English Palermo

Everyone knows that Sicily has been conquered many times through all her history. In particular, the tourist who spends his holidays in Palermo, can recognize every single track left by all these people. Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Spanish and many others popped in. Although one can not find the British in the list, they have been on the island several times for different reasons. First of all we have to go back to the end of the 12th century, when Sicily had an English queen: Joan of England, sister of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). She was crowned Queen of Sicily after having married William II of Sicily in 1177. Unfortunately the marriage lasted only 12 years and when King William died, she was closed in the Zisa castle of Palermo. More than one year later she was freed by her brother Richard I who came in Sicily because of the Crusade, and ended up later to marry Raimond VI count of Toulose.

A few centuries later, and exactly at the end of 18th century, Sicily is included in the Grand Tour because of her outstanding archeological attractions. Moreover in that period two important books were published: Reise durch Sizilien und Großgriechenland (Travels through Sicily and that part of Italy formerly called Magna Graecia; and a tour through Egypt, with an accurate description of its cities, and the modern state of the country) by Joseph Hermann von Riedesel (1771) and, most famously, Tour through Sicily and Malta by Patrick Brydone (1775).
In the meanwhile, English increased trades – already booming – with the island. In fact, this is the period in which many important British families, such as the Woodhouse, the Ingham and the Whitaker, ran their lucrative business based in particular on the exports of Marsala wine.

Such a big number of British people in the Island had its consequences; they sure enough influenced some part of the social life, mainly in Palermo. The English law system was influential in drafting the Sicilian Constitution of 1812. Of course there was another stronger reason for this choice in addition to fondness: in that period Lord William Bentinck, Extraordinary envoy of HM to Sicily was foreign minister at the Sicilian Parliament. On the other side, they have helped Sicily to drive away the French army. Indeed, not only they moved their gunboats to the Sicilian coasts, controlling the French troops as they were advancing to Palermo from Messina, but also created a peculiar foreign regiment just for this purpose. The Royal Sicilian Regiment (of foot) served from 1806 to 1816 and was part of the British Army, even if at the beginning the rank was constituted only of volunteers. It has been raised by Major General Sir John Stuart, military commander in Sicily before Lord Bentinck. After several victories, in 1809, the unit was raised to a proper regiment and stationed in Malta.

After less than a century after the start of the Woodhouse, Ingham and Whitaker family business, the English community in Palermo was big enough to require the building of a little anglican church in the heart of the city. All these families were in keeping with the Sicilian society, despite they still felt part of the UK. Indeed they kept a very strong bond with the homeland: the furniture of their houses (in Sicily) came from England and they were used to spend long periods in UK throughout the year. However, in the same time they did enjoy the – obtained distinction and were esteemed from both the aristocracy and the rest of the society. In Palermo, besides the Holy Church, it was opened a park, called il Giardino inglese (the English Garden), that is still an incredible and wonderful park. During carnival many children of Palermo families collect here and show their bright-colored carnival dresses and, again, it is here where citizens go to enjoy the chill during very warm summer days.