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Thursday, April 2, 2020

John d'Ibelin: The "Old" Lord of Beirut

Contemporaries praised his wisdom and restraint, churchmen called him "exceedingly Christian and energetic,"(1) and modern historians have drawn parallels between him and St. Louis.(2)
Significantly, despite his rebellion, John d'Ibelin was never viewed as a rebel, much less a hothead, and while he won the decisive battles of his war against the Holy Roman Emperor, he was admired not as a military man, but rather as a statesman.

Today I conclude my three part biography of John d'Ibelin.


When the Emperor sailed away from the Holy Land in May 1228, he evidently believed he had succeeded in his objectives. He had obtained the nominal return of Jerusalem to Christian hands (and others would have to worry about the details of defending it), and he had worn the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, gaining a great propaganda victory in his struggle with the papacy. That he left behind outraged subjects (who expressed their feelings by throwing offal at him) apparently did not bother him in the least. He never once returned to Jerusalem, nor did he send any of his sons to rule the kingdom in his name. Although he claimed the title and the revenues, he left the business of ruling to the lieutenants he appointed. In doing so, he made a major miscalculation: he treated John d'Ibelin as an irritant to be exterminated with the wave of the imperial hand.

On Cyprus, Frederick appointed five men joint "baillies" and ordered them to dispossess the Ibelins and their partisans of their lands and to further ensure that the neither the Lord of Beirut nor any of his sons, kinsmen or supporters ever set foot on the Island of Cyprus again. Note, there had never been a trial before the High Court of Cyprus to establish any wrong-doing on the part of Beirut. The latter had not been given a chance to defend himself before his peers. His sons and supporters were even more innocent of any crime, being guilty only of the "crime" of kinship or loyalty. The emperor's actions were not only arbitrary, they were petty and vindictive.

The five baillies, furthermore, had been appointed in exchange for payment of 10,000 marks. They needed to raise that revenue. Evidently, expropriating the properties of the Ibelins and their supporters did not promise sufficient revenue to pay that debt in full, because they set about raising taxes.  The actions against the House of Ibelin and their supporters resulted in hundreds of women and children seeking refuge with the militant orders, particularly the Hospitallers, while the new taxes simply served to make the baillies unpopular with the rest of the Cypriot population. 



From the Lord of Beirut's perspective the Emperor had now gone back on his word three times. First, at the banquet when he promised to honor his "beloved cousins" and "honored uncle." Second, during the crusade when, despite swearing to forgive all that had gone before, he attacked the women and children of Ibelin and his supporters while their men served in the Emperor's army, and third, by ordering the baillies to dispossess him and his followers without a judgement of the court, a condition that the Emperor had accepted in his signed agreement with Beirut in September 1228.

Beirut had had enough. He raised an army in Syria which included his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. With this small force, he forced a landing at Gastria, and then rode inland toward Nicosia. During this advance, he announced his intention only of securing the safety and control of the properties that had been illegally confiscated.  He stated that he did not seek to secure restoration of his position as baillie of Cyprus.  In short, he attempted to build a bridge to the Imperial baillies, offering them a compromise that would enable them to retain power, as long as they recognized that no confiscations could take place without a judgement of the High Court.  The baillies chose not to accept this compromise.  They called up the Cypriot army and marched out to meet the Ibelins in battle. 


On July 14, 1229 in a plowed field outside of Nicosia, the Ibelins routed the army of the five baillies. However, all five of the emperor's deputies escaped the field and took refuge in the royal castles at Kantara, Kyrenia, and St. Hilarion. The Ibelins successfully besieged these castles, and one by one they fell to the Ibelins, the last being St. Hilarion shortly after Easter 1230. 

Significantly, Beirut -- against the advice of his closest advisorers -- granted amnesty to the five baillies. Equally significantly, the young King of Cyprus, who had been in the custody of the Emperor and, after his departure, the baillies, welcomed the Ibelins. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Henry of Lusignan favored the Ibelins. It is King Henry's staunch support for the Ibelins even after he was king, combined with the fact that he sought independence from the Holy Roman Emperor, that belie the suggestions Beirut was disloyal to his king. 

In 1232, Emperor Frederick sent an army to Outremer under a Sicilian admiral, Richard  Filangieri.  The latter had the explicit mandate to re-establish Imperial authority -- and to confiscate all lands and titles from the Ibelins and expel them from both Cyprus and Syria. As before, no charges were brought against Beirut, certainly not with regards to his right to hold Beirut for which he held clear royal charters. Curiously, roughly a dozen other Syrian lords were also summarily dismissed by the Holy Roman Emperor at this time.  As before, the Emperor felt entitled to act without a hearing or judgement by their peers. Again Beirut, and now a dozen other Syrian barons, was denied the right to defend themselves before a court. This was a blatant and crude violation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was tyranny.

Beirut got wind of Filangieri's approach and rushed to Cyprus with all his men. On finding Ibelin troops in possession of the ports of Cyprus, however, Filangieri did not attempt a landing but rather sent envoys ashore to King Henry of Cyprus demanding that he banish from his kingdom the Lord of Beirut "and all his relatives." The King replied, he could do neither. First, he could not banish Beirut because he was his vassal and deserving of his support, and, second, he could not banish Beirut's relatives since he too was a kinsman of Beirut. (His mother was Beirut's niece.) 


So Filangieri sailed away and laid siege to John d'Ibelin's power base: Beirut itself. Although the city surrendered quickly, the citadel held out. Beirut mustered all the support he had, including King Henry of Cyprus, and made a dangerous winter crossing to Syria. His initial efforts to lift the siege of Beirut failed, but he managed to slip some reinforcements into the citadel.  He next tried to attract the support of the Prince of Antioch, but this also ended in failure.  Next the Templars, who had initially supported him, turned against him on instructions from the pope, who was temporarily reconciled with the Hohenstaufen.  Meanwhile, his sons suffered a major defeat at the hands of Imperial forces at Casal Imbert.  Nevertheless, Beirut persisted and dramatically won over the commons at Acre and the Genoese to his cause. Imperial forces were at last forced to lift the siege of Beirut.

Meanwhile, King Henry had come of age, and he remained by Beirut's side. Together, they returned to Cyprus where, in their absence, Imperial forces had seized control of the capital, the ports and were laying siege to the Ibelin women and King Henry's sisters in the fortress of St. Hilarion.

 The castle of St. Hilarion

In a full-scale battle, the Lord of Beirut routed the Imperialist army a second time, forcing it to retreat to Kyrenia. The same day he lifted the imperial siege of St. Hilarion. The re-capture of Cyprus took only days, and the population welcomed the return of their King and the Ibelins as liberators. 

Although the siege of Kyrenia dragged on, the surrender was inevitable and the Emperor never again attempted impose his governors or will on Cyprus. Instead, in 1248 the Pope formally absolved Henry I of all oaths he had made to the Holy Roman Emperor, and Cyprus became a completely independent kingdom, no longer a part of the Empire.

The conflict meanwhile shifted entirely to Syria, where Filangieri as the Emperor's representative created increasing hostility to the Imperial cause. Hisautocratic behavior, not least his repeated attempts to expel Beirut from his fief without cause or trial, had turned the majority of the barons and knights against the Emperor.  As a result, over the next several years a series of legal arguments were developed to deny the Emperor and his heirs any basis of power in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

This did not preclude repeated attempts to mediate between the parties. The Teutonic Knights and the pope himself, among others, attempted to reconcile the barons of Outremer to Hohenstaufen rule. At one point, the Pope threatened the Lord of Beirut and the citizens of Acre, who were loyal to Beirut, with excommunication and interdict respectively -- only to rapidly back down when he learned the citizens of Acre were simply turning to Orthodox Christianity! One of the more creative suggestions that appears to have originated with the Emperor's brother-in-law and brother of the English King, Earl Richard of Cornwall, was that the Emperor should recall Filangieri and replace him instead with his kinsman Simon de Montfort. (Frederick had married the English princess Isabella Plantagenet, whose sister Eleanor was married to Montfort.) Notably, the Lord of Beirut, his sons and two of his nephews were consistently excluded from all the Emperor's promises of pardon, but the barons of Outremer just as steadfastly refused to make a peace without him. 




In 1236, the Lord of Beirut took part in a Hospitaller campaign from Crac de Chevaliers against the ruler of Hamah with 100 Cypriot knights. Beirut, who was now about 57 years old, was involved in some kind of riding accident, in which his horse fell on him. He was so badly injured that he took to his bed, ordered his affairs, and then joined the Knights Templar in preparation for death.

According to the account left by Beirut's loyal vassal Philip de Novare, Beirut "died well." Novare writes: "For his sins he made amends, and for many things he made amends which most men would not hold as sins; his debts he paid for he had at that day great belongings and property besides his fiefs, and all he gave for God and for his soul, by his own hand with good memory; many fiefs he gave his children, and commanded that they should be vassals of and hold from their oldest brother."(3) In short, his protracted struggle with the most powerful monarch on earth had been won so completely that he was not even impoverished at his death!

Looking back on his rebellion, what is most striking is that he could defy the Holy Roman Emperor -- and at times the Pope -- without seriously undermining his own popularity and the support and devotion of his sons, his brothers-in-law, nephews, vassals, the commons of Acre, and the majority of peers. Yes, Barlais and his co-regents on Cyprus fought Beirut bitterly. Yes, Balian de Sidon (one of his nephews) long tried to remain neutral in the conflict and mediate. Likewise, Eudes de Montbeliard was an Imperial baillie and clearly not in Beirut's camp -- to begin with. Yet, it would have been far more normal for the bulk of the knights and barons to side with the "stronger" in any fight, and by any objective measure the Holy Roman Emperor was "the stronger. " 

Frederick Hohenstaufen had destroyed his Welf rival in Germany. He had eradicated the Saracen threat on Sicily and obliterated the last traces of independence among his Sicilian barons. He scattered the forces of the pope simply by landing in Sicily. He had crushed his son's rebellion with ease. He had smashed the army of Milan at Cortenuova. How was it possible he was defeated by an obscure Syrian baron? Was it simply that he never devoted enough force and attention to a problem he considered an irritant rather than a threat to his grand vision of Emperor of Christendom?  Or was the fundamental injustice of his cause the real reason for his defeat?

Frederick II's war was a vindictive personal war against a vassal without a trace of evidence or an attempt to rely on rational argument -- worse even in some ways than his vicious persecution of his decades long "spokesman" della Vigna. For an monarch usually held up by historians as the embodiment of reason in a age of alleged "bigotry" and "fanaticism," Frederick II's war against the Ibelins was a ugly and distasteful vendetta that historians prefer to sweep under the carpet.


1) Wilbrand, Bishop of Oldenburg, quoted in Peter Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Boydell, 1997.
2) La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 49.
3) Novare, Philip. Translated by La Monte, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 169.


The struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ibelins is the subject of my next series starting with:


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Thursday, March 26, 2020

John d'Ibelin Part II: Rebel Baron


When the Lord of Beirut stood up to Frederick II's threats and then walked out of the trap set by the Emperor a free man, it was by no means clear that he would ultimately win. He left behind his eldest sons, and, while the bulk of the Cypriot nobles and knights backed him at that moment, he had just flung down the gauntlet at the most powerful man in Christendom. 
Just who was the Lord of Beirut, and what sort of man was he? Today, the second part of my three-part biography.


Having served as regent of the Kingdom ofJerusalem to the satisfaction of his queen and her subjects from April 1205 until October 1210, John d'Ibelin stepped down in Oct. 1210.  The business of government was turned over to Marie de Montferrat, now 18, and her consort, King John de Brienne. (For details see: The Remarkable Career of John de Brienne, Part II.) 

John then all but disappears from the witness lists of the kingdom. The assumption of historians is that there was some kind of a breach between the former regent and the new king consort, but this is by no means certain.  John had been married early to a certain  Helvis of Nephin. We know nothing about the lady -- except that she bore John five sons, who all died in infancy.  We also know that John remarried the widow, Melisende of Arsur, sometime during his regency, because his eldest sons were old enough to be knighted in 1224.  In addition, John's mother died in 1217. In short, it is possible that John chose to retire from court for personal reasons.


Nevertheless, both John and his younger brother Philip took part in the Fifth Crusade, notably under the banner of the King of Cyprus rather than the King of Jerusalem. Again, this may be indicative of strained relations between the Ibelins and Brienne -- or simply a reflection of more cordial relations between them and the young Lusignan King Hugh, now married to another of the Ibelin's nieces, Alice of Champagne. Certainly, King Hugh commended his kingdom to the keeping of Philip d'Ibelin on his deathbed in 1218. His unexpected death while still a vigorous man in his early twenties took everyone by surprise and left an 18-month-old infant, Henry, as his heir. Philip was duly elected by the High Court to rule until Henry came of age (May 1232), but himself died in 1227.  At his death, the High Court of Cyprus chose his brother, John, the Lord of Beirut, to step into his shoes. It was this election that put John on a collision course with the Holy Roman Emperor.

Two years earlier, in 1225 the Holy Roman Emperor had married Yolanda of Jerusalem, the daughter of John de Brienne and Marie of Jerusalem. She was just 13 years old, and no sooner had she landed in Brindisi that her new bridegroom dismissed her father like a superfluous servant and announced the he (the Emperor) was henceforth "King of Jerusalem." All the barons of Outremer who had escorted her to her marriage duly took the oath of fealty to Frederick Hohenstaufen. 

John of Beirut was conspicuously absent from Queen Yolanda's escort. Presumably, he was still out of favor with Brienne, or simply too busy on Cyprus or in Beirut. There is no reason to presume he would have refused to take the oath, however, since there was a clear precedent for the consort of a ruling queen to take precedence over the widower (even if crowned and anointed) of a deceased queen: this was precisely the precedent set -- with the full and hearty support of John's parents -- when Queen Isabella and Conrad de Montferrat had been preferred over Guy de Lusignan in 1190.

Unfortunately for all, however, by the time Emperor Frederick finally landed on Cyprus on his way to the Holy Land, his fifteen-year-old empress was dead, leaving behind an infant son, Conrad. This boy was now legally the King of Jerusalem in his own right, and while Frederick was within his rights to claim the regency, he had lost the right to call himself King -- something Frederick either never understood or never admitted. Curiously, he also arrived -- for reasons that remain completely obscure -- determined to "break" the Lord of Beirut.

The basis for the Emperor's hostility to the Lord of Beirut can only be conjectured. Since the Emperor dismissed Brienne discourteously, making him a permanent enemy, it can hardly have been Beirut's less than ardent support for Brienne. However, Beirut's brother had crowned Henry de Lusignan King of Cyprus without awaiting imperial permission. Furthermore, in light of his personal experience with regents plundering his treasury, perhaps it was natural for the Hohenstaufen to assume the Ibelins had enriched themselves illegally at the expense of young King Henry. Edbury suggests it was primarily greed for revenue on the eve of an expensive undertaking that motivated the Emperor. Yet it remains a mystery why the Emperor believed the Lordship of Beirut, which had been given to John d'Ibelin with the appropriate royal charters by his own sister, did not legally belong to him.

As we have seen, after fair words to lure Beirut, his sons, friends and vassals to a banquet, the Emperor sprang a trap and attempted to bully Beirut into surrendering both revenues and his lordship of Beirut. (See: The Emperor's Banquet.) Beirut must have had some indication that the Emperor was hostile, or his council would not have advised against him attending the banquet, yet it is hard to believe the Beirut truly expected what happened -- and still walked into the trap.

Tellingly, although Beirut angrily rejected an offer to murder the Emperor by over-zealous supporters, he withdrew to the mountain fortresses of Cyprus and readied them to withstand a siege. While this was clearly an act of defiance, it was not an act of treason. Beirut explicitly held the castles for young King Henry of Lusignan, a promise that may sound disingenuous but which later actions proved honest.  His response was rather a proportionate response to the treachery of the Emperor, who had promised honors yet demanded bribes instead. Furthermore, his action which involved no violence, nevertheless check-mated the Emperor, who did not have the time (Sicily was under attack from his father-in-law and the pope) or resources for an all-out war. 

The Emperor was forced to seek terms. In exchange for the return of the castles to royal officers, the Emperor promised to release the hostages.  In addition, Beirut promised to take part in the Emperor's crusade, along with all his vassals, while the Emperor agreed, in writing 1) to take no action against Beirut or his supporters without the judgment of the appropriate court (i.e. the High Courts of Cyprus and Jerusalem respectively), and 2) to bear no malice for all that had passed between them in the preceding months.

The value of the Emperor's sworn and signed word was soon demonstrated when, as soon as he had Beirut and all his men on the mainland, he sent imperial mercenaries to Cyprus to attack, harass and intimidate the wives and children of these very men now serving in his army. He entrusted one of his Sicilian noblemen, the Count of Cotron, with this task. The degree of their success can be measured by the fact that Beirut's his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Philip, was in sufficient fear for her life to risk a winter crossing to Syria in a small craft with her young children; all nearly drowned. 

After concluding his secret peace with al-Kamil and parading around in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in his Imperial crown, Frederick II had had enough of his Kingdom of Jerusalem. After briefly laying siege to Templar headquarters in Acre, threatening the Patriarch, ordering the harassment of the mendicant orders, and being pelted by offal by the common people, Frederick sailed away from Acre never to return -- although he continued to call himself "King of Jerusalem" for the next 25 years. 

But he wasn't done with the Lord of Beirut....

* Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Boydell Press, 1997, p. 56 
** William of Oldenberg, cited in Edbury, p. 57.
*** "...there is a marked resemblance between Ibelin and St. Louis of France, for while both were personally deeply religious neither permitted the Church to dictate to him against the mandates of his own conscience and better judgement." La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 49.

John d'Ibelin is a leading character in my award-winning novels:

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

John d'Ibelin: Servant of the Crown

When the Lord of Beirut stood up to Frederick II's threats and then walked out of the trap set by the Emperor a free man, it was by no means clear that he would ultimately win. He left behind his eldest sons, and, while the bulk of the Cypriot nobles and knights backed him at that moment, he had just flung down the gauntlet at the most powerful man in Christendom. 
Just who was the Lord of Beirut, and what sort of man was he?

John d'Ibelin was born in 1179, the the eldest son of the 4th baron of Ibelin and the Byzantine princess and dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. While born to privilege, he was only eight when Saladin destroyed the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin and over-ran all of John's inheritance, from his mother's vast holdings at Nablus to his father's more modest barony at Ibelin. He found himself trapped in Jerusalem with tens of thousands of refugees, until his father, one of the few barons to escape from the debacle at Hattin, obtained a safe-conduct from Saladin to ride through Saracen-held territory and bring him, his mother and siblings to safety. However, his father was soon persuaded to remain in Jerusalem and assume command of the defense, so John left Jerusalem not with his father but with an escort of Mamlukes sent by Saladin a gesture of exceptional chivalry. We can only speculate on how these tumultuous events impacted the character of one so young.

John d'Ibelin next enters the historical record ten years later, when as a youth of 18 or 19 when Aimery de Lusignan, newly crowned King of Jerusalem, named him Constable of Jerusalem -- a prestigious and important royal official. The Constable was responsible for commanding the feudal army in the absence of the king. The position had been filled by such outstanding men as Humphrey II of Toron, a well-respected and highly-educated nobleman, and by Aimery de Lusignan himself. Baffled by how a youth such as John could hold the title and even more confounded by the fact that he was awarded it by a man alleged to be his father's enemy, historians have suggested the title had suddenly become "nominal." But there is no evidence of this. 

On the contrary, John's appointment suggests rather that 1) there was no serious breach between Aimery de Lusignan (as opposed to Guy de Lusignan) and the Ibelins and 2) that John had matured rapidly in the turbulent years 1187-1197. Although we can not prove it, we cannot exclude the possibility that he was at his father's side (he was old enough to serve as a squire after all) during the Third Crusade, gaining insight into strategy, warfare and diplomacy from Richard the Lionheart and his father.  In any case, by 1197 King Aimery was prepared to appoint him to one of the most important and influential royal offices. It did not hurt, of course, that John was half-brother Queen Isabella of Jerusalem, Lusignan's new wife and the woman through whom he had gained the crown. 

John may have been appointed by Lusignan, but he was no puppet. Within a year of his appointment, Lusignan accused the Tiberias brothers, Ralph and Hugh, of an attempted assassination and banished them from the kingdom. Lusignan acted without a judgment of the High Court, and for this John d'Ibelin reproached him. Although his objections did not deter the king, it is significant that at this early stage in his life he was involved in a legal case involving the rights of vassals and the role of the High Court. 

John's stand on this matter did not negatively impact his good relationship with King Aimery. Indeed, to the end of his life, John d'Ibelin spoke highly of King Aimery, particularly his understanding of legal matters. It was, after all, under King Aimery that an attempt was made to write down the laws of Jerusalem, the records of which had been destroyed during the capture and sack of the Kingdom during the years of Saladin's invasion and occupation. The result of this effort was known as the Livre au Roi. Conceivably, Beirut was active in supporting King Aimery in this endeavor, as throughout his life he retained a reputation of knowing the laws of the kingdom exceptionally well.  Indeed, his opinion on legal matters was so renowned that in later years no one felt qualified to challenge him.

Nevertheless sometime before 1200, John surrendered the Constableship to the king in exchange for being granted the re-captured city and lordship of Beirut.  Beirut had fallen to the forces of Saladin in 1187 and had remained in Saracen hands until the German crusade of 1197. According to Beirut's own account, the city and surrounding territory had been devastated and left in such a ruinous state that not even the wealthy militant orders wanted to pick up the burden of re-building.  John's sister Queen Isabella and King Aimery bestowed the lordship of Beirut on John d'Ibelin in or about 1200. John of Beirut, as he would henceforth be called, was at this point roughly 21 years of age. He began the process of re-settling and rebuilding the fortifications, castle, port, and city and stimulating the economic activities of the region. He did so with great success. 

Indeed, he constructed one of the most magnificent palaces in the Latin East. The Bishop of Oldenburg traveling through the Holy Land in 1212 described a palace with tall glazed windows opening on the sea or on beautiful gardens, with walls paneled with polychrome marble, life-like mosaic floors, vaulted chambers painted like the night sky, and fountains gushing fresh water day and night. In short, within roughly a dozen years of obtaining Beirut, John d'Ibelin had the means to build lavishly and exquisitely. In terms of quality and taste, it undoubtedly didn't hurt that his mother was a Comnenus, a family famous for fostering a renaissance of Byzantine art. (Maria Comnena was, incidentally, still alive when this palace was being built.)

Yet even before the Bishop could give a witness to John's successful revitalization of Beirut, King Aimery, Queen Isabella and their only son died in quick succession. Isabella's oldest daughter, Marie de Montferrat, as the left heir to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was April 1205, and Marie was just 13 years old.  The High Court of Jerusalem selected Marie's closest male relative on her mother's side (from which she derived the throne) as her regent; this was John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beirut. 

So at the "ripe old age" of 26, John became the de facto King of Jerusalem. He ruled for the next five years wisely and without incident, maintaining the existing truce with the Saracens. During his tenure, he married another of his sister Isabella's daughters, Alice, to the King of Cyprus, and negotiated the marriage of his charge, Queen Marie de Montferrat, with the man selected by the King of France at the request of the High Court of Jerusalem: John de Brienne. When John de Brienne at last arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to wed his bride and be crowned king-consort, John's "reign" ended. So far there was no reason to think he would become the leader of a rebellion against the Holy Roman Emperor, but at the age of 31 he had held the pinnacle of power -- and peacefully surrendered it again.

John d'Ibelin is a leading character in my current series starting with:

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Black Death ... and Other Pandemics

It started in the east where it had already claimed "countless lives," according to contemporary chronicles. It could be contracted through direct contact with the afflicted. It could kill so quickly that a man could go to bed healthy and die in his sleep. It killed doctors in front of their patients, parents before their children, lovers in each other's arms -- and there was no known cure: 

The Black Death


No one knows for sure where this fourteenth-century pandemic originated, but it traveled along the silk road, reaching the Crimea in 1343. In October 1347, it went ashore in Sicily transported on Genoese ships, but also in Alexandria. From Sicily, it spread to Genoa and Venice, then to Pisa, Florence and Rome. Meanwhile, the first shipload of infected sailors had gone ashore at Marseilles in January 1348. It spread then along the rivers and roads across the Languedoc to Bordeaux and from there to Paris. It reached England and Portugal by June 1348 and spread across Germany and Scotland in the following year. In 1349 it had reached the outer edge of Europe - Norway. Then spread eastwards again sweeping across Russia in 1351. Meanwhile, between 1347 and 1349 it had devastated Egypt, Palestine, Syria and the al-Jazeera.


In its wake, the Black Death left an estimated 200 million people dead worldwide. In Europe, between 45 and 50 percent of the population had been wiped out. Death rates varied considerably from country to country, however. Scientists now believe that Mediterranean cities suffered most severely with death rates of perhaps 80% in some cities, while northern Europe was comparatively spared. England and Germany probably lost no more than 20% of their inhabitants. 


Since the end of the 19th century, the Black Death has been presumed to be bubonic plague. Based on epidemics of this disease in the Crimea and India, it was hypothesized that the disease was carried by fleas on rats, who moved to humans when the rat host died. This hypothesis pre-supposes, of course, that medieval humans were unhygienic, and even noblemen and the most wealthy merchants -- in the Arab world as well as the West -- were constantly covered in fleas. The explanation, however, fit in with the then-prevalent view of the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance, superstition, and filth.

Aside from the fact that the latter is not true, in the last fifty years, a number of different scientists have questioned the 19th-century explanation of the Black Death. The DNA tests have been inconclusive, despite sensationalist reporting.  The skeptics also point to a number of characteristics of the 14th-century pandemic incompatible with bubonic plague. For example, the speed at which it spread (from Sicily to England in nine months) given the means of transportation at the time, is incompatible with what has been observed in modern bubonic plague epidemics. Furthermore, the alleged carriers of the disease, the fleas, could not have survived in the climate of northern Europe. Then there's that pesky detail about the dead rats. Since the rats had to die first, surely at least one of all the hundreds of accounts written by eyewitnesses would have made at least some mention of dead rats being everywhere? Of the rat corpses piling up alongside the human ones? 

Alternative theories for the cause of the Black Death include anthrax -- a virulent, infectious disease that frightens us even today in this age of exemplary hygiene. 

But it doesn't really matter what caused the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century because something like the Black Death could never happen nowadays. After all, we live in an enlightened and scientific age. We are intelligent and we understand hygiene. We have flush toilets, disinfectants, rubber gloves, and hand sanitizer -- not to mention antibiotics and anti-viral drugs. 

We could never be surprised by a disease that spreads from Asia and infects people so rapidly that our first-class, (compared to the MIddle Ages infinitely more superior) healthcare systems are overwhelmed. It's impossible for modern people, who are oh so much cleaner than those benighted slobs of the Middle Ages, to get sick just by going to some public event or traveling on a luxury -- wonderfully clean and certainly not flea-infested -- cruise ship. No, we are so, so superior to our medieval ancestors that we could never, ever be struck by a pandemic at all!  

No?


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Philip of Ibelin - Regent of Cyprus

Philip is often lumped together with his brother John, Lord of Beirut, by chroniclers and historians much the same way his father and uncle, Balian and Baldwin, were treated a generation earlier.  Yet, this should not be taken to mean that the brothers were identical, interchangeable or always in accord with one another. While we know much more about the words and deeds of John of Beirut than of his younger brother Philip, there is one revealing incident recorded in Novare that gives us a glimpse of Philip as an individual in his own right ― and a tantalizing hint of a man with passion and loyalty.

In 1224 or 1225 (the date remains unclear) at the days-long tournament to mark the knighting of John of Beirut’s two eldest sons, a knight of Philip d’Ibelin’s household “smote” down a certain Cypriot lord, Amaury Barlais, in a game of “barbadaye.” (No one nowadays knows exactly what this was, but it is assumed to be a kind of melee.) The next day, Barlais and his men waylaid the knight and came near to killing him.  At this point, according to Novare, “Sir Philip, the bailli, was much angered and wished to attack [Sir Amaury]… My lord of Beirut, his brother, intervened between them and held them apart by force and ordered his son, Sir Balian, to conduct Sir Amaury Barlais there where he wished to go.” (Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Columbia University Press, 1936, p.66.) So Philip was a man who, out of love and loyalty to a man in his service, could become enraged.

Furthermore, Novare tells us, Beirut was so set on reconciling his brother with Barlais, that he “went from Cyprus to Beirut and ordered the seeking out of Sir Amaury Barlais at Easter, and he carried him into Cyprus before his brother so suddenly that the latter knew nothing of it. He [my lord of Beirut] said to his brother that he wished him to pardon Sir Amaury in every manner and in every way; saying that if he would not do this he would never speak to him more….” (Novare, pp.66-67.) This tells us that Philip loved his brother so much that the threat not to speak was enough to make him cave in on a matter that greatly impassioned him.

Yet these are the only incidents that put flesh on the skeleton left by history. How he became the man he did can only be speculated upon based on the known facts.

Philip was the fourth and youngest child of Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena. His earliest possible date of birth was 1181, although he might have been born a year or two later. Like his siblings, he was trapped in Jerusalem after the disaster at Hattin and would have witnessed his father’s dramatic return as well as have benefitted from Saladin’s generosity. Yet, given his young age (at most six and probably younger), it is unlikely that he was shaped by this event.

His childhood years between the ages of roughly five to ten were lived in reduced economic circumstances and great uncertainty. He would surely have been aware that everything might be lost at any moment, and his father would have been frequently absent, particularly during the Third Crusade. His situation, however, would have improved considerably after the Truce of Ramla.  With his half-sister secure on her throne, it is not too far-fetched to imagine Philip obtained his schooling as page and squire at his sister’s court under her husband Henri de Champagne (1192-1197).

Sometime between 1198 and 1200, on turning 17 or 18, he would have been knighted, probably by his brother-in-law the king (now Aimery de Lusignan) or his elder brother John, who was by this time Constable of Jerusalem (1198-1200). In 1205, when Philip was in his early twenties, his sister and her husband died, and his brother John became regent of Jerusalem for their niece Marie de Montferrat. Given how close the brothers were in later years, we can assume that Philip enjoyed substantial trust and power, but we have no details of his actual positions.

In the same year, the crown of Cyprus passed to the 10-year-old Hugh de Lusignan and Walter de Montbéliard was elected regent by the High Court of Cyprus. Montbéliard was a recent arrival in the Latin East married to King Hugh’s elder sister and heir apparent Burgundia.  Sometime between 1207 and 1210, while Montbéliard was regent of Cyprus and Beirut regent of Jerusalem, they agreed on the marriage of Montbéliard’s sister Alys to Beirut’s brother Philip.  This marriage was clearly a political marriage, possibly designed to bind the two kingdoms closer together ― or possibly to breach differences that had already surfaced between the Montbéliards and Ibelins.

I say this because in 1210, when Hugh of Cyprus came of age, he accused Montbéliard of massive embezzlement and effectively drove him out of Cyprus altogether, while turning to his Ibelin kinsmen for support. His ties to the Ibelins had been strengthened by his marriage to their niece Alice de Champagne. Both Ibelin brothers accompanied Alice to her new kingdom. At the very latest, therefore, 1210 was the year in which Ibelin power in Cyprus began to wax. (This is the traditional interpretation. I have argued elsewhere that the Ibelins may already have been well-entrenched on Cyprus long before this late date. See: http://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-ibelins-on-cyprus-and-role-of.html) Certainly, Philip became a close friend and confidante of the young king and, again based on what happened eight years later, earned the respect and trust of the majority of Cypriot barons. Unfortunately, we know nothing about how he did that.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Marie de Montferrat had married John de Brienne, also in 1210, and Beirut had stepped down as regent. His relationship with King John was evidently cool from the start but deteriorated further after Marie de Montferrat died in childbed in 1212, leaving an infant daughter heiress to Jerusalem.  John de Brienne assumed that he remained king, despite the death of his wife, and continued to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Beirut (and we presume Philip) appear to have questioned Brienne’s claim to rule, following the precedent set by their parents in opposing the rule of Guy de Lusignan after the death of Queen Sibylla three decades earlier. The breach between Beirut and Brienne almost certainly led to the Ibelins spending more time in and building up a client base on Cyprus.  Here they were welcome and either already held or were granted by King Hugh important properties, including at least the lordship of Peristerona and Episkopi. Significantly, during the Fifth Crusade, both John and Philip of Ibelin were listed as vassals of King Hugh of Cyprus rather than King John of Jerusalem, although John d'Ibelin still held the Lordship of Beirut in the latter kingdom.  This suggests either that they had more property in Cyprus, despite Beirut being extremely wealthy, or that they refused to serve under Brienne.

As the crusade got underway, King Hugh and King John quarreled. King Hugh removed himself from the crusade, heading for Antioch. Here he died abruptly (in an accident? of dysentery?) at the age of 23.  He left behind two little girls and a son just nine months old. Cyprus needed a new regent.

According to one of the chronicles of the period, on his deathbed, Hugh recommended Philip d’Ibelin to the High Court as regent for his infant son, Henry. Other chronicles claim that Hugh’s widow Alice of Champagne urged the High Court of Cyprus to select Philip d’Ibelin to “govern the land, hold the court and command over men.” A third version refers only to the knights, nobles, and people of Cyprus selecting Philip d’Ibelin. Clearly, in the eight years since the majority of King Hugh and his death, Philip (not John!) d’Ibelin had established himself as a man who could be trusted with the reins of government. There is no hint of factions or opposition to his appointment, which suggests that he did indeed enjoy widespread support at this time. 

However, the law of crusader kingdoms put him in a more dubious position.  According to the constitution of Cyprus, the regent for minor was the nearest relative, which in this case was the infant king’s mother Alice. At the time of her husband’s death, Alice preferred to name a deputy (the term used was bailli) to rule for her rather than taking up the reins of government herself. Controversial, however, was whether she was at liberty to recall him at any time. Most sources claim that the vassals of the crown swore an oath to Philip until the infant Prince Henry came of age. Other sources, however, suggest that the oath was until either the prince came of age, or Alice remarried.

This is significant because in 1223 or 1224, Alice fell-out with Philip and wanted to replace him. Why is unclear. One source suggests Philip bullied and humiliated Alice. Novare, on the other hand, claims that Philip had “much work and grief, while the queen held the revenues, which she spent freely.” (Novare, p. 63.) One can imagine a situation in which Alice was profligate with her expenditures, perhaps demanding more and more of the revenues, thereby provoking protests, rebukes, and criticism from Philip, which Alice, in turn, felt were “humiliating and bullying.”

In In any case, Alice wanted to be rid of Philip, but the High Court wouldn’t hear of it ―clearly siding with Philip. This suggests they did not see him as bullying or over-reaching his authority, but rather as defending the interests of the kingdom. Alice responded by going to Tripoli and marrying the Prince of Antioch.  This only served to weaken her position in Cyprus, however, because she had not bothered to obtain the permission of her knights and nobles. The latter were now more outraged than ever. Rightly or wrongly, they alleged that if Antioch set foot on Cyprus, the life of their “little lord” King Henry would be in danger.

Alice’s position was further weakened by the outrage of the Pope, who claimed Alice and Bohemond were related within the prohibited degrees. He ruled the marriage invalid. Clearly, Bohemond was not going to be able to gain control of Cyprus for her. So Alice tried a different tactic: she appointed the disaffected Sir Amaury Barlais, the man who had already clashed with Philip over the near-murder of one of Philip’s knights, as her bailli.  When Barlais appeared before the High Court of Cyprus to present his credentials as bailli, however, he was accused of treason (because he had sworn an oath to Philip) and challenged to judicial combat by another baron.

In In the midst of this power-struggle between Philip d’Ibelin and the dowager queen, Philip had young Henry, now aged eight, crowned king. The move was probably intended to bind the knights and nobles of Cyprus to Henry by oath, and so ensure that Alice and Bohemond ― or Alice and a different husband ― could not so easily depose him. Yet the crowning aroused the outrage of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was technically the overlord of Cyprus.

When the Holy Roman Emperor came east, he accused Philip of misusing the revenues of Cyprus, but by then Philip was already dead. In late 1227 or early 1228, he died of a “mortal malady” that had kept him bed-ridden for at least a year before his death and so weakened him that he had voluntarily offered to resign his position of bailli.

Those are the naked facts, but what do they tell actually tell us about Philip? 

Modern historians are quick to point out that Philip clung to power even though the acknowledged regent no longer wanted him. The allegations of impropriety leveled by the Holy Roman Emperor are also highlighted, casting Philip in a dubious light. Yet the Holy Roman Emperor never allowed his charges to go before a court of law.  On the contrary, he used every kind of force and deceit to ensure they did not come to court ― most probably because he knew his charges were entirely bogus. It is also significant that a large majority (between two-thirds and four-fifths depending on how many knights Cyprus had in this period) of the High Court consistently sided with Philip d’Ibelin. Finally, King Henry was extremely loyal to his Ibelin kin throughout his reign, a poignant hint that he had loved Philip, the man who had been a father for him from the age of one to ten.


 The Last Crusader Kingdom depicts Philip as a youth, and he appears in Rebels against Tyranny as an adult and regent of Cyprus. I only regret that he dies so early because as a novelist I think he is a character well worth exploring more deeply.




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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena

 The fortunes of the 13th-century Ibelins had their roots in a single fact: Balian d'Ibelin, although only the landless, third son of a local baron, married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. This made the children of that marriage, the siblings of royalty, namely Maria's daughter by King Amalric of Jerusalem. It was the blood ties to royalty that gave the next generation of Ibelins the right to act as regents in both Cyprus and Jerusalem. Over the next few weeks, I will provide short biographies of the two of the leading historical figures in the thirteenth century from the House of Ibelin: John and Balian of Beirut. 
Today, however, I take a closer look at what we know -- and don't know -- about that all-important marriage of Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena.

Let me start by saying, there is no contemporary source that describes or explains the marriage. In fact, and more striking, there is no commentary on the marriage despite the fact that we have two contemporary sources both of which were well-placed to know about the background of the marriage: William of Tyre’s history and the Chronicle of Ernoul written by Balian’s own squire.

What we do know is that Maria Comnena could NOT be forced into a second marriage by anyone. It was against the law and custom of the kingdom to force any widow into a second marriage. As Peter Edbury summarizes in his detailed essay on “Women and the Customs of the High Court of Jerusalem” [Law and History in the Latin East, Ashgate Variorum, 2014, p. 288]

...whereas lords could control the marriage of heiresses, they had no such control over widows who were not heiresses but held dower.
This was exactly the case for Maria Comnena as Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. In Maria’s case, her position to resist unwanted suitors was particularly strong because 1) Nablus was an extremely wealthy lordship owing 85 knights to the feudal levee, which made her rich and powerful enough to resist any unwanted attention, and 2) as Byzantine Princess any marriage beneath her dignity or against her wishes would have offended the powerful Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. In short, Balian d’Ibelin was her choice for second husband.


But why might she have chosen him?

Not for his wealth or power. Balian appears to have been landless (which means without wealth, men or power) at the time of their marriage in late 1177. However, this is not 100% certain. The laws of the Kingdom tried to prevent any lord from holding multiple fiefs. Balian’s oldest brother Hugh had been Lord of Ibelin, his second brother Baldwin was Lord of Ramla & Mirabel (a single lordship despite the double-barrelled name). It is possible, therefore, that Balian had already inherited Ibelin on the death of his brother Hugh, who died childless in or about 1171, while his older brother inherited the larger and more important maternal lands and title of Ramla.

On the other hand, he is not referred to as Lord of Ibelin by William of Tyre at any time. Tyre notes only the following:

When the fortress [of Ibelin] was finished and complete in every detail, it was by common consent committed to a certain nobleman of great wisdom, Balian the Elder. He was the father of Hugh, Baldwin and Balian the Younger, all of whom took the surname Ibelin from this place…After the death of their father, his sons, noble men, valiant in arms and vigilant in every respect, maintained the same careful custody over [the castle of Ibelin] until the city of Ascalon was finally restored to the Christian faith. [A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, Vol 2. Book 15, Chpt. 24]
Note, Tyre explicitly says Ibelin was a surname, not a title.

Furthermore, in two other references to Balian (the Younger) Archbishop William of Tyre refers to Balian only as the brother of Baldwin, Lord of Ramla, not giving him a title in his own right. Namely, when speaking of his prominent role at the Battle of Montgisard [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 21, Chpt. 22] and when speaking of the coronation of Baldwin V [Tyre, Vol 2, Book 22, Chpt. 29]. In Tyre’s only other mention of Balian, during the campaign of 1183, he refers to him as “Balian of Nablus,” which, as we will see, was his wife’s title.

William of Tyre, who was chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this time, says the following about Balian’s marriage:

About the same time [as the Count of Flanders and his crusaders headed north to the County of Tripoli to undertake an operation against the Sultan of Damascus] Balian d’Ibelin, the brother of Baldwin of Ramlah, with the king’s consent espoused Queen Maria, widow of King Amaury and daughter of John the protosebastos, so often referred to above. With Maria, Balian received the city of Nablus, which had been given her under the name of jointure at the time of her marriage and which he was to hold during the life of his wife. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 21, Chpt. 18.]
It seems to me that had Balian held any lordship at the time of this marriage, he would have been referred to by his title and not merely as “the brother of Baldwin of Ramla.”


What is also striking about Tyre’s reference to the marriage is that he expresses neither surprise nor disapproval, but is careful to note that the marriage occurred with the king’s explicit consent. In contrast, Tyre is very critical of Constance of Antioch’s marriage to Reynald de Chatillon writing:

Many there were, however, who marveled that a woman so eminent, so distinguished and powerful, who had been the wife of a very illustrious man, should stoop to marry an ordinary knight. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 17, Chpt. 26]
Likewise, Tyre is not afraid to criticize even his patron the king with respect to Sibylla’s marriage to Guy de Lusignan, writing:

But without waiting to consider that ‘too much haste spoils everything,’ the king, for reasons of his own, suddenly married his sister to a young man of fairly good rank, Guy de Lusignan…Contrary to the usual custom the marriage was celebrated during the week of Easter. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 22, Chpt .1]
In short, Tyre felt that Constance married beneath herself and Sibylla married in obvious haste for hidden reasons — which might very well include hiding a scandalous, illicit affair. The contrast between these two passages and Tyre’s description of Balian’s marriage to Maria Comnena makes it clear that despite his lack of land and title, Balian was not considered an unsuitable match for the Dowager Queen.

This still does not answer the question of why or how Balian could have convinced not only Maria herself, but the king and chancellor (Tyre) of his suitability. Presumably, he might have seduced or at least courted Maria into agreement, but that was less likely to earn him the approval of the king, much less the Archbishop of Tyre.

There is, however, one other possible explanation of how Balian d’Ibelin won favor with the king and his chancellor at this point in time. According to Tyre, the marriage took place after the Count of Flanders had headed north in 1177. Very shortly after Flanders went north with 100 knights of the Kingdom, the Knights Hospitaller and many Templars, Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. Baldwin IV rushed to the defense of his realm with just some 376 knights, including 80 Templars. Only five knights are listed by name: the king’s uncle the titular Count of Edessa, the lords of Sidon, Transjordan and “Baldwin of Ramlah and his brother Balian.” On November 25, Baldwin IV’s small force shattered and scattered Saladin’s much more numerous army, forcing Saladin himself to flee on a pack camel.


Despite attempts by Chatillon’s admirers to make him the hero of this dramatic Christian victory, Tyre attributes no particular role to the Lord of Transjordan. Arab sources, which highlight Chatillon, are unreliable in this case because they were justifying Chatillon’s execution ex post facto by stressing the many ways in which he had harmed Islam. Likewise, Chatillon's earlier appointment as Baldwin's deputy for the campaign in Egypt is relevant to the battle of Montgisard because any such appointment is automatically null and void the moment the king himself is present -- as he was at Montgisard.
Furthermore, Michael Ehrlich’s excellent analysis of the battle based on all available sources concludes that the victory at Montgisard was not won because of Saladin’s mistakes so much as by effective Frankish leadership. That leadership came not from Chatillon, who was operating outside his own lordship, but from the “local lord” who knew the terrain best. Ehrlich writes:

It is not clear to what extent Saladin knew the terrain, yet it is clear that [King] Baldwin knew it much better and he thus succeeded in maneuvering Saladin to the place he wanted: a marshy area surrounded by dense hydrophilic flora…In these conditions numerical superiority became a burden rather than an advantage. It demanded additional efforts to maneuver the trapped army, which fell into total chaos. Led by a local lord, who certainly knew the terrain better than anybody else on the battlefield, the Frankish army managed to defeat the Muslim army…. [Michael Ehrlich, “Saint Catherine’s Day Miracle - the Battle of Montgisard,” in Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. XI, 2013, pp. 95–105]
There were two local “lords” present at Montgisard, both men who had grown up nearby and spent all their adult lives in the defense of this region: Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin. The customs of the kingdom gave command of the vanguard to the lord of the territory in which a battle was fought. In this case, that was clearly Baldwin, Baron of Ramla.

And Balian?

We will never know, but I hypothesize that Balian’s role either in advising the king or in the course of the battle was sufficiently prominent and meritorious to “earn” him the approval of the king and chancellor — and apparently the rest of his contemporaries, since we hear of no complaints from other sides — for his marriage to Maria Comnena.


Ehrlich’s article is just one of many sources that came to my attention since the publication of Knight of Jerusalem. Continued, in-depth research in preparation for the release of my non-fiction study of the crusader states with Pen & Sword had resulted in new insights and understanding of Balian and his environment, inducing me to undertake a major revision of Knight of Jerusalem. The new edition will be released later this year.  Meanwhile, the current edition remains on the market as part of the Jerusalem Trilogy:

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