Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Emperor's Men: The Five Baillies of Cyprus

Frederick II spent little more than a month on Cyprus, but his short stop triggered a chain of events that ended with the Holy Roman Emperor losing this rich and valuable kingdom forever. While this was the result of the Emperor's disastrous policies, he also showed poor judgement in his choice of deputies or “baillies," who aggravated the situation and brought rebellion to a head.

The fundamental mistake that Frederick II made with respect to Cyprus was his refusal to recognize it as an independent and unique kingdom, rather than simply “part of the Empire.” He took no account of the fact that it had its own history and laws, and conveniently overlooked the fact that his ancestors had had no role in the conquest or establishment of the kingdom. Instead, as David Abulafia points out, he “insisted that, as overlord of the king of Cyprus, he had full powers of intervention in the island’s affairs.”[i]

Prof. Peter Edbury suggests that, based on his actions, Frederick’s principle interest in Cyprus was “getting his hands on the profits from the regency for the previous decade.”[ii] Certainly, when he sailed away never to return again in May 1229, his arrangements for the regency of the kingdom were marked by greed; rather than appointing a man (or men) of particular trustworthiness or ability, he sold the regency for 10,000 marks. Indeed, one suspects — although we have no proof of this — that the only reason he chose to appoint five equally powerful baillies (a curious and inherently weak arrangement) was because he could find no one man willing to meet his excessive demands for cash. 

Nevertheless, having found five men willing to pay for the privilege of ruling, Frederick appears to have expected no further problems in milking the rich Cypriot cow.  Because the king was only 12 years old and it would be three years before he reached the age of majority, Frederick assumed he could be ignored. As for the king’s former regent, the troublesome and principled Lord of Beirut, the Emperor believed he had been check-mated by being lured out of Cyprus to take part in the Emperor’s “crusade.”

This is important. Based on the historical record it is clear that Frederick never intended to fight for Jerusalem. We know now that he was negotiating for the peaceful return of Jerusalem with al-Kamil before he ever set out on his non-crusade. In light of this, it is equally clear that he did not need Beirut’s knights and men to purse his objectives in Syria. We can conclude that the only reason he wanted to ensure they accompanied him on his “crusade” was to make sure they left Cyprus.  Thus, when Frederick sailed away he left behind an island denuded of all of Beirut’s sons, kinsmen, vassals and fighting-men.

With Ibelin out of the way, Frederick turned over control of Cyprus to the five men willing to pay his price and do his bidding. He gave them orders not to allow the Lord of Beirut or any of his partisans to return to the island. The fact that he gave no legal justification for dispossessing another king's vassals is another example of his autocratic behavior, and completely in character with the rest of his actions in the Holy Land.

So who were the five men Frederick II put in joint control of Cyprus?

The names are given as: Sir Amaury Barlais, Sir Amaury of Bethsan, Sir Hugh of Gibelet (also sometimes transcribed as Jubail), Sir William of Rivet, and Sir Gauvain of Cheneché. All were the sons of men who had been active on Cyprus since the establishment of the Lusignan dynasty on the island. Barlais particularly was closely associated with the Lusignans, which may explain why he emerged as the leader or most forceful member of the Emperor’s “quintet.”

Curiously yet significantly, however, the name Barlais is always listed without the preface “of” or “de,” suggesting the family was not of noble extraction.  His father, Renaud Barlais, is known to have come from Poitou to Outremer in the train of one of the three Lusignan brothers (Guy, Aimery or Geoffrey) sometime in the late 12th century. Renaud married the heiress to two fiefs in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, it is doubtful that either of these fiefs were still in possession of the lady at the time of the marriage. In light of the fact that Barlais’ field of action was exclusively Cyprus and he does not appear to have been part of the High Court of Jerusalem, I’m inclined to believe his wife’s lands had been lost in 1187 and her titles were nominal.

Amaury de Bethsan came of more exalted heritage, and his father was the uncle of Barlais’ mother, making them cousins.  Bethsan was chamberlain of Cyprus 1218-1220. John La Monte describes the Bethsans as a noble house with an honorable reputation.[iii] Which nevertheless tells us nothing about Sir Amaury himself. 

Gibelet was an even more important family in Outremer.  Gibelet was a major fief of the Count of Tripoli, indeed the fief closest to the border with the Kingdom of Jerusalem and contiguous with the Lordship of Beirut. It had a port and a major castle. Although it fell to Saladin in 1187, it was back in Christian hands by the end of the 12th century.  The Lord of Gibelet at the time of the Sixth Crusade was Guy, who was not a close relative of the Sir Hugh appointed Baillie of Cyprus. The latter came from a cadet branch of the family, albeit not an insignificant branch as his mother has been identified as a sister of King Leo of Armenia. Perhaps the most curious fact about the Gibelet family, however, is that it had a long tradition of good ties with the Ibelins. Indeed, there is good reason to suspect that the author of the pro-Ibelin Chronicle of Ernoul was a Gibelet. Hugh de Gibelet can be said, therefore, to have come from one of the most powerful and respected noble families of Outremer, although he himself may have been a younger son of a cadet branch anxious to improve his personal standing.

The Rivets and Chenechés were also established families in Outremer and Sir Gauvain and Sir William were related to one another as Rivet’s brother was married to the sister of Cheneché’s wife.

As for the men themselves, we know virtually nothing about Sirs William de Rivet, Hugh de Gibelet and Amaury de Bethsan. A hint of their looks or character may be found in Philip de Novare’s satirical fable Le Roman de Renard,  which depicted the opponents of the Ibelins as respectively a fox (Barlais), a badger (Bethsan), and a monkey (Gibelet). Unfortunately, I could not find Novare’s characterization of Cheneché or Rivet.

We do know, however, that Cheneché was accused of attacking a certain knight, Sir William de la Tour (who latter served as an ambassador to the court of the Emperor), treacherously at night. Sir William brought charges against Cheneché before the High Court of Cyprus, then presided over by the baillie Philip d’Ibelin. Cheneché demanded and received the right to defend himself against his accuser in judicial combat. However, Cheneché was bested in the ensuing joust, and had to accept terms which he deemed humiliating. He therefore left Outremer and made his way to the Kingdom of Sicily. According to Novare: “…he knew much concerning birds and so was much honored in [the Emperor’s] court.”[iv] This tidbit is interesting as Frederick II is known to have had a passion for falconry, wrote an entire book about birds, and is often depicted with birds of prey. 

Aimery Barlais, as described in Seeds of Civil War, was also involved in judicial combat that went poorly for him, however, his grievances against the Ibelins were considerably more substantial. He received the mandate to rule Cyprus from the Queen Mother and recognized regent Alice of Champagne sometime between 1224 and 1227 but was denied the right to exercise office by the High Court of Cyprus.  Since the Ibelins were the beneficiaries, he blamed them.

Nevertheless, regardless of their noble backgrounds and legitimate grievances, the recorded actions of the five baillies do not redound to their credit.  First, they happily set about seizing the property of the Ibelins and their supporters without due process. While this was perhaps understandable given their grievances, it was not wise government.  The problem is that subjects tend to get nervous about breaches in the rule of law. No matter what anyone thought of the Ibelins, they recognized that without due process the next victim of unjustified executive action might be anyone — including themselves. Second, the baillies needed to find the money they had promised the Emperor, so they raised everyone’s taxes. Few things are more guaranteed to provoke unpopularity and unrest that levying new taxes. Third, they threatened violence to the women and children of the Ibelins and their supporters. Indeed, they so thoroughly intimidated and frightened them that hundreds of them took refuge in the armed commanderies of the militant orders, particularly the Hospital.

We can also learn something about their character from an incident that Novare describes. Obviously, his account is biased, but it unlikely to have been completely fabricated. Novare claims when he was reluctant to take an oath to the baillies, they ordered his immediate arrest. Fearing for his life, Novare tells us, he appealed to the young king, but the boy king was “much afraid” and did not intervene.[v] Next Novare offered to face any of the baillies in judicial combat, but they refused. He was arrested and placed in a pillory, then released for the night and told to return the next day to face trial. Novare went instead to the commandery of the Knights Hospitaller, where many Ibelin women were already seeking sanctuary. That same night, men broke into his lodgings, killed one of his servants and stabbed his bed many times.  Novare claims to have been warned of this intended murder “by one who cared not whom it might displease” — apparently the young king himself, who had overheard talk of the planned murder.  

It was from the Hospitaller commandery that Novare then penned a lengthy appeal for help — in verse. The long poem is reproduced in full in his memoirs, and is amusing, although it certainly loses much in translation. His appeal appears to have been the final straw inducing the Lord of Beirut to take action in defense of his house and those loyal to it. Within just weeks of Novare’s bungled murder, the Ibelins landed on Cyprus with an army prepared to challenge the Emperor’s men.

[i] Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1988, p.232.
[ii] Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Boydell Press, 1997, 40.
[iii] La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 19.
[iv] Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 70.
[v] Novare, p. 94.

The five baillies appointed by Frederick II play an important role in:

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Kerak - The Castle of the Robber Baron of Oultrejourdain

The Castle of Kerak has become inextricably associated with the infamous Reynald de Châtillion, the Lord of Oultrejourdain in the late 12th century. Indeed, the Arabs referred to Châtillion as “al-Karak”— of Kerak. The castle, however, is greater than its most famous lord, serving both the Ayyibs and the Mamlukes as a center of power as well. Today it is a still impressive reminder of Crusader military architecture.

The construction of Kerak (also Karak, Kerak in Moab and Karak al-Shawbak) began in 1142 in the reign of King Fulk and Queen Melusinde. The construction was undertaken by Payen (also Pagen) the Butler, Lord of Montreal and Oultrejourdain.  

It was constructed on Roman foundations, but its design was mostly dictated by geography.  It was built on the very tip of a promontory or spur formed by two steep gorges. To the east, south and west, the land dropped almost vertically to the valley floor some 3,000 feet below. To the north, as the spur of the ridge widens slightly, is the town of Kerak.  In medieval times the castle was separated from the town by a deep fosse that cut across the entire width of the spur and could only be crossed by a draw bridge.

Because of the sheer sides of the cliffs to the east, south and west, siege engines could only be brought to bear from the north after capturing the town. To capture the castle it was also necessary to fill in the deep fosse separating it from the town. The castle itself had two walls facing the vulnerable north, the first flanked by two towers and the second reinforced by five towers. Vaulted chambers on two levels backed up against the inside of the inner wall and could also be used as fighting galleries. Altogether the castle’s situation and design caused a number of Arab commentators from the 12th to 14th centuries to conclude it impregnable.

However, the castle was also designed to withstand long sieges. It had a massive cistern, ample cellars for storing food, and accommodation for a substantial garrison. It was divided into two long wards that ran north south, the western of which was narrow and appears to have been used for stables and the like, while the upper/eastern ward contains the chapel and the better accommodations.

Kerak is located beyond the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. It lay along the lines of trade and communication between Egypt and Syria, or (in Crusader times) the Sultanates of Cairo and Damascus. It also lay along the main pilgrimage route from Turkey and Syria to Mecca. Yet the town, high above the desert, had been a Byzantine bishop’s seat and remained predominantly Christian throughout the period of Arab occupation from the mid-7th century to the establishment of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1176, Reynald de Châtillion married the widowed Stephanie de Milly, the heiress to Kerak. He used the castle as his base to pursue a aggressive policy against Salah ad-Din. Although frequently portrayed as a “renegade” interested only in his own profit, a number of serious crusades historians have pointed out that, far from being senseless, his attacks served strategic goals. (For details see:  It was precisely because Châtillion’s raids humiliated and threatened Salah ad-Din’s lines of communication to his power-base in Egypt that the Sultan came to see Châtillion as a personal enemy.

Hollywood's Reynald from "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Salah ad-Din moved against Châtillion in 1183, laying siege to Kerak in November. By chance the siege commenced during the celebration of the marriage of Châtillion’s stepson, Humphrey de Toron IV, to Princess Isabella of Jerusalem. Among the guests visiting the castle for the nuptials were Isabella’s mother, the dowager queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, and the queen mother, Agnes de Courtney.

The relief of the castle was delayed by the unanimous refusal of the assembled barons of Jerusalem to fight under the leadership of the king’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan. Guy had been named regent of the kingdom earlier in the year because the king was suffering from leprosy that was becoming increasingly debilitating. Only after King Baldwin IV agreed to resume the rule of his kingdom and lead the feudal army himself did the feudal army come to the relief of Kerak.  Despite being delayed by roughly a month, the appearance of the force was enough to induce Salah ad-Din to lift his siege.

The sultan returned the following year, 1184, prepared to fill in the fosse and take the castle by storm.  Yet again, the arrival of the Frankish army forced him to lift the siege.  For a second time he withdrew his forces without a fight.

After the Christian defeat at Hattin, Salah ad-Din executed Reynald de Châtillion immediately and -- according to some accounts -- personally. This act made Kerak  the property of Châtillion’s step-son Humphrey de Toron IV.  Toron had been captured at Hattin and was Salah ad-Din’s prisoner. The Sultan attempted to exploit this fact to negotiate the surrender of Kerak in exchange for the release of Toron. The garrison refused, so Salah ad-Din dispatched his brother al-Adil to reduce Kerak. After roughly one year, in November 1188, the garrison surrendered. Most sources agree they were not out of food much less water.  Rather, the hopelessness of their situation, since there was no longer a feudal army capable of coming to their relief, or possibly disease is believed to have led to the surrender. 

Salah ad-Din granted the castle to his brother al-Adil, who made it one of his power-bases and treasuries. He re-fortified parts of it and built or embellished the accommodations turning them into a (rough) palace in 1192. Thereafter, it served as the administrative center for what is now essentially Jordan under the Ayyubids. 

With the fall of the Ayyubids, Kerak passed into the control of the Mamlukes, who also used it as a power base, deepening the fosse and improving the fortifications and accommodations. Finally the Ottomans used the castle as an administrative center for the region, but it’s relevance in defense had long since been lost. Today it is a tourist attraction, open to the public, and can be visited.

Kerak is featured in the first two volumes of my Jerusalem Trilogy, particularly in award-winning Defender of Jerusalem, which describes Salah ad-Din's siege of 1183 in detail.


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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: