The Lusignan and Venetian Eras

Cyprus Table of Contents

Guy de Lusignan lived only two years after assuming control in 1192, but the dynasty that he founded ruled Cyprus as an independent kingdom for more than three centuries. In religious matters, Lusignan was tolerant of the Cypriot adherence to Orthodoxy, but his brother Amaury, who succeeded him, showed no such liberality, and the stage was set for a protracted struggle, which dominated the first half of the Lusignan period. At issue was the paramountcy of the Roman Catholic Church over the Orthodox church. Latin sees were established at Famagusta, Limassol, Nicosia, and Paphos; land was appropriated for churches; and authority to collect tithes was granted to the Latins. The harshness with which the Latin clergy attempted to gain control of the Church of Cyprus exacerbated the uneasy relationship between Franks and Cypriots. In 1260 Pope Alexander IV issued the Bulla Cypria, declaring the Latin church to be the official church of Cyprus, forcing the Cypriot clergy to take oaths of obedience, and claiming the right to all tithes. The papal ordinance had no more effect than the constant persecution or the frequent visits of high-ranking papal legates sent to convert the islanders. The Cypriots remained loyal to their Orthodox heritage, and by the middle of the fourteenth century the Latin clergy had become less determined in its efforts to Latinize the population. The dominance of the Latin church officially continued for another 200 years, but Cypriots followed the lead of their own clergy and refused to accept the imposition of their Western rulers' form of Christianity.

In the thirteenth century, the kings of Cyprus, particularly Hugh III (reigned 1267-84), tried to assist the Latin Christians of the Syrian mainland in their final efforts to retain their holdings. The Mamluks of Egypt, however, proved to be the decisive defeating factor, capturing Christian fortresses one after another as they moved along the eastern Mediterranean littoral toward Acre. With the fall of Acre in 1291, the remaining Christian positions were given up, and the Frankish lords and merchants retreated to Cyprus, which became a staging area for spasmodic and unprofitable attacks on Syria.

For a century after the fall of Acre, Cyprus attained and held a position of influence and importance far beyond that which such a small kingdom would normally enjoy. As the only remaining eastern base of operations against the Muslims, the island prospered, and its kings gained importance among the ruling families of Europe. Under the rigid feudal system that prevailed, however, the newfound prosperity fell to the Franks; the native Cypriots, who were mostly serfs, benefited little or not at all. This was a period of great architectural achievement, as the Frankish lords directed the construction of beautiful castles and palaces, and the Latin clergy ordered the building of magnificent cathedrals and monasteries. The prosperity of the island attracted adventurers, merchants, and entrepreneurs, and two Italian trading conglomerates gained particular importance in the kingdom's economy; these were from the republics of Genoa and Venice. Through intrigue, force, and financial power, the two Italian republics gained ever-increasing privileges, and at one point in the fourteenth century Famagusta was ceded to Genoa, which exercised suzerainty over the thriving port for ninety-one years.

The Lusignans' ability to control Cypriot cultural, economic, and political life declined rapidly in the first half of the fifteenth century. The situation was particularly desperate after the capture of King Janus I by the Mamluks in 1426. The captors demanded an enormous ransom, putting Cyprus again in the position of paying tribute to Egypt. Janus was succeeded by his son John II, whose reign was marked by dissension and intrigue.

The most important event in the reign of John II was his marriage to Helena Palaeologos, a Greek who was a granddaughter of a Byzantine emperor and a follower of the Orthodox faith. Queen Helena, stronger in character than her husband, took over the running of the kingdom and brought Greek culture out of the oblivion in which it had languished for three centuries. Her actions in favor of the Orthodox faith and Greek culture naturally disturbed the Franks, who came to consider her a dangerous enemy, but she had become too powerful to attack. Greek Cypriots have always revered Queen Helena as a great heroine because of her boldness. John II and Helena died within a few months of each other in 1458 and were succeeded by their seventeen-year-old daughter Charlotte, but the succession was contested by John's illegitimate son. After six years of treachery and conniving (even with the Mamluks), James ousted his half sister and ascended the throne as James II. He is generally known as James the Bastard and was renowned for his political amorality.

After years of enduring rapacious forays by neighboring states, the weakened Kingdom of Cyprus was forced to turn to its ally Venice to save itself from being dismembered. In 1468, by virtue of a marriage between James II and Caterina Cornaro, daughter of a Venetian noble family, the royal house of Cyprus was formally linked with Venice. James died in 1473, and the island came under Venetian control. Caterina reigned as a figurehead until 1489, when Venice formally annexed Cyprus and ended the 300-year Lusignan epoch.

For ordinary Cypriots, the change from Lusignan to Venetian rule was hardly noticeable. The Venetians were as oppressive as their predecessors, and aimed to profit as much as possible from their new acquisition. One difference was that the wealth that had been kept on the island by the Frankish rulers was taken to Venice--Cyprus was only one outpost of the far-flung Venetian commercial empire.

During the long Lusignan period and the eighty-two years of Venetian control, foreign rulers unquestionably changed the Cypriot way of life, but it was the Cypriot peasant with his Greek religion and Greek culture who withstood all adversity. Throughout the period, almost three centuries, there were two distinct societies, one foreign and one native. The first society consisted primarily of Frankish nobles with their retinues and Italian merchants with their families and followers. The second society, the majority of the population, consisted of Greek Cypriot serfs and laborers. Each of these societies had its own culture, language, and religion. Although a decided effort was made to supplant native customs and beliefs, the effort failed.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress