Although Eschiva d'Ibelin never wore a crown, she was the founder of a dynasty that ruled Cyprus for roughly 300 years. Eschiva was married to a landless adventurer as a child and ended up married to a king without changing husbands. While we know very little about her, what we do know hints at a vital role during a critical juncture in history.
Eschiva was the daughter of Baldwin d'Ibelin, who held the barony of Ramla and Mirabel by right of his wife, Richildis. Eschiva’s birthdate is not recorded, but she must have been born about 1165 and had one sister, Stephanie. The Ibelins’ comparatively low rank at this time is illustrated by the fact that Stephanie married Amaury, viscount of Nablus (i.e., a household official, not a lord), while Eschiva was married to a landless adventurer from France, Aimery de Lusignan. Aimery was the third son of the French Lord de la March, and he married Eschiva before his brother Guy came to Jerusalem and seduced his way to a crown.
Eschiva was probably already married when her father distinguished himself at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, an event which appears to have gone to his head and sparked new ambitions. In that same year but months before the battle, the heiress of Jerusalem, King Baldwin’s sister Sibylla, had been widowed, and rumours soon started to circulate that Baldwin of Ramla hoped to marry her. Of course, that was only possible if he could rid himself of his wife, Richildis, the mother of his two daughters. He successfully did, although she appears to have been blameless, and no grounds for the divorce are given in the surviving records.
Furthermore, the divorce did not bring him the desired results. Princess Sibylla was instead betrothed to the far more powerful and prestigious Duke of Burgandy. Ramla evidently consoled himself with a marriage to the daughter of the Lord of Caesarea, Elizabeth Gotman. Two years later, however, she was dead, and Baldwin’s ambitions again turned towards Sibylla. He may have had some form of encouragement from Sibylla herself because when he found himself in Saracen captivity in the summer of 1179, Saladin felt he could ask a king’s ransom for Ramla’s release. Presumably, the sultan had heard rumours that Ramla was about to marry the heir apparent to Jerusalem’s throne and would one day be king-consort. Furthermore, the Byzantine Emperor proved willing to pay a large portion of that ransom on the assumption that Baldwin of Ramla would become king of Jerusalem in due time.
Instead, Sibylla married Guy de Lusignan in haste and secrecy. This meant that with one stroke, Eschiva’s brother-in-law had snatched away from her father the prize he had been pursuing for roughly three years – and the justification for humiliating her mother.[RS1] That act created an irreparable breach between Sibylla’s father and husband. Although her father married a third time to Maria of Beirut, Ramla never reconciled with Guy de Lusignan.
Meanwhile, around 1182, Baldwin IV appointed Eschiva’s husband, Aimery de Lusignan, constable of the kingdom. While this was a prestigious and important position, Eschiva’s joy at seeing her husband raised in status may have been dimmed by rumours that he owed his appointment to an intimate relationship with Queen Mother Agnes de Courtenay.
At the death of Baldwin IV, Eschiva’s father and husband found themselves on a collision course. Aimery backed Sibylla and Guy’s usurpation of the throne, while Baldwin of Ramla opposed them and sought to crown Isabella. Although Sibylla’s coup was successful, and she crowned Guy herself, Ramla was one of two barons who flatly refused to accept it. Rather than do homage to his hated rival Guy, Ramla chose exile, abandoning his third wife Maria, his infant son Thomas – and Eschiva, who probably never saw him again.
While we cannot know what Eschiva felt, it is hard to imagine that such a bitter break between her father and her husband did not cause her emotional distress. On the surface, she remained loyal to her husband, but any joy in the triumph of Guy de Lusignan must have rapidly turned sour. Firstly, Aimery benefitted in no way from Guy’s crown; Aimery was neither appointed to new offices nor awarded lands and titles. Secondly, within a year, Guy had led the kingdom to disaster at the battle of Hattin, and Aimery was a prisoner of Saladin. Soon Ramla and Mirabel, along with Acre, Jaffa and Ascalon, had been overrun by Saladin’s armies. Eschiva was a refugee with several young children. Her father had disappeared, her husband was a prisoner, and she had no means to support herself or her children, let alone raise a ransom for her husband. We have no idea where she found refuge in this period of great uncertainty. The most likely scenario is that she joined the household of her father’s younger brother, Balian d'Ibelin, Lord of Nablus.
The Lord of Nablus had fought his way off the field at Hattin and was described by contemporary Arab sources as ‘like a king’ among the Christians in the immediate aftermath of Hattin. He extracted his family from Jerusalem before the siege began and had them taken to an unspecified place of safety, possibly Tyre or Tripoli. Most likely, his niece Eschiva and her children were welcomed into his household and maintained by Nablus as long as needed.
Meanwhile, after a year in captivity, Aimery was released by Saladin along with his brother Guy. He remained loyal to the latter, joining him at the siege of Acre in 1189. However, Eschiva’s whereabouts during this period are unknown. There is no mention of her at the siege camp of Acre. Had she been there, she would have attended her sister-in-law, Queen Sibylla, at the time of her death. It appears she was left somewhere safer. It is also possible that in the wake of Guy’s disastrous reign, she and Aimery were estranged at this time.
At the end of the Third Crusade, Richard of England sold the island of Cyprus to Guy de Lusignan. Meanwhile, Aimery de Lusignan is conspicuously absent from the names of those who went with Guy to Cyprus to establish his rule there. Instead, Aimery remained in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where he continued to hold the post of constable. However, his situation there was undermined by Guy’s resentment at losing the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was believed that Guy was plotting against Queen Isabella and her husband, Henri de Champagne, to regain the crown of Jerusalem with the support of the Pisans. When Aimery spoke up in favour of the Pisans, Henri de Champagne ordered Aimery’s arrest on the assumption that Aimery sided with his brother Guy. Aimery’s arrest aroused the anger of the other barons, however, and the High Court pressured Champagne into releasing him. Yet, there was no longer any trust between the two men, and Aimery could ill resume his tenure as constable. Instead, he followed his brother to Cyprus. There is no evidence that Eschiva went with him at this time.
In 1194, Guy de Lusignan died in Cyprus. Despite Aimery’s years of loyal support and service to his younger brother, Guy slighted Aimery to bequeath the island to their elder brother Hugh. For Eschiva, Guy’s ungratefulness would have been particularly bitter given that Aimery’s loyalty to Guy cost her all contact with her father.
Hugh de Lusignan, however, had no interest in abandoning his French lands for distant Cyprus, and the rich island fell to Aimery by default. Aimery seized the opportunity and rapidly proved to be a far more able administrator than his brother had ever been. He pacified Cyprus, and opened it to immigration by those made homeless through Saladin’s victories in Syria, yet left the Greek civil service largely in control and made no disruptive changes to the tax structure. Likewise, although he established a Latin church on the island, he left the Greek church in possession of most of its lands and tithes. Finally, to elevate his own status, he offered to do homage to the Holy Roman Emperor for Cyprus in exchange for a crown. Emperor Henry VI agreed and sent word that he would crown Aimery when he came to the Holy Land on his planned crusade. In the meantime, the emperor sent the archbishops of Brindisi and Trani a sceptre as a symbol of monarchy. Aimery styled himself ‘King of Cyprus’ from this time forward.
Meanwhile, sometime after Aimery became lord of Cyprus, but before he was made king, Eschiva joined him. By then, she was roughly 30 years of age and had given Aimery six children, three boys and three girls. Two of her sons and a daughter, however, had died young. The surviving children were Burgundia, Helvis and Hugh. Significantly, Hugh was born in 1196, so he was presumably conceived and born in Cyprus after Eschiva had joined her husband there.
That same year, Eschiva took ill from an unknown cause, probably in the aftermath of Hugh’s birth. This led to her becoming a victim of her husband’s otherwise admirable efforts to curb the rampant piracy in the eastern Mediterranean. What befell her is described in considerable detail in the Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre. The account deserves to be quoted in full.
‘[The pirate Canaqui] learned that … the queen and her children had come to stay near the sea in a village named Paradhisi. The queen had been ill, and … had come there to rest and recuperate. As soon as Canaqui knew where she was, he landed with some companions. He was familiar with the lie of the land, and he came at dawn to the village where he surprised the people who were with her, captured the queen and her children, and took them off in his galley.[i]
‘After he had absconded with the queen, the hue and cry arose in the land and the news came to the king who was greatly angered … The king and queen’s relations and everyone else were very sorrowful at this shameful event that had taken place in the Kingdom of Cyprus … When Leo of the Mountain, who was lord of Armenia, came to hear of the outrage that had befallen King Aimery and his lady, he was deeply saddened because of the love that he had both for King Aimery who was his friend and for Baldwin of Ibelin whose daughter she had been. He immediately sent messengers to Isaac [the backer of Canaqui] to say that if he valued his life, he would have the lady and her children brought to Gorhigos the moment he read this letter. As soon as Isaac heard this order from the lord of Armenia, he accepted that he would have to do as he was told. He sent [the kidnapped lady and her children] to Gorhigos is fitting style, and when Leo heard of their arrival, he went to meet them and, receiving them with appropriate honour, did much to please them.[ii]
‘As soon as the lady had arrived in Gorhigos, he sent messengers to King Aimery telling him not to be angry or troubled for he had freed his wife and children from the power of their enemies. When the king heard this news, he was delighted at the great service and act of kindness [Leo] had done them. He had galleys made ready and went to Armenia, accompanied by his best men. There he was received honourably, and he was overjoyed to find his wife and children safe and sound’.[iii]
Several points are striking in this account. The reference to Baldwin d’Ibelin being a friend of Leo of the Mountain is intriguing, as it suggests that after leaving the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the former lord of Ramla went to Armenia. More significant for Eschiva herself, however, is that there is no hint of sexual abuse or disgrace. On the contrary, much is made of her being greeted with ‘appropriate honour’. Furthermore, Eschiva was clearly welcomed back by Aimery without recriminations or doubts. Was this because the kidnapper was Orthodox Christian rather than Muslim or because the entire episode was considered political hostage-taking rather than a criminal or military kidnapping?
Even in the absence of sexual abuse, however, the experience of being held hostage by a known pirate must have been traumatic in the extreme for Eschiva, both as a young woman and the mother of two young, possibly nubile, daughters and an infant son. Although Eschiva returned with Aimery to Cyprus, she appears to have never fully recovered from the trauma or the illness that had taken her to Paradhisi in the first place. Although she lived long enough to witness the reconciliation between her husband and Henri de Champagne, who came to Cyprus explicitly for that purpose, she died before she could be crowned. Her husband of more than twenty years was crowned and anointed king of Cyprus in September 1197 without Eschiva at his side. Within weeks, Henri of Champagne would fall to his death, and before the end of the year, Aimery had married the widowed Queen Isabella I of Jerusalem.
Eschiva lived in the vortex of Jerusalem politics in the last two decades of the twelfth century. She was an Ibelin by birth and a Lusignan by marriage. She founded a dynasty that would rule Cyprus for more than 300 years. But we do not know if she was politically active. Did she have a say in affairs of state? Did she whisper advice to her husband? Or did she console and support her sister-in-law Sibylla? Did she advise Sibylla not to renounce Guy, no matter the pressure from the High Court? Or did she see what her father and uncle saw in him, that Guy would make a disastrous king and try to talk Sibylla into abandoning him? Unless new sources come to light, we will never know.
Yet it does not take too much imagination to see Eschiva as the bridge that enabled the Ibelins to become the most powerful supporters of the Lusignan dynasty in Cyprus. Historians puzzle over the fact that the Ibelins, who were inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan, could quickly become so entrenched in his brother's Kingdom of Cyprus. Eschiva was likely the key.
[i] The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, 127, paragraph 149.
[ii] The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, 127, paragraph 150.
[iii] The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, 128, paragraph 152.
Find out more about the House of Ibelin in Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.