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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Short and Fairly Inconsequential Reigns


Thirteenth century illustration of nobles swearing alliegence to the child king, Baldwin V [Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain] and Eighteenth century drawing by Elzear Horn of Baldwin V's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [Vatican Library]

Every family has its more colourful characters. In mine there is an interesting mix of the illustrious and the dubious, among them wealthy bankers, scholars, scientists, petty criminals, a famous film star, and I seem to remember my mother saying a drummer boy in the American Civil War, but I may be wrong about that (one of the great disappointments of my childhood was the discovery that a particularly colourful London thief, and, even more delightful, a murderer into the bargain, turned out to only share the surname!). One ancestor, a cousin of my grandparents, was a sometime successful businessman whose chief claim to fame was his election to the position of premier and treasurer of South Australia in 1899, an honour of course, but somewhat tinged by the fact that he retained to position only for one week and earned a place in history as the leader of South Australia's shortest-lived government.


The problem with short reigns is that, unless, as in the case of my ancestor, the position is held so briefly that this in itself is worthy of note, it is rather hard to go down in history as anything more than a footnote. Consider for example those two unfortunate Soviet leaders, Yuri Andropov who was General Secretary of the Communist party for slightly over a year and Konstantin Chernenko who followed him in the position and held it for about the same length of time. Who even remembers them, coming between the interminably long rule of Leonid Brezhnev and the highly impacting term of Mikhail Gorbachev? And there is the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, whose term of office lasted for just 31 days before succumbing to typhoid, pneumonia, or paratyphoid fever. And the hapless Pope John Paul I, whose papacy was so brief that the fumata bianca had hardly yet dissipated into the blue Roman sky above the Sistine Chapel.


Among those Frankish leaders whose reigns were brief, though perhaps not entirely inconsequential, were King Baldwin V of Jerusalem and King James III of Cyprus. Baldwin's reign might be seen as something of a watershed, coming between the leper king, Baldwin IV, who despite his severe physical handicap proved to be brave and honourable, and Guy de Lusignan whose character faults seem to have been substantial and whose legacy is, above all, the loss of the kingdom. Poor little Baldwin, co-ruling with his uncle as a six-year-old and dead by the age of nine, is remembered chiefly as a pawn in the conflict between the barons and the royal faction. His death, along with some political manoeuvring that followed and the discord that resulted, led directly to the Frankish defeat at Hattin in July 1187 and the subsequent collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem. All that the chronicler William of Tyre (who apparently himself died not long after Baldwin) has to say about him is to point out that his elevation to kingship alongside his uncle was perceived by some, as undoubtedly it was, as an attempt to distance Guy from the crown, an attempt that ultimately failed.

James III of Cyprus was an equally unfortunate case. He was the child of the Lusignan king, James II and his Venetian bride, Catherine Cornaro. His father died in 1473, possibly poisoned by Venetian agents, and the child, but a few months old, was crowned in his place. Around the time of his birthday, however, he too died of mysterious circumstances (and we generally know the meaning of that phrase). Catherine became ruler of Cyprus, holding on until 1489 when she was more or less coerced into handing the island over to Venice, thereby putting an end to the last crusader state in the Levant. Like Baldwin V, it seems that the chief importance of James' rule was that it signalled the end of an era.

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