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Cyprus History

Cyprus under Richard I

To understand the events which ended the tyranny of Isaac Commenus in Cyprus, it is necessary to return to the history of the kingdom of Jerusalem. The success of the First Crusade had been largely due to disunion between the Moslems of Asia and of Egypt, but in 1171 Saladdin made himself the supreme ruler of Islam in the East and prepared jihad or holy war for the recovery of Jerusalem from the crusaders.

Richard I as depicted in an early painting
Richard I

The marriage of Sybilla, heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem, to the French adventurer Guy de Lusignan caused dissension among the crusaders. For Guy was hated by powerful rivals for the crown and, when he came to the throne in 1186, he was unable to exercise any real control over his kingdom. The tide had turned, and Saladdin at last delivered his attack with united forces and with a spirit equal to that which had fired the Christians of the First Crusade, for to the Moslems also Jerusalem was a holy place.

In 1187, on the sandy plains of Hittin under a scorching July sun, the army of Guy de Lusignan was utterly defeated and, after a fortnights siege, Jerusalem was taken. Of the kingdom itself nothing was left except the city of Tyre, together with the principalities of Antioch and Tripoli in the north. The fall of Jerusalem sent a shock throughout Christendom. The three great monarchies of Europe at that time, England, France, and Germany, sinking their political rivalries for the common aim, collected revenues and armies for the Third Crusade.

The Third Crusade

To recover Jerusalem, the first aim was to establish a base of operations on the coast of Palestine, and for this reason the object of the Third Crusade was the capture of Acre. The siege of Acre, one of the great sieges of history, had been begun in 1189 by Guy de Lusignan who, captured by Saladdin at the battle of Hittin and released on parole, had at once broken his word and returned to the attack. The Germans marched overland to Acre. Philip, king of France, and Richard Coeur de Lion, of England, agreed to take the sea route to the Holy Land together, and in 1191 they left Sicily, where they had wintered.

Richard I arrives in Limassol, Cyprus in 1191While Philip sailed straight for Acre, the fleet of Richard was scattered by a storm and took refuge in Crete and Rhodes. Three of his ships were driven to the shores of Cyprus, where they were wrecked and sank in sight of the port of Limassol. hose of the crews who escaped to land were taken prisoners by the order of Isaac Commenus and their property confiscated. Another English ship reached the harbour having on board Johanna, the Queen Dowager of Sicily, sister to Richard, and his affianced bride, Berengaria of Navvare.

Isaac was attempting by cajolery and then by threats to induce the princesses to land, when Richard with the rest of his fleet reached the port of Limassol. Hearing of the outrages which had been inflicted upon his shipwrecked subjects and the insults offered to his sister and to his affianced bride, he instantly demanded satisfaction. Isaac, who had assembled his forces to repel the English, answered these demands with threats. Richard immediately determined to give battle. Beside the natural desire to avenge his wrongs, the island of Cyprus offered a convenient base for the operations in Palestine and a source of men, treasure, and timber for the prosecution of the campaign. Moreover, it was reported that Isaac, having rebelled against his emperor, was secretly in league with Saladdin.

Richard Conquers Cyprus

Richard I -Coeur de lion-Richard thereupon landed his followers in boats, and at the head of his men, attacked the Cypriots on the shore. The islanders were ill-equipped and no match for the English archers and armoured knights, who defeated them with great slaughter. The fall of night enabled Isaac to withdraw the remnants of his forces to the hills, where they encamped five miles from Limassol. Richard attacked their camp before dawn, and taken by surprise, Isaac barely escaped with a few men. The next day many of the Cypriot nobles came to the king of England and gave him their allegiance. Three days later Guy de Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, and many of his counts came to meet Richard in Cyprus, and swore fealty to him. Isaac, seeing that his people were deserting him, sent an embassy to Richard offering to pay 20,000 marks of gold, to send 500 men- at-arms to take part in the crusade, and to surrender his daughter and his castles as a pledge for his good behaviour. These conditions being accepted, Isaac came to Limassol and swore solemn allegiance to the king of England, but the same night, fearing treachery, he made his escape and denounced the treaty. Richard then placed a large force under the command of Guy de Lusignan with orders to pursue and capture Isaac, while he himself with his ships sailed round the island seizing all the towns and ports on the coast. But Isaac managed to escape to the stronghold of Kantara.

On 12 May, 1191, Richard, king of England, was married at Limassol to Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navvare, and on the same day Berengaria was crowned queen of England by John, bishop of Evereux. After this, hearing that the daughter of Isaac had taken refuge in Kyrenia, Richard went there with his army and received her submission. She was entrusted to the care of Berengaria, and some ten years later married a French knight, a relative of Baldwin, count of Flanders. Isaac, who had fled to the Karpass in the hope of escaping by boat to the mainland, was at last taken prisoner in the abbey of Cape St. Andrea at the eastern point of the island. He was bound in fetters of silver and imprisoned in the castle of Markappos in Syria, where he died soon after in captivity.

Revolt of the Cypriots

Richard, with much treasure taken from Isaac, then set sail for Acre, accompanied by the king of Jerusalem, the prince of Antioch, the count of Tripoli, and the nobles who had joined him in Cyprus. Garrisons were placed in the towns and castles of Cyprus, and the island was left in charge of Richard of Camville and Robert of Tornham.

The conquest of Cyprus by Richard had far-reaching results. It was the first step in the subjection of the eastern empire to the crusades, which was to be followed fifteen years later by the capture of Constantinople itself by the crusaders and the division of the empire into feudal fiefs. For Cyprus, it was the beginning of a domination by western powers for nearly 400 years and the introduction of the feudal system of Normans and of the Latin Church into an island which hitherto been Orthodox in its faith.

The Cypriots, on the departure of the English king, began to realise that their ancient freedom was in danger and resolved to attempt to regain their independence. They proclaimed as emperor of Cyprus a monk who was said to be a relative of Isaac Commenus, and raised the standard of revolt. But, Robert of Tornham, the king’s lieutenant, was aware of the projected rising and made a sudden attack on the insurgents before their plans were matured. The Cypriots were defeated and their leader was taken and hanged. The news of this revolt caused Richard to regard the possession of Cyprus as a doubtful gain. He could not spare the troops for holding the island by force, nor was it of any use as a base unless it were securely held. Being greatly in need of money for carrying on the campaign in Palestine, he therefore sold the island to the Templars for the sum of 100,000 bezants, of which 40,000 were to be paid at once and the remainder by instalments.


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  • From: Newman, P., (1940), "A Short History of Cyprus", Longmans, Green & Co., London.



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