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Monday, August 30, 2021

King Henry I of Cyprus: The Child King

 He was called a “colorless personality” by historian George Hill[1], while the leading scholar on medieval Cyprus, Peter Edbury, says he “ruled Cyprus without ever… holding the limelight in the politics of the Latin East of his day.”[2] Yet he was king for 35 years, and it was during his reign that Cyprus came to replace the Kingdom of Jerusalem as the “focus of Western culture in the Near East.”[3] Furthermore, he threw off the yoke of the Holy Roman Emperor, establishing Cyprus as an independent kingdom. He undertook significant legal reforms, was a staunch supporter of his Greek subjects against encroachments by the Latin clergy, and maintained excellent relations with his own barons.

In short, Henry I may deserve a reassessment.

Henry was born May 3, 1217, the third child but the first son of King Hugh I of Cyprus and his queen Alice de Champagne. (Alice was the daughter of Isabella I of Jerusalem and her third husband Henri de Champagne.) When Henry was just eight months old, his father died suddenly, while absent from the kingdom on the Fifth Crusade.

According to the constitution of the kingdom, a minor king’s regent was his nearest relative resident in the Latin East, in this case, Henry’s mother Alice de Champagne. However, Alice showed remarkably little interest in wielding political power. Instead, she willingly ceded the power of government to a “Baillie” (a deputy) elected by the High Court of Cyprus, while retaining for herself the revenues of the kingdom.  The High Court, allegedly unanimously, elected in accordance with the dying wishes of King Hugh Philip d’Ibelin.  Philip was the younger son of Balian d’Ibelin and his wife the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. He was, therefore, the maternal uncle of the ruling Queen of Jerusalem Maria, and also the brother of the Lord of Beirut, John d’Ibelin. 
The new baillie’s first task was to ward off an attempt by the Duke of Austria to disinherit his young king altogether. The Duke of Austria presumably claimed Cyprus as spoils of the Third Crusade that his erstwhile prisoner Richard the Lionheart owed him in some way. The challenge was rebuffed by the barons of Cyprus led by Ibelin.

The next challenge was no less dangerous. In an effort to reduce the pressure on Egypt posed by the Fifth Crusade, the Ayyubids mounted a raid on Cyprus’ principal southern port, Limassol. Ships were burnt in the harbor and allegedly 13,000 Cypriots were killed or captured. This was the first Arab attack on Cyprus in roughly two hundred years and must have terrified the population and shaken the government under Ibelin, who very likely pulled troops out of the crusade to defend Cyprus.

Two years later, Cyprus was devastated by a severe earthquake which did damage to all three major cities, Nicosia, Limassol and Paphos. The latter was particularly impacted, with the castle and much of the city leveled. The extent to which Henry, a child of less than five, was aware of any of these events is questionable, but it is likely that he was aware of unease among his household.

The next crisis, however, impacted him directly. In 1223, Henry’s mother and his regent clashed so severely that his mother left Cyprus altogether, abandoning Henry and his two sisters to go to Antioch. From 1224 onwards, Henry was no longer in his mother’s care, but that of his baillie, Philip d’Ibelin. Henry was, however, by now seven years old. In the 13th century, this was the age at which boys often went to live with more distant relatives to begin their education and training as future knights and nobles. Henry, therefore, may not have found the transfer of guardianship and control particularly alarming. After all, he remained in the royal palace in Nicosia with his sisters, and his education and tutelage were in the hands of a man he already knew, his great-uncle, Philip.

Tellingly, the trigger for the dispute between Philip d’Ibelin and Alice of Champagne were tithes that had up to that time been paid to the Greek Church. Alice wanted these transferred to the Latin Church. Ibelin (the son of a Byzantine princess) argued before the High Court of Cyprus that “Greek priests should not be fleeced to satisfy the greed of Latin priests.” He further claimed that the Latin clergy was detested by the population, seditious and corrupt.[4] To the day he died, King Henry was to be a champion of the Greek Orthodox Church against encroachments by the Latin clergy. Indeed, he died in the midst of a dispute with the Latin Archbishop of Nicosia related to this issue.

In 1224, however, Henry is more likely to have focused on the fact that his mother re-married, taking as her husband the eldest son of the Prince of Antioch. She then tried to convince the High Court of Cyprus to recognize her new husband as her regent. She ran into stiff and unanimous opposition. The barons of Cyprus suspected Bohemond of Antioch of wanting to establish his own dynasty on the island of Cyprus, something that would require eliminating young King Henry and replacing him with a child he sired.

It is before this threat, perhaps, that one should see the surprise decision taken by the Cypriot High Court to crown Henry king in 1225 when Henry was only eight years old. There are other precedents of children being crowned at this age or younger (e.g. Baldwin V), but the circumstances differed. While most historians — with the benefit of hindsight — suspect Philip d’Ibelin of trying to check-mate expected attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor to take control of the island kingdom, it is just as possible he countering continued maneuvering from Alice of Champagne.  

In 1227, Alice of Champagne made a second attempt to replace Philip d’Ibelin with a man of her choosing. This time she nominated a certain Amaury Barlais, one of the barons of Cyprus. Although Barlais had opposed Bohemond of Antioch, he readily accepted the Dowager Queen’s offer to take the reins of government himself. However,  the majority of the High Court of Cyprus again balked and refused to recognize Barlais’ claim to rule for Queen Alice. Although King Henry at age ten had nothing to say in these affairs, Philip d’Ibelin was the closest thing to a father that he had ever known. It is therefore unlikely that he wanted to see him replaced by a stranger.

Yet in December 1227, Henry had no choice but to accept a change of regent: Philip d’Ibelin died after a long and debilitating (but undefined) illness. The High Court of Cyprus turned Henry’s fate and government over to Philip’s elder brother John. The reasons for choosing him are not recorded, but they were probably two-fold. On the one hand, Beirut was the closest male relative of the young king resident in Outremer, and on the other hand, he had experience in ruling a kingdom. From 1205 to 1210, he had been regent of Jerusalem for the then immature Marie de Champagne, the sister of Alice of Champagne. His rule was widely viewed as prudent and wise.

To what extent Henry knew John d’Ibelin before he assumed the role of Baillie in Cyprus is uncertain. Even after surrendering the regency to Marie de Champagne’s husband John de Brienne at her marriage, John held the rich and important Syrian barony of Beirut that he had built from ruins. This would have demanded the bulk of his time, and probably precluded him from spending much time in Cyprus prior to assuming the role of Baillie.

Nor did the Lord of Beirut have much time to develop a strong rapport with King Henry before a political whirlwind descended on the island in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Henry’s grandfather, Aimery de Lusignan, had done homage to the Frederick II’s father for the island of Cyprus in exchange for a crown. As a result, Henry I was technically a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor — and he was about to learn what that meant.

[1] Hill, George, A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period, 1192 – 1432 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; 1st ed. 1948) 148.
[2] Edbury, Peter, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 35.
[3] Hill, A History of Cyprus, 137.
[4] Hill, History of Cyprus, 88.

Henry plays an important role in my current series, "The Rebels of Outremer":

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Monday, August 23, 2021

The Ibelins on Cyprus

 In the past, I've challenged the common myth about the peaceful reception of Guy de Lusignan on Cyprus. There is, however, another “myth” which needs re-examination: 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. I believe there is a reason for that, albeit one which cannot be proven given the scanty documentary evidence. Below is a summary. 

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. 

Hugh, however, was only the son of a cousin. In a medieval society where almost everyone in the ruling class was related in some way or another, that tie does not seem compelling. 

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.  It was in that year that an Ibelin was elected regent of Cyprus by the Cypriot High Court--that is the barons and bishops of the island who had supposedly been on the island "far" longer. The appointment furthermore jumped over closer relatives. This hardly seems credible if the Ibelins were not recognized as 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 definitive. 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, for example, "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 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 and wealthy lordship 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 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 -- particularly Maria Comnena -- needs to be re-thought and re-analyzed. In the absence of hard evidence, however, Dr. Schrader has done so in the form of a novel.

Read the story in: 

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Last Crusader Kingdom - The Lusignans on Cyprus

 The history of Outremer in the 13th century was materially altered by the establishment of a stable Latin Kingdom on the island of Cyprus.  Today I look at how the Lusignan dynasty became established.  Unfortunately, the sources for the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus are not only scanty but dubious, leading me to develop two theses that challenge existing historiography. The first of these is presented below.

We know that Richard I of England, having conquered Cyprus in May 1191, sold it to the Knights Templar for 100,000 bezants in July of the same year. According to Peter Edbury, the leading modern historian of medieval Cyprus, their rule was “rapacious and unpopular,” resulting in a revolt in April 1192. Although a Templar sortie temporarily scattered the rebels, the causes of the revolt were hardly addressed and the latent threat of continued/renewed violence was clear. In the circumstances, the Grand Master of the Templars recognized that his Order would have to invest considerable manpower to regain control of the island.  He also recognized that he did not have the resources to fight in both Cyprus and Syria. In consequence, he gave precedence (as he must) to the struggle on the mainland, the Holy Land itself, against the Saracens. The Templars duly returned the island to Richard of England.

Richard promptly sold the island a second time, this time to Guy de Lusignan. Guy de Lusignan had been crowned and anointed King of Jerusalem in 1186 in a coup d’etat engineered by his wife, Sibylla. Although widely viewed as a usurper, the bulk of the barons submitted to his rule in order to fight united against the much superior forces of Saladin that threatened the Kingdom. Guy, however, proceeded to prove the low-opinion of his barons correct by promptly leading the entire Christian army to an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187. He spent roughly a year in Saracen captivity, while his Kingdom fell city by city and castle by the castle to Saladin until only the city of Tyre remained. Needless to say, this further discredited him with the surviving barons, prelates, and burghers of his kingdom. His claim to the crown of Jerusalem was undermined fatally when his wife, through whom he had gained it, died in November 1190. Although Guy continued to style himself “King of Jerusalem,” a fiction at first bolstered by King Richard of England’s support, by April 1192 King Richard had also given up on him. Bowing to the High Court of Jerusalem, Richard acknowledged Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. The sale of Cyprus to Guy was evidently a means of compensating him for the loss of his kingdom of Jerusalem.

Guy may have left for Cyprus at once, in which case he would have arrived in April 1192.  However, this is far from certain because the Third Crusade was still being conducted.  It is unlikely that Guy would have been able to recruit many knights to accompany him as long as Richard the Lionheart was still fighting for Jerusalem and Jaffa. A more likely date for Guy’s arrival on Cyprus is, therefore, October 1192, after Richard’s departure for the West. 

Guy was apparently accompanied by a small group of Frankish lords and knights whose lands had been lost to Saladin in 1187/1188 and not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. The names of only a few are known. These include Humphrey de Toron, Renier de Jubail, Reynald Barlais, Walter de Bethsan, and Galganus de ChenechĂ©. (Guy's older brother Aimery is notably absent.) 

Guy would have arrived on an island that was either still in a state of open rebellion or completely lawless. Admittedly, historian George Hill (who was actually an expert in ancient history, coins and iconography rather than a medievalist), tries to explain how Guy arrived on an island eagerly awaiting him by inventing (that is the only word one can use since he sites no source) the story that the Templars “slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; a number of Greeks who sought asylum in a church were massacred; the mounted Templars rode through [Nicosia] spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood…The Templars rode through the land, sacking villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains.” (George Hill, A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432,” Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 37.)

There’s a serious problem with this lurid tale. (Quite aside from the technical one of lances being unsuitable for spitting multiple victims.) As Hill himself admits, the Templars had just fourteen knights on Cyprus and 29 sergeants; the Greek population of the island at this time was roughly 100,000. Yes, in a surprise sortie to fight their way out of Nicosia and flee to Acre (as we know they did), the Templars would surely have killed many civilians, including innocent ones. It is unlikely, however, that the fleeing Templars would have taken the time to stop and slaughter people collected in a church; that would have given the far more numerous armed insurgents (who had forced them to seek refuge in their commandery in the first place) to rally, attack and kill them. They certainly did not have the time and resources to slaughter people in other cities and towns scattered over nearly 10,000 square kilometers. In short, we can be sure the Templars slaughtered enough people to be remembered with hatred, but not enough to break the resistance to Latin rule, much less to denude the island of its population. If nothing else, if they had broken the resistance, they would not have fled to Acre, admitted defeat and urged the Grand Chapter to return Cyprus to Richard of England!

Despite the absurdity of the notion that Guy arrived on a peaceful island willing to receive him without resistance, most histories today repeat a charming story. Namely: 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.” (See Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 16.) 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. According to this fairy tale, the dispossessed peoples of Syria, both high and low, flooded to Cyprus and were rewarded with rich fiefs, until Guy had only enough land to support just 20 household knights, but after that everyone lived happily ever after.

History isn’t like that, although―often―there is a kernel of truth in such legends. I think it is fair to assume that very many of the men and women who had lost their lands and livelihoods to the Saracens after Hattin did eventually come to settle on Cyprus, but I question that they arrived in the first two years after Guy acquired the island. The reason I doubt this is simple. The Knights Templar had just abandoned the island because it would be too costly, time-consuming and difficult to pacify.  In short, whoever came to Cyprus with Guy in early or late 1192 would not have found an empty island―much less one full of happy natives waiting to welcome them with song and flowers. On the contrary, they would have faced a population which had successfully expelled the Templars and ready to resist further attempts by the Latins to control and dominate them. Perhaps the one sentence about making the settlers marry local women is a hint to a more chilling reality: that, after years of resistance to Latin rule, when the settlers finally came, they found a local population with few young men but many young widows.

Furthermore, we know that at no time in his life did Guy de Lusignan distinguish himself by wisdom or common sense. He had alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV and nearly the entire High Court of Jerusalem within just three years of his marriage to Sibylla.  He lost his entire kingdom in a disastrous and unnecessary campaign less than a year after he was crowned king. He started a strategically nonsensical siege of Acre that consumed crusader lives and resources for three years. He did nothing of note the entire time Richard the Lionheart was in the Holy Land. Is it really credible that he then took control of a rebellious island (that the Templars thought beyond their capacity to pacify) and set everything right in less than two years?

I think not. 

And Guy had only two years because he died in 1194, either in April/May or toward the end of the year depending on which source one consults. That is too little time even for a more competent leader to be the architect of Cyprus’ success. That honor belongs, I believe, to his older brother, the ever competent Aimery de Lusignan, who was lord of Cyprus not just two years but eleven. 

It was certainly Aimery, who obtained a crown by submitting the island to the Holy Roman Emperor, and it was Aimery who established a Latin church hierarchy on the island. Indeed, there is ample evidence of Aimery’s able administration of both Cyprus and, from 1197 to 1205, the Kingdom of Jerusalem as well.  It was Aimery de Lusignan who collected the oral tradition for the laws of Jerusalem (that had worked so well) and had them written down in a legal codex known as The Book of the King.  Thus, it was Aimery, who founded not only the dynasty that would last three hundred years but also laid the legal and institutional foundations that would serve Cyprus so well into the 15th century. 

In short, in my opinion, it is far more likely that Aimery, not Guy, brought settlers in―after first pacifying the native population and institutionalizing tolerance for the Orthodox church that mirrored the customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is this thesis that forms the basis of: The Last Crusader Kingdom: Founding of a Dynasty in 12th Century Cyprus.

My second revisionist thesis concerning the Ibelins will be the subject of my next entry. Meanwhile, The Last Crusader Kingdom, is available in both ebook and trade paperback formats. You can buy it now on amazon. Remember, books make great Christmas presents! 

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Monday, August 9, 2021

The Templars on Cyprus - A Missed Opportunity

 Richard the Lionheart had conquered Cyprus not for his own gain nor for England or his dynasty. Rather, he recognized the strategic importance of Cyprus to the crusader states of the Levant and he had seized an opportunity to secure this vitally important island that controlled the sea lanes and could serve as a base for operations and a source of supplies. The Plantagenet king, therefore, made no attempt to hold on to Cyprus but rather sold it to an institution that appeared most suited and capable of securing Cyprus for the strategic purpose of supporting the established crusader states: the Knights Templar. Ironically, had the Templars managed the situation intelligently, they would have had their own independent base, similar to what the Hospitallers later established on Rhodes and then Malta -- and would have survived Philip IV's attacks and might still be in existence today. But the Templars completely fumbled their opportunity with tragic consequences. 

The Cypriot Coast from the Byzantine Castle of Kantara

In the summer of 1191 Richard I of England, cognizant of his inability to govern Cyprus, made the strategic decision to sell the island to the Knights Templar. It was a wise decision because he was fully engaged in a struggle to regain the Holy Land itself and also had a vast empire back in Europe that would inevitably require his attention sooner or later. By selling Cyprus to the Knights Templar for 100,000 gold bezants, Richard not only replenished his war-chest to ensure adequate resources for the task at hand (the war against Saladin for the Holy Land), he also ensured that the strategically critical island of Cyprus was in the hands of Christians fanatically devoted to the cause of securing and defending Christian control of Holy Land in the long run. It seemed like a perfect solution.

Professor Malcolm Barber in one of the best books on the Knights Templar ever written (The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 1994), notes that this was an opportunity for the Order to “establish their own independent state,” something later achieved by the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Hospitallers on Rhodes/Malta. It goes without saying, that had the Knights Templar controlled Cyprus from this date onward, they would have concentrated their treasure and forces there and so have been better positioned to withstand Philip IV’s attack on them in 1307. 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. It is located 65 km south of modern Turkey and 95 kilometers from the Syrian coast. Given its wealth and location, it the Templars had established themselves here in a sustainable manner the Order might still exist today. 

However, far from establishing a strong, independent state, the Knights Templar returned the island to Richard of England less than a year after they had purchased it. Barber explains their failure with the fact that “the project proved too ambitious,” (p. 119) while another historian of the Templars, John Robinson (Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books, 1991) noted that the Templars “totally committed to an active military campaign [on the mainland], could spare only a few men….” (p. 187). All sources agree based on common primary sources that the Templars committed only 14 knights, while George Hill (A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432, Cambridge University Press, 1948) adds that the knights were supported by 29 sergeants and 74 infantry. But the Templars didn’t just give up; they were driven from the island by a rebellion.

Given the fact that Richard of England had taken the island so rapidly in May 1191 (see Conquest of Cyprus I and II) largely because of widespread support from the population, an uprising against Templar rule was anything but inevitable.  Although he’d expropriated for himself half the royal revenues of the island, along with all the personal treasure taken from the self-styled “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus (who was widely viewed as a “tyrant” if not also a “usurper”), the English King's regime was not viewed as “oppressive” ― at least not in the very brief period he spent on the island. This may have been because he had promised a restoration of the laws as they had been under the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus.

It is possible that after the euphoria of defeating “the tyrant” had worn off, the inhabitants of Cyprus began to resent foreign domination. The population was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox by faith and had been part of the Byzantine Empire for since 330 AD, with only sporadic periods of Muslim rule. An indication of possible popular disaffection is the fact that, at least according Hill, there was one uprising against Richard’s administration by a Greek monk, related to the deposed tyrant.

However, it appears that Richard’s men (and only two knights are ever listed as being left on the island by him, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham) were able to put this rebellion down very easily, hanging the pretender, without any losses or apparent bloodshed. This rather suggests that the pretender had virtually no support. This is hardly surprising when we consider that Richard’s two knightly administrators would not have been in a position to institute any widespread changes in the laws and taxes of the island, but rather had been tasked to restore the laws of widely respected Manuel I.  Since Camville and Thornham could hardly have known what these Byzantine laws entailed, they would have been compelled to depend upon the existing bureaucracy to collect traditional taxes owed the monarch. In short, from the point of view of the population of Cyprus, Richard the Lionheart’s rule was a restoration to the period of good governance that had preceded the usurpation of power by the tyrant Isaac Comnenus and there was truly little to rebel against.
Cypriot Coast - "The Birthplace of Aphrodite" - on a calm day.

That was not the case under the Templars. On the contrary, when rebellion broke out on April 5, 1192 it was apparently supported by such a large number of people that the most effective fighting force in the Holy Land, famous for their discipline in attack and retreat and for overwhelming the best professional soldiers of Islam, took refuge from the angry mob in their commandery in the city of Nicosia. Furthermore, an offer to surrender the entire island in exchange for a safe-conduct to a port was rejected by the mob. This strongly indicates that the Templars were not just unwelcome ― they were hated.

Clearly, something had changed. So what exactly had they done?

Barber suggests the Templars “alienat[ed] the population with their heavy taxation and arbitrary rule.” (p.119). Robinson is more colorful (as usual) saying: “Their arrogance in taking whatever they wanted, and their insulting treatment of the local barons and people had generated increasing animosity….” (p. 191.) Hill argues that the Templars imposed fresh dues on the markets, in addition to the existing taxes, in order to pay the balance of the 100,000 bezants still owed to Richard of England. But people have a tendency to find ways to evade taxes, especially when the tax-collectors are in cahoots with the taxpayers as would have been the case here, given the small size of the Templar garrison and the continued need to rely on the existing bureaucracy.

Turning to one of the most credible primary sources, one based in part on the contemporary chronicle by a resident in Outremer, The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, (Peter Edbury’s translation published by Ashgate as The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade), we find a far more graphic and compelling reason for a revolt. Namely: “[The Templars] thought they could govern the people of the island in the same way they treated the rural population in the land of Jerusalem. They thought they could ill-treat, beat and misuse them….” In short, the Templars attempted to impose new taxes not traditional to the period of Manuel I (and so representing a breach of Richard’s promise), and more important treated the Greek Orthodox population (and one suspects their priests) as if they were Muslim peasants. 

What happened next has unfortunately become very distorted in some modern accounts. While sober accounts like that of Barber refer only to a “desperate charge” to free the Templars trapped in Nicosia, Robinson adds that they engaged in a “fierce attack on the local population.” Hill, an otherwise serious historian, indulges in a dramatic account, claiming:

On Easter Sunday morning, therefore, having heard mass, they sallied forth, completely surprising the Greeks, who had never suspected so small a force of so audacious an enterprise. The Latins slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; the mounted Templars rode through the town spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood….The Templars rode through the land, sacking the villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains. (Hill, p. 37)

Really? With 14 knights and 29 sergeants? Against a population that had successfully hemmed them into their commandery in the first place? And then, despite this complete and utter victory they gave the island up? Obviously not. This is sheer hyperbole, and significantly Hill does not provide a single source for his dramatic and exaggerated account. It appears more a device to set up the island as ripe for the arrival of Guy de Lusignan.

Turning instead to The French Continuation of William of Tyre we find an account that without whitewashing or minimizing the violence of the Templars nevertheless keeps things in perspective. Namely:

When Brother Reynald Bochard who was 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. They 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 island as their property, but…would return it to King Richard in exchange for the security that they had given him. (Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998. p. 112)

This account makes clear that the Templar sortie was a hard-fought battle (not a slaughter of “sheep”), and while the Templars managed to cut their way out at considerable cost to the Greeks, they headed straight for the coast to take ship for Acre and wash their hands of the entire island! The Templars did not leave behind a “desolated” and depopulated island, with the inhabitants cowering in the mountains. They left behind an island in the hands of the local elites. This is a very significant point and one to keep in mind when examining the establishment of Frankish rule on Cyprus under the Lusignans. 
However, there is also an element of tragedy in this short episode in the history of the Knights Templar. Had they handled the situation in Cyprus better, the Knights Templar would not have been vulnerable to King Philip IV's machinations just over a century later.  Although Templars might have been arrested and properties confiscated in France, the Order itself would have survived -- just as the Hospitallers did from their independent bases of Rhodes and then Malta -- to decay at its own pace. The nonsensical conspiracy stories and allegations of heresy etc. would never have taken root, and, who knows, perhaps the Templars would have proved a stronger bastion against the Ottomans. 

Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.University of Cambridge Press, 1994. 

Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998.

Hill, George. A History of Cyprus: Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432.  Cambridge University Press. 1948.

Robinson, John J.. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1994.

Cyprus is the setting of Dr. Schrader's most recent release: The Emperor Strikes Back

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Conquest of Cyprus - Part II

 The Crusader Kingdom of Cyprus endured two hundred years longer than its sister-states on the mainland, yet it had fallen into crusader hands more by accident than design (as described last week). Today I continue the story of Richard the Lionheart's strategic exploitation of an unexpected situation.

Cypriot Landscape
Had there been no storm, King Richard would have proceeded, as his fellow-crusader Philip II of France had done, without interruption all the way to Tyre/Acre. Only chance scattered his fleet, wrecked some of his ships on the shores of Cyprus and left his fiancĂ© and sister stranded there.  Yet even that would not have resulted in a conquest had the ruler of Cyprus, the self-styled Emperor Isaac Comnenus, acted hospitably to Richard’s ship-wrecked men and ladies. Instead, Isaac plundered the ships, imprisoned the survivors, threatened the royal women, and insulted Richard himself (see The Conquest of Cyprus I: Chance and Passion). Richard’s response was to teach the Byzantine tyrant a lesson, which he did by storming ashore, capturing Limassol and then scattering Isaac’s army in a dawn attack. Yet it still would all have ended there if only Isaac had been willing to come on crusade with Richard. Instead, he fled to the interior. 

Richard responded not with rage but with hard-headed rationality. It was at this point that he appears to have conceived the plan of taking -- and holding -- Cyprus for the crusaders. He rapidly developed and executed a well-crafted strategic plan that made effective use of his large crusader force and fleet. First, he divided his army into three parts. He sent some troops overland to pursue and if possible capture Isaac. He sent part of his fleet to the west and took the bulk of the fleet eastward. Both parts of the fleet secured ports and castles along the coast as they advanced.

Richard consistently made excellent use of his English fleet, using it in diverse ways to support his land forces.

The latter continued to be easy and bloodless due to the unpopularity of Isaac. Even before he left Limassol, Richard had been receiving homage from many of the local elite, most notably the Italian merchants. But it wasn’t only the foreigners that evidently welcomed Richard. Many of the Byzantine nobility also appeared to prefer Richard to Isaac — perhaps because they believed he would not stay long and they would soon have the island to themselves.

Meanwhile, at Famagusta Richard disembarked his troops and advanced toward the inland city of Nicosia. Expecting an ambush, Richard personally commanded the rear-guard of his army. Isaac obliged. The Greek despot's army was handily defeated yet again by Richard’s superior troops and leadership. Isaac himself, however, escaped as he had on all the previous occasions, and this time he fled to one of the nearly impregnable mountain fortresses, either Kantara or Buffavento.

Above: approach to Kantara

These castles, perched on the top of a steep, rocky mountain ridge so narrow that it was not possible to build courtyards or wide halls, could be held with very small garrisons. Attackers had to climb near vertical slopes to reach them, continuously under fire from the defenders — or starve the defenders out with a siege. While a siege was by far the more rational military solution, sieges take time, and that was what Richard of England did not have. Isaac Comnenus clearly expected Richard to give up, continue with his crusade, and leave him to re-take his island at leisure. 

Mountain Fortress of St. Hilarion
He might even have gotten away with it, if Richard’s fleet (the part that had sailed west and reached the northern shore of the island) had not, in combination with the forces sent overland, captured the coastal city and castle of Kyrenia. As chance would have it, Isaac’s only child, a girl, was in Kyrenia.

The girl has remained nameless throughout history, referred to only as the “Maid of Cyprus” or as her father’s daughter. Fortunately for the crusader cause, her father, despite all his other faults, loved her. He loved her so much that despite his comparatively secure position in an all-but-unassailable castle, he abjectly surrendered on June 1. Isaac set only one condition: that he not be put in irons. According to legend, Richard of England agreed, only to have fetters made for him of silver.

If Isaac’s hope had been that surrender would enable him to be reunited with his daughter, it was a short-lived reunion. Isaac was handed over to the Hospitallers, who kept him in a dungeon in Marqub (Syria) until 1193 or 1194. The year after his release he was allegedly poisoned for trying to incite the Sultan of Konya to attack the Byzantine Empire. He was dead by 1196. As for his daughter, she was turned over to the care of Richard’s bride and sister and sailed with them first to Palestine and later to Europe. She was used (just like Richard's sister Joanna) as a diplomatic pawn by Richard, and eventually married to an illegitimate son of the Count of Flanders. (During the Fourth Crusade the couple tried to lay claim to Cyprus, but were rapidly sent packing without anyone taking them seriously.)

Thus, in less than a month and with the loss of only two men (according to the contemporary sources), Richard the Lionheart had taken complete control of the rich and strategically important island of Cyprus. The port of Famagusta is only 118 miles from Tripoli, the closest of the crusader cities, and just 165 miles from Acre.  On a clear day, it is possible to see the coast of Lebanon from Cyprus. Furthermore, Cyprus was a fertile island capable of producing grain, sugar, olives, wine and citrus fruits in abundance.  Its location made it an ideal staging place for future crusades and a strong base for ships to interdict any Saracen fleets intent on preying on the coast of the Levant. Cyprus was thus both a bread-basket and a military base for the existing crusader states.

Ruins of a 13th Century Sugar Mill at Kolosi, Cyprus  
Richard of England profited immensely from his conquest. In addition to the plunder, he took on the battlefield (that included rich tents, gold plate, and armor according to tradition) he had also captured Isaac Comnenus’ treasury. Furthermore, he extracted a tax from the lords and burghers of Cyprus to support his crusade. All this replenished his coffers and enabled him to pursue the war for Jerusalem with sufficient resources to pay the men and purchase the material he needed.

Richard was not, however, interested in retaining control of the island indefinitely. It was too far from home (Aquitaine). Richard’s goal in capturing Cyprus was purely strategic, not dynastic. Rather than holding it for himself, he instead sold the island (thereby further strengthening his financial position) to the Knights Templar for 100,000 pieces of gold. The short and ironic history of the Templar rule on Cyprus is the subject of the next entry.

Cyprus is the setting for: