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Monday, August 22, 2022

The Establishment of the Kingdom of Cyprus

 The Kingdom of Jerusalem had survived -- just barely. Yet it is hard to imagine this fragile kingdom, stretching along the coast from Jaffa to Tyre, surviving for long, if Richard the Lionheart had not left another legacy: Frankish control of the island of Cyprus. This formerly Byzantine island had suffered the first Muslim attacks in 649 and in the succeeding centuries been fought over and exploited by both Constantinople and Cairo until firm Byzantine control was re-established in 965. How Cyprus came into crusader hands is the subject of this post.

 In 1185, a renegade from the Comnenus family arrived in Cyprus claiming to have been appointed governor. A year later, after the fall of the Comnenus dynasty, he proclaimed himself the ‘true’ Emperor and began a reign of terror. Contemporary Byzantine chroniclers claim that ‘he defiled himself by committing unjustifiable murders…[and] inflicting, like some instrument of disaster, penalties and punishments that led to death. The hideous and accursed lecher illicitly defiled marriage beds and despoiled virgins.’[i] While we can assume that much of this is polemical exaggeration, the fact remains that Isaac’s rule was viewed in Constantinople and by his subjects as illegal and tyrannical. The bulk of the aristocratic elites abandoned the island for the safety of Constantinople, leaving behind a cowed but discontented urban middle class and rural population.

Isaac was also known for preying on Frankish shipping, so it was not surprising that when three of Richard the Lionheart’s ships washed up on Cyprus in distress that the crews were captured and the cargoes seized. A fourth ship sought refuge in Limassol harbor having suffered severe storm damage. Aboard that vessel were Richard’s sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, and his bride-to-be Berengaria of Navarre. Fearing what would happen if they went ashore, the royal women refused Isaac’s invitations to disembark.

On 5 May 1191 Richard sailed into Limassol harbor searching for his lost ships, only to find his bride-to-be and sister aboard an unseaworthy vessel running out of water, but afraid of being held for ransom or worse if they went ashore. Richard sent an envoy to Isaac Comnenus requesting that his men be set free, compensation be paid for the property seized from his wrecks, and seeking permission to come ashore for water and provisions. According to all contemporary accounts, Isaac Comnenus returned an extremely rude reply.

Richard responded as could only be expected of the proud Plantagenet: he attacked.
The exact sequence of events varies according to which chronicle one follows, but there is no disagreement on the results: Richard seized control of Limassol without notable casualties. I
saac Comnenus’ army, however, was still largely intact. Richard had to eliminate this latent threat, so he off-loaded some of his warhorses, exercised them through the night to restore their land-legs, and then attacked Isaac Comnenus’ army at dawn the next day. Richard’s early morning attack caused panic among the despot’s troops. While Isaac took flight, Richard’s men overran the enemy camp, capturing huge quantities of booty — again without casualties. 

Richard returned to triumphant to Limassol. On 12 May he married Berengaria and had her crowned Queen of England. Still in a hurry to get to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, however, he granted comparatively mild terms for Isaac’s surrender. Isaac agreed to reparations for Richard’s ships and treasure, and promised to accompany him on crusade with a force of 1,000 men. In his absence, the strategic castles on the island were to be held by men appointed by Richard.

While these terms were undoubtedly humiliating for a self-styled emperor, they were a far cry from ‘unconditional surrender.’  Had Isaac complied with the terms of the agreement, the last crusader kingdom might never have come into being. Isaac, however, was not interested in the crusade and assumed that Richard was in too great a hurry to get to Acre to come after him.  He fled during the night.  

Perhaps encouraged by the fact that local noblemen, dignitaries and the Italian merchant communities were already doing homage to him, Richard chose to grasp the huge opportunity offered by Isaac’s betrayal and seize control of the entire island. This decision to take Cyprus was not a ‘diversion’ from crusading much less an act of greed. Rather, the conquest of Cyprus was Richard’s greatest contribution to the crusader cause.

To obtain his goal, Richard divided his army into three parts, and while a small group pursued Isaac over land, the bulk of his army re-embarked on the fleet. This split in two and, moving in opposite directions, systematically secured the surrender of coastal cities and castles. Due to Isaac’s unpopularity, this was achieved bloodlessly. At Famagusta Richard disembarked his troops and advanced on the capital Nicosia. Expecting an ambush, Richard personally commanded the rear-guard of his army. Isaac obliged and Richard handily defeated him a third time. Isaac again escaped, this time to the nearly impregnable mountain fortress of Buffavento.

Perched on the top of a steep, rocky corniche so narrow that it was not possible to build courtyards or wide halls, the castle could be held as long as supplied lasted by a very small garrison. Isaac assumed Richard would not waste time with a siege, but rather continue to Acre, leaving him to re-take his island at leisure. Unfortunately for Isaac, Richard’s fleet had not already taken the castle of Kyrenia and with it Isaac’s only child, a daughter. Fortunately for the crusader cause, Isaac’s love for her was so great that he abjectly surrendered on 1 June. In less than a month and with the loss of only two men, Richard the Lionheart had taken complete control of the rich and strategically important island of Cyprus. 

Cyprus is an island encompassing nearly 10,000 square kilometers of mostly fertile land including extensive forests. It has ample water resources, significant mineral deposits, notably copper, and a mild Mediterranean climate. The port of Famagusta is only 198 kilometers from Beirut and 295 kilometers from Acre.  Furthermore, Cyprus was capable of producing grain, sugar, olives, wine and citrus fruits in abundance. Its location made it an ideal staging platform for future crusades and a strong base for ships to interdict any Saracen warships intent on preying on the coast of the Levant. Cyprus was thus both a breadbasket and a military base for the existing crusader states.

That Richard’s goal in capturing Cyprus was purely strategic (not dynastic) is demonstrated by the fact that he almost immediately sold the island to the Knights Templar for 100,000 pieces of gold. Templar rule on Cyprus, however, was one of the most ignominious episodes in the history of the Order. Fully engaged in the Third Crusade, the Templars sent only 14 knights supported by less than a hundred other men. They were evidently not the best men. Within six months they had provoked riots. On 5 April 1192, a violent mob forced the Templars to take refuge inside their commandery in Nicosia. Greatly outnumbered, the Templars offered to surrender the entire island in exchange for a safe-conduct to the coast. The Greek rebels refused.

The French Continuation of William of Tyre tells happened next.

When … their commander and the brothers realized that the Greeks would have no mercy, they commended themselves to God and were confessed and absolved. Then they armed themselves and went out against the Greeks and fought them. God by His providence gave the victory to the Templars, and many Greeks were killed or taken. [The Templars] immediately came to Acre and explained what had happened to the master and convent. They took counsel among themselves and agreed that they could no longer hold the island as their property, but…would return it to King Richard in exchange for the security that they had given him.[ii]


The Templar surrender of Cyprus coincided almost exactly with the High Court’s election of Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. King Richard cleverly offered to sell Cyprus to the deposed King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan. Lusignan accepted the ‘consolation prize’, although it is doubtful he sailed for Cyprus before the end of the Third Crusade since few knights, sergeants or turcopoles would have been likely to go with him as long as Richard the Lionheart was still in the field.  Whatever the exact date of his arrival on Cyprus, Guy was accompanied by a small group of Frankish lords and knights whose lands had been lost to Saladin in 1187/1188 and not recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. Guy arrived on an island that was either still in a state of open rebellion or completely lawless.

Due to the scarcity of sources recording what happened next, most histories today repeat a charming story which probably originated in the now lost chronicle of Ernoul, a client of Balian d’Ibelin.  According to this source, as soon as Guy arrived on Cyprus he sent to his arch-enemy Saladin for advice on how to rule it. What is more, the ever chivalrous and wise Sultan graciously responded that ‘if he wants the island to be secure he must give it all away.’[iii] Allegedly, based on this advice, Guy invited settlers from all the Christian countries of the eastern Mediterranean to settle on Cyprus, offering everyone rich rewards and making them marry the local women. Accordingly, the dispossessed peoples of Syria, both high and low, flooded to Cyprus and were rewarded with rich fiefs, until Guy had just enough land to support twenty household knights. And everyone lived happily ever after.

This is a fairy tale. Guy did not arrive on an empty island; the population of Cyprus at this time was roughly 100,000. While most inhabitants were apolitical peasants, there were significant urban and ecclesiastical elites still on the island. These had welcomed Richard the Lionheart in order to rid themselves of a tyrant, but rapidly shown their mettle in a revolt against Richard’s administrators and again by their successful rebellion against Templar Rule. The Knights Templars had just abandoned the island because they believed it would be too costly, time-consuming and difficult to pacify.  In short, the large Greek Orthodox population on the island identified themselves as Romans (Byzantines) and most were not waiting to welcome ‘good King Guy’ as their overlord. Indeed, we know the names of two Cypriot patriots, who led continued resistance to Latin rule until nearly the end of the century, namely Isaac of Antiochetta and Kanakes.[iv] We also have references to abandoned villages and population flight in the accounts of the contemporary Cypriot abbot and later saint Neophytos the Recluse.[v] All of this suggests that a period of unrest and violence preceded the ‘happily ever after’ ending of the popular fairy tale.

Guy de Lusignan died either in April or toward the end of 1194 and was replaced as lord of Cyprus by his elder brother Aimery. By the end of Aimery de Lusignan’s reign in 1205, the island had both been pacified and transformed by the steady influx of immigrants from Syria, Antioch and Armenia. Furthermore, Aimery obtained a crown by submitting the island to the Holy Roman Emperor and also established a Latin church hierarchy on the island. Last but not least, Aimery founded the dynasty that would rule a prosperous and independent Cyprus for the next two hundred years.

[i] Galatariotou, Catia. The Making of a Saint: The Life, Times and Sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse. [Cambridge: University Press, 1991] 42.

[ii] The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, chapter 133, 112.

[iii] The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, chapter 133, 113.

[iv] Galatariotou, 220.

[v] Galatariotou, 203.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. The situation in Outremer following the end of the Third Crusade and the creation of the Kingdom of Cyprus is depicted in detail in The Last Crusader Kingdom.


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