Henry shared the historical stage with some of the most colorful and impressive figures of medieval history — Emperor Frederick II, John the “Old Lord” of Beirut, and King Louis IX of France, a Saint. These giants have dwarfed him, and he is largely forgotten or dismissed as unimportant. Yet under his reign, his island kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity. He fostered trade, defended the rights of his diverse subjects, and avoided squandering Cypriot resources in the defense of Syria. King Henry I of Cyprus deserves a reassessment.
The day of his greatest humiliation was also the day on which King Henry came of age. He had been forced to flee in his night-shirt on the back of a borrowed horse, while his entire army was decimated by the Emperor’s troops. Yet on his arrival in Acre as dawn broke, he was, at last, his own man. At fifteen, he was recognized as an adult, no longer tied to guardians, regents, and baillies. This meant that the Lord of Beirut was no longer his guardian and Baillie — he was his subject and vassal.
Henry was free to show his loyalties and make his own policies. He also had a very clear choice between the nearly destroyed Ibelins or the ascendant Imperial faction.
Henry had the option of returning to Cyprus, abandoning the Ibelins and blaming the Lord of Beirut for squandering his army, his resources, and his trust. In Cyprus, he could have embraced the former baillies. With Beirut and all his men in Syria, he could have — without risk — declared Beirut and the rest of his family traitors and confiscated their fiefs. Furthermore, he could have requested support from Marshal Filangieri in destroying the rebellious and traitorous Ibelins. Since Filangieri was already under orders from the Emperor to destroy the Ibelins, Henry would have secured the aid of Imperial mercenaries.
Instead, King Henry stayed with Beirut and started offering fiefs in Cyprus to any Syrian knights who would fight with him to regain his kingdom from the Imperialists. He also made substantial concessions to the Genoese, granting the wide-ranging trading privileges and immunities to secure a new fleet. He indebted himself to some of the Syrian lords to raise money to finance an expedition to regain his kingdom. Last but not least, he appealed (through Beirut) to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, complaining that the traitors (former baillies) had taken his ships, occupied his kingdom and were besieging his sisters. King Henry appealed to the Patriarch, who was also the Papal Legate in the Holy Land, to confiscate the Imperial ships in the harbor of Acre on the grounds that Imperial forces had deprived a crowned and anointed king of his navy and his kingdom.
The patriarch was reluctant to excommunicate the Emperor’s men, but he encouraged the seizure of the Imperial ships, which Henry’s supporters promptly did. King Henry returned in these imperial vessels to Cyprus, took Famagusta by surprise and advanced cautiously toward Nicosia. His army advanced through land which the Imperial forces had burned and wrecked. The sight of the harvest burnt in granges and broken mills, actions that impoverished both himself and his subjects, can only have increased King Henry’s hatred of the traitors and their Imperial puppet-masters. His feelings for his queen must equally have been soured further by the fact that she chose to retreat with the Imperial forces rather than welcome the return of her husband.
At Beirut’s command, the royal army camped outside of Nicosia to avoid a second Casal Imbert. The situation remained very precarious. Filangieri and the traitorous lords of Cyprus together fielded a force of more than 2,000 knights supported by a substantial force of sergeants and archers. The Cypriot army was had just 233 knights, still desperately short of horses (some knights had only one), and an unnamed number of sergeants. Furthermore, the castle of St. Hilarion where King Henry’s sisters were besieged was running out of supplies; there was a serious risk that the castle would surrender to the Imperial forces giving them valuable hostages. Under the circumstances, Beirut (who remained in command) opted to take the Cypriot army to the relief of St. Hilarion.
This entailed passing before the front of the Imperial army, that had taken up strong positions on the southern slope of the mountain range that runs east-west north of Nicosia. They sat across the road connecting Nicosia to the north-coast port of Kyrenia. This position was unassailable given the weakness of the Cypriot forces.
When the Cypriot army was strung along the east-west road leading to St. Hilarion below the Imperial forces, the pathetic size of the Cypriot forces was exposed to the enemy. This very weakness proved too tempting to the proud Italian leaders of the Imperial host. They charged down the slope to demolish the Cypriots. As soon as they abandoned their positions, Novare tells us, the Lord of Beirut fell on his knees to thank God. Then he remounted to defend his King. The King was kept in the rear of the army with Beirut, his youngest sons (roughly 15 and 16 years old) and his young nephew (later the famed jurist and Count of Jaffa). The battle was won by the Ibelin’s leading divisions. These mauled the Imperial forces so soundly that they broke and fled — to be pursued all the way to Kyrenia. Beirut and the King, meanwhile, continued to St. Hilarion, scattered the besieging force and rescued the King’s sisters.
Although the siege of the fortress at Kyrenia was to continue for ten months, Henry had regained control of his kingdom. Frederick II never again attempted to interfere in Henry’s realm or his affairs. Meanwhile, one of Henry’s first acts was to summon the High Court of Cyprus and charge the former Imperial baillies with treason. After a unanimous judgment against them, they were sentenced to death in absentia (they were safely in the fortress of Kyrenia at the time) and their fiefs were forfeit to the crown. Henry bestowed them on those who had supported him in his hour of need.
Yet while Henry was finally master of his own house, his treasury was depleted by the year-long campaign and further drained by the ongoing siege of Kyrenia. In fact, many of his vassals who held money-fiefs had seen no income in years. Strikingly, they remained loyal to him despite this. To try to spur the economy and recover financially, Henry not only expanded the privileges of the Genoese but extended trading privileges to Marseilles and Montpellier. He also fostered trading ties with the Sultan of Iconium and with Armenia. These actions show foresight and an appreciation of the economic advantages of trade to an island kingdom. Ironically, while the maligned King Henry was encouraging trade, Frederick II — usually depicted as “ahead of his time” — was introducing trade restrictions.
In 1236, at 19, Henry negotiated a marriage for himself to replace Alix de Montferrat, who had died during the siege of Kyrenia. He chose the sister of the King of Armenia, Stephanie, and the couple was married in 1237. This was the same year in which the pope suggested creating a joint kingdom of Jerusalem and Cyprus to be reigned by Henry King. The pope’s suggestion was driven by his hatred of Frederick II Hohenstaufen and was designed to disinherit his heirs, yet it was almost certainly made without the slightest consultation with King Henry.
Henry was not interested in the crusader states on the mainland. He refused to come to the aid of Jerusalem when the city fell in 1244 to the Khwarizmians, and he provided only reluctant and inadequate forces to relieve the siege of Ascalon three years later. Even when his mother died in 1246 and the High Court of Jerusalem recognized him as the rightful regent for the still absent Hohenstaufen king, Henry showed no interest in Syrian affairs. Instead of taking up the role of ruler, he appointed Balian of Beirut (John of Beirut’s eldest son and success after his death in 1236) Baillie of Jerusalem.
King Henry appears to have far more pleased by the fact that in the same year (1246) the pope absolved him of all oaths of fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor. This act recognized legally what had been fact since the complete expulsion of the Imperial forces from Cyprus thirteen years earlier. Cyprus was an independent kingdom and its king vassal to none.
When the vast crusading army of King Louis IX descended on Cyprus, King Henry remained notably aloof from crusading fever. He welcomed King Louis and his queen. Cyprus hosted the crusaders throughout the winter, and the flower of Cypriot chivalry was allowed to participate in the crusade — notably under the command of the Constable of Cyprus, Guy d’Ibelin, the youngest son of the Old Lord of Beirut. Indeed, the Ibelins were well represented in the crusade with John d’Ibelin, Count of Jaffa, Baldwin the Seneschal of Cyprus and Guy the Constable all impressing the Seneschal of France, Jean de Joinville, by their prowess, extravagance, wisdom, command of Arabic and concern for their men. Yet King Henry, after entering Damietta with King Louis in June 1249, retired to Cyprus.
Henry was only three-two at this time, an age at which most medieval noblemen were keen to demonstrate their prowess at arms, but Henry was no warrior king — and he had the sense to recognize that. Indeed, Henry had earned the nickname “the fat.” It appears that his near escape from disaster at Casal Imbert had left a lasting scar upon his psyche. At a minimum, he had learned the vital lesson that battles could be lost, and lost battles could lead to lost kingdoms.
Henry had turned his attention to fostering the economy and administrative reforms instead. One of the latter was the first recorded introduction of written court records. This practice that was not adopted in France until after King Louis returned from his crusade, i.e. after his contact with King Henry.
Henry also defended the majority of his subjects who still adhered to the Greek Orthodox faith against attempts by the Latin church to interfere with their clergy. This conflict escalated to the point that the Archbishop of Nicosia placed the entire kingdom under interdict — and Henry withheld revenues due to the Archbishop and the church.
In 1250, in the midst of King Louis’ disastrous crusade, Henry’s Armenian queen died childless. A king did not have the luxury to mourn for long; he needed heirs. In 1251, Henry took as his third wife, Plaisance of Antioch. She, at last, gave him the son he needed. He was christened Hugh after the father Henry had never known. Less than two years later, on January 18, 1254 Henry I of Cyprus died. He was not yet 47. The cause of death went unrecorded.
In looking back and assessing his reign, it is easy to dismiss Henry as a colorless, fat, puppet, yet this ignores the fact that he inherited a bankrupt kingdom subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor and bequeathed a prosperous and independent kingdom to his son. It also ignores the fact that Henry retained the respect and loyalty of his vassals throughout his reign — despite his conspicuous lack of revenues in the early years and military accomplishments.
The trade treaties, the administrative reforms, and his steadfastness in the face of clerical sanctions suggest a man who was not so much weak as diligent — yet focused on the unglamorous aspects of good-governance: the economy, the legal system and the spiritual well-being of his subjects. It is notable too that throughout his reign Henry relied heavily on various members of the Ibelin family, a clear indication of where his affections lay in the long struggle that dominated his childhood.
Henry I could be viewed as a mirror image of Richard the Lionheart. The latter is accused of being a bad king because he was focused on warfare and crusading with the result that he was absent from his kingdom most of his reign. Henry I left his kingdom only under duress and for never more than a few months. He avoided wars and left his kingdom richer than he found it. Henry I of Cyprus deserves more respect.
 The date is often given as Jan. 1253, but Peter Edbury had brought evidence that in the Kingdom of Cyprus at this time the year began March 25 and that according to our practice the correct date of his death was 1254. See: Peter Edbury, “Redating the Death of King Henry I of Cyprus?” Law and History in the Latin East (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) 339-348.
Henry I is an important character in:
Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com