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Monday, September 6, 2021

Henry I of Cyprus - Part II: The Pawn

 Henry I inherited his kingdom before he was a year old and was crowned at the age of eight, but as a child, he remained at the mercy of his guardians and regents. In the first eleven years of his life, these had protected Henry from two attempts to disinherit him. They furthermore ensured his own safety and the welfare of his kingdom and subjects in an exemplary manner. All that changed with the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Frederick II viewed Cyprus as a vassal state, and he came to extract his “due.” His actions set in motion a chain of events that nearly cost Henry his kingdom and his life.

Roughly six months after the death of Henry’s baillie Philip d’Ibelin — the closest thing to a father that Henry had ever known — the Holy Roman Emperor arrived in Cyprus with a large number of ships, nobles, knights, archbishops, scholars and harem slaves. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, after delaying his crusade for eleven years, was on his way to Acre to fulfill his crusading vows — albeit under a ban of excommunication and in an operation the pope had already labeled an “anti-crusade.” The reason for his stop on Cyprus was to take Henry’s homage as his vassal and collect the chivalry of Cyprus for his crusading force.

No sooner had the Emperor arrived than he sent a letter John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut and the successor to his brother as baillie of Cyprus.  Addressing Beirut as his “honored uncle” (he was an uncle of the Emperor’s deceased wife, the Queen of Jerusalem), he begged Beirut to come and bring King Henry along with “your children, all our dear and well-beloved cousins” to Limassol “that we [the Emperor] might have the pleasure of embracing you  and knowing you personally.”[1]   

Beirut dutifully took King Henry and his sons to meet the Emperor and was persuaded to attend a great banquet hosted by Frederick II.  The guests went in court attire without weapons; Frederick II, however,  smuggled some three-thousand armed men into the palace during the night. After all the guests were well into the meal, the Emperor's men sealed off the hall, the hands on their hilts and the Emperor demanded that Beirut surrender his fiefdom of Beirut and all the revenues of Cyprus since his brother had become baillie (e.g. the past eleven years). 

Beirut answered that he would account for the revenues before the High Court of Cyprus and would only surrender his lordship after a judgment of the High Court of Jerusalem. When he did not back down even under threats of arrest and hints of worse, hostages were given for his appearance before the respective courts and Beirut — with nearly all the knights and barons of Cyprus — withdrew. (The details of the banquet are described in The Emperor’s Banquet.)

For Henry, the consequences were dire. Henry found himself a prisoner of a man who openly threatened force rather than respecting the rule of law, who allowed noble hostages (not accused of any crime whatsoever) to be tortured and humiliated, and who forced Henry to do homage to him. Henry can have been in no doubt that he was a pawn, completely in the hands of the Emperor, while the barons who had up to this point defended him and his rights against the Duke of Austria, the Prince of Antioch and his mother’s ambitions had been dismissed. To underline this point, the eleven-year-old was forced to leave his kingdom, sisters, home, and household to accompany the Emperor on his crusade to Syria.

In the event, there was no fighting and Henry was not personally in danger at any time, but his status as an “object” to the Emperor was made dramatically clear when Frederick II sold — for 10,000 silver marks —Henry’s guardianship to five men who have gone down in history as “the five ballies.” (See: The Emperor’s Men). If that weren’t indignity enough, Henry (now only twelve) was forced to marry by proxy a woman of the Emperor’s choosing whom he had never met.

While royal marriages were always made for reasons of state and the young people involved rarely had anything to say about them, it was not common to rush through a marriage in a matter of months. Notably, this marriage was also in violation of the constitution of Henry’s kingdom, since the marriage of minor heirs to the throne (much less ruling minors) required the approval of the Cypriot High Court. In his haste to dispose of Henry’s marriage in a way to benefit himself, the Emperor conveniently ignored the High Court of Cyprus.

The next thing Henry knew his new guardians were making themselves heartily unpopular by imposing new taxes and harassing anyone opposed to them or the Emperor with the liberal use of foreign mercenaries. An eye witness account of the King’s behavior during the rapacious reign of the five baillies notes: “The king was in their power and was much afraid, and the king spoke very low and looked often towards Philip [de Novare].”[2]

On the other hand, Philip de Novare noted in a poem he wrote shortly after escaping an assassination attempt by the baillies that he was warned of the baillies intended actions by “one who cared not whom it might displease.”[3] It is hard to imagine who would have been privy to the assassination plans by the baillies yet willing to help Novare other than the frightened young king himself. The very fact that the baillies appear to have accorded Henry so little respect would make it plausible that they talked about their plans to murder Novare in his presence, dismissing him as a stupid puppet. That Henry would dare cross them is also plausible because he was the only person in the entire kingdom that the baillies could not arrest. If he was Novare’s mysterious informant, he deserves credit for saving a man’s life and ultimately triggering a response from his former regent, John d'Ibelin, which has been completely overlooked by historians to date.

Within weeks of Novare’s escape and appeal to Beirut for aid, an Ibelin-led army landed at Gastria. It overpowered the baillies’ forces there and marched on Nicosia. The baillies called up the feudal levies and mustered the mercenaries left them by the Emperor. On June 14, 1229, the forces of the Ibelins met the forces of the five baillies on a plowed field south of Nicosia at the Battle of Nicosia. It was a decisive Ibelin victory, which enabled them to re-establish constitutional government on the island of Cyprus. 

But there was one problem: John d’Ibelin might control the island but he did not control the king. Henry was still a prisoner of the Emperor’s baillies.

As soon as news of the Beirut’s landing at Gastria reached Nicosia, the baillies had sent Henry under tight guard to the mountain castle of St. Hilarion. After losing the Battle of Nicosia, three of the baillies fled with their surviving supporters there.  The castle was impregnable and well-stocked to withstand a siege. The baillies hoped the Emperor would send troops to relieve them and defeat Beirut.

Critics of Beirut and his supporters rightly point out that by besieging a castle containing their king (they held fiefs on Cyprus and so were vassals of King Henry) they were technically committing treason. Beirut, however, claimed Henry was a prisoner, held against his will, and they were fighting for the release of their king — a fundamental feudal duty. In short, who the “traitors” were depended on whether Henry viewed himself as a prisoner. Unfortunately, we cannot know for sure what King Henry thought.

The siege lasted nearly a year. By the end of that time, those trapped inside St. Hilarion were forced to eat their horses. While it is unlikely that Henry suffered the same levels of deprivation as the lower ranking troops, he would have been a witness to it. As he passed his 13th birthday besieged in his own castle, he must have felt helpless and angry. 

Shortly after Easter 1230, a Hospitaller officer managed to broker the surrender of the castle. The terms included a full pardon for the surviving three ballies, who were to retain all their fiefs in Cyprus, in exchange for surrendering the person of the King, his sisters, and swearing never to take up arms against the Ibelins again. Not all in the Ibelin party were content with these terms, and some refused to celebrate. Henry’s attitude is strangely missing from the accounts. He was now 13, still two years away from his majority, and he was therefore still technically under the tutelage of the Lord of Beirut. Yet significantly, in the next incident recorded about King Henry, he no longer seems like quite such a pawn.

When in late 1231 Emperor Frederick sent a large force under his marshal Richard Filangieri to reassert his authority in Cyprus and Syria, Beirut was in Acre. Tipped off that the Emperor’s fleet was making to Cyprus, Beirut collected as many of his men as possible and crossed to Cyprus to join up with King Henry. They then rode together to meet the Emperor’s representatives. This suggests that while Beirut retained the nominal control of Cyprus as Baillie, he had deputized the actual governing of the island to others.

With the ports occupied by troops loyal to the Ibelins, the Imperialists did not risk a landing, instead, the Bishop of Melfi went ashore with a small escort to deliver a message to King Henry directly from Emperor Frederick. According to 13th-century chronicle known as the Eracles, the message was a blunt order to Henry to expel John d’Ibelin and all his kinsmen from Cyprus citing in quotation marks the following phrase:

“Our lord the emperor sends you word, as one who is his vassal, that you dismiss and require to leave your land John d’Ibelin, his children, his nephews, and his relatives, for they have done wrong. Wherefore he sends you his orders and forbids you as his vassal to harbor or shelter him [John of Beirut] in your land.” [4]
The Eracles notes that Henry, being underage, took counsel and then delivered his answer through a knight, Sir William Viscount. The answer as recorded in the Eracles was:

The king … greatly marvels that your lord the emperor made such a command to him, for the lord of Beirut is his own uncle by his mother, and it is well known that he [and his kinsmen] are vassals, wherefore he cannot fail them…”[5]

After the king had delivered his answer, Beirut stood and formally addressed King Henry in the presence of the Emperor’s envoys requesting the King’s support and offering to defend himself against any accusations of wrong-doing before the High Court of Cyprus. The Emperor’s envoys took note of both these statements and withdrew. 

It is hard to escape the impression that King Henry’s answer was crafted by Beirut himself and delivered by Viscount in order to make it possible for Beirut to stand and make his appeal for due process. Yet the substance was correct: King Henry was himself a nephew of John of Beirut. The Emperor’s demand that Henry expel all of Beirut’s kinsmen was tactless — not to say a calculated insult to Henry himself. It is highly unlikely that the 14-year-old king liked being ordered to do anything by a distant emperor — much less being told to expel himself from his kingdom.

Critics of the Ibelins are apt to argue that they were manipulating Henry. Certainly. Both parties were trying to use Henry. Yet the Ibelins appear to have been significantly more adept at doing it a way that did not offend the young king. After all, if Beirut — as we must assume — was technically Henry’s baillie, he could have made answer for Henry without consulting him; instead, he allowed the king to act the part of king. In contrast, Emperor Frederick rode roughshod over Henry’s wishes and appears to have accorded him none of the courtesies due to a monarch. In short, Beirut (not being an Emperor) treated Henry with more respect, deferring to him, treating him like a king, and so winning his support rather than demanding it.  

This is demonstrated even more clearly in the next episode. Rebuffed by King Henry and facing the full force of Ibelin troops at the ports, the Imperial forces hoisted sail and crossed to Syria where they captured without resistance Beirut’s seat of power and revenue: Beirut itself. With almost all of Beirut’s men on Cyprus, the capture of Beirut was easy and bloodless. This has led some historians to speculate that the halt in Cyprus was a ruse all along, intended to lure Ibelin forces across the water and leave the real prize ripe for seizure. The only blemish to the plan was that the garrison of Beirut, small as it was, refused to cave-in and held out for Ibelin.

Beirut, however, was caught flat-footed. He could have taken all his men back to Syria to try to lift the siege, but he rightly estimated that the forces he had were inadequate. He, therefore, made a dramatic appeal to King Henry before the High Court of Cyprus, which — according to Novare — was assembled in full force.  Novare, who was an eye-witness, describes what happened next.

[Beirut] arose and stood — he had a habit of crossing his legs when he was standing — and, as he knew so well to do, he spoke loudly and to the point. He said: ‘Sire, … by me and by my family was your father lord and held the land; and if we had not supported him he would have been disinherited or dead. When God made his commandment of him you were but nine months old and we nourished you, you and your land, thank God, until this day; for had we not given you freely of our own, the duke of Austria would have disinherited you, and twice you have been in a bad state or worse… Now it has happened that the Longobards have taken my city and besieged my castle so closely that it is in danger of being lost, and ourselves and all our Syrian men disinherited. Wherefore I pray you, by God and by your honor, for our great services and because we are of one blood…that you come in person in all your power with me to succor my castle.[6]

Significantly, what the Lord of Beirut did next was kneel “as if to kiss the foot of the king.” Equally significant, Henry did not let him, but rather rose to his own feet (causing the rest of his vassals to kneel) and declare his full support — i.e. the feudal army of Cyprus in its entirety — for Beirut. Was Henry still a puppet? Was the entire scene carefully staged? We can’t know for sure, but we have no indications that Henry dragged his feet or showed reluctance. 

Henry crossed to Syria with his army in bad weather, arriving after what is described as a terrible crossing, making landfall at Puy du Constable in the County of Tripoli. Here the three former baillies (who had held the King in St. Hilarion but received full pardons at surrender) deserted the Cypriot army. They eventually joined the Imperial forces besieging Beirut. They justified their actions in terms of loyalty to the Hohenstaufen emperor, who was the overlord of Cyprus and by claiming that King Henry was a “captive” of the Ibelins and not acting of his free will.

Their desertion weakened the Cypriot army sufficiently to make it impossible for Beirut to effectively relieve his castle. Although he was able to slip roughly 100 fighting men through the Emperor’s blockade of galleys to reinforce the garrison, he was forced to withdraw to Acre to try to recruit more supporters. King Henry remained with Beirut, whether voluntarily or not remains the question. 

As soon as Beirut withdrew to Acre, the three former baillies took advantage of the fact that the Cypriot transport ships had been wrecked on the coast in a gale and returned to Cyprus. Here they dropped all pretense of serving King Henry and in the name of the emperor took control of the ports, preparing the way for a full-scale invasion by imperial troops to follow.

Neither they nor the Emperor’s marshal had reckoned with Beirut successfully luring increasing numbers of Syrian knights to his cause and, more important, gaining the support of the Genoese with their fleet. In late April, Beirut started north with a large land force supported by a Genoese flotilla. He announced his intention to capture the city of Tyre, which the Emperor's marshal and deputy Riccardo Filangieri had made his base of operations and government in the face of persistent and vehement hostility at Acre. (Acre was the city whose citizens had thrown offal after at the Holy Roman Emperor on his departure; it was to prove a staunch opponent of Hohenstaufen ambitions throughout the century.)

Filangieri felt sufficiently threatened to recall the troops besieging Beirut (effectively handing it back to Beirut), but he also pulled off a surprise night attack on the Ibelin army while it was camped at Casal Imbert. The Lord of Beirut and his heir were both absent at the time, but three of his younger sons and many of his most important knights and vassals failed to take elementary precautions against an attack and were caught sleeping. The camp was overrun, the Ibelins lost nearly all their horses and equipment, the Genoese lost their ships, and twenty-five knights were taken captive. 

And King Henry? King Henry was put “almost naked” (one presumes in his nightshirt) on another man’s horse (the closest at hand? The fastest?) and told to ride to Acre to get help from the Lord of Beirut. Without an escort or companions, Henry galloped the roughly 8 miles to arrive at the gates of Acre causing a sensation. His feelings can only be imagined: he must have feared for his entire army and indeed his own life, not to speak of his crown and his dignity. To add a particular poignancy to the event, it was his fifteenth birthday, May 4, 1232 — the day on which he came of age.

King Henry’s story continues next week.

[1] Text of Frederick II’s letter to John of Beirut, contained in La Monte’s notes to Philip de Novare, Frederick II’s Wars against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 74.
[2] Novare, Philip, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, trans John La Monte (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936), 94-95.
[3] Novare, 98.
[4] French Continuation of William of Tyre (Eracles), quoted in La Monte (trans), The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936) 119f.
[5] Eracles, 120f.
[6] Novare, Philip, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, trans. John La Monte (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936) 123-124.

Henry plays an important role in my current series, "The Rebels of Outremer":

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