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Monday, September 27, 2021

Religious Tolernce in Frankish Cyprus

 During the last century, the assumption was that during the reign of the Lusignans the Latin elite oppressed and despised the Greek Orthodox majority. However, historians of the 21st century have uncovered a wealth of evidence that suggests rather than tensions or mere tolerance, the dominant feature of religious life in Frankish Cyprus was mutual respect and joint worship. 

The key to understanding the religious situation on Cyprus is to recognize that the Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th centuries did not view Greek Orthodoxy as either heretical or schismatic. Throughout the period of Frankish rule in Cyprus, a succession of popes confirmed that the differences between the churches were ones of "rites" (i.e. practice) rather than doctrine.   

The tensions that misled historians of the last century into hypothesizing hostility and oppression were -- on closer examination -- competition between the clergy of the respective churches, not tensions between the believers of either church. Rather than dogma and theology, the two issues that agitated the Latin Church were access to Greek Orthodox lands and other sources of income and the primacy of the pope. The resident Greek clergy, on the other hand, was primarily concerned about retaining control over the lives of their flock and autonomy from Rome. 

The Latin church hierarchy on Cyprus incessantly nagged the crown and Latin nobles for more land and more income sources not from greed alone. It was also a reflection of the fact that the Greek church had, contrary to popular assumptions, suffered very few expropriations in the course of the conquest.  Furthermore, the land that was taken away was never that on which churches or monasteries stood, but rather the productive estates that had generated income for those institutions. The beneficiary of those land-grabs, however, was not the Latin Church but rather secular lords during the first decade of Lusignan rule. 

The Greek Orthodox Church was undoubtedly impoverished by the exodus of wealthy Greek aristocrats who had been it's most lavish patrons. It lost some of its economic land-holdings as well, but it retained all its churches and the tithes of the Orthodox population. The Latin Church, in contrast, had a very small population of Latins which it could tithe and otherwise had to live from donations. Notably, the secular lords of Cyprus repeatedly backed the Orthodox Church in stopping the Latin Church from claiming the lands of the Greeks -- in large part to protect their own properties!

The other principal point of tension, the primacy of the pope, was superficially doctrinal, but in practice an issue of prestige. Initially, the Cypriot clergy steadfastly refused to take an oath of fealty to the pope in Rome. Eventually, after a series of negotiations, the Cypriot clergy opted to swear fealty in exchange for effective autonomy. Professor Schabel summarized the deal as follows: 
Greek Orthodoxy survived the Frankish period not so much because of a successful national struggle against complete absorption as because the Greeks always remained the majority and neither the Franks nor the Latin Church ever attempted any Latinization. The Latin Church required what it thought was the bare minimum from the Greek clergy -- nothing from the Greek laymen -- and the Greek clergy gave the Latin Church what it required, including by the end of the thirteeth century, an oath of obedience from the bishops and an end to active opposition concerning unleavened bread. Almost all other particulars of the Greek rite, what we now call Greek Orthodoxy, were allowed to remain the same. [Chris Schabel, "Religion" in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191 - 1374, editor Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Chris Schabel, 201; italics addded by HPS]
The drawn-out struggle between the Latin and Greek clergies, however, had very little impact on daily life or popular attitudes. Only on three occasions in the history of Frankish rule on the island did the inter-clerical disputes rise to the level of popular unrest. Two of these instances, both from the fourteenth century, were riots "lasting only a matter of hours and directed successfully at the actions of a single outsider." [Schabel, 207] The other incident was far more serious and shocking. It entailed the burning at the stake of thirteen Orthodox monks in the mid-13th century.

The execution of thirteen Orthodox monks dates to either 1231 or 1232 -- in either case to a period of "chaos" when King Henry I was not yet of age. Indeed, King Henry was very probably not even present in his kingdom as from February until June 1232 he was in Syria with his regent and all his barons. Furthermore, the Latin Archbishop of Nicosia was also absent from the kingdom much of 1231 and early 1232. Most significantly, from May to mid-June, the Kingdom of Cyprus was occupied by the forces of the Imperial Marshal Riccardo Filangieri. 

In short, Cyprus was effectively without its legal rulers either secular or ecclesiastical for this critical period.  It appears that this fact was exploited by outsiders with no history of peaceful co-existence. At the urgings of a certain Dominican friar -- the Order of the Inquisition and possibly fresh from fighting the Alibigensians -- the Greek Orthodox monks were condemned to die a heretic's death. Yet, as the documents prove, they were not condemned because they used leavened bread, but rather "because for years they refused to stop calling the Latins heretics for using unleavened bread." Schabel suggests that despite knowing that the pope did not consider the use of leavened bread heretical, the Dominicans could "not tolerate the Greek accusation that they were heretics for their practice." (Schabel, 196). 

Sadly, these images of intolerance and violence, isolated and unrepresentative as they were, have dominated the popular image of the relationship between the churches on Cyprus. In fact, Frankish rule was characterized not only by tolerance but by patronage that fostered an expansion of Orthodox building. 

For example, the Frankish period saw a flourishing of Greek Orthodox monastic activity on the island. The number of monasteries on Cyprus more than doubled from 40 under Byzantine rule to over 100 by 1363. While a number of these monasteries were Latin (the Hospitallers, Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Augustinians all had three to four houses on Cyprus), Orthodox monasteries undoubtedly made up the vast majority of these religious houses. Furthermore, Orthodox parish churches, even in rural areas, also experienced an inflood of donations that enable renovations and redecoration. Far from languishing in oppression, the Orthodox church flourished under the Lusignans.

There were a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, the Lusignans viewed themselves as the kings of all Cypriots, not just the Latin Cypriots. The Lusignans and their (often Ibelin) wives regularly made generous donations to Greek Orthodox institutions. The nobility also made significant gifts to Greek Orthodox institutions, and there are recorded instances of Italian merchants doing the same. Indeed, by the fourteenth century at the latest, Latin prelates were complaining about "the noble and plebeian women" frequenting the churches of the Greeks, while their husbands "barons, knights, and burgesses" preferred to attend mass in private chapels. 

This situation arose primarily because of the large number of marriages between Latins and Greeks. With the Greek population so dominant, many immigrants found their wives among the local Greek population. The Italians, notoriously, left their wives at home, and one wonders how many took local "wives." Meanwhile, the rising Greek middle class that dominated the bureaucracy and increasingly merged into the gentry made good matches for younger daughters of poorer knights.

Another factor in the gradual slide toward Orthodoxy on the part of the Frankish population was the sheer lack of Latin parish churches. Even in Nicosia, the capital and heart of Frankish Cyprus, the Latin Cathedral was the only parish church. The suffragan bishops also had their cathedrals, but for Franks living outside the main cities, those living on their estates, there were no Latin churches at all. As a result, we have instances of Latin knights and ladies buried in Orthodox churches. The assumption must be that during their lives they also regularly attended mass at these churches, confessed their sins to the Orthodox priests, and possibly married and baptized children there as well. 

Even those Latins who remained true to their traditions gradually absorbed elements of Greek religious culture into their lives and churches. Cypriot saints such as Barnabas, Hilarion, and Epiphanios were worshiped in Latin as well as Orthodox churches. Latin patrons developed a taste for icons, particularly the vita icons that surrounded a portrait of the saint with scenes from his/her life. Frankish artisans became adept at producing icons. Indeed, icons have been found with labeling in the same hand in both Greek and Latin, suggesting that they hung in churches used by both Greek and Latin congregations.

In short, despite the bickering between the Latin and Greek clergy over hierarchy and income, for the average Cypriot whether Greek and Latin the shared belief in Christianity was paramount. Rather than hostility or tensions, the people of Cyprus worshiped Christ and his saints together evolving a distinctive form of almost ecumenical sacred architecture and other art forms. 

For more on the disputes between the Cypriot clergy and the pope as well as the evolution of unique art forms see: Nicolaou-Konnari, Angel and Chris Schabel (eds). Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191 - 1374 (London: Brill, 2005).

My most recent novels set in medieval Cyprus reflect this overall atmosphere of inter-faith cooperation punctuated by moments of tensions:

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Monday, September 20, 2021

A Thirteenth Century Economic Powerhouse: Cyprus

 The importance of Cyprus to the crusader states can hardly be overstated. Cyprus protected the sea lanes to the Levant. It provided a staging ground for offensive action and a place of refuge in defeat. It provided many of the lords and knights of Outremer with the rural estates so important to raising and training both men and horses for medieval warfare. Yet first and foremost it was the wealth of Cyprus, the resources it could put at the disposal of the mainland crusader states, that made it such a valuable addition to the Latin East. Today I look more closely at the components of its economy. 

Ruins of a 13th century Sugar Factory at Kolossi; sugar was an immensely lucrative cash crop throughout the Lusignan period from the start of the 13th century to the end of the 14th.
Cyprus is roughly 3,500 square miles in size, 225 miles long and 95 miles wide, with a coastline 400 miles long. At the time of Richard the Lionheart's invasion (see:, historians estimate the population was at most 100,000 strong. Of that, the vast majority of the population were Greek peasants, with a very small ruling elite of Greek aristocrats, bureaucrats, and clergy.  There were also small communities of foreigners, mostly Armenians, Maronites, Syrian Christians, and Jews. A province of only secondary or tertiary importance to the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople, the economic base of Byzantine Cyprus was agriculture with small quantities of commodity exports. 

Richard the Lionheart's conquest leading to the establishment of the Lusignan dynasty on Cyprus two years later initially had little or no impact on the economy. The conquest neither dislocated large numbers of people nor altered the structure of land tenure nor the means of production. For the vast majority of the Cypriot rural population, the change in regime meant only that the landlords changed. Where once the landlords had been (often absentee) Greek aristocrats, after the establishment of Lusignan rule they were Latin noblemen, also often absentee, predominantly from the crusader states. These landlords now held their estates as feudal fiefs with obligations to the crown, but for the peasant little changed. Likewise, Imperial lands became part of the royal domain, but the duties and dues remained the same for the tenants. 

What changed was the explosion in commercial activity. Arguably, this would have happened even without the change in regime. The loss of the interior of the Kingdom of Jerusalem combined with the recovery of the Levantine coast for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem meant that the Christian cities on the mainland were no longer self-sufficient in food and other products. They were dependent on imports for basic commodities, most of which Cyprus was readily able to provide. Whether this development was inevitable or not, commerce became the face of Lusignan Cyprus and contributed to dramatic economic growth that made the Lusignan period one of the most prosperous in Cypriot history.

Furthermore, the demands of trade triggered a diversification of the Cypriot economy. In addition to its traditional agricultural products of wheat, barley and pulses, Cyprus began to produce -- and export -- carobs, fish, meat, flax, cotton, onions and rice. Minor exports of saffron, nutmeg, pepper, and other spices were also recorded. Last but not least, Cyprus exported salt, a highly lucrative commodity -- so lucrative in fact that the Lusignans maintained a royal monopoly on its extraction. 

More important economically, however, was the move away from the export of raw products toward agricultural processing. As a rule, the more refined a product is, the greater the value and so the greater the profit that can be derived from its sale. Cyprus under the Lusignans produced and exported a variety of processed agricultural goods such as wine, olive oil, wax, honey, soap, cheese and above all sugar. Indeed, the production of sugar on an industrial scale became one of Cyprus' most important sources of revenue. 

Furthermore, under the Lusignans, Cyprus developed entire new industries. The manufacturing of pottery flourished at Paphos, Lemba, Lapithos, and Engomi. Textile production also developed from the mid-thirteenth century onwards including the production of samite, camlets, and silk, and the textiles were often dyed locally, increasing the value-added captured on the island. Other examples of high-value products were the production and export of icons and manuscripts. 

Notably, excavations show that Cyprus employed the cutting-edge technology of the age, notably highly sophisticated waterworks to power its mills and then reuse the water to irrigate surrounding fields. Leading crusades scholar Nicholas Coureas concludes:
The sophistication of Cypriot agriculture is best seen in the Lusignan plantations around Potamia south of Nicosia. The recently excavated system of wells, waterwheels, canals and mills irrigated the fields and processed produce of the royal estate. ("Economy" in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191 - 1374, editors Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Christ Schabel [London: Brill, 2005] 113.)

It is no coincidence that this splendid example of first-rate agricultural practices was found on a royal estate. Coureas estimates that as much as one-third of Cyprus' arable land was held in the royal domain. Nor did Lusignan control end there. The Lusignans were more Byzantine than Western in their tight control over the Cypriot economy, building on a system of centralized administration that they inherited from the Byzantines -- including the personnel! 

In contrast to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the kings of Cyprus maintained a monopoly on minting coins and also established kingdom-wide standards for a variety of wares. They instituted some price controls (notably on bread) and maintained control of public highways. Perhaps most important, they granted far fewer privileges to the Italian city-states than did the crusader states on the mainland.

Last but not least, Cyprus was home to a shipbuilding industry and banking, two of the most important economic sectors of the age. The former was concentrated in Famagusta and grew up mostly after the fall of the shipbuilding centers on the Syrian coast, banking was centered in Nicosia, which became a major center for money lending. So much so, in fact, that it attracted the outrage of the Church by the introduction of a variety of shady measures designed to evade laws against usury. Coureas notes that despite the de facto high interest charged, customers were clearly prepared to borrow anyway, a strong indication of just how lucrative commercial activities on Cyprus were in the thirteenth-century. 

This positive picture is marred by the fact that Cyprus clung to Byzantine traditions in another, less admirable, way also: slavery was practiced on the island. While in the 12th and 13th century most slaves were Muslim war captives, as the influence of the Italian city-states grew so did the number of slaves procured from other regions. This was because the Italian city-states were the principle slave-traders of the age, engaged primarily in bringing slaves from northeastern Europe to the voracious slave-markets of the Arab world. After the fall of the mainland crusader states, a major slave market developed on Cyprus itself, a fact that evidently encouraged the purchase and employment of slaves directly on Cyprus particularly in labor-intensive industries such as sugarcane production and viticulture as well as for domestic work. 

In retrospect, the first two hundred years of Lusignan rule was a "golden age" for Cyprus,  characterized by independent government and economic prosperity. Neither Venetian nor Ottoman rule delivered so many benefits nor such high standards of living for the population at large  -- including peasants but excluding slaves -- as did the centuries of Lusignan rule. 

 My most recent novels are all set in medieval Cyprus:

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Monday, September 13, 2021

King Henry I of Cyprus - Part III: An Unappreciated King

 Henry shared the historical stage with some of the most colorful and impressive figures of medieval history — Emperor Frederick II, John the “Old Lord” of Beirut, and King Louis IX of France, a Saint. These giants have dwarfed him, and he is largely forgotten or dismissed as unimportant. Yet under his reign, his island kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity. He fostered trade, defended the rights of his diverse subjects, and avoided squandering Cypriot resources in the defense of Syria. King Henry I of Cyprus deserves a reassessment.

The day of his greatest humiliation was also the day on which King Henry came of age. He had been forced to flee in his night-shirt on the back of a borrowed horse, while his entire army was decimated by the Emperor’s troops. Yet on his arrival in Acre as dawn broke, he was, at last, his own man. At fifteen, he was recognized as an adult, no longer tied to guardians, regents, and baillies. This meant that the Lord of Beirut was no longer his guardian and Baillie — he was his subject and vassal.

Henry was free to show his loyalties and make his own policies. He also had a very clear choice between the nearly destroyed Ibelins or the ascendant Imperial faction.

Henry had the option of returning to Cyprus, abandoning the Ibelins and blaming the Lord of Beirut for squandering his army, his resources, and his trust. In Cyprus, he could have embraced the former baillies. With Beirut and all his men in Syria, he could have — without risk — declared Beirut and the rest of his family traitors and confiscated their fiefs. Furthermore, he could have requested support from Marshal Filangieri in destroying the rebellious and traitorous Ibelins. Since Filangieri was already under orders from the Emperor to destroy the Ibelins, Henry would have secured the aid of Imperial mercenaries.

Instead, King Henry stayed with Beirut and started offering fiefs in Cyprus to any Syrian knights who would fight with him to regain his kingdom from the Imperialists. He also made substantial concessions to the Genoese, granting the wide-ranging trading privileges and immunities to secure a new fleet. He indebted himself to some of the Syrian lords to raise money to finance an expedition to regain his kingdom. Last but not least, he appealed (through Beirut) to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, complaining that the traitors (former baillies) had taken his ships, occupied his kingdom and were besieging his sisters. King Henry appealed to the Patriarch, who was also the Papal Legate in the Holy Land, to confiscate the Imperial ships in the harbor of Acre on the grounds that Imperial forces had deprived a crowned and anointed king of his navy and his kingdom.

The patriarch was reluctant to excommunicate the Emperor’s men, but he encouraged the seizure of the Imperial ships, which Henry’s supporters promptly did. King Henry returned in these imperial vessels to Cyprus, took Famagusta by surprise and advanced cautiously toward Nicosia. His army advanced through land which the Imperial forces had burned and wrecked. The sight of the harvest burnt in granges and broken mills, actions that impoverished both himself and his subjects, can only have increased King Henry’s hatred of the traitors and their Imperial puppet-masters. His feelings for his queen must equally have been soured further by the fact that she chose to retreat with the Imperial forces rather than welcome the return of her husband.

At Beirut’s command, the royal army camped outside of Nicosia to avoid a second Casal Imbert. The situation remained very precarious. Filangieri and the traitorous lords of Cyprus together fielded a force of more than 2,000 knights supported by a substantial force of sergeants and archers. The Cypriot army was had just 233 knights, still desperately short of horses (some knights had only one), and an unnamed number of sergeants. Furthermore, the castle of St. Hilarion where King Henry’s sisters were besieged was running out of supplies; there was a serious risk that the castle would surrender to the Imperial forces giving them valuable hostages. Under the circumstances, Beirut (who remained in command) opted to take the Cypriot army to the relief of St. Hilarion.

This entailed passing before the front of the Imperial army, that had taken up strong positions on the southern slope of the mountain range that runs east-west north of Nicosia. They sat across the road connecting Nicosia to the north-coast port of Kyrenia. This position was unassailable given the weakness of the Cypriot forces.

When the Cypriot army was strung along the east-west road leading to St. Hilarion below the Imperial forces, the pathetic size of the Cypriot forces was exposed to the enemy. This very weakness proved too tempting to the proud Italian leaders of the Imperial host. They charged down the slope to demolish the Cypriots. As soon as they abandoned their positions, Novare tells us, the Lord of Beirut fell on his knees to thank God. Then he remounted to defend his King. The King was kept in the rear of the army with Beirut, his youngest sons (roughly 15 and 16 years old) and his young nephew (later the famed jurist and Count of Jaffa). The battle was won by the Ibelin’s leading divisions. These mauled the Imperial forces so soundly that they broke and fled — to be pursued all the way to Kyrenia. Beirut and the King, meanwhile, continued to St. Hilarion, scattered the besieging force and rescued the King’s sisters. 

Although the siege of the fortress at Kyrenia was to continue for ten months, Henry had regained control of his kingdom. Frederick II never again attempted to interfere in Henry’s realm or his affairs. Meanwhile, one of Henry’s first acts was to summon the High Court of Cyprus and charge the former Imperial baillies with treason. After a unanimous judgment against them, they were sentenced to death in absentia (they were safely in the fortress of Kyrenia at the time) and their fiefs were forfeit to the crown. Henry bestowed them on those who had supported him in his hour of need.

Yet while Henry was finally master of his own house, his treasury was depleted by the year-long campaign and further drained by the ongoing siege of Kyrenia. In fact, many of his vassals who held money-fiefs had seen no income in years.  Strikingly, they remained loyal to him despite this. To try to spur the economy and recover financially,  Henry not only expanded the privileges of the Genoese but extended trading privileges to Marseilles and Montpellier. He also fostered trading ties with the Sultan of Iconium and with Armenia. These actions show foresight and an appreciation of the economic advantages of trade to an island kingdom. Ironically, while the maligned King Henry was encouraging trade, Frederick II — usually depicted as “ahead of his time” — was introducing trade restrictions.

In 1236, at 19, Henry negotiated a marriage for himself to replace Alix de Montferrat, who had died during the siege of Kyrenia. He chose the sister of the King of Armenia, Stephanie, and the couple was married in 1237. This was the same year in which the pope suggested creating a joint kingdom of Jerusalem and Cyprus to be reigned by Henry King. The pope’s suggestion was driven by his hatred of Frederick II Hohenstaufen and was designed to disinherit his heirs, yet it was almost certainly made without the slightest consultation with King Henry.

Henry was not interested in the crusader states on the mainland. He refused to come to the aid of Jerusalem when the city fell in 1244 to the Khwarizmians, and he provided only reluctant and inadequate forces to relieve the siege of Ascalon three years later. Even when his mother died in 1246 and the High Court of Jerusalem recognized him as the rightful regent for the still absent Hohenstaufen king, Henry showed no interest in Syrian affairs. Instead of taking up the role of ruler, he appointed Balian of Beirut (John of Beirut’s eldest son and success after his death in 1236) Baillie of Jerusalem.

King Henry appears to have far more pleased by the fact that in the same year (1246) the pope absolved him of all oaths of fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor. This act recognized legally what had been a fact since the complete expulsion of the Imperial forces from Cyprus thirteen years earlier. Cyprus was an independent kingdom and its king vassal to none. 

When the vast crusading army of King Louis IX descended on Cyprus, King Henry remained notably aloof from crusading fever. He welcomed King Louis and his queen. Cyprus hosted the crusaders throughout the winter, and the flower of Cypriot chivalry was allowed to participate in the crusade — notably under the command of the Constable of Cyprus, Guy d’Ibelin, the youngest son of the Old Lord of Beirut. Indeed, the Ibelins were well represented in the crusade with John d’Ibelin, Count of Jaffa, Baldwin the Seneschal of Cyprus and Guy the Constable all impressing the Seneschal of France, Jean de Joinville, by their prowess, extravagance, wisdom, command of Arabic and concern for their men. Yet King Henry, after entering Damietta with King Louis in June 1249, retired to Cyprus. 

Henry was only three-two at this time, an age at which most medieval noblemen were keen to demonstrate their prowess at arms, but Henry was no warrior king — and he had the sense to recognize that. Indeed, Henry had earned the nickname “the fat.” It appears that his near escape from disaster at Casal Imbert had left a lasting scar upon his psyche. At a minimum, he had learned the vital lesson that battles could be lost, and lost battles could lead to lost kingdoms.

Henry had turned his attention to fostering the economy and to administrative reforms instead. One of the latter was the first recorded introduction of written court records. This practice that was not adopted in France until after King Louis returned from his crusade, i.e. after his contact with King Henry. 

Henry also defended the majority of his subjects who still adhered to the Greek Orthodox faith against attempts by the Latin church to interfere with their clergy. This conflict escalated to the point that the Archbishop of Nicosia placed the entire kingdom under interdict — and Henry withheld revenues due to the Archbishop and the church.

In 1250, in the midst of King Louis’ disastrous crusade, Henry’s Armenian queen died childless. A king did not have the luxury to mourn for long; he needed heirs. In 1251, Henry took as his third wife, Plaisance of Antioch. She, at last, gave him the son he needed. He was christened Hugh after the father Henry had never known. Less than two years later, on January 18, 1254[1] Henry I of Cyprus died. He was not yet 47. The cause of death went unrecorded.

In looking back and assessing his reign, it is easy to dismiss Henry as a colorless, fat, puppet, yet this ignores the fact that he inherited a bankrupt kingdom subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor and bequeathed a prosperous and independent kingdom to his son. It also ignores the fact that Henry retained the respect and loyalty of his vassals throughout his reign — despite his conspicuous lack of revenues in the early years and military accomplishments.

The trade treaties, the administrative reforms, and his steadfastness in the face of clerical sanctions suggest a man who was not so much weak as diligent — yet focused on the unglamorous aspects of good-governance: the economy, the legal system and the spiritual well-being of his subjects. It is notable too that throughout his reign Henry relied heavily on various members of the Ibelin family, a clear indication of where his affections lay in the long struggle that dominated his childhood.

Henry I could be viewed as a mirror image of Richard the Lionheart. The latter is accused of being a bad king because he was focused on warfare and crusading with the result that he was absent from his kingdom most of his reign. Henry I left his kingdom only under duress and for never more than a few months. He avoided wars and left his kingdom richer than he found it. Henry I of Cyprus deserves more respect.

[1] The date is often given as Jan. 1253, but Peter Edbury had brought evidence that in the Kingdom of Cyprus at this time the year began March 25 and that according to our practice the correct date of his death was 1254. See: Peter Edbury, “Redating the Death of King Henry I of Cyprus?” Law and History in the Latin East (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) 339-348.

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

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Monday, September 6, 2021

Henry I of Cyprus - Part II: The Pawn

 Henry I inherited his kingdom before he was a year old and was crowned at the age of eight, but as a child, he remained at the mercy of his guardians and regents. In the first eleven years of his life, these had protected Henry from two attempts to disinherit him. They furthermore ensured his own safety and the welfare of his kingdom and subjects in an exemplary manner. All that changed with the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Frederick II viewed Cyprus as a vassal state, and he came to extract his “due.” His actions set in motion a chain of events that nearly cost Henry his kingdom and his life.

Roughly six months after the death of Henry’s baillie Philip d’Ibelin — the closest thing to a father that Henry had ever known — the Holy Roman Emperor arrived in Cyprus with a large number of ships, nobles, knights, archbishops, scholars and harem slaves. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, after delaying his crusade for eleven years, was on his way to Acre to fulfill his crusading vows — albeit under a ban of excommunication and in an operation the pope had already labeled an “anti-crusade.” The reason for his stop on Cyprus was to take Henry’s homage as his vassal and collect the chivalry of Cyprus for his crusading force.

No sooner had the Emperor arrived than he sent a letter John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut and the successor to his brother as baillie of Cyprus.  Addressing Beirut as his “honored uncle” (he was an uncle of the Emperor’s deceased wife, the Queen of Jerusalem), he begged Beirut to come and bring King Henry along with “your children, all our dear and well-beloved cousins” to Limassol “that we [the Emperor] might have the pleasure of embracing you  and knowing you personally.”[1]   

Beirut dutifully took King Henry and his sons to meet the Emperor and was persuaded to attend a great banquet hosted by Frederick II.  The guests went in court attire without weapons; Frederick II, however,  smuggled some three-thousand armed men into the palace during the night. After all the guests were well into the meal, the Emperor's men sealed off the hall, the hands on their hilts and the Emperor demanded that Beirut surrender his fiefdom of Beirut and all the revenues of Cyprus since his brother had become baillie (e.g. the past eleven years). 

Beirut answered that he would account for the revenues before the High Court of Cyprus and would only surrender his lordship after a judgment of the High Court of Jerusalem. When he did not back down even under threats of arrest and hints of worse, hostages were given for his appearance before the respective courts and Beirut — with nearly all the knights and barons of Cyprus — withdrew. (The details of the banquet are described in The Emperor’s Banquet.)

For Henry, the consequences were dire. Henry found himself a prisoner of a man who openly threatened force rather than respecting the rule of law, who allowed noble hostages (not accused of any crime whatsoever) to be tortured and humiliated, and who forced Henry to do homage to him. Henry can have been in no doubt that he was a pawn, completely in the hands of the Emperor, while the barons who had up to this point defended him and his rights against the Duke of Austria, the Prince of Antioch and his mother’s ambitions had been dismissed. To underline this point, the eleven-year-old was forced to leave his kingdom, sisters, home, and household to accompany the Emperor on his crusade to Syria.

In the event, there was no fighting and Henry was not personally in danger at any time, but his status as an “object” to the Emperor was made dramatically clear when Frederick II sold — for 10,000 silver marks —Henry’s guardianship to five men who have gone down in history as “the five ballies.” (See: The Emperor’s Men). If that weren’t indignity enough, Henry (now only twelve) was forced to marry by proxy a woman of the Emperor’s choosing whom he had never met.

While royal marriages were always made for reasons of state and the young people involved rarely had anything to say about them, it was not common to rush through a marriage in a matter of months. Notably, this marriage was also in violation of the constitution of Henry’s kingdom, since the marriage of minor heirs to the throne (much less ruling minors) required the approval of the Cypriot High Court. In his haste to dispose of Henry’s marriage in a way to benefit himself, the Emperor conveniently ignored the High Court of Cyprus.

The next thing Henry knew his new guardians were making themselves heartily unpopular by imposing new taxes and harassing anyone opposed to them or the Emperor with the liberal use of foreign mercenaries. An eye witness account of the King’s behavior during the rapacious reign of the five baillies notes: “The king was in their power and was much afraid, and the king spoke very low and looked often towards Philip [de Novare].”[2]

On the other hand, Philip de Novare noted in a poem he wrote shortly after escaping an assassination attempt by the baillies that he was warned of the baillies intended actions by “one who cared not whom it might displease.”[3] It is hard to imagine who would have been privy to the assassination plans by the baillies yet willing to help Novare other than the frightened young king himself. The very fact that the baillies appear to have accorded Henry so little respect would make it plausible that they talked about their plans to murder Novare in his presence, dismissing him as a stupid puppet. That Henry would dare cross them is also plausible because he was the only person in the entire kingdom that the baillies could not arrest. If he was Novare’s mysterious informant, he deserves credit for saving a man’s life and ultimately triggering a response from his former regent, John d'Ibelin, which has been completely overlooked by historians to date.

Within weeks of Novare’s escape and appeal to Beirut for aid, an Ibelin-led army landed at Gastria. It overpowered the baillies’ forces there and marched on Nicosia. The baillies called up the feudal levies and mustered the mercenaries left them by the Emperor. On June 14, 1229, the forces of the Ibelins met the forces of the five baillies on a plowed field south of Nicosia at the Battle of Nicosia. It was a decisive Ibelin victory, which enabled them to re-establish constitutional government on the island of Cyprus. 

But there was one problem: John d’Ibelin might control the island but he did not control the king. Henry was still a prisoner of the Emperor’s baillies.

As soon as news of the Beirut’s landing at Gastria reached Nicosia, the baillies had sent Henry under tight guard to the mountain castle of St. Hilarion. After losing the Battle of Nicosia, three of the baillies fled with their surviving supporters there.  The castle was impregnable and well-stocked to withstand a siege. The baillies hoped the Emperor would send troops to relieve them and defeat Beirut.

Critics of Beirut and his supporters rightly point out that by besieging a castle containing their king (they held fiefs on Cyprus and so were vassals of King Henry) they were technically committing treason. Beirut, however, claimed Henry was a prisoner, held against his will, and they were fighting for the release of their king — a fundamental feudal duty. In short, who the “traitors” were depended on whether Henry viewed himself as a prisoner. Unfortunately, we cannot know for sure what King Henry thought.

The siege lasted nearly a year. By the end of that time, those trapped inside St. Hilarion were forced to eat their horses. While it is unlikely that Henry suffered the same levels of deprivation as the lower ranking troops, he would have been a witness to it. As he passed his 13th birthday besieged in his own castle, he must have felt helpless and angry. 

Shortly after Easter 1230, a Hospitaller officer managed to broker the surrender of the castle. The terms included a full pardon for the surviving three ballies, who were to retain all their fiefs in Cyprus, in exchange for surrendering the person of the King, his sisters, and swearing never to take up arms against the Ibelins again. Not all in the Ibelin party were content with these terms, and some refused to celebrate. Henry’s attitude is strangely missing from the accounts. He was now 13, still two years away from his majority, and he was therefore still technically under the tutelage of the Lord of Beirut. Yet significantly, in the next incident recorded about King Henry, he no longer seems like quite such a pawn.

When in late 1231 Emperor Frederick sent a large force under his marshal Richard Filangieri to reassert his authority in Cyprus and Syria, Beirut was in Acre. Tipped off that the Emperor’s fleet was making to Cyprus, Beirut collected as many of his men as possible and crossed to Cyprus to join up with King Henry. They then rode together to meet the Emperor’s representatives. This suggests that while Beirut retained the nominal control of Cyprus as Baillie, he had deputized the actual governing of the island to others.

With the ports occupied by troops loyal to the Ibelins, the Imperialists did not risk a landing, instead, the Bishop of Melfi went ashore with a small escort to deliver a message to King Henry directly from Emperor Frederick. According to 13th-century chronicle known as the Eracles, the message was a blunt order to Henry to expel John d’Ibelin and all his kinsmen from Cyprus citing in quotation marks the following phrase:

“Our lord the emperor sends you word, as one who is his vassal, that you dismiss and require to leave your land John d’Ibelin, his children, his nephews, and his relatives, for they have done wrong. Wherefore he sends you his orders and forbids you as his vassal to harbor or shelter him [John of Beirut] in your land.” [4]
The Eracles notes that Henry, being underage, took counsel and then delivered his answer through a knight, Sir William Viscount. The answer as recorded in the Eracles was:

The king … greatly marvels that your lord the emperor made such a command to him, for the lord of Beirut is his own uncle by his mother, and it is well known that he [and his kinsmen] are vassals, wherefore he cannot fail them…”[5]

After the king had delivered his answer, Beirut stood and formally addressed King Henry in the presence of the Emperor’s envoys requesting the King’s support and offering to defend himself against any accusations of wrong-doing before the High Court of Cyprus. The Emperor’s envoys took note of both these statements and withdrew. 

It is hard to escape the impression that King Henry’s answer was crafted by Beirut himself and delivered by Viscount in order to make it possible for Beirut to stand and make his appeal for due process. Yet the substance was correct: King Henry was himself a nephew of John of Beirut. The Emperor’s demand that Henry expel all of Beirut’s kinsmen was tactless — not to say a calculated insult to Henry himself. It is highly unlikely that the 14-year-old king liked being ordered to do anything by a distant emperor — much less being told to expel himself from his kingdom.

Critics of the Ibelins are apt to argue that they were manipulating Henry. Certainly. Both parties were trying to use Henry. Yet the Ibelins appear to have been significantly more adept at doing it a way that did not offend the young king. After all, if Beirut — as we must assume — was technically Henry’s baillie, he could have made answer for Henry without consulting him; instead, he allowed the king to act the part of king. In contrast, Emperor Frederick rode roughshod over Henry’s wishes and appears to have accorded him none of the courtesies due to a monarch. In short, Beirut (not being an Emperor) treated Henry with more respect, deferring to him, treating him like a king, and so winning his support rather than demanding it.  

This is demonstrated even more clearly in the next episode. Rebuffed by King Henry and facing the full force of Ibelin troops at the ports, the Imperial forces hoisted sail and crossed to Syria where they captured without resistance Beirut’s seat of power and revenue: Beirut itself. With almost all of Beirut’s men on Cyprus, the capture of Beirut was easy and bloodless. This has led some historians to speculate that the halt in Cyprus was a ruse all along, intended to lure Ibelin forces across the water and leave the real prize ripe for seizure. The only blemish to the plan was that the garrison of Beirut, small as it was, refused to cave-in and held out for Ibelin.

Beirut, however, was caught flat-footed. He could have taken all his men back to Syria to try to lift the siege, but he rightly estimated that the forces he had were inadequate. He, therefore, made a dramatic appeal to King Henry before the High Court of Cyprus, which — according to Novare — was assembled in full force.  Novare, who was an eye-witness, describes what happened next.

[Beirut] arose and stood — he had a habit of crossing his legs when he was standing — and, as he knew so well to do, he spoke loudly and to the point. He said: ‘Sire, … by me and by my family was your father lord and held the land; and if we had not supported him he would have been disinherited or dead. When God made his commandment of him you were but nine months old and we nourished you, you and your land, thank God, until this day; for had we not given you freely of our own, the duke of Austria would have disinherited you, and twice you have been in a bad state or worse… Now it has happened that the Longobards have taken my city and besieged my castle so closely that it is in danger of being lost, and ourselves and all our Syrian men disinherited. Wherefore I pray you, by God and by your honor, for our great services and because we are of one blood…that you come in person in all your power with me to succor my castle.[6]

Significantly, what the Lord of Beirut did next was kneel “as if to kiss the foot of the king.” Equally significant, Henry did not let him, but rather rose to his own feet (causing the rest of his vassals to kneel) and declare his full support — i.e. the feudal army of Cyprus in its entirety — for Beirut. Was Henry still a puppet? Was the entire scene carefully staged? We can’t know for sure, but we have no indications that Henry dragged his feet or showed reluctance. 

Henry crossed to Syria with his army in bad weather, arriving after what is described as a terrible crossing, making landfall at Puy du Constable in the County of Tripoli. Here the three former baillies (who had held the King in St. Hilarion but received full pardons at surrender) deserted the Cypriot army. They eventually joined the Imperial forces besieging Beirut. They justified their actions in terms of loyalty to the Hohenstaufen emperor, who was the overlord of Cyprus and by claiming that King Henry was a “captive” of the Ibelins and not acting of his free will.

Their desertion weakened the Cypriot army sufficiently to make it impossible for Beirut to effectively relieve his castle. Although he was able to slip roughly 100 fighting men through the Emperor’s blockade of galleys to reinforce the garrison, he was forced to withdraw to Acre to try to recruit more supporters. King Henry remained with Beirut, whether voluntarily or not remains the question. 

As soon as Beirut withdrew to Acre, the three former baillies took advantage of the fact that the Cypriot transport ships had been wrecked on the coast in a gale and returned to Cyprus. Here they dropped all pretense of serving King Henry and in the name of the emperor took control of the ports, preparing the way for a full-scale invasion by imperial troops to follow.

Neither they nor the Emperor’s marshal had reckoned with Beirut successfully luring increasing numbers of Syrian knights to his cause and, more important, gaining the support of the Genoese with their fleet. In late April, Beirut started north with a large land force supported by a Genoese flotilla. He announced his intention to capture the city of Tyre, which the Emperor's marshal and deputy Riccardo Filangieri had made his base of operations and government in the face of persistent and vehement hostility at Acre. (Acre was the city whose citizens had thrown offal after at the Holy Roman Emperor on his departure; it was to prove a staunch opponent of Hohenstaufen ambitions throughout the century.)

Filangieri felt sufficiently threatened to recall the troops besieging Beirut (effectively handing it back to Beirut), but he also pulled off a surprise night attack on the Ibelin army while it was camped at Casal Imbert. The Lord of Beirut and his heir were both absent at the time, but three of his younger sons and many of his most important knights and vassals failed to take elementary precautions against an attack and were caught sleeping. The camp was overrun, the Ibelins lost nearly all their horses and equipment, the Genoese lost their ships, and twenty-five knights were taken captive. 

And King Henry? King Henry was put “almost naked” (one presumes in his nightshirt) on another man’s horse (the closest at hand? The fastest?) and told to ride to Acre to get help from the Lord of Beirut. Without an escort or companions, Henry galloped the roughly 8 miles to arrive at the gates of Acre causing a sensation. His feelings can only be imagined: he must have feared for his entire army and indeed his own life, not to speak of his crown and his dignity. To add a particular poignancy to the event, it was his fifteenth birthday, May 4, 1232 — the day on which he came of age.

King Henry’s story continues next week.

[1] Text of Frederick II’s letter to John of Beirut, contained in La Monte’s notes to Philip de Novare, Frederick II’s Wars against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 74.
[2] Novare, Philip, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, trans John La Monte (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936), 94-95.
[3] Novare, 98.
[4] French Continuation of William of Tyre (Eracles), quoted in La Monte (trans), The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936) 119f.
[5] Eracles, 120f.
[6] Novare, Philip, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, trans. John La Monte (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936) 123-124.

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

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