The Extraordinary Lusignans

golden-coin-of-king-hethum-i-of-the-armenian-kingdom-of-ciliciaI haven’t read or watched Game of Thrones, but, from what I gather, the story of how the obscure Lusignan family, minor nobility from Poitou in France, ended up as kings of Jerusalem, Armenia and Cyprus would fit in quite well as an episode or two. Admittedly, they had an encouraging start, as the Lusignan line (whose castle is depicted in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry) was begun by the water-sprite Melusine, who, unknown to her husband Raymond, had a serpent’s tail, and appears in the form of a dragon flying over the castle when a member of the family is about to die.

March, from the Très Riches Heures, showing early spring agricultural activities below the castle of Lusignan as it looked in the fifteenth century.

March, from the Très Riches Heures, showing early spring agricultural activities below the castle of Lusignan as it looked in the fifteenth century. Melusine in her flying serpent guise can be seen above the right-hand tower. (Credit: the Metropolitan Museum of New York)

Melusine's secret discovered by her husband, by Jean d'Arras. (Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Melusine’s secret discovered by her husband, by Jean d’Arras. (Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A few centuries later, two brothers, Aimery (Amalric, Amaury) and Guy de Lusignan, expelled by Richard the Lionheart (in his role as duke of Aquitaine) from their lands in Poitou, fetched up about 1170 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. A series of complicated political manoeuvres had Guy married off in 1180 to Sibylla, sister of Baldwin IV (the Leper King, 1161–85), who made him regent when his own illness reduced his ability to rule and to fight. Unfortunately, Guy was useless (Baldwin had to rescue him from a wedding feast in a castle besieged by Saladin), so the regency was rescinded and Baldwin tried to get the marriage annulled or his sister divorced – but she stuck by Guy. Baldwin made her son by her first marriage, Baldwin of Montferrat, co-king and heir, but the 5-year-old’s regent was emphatically not Guy, but Raymond of Tripoli, distant relation of everyone and leader of the anti-Guy faction.

The marriage of Guy and Sybilla.

The marriage of Guy and Sibylla.

Trouble inevitably followed on the death of little Baldwin V in 1186, a year after his uncle. His mother Sibylla was his heir, but a large faction at court refused to accept her with her husband attached: she was offered the throne on condition that she divorced Guy and chose a new husband (anyone she liked), but she refused. A coup was defeated, but Guy’s ‘reign’ came to an end soon after, with the disastrous defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, which left him the prisoner of Saladin, and was followed three months later by the fall of Jerusalem.

A despondent Guy with his captor Saladin, as imagined by the Dutch historical artist Jan Lievens in 1625.

A despondent Guy with his captor Saladin, as imagined by the Dutch historical artist Jan Lievens in 1625.

The pretence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem without Jerusalem was maintained (and indeed fought over) for many more years, but in 1192 Guy was allowed (mostly by Richard the Lionheart, again) to purchase Cyprus from the Knights Templar and rule as its lord. The first actual Lusignan king of the island was his brother and heir Aimery, who was given the crown in 1197, in return for suzerainty, by the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich VI (who, by the way, in 1194 had helped himself to Sicily). The Lusignans continued to reign, and to claim the Kingdom of Jerusalem, until Caterina Corner.

The seal of Aimery as king of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

The seal of Aimery as king of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

The claim to Armenia (Cilician, or Lesser, Armenia, on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, as opposed to the ancient landlocked kingdom) is even more tenuous, and again derives from a strong-minded woman.

The castle of Kerak in present-day Jordan, besieged by Saladin.

The castle of Kerak in present-day Jordan, besieged by Saladin.

Aimery had married as his second wife Isabella of Jerusalem, the half-sister of Baldwin IV (it was her earlier wedding, at the stronghold of Kerak, to Humphrey IV of Toron, that Saladin interrupted with a siege), and she had also been put up by Raymond of Tripoli as an alternative ruler to Guy: the marriage therefore strengthened the Lusignan claim to the kingdom of Jerusalem).

The marriage of Humphry of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem.

The marriage of Humphrey of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem.

Their daughter Sibylla married in 1210 (as his second wife) King Leo I, who had established the new kingdom of Cilician Armenia in 1198: on his death in 1219, their young daughter Isabella was proclaimed queen at the age of 3 or 4.

A coin of Leo I, showing a crowned lion.

A coin of Leo I, showing a crowned lion.

Remarkably, the child queen survived plots and counterplots of all kinds by half-siblings and more distant relatives: she was supported by the nobility of the country, possibly because they believed she would be easier to manipulate than one of her adult, male, war-hardened cousins. Marriage machinations brought the the child as ‘husband’ one Philip, third son of Bohemond IV of Antioch – a sensible match, in territorial/alliance terms.

A map of Cilician Armenia, showing its proximity to the principality of Antioch.

A map of Cilician Armenia, showing its proximity to the principality of Antioch.

However, he upset the locals after the wedding in 1222 and died (probably poisoned) in prison in the capital, Sis, in 1226. His 10-year-old widow was then married again to Hetoum, the son of Constantine of Barbaron, who was, just by chance, her guardian. They eventually had seven children and the union brought a temporary peace to the kingdom.

A gold coin showing Isabella and Hethum as king and queen.

A gold coin showing Isabella and Hetoum as king and queen.

Isabella’s son Leo II succeeded in 1269 (his father had entered a Franciscan monastery). He had 16 legitimate children by one wife, Keran or Guerane, including two sets of twins. (During his reign, Marco Polo visited the kingdom, and commented approvingly on Leo’s just rule, though from what he saw, all Armenians were drunks.) Leo died in 1289: arsenic was apparently involved. Five of the children became king or queen, but all ended up murdered …

Leo II, his wife and their five of their children.

Leo II, his wife and their five of their children.

(Another) Isabella carried the dynasty forward, marrying (another) Aimery de Lusignan and producing six children before her murder in 1323: one of these, another Guy, ruled Armenia, as Constantine II, until his death in conflict in 1344. The Armenian kingdom of Cilicia was finally extinguished in 1375 when the last Lusignan ruler, Leo V, was captured and sent to Cairo by victorious Mamluk troops. He was ransomed by John I of Castile, and, failing to stir up any enthusiasm for another crusade to restore his kingdom, died in Paris in 1393.

This coin profile is the only known contemporary image of James II.

This coin profile is the only known contemporary image of James II of Cyprus.

The claim to the throne of the now non-existent kingdom of Armenia was taken up by his distant cousin, James I of Cyprus, whose son, Janus or John II, was the father of James the Bastard, husband of the incomparable Caterina Corner, Daughter of Venice, Queen of Cyprus, Armenia and Jerusalem.

Caroline

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to The Extraordinary Lusignans

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