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Monday, December 26, 2022

The Franks on Cyprus

 Just as the native population of Cyprus differed in character from the local inhabitants of Syria and Palestine, the Frankish elite that established itself on Cyprus also differed in subtle but significant ways from the elite of the earlier crusading states. Frankish rule was created on Cyprus not by crusaders who had slogged their way across Europe and Asia in a grueling campaign inspired by religious fervor and characterised by hardship, attrition, and blood, but rather by the disinherited descendants of those first crusaders. 


The first Frankish lord, Guy de Lusignan, had the dubious honour of being responsible for the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and, with it, the respect of his vassals and subjects. When he arrived in Cyprus in late 1192 with only a few supporters as landless as himself, he was a deposed king, unable to come to terms with his fate and still claiming his lost crown. Fortunately for Cyprus, Guy de Lusignan died within two years of his arrival, and his far more competent elder brother Aimery shaped the future kingdom. 

Although not born in Outremer, Aimery had settled there around 1170. He married into one of the established families, the Ibelins, and rose to Constable of the Kingdom under Baldwin IV. When Aimery stepped into his brother's shoes as Lord of Cyprus in 1194, he was more ‘Poulain’ than crusader. That meant he understood compromise, adaptation and survival in an ‘alien’ environment. The knights with Aimery were likewise men who had lost their lands in Syria, men who had once held fiefs in Oultrejourdain and Galilee, in Hebron, Bethsan, Nazareth or Ascalon – all the areas of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem that had not been regained in the course of the Third Crusade. They, too, knew that survival in the Near East required more than a force of arms; it required cooperation with the native population and exchange with the surrounding states in the form of trade and diplomatic relations. 

The Lusignans adopted a conscious policy of encouraging immigration. According to legend, Guy sent word to Armenia, Antioch, Acre and throughout the Latin East, saying he would give land generously to all settlers. Allegedly, Guy offered to reward not only knights but sergeants and burgesses as well, and the response included ‘shoemakers, masons and Arabic scribes‘.[i] The reference to Arabic scribes is notable as it highlights that Orthodox Christians also resettled in Cyprus after the establishment of Frankish rule. In particular, Maronites, Melkites and Armenians appear to have moved to Cyprus, settling on the coastal plains, principally on the north of the island. These ‘Syrian’ immigrants were granted special status by the Lusignan kings, who recognized their service and loyalty to the Franks on the mainland and gave them special privileges. Immigrants from the mainland crusader states also continued to provide turcopoles and infantry for the armies of their Frankish lords. 

In the second half of the thirteenth century, Cyprus experienced regular waves of refugees from Syria and Palestine as one metropolitan area after another fell to the Mamluks. The waves became a veritable ‘flood’ of refugees in 1291 when the last vestiges of the crusader states on the mainland collapsed under the Mamluk onslaught. Yet, like emigration to America centuries later, it was rarely the destitute and unskilled who escaped impending disaster. The bulk of the refugees from Latin Syria were noblemen, knights, affluent merchants and administrators, or, at least, skilled burgesses. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Franks and their Syrian allies made up approximately one-quarter of the population of Cyprus, which means they were between 35,000 and 40,000 strong. 

Long before that flood, however, Cyprus benefitted from the arrival of the nobility of Outremer: the Bethsans, Gibelets, Montbeliards, Briennes, Montforts and, of course, the Ibelins. These were not landless families like most of the refugees, but powerful lords that retained sizeable landholdings and titles on the mainland. They had resources and interests outside the Kingdom of Cyprus, a fact that proved both advantageous and dangerous. On the one hand, their holdings in Syria enabled them to bring resources and men to Cyprus. On the other hand, their interests in Syria often led them to draw resources away from Cyprus to prop up their holdings on the mainland. Critically, and often overlooked, Cypriot fiefs held from these nobles enabled ordinary knights, who had lost their fiefs on the mainland, to maintain their character and status as landholders. The lack of a Syrian fief did not necessarily mean that a Frankish knight belonged to the landless urban class, living on the handouts from the crown; many knights such as Philip de Novare held land-fiefs from the Syrian barons — on Cyprus. 

The Kings of Cyprus, on the other hand, were surrounded not by jihadist states but by water. The fiefs they distributed brought their holders income and status without requiring huge investments in the construction, manning and maintenance of expensive fortresses. The nobles of Cyprus had money for the pleasures of life – hunting, hawking, patronage of the arts and church. For the kings, it meant that the nobility was not well-positioned to rebel and far more dependent on royal patronage for status and prestige. 

The Cypriot nobles became famous for their wealth and love of pleasure. One visitor in the mid-fourteenth century claimed that the Cypriot knights and nobles were the richest in the world. He noted that the Count of Jaffa (a Cypriot, despite the title) had 500 hunting dogs, while others had dozens of falconers and some kept leopards for hunting. They also engaged in frequent tournaments. The Lusignan palace in Nicosia was considered one of the finest in the medieval world, with a great throne room, many golden ornaments, tapestries, paintings, organs, clocks, multiple baths and fountains, gardens and a menagerie.[ii] Unfortunately, the Lusignan palaces were destroyed during the Ottoman occupation, and all that remains are fragments now preserved in the museums of Cyprus. 


No description of medieval Cyprus is complete without reference to slavery. Unlike the Latin Church, the Orthodox Church did not condemn the slavery of fellow Christians. In the crusader states on the mainland, Latin dominance was strong enough to eliminate Christian slavery despite tolerating the enslavement of Muslims, primarily captives. In Cyprus, however, the custom of owning slaves was so widespread among the native elites that the ‘tolerance’ of the Lusignans shamefully extended to the acceptance of Christian slavery.

[i] Continuation of William of Tyre quoted in Peter Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1194-1374 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 16.

[ii] A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, Vol. 4, ed. Harry W. Hazard (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 175.



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.


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