Last week I challenged the common myth about the peaceful reception of Guy de Lusignan on Cyprus. There is, however, another “myth” which I question: namely the late arrival of the Ibelins on Cyprus. Throughout the 13th Century, the Ibelins were the dominant family in Outremer, challenging the Holy Roman Emperor on both the mainland and on Cyprus. Significantly, they consistently enjoyed the favor of the Lusignan kings. This, I believe, had roots in their pivotal role in establishing Lusignan rule in the first place.
Historians such as Edbury posit that the Ibelins were inveterate opponents of the Lusignans until the early 13th century. They note that there is no record of Ibelins setting foot on the island of Cyprus before 1210 and insist that it is “certain” they were not among the early settlers―while admitting that it is impossible to draw up a complete list of the early settlers. Edbury, furthermore, admits that “it is not possible to trace [the Ibelin’s] rise in detail” yet argues it was based on close ties to King Hugh I. Close? Hugh was the son of a cousin, which in my opinion is not terribly “close” kinship.
Even more difficult to understand in the conventional version of events is that the Ibelins became so powerful and entrenched that within just seven years (1217) of their supposed “first appearance” on Cyprus an Ibelin was appointed regent of Cyprus, presumably with the consent of the Cypriot High Court--that is the barons and bishops of the island who had supposedly been on the island far longer. Furthermore, it ignored closer relative. This hardly seems possible if the Ibelins were not already considered a "leading" family on Cyprus.
My thesis and the basis of my novel The Last Crusader Kingdom is that while the second generation of Ibelins (that is, Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin) were inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan, they were on friendly terms with Aimery de Lusignan. Aimery was, for a start, married to Baldwin’s daughter, Eschiva. We have references, furthermore, to them “supporting” Aimery as late as Saladin’s invasion of 1183. I think the Ibelins were very capable of distinguishing between the two Lusignan brothers, and judging Aimery for his own strengths rather than condemning him for his brother’s weaknesses.
Furthermore, the conventional argument that Balian d’Ibelin died in late 1193 because he disappears from the charters of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at that date is reasonable -- but not compelling. The fact that Balian d’Ibelin disappears from the records of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1193 may mean that he died, but it could just as easily mean that he was occupied elsewhere. The Ibelin brothers of the next generation, John and Philip, "disappear" from the records of Jerusalem from 1210 to 1217 too, but they were very much alive, active and powerful -- one in Beirut and the other apparently on Cyprus.
In short, Balian's disappearance from the records of Jerusalem could also have been because he was busy on Cyprus. The lack of documentary proof for his presence on Cyprus is not grounds for dismissing the possibility of his presence because 1) the Kingdom of Cyprus did not yet exist so there was no chancery and no elaborate system for keeping records, writs and charters etc., and 2) those who would soon make Cyprus a kingdom were probably busy fighting 100,000 outraged Orthodox Greeks on the island!
But why would Balian d’Ibelin go to Cyprus at this time?
Because his wife, Maria Comnena, was a Byzantine princess. Not just that, she was related to the last Greek “emperor” of the island, Isaac Comnenus. She spoke Greek, understood the mentality of the population, and probably had good ties (or could forge them) to the Greek/Orthodox elites, secular and ecclesiastical, on the island. She had the means to help Aimery pacify his unruly realm, and Balian was a proven diplomat par excellence, who would also have been a great asset to Aimery.
If one accepts that Guy de Lusignan failed to pacify the island in his short time as lord, then what would have been more natural than for his successor, Aimery, to appeal to his wife’s kin for help in getting a grip on his unruly inheritance?
If Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena played a role in helping Aimery establish his authority on Cyprus, it is nearly certain they would have been richly rewarded with lands/fiefs on the island once the situation settled down. Such feudal holdings would have given the Ibelins a seat on the High Court of Cyprus, which explains their influence on it. Furthermore, these Cypriot estates would most likely have fallen to their younger son, Philip, because their first born son, John, was heir to their holdings in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. John was first Constable of Jerusalem, then Lord of the hugely important port city of Beirut, and finally, after King Aimery’s death, regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for his niece. Philip, on the other hand, was constable of Cyprus under Hugh I and later regent of Cyprus for Henry I ― notably despite the fact that his elder brother was still alive at the time.
The role of the Ibelins -- and particularly Maria Comnena -- needs to be rethought, but in the absence of hard evidence I have done so in novel form.
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