A brief history of a turbulent clan
This description of Peter (Pierre) I de Lusignan, king of Cyprus (1358-1369), undoubtedly the most striking figure of all the kings of the Lusignan dynasty, captures a man both of his time and pedigree:
Personally attractive, a spirit restless yet dominated by one ruling passion, the prosecution of war against the infidel in obedience to what he genuinely believed to be a divine call, lusty, sensual and hot-headed, he lost his balance in his last days and degenerated into something like a tyrannical brute. He was capable of inspiring admiration—and hatred. (Sir George Hill, A History of Cyprus, v. II)
The Lusignan fortress is located in the small town of the same name, some 20 miles SW from Poitiers. During its heyday, the castle controlled the roads between Poitiers, Saintes, and La Rochelle, the principal centers in Aquitaine.
The castle underwent major refurbishment in early 13th century by Hugh X who had married in 1220 the dowager-queen Isabella dAngoulême, widow of King John of England.
Lusignan became part of the French crown in 1308. Regarded as an impregnable, it was destroyed 1575 during the French Wars of Religion. Its remaining foundations speak of its former power.
In the 18th century, the Intendant Count de Blossac had turned the ruins of it into formal gardens, with the Promenade de Blossac offering a view of the Vonne valley.
The castle is familiar from its depiction as March in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416), with Mélusine circling one of the castle’s towers.
One structure still extant from the Lusignan period is Notre Dame et Saint Junien, built in 1024 by Hugh IV, le Brun.
The church exterior features the carving of Mélusine, an odd choice for a church, but perhaps an early indication of the Lusignan’s association with the mythical creature, long before the Angevins adopted it.
“[the Lusignans]…yielded to no yoke, or ever kept faith with any overlord.” (Roger of Howden)
The lords of Lusignan emerged as a local power in Poitou during the 11th and the 12th centuries. They created for themselves suitably mythical origins traced to the water-fairy Mélusine, half woman, half serpent, who had married the son of the king of the Bretons (details vary) while in the guise of a mortal woman.
Ambitious, aggressive, yet genuinely pious, as historians described them, members of this clan joined the earliest crusades in Spain and the Holy Land. At the same time, they did not hesitate to battle both their secular and spiritual overlords for territorial control, earning themselves threats of excommunication from the Pope.
Like the rest of the Poitevins, the Lusignans had a reputation of resorting to treachery and backstabbing— which was not a figure of speech. When the Plantagenets became the Lusignans’ overlords in Poitou, they also fell afoul of their irrepressible vassals; the Lusignans sparked several rebellions against Henry II and Richard I, both of whom tried to battle them and bribe them in equal measures.
Ironically, as a result of series of marriages, annulments and repudiations, the Lusignans had become related to Aliénor of Aquitaine and through her to Richard and John I of England.
With the death of Richard, the Lusignans sought to consolidate their holdings in the south via a marriage alliance with the counts of Angoulême whose possession of the county of La Marche the Lusignans long disputed.
The abrupt termination of the betrothal of Isabelle d’Angoulê me (judged to be between twelve and sixteen years old) to the younger (or older) Hugh de Lusignan as a result of her “abduction” by John I of England under the noses of the Lusignans brought the conflict between the Plantagenets and that clan to a crisis.
That crisis led to the temporary defeat of the Lusignans by John at Mirebeau in 1202, a defeat which resulted in the capture of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, along with their Breton and Poitevin supporters, as well as his sister Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany. After Mirebeau, Arthur disappeared from history, at John’s hands, many historians believe.
However, thanks to the encouragement and support of Philip Augustus of France, these turbulent vassals eventually contributed to John’s loss of the duchy of Normandy to Philip— and to a threat to his English throne from his French rival. Thus by the beginning of the 13th century, the Lusignans were poised to increase their power not only in Poitou, but also in the “land beyond the sea.”
In the Terre Sainte
Once the crusading armies rescued the Holy Sepulcher, the “Franks” proceeded to engage in an unholy scramble for territorial control, thereby re-creating a cauldron of ambitions, competition, and conflict of their ancestral lands. This scramble became especially fierce when the crown of Jerusalem was inherited by a child or a very young woman.
The fact that the crusaders intermarried merely intensified the conflicts since often the partners outlived their spouses and remarried several times. These marriages produced mind-boggling genealogies of half-brothers and sisters, cousins and sundry in-laws, step-fathers and step-mothers. Political alliances made indeed odd marital bedfellows.
Geoffrey and Aimary de Lusignan came to Palestine probably sometime in the 1170s, probably as the result of their involvement in a rebellion against Richard. In Palestine, Aimary married Eschiva d’Ibelín from the prominent crusading family of the Ibelíns— not the Lusignans’ warmest friends. They had a son, Hugh. Aimary soon became a lover of the queen-dowager, Alice of Courtenay. She in turn persuaded her daughter Sybilla, next in line to the throne after her leper brother, to take as her second husband Aimary’s younger brother, Guy.
The movie Kingdom of Heaven (2005) portrays Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) as a scheming, overbearing brute married to the unhappy Queen Sybilla, heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In fact, in 1180 Sybilla married Guy, who has been described as a handsome recent arrival, over the objections of a number of her barons, and crowned him king with her own hand.
Opinions about Guy’s rule as King of Jerusalem differ. Recently, he’s been seen as a brave man who in 1187 made disastrous military decisions which brought the crusaders to a disaster on the Horns of Hattín, at the hands of Saladin. Saladin’s conquests included the city of Jerusalem and virtually all of the important fortresses in the Holy Land.
Holy Land nearly slipped out of the hands of the Christian host, thanks in no small measure to the in-fighting among the crusader factions. Richard the Lionheart arrived in 1191 as part of the Third Crusade, and Guy distinguished himself in the efforts to reclaim the territory from the Muslims.
Perhaps not wishing to offend a powerful family, perhaps from a genuine sense of justice as their overlord, perhaps wanting to counter his powerful opponents in Palestine, Richard sided with his Poitevin vassals.
As a result of the Lionheart’s support, the Lusignans hung on to important positions: Guy kept his title as king of Jerusalem for his lifetime, Geoffrey became the lord of Jaffa and Ascalon, and Aimary served as constable of Jerusalem. Richard also opted to confer on Guy the lordship of the recently conquered island of Cyprus.
The reasons behind the Lusignans’ acquisition of Cyprus are again murky. The island came into the hands of Richard the Lionheart in 1191 when the warrior-king routed the unpopular Byzantine monarch, Isaac Ducas Commenus. Ducas Commenus had made the mistake of threatening Richard’s betrothed, Berengaria of Navarre, when she happened to be nearly shipwrecked on the island’s shores.
In 1192, the Knights Templars bought the island from Richard, but found themselves shortly in the midst of a rebellion against them by the locals who did not care for the Templars’ overbearing ways. The Templars asked Richard to take again possession of the island which Richard did, in turn selling it to Guy.
Guy de Lusignan did not enjoy his lordship of Cyprus very long. He died in 1194, with Sybilla and their two young daughters predeceasing him. The island passed to his brother, Aimary, who became the first crowned king of Cyprus, as Aimary (or Almaric I). Aimary also became the fourth husband of Isabella of Jerusalem, the half-sister of Sybilla. The marriage once again tied the Lusignans and Ibelíns, but not harmoniously.
In 1197, Aimary accused a couple of brothers for trying to murder him and cast suspicion on the Ibelíns for orchestrating the attack. Aimary survived that attack, but died under suspicious circumstances in 1205, some say by poisoning. Shortly thereafter (or before), queen Isabella and her infant son died as well. Those deaths left Aimary’s son Hugh by Eschiva d’Ibelín to assume the Cypriot crown as Hugh I (1205-1218).
After Hugh’s ascent, the Lusignan dynasty continued to rule the island for some 300 years, periodically claiming the (now meaningless) title to the crowns of Jerusalem, and later Armenia.
Some historians argue that the ‘habeas corpus’ article of the Magna Carta is there at the insistence of the Lusignans as a result of their experience in John Plantagenet’s gaol after their capture at Mirebeau in 1202.
After John lost Normandy to Philip Augustus in 1204, the Lusignans continued their hostility toward John who had tried, and failed, to recover the duchy via an invasion from the south. When John died in 1216, the lovely widowed queen-consort Isabelle d’Angoulême went home minus her nine year old son, Henry III.
There she quickly married her (probably) original fiancé Hugh de Lusignan (now Hugh X), who was the count of La Marche, no longer a gawky fifteen year old, but a man of about thirty— and betrothed to Isabelle’s own infant daughter.
The abrupt ending of that betrothal and the marriage of Isabelle and Hugh created almost as much of a scandal as the breaking of her own betrothal by John did. Isabelle and Hugh had nine children, making them half-brothers and sisters to king Henry III. Some of them ended up at Henry’s court in England, where he doted on his Lusignan relatives while England learned to loathe them for their grasping and overbearing ways.
Whatever power she had over her first husband, Isabelle clearly ruled Hugh. She got him and their sons involved in a rebellion against the new French king, Louis IX, and earned herself an accusation of trying to poison Louis.
Isabelle died in France, at Fontevraud abbey, in May 31, 1246 and was eventually buried next to her mother-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Richard. John was buried in Worcester abbey, England, far from the lands of his ancestors.