Helen Paleologina (c. 1415–1458)

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Helen Paleologina (c. 1415–1458)

Queen of Cyprus. Name variations: Helen Paleologa; Helen Palaeologa. Born in Greece around 1415; died in April 1458 at a Dominican monastery and was interred there; daughter of Theodore II Paleologus, despot of Morea and duke of Sparta; married John II, the Lusignan king of Cyprus (r. 1432–1458), in 1442; children: Cleopatra (died in infancy); Charlotte of Lusignan (1442–1487). John II was first married to Medea; he also had an illegitimate son, James II the Bastard, king of Cyprus (r. 1460–1473), with Marietta.

Helen Paleologina was the daughter of Theodore II Paleologus, despot of Morea and duke of Sparta. Theodore was also the second son of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II, whose position in relation to the Turks was extremely tenuous. Morea under Theodore's rule was Byzantium's most flourishing province: his court at Mistra harbored many intellectuals and artists, and was one of the last bastions of Byzantine culture. Thus, Helen as a child was steeped in the ancient glories of a failing civilization—a fact which would influence her adult life. In 1442, Helen married John II, the Lusignan king of Cyprus. (John's first wife, Medea , died in 1440, after only a few months of marriage.)

A brief review of Cyprus' history is pertinent. In 1191, King Richard I of England (on Crusade) seized Cyprus from its rebellious Byzantine governor, Isaac Comnenus. In need of money, Richard tried to sell Cyprus to the Knights Templars, but when they could not come up with the agreed sum, he reclaimed the island and resold it to Guy of Lusignan, the dispossessed king of Jerusalem. Under Guy, Cyprus became a haven for the Franks whom the Muslims were driving from Palestine as they reclaimed lands lost to the Christians during the First Crusade. Thus supplied with a manpower base familiar with the social institutions of Western Europe, Guy built a feudal state of some power. The Lusignan dynasty enjoyed its heyday during the first three-quarters of the 14th century: for Cyprus, a period of peace and prosperity. Prosperity, however, attracted the attention of Venice and Genoa, intense rivals in the maritime trade of the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, as a remote Christian outpost, Cyprus also attracted the attentions of the Turks and Egypt, themselves by no means friendly, though both were Islamic powers. Thus, Cyprus became the epicenter of intense trade and of religious conflicts which adversely affected its prosperity. Cyprus' decline was especially precipitous after the Genoese seized Famagusta (1372), a rich emporium and a gateway for Christians to the east. In 1426, an Egyptian raid overran most of Cyprus, imperiling what the Lusignans still held of the island.

Into this hornet's nest came Helen Paleologina in 1442. She was an energetic woman with a political and cultural agenda. Extremely hostile to the Latin religious rite and to the Westerness which then dominated what had for so long been a Byzantine possession, Helen determined to re-Hellenize her adopted home. Helping her to realize this dream was her foster-brother, Thomas of Morea, who came to be much hated by Cyprus' latinized ruling establishment. Although she met much opposition, Helen became a force to be reckoned with for at least two reasons beyond the intensity of her personality. First, if Cyprus was to remain in Christian hands, it needed all the help it could get from Christian allies. Given the various rivalries which undermined the West's willingness to unify in Cyprus' interest, John II had to maintain good relations with Morea, however endangered that Byzantine province was. And second, there was John himself. When Helen came to Cyprus, she quickly took the measure of her husband and found him less interested in ruling than he should have been. As a result, she sought recognition as John's regent, even though he was both an adult and of sound mind. Ostensibly as a result of his "health," John supported her request, and Helen won her regency. As John gave himself over to self-indulgence, Helen took over the rule of Cyprus. She became a champion of Greek Orthodoxy and was intent upon releasing Cyprus' Greeks from the subjection which the various Western interests had imposed upon them since the time of Guy Lusignan. As such, she alienated the existing power structure of her kingdom to such a degree that she was presented in the worst light by our primarily Western sources. Regardless, she effectively dominated the politics of the island for 16 years, and John clearly came to fear opposing any of her policies.

With John, Helen had two daughters: Cleopatra, who died in infancy, and Charlotte of Lusignan , who was her mother's hope for the future. Probably before Charlotte was born, however, John fathered a bastard son, James II, with a mistress named Marietta from the Greek city of Patras (in either 1440 or 1441). James posed a real threat to Helen's ambitions, since she never produced a legitimate male heir for her husband. In addition to the political menace posed by James to Helen's line and her Hellenic ambitions, Helen seems to have been extremely jealous of Marietta—at least that would explain the fact that, at some point, to mar her rival's beauty, Helen literally bit off Marietta's nose. Henceforth, the unfortunate Marietta was commonly referred to as "Crop-nosed" and the rivalry of Helen's and Marietta's progeny intensified.

Helen Paleologina's attempt to foster the advance of Greek Orthodoxy on Cyprus was opposed by Pope Pius II in Rome, a detail which proved an obstacle in the winning of the military support Cyprus needed to maintain its freedom from Muslim control. This, and the fact that her policy of Hellenization alienated so much of the Latin establishment of Cyprus, spelled doom for the Christian control of the island. Helen's opposition rallied around James, whom John, despite his fear of Helen, favored over Charlotte as his political heir. (This despite the fact that James was impetuous in the extreme: for instance, angered by a political maneuver, James murdered Thomas of Morea, Helen's foster-brother and ally. Even though she was livid, James did not suffer any lasting punishment for his blatant crime.) In an attempt to secure Cyprus for her line, Helen sought an appropriate husband for Charlotte. Helen's preference was John of Portugal (the grandson of the king of Portugal), though her advisors suggested that he was a poor choice. In fact, Helen's advisors were correct, because after John married Charlotte (1456), he became a vocal opponent of Helen's Hellenic policy. Whether or not Helen was behind it, after raising this opposition, John died. Helen was suspected of treachery.

Charlotte's second marriage was negotiated by her father, over the objections of Helen. John chose Louis of Savoy, count of Geneva, who happened to be Charlotte's first cousin. Although marriage between cousins was permissible in the West, among the Orthodox, such marriages were anathema. Helen's disapproval, however, went for naught, because she died in April of 1458 at a Dominican monastery (where she was also buried) before this marriage was consummated. John II died three months later, and Charlotte married Louis within a year of her parents' deaths. Charlotte's only child with Louis was to be a still-born son. Louis also proved to be less than a match for James II: the latter was recognized as Cyprus' king in 1460. James' was a moot victory, however, for in 1489 the Lusignan dynasty gave way on Cyprus to the Venetian Republic (which laid claim to the island after James' death through his Venetian wife Caterina Cornaro ), and Venice ruled the island for 82 years. Thereafter, it fell to the Ottoman Empire.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Helen Paleologina (c. 1415–1458)

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