By Cécile Khalifa
In the 15th century the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus was what you might call a dissolving dynasty, living the last moments of its rule. For much of the last two centuries the House of Lusignan had peacefully controlled the Mediterranean island. However, it was during the reign of John II de Lusignan (1432-1458) that the situation sank into crisis.
John – who also held the titles (but not the lands) of King of Jerusalem, King of Armenia, and the Prince of Antioch, was married to Helena Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess. After their marriage in 1442 (the wedding took place on her 14th birthday) she had an influence on the Cypriot court, favouring the island’s Greek population, and aiding refugees who came from Constantinople after that city’s fall in 1453. However, she also had a ruthless side. Shortly after her marriage to John, she ordered that his mistress, Mariette de Patras, have her nose cut off.
It was not uncommon for chroniclers in Cyprus, such as Leontios Makhairas, Georges Boustronios or Florio Bustron, to have depicted the queens of Cyprus in the same way as the evil fairy tale queens. For example they heavily criticized Queen Eleonora of Aragon, wife of Peter I of Lusignan (1358-1369), alleging numerous scandals within the Cypriot court, including adultery This would all lead to Peter falling out with nobility and to his own murder in 1369. Eleonora would be found guilty of mistreating of Peter’s mistress, Jeanne Lallemand. It would be a similar situation that would occur with John II, Helena and Mariette, with Helena becoming the criticized queen, and the object of mistrust because of her Greek heritage.
John and Helena would have two daughters together, Charlotte and Cleopha, although the latter died as a child. As the only legitimate heir to the kingdom, Charlotte de Lusignan was married at the age of 14 to Jean de Coimbra, a son of a Portuguese prince. Although Queen Helena had arranged the marriage, she soon disapproved of his action as regent of the kingdom in 1456-1457. Jean de Coimbra had deposed the Queen’s Chamberlain, named Thomas, representing the Greek party, and supported Western European interests. According to Cypriot chroniclers Helena responded by having her son-in-law poisoned.
Soon after this Queen Helena’s chamberlain was himself murdered, assassinated by the King’s illegitimate son James. The offspring of John II and Mariette (and apparently a favourite of John), he was only about 17 years old at this time but had recently been made the Archbishop of Nicosia. There are two versions on why he did – the first says it was Charlotte who appealed to her half-brother to avenge Jean de Coimbra’s murder by assassinating the chamberlain. The second version is that he simply killed the chamberlain as part of his own schemes to take the throne. Whatever the motive, his father’s response was to deprive James of the archbishopric and force him to flee to Rhodes.
As the half-brother schemed from exile, the search was underway for a new husband to Charlotte. King John II selected Louis of Savoy, who was from Geneva and a cousin of Charlotte. Queen Helena opposed the marriage of Charlotte and Louis of Savoy because of their kinship, but she was not listened to by the king. She left the palace and took refuge in the Dominican monastery where she died on April 11, 1458.
The funeral of the Queen Helena would lead to James coming back to Cyprus and returning into John’s favour. James used the opportunity to influence his father, so that he could become his legitimate heir. John II even asked the High Court to recognize his son as heir and tried to give him power before as he died in July of that year. However, the Cypriot nobility stood by Charlotte and the throne came to her. Her hold on power seemed to have been solidified when her marriage to Louis of Savoy was concluded on October 10, 1458.
However, her half-brother James had not given up on his ambitions, and turned to an unlikely source for help – the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. He went to Cairo and met with Sultan Sayf ad-Din Inal, asking for help in capturing Cyprus. Queen Charlotte in turn sent ambassadors to the Sultan with offers of increased tribute, but the Mamluk soldiers rallied to James’ support, and the Sultan sent a naval fleet of 80 ships with 650 members of his royal guard to attack Cyprus.
In the late summer of 1460, James and his army landed near Famagusta, and had himself proclaimed as James II, King of Cyprus. The Mamluk forces were quickly able to conquer the main cities of Cyprus, but Charlotte and her husband were able to find refuge in Kyrenia, a royal stronghold. James and his Mamluks would then lay siege to the fortress. The chronicler Georges Boustronios details some of the fighting:
There [James] put into position a bombard which they had brought from Sigouri and set it up on the barbican. And on the side of the Greek church two emirs encamped, and there they set up two bombards, which battered the region of Camuza. And on the side of Spiruni another emir had his camp and there they set up two bombards. And upon a Greek church the king set up a serpentine cannon, and it did great damage and killed twenty-three men in Kyrenia. And the king set up a great bombard at Casa Piphani; it was worked by a Saracen. And with this bombard he destroyed five hundred cultivated olive trees and many other trees at Casa Piphani; at last it was broken up. Afterwards ladders were used and many engines of war. And Kyrenia was strong and had also much artillery; it was a hard matter to capture it.
At one point in the siege, Charlotte was able to leave the castle, sail to Rhodes and convince the Hospitallers to assist her cause, before returning back to Kyrenia. Alas, by 1463 the fortress could no longer hold out, and Charlotte was forced into exile, going first to Rome, and then to Rhodes, where she made unsuccessful attempts to regain the throne. James II would rule Cyprus until his death in 1473, after which his wife Catherine Cornaro held control of the kingdom. Queen Charlotte would herself die in 1487, still a refugee. Two years later Catherine was forced to abdicate and sell the country to the Republic of Venice, finally ending the era of Lusignan rule in Cyprus.
Queen Charlotte was a fighting queen, taking to heart the defense of her followers as advised by Christine of Pizan in her book The Treasure of the City of Ladies. Having inherited the strong character of her mother, she was able to hold off James and his Mamluk allies for three years at Kerynia. Although she is not remembered as one of the great queens of the Middle Ages, Charlotte de Lusignan deserves a place in the annals of Cypriot history.
Cécile Khalifa, Ph.D is a doctor in Medieval History from the University of Montpellier and Cyprus. She’s currently an Engineer at the service of Knowledge Transfer and Partner Relations at the University of Lille.
Chronique d’Amadi, Chronique d’Amadi, 1re partie, éd. L.de Mas Latrie, Imprimerie Nationale, (Paris, 1891).
Georges Boustronios, A Narrative of the Chronicle of Cyprus 1456-1489, trans. N. Coureas, Cyprus Research Centre, [TSHC LI], (Nicosie, 2005).
George Hill, A History of Cyprus, (Cambridge, 1940-1952).
Top Image: Map of Cyprus by Egnazio Danti (1536 – 1586)