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Lusignan Prestige and the Alexandria Crusade

Antonis Leontiou | Northumbria University

A Knight there was, and that a worthy man… At Alexandria he was when it was won… Above all nations in Prussia In Lithuania he reysed, and in Russia… In Granada at the siege eke had he be Of Algeciras, and ridden in Morocco At Ayas was he and at Antalya… And evermore he had a sovereign price

This poem by Chaucer tells us that the knight was held in high esteem and prestige. He was as the poem says, at Alexandria when it was taken by Peter I of Cyprus. Additionally, he reysed (campaigned) in Lithuania, which means he fought alongside the Teutonic order, a religious, military order. He had even fought in Granada and the siege of Algeciras. Chaucer then returns to the accomplishments of Peter I, where he took Ayas and Antalya before telling us how prestigious he had become through these wars. Interestingly, these were battles fought, in a religious war, a crusade.

Medieval knights and kings, especially kings of the late twelfth to the fourteenth century, owe much of their fame, modern and contemporary, to their association with crusading. When thinking of the crusades, names such as Lionheart, Louis (IX) and Barbarossa come to mind. These three, two kings and an emperor, represented some of Europe’s most prestigious houses and noble families. Peter and the house of Lusignan are rarely among those named, despite the house’s early role in the crusades and their titles as kings of Jerusalem and Cyprus.

Through Crusading, a king could project martial prowess and skill without committing the sin of pride since he fought for the glory and honour of God instead of his own. Furthermore, it was considered a noble and pious undertaking due to its self-sacrificing nature. Contemporaries took high personal risks to achieve the crusade’s higher cause, with the highest being the recapture of Jerusalem. Prestige, having a good name, was important in the European political scene. It could ensure strong alliances through marriage or even the church’s political support in international and domestic affairs in both religious and political spheres. Capturing Jerusalem would have brought immense prestige upon the king and the house that did so. Effectively, crusading projected a combination of prowess and piety on those that partook in it.

Peter, I de Lusignan was king of Cyprus from 1358 and the titular king of Jerusalem from 1359 until his assassination in 1369. Most of his crusading activity and prestige-building took place between the years of his coronation as king of Jerusalem in 1359 and the Alexandria Crusade of 1365. Peter, I ascended the throne during a precarious period for his house. The Lusignans of Cyprus, who came to the East from Lusignan in Poitier, France, were not considered a prestigious house by the rest of Europe. As we will soon see, Peter’s forefathers failed as crusaders, costing them their prestige, and standing in Europe.

Contemporary depiction of Peter I of Cyprus in the Santa Marina Novella in Florence.
Contemporary depiction of Peter I of Cyprus in the Santa Marina Novella in Florence.

Guy was the first king of Jerusalem. Queen Sibylla chose him during her coronation in 1186 to be her husband and, thus, the king. His reign was disastrous. In 1187 he suffered the worst defeat ever inflicted upon a crusader army, at Hattin against Salah ad-Din. In the same battle, the True Cross was captured, a relic believed to bring victory to Christian armies. As a result of the battle, Jerusalem fell three months later.

Henry II (r.1285-1324), Peter I’s grandfather, lost Acre, and the remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291. Amalric, his brother, deposed Henry in 1306. Amalric called upon the king’s refusal to assist his 1299-1300 campaigns against the Mamluks to reclaim parts of the lost kingdom to justify his actions to the pope. He portrayed Henry as unwilling to crusade, along with other grievances, making the king unfit to rule. Similarly, Hugh IV, Peter I’s father sent no help to the neighbouring Christian Kingdom of Cilician-Armenia, in modern-day Turkey, when it was invaded by the Mamluks. Loss of the Cross, Jerusalem and their reluctance to crusade are some examples of a family legacy of crusading failure which damaged their prestige and standing in Europe.

Map of South-East Europe in 1340. Chipre is the Kingdom of Cyprus in orange. North of Cyprus we can see Cilicia, the Kingdom of Cilician-Armenia, in lighter orange.
Map of South-East Europe in 1340. Chipre is the Kingdom of Cyprus in orange. North of Cyprus we can see Cilicia, the Kingdom of Cilician-Armenia, in lighter orange.

When Peter I ascended the throne, the Lusignan house was already viewed with contempt by the rest of Europe. Its founder was responsible for the loss of the True Cross and Jerusalem, both seen as acts of God’s disfavour. Rumours in Europe accused Henry II of abandoning the defence of Acre, which caused a rout and the city’s fall in 1291. Furthermore, his relations with the papacy were bad. He was excommunicated for failing to cease trade with the Muslims, alongside several other actions which angered the pope.

To understand Henry II’s reputation in Europe, we can look at Dante Alighieri, an influential poet, who referred to him as the beast. Dante paints an image of an impious and unjust king. Through the pairing of Dante’s claims with the rumours of cowardice at Acre and his brother’s accusations, Henry II was seen as an impious, unjust monarch who was reluctant to fight for God.

Hugh IV fought against the Turks in the Mediterranean by joining the pope’s naval alliance against them. He did not command his troops personally. Absence from the field denied him opportunities to project his prowess and gain the prestige that came with crusading. Hugh also suffered poor relations with his peers, suffering the threat of reprisal following a dispute with the King of Aragon’s son-in-law. Lastly, prestigious European houses were reluctant to create strong marital bonds with the Lusignan house. For example, Guy, Hugh’s heir before dying of illness, was married to a cadet branch of the French royal house and thus, not married to someone in the direct line of succession. Evidently, European royalty deemed Lusignan princes unfit for such notable associations.

As such, we can see how the Lusignans were not seen as a respectable and prestigious house when Peter ascended the throne in 1359. His reign was marked by attempts to improve his house’s prestige and re-establish their identity as crusaders by taking the cross.

Crusading, reclaiming Jerusalem in particular, appears to have been on Peter’s mind since his early adulthood. Following Pope Clement VI’s order for crusading preaching to cease in Cyprus, he created his own order of knighthood, the Order of the Sword. It seems that the pope’s decision displeased the young Peter, who, in response, created the order and, in 1349, attempted to travel to Europe in secret. His father severely punished him and his companions, which hints at Peter’s intentions to gather support for a crusade.

When Peter ascended to the throne in 1359, he began setting in motion his long-held plans for crusading. By crusading, he would attempt to reclaim his lost kingdom and project his martial prowess and piety, thus re-establishing the Lusignan identity as crusaders, thereby harnessing the prestige that came with it. Crusading was difficult. It required the authority, status and experience to command and direct units in the field. Such an endeavour was even more challenging when considering how crusaders came from various linguistic, political, and cultural backgrounds. Peter would have to prove himself capable of commanding such a force; to do so, he had to begin his reign with a thunderclap.

An opportunity presented itself in 1360, when the citizens of Korykos, then part of the Kingdom of Armenia, asked Peter to take their castle under his protection. Peter’s response was to garrison Korykos with Cypriot troops. The king’s acceptance equalled an image of him as the protector of Christians. Following a planned conquest of Cyprus by the Turks in 1361, Peter launched a pre-emptive strike against them at Antalya where they were gathering. The city was captured, and the Turkish fleet scattered.

It was an impressive feat of arms which was celebrated in Europe. News had even reached England. As we have seen above, Chaucer’s poem mentions the attack as one of the knight’s ‘adventures,’ thus conveying to the reader how he gained prestige through crusading. Ozge Bozkurtoglu noted that Pope Urban V proclaimed before Peter’s army in 1365, that the capture of Antalya had weakened the ‘Saracens’ and Peter showed how recapturing Jerusalem was possible. Crusaders had been on the back foot for decades; Peter’s achievement brought some much-needed boost to their morale. These feats raised Lusignan prestige and drew Europe’s attention to his house to the point of personal papal praise.

An important detail is how Peter, unlike his predecessors, led the attack on Antalya himself. It points to the king’s interest in projecting his martial prowess since he could have assigned admirals to lead the fleet, much like his predecessors. On the contrary, he continued to lead his troops in person, projecting his commanding capabilities and raising his house’s prestige.

Following this victory, Peter took his newly gained prestige and, in 1362 began touring Europe, aiming to rally western support for an upcoming crusade. Fascinatingly, the king took part in jousts and tournaments around Europe. At the Black Prince’s court in Bordeaux, Peter displayed skill so impressive that western knights present joined his cause. Peter claimed that Jerusalem was the ultimate objective, and since it lay in the hands of ‘unbelievers,’ it was their duty to reclaim it. This shows us that Peter was out to prove his martial prowess to his European peers and establish a link between his house and crusading.

The crusading ethos of the period should not be neglected. This was the king of Jerusalem, robbed of his rightful kingdom as he claimed, calling upon knights to join the holiest of causes, the recapture of Jerusalem. If the campaign proved successful, the infamy accumulated by the Lusignan house for their failures as crusaders would have been overshadowed by the prestige gained in the campaign. Peter’s tour of European courts proved fruitful; by the end of his tour in 1365, three years after it began, Peter gathered an army of ten thousand men.

Peter’s crusader fleet of 165 ships attacked and sacked Alexandria holding it for a few days before eventually retreating due to being unable to defend it. Crusaders from Europe, distracted with looting the settlement, failed to follow Peter’s orders to destroy bridges that connected Alexandria to Cairo. Peter took several actions of particular import to prestige as soon as his army took Alexandria. He knighted his youngest brother James, gave his nephew Hugh the title of prince of Galilee and bestowed upon Count John de Morphou, the title of Count of Edessa. The titles given that day were a part of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Through them, Peter was projecting his identity and kingship over Jerusalem, making his claim to it more legitimate.

  Depiction of the Alexandria Crusade of 1365. If we take a closer look at the knight in the middle wielding an axe, we can make out a crown on his helmet. That is most probably Peter I.
Depiction of the Alexandria Crusade of 1365. If we take a closer look at the knight in the middle wielding an axe, we can make out a crown on his helmet. That is most probably Peter I.

Peter was weaving crusading into his house’s history, which manifested through the ceremony, knighting, and the granting of titles. Rewarding James with a knighthood and Hugh with the Principality of Galilee was a source of prestige for Peter and them. Both had proven themselves in a crusade against the ‘infidels’ fighting for God and subduing a major Mamluk stronghold, Alexandria, thus earning their honours and titles on the field of battle. Doing so ensured descendants of his house a prestigious past of crusaders to draw prestige from, like European monarchs and Chaucer’s knight mentioned above.

In terms of prestige, Peter successfully drew Europe’s attention and, for a time, raised Lusignan prestige and standing in the European political scene. His influence is evidenced by the numerous knights that joined him in Alexandria and subsequent raids on Syria and Anatolia. Furthermore, Peter I, created marital/political links between his house and the Lords of Milan, the Visconti. It was achieved by marrying his son to the lord of Milan’s daughter, Valentina de Visconti.

Events following Peter’s death did not allow for a continuation of crusading efforts and the flourishing of his reputation; thus, his actions appear to have been in vain. What we, and the Lusignan, are left with are primarily written works such as Froissart’s chronicle, Chaucer (quoted at the beginning) and Machaut’s The Capture of Alexandria. Europe praised Peter I but not the Lusignans, who failed to emulate their crusader ancestor.

Peter’s campaigns eventually bankrupted Cyprus, leading to his assassination in 1369 by a group of knights. His brothers, John and James are suspected of having been among the conspirators, although this is highly debated. After a war with Genoa, a period of decline followed, and the kingdom never recovered. The Lusignan line failed in the late fifteenth century and Cyprus became a Venetian province. The pans and efforts of Peter’s successors, both to his throne and ideals, came to nought. Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands, its recapture becoming a distant idealistic dream. Hopes of recapturing Jerusalem were buried with Peter I of Cyprus.

Depiction of Peter I’s assassination in Froissart’s chronicle.
Depiction of Peter I’s assassination in Froissart’s chronicle.

Further Reading:

  • W. Peter Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

  • Timothy Guard, Chivalry, Kingship and Crusade: The English Experience in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013)

  • Norman Housley, The Later Crusaders From Lyons to Alcazar 1274-1580 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

  • George Hill, A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period, 1192-1432 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948)

I am Antonis Leontiou, I studied history at Northumbria University, and I am now beginning my MA in History at Durham University. Geographically, my research is focused on fourteenth-century Europe with Cyprus as my centre of gravity. My topic is broader. Through studying fourteenth-century philosophy and ideals of kingship, crusading and chivalry I attempt to understand the motives, other than wealth, of kings to go on crusade. Furthermore, I am particularly interested in the significance of Jerusalem and its role in the political sphere.


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