An arming sword (a knight’s sword for single-handed use smaller than a broadsword) from the 14th century with a storied past from the waning days of the Crusader kingdoms will be the star of Bonham’s Antique Arms and Armor sale on November 28th. The auction catalogue won’t be available until four weeks before the sale; bookmark this page and check back if you’re interested.
It’s longer than your average arming sword, with a tapering double-edged blade more than three feet long (92.5 centimeters or 36.4 inches). The hilt has an iron wheel pommel engraved with a crosslet cross (a heraldic symbol signifying the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the earth by means of four Latin crosses combined so that their tops point north, south, east and west), a leather-wrapped grip and a straight cross-guard. It is nine inches (23.2 centimeters) long, bringing the total length of the sword to an impressive three feet nine and 35/64 inches (115.7 centimeters).
The sword was made in Italy in the mid-14th century. Its first duty was diplomatic, as a gift to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt al-Nasir Hasan from Peter I, King of Cyprus. By Peter’s time, Cyprus was the last Crusader state in existence. Although he held the titles of King of Jerusalem and Count of Tripoli, these were in name only, and even the empty titles weren’t exactly grounded in valid claims of descendance. Peter was a Lusignan, a branch of a French knightly family whose most famous son Guy had married extraordinarily well. Guy de Lusignan was one of those troublesome knights who spent his downtime back home in Aquitaine assaulting people and stealing their stuff. One of his victims was Patrick, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, who died in an ambush by Guy and his scoundrel brothers in 1168.
The Lusignans were exiled for this crime, reputedly by their overlord Richard, acting Duke of Aquitaine and future Lionhearted king of England, but since Richard was 11 years old in 1168, it was probably his redoubtable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine’s doing. On the other hand, he did get a very early start. Richard was touring the duchy as official Duke just three years later in 1171. His mother was by his side, but by all accounts Richard was a well-established ruler in his early teens. He led his first army when he was 16.
As was so often the fate of the many and varied violent criminal knights of medieval Europe, Guy de Lusignan made his way to Jerusalem, which had been the capital of a Catholic kingdom in Palestine since the First Crusade in 1099. His older brother was already there and doing well for himself. Guy did even better, marrying Sibylla, sister of Baldwin IV, the leper King of Jersualem, in 1180. Baldwin IV died in 1185. His nephew, Sibylla’s son from a former marriage, was crowned Baldwin V, but he died soon thereafter. Sibylla became Queen, and she saw to it that Guy became King with a clever deception. She had the marriage annulled to appease his enemies in court, on the condition that she could choose her next husband. They agreed, the marriage was annulled and then Sibylla announced that her choice for a new husband was (drumroll) Guy de Lusignan. They remarried in August 1186, and she literally handed him her crown so he could crown himself King of Jerusalem.
The good times didn’t last. On July 4th, 1187, Guy made the extremely bad call of leading the army of Jerusalem across the desert in the middle of the summer day to relieve Tiberias, under siege by the forces of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, aka Saladin. The Battle of Hattin was a rout, the army destroyed and Guy captured. Saladin moved on to Jerusalem, besieging it from September 20th until its capitulation on October 2nd. The King and Queen of Jerusalem no longer had Jerusalem in their kingdom.
The movie Kingdom of Heaven depicts a highly fictionalized version of these events. Despite its many, many historical inaccuracies, it is a visually stunning film and well worth watching, especially the director’s cut on Blu-ray. Guy does not get a sympathetic portrayal, to put it mildly.
Guy was released in 1188. In 1190, he besieged Acre in anticipation of the arrival of the Third Crusade. His wife and daughters died of plague there, leaving him without even the titular right to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He insisted it was still his, though, and appealed to his old overlord Richard, now King Richard I of England and a vigorous crusader. Ultimately he would lose, but as compensation for Guy’s loss of the crown his wife had given him, in 1192 Richard pulled some strings so Guy could purchase Cyprus from the Knights Templar, who had just purchased it from Richard after he had taken it from self-styled Byzantine “emperor” Isaac Komnenos in 1191. Guy ruled there as king (even though it wasn’t really a kingdom) and kept his fake King of Jerusalem title to boot. Thus began the reign of the Lusignan Dynasty in Cyprus which would continue until 1474.
As for Peter I’s claim to be Count of Tripoli, Qalawun, the seventh Mamluk sultan of Egypt, captured Tripoli on April 27, 1289, putting an end to the Crusader County of Tripoli for good. In 1291, Qalawun’s son and successor, Al-Ashraf Khalil, took Acre, the last fragment of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem remaining in Palestine. After that, Cyprus, once the consolation prize for the failed would-be King of Jerusalem, was the only Crusader kingdom left.
Peter’s fondest dream was to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity, redeem the Lusignan name and make his phantom title real. Since his ascension to the throne in 1358, his allies in Armenia had asked him to fight the Turks, who were harrying the town of Korikos. Seeking to establish a bulwark in Asia Minor, Peter sent troops to Korikos who successfully defended the city. Now the Turks were mad, so they sent ships straight to Cyprus. Peter was again successful, and he responded by attacking Antalya and other towns in Asia Minor.
While all this was going on, he really didn’t need the other Islamic powers on his jock, so he struck a treaty with the Sultan of Mamluk Egypt, even though he was fully planning on attacking them too when he got a moment. That moment came on October 9th, 1365, when a Cypriot force, fortified by ships and troops from Venice, the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes and the other European powers he had lobbied for three years to support him in this new crusade (which like many of the old crusades turned out to have less to do with religion than with plunder), attacked Alexandria. For the next three days, Peter’s troops sacked the city, helping themselves to its armory which of course included the sword he had given the sultan a few years before.
Peter wanted to move on to capture Cairo, but his patchwork army had zero interest in going against the far stronger Mamluk garrison there, so they just loaded the treasures of Alexandria onto ships and went home. The exact path of the sword from that point on is unknown, but I suspect it ended up back on Cyprus again. The reason I suspect this is the Arabic inscription on the blade, which translates to “Donation to the armory in the frontier city of Alexandria in the days of al-Sayfi Faris al-[Muhammadi].” Amir Faris was a inspector in Alexandria in 1436-7, so that means the sword made its way back to the armory after the Alexandrian Crusade. Mamluk Sultans attacked Cyprus in force in 1426, capturing King Janus and pillaging far and wide, so perhaps they got this hot potato of a sword back then.
Janus was eventually ransomed, but from then on, the Lusignan kings of Cyprus paid a yearly tribute to the Sultans of Egypt. The last Lusignan king of Cyprus was James II. He died in 1473, just a few months after his marriage to an 18-year-old Venetian noblewoman Catherine Cornaro. Rumor has it she or her relatives might have hastened his death. Catherine was pregnant at the time, so she was made regent. Her son died in 1474 before he was a year old, again under suspicious circumstances, officially ending the Lusignan line.
Although Catherine continued to reign as Queen by virtue of her marriage, she was a puppet; a highly cultured and beloved one, but nonetheless it was the power brokers of Venice who pulled the strings on Cyprus. They forced her to abdicate in 1489, leaving Cyprus as a colony of Venice until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1571.
Fun fact in the everything is linked to everything else category: Catherine Cornaro was the great-granddaughter of Marco Corner, Count of Zara and future Doge of Venezia, depicted in the painting recently reclaimed for the dining room of The Elms mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.