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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

1 comment:

  1. No, probably not quite the pawn "they" think her to be.

    And, between you and me, Kate Middleton may not be as "in love" as some would believe either. LOL


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