that, in making this… Christian place, you have employed the services of our people? I seem to detect their style of workmanship.

George

Not disrespectful at all. You would be right. Look at this.

(They inspect an inscription.)

Al-Idrisi (reading)

‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.’

A Christian hymn; and written in Arabic! Extraordinary.

George

You know you have the best carpenters. They asked if they might write it so. The words are of an old Byzantine chant. I learnt them in my own language when I was a boy in Antioch. (He sings.) ‘Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις Θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.’

(After he has sung this first line, the Chorus takes up the hymn [in Greek]. George sings a few lines with them.)

George

They’re rehearsing for tomorrow.

(The Chorus sings the rest of the hymn, swelling to a climax. The melody is Eastern Orthodox. The two men listen. Fade to black at the end of the hymn.)

Scene 11: The Trial of Philip of Mahdia

Al-Idrisi

Alas, George passed into paradise two years before the king. Would that he had lived longer! A great evil, of which I must now tell, might then have been avoided.

When George died, he was succeeded by Philip of Mahdia. Philip was my friend. He had been born a Christian, but he had become a Believer. He practised our faith in quiet, for the king did not look favourably upon apostates, although he loved the Muslims, so much so that some men called him, secretly, ‘the baptised Sultan’.

In the summer of the year one thousand one hundred and fifty three in the Christian calendar, Philip led the king’s navy to Bône in Africa, to help that city’s ruler to defend the place against invaders from the west. He succeeded in this mission, and returned triumphantly to Palermo. Some say that Philip was too grand and boastful in his victory, and that this show of glory did not please the king. Be that as it may, there were powers at work in Palermo, amongst the bishops and the Christian barons, who hated Philip. By their trickery they turned the king’s mind against his emir.

The King’s Private Chambers, The Royal Palace. Autumn 1153

(Enter Roger, Archbishop of Palermo, The King’s Chamberlain. Roger sits.)

Archbishop

Your Majesty, the news I have to bring you grieves me to the heart. Philip, chief among your ministers, has betrayed you. You have seen the vainglorious manner of his return from Africa. But there is worse. I have informers close to him. I know he gives himself to practices abhorrent to our faith. He eats meat on Fridays and on Ember Days. He visits synagogues. He sends gifts to Mecca, to the tomb of the prophet, requesting that the imams who preside that execrated place offer prayers for him. There is no doubt, from all the information I have gathered, that he, a Greek, a Christian born and your first minister, is of the Muslim faith.

Roger

These are only rumours, lord archbishop, although it is not the first time I have heard them. (To the Chamberlain) Let Philip be imprisoned for a short time; let him be treated well. Arrange an open trial with all speed. (The Chamberlain and Archbishop bow and exeunt.)

Al-Idrisi

So it was done. As soon as I heard of the Archbishop’s testimony against Philip, I went to see His Majesty. It was the only time, in our long friendship, that I dared to challenge his authority. I was afraid…

(Al-Idrisi crosses the stage to where Roger is still sitting.)

Roger

Good day, Muhammad. How goes the work?

Al-Idrisi

Well, Your Majesty. But it is not for that reason that I have come to see you.

Roger

For what, then?

Al-Idrisi

I come to plead for Philip.

Roger

Indeed? I had not realised that your considerable powers extend to legal advocacy. But proceed.

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty knows that our people love you. There are other Christian princes, living and dead, who have persecuted us without mercy. The slaughter in Jerusalem more than fifty years ago still rouses us to anger. You have despised such acts. Indeed, in your own army the followers of Muhammad (peace be upon Him) have followed you into battle and fought bravely, often against Christian enemies. Here in Sicily, Believers occupy many high places in the governance of the state.

Roger

I know all this. What has that to do with Philip?

Al-Idrisi

It is not for me to say which faith he espouses. But I will say this: Your Majesty never had a more loyal servant than he. Men are plotting, even now, to blacken his name before you and before the court. Pay no heed to their lies, I implore Your Majesty. Wicked tongues will wag because their owners think thereby to gain advantage. See through their plausible wiles to their unworthy hearts.

Roger

What do you say to the charge that Philip has been vainglorious?

Al-Idrisi

If it be so, he should be checked. But a chiding, Your Majesty, will correct his fault more fitly than a crueller punishment. And he has many years left, God willing, in which to serve you.

Roger

But I have not many years left in which to be served. I am tired, Muhammad. Death stalks me. I hear his footfall behind me, approaching. I feel his breath on my neck. Soon he will tap on my shoulder. He has injured me already. I have not known true happiness since Elvira was taken. She bore me six children; five are in their graves. Only William is left. He is not the man that Roger, Tancred or Alfonso would have been. I fear for the kingdom after I am gone.

Al-Idrisi

Your Majesty should not give way to mournful thoughts. Consider your achievements: the glory of the kingdom, the wealth in our treasury, the trade with every part of the world; most of all, the love your subjects bear towards you.

Roger

Some of them, perhaps. But ‘The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ One of our more pessimistic prophets.

Al-Idrisi

And of ours, Your Majesty. We also venerate Irmiya.

Roger

As for Philip: who can tell truth from lies? I have listened to you; I trust your sincerity. But I have called an open trial, and we must hear it out. Enough, Master Idrisi. I have said that I am tired. Come another day.

Al-Idrisi (hesitates, and decides only to say…)

Your Majesty.

(Lights down on Roger. Al-Idrisi moves back across the stage to his seat at the side.)

The trial was open, but it was not just. The bishops and the barons had suborned false witnesses, who testified that Philip had committed all manner of offences against the Christian faith, had taken powers to himself which were the king’s sole prerogative, and even that he planned to lead a rebellion of Believers to overthrow His Majesty. After hearing many hours of this shameful deceit, the credulous and venal judges retired to deliberate, and returned quickly to the court.

The Throne Room of the Royal Palace. Autumn 1153

(Roger, Three Judges including Chief Judge, Archbishop of Palermo, The King’s Chamberlain, Philip are discovered. Roger sits on the throne. The Chamberlain stands beside him. Below Roger, the Judges sit. Before them, Philip stands.)

Chief Judge

Philip of Mahdia, a stream of witnesses have spoken with one voice. You are accused of apostasy to the true faith, of lèse-majesté in regard to your sovereign lord King Roger, and of high treason in plotting the dreadful crime of regicide. Have you anything to say before sentence is passed?

Philip

I swear before God that I have truly served His Majesty King Roger, faithfully executing the king’s commands both in this kingdom and beyond the seas. I have never thought to overshadow nor to overthrow His Majesty, to whom I owe every preferment I have had at his bountiful hands.

Chief Judge

What say you to the charge that you have secretly embraced the faith of Islam?

Philip

There is but one God, and…

Chief Judge

‘…and Allah is his prophet?’ Your Majesty, my lords, the man condemns himself out of his own mouth.

Philip

That is not what I was about to say. I was about to say that His Majesty is known throughout the world for his loving kindness towards all faiths which, in sincerity, search out the will of God.

(Roger rises from his throne. His voice trembles.)

Roger

Philip, the tears I shed for you are unbecoming to a king. The drumbeat of your greatness has, these recent months, been heard within these walls; and it has not pleased me. In spite of this, I would have forgiven you any crime against my own person; for I have loved you. But I have heard too much today of your delinquencies to stand in the way of the judgement of the court. Let sentence be passed. The king retires.

(Exit Roger.)

Chief Judge

Philip of Mahdia, we find you guilty of high treason. Your crimes, so clearly proven, merit condign, public retribution. We sentence you to death by burning; and may Almighty God have mercy on your soul. These proceedings are at an end.

(Terrifying music. Lights down.)

Al-Idrisi

So it was done. Philip’s feet were bound to the hooves of an untamed horse and he was dragged to the palace square. Before the horrified populace, his broken but still conscious body was burned.

Chorus [this is a ghazal, and should be accompanied by Arab-influenced music]

See how these prelates, judges, by their savage law
Appear as valiant defenders of their creed.

Appearances are vain; the truth is otherwise.
Where murder is the fruit, ambition is the seed.

Now Philip’s bleeding body is consumed by fire.
When we cry out for justice, who will pay us heed?

We have but one resort, our only advocate.
Great Allah, hear your people’s voices as they plead:

Convey your servant quickly into paradise
And visit vengeance on the authors of this deed.

Al-Idrisi

This was a dreadful action, which the king could have prevented. As it seems to me, Roger was weakened in his mind in his last months. He was a lesser man than he had been before. Otherwise he would have not have countenanced such wicked cruelty and grave injustice.

I pray to Allah for the soul of Philip, that it may rest for ever in a state of bliss. And that those who brought about his death and agony by their jealousy and lies may be themselves condemned to everlasting torment in the world to come.

Scene 12: The Book of Roger Completed

(Al-Idrisi moves from his desk to centre stage, where lights come up on a large table whereon are maps and a great book. Beside the table, on a stand, facing the audience, is a huge silver disc.)

Al-Idrisi

Philip’s death brought the only discord that ever cooled the love between my sovereign and me. My work of geography was coming to completion, although for many weeks I undertook it with a heavy heart. At last, when all was ready, I brought it to the palace and invited His Majesty to see it. By this time the king was frail; he knew his death was near.

(Al-Idrisi leaves the stage and returns with an ailing Roger on his arm.)

Al-Idrisi

My lord, the disc is finished, and the maps, and the book.

Roger

Let me see.

(Al-Idrisi shows the King the disc.)

Al-Idrisi

Here is the world we know, my lord. As I proposed when we began the work, we have divided the earth into seven climates, each with ten sections. To the west, the dark ocean; what there may be beyond it, no man knows. To the east are China and India; what there may be beyond them, no man knows. Below the first climate, none may live; the sun in his glory is too fierce. Above the seventh climate, none may live, for all is darkness, ice and snow.

Roger

The silversmiths have rendered your work well. Where are the maps?

Al-Idrisi

Here, your majesty, in seven groups, one for each climate, with ten maps apiece, one for each section of that latitude.

Roger

Show me Cordoba, where you came from. (Al-Idrisi opens one of the folders and finds the relevant map. Roger studies it.) You have not understated its greatness, I see.

Al-Idrisi

Nor overstated it, I hope, your majesty.

(Roger studies one or two more of the maps, before turning to the book.)

Roger

I thank God that I have lived to see this work completed. These are wonders. How does the book begin?

(Al-Idrisi opens the book at the first page, and reads.)

Al-Idrisi

‘In the name of God the Clement and the Merciful! May God bless our lord Muhammad and his family and grant to them salvation!’ (He runs his finger down the page.) ‘The worthiest topic with which an observer might concern himself, for it will inspire in him thoughts and ideas, is the life of great King Roger, raised up to glory by the hand of God, mighty only for that God is Almighty, King of Sicily, of Calabria and Apulia, supporter of the imam of Rome and of the religion of the Christians.’

Roger

And what, in sum, does the book say of the earth?

Al-Idrisi (running his finger further down the page)

‘The earth is round like a ball. The waters adhere to it and remain stable on its surface thanks to a natural stability which knows no variation.’

Roger

And show me what it says of Sicily, and of Palermo.

(Al-Idrisi turns over about half of the book in one movement. He turns a page or two more, and reads.)

Al-Idrisi

‘At the time of which we write this island is ruled by the great King Roger; it comprises one hundred and thirty major settlements — cities or fortresses — as well as farms, villages and other places… The first of these is Palermo, a city most notable for its grandeur, most illustrious for its importance, and as a seat of piety amongst the most famous and prestigious in the world. It is blessed with qualities which confer to it unequalled glory, uniting beauty with nobility…’ (He looks up.)

Roger

It is the truth. And what have you called the book?

(Al-Idrisi turns the book back to the title page.)

Al-Idrisi

Its proper title is (he shows Roger) For the Amusement of Such as Desire to Wander in the World. Yet through all the years of its making I have been inclined to name it more briefly. I call it The Book of Roger.

Roger

My dear old friend, I thank you from my heart. These works shall be my study and my consolation until death.

(Music plays as Roger is seen turning the pages with wonderment, and looking back at the maps. Throughout this scene it would be possible to project on to a screen some of the maps and/or some pieces of text. After a period of music without words, the Chorus begins.)

Chorus

See, here are cities, towns and villages
And here are mountains, rivers, deserts, seas:
The forms and habitations of the earth made clear.
The knowledge of the ages is collected here.

The gleaming disc, the coloured maps, the book:
Material tributes to a king’s desire
To bring from ignorance into the light of day
The places and the peoples which these works survey.

Beyond the cities, towns and villages,
Beyond the mountains, rivers, deserts, seas,
Beyond the labours and inventions of mankind
Here is the fertile landscape of the maker’s mind.

(Al-Idrisi moves away from Roger, back to his desk. Lights fade on Roger.)

Scene 13: Conclusion

Al-Idrisi

Praise be to Allah that the King was spared to see his work completed. A few weeks later he passed into paradise.

It is the autumn of the year, and of my life; and now my story is ended. This was a great king indeed, who desired to rule a kingdom where the peoples of the world, in their manifold diversity of language, custom and belief, would live together; and who in great measure — though not perfectly — fulfilled his desire. Sometimes he fell short of his perfect wish, for the hearts of men are ever deceitful. Avarice for power in this world, and puffed-up certainty in those who claim to know the mind of God, are wont to do much harm. It was ever thus; who knows — none but Allah — whether it will always be so?

(Concluding music. Lights fade to black.)