Christine de Pizan

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Monday, June 28, 2021

Carlotta of Lusignan, Queen of Cyprus

 Carlotta of Lusignan, queen of Cyprus (born 28 June 1444)


Born on 28 June 1444, Carlotta of Lusignan was the eldest daughter of Giovanni II, king of Cyprus. Although he was also the titular prince of Antioch and the titular king of Jerusalem (from 1432 to 1458), Giovanni ruled only on the island of Cyprus. (The designation "of Lusignan" here refers not to Carlotta's place of birth but to her paternal family connections.)

Carlotta of Lusignan, queen of Cyprus
detail from Cosimo Roselli,
fresco, Sistine Chapel, c. 1481-2 
Carlotta's mother was Giovanni's second wife, Helena Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess. Giovanni and his first wife had no children.) Carlotta was raised in the Byzantine tradition, among her mother's Greek-speaking women, so she was fluent in that language, which she spoke throughout her life. She understood, spoke, and wrote French and Italian, though she was not fluent, but her knowledge of Latin was less certain. 

In 1450, perhaps concerned that he had only a daughter as heir, Giovanni sought a papal dispensation for Carlotta's marriage to Louis of Savoy, his sister's son. 

These plans did not materialize, however, perhaps because of Queen Helena's disapproval of the marriage of first cousins. Adding to the political turmoil in Cyprus was ongoing religious conflict--the queen's Orthodox Christianity frequently placed her in opposition to the Roman church, and there is some suggestion that she was suspicious of papal intervention in such marital connections. (There was cultural conflict between Giovanni and Helena as well, with the queen welcoming Greeks to Cyprus after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.)

Whether it was due to the queen's opposition or not, in 1456, the twelve-year-old Carlotta was married not to her cousin but to João of Coimbra, the son of the Portuguese duke of Coimbra. Some sources suggest that the choice of the twenty-five-year-old João was Queen Helena's. Following the marriage, João and Carlotta were named prince and princess of Antioch.

The couple took up residence with Carlotta's godfather, Peter of Lusignan, count of Tripoli. Their relocation seems to have been the result of growing tension with members of her father's court. Unfortunately, the young João quickly fell ill and died. And, of course, Queen Helena was suspected of having poisoned her daughter's new husband . . . 

Whatever the reason for her husband's death, Carlotta's first marriage was brief--João had arrived in Cyprus in May of 1457, and he was dead by 22 June. The widowed Carlotta returned to her father's home. 

Meanwhile, although Giovanni's only legitimate child was his daughter, he did have another child, an illegitimate son, Giacomo, born in 1438 or 1439 to the king and his mistress, Marietta de Patras (shortly after Helena Palaiologina married Giovanni, she reportedly had Marietta's nose cut off . . . ) Giovanni had provided well for his son, naming the sixteen-year-old as archbishop of Nicosia in 1456, but after murdering a royal chamberlain, the young archbishop was deprived of his office. (Don't worry--Giovanni quickly pardoned his son and returned the archbishopric to him.)

After the death of Carlotta's husband, her half-brother seems to have been involved in a scheme to arrange the marriage of the widowed princess to a candidate of his own choosing, a nephew of the pope, perhaps even going so far as to enter into a plot to kidnap Carlotta. But, instead of arranging his daughter's marriage to his son's preferred candidate, Giovanni turned his attention once more to his nephew, Louis of Savoy.  

A dispensation for the marriage was needed--again, sources suggest that the alliance was opposed by the queen. But events overtook the king and queen of Cyprus--because of Giacomo's rebellion, they were forced to retreat to the fortress of Nicosia, where they both died, Queen Helena on 11 April 1458, and King Giovanni on 28 July 1458. According to at least one chronicle, Giacomo was responsible for Helena's death--he was said to have poisoned her.

Immediately after her father's death, Carlotta was recognized as his successor--and among those who promptly offered his allegiance was her half-brother, Giacomo. Now fourteen years old, Carlotta was crowned queen of Cyprus on 15 October 1458. The coronation did not proceed altogether smoothly, however--during the ceremony, the crown fell off her head. Later, this unfortunate accident was regarded as a sign of what was to come.

Carlotta's marriage contract with Louis was signed a few days later, and on 7 October 1459, a year after she became queen of Cyprus, Carlotta married Louis of Savoy, who became ure oxis, a co-ruler by right of marriage, not a king consort. 

Although Giacomo had sworn allegiance to his half-sister when she became queen, he was soon claiming the throne for himself "in a such way," writes historian Marina Tymviou, "that it amounted to a military coup." In less than a year after Carlotta's marriage, by 26 September 1460, he had captured Nicosia and then had himself crowned king of Cyprus.

Queen Carlotta, young and inexperienced, did not cede her kingdom immediately, but retreated to the castle of Kyrenia, on the northern coast of Cyprus, which remained loyal to her. But after three years, Carlotta was forced to flee. 

She arrived in Rhodes, seeking support and determined to retake Cyprus. As Tymviou argues, Carlotta maintained her role as a "queen in exile and not a former queen." She sought assistance from her husband's father, the duke of Savoy, and from Rome, where she arrived on 15 October 1461 and met with Pius II, who "welcomed her as a fully sovereign queen."

Carlotta's efforts to regain her throne were notable: she traveled widely throughout the Italian peninsula to rally support for her cause. She eventually reached Savoy, taking up residence at her father-in-law's ducal court. (Though her reception seems to have lacked a bit--Pius II wrote that she was received there "coldly," speculating that the duke had been impoverished by efforts to aid Carlotta.)

Leaving Savoy, Carlotta returned to Rhodes, where she established a kind of court-in-exile and was supported by the Knights Hospitaller. The possibility for regaining her throne grew less likely when she was joined in 1463 by her husband, Louis, who was forced to leave Cyprus. Then, in 1464, Pius II died, replaced by a pope who recognized Giacomo as king of Cyprus. And in 1465, the duke of Savoy died--the new duke, Louis' brother, was not eager to spend more resources in Cyprus.  

Carlotta of Lusignan, queen of Cyprus
detail from Giovanni de Fondulis, 
terracotta sculpture, after 1483 
In the mean time, Giacomo had sought to establish himself as the legitimate king of Cyprus. He too had drummed up support on the Italian peninsula. Although Carlotta had sought and received assistance from Venice, it was Giacomo who received a bride from Venice--he was betrothed to Caterina Cornaro in 1468. The two were married four years later, in 1472. 

But, just as Carlotta's fortunes had turned dramatically, so did Giacomo's--within a year of his marriage, he died, leaving his young wife pregnant. Carlotta saw this as an opportunity to reclaim her throne. 

While Carlotta's supporters on Cyprus assassinated several members of Caterina's household, the young widow managed to escape, support from Venice arrived to reestablish order, and she gave birth to a son, Giacomo III, named after his father. With the birth of a boy, who could become king, the question of who was the "legitimate" ruler in Cyprus seemed to be over.

Once again fate intervened. In less than a year, the boy was dead, and Carlotta was once again eager to regain her throne. But it was not to be. 

Carlotta of Lusignan, queen of Cyprus, was never restored to her throne. Instead, in 1475, she settled in Rome, where she was received by Pope Sixtus IV, installed in an apartment in Castel Sant'Angelo, and provided with a stipend. 

Carlotta was offered a substantial income by Venice if she would renounce her claim to Cyprus, but she refused. She continued to campaign for her return--she seems to have been aided by Naples and Egypt in 1478 and again in 1481, and there is some indication that another effort was considered as late as 1484.

But Carlotta of Lusignan, queen of Cyprus, did not achieve her ambition. She died in Rome on 16 July 1487. She was just forty-four years old. 

Two online sources are particularly good for understanding Carlotta of Lusignan's life and efforts to regain Cyprus. Angela Dillon Bussi's biographical essay, from Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, is available at Trecanni (click here). And Marina Tymviou's doctoral dissertation, "Charlotte of Lusignan and Caterina Cornaro: The Politics of Queenship and Identity in Cyprus and Italy, 1458-1861," is available in its entirety (click here).

Also very useful is the chapter on Carlotta in volume 3 of George Hill's A History of Cyprus.