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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Franks of Cyprus

Just as the native population of Cyprus differed in character from the local populations found on the mainland of Syria, the Frankish elite that established itself on Cyprus differed in subtle but significant ways from the elite of the early crusading states.

The Frankish Abbey of Bellapais as it looks today.
Frankish rule was established on the island of Cyprus not by crusaders who had slogged their way across Europe and Asia in a grueling campaign characterized 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 honor of being responsible for the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and with it the respect of the vast majority of his 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 completely come to terms with his fate and always wishing himself back in his "real" throne of Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the history of Cyprus, Guy de Lusignan died within two years of his arrival in Cyprus and it was his far more competent elder brother Aimery, who shaped the future kingdom. Aimery, although not born in Outremer, came from a family with a profound history of crusading. Aimery's great-grandfather, Hugh VI of Lusignan, had fought the Muslims in Spain and joined the crusade of 1101. His grandfather Hugh VII took part in the Second Crusade. Aimery's father Hugh VIII died in a Saracen prison. All three of Aimery's brothers, Hugh IX, Geoffrey, and Guy took part in the Third Crusade. Aimery, however, was the first of his family to settle in Outremer, something he did in roughly 1170. He married into one of the established families, the Ibelins, and he rose to be Constable of the Kingdom under Baldwin IV. When Aimery stepped into his brother's shoes as Lord of Cyprus in 1194, he was far more a "Poulain" (a Frankish native) in his outlook than an outsider. That meant he understood compromise, adaptation, and survival in an "alien" environment.

He was surrounded, furthermore, by other "Poulains" rather than crusaders. His wife, Eschiva d'Ibelin, belonged to the third generation of settlers in the Holy Land; she and her parents had both been born there and her grandfather had come to Outremer sometime before 1115 -- possibly with the First Crusade. 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 and Bethsan and Nazareth or in Ascalon and Gaza -- all those areas of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem that had not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. They too knew that survival in the Near East required more than force of arms; it required cooperation with the native population and exchange in the form of trade and diplomatic relations with the surrounding states.

Although their names are largely lost now, we know that two sons of the Lord of Bethsan, Philip and Baldwin, went to Cyprus. A Renier de Jubail, evidently of the family holding that Syrian lordship, and a certain Reynald of Soissons, who had lost his fief in Nablus, also numbered among the knights of Cyprus. Notably, Humphrey of Toron, another man who had lost his claim to the crown of Jerusalem, was with Guy on the island. Guy and Humphrey had been married to two sisters, both Princesses of Jerusalem, and through their own actions had lost the support of the barons of the Kingdom; they must have made a sad pair. Like Guy, Toron disappears from the record before the end of the 12th century.

Aimery, in contrast, looked forward rather than back. In 1196, he obtained from the pope a bull establishing a Latin ecclesiastical hierarchy on the island with an Archbishop at Nicosia and four suffragans. More significantly, he surrendered Cyprus to the Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for a crown. Aimery styled himself "King of Cyprus" from 1196 onwards, and in 1247, Pope Innocent IV formally absolved the bonds between Cyprus and the Holy Roman Empire, making Cyprus a fully independent and autonomous kingdom.

Meanwhile, the island had benefitted from waves of settlers -- from the Latin East rather than the West. According to the legend recorded in the Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, Guy had sent "to Armenia, to Antioch, to Acre and through all the land" saying he would "give generously" to all settlers -- significantly not just knights but "sergeants and burgesses" too. The same account further stresses that they came: "shoemakers, masons and Arabic scribes...." [1] In short, it was not just the military elite that was invited to settle in Cyprus but everyone -- even the poor and possibly non-Latins as the reference to Arabic scribes suggests. In the second half of the 13th century, Cyprus would experience regular waves of refugees from Syria and Palestine as one metropolitan area after another fell successively to the Mamlukes. The waves became a veritable "flood" of refugees when, in 1291, the last vestiges of the crusader states on the mainland collapsed under the Mamluk onslaught.[2] Eventually, the Franks made up roughly one-quarter of the population of Cyprus, which put their number between 25,000 and 30,000.

Long before that flood, however, Cyprus benefitted from the arrival of other powerful families of Outremer: the Montbelliards, the Briennes, the Montforts, and, of course, the Ibelins. These were not landless families like most of the refugees, but powerful lords that retained significant landholdings and titles on the mainland. They had both resources and interests outside the Kingdom of Cyprus which proved both an advantage and a disadvantage. 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 out of Cyprus to prop-up their holdings on the mainland. Critically, and often overlooked, Cypriot fiefs enabled knights who had lost their fiefs on the mainland to maintain their character as land-holders. The lack of a Syrian fief did not necessarily mean that a knight inherently became part of the urban class, living in utter dependence on the handouts from the crown; many knights such as Philip de Novare held land-fiefs from the Syrian barons with property on Cyprus.

Of these families, the most important and most controversial was the Ibelins. The leading historian on the history of Cyprus, Prof. Peter Edbury,  argues that because Balian d'Ibelin was an inveterate opponent of Guy de Lusignan as King of Jerusalem "there was certainly no place for Balian of Ibelin" or his sons on Cyprus.[3] Yet Balian's sons already headed the witness list in 1217. Significantly, they also took part in the Fifth Crusade as vassals of the King of Cyprus rather than vassals of the King of Jerusalem. Last but not least, it was one of those sons, Philip, who was elected regent of Cyprus for the infant Henry in 1218. Had the Ibelin's really only "just arrived" this would be a meteoric rise indeed. But as Edbury himself admits the evidence is extremely scanty, with just five royal charters surviving for the years 1210-1217. In short, the absence of evidence may not be proof of the absence of presence. Certainly, Balian's son John "prospered during Aimery's reign" in Jerusalem.[4] Why should he not have prospered under the same king in Cyprus? (For more on this see:

The arms of Ibelin

The importance of the Ibelins is that they exemplify the nobility in Frankish Cyprus. While the daughters of the house married with the Lusignans a half-dozen times, the sons of the family dominated the Cypriot administration. Indeed, from 1230 to 1300 they monopolized the office of constable and from 1240 to 1360 that of seneschal -- all without making the office hereditary.[5] Yet they never threatened the status of the king. Edbury puts it this way: 
It is possible to see the Ibelins as over-mighty subjects attempting to dominate the crown, or alternatively as loyal cousellors and close kinsmen to whom kings would turn as a matter of course for advice and service. The history of the years before 1233 might lead one to suppose that the Ibelins were out to establish themselves as 'mayors of the palace,' intent on controlling and exploiting the crown for their own advantage. In fact the political developments in Cyprus during the remainder of the thirteeth century make it look as if the second alternative -- that the Ibelins were loyal counsellors -- was nearer to the truth. [6]
While this might have to do with the sterling character of the members of the House of Ibelin, it might also have to do with the fact that the Lusignan kings retained control of all the castles, the mint, and the judiciary -- in contrast to the situation in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the mainland, the major barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem -- the Prince of Galilee, the Lords of Oultrejordain and Sidon -- were quasi-independent. Not only did they have the right to administer justice in their domains, they also maintained massive fortifications (Kerak and Montreal in Oultrejourdain come to mind) and large retinues of knights, turcopoles, and sergeants. In short, the barons of Jerusalem had independent power-bases from which they could, if they wanted to, defy the King of Jerusalem. Reynald de Chatillon allegedly did just that, when he told King Guy of Jerusalem that the king's peace with Saladin did not apply to the barony of Oultrejourdain at all. 

Chatillon's powerbase at Kerak today
The Kings of Jerusalem had little choice but to accept the situation because they were dependent on their barons for the defense of a threatened realm. 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 the investment of large sums of money in the construction, recruitment, and maintenance of expensive fortresses and garrisons. The nobles of Cyprus had more 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.

It was for their wealth and their love of pleasure that the Cypriot nobles became famous. At least one visitor, Ludolph von Sudheim, claimed in 1340 that the Cypriot knights and nobles were the "richest in the world." He noted that the Count of Jaffa (despite the title, a Cypriot) had 500 hunting dogs, others had dozens of falconers, while still others kept leopards for hunting. They also engaged in frequent tournaments. The Lusignan palace in Nicosia was considered one of the finest in the world, with a great throne room, many golden ornaments, tapestries, paintings, organs, clocks, multiple baths and fountains, gardens and a menagerie.[7]  (p. 175)

Unfortunately, the Lusignan palaces were all destroyed during the Ottoman occupation. We have only fragments of them left in the museums of Cyprus.

The character and lifestyle of the Franks on Cyprus are carefully reconstructed in my novels set in Lusignan Cyprus such as:

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Continuation of William of Tyre (139) quoted in Peter Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1194-1374, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, 16.
[2] Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Chris Schabel, eds. Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374 (Boston: Brill, 2005)
[3] Peter Edbury, "Franks," Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 87.
[4] Edbury, John of Ibelin, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, (Bury St. Edmunds: Boydell Press, 1997) 29.
[5] Peter Edbury, "Franks," Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 89.
[6] Peter Edbury, Kingdom of Cyprus, 71.
[7] Hazard, Harry W ed., A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, Vol. 4 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1977) 175.


  1. Sounds better to be the King of Cyprus, rather than the King of Jerusalem.

    Another excellent piece, Professor.

  2. Sorry if I've asked this before, but do you think The Emperor Strikes Back will be on NetGalley? I have an EPub of Rebels Against Tyranny which I requested on there last year and started reading it this week :)


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