Friday, December 2, 2016

Isabella, Queen of Jerusalem

Isabella of Jerusalem was the founder of two dynasties. Her daughters wore the crowns of Jerusalem and Cyprus and all subsequent monarchs of both houses were her direct descendants. She was the vital link between the proud first Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the First Crusade, and the much diminished second Kingdom of Acre established on the rubble of the first Kingdom. Yet most historians and novelist dismiss her as a mere pawn. 

Her reign began with an abduction. 

In November 1190, Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem died of fever in the siege camp at Acre. She had been pre-deceased by her brother, King Baldwin IV, her son, King Baldwin V, and both her daughters. The only remaining direct descendant of her father, King Amalric, was her half-sister, Isabella, who now became the heir apparent to the throne of Jerusalem. 

Shortly after her sister’s death, in the middle of a November night, Isabella, Princess of Jerusalem, was dragged from the tent and bed she shared with her husband Humphrey de Toron, and taken into the custody of the leading prelates of the church present at the siege of Acre. Among these were the Papal Legate, the Archbishop of Pisa; Philip, the Bishop of Beauvais, and Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury along with two other unnamed bishops. They informed her that an ecclesiastical inquiry was to be conducted on the validity of her marriage to Humphrey of Toron.

Now, Isabella had by this point in time been living under the same roof as Humphrey  de Toron for fourteen years. She had been married to him for eleven. Although she had no children and, it is questionable if the marriage had ever been consummated, she nevertheless viewed herself as legally married. All accounts agree that she initially objected to being taken from Humphrey and resisted the efforts to annul her marriage because she “loved” him. They also agree that within just a few days, she had changed her mind and consented to the annulment. 


Clerics in the service of the English King and bitterly hostile to her second husband attribute her change of heart to the misogynous thesis that “a girl can easily be taught to do what is morally wrong” or the fact that “a woman’s opinion changes very easily.”[i] A more neutral chronicle attributes her change of heart to the influence (often described as brow-beating) of her mother. Either way, contemporary clerics depict Isabella as a mindless pawn of those more powerful, and modern historians and novelists have generally accepted this thesis uncritically ever since.

In doing so, they ignore a fundamental fact: in November 1190 the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to the single city of Tyre following the disastrous Battle of Hattin, and the desperate bid to re-capture the city of Acre had bogged down into a war of attrition with the besiegers themselves besieged by the army of Saladin. Jerusalem needed not just a legitimate queen, it needed a king capable of leading the fight for the recovery of the lost kingdom.

Isabella’s husband, Humphrey de Toron, was not that man. Contemporary chronicles describe him as “cowardly and effeminate”[iii] or “more like a woman than a man: he had a gentle manner and a stammer.”[iv] Thus regardless of Isabella’s impeccable claim to the throne of Jerusalem, the High Court (which consisted of the barons and bishops of the kingdom) was not prepared to recognize her as queen unless and until she set aside Humphrey de Toron and took another husband more suitable to the High Court.

The evidence that this was the key factor is provided by the arguments put into the mouth of her mother, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem and daughter of the Imperial House of Constantinople, who is said to have reminded her daughter of: 
"the evil deed that [Humphrey] had done, for when the count of Tripoli and the other barons who were at Nablus wanted to crown him king and her queen, he had fled to Jerusalem and, begging forgiveness, had done homage to Queen Sibylla….So long as Isabella was his wife she could have neither honor nor her father’s kingdom. [Italics added.] Moreover…when she [Isabella] married she was still under age and for that reason the validity of her marriage could be challenged.[ii]

Significantly, the High Court had taken the same stance with regard to her elder sister, who had also been married to an unsuitable man when the death of her son made her the rightful queen.  Sibylla had agreed to divorce her detested husband Guy de Lusignan on the condition she be allowed to choose her next husband -- only to blithely announce that she chose her old husband as her “new” husband after she was crowned and anointed. This incident must have been very much in the minds of the barons when they faced a similar situation with her sister Isabella in 1190. They were determined not to repeat their mistake of four years earlier. Isabella had to be legally separated from Humphrey and married to a man they deemed suitable before the High Court would acknowledge her as queen. Once the situation was made clear to her, Isabella changed her testimony and once her marriage to Humphrey was dissolved, she married the man selected by the High Court, Conrad de Montferrat. (For more details on Isabella's highly controversial divorce see:

What this all says is that isabella preferred to wear the (at that point almost worthless) crown of Jerusalem over remaining married to the man she “loved.” So maybe she did not “love” Humphrey all that much? Or she was more ambitious than people give her credit for. Either way she made a choice.

Her second husband, Conrad de Montferrat was a man with a formidable reputation at arms. He had almost single-handedly saved Tyre from surrender to Saladin in July 1187 and defended it a second time in December that same year. Before that, however, he had charmed the court in Constantinople with his good-looks, manners and education. He was also roughly twice Isabella’s age at the time of their marriage. 

Isabella would have had no illusions about why Conrad was marrying her: for the throne of Jerusalem. As a royal princess that would neither have surprised nor offended her. Isabella and Conrad, one can argue, chose one another because together they offered the Kingdom of Jerusalem the best means of avoiding obliteration. The legitimacy of Isabella and the military prowess of Conrad gave the barons and people of Jerusalem a rallying point around which to build a come-back. Notably, she called on her barons to do homage to her immediately after her marriage to Montferrat; that is the act of a woman determined to establish her position and remind her vassals of it.

Unfortunately for both Isabella and Conrad, the King of England out of feudal loyalty or sheer petulant hostility to his rival the King of France (who was related to and backed Conrad), chose to uphold the claim of Sibylla’s widowed husband Guy de Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem. What this meant for Isabella was that despite her marriage to the man preferred by the High Court, she was not recognized or afforded the dignities of queen because the powerful King of England (who rapidly seized command of the entire campaign to regain lost territory in what became known as the Third Crusade) opposed her husband. 

Conrad and Isabella's formidable opponent: Richard the Lionheart
Conrad responded by refusing to support the crusaders and by seeking a separate peace with Saladin. The Sultan, however, snubbed him, rightly seeing Richard as the greater threat with whom he needed to conclude any truce. We can assume that this was an incredibly frustrating experience for Isabella, but she was perhaps cheered the fact that she at last conceived in early 1192.

In April 1192, the English King finally relented, and word reached Tyre that he was prepared to recognize Isabella and Conrad as Queen and King of Jerusalem. The city of Tyre, fiercely loyal to Conrad ever since he’d saved them Saladin, was seized with rapturous rejoicing. In a dramatic gesture, Conrad asked God to strike him down if he did not deserve the honor of the crown of the Holy City. He then walked out into the streets to be stabbed by two assassins. Mortally wounded, he was carried to his residence where he died in agony in Isabella’s arms. She was not yet twenty years old.

She was, however, still the last surviving direct descendant of the Kings of Jerusalem, and her kingdom had never needed her more. The King of England had already received news that made it imperative for him to return to the West. The precarious gains of the Third Crusade needed defending. Isabella had to remarry, and she had to remarry a man acceptable to the High Court and the King of England. She was given just eight days between the assassination of her second husband and her marriage to her third.

A pawn? Or a queen who put the interests of her kingdom ahead of her own feelings?

Notably, the man selected by the High Court (accounts claiming the “people” of Tyre chose him are nonsense) was the nephew of the Kings of England and France, a grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henri Count of Champagne. The Count had been one of the first to “take the cross” and come out to Outremer to fight for the recovery of Isabella’s kingdom. He was, furthermore, only 26 years old and apparently gallant and courteous. According to Itinerarium, far from being greedy for a crown, he was a reluctant candidate, who was distressed by Isabella’s situation and only persuaded to consent when she herself assured him that it was her wish. Certainly, he never styled himself “King of Jerusalem,” preferring the title to which he had been born, Count of Champagne.

In the five years of her marriage to Champagne, Isabella gave birth to a posthumous daughter by Montferrat, Marie, and three daughters by Champagne, Marguerite, Alice and Philippa. It was during this marriage that a degree of stability descended over her kingdom with a three-year, eight month truce with the Saracens signed Sept. 2/3, 1192. But on September 10, 1197, Henri fell out of a window to his death. The circumstances remain obscure. A balcony or window-frame possibly gave way, or he simply lost his balance when turning suddenly. No allegations of foul play were ever made.

Isabella was again a widow and the truce with Saladin had expired. The kingdom was again in need of a king capable of leading armies in its defense. Although they according Isabella four months of mourning this time, in the end the High Court selected Isabella’s next husband. Their choice fell on the ruling King of Cyprus, her former brother-in-law, Aimery de Lusignan. They were married and crowned jointly as King and Queen of Jerusalem in Acre in January 1198.

Their first child, a daughter Sibylle, was born the same year as their marriage (1198) and a second daughter Melusinde, two years later. Their son, named Aimery for his father, was born last but died in February 1205. Two months later, on April 1, 1205 King Aimery died of food poisoning, he would have been between 55 and 60 at the time of his death. Isabella died shortly afterwards, likely shattered by the loss of her only son and her fourth husband in such quick succession. The cause of her death is unknown. She was 32 to 33 years old.

Four of her daughters survived her. The eldest, Marie de Montferrat, now thirteen-years-old and the posthumous daughter of Conrad de Montferrat, succeeded to the crown of Jerusalem. Isabella’s eldest surviving daughter by Champagne, Alice, married her step-brother, Aimery de Lusignan’s eldest son by his first marriage, Hugh I, King of Cyprus. Her eldest daughter by Aimery de Lusignan married Leo I, King of Armenia. Her youngest daughter Melusinde married Bohemund IV, Prince of Antioch.

Isabella’s life was short by modern standards and filled with drama from her separation from her family at age eight to her dramatic divorce, the assassination of one husband, and the death of two more. Yet throughout Isabella consistently did what was in the best interests of her kingdom. That suggests to me that she was more than a mere pawn. She was certainly more admirable than her elder sister, whose stubborn loyalty to the man she loved had led to the catastrophe at Hattin and the loss of nearly the entire kingdom.

Isabella is an important character in both:

Defender of Jerusalem 


Envoy of Jerusalem 

[i] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi
[ii] The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre.
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi

Friday, November 25, 2016

Montgisard, November 25, 1177

On November 25, 1177 a Frankish army under the command of a 16-year-old leper routed the army of the mighty Sultan of Cairo and Damascus, Salah ad-Din. It was a surprise victory to say the least, and won by a mere fragment of the Frankish chivalry (because a large portion of the knights of the kingdom were campaigning in the north) and the hastily summoned, amateur infantry of the arrière ban. 

In in 1177, Salah-ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria. Although he had yet to take the key cities of Aleppo and Mosul (both of which remained loyal to the son of Nur ad Din), Saladin had for the most part united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years. However, his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt his faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also five times in the 1160s invaded Egypt. These were not all outright wars of aggression, as in three of them the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies, but the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted repeated campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.

Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah-ad-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah-ad-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century.  It had, however, become less popular in later centuries until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, reinvigorated the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him, but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleashed the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and immanent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Salah ad-Din had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off, the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and the Sultan seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether there were infantry with him or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal body guard.

According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source, Baldwin rallied his forces and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon, the southern-most stronghold of his kingdom.

Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but then hesitated to risk open battle with the Saracens because of the imbalance of forces.  Thus, while King Baldwin's dash to Ascalon had been heroic, it had been less than wise strategically. Salah ad-Din was now in a position to bottle up the King and his knights inside Ascalon, and nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Rather than wasting time besieging a fortified city with a strong garrison, Saladin left a force of undefined size to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.

But this was where Salah ad-Din miscalculated. The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie. Even more impressive, he somehow managed to get word to the Templars in the fortress of Gaza, and they sortied out to rendezvous with the King. Together this mounted force started to shadow Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Frankish tactics, however, required a combination of cavalry and infantry, so King Baldwin could not engage the enemy  until he had infantry as well. He therefore issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. Infantry started streaming to join him.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights, led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon, “the Ibelin brothers” or the Templars, smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream.

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

Although the battle was hard fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were soon routed.  Not only that, Salah ad-Din himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. Yet for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned their plunder, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few men of the Sultan’s army made it home to safety in Egypt.

Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose. Certainly he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. It was not until the crushing defeat of the Frankish armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in "Knight of Jerusalem," the first book in a three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Isabella, Princess of Jerusalem

Although she reigned as queen in her own right for twelve years, Isabella of Jerusalem is most often portrayed in history books and literature as a pawn. She was married four times, divorced once, and widowed thrice. She was the mother of six daughters and a single son, who died just weeks before Isabella herself. She had been besieged by Saladin on her first wedding night, was the object of a coup attempt, and endured the hardships of a siege camp during the Frankish siege of Acre 1189-1191. One husband spent more than year in Saracen captivity, another died in her arms after being struck down by assassins, and her third husband died at the age of 33 in a bizarre accident. Isabella died, possibly from the complications of her son’s birth, at the age of 32. 

Isabella’s life was short, eventful and tragic, but writing Isabella off as a pawn of the men around her does no justice to a woman who played a crucial role in the history of the Holy Land. In two entries, I will be examining her life and role in history. Today, her life as princess, and later her life as queen.

Isabella was the daughter of King Amalric (also Aimery) of Jerusalem by his second wife, Maria Comnena, who was a great niece of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I. Isabella was born in early or mid-1172, or 11 and 12 years respectively after her father’s son and daughter by his first wife. At the time of Isabella’s birth, her half-brother Baldwin had already been diagnosed with leprosy, so there can be little doubt that her sex was a disappointment to her father; King Amalric had undoubtedly hoped for a son that might replace the stricken Baldwin as his heir. (It was the custom in the Kingdom of Jerusalem for noblemen who contracted leprosy to renounce their secular titles and join the religious Order of St. Lazarus.) Amalric was still young (in his thirties), and his wife Maria not yet twenty, however, so he undoubtedly hoped the vital male heir would yet be forthcoming.

Just two years later, however, Amalric fell victim to dysentery and died suddenly. Isabella’s half-brother Baldwin was recognized as King of Jerusalem, and placed under the regency of the Count of Tripoli. Isabella’s mother was now a widow at just 21 years, and retired from court to the wealthy barony of Nablus, her dower portion. Nablus was known for its scents and soaps, and for its large, cosmopolitan population of Jews, Orthodox, Latin Christians, and Muslims. (The latter were specifically granted the right to engage in the haj to Mecca.) One imagines it must have been an exciting place to grown up.

Three years later, when Isabella was just five years old, her mother chose a new husband. Maria Comnena’s choice fell on the younger (landless) brother of the wealthy Baron of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel (see Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin). The King, who explicitly sanctioned the marriage, was probably responsible for persuading the Baron if Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel to transfer the comparatively insignificant barony of Ibelin to his younger brother to ensure he was a more “suitable” match for the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. Thus, Maria became the Lady of Ibelin, and her second husband, Balian, became Isabella’s step-father ― and, indeed, the first and only father whom Isabella and consciously known.

Initially Isabella remained with her mother and step-father, spending time (one presumes) at both Nablus and Ibelin. She soon had two new half-siblings, a sister Helvis and a brother John, born to her mother and step-father. Her idyllic childhood, however, came to an abrupt end at the age of eight. The King’s mother, Agnes de Courtenay, had long been a bitter rival of Maria Comnena because the latter had replaced her in her husband’s bed and been crowned queen in her place (See Agnes de Courtenay). By 1180, Agnes enjoyed the King’s confidence sufficiently to be able to influence him. She convinced him that his half-sister was a threat, who needed to be completely “controlled” by people loyal to the Courtenays. The means to achieve purely political objective was to betrothe the eight-year-old Isabella to another pawn, the underage nobleman Humphrey de Toron. 

Humphrey was himself firmly under the control of  his widowed mother and her new and already notorious husband: Reynald de Châtillon (See Rogue Baron).  Thus, Isabella was taken from the only family she had ever known -- over the furious objections of her mother and step-father -- to live as a virtual prisoner in one of the most exposed and bleak castles of the kingdom on the very edge of Sinai: Kerak. She was, furthermore, in the hands of the brutal and godless Reynald de Châtillon. To add insult to injury, his lady prohibited the child from visiting her parents for the next three years. In this phase of her life, Isabella was indeed nothing but a pawn.

Interior of Kerak

In late 1183, for reasons lost to history, someone (Châtillon? The King? Agnes de Courtenay?) decided it was time for Isabella and Humphrey to marry. Isabella was only eleven and below the canonical age of consent; she had nothing to say in the matter. Her mother and step-father were not present and presumably not consulted. Humphrey was by now at least fifteen and possibly a couple years older, which may have prompted the marriage as there was the risk that, now that he did have a say over his affairs, he might haven chosen to break the betrothal. A marriage on the other hand could not be so easily reversed. Whatever the reasons, the marriage was planned and the nobility of Outremer invited to attend.

Instead, the castle of Kerak found itself under siege by the forces of Saladin, while the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were attending a session of the High Court in Jerusalem. Trapped inside were largely their ladies, notably Isabella’s mother, who was seeing her daughter for the first time in three years, Isabella’s half-sister Sibylla (now 23 and married for a second time), and the Queen Mother Agnes de Courtenay. The siege lasted roughly two months before the Army of Jerusalem under Baldwin IV came to the castle’s relief. Although no harm came to any of the high-born guests, Isabella spent her wedding night in a castle under siege and bombardment. (Allegedly, Saladin agreed to spare the tower in which the nuptials were taking place, but continued bombarding the rest of the castle with his siege engines.) Furthermore, we can assume there was considerable uncertainty about when the relief army would arrive and whether food and water would last until help came --  not to mention that the sanitary conditions in a castle crowded with townspeople and extra guests must have been quite unpleasant. It was not an auspicious start to married life, even for an eleven-year-old. 

The next phase of Isabella’s life is poorly recorded. Humphrey de Toron, selected as Isabella’s husband by a woman bitterly hostile to her, lived-up to her expectations of spinelessness. He surrendered (voluntarily?) his important barony of Toron to Agnes de Courtenay’s brother, Jocelyn of Edessa, taking a “money fief” (read: pension) instead. Isabella and he appear to have lived in town houses in either Acre or Jerusalem. For Isabella the implications of her husband’s abdication of effective baronial power may not have been evident (she was only eleven after all), and she probably enjoyed at last being able to visit with her mother, step-father and Ibelin half-siblings (of which there were now four).

Then in 1186, the boy King Baldwin V, who had succeeded the “Leper” King Baldwin IV, died without a direct heir. The barons of Jerusalem had sworn to seek the advice of the Kings of England and France, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, but they were far away. Furthermore, Isabella’s half-sister, the mother of Baldwin V and sister of Baldwin IV, felt that she ought to succeed to the throne. While no one doubted her claim, the majority of barons and bishops abhorred her husband and so resisted crowning her. Without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem but with the help of the Templars and Reynald de Châtillon, Sibylla contrived to have herself crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; she then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort. 

Sibylla and Guy from the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
The majority of the barons and bishops were not in Jerusalem to witness Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne; they were meeting in Nablus to discuss options. The news that Sibylla had seized the throne and crowned her detested husband, pushed them to take action. It was agreed that Isabella, as the other surviving child of King Amalric, should be crowned in Bethlehem as a rival (but in this case legitimate because chosen by the High Court) queen to Sibylla. Automatically, her husband would by law become her consort and so king. But the barons had not reckoned with Humphrey de Toron’s cowardice and/or duplicity. Either from fear or simply because he remained abjectly loyal to his step-father, Humphrey foiled the baronial plot by sneaking away during the night to do homage to Sibylla and Guy. Without an alternative rallying point, the baronial resistance to Sibylla/Guy’s coup d’etat collapsed. 

That is all recorded history, but what is left out of it is how Isabella felt. Did Isabella side with her husband ― and the man who had kept her imprisoned for three years? Or did she side with her mother and step-father, who both vehemently opposed Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne? Did fourteen-year-old Isabella want to be queen? Or not? We have no way of knowing. 

But just because the historical record is silent, we should not assume that she simply didn’t care. The historical record that we have is scanty and written almost exclusively by male clerics, who rarely considered the opinions or actions of women important. The fact that they took no interest in Isabella’s feelings should not induce us to do the same. We know that Isabella, like most of the barons except Tripoli and her step-uncle of Ramla and Mirabel, accepted the fait accompli, but most of the barons (and presumably bishops) nevertheless deeply resented what Sibylla and Guy (on one hand) and Humphrey (on the other) had done. Isabella may have been in an identical situation: she had to accept what Humphrey had done and make her peace with Sibylla and Guy, but she may also have resented it, possibly intensely. It might even have created marital tensions.

Whatever her feelings, however, history was about to swamp her with new problems. Less than a year after usurping the crown, Guy de Lusignan led the Army of Jerusalem to an unnecessary and devastating defeat (See Hattin.) Not only was the battle lost, thousands of fighting men were slaughtered, the remainder enslaved, and the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were taken captive; among them was Isabella’s ever ineffective husband Humphrey.

There are various versions of what happened next. Saladin evidently offered to release Humphrey in exchange for the surrender of the critically important Frankish border fortresses of Oultrejourdain (which Humphrey had just inherited because Saladin had personally decapitated Reynald de Châtillon). According to some (probably romanticized) versions, Humphrey arrived home, only to have the garrisons refuse to obey his orders, at which point he voluntarily (or at his mother’s “loving” urging) returned to Saracen captivity. It is more probable that Humphrey’s release was contingent on the surrender of Kerak and Montreal, and the surrender never occurred (no chivalrous return from freedom to captivity.) Either version of events, however, underlines the fact that Humphrey was 1) prepared to surrender vitally important fortresses just for the sake of his freedom and 2) that the men of the garrisons had so little respect for him they did not follow his instructions.  Both castles, however, were eventually reduced by siege, and at that point Saladin agreed to release Humphrey as he served no useful purpose in prison. 

Humphrey and Isabella were reunited in early 1189 after roughly 18 months of separation. Where Isabella had been between the catastrophe of Hattin and her reunion with Humphrey is unrecorded. Most likely, she was with her mother and step-father, because her stepfather had managed to escape the trap at Hattin. With King Guy and most of the High Court in captivity, Ibelin was unquestionably one of the most important men in the entire kingdom (Arab chronicles from the period refer to him as “like a king.”) Furthermore, he commanded the respect of those fighting men who had, with him, escaped capture. It would, therefore, have been logical for Isabella to seek his protection in this period. 

Ibelin was in Tyre, the only city in the entire kingdom that did not fall or surrender to Saladin in the wake of Hattin. Also in Tyre at this time was Conrad de Montferrat. Montferrat was the brother of Sibylla’s first husband, uncle of Baldwin V, and related to both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, in short a man of very high birth and good connections. More important, he had taken command of the defense of Tyre in a critical moment and enjoyed the support of the people, residents and refugees, crowded into it. If she was in Tyre, Isabella and Conrad would have met and probably known each other well.
When Humphrey returned from captivity, however, he joined not the men who had successfully defended what was left of the kingdom but the architect of the disaster: Guy de Lusignan. Thus when Guy de Lusignan (for no logical reason) decided to besiege Saracen held Acre, Humphrey went with him. Significantly, Isabella accompanied him

A siege camp is not a pleasant place for anyone, much less a high-born lady, which begs the question: why would Isabella choose to expose herself to the sordid life-style and the mortal hazards of a siege? Was it love of her husband? The passionate desire not to be separated from him again after the eighteen months of forced separation caused by his captivity? Did she go to at the insistence of her half-sister Sibylla, who was also at the siege with her two infant daughters and could have commanded the attendance of her little sister? Did Humphrey insist on Isabella coming with him because he was jealous of a budding friendship between Isabella and Montferrat? Did King Guy command her to come (and Humphrey dutifully comply) because he (Guy) feared she might be used by the barons (who had always opposed him and now detested him more than ever) to challenge his (much tarnished) right to the throne? 

We will never know. The only thing that is certain is that she was still there in November of 1190, when her half-sister Sibylla and both her nieces died of fever. In the eyes of the High Court, which had favored her since the constitutional crisis of 1186, Isabella was no longer a princess but the rightful queen of Jerusalem.

Isabella is an important character in both:

Defender of Jerusalem 


Envoy of Jerusalem 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Crusader Medical Care: Licensed Practitioners and Malpractice Legislation

Medical care in the crusader states benefited from close contact with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Muslim world, not only with respect to the development of hospitals but also with respect to innovative treatment, licensing and malpractice legislation. Furthermore, contrary to conventional wisdom, the standard of treatment was remarkably sophisticated and included highly complex procedures from hernia and cataract operations to (limited) brain surgery.  Perhaps most surprising of all, innovation was not a one-way-street, but in some instances Western medical practitioners were ahead of their Arab and Greek contemporaries. Below is a short summary of highlights I gleaned from Piers D. Mitchell’s seminal work Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon. Piers D. Mitchell is an osteoarchaeologist.

Treating Trauma

The crusades to the Holy Land were “armed pilgrimages” or military campaigns to regain control of the land in which Christ had lived and died; as such they resulted in very large numbers of battlefield casualties.  Indeed, based on available records Mitchell calculates that between 15 and 20 % of knights on crusade died in battle or as a result of wounds obtained there; the proportion of foot soldiers lost due to military engagement was probably higher.  Nevertheless and surprisingly for modern readers, very many more survived their wounds due to competent medical treatment.

In the 12 and 13th centuries, the weapons employed produced first and foremost puncture wounds (from arrows, lances and swords), followed by cuts/amputations caused by swords and axes, fractures/crushed bones caused by maces and stones thrown from siege engines, and, last but not least burns from Greek fire, boiling pitch and water. The fundamental treatment for each of these kinds of wounds does not differ significantly from what is recommended today.

Medieval medical practitioners and soldiers, for example, understood the essential fact that a man can bleed to death. When treating puncture wounds, stopping hemorrhaging was, then as now, the primary concern. The difference between arteries and veins was likewise understood, and the need to stop arterial bleeding as rapidly as possible recognized. The use of tourniquet and precise cauterizing were both known, and surgeons were expected to be able to close off arterial bleeding with their fingers long enough to apply a cautery.  Not only is the procedure for this carefully described in medical texts of the period, there are numerous recorded instances of men surviving this treatment and recovering so completely that they could fight again without impediment.

While amputations were likewise cauterized and cuts bound, or if necessary, sewn back together, arrows presented additional problems. Although it would have been rare for an arrow to hit an artery, the arrow itself often remained in the wound and the need to remove it was paramount. But many arrows were designed to do more damage if pulled backwards (out the way they went in) by the addition of barbs or the shape of the arrow head itself.  Medieval surgeons therefore had the option of pushing it through the injured man and out the other side, or waiting for the wound to putrefy and the surrounding tissue to become soft enough to make it easier to remove.  Horrible as this sounds, the fact that many knights are described fighting with multiple arrows stuck into their armor suggests that it may have been comparatively rare for an arrow to become so deeply embedded that it was life-threatening ― without killing outright as in the case of arrows to the throat, eyes, armpits etc.

In the case of broken bones, the need to set bones to ensure they mended straight and functional was likewise recognized. Bones were held in place by splints, bandaging or plaster ― or a combination thereof. In the case of burns, the primary concern was to prevent blisters from forming and the wound from completely drying. Moist cooling of the wound was thus the recommended treatment, whether by means of placing the affected limb in a bowl of liquid, applying wet compresses soaked in herbs or the application of ointments. 


Surprisingly (at least for me), the use of anesthetics during operations or the treatment of wounds was common.  An anesthetic was given to the patient either in a drink (usually wine) or placed on a sponge that was then held to his/her nose. Mitchell notes that the various plants recommended for preparing anesthetics (e.g. henbane, hemlock, poppy, deadly nightshade, mandragora root and lettuce seed to name a few) have been demonstrated to have pain-killing and or sedative effects. He hypothesizes that “cocktails” combining several of the recommended ingredients could have been very potent ― and dangerous if the dose was miscalculated or the extracts improperly prepared. Patients in the crusader states were lucky to have ready access to one of the most effective narcotics known to man: opium. Mitchell writes that there is evidence of its use for medicinal (rather than recreational) purposes by the Franks in the crusader states.


While the fatal danger of infection was widely recognized and feared, the cause was not understood. As a result, some medieval medical practices contributed to infection. Once infection occurred, however, medieval doctors attempted to cure it. The successful use of vinegar, which has strong antiseptic properties, is recorded in treating festering wounds and severe burns, for example. Medieval doctors also understood the need to drain festering wounds.  Mitchell notes no significant differences between crusader treatment for infection that standard practice elsewhere.

Licensed Practitioners

The notion of licensing medical practitioners, on the other hand, appears to have been inspired by a widespread Muslim practice in this period. Significantly, it is recorded in the crusader states at a time when it was unknown in the West. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, all medical practitioners, regardless of their place of origin, religion, or culture, were required to undergo an examination by a local board of experts in order to practice in a given locality. The board of examiners was composed of the most respected physicians already in residence, and they conducted the exam under the supervision of the local bishop ― not because the bishop was deemed a medical expert, but rather to provide a neutral chairman/mediator. Somewhat cumbersome about the procedure was that the license was only valid for the city in which it was issued, making it difficult for a doctor to be itinerant. Nevertheless, the practice did provide a degree of protection against charlatans and quacks. It also ensured that among licensed practitioners a comparatively high standard of medical knowledge was expected.

Malpractice Legislation

The laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem laid out clear penalties for “malpractice.”  A series of statutes in the Assises of Jerusalem stipulated which medical procedures ought to be applied in specific instances, and held a physician accountable if he failed to use these methods and the patient suffered permanent damage or death. These Frankish laws represent a radical new principle for the Christian West: namely that a doctor could be held accountable for the effects of his treatment ― and also for negligence or failure to treat a patient properly. Punishments for malpractice included beating, expulsion, amputation of the right thumb (effectively preventing future practice) and hanging. Another interesting feature of these laws is that some diseases, those deemed incurable, were exempt.  Likewise, the failure of a patient to follow the doctor’s instructions absolved the doctor of guilt.  Based on the description of these standard practices, Mitchell concludes that “a surprisingly high standard of theoretical knowledge and practical skills was expected of medical practitioners [in the crusader states].” (p. 231.)

Daily life in the crusader states is depicted as accurately as possible in my "Jerusalem Trilogy."

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