After being part of the Roman and Byzantine world for over a millennium, Cyprus’ existence in the later part of the Middle Ages was much more global. From a mere Byzantine province, Cyprus became an island on the crossroads of the world. Under the House of Lusignan and then the Venetians, Cyprus became involved in larger enterprises such as the Crusades and Venice’s mercantile empire. Three agreements by outside powers created these situations for Cyprus, its future determined not by its native islanders, but by three agreements by foreigners.

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Coat of Arms of the Lusignan Dynasty, in the 14th century Bellapais Monastery | Picture by Wolfang Sauber

Agreement #1: Richard the Lionheart Sells Cyprus to the Templars

From 1184 to 1191, Cyprus had been independent for the first time in over a thousand years. Isaac Komnenos, a member of the imperial Byzantine Komennos Dynasty, desired the Byzantine throne in Constantinople, but instead only managed to rule Cyprus as an effectively independent state. While Byzantium was too weak to take the island back, Isaac overplayed his hand in trying to hold the King of England, Richard the Lionheart’s (r. 1189-1199) sister and bride hostage after their ship had shipwrecked on his island. Richard promptly landed, defeated Isaac, put him in chains, and reset his course for the Holy Land.

Richard, the king of an island on the other side of Europe, had no desire to hold on to Cyprus. Although he had left some troops to hold the island, the local population was restive, and the island offered him no major advantage (his main goal had just been punishing Isaac and rescuing his sister and betrothed). So he sold the island to the Knights Templar, one of the leading crusading orders in the Holy Land.

Agreement #2: The Templars Sell Cyprus to the House of Lusignan

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Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem (r. 1186-1192),  Lord of Cyprus (r. 1192-1194)| Francois-Edouard Picot, c. 1845

The Templars quickly realized that the island was more trouble than it was worth. Faced with a disobedient populace, the Templars sold the island to the dispossessed king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan. Richard played a part in these negotiations, as Guy becoming ruler of Cyprus benefitted the other crusaders in the Holy Land. Guy had been a disastrous king of Jerusalem (r. 1186-1192) and had even been captured by Saladin. The crusaders had chosen Conrad of Montferrat (r.1192), and, after Conrad’s assassination, Henry of Champagne (r. 1192-1197), both married to the same daughter of King Amalric of Jerusalem (r. 1163-1174). By getting Cyprus, Guy could have his own territory to rule and he wouldn’t have to fight with Conrad and Henry over what was left of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Guy (r. 1192-1194) made Cyprus a feudal state, bringing over nobles from the Kingdom of Jerusalem that had lost their land to Saladin. The native Cypriots become serfs of these crusader nobles. His older brother, Aimery (r. 1194-1205), had the island declared the Kingdom of Cyprus by the Holy Roman Emperor, but he also made the official language of the island Latin and gave the Catholic Church preeminence on the island, despite the fact that the Cypriots were overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians. Needless to say, this created a lot of bitterness among the local population.

Despite a remarkable propensity for having minors as kings and an attempted takeover by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (r. 1220-1250), the House of Lusignan held onto power. In 1268, following the death of the last claimant to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Hugh III (r. 1267-1284) claimed it for himself. Although the Kingdom of Jerusalem would not survive even thirty more years, and barely existed even in 1268, Hugh’s actions established the Lusignans, from their capital at the Cypriot city of Nicosia, as the leading crusader family in the Holy Land. The fall of the city of Acre in 1291 to the Mamluks was the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, although the title was still a prestigious one for many years to come (even now it is still used by Spanish King Felipe VI, although it is merely symbolic).

After the fall of Acre, the Lusignans focused their attention more on Cyprus. At the crossroads of east and west, Cyprus became wealthy through trade. The merchants at Famagusta became especially known for their wealth. But as the remnants of the old crusaders, they still led forays against the Mamluks; for example, Peter I (r. 1358-1359) sacked Alexandria, Egypt twice. A war with Genoa in the late 14th century effectively destroyed Cyprus’ budding prosperity and occupied the city of Famagusta for over a century. In 1426, Cyprus became a vassal state of the Mamluks.

James II (r. 1463-1473) became king after a civil war against his sister. He married the Venetian noblewoman Caterina Cornaro, which naturally pleased the city of Venice, as this confirmed the mercantile privileges it had on the island. But James died shortly thereafter, followed by his and Caterina’s infant son, James III (r. 1473-1474). Caterina then ruled the island as Cyprus’ final queen from 1474 until 1489.

Agreement #3: Caterina Cornaro Cedes Cyprus to Venice

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Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (r. 1474-1489) | Titian, 1542

Cyprus was a weak kingdom by the time of Caterina, and Venetian merchants heavily propped up her rule. In 1489, under increasing pressure, Caterina ceded the island of Cyprus to her home city of Venice. She supposedly wept while leaving the island, as did her subjects. She is still recognized today in Cyprus, where the Cornaro Art Institute in Larnaca bears her name.

While Venice valued the island both for its spot along trade lanes and its position at the back of Venice’s new archenemy, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian administration of the island was poorly managed. Corruption plagued the regime, and native Cypriots were hardly enthusiastic subjects. Ottoman raids began almost immediately after Caterina left the island, and the Ottoman army invaded the island in 1570, taking only a year to conquer Cyprus. A treaty agreement between the Ottomans and Venice in 1573 confirmed the Ottoman takeover.

For the next 300 years, Cyprus would be under Ottoman rule, before a fifth agreement, the Cyprus Convention, resulted in Great Britain taking control of the island. It was only in 1960 that Cyprus declared its independence. This time, instead of having foreigners make agreements on who would rule Cyprus, Cyprus made its own choice.

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