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Monday, July 12, 2021

Balian of Beirut - Part I: Heir to a Legend

  Balian of Beirut died as regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he had been the man to capture the last Imperial bastion, Tyre. Throughout his adult life, he had been an ardent supporter of his father’s struggle for the Rule of Law in Outremer and took over the leadership of the baronial opposition to Hohenstaufen rule at his father’s death in 1236. Yet, he had a decidedly different temperament and personality from his father and grandfather. What follows is a biography in two parts.


Balian first enters the historical record on the (unnamed) day of his knighting. Interestingly, Novare notes that he and his younger brother Baldwin were knighted jointly, suggesting that either Balian’s knighting was delayed or his brother’s was moved forward — or both. The knighting of a lord’s eldest son was always celebrated more or less lavishly, and a lord was often allowed to levy special taxes to help finance the occasion. Knighting two sons at once was a means of getting the most out of that expenditure. More significantly, the entire event was held in Cyprus rather than in Balian’s future lordship of Beirut.  At the time of the knighting (ca. 1224), Beirut’s younger brother Philip was acting regent of Cyprus for the child king Henry I.  The fact that Balian was knighted on Cyprus suggests that he had served his apprenticeship as a squire with his uncle in Cyprus. The event was marked by great celebrations lasting several days and including jousting, plays, and other games. Unfortunately, it was in one such game that Sir Amaury Barlais believed he had been cheated by a certain Sir Toringuel, a charge that eventually led to attempted murder and exile, and contributed to the tensions that eventually erupted in civil war. (See: Seeds of Civil War).

While Balian had no role in this drama aside from being the cause of the celebration, his father tasked him with escorting Barlais out of the Kingdom of Cyprus. It was a delicate mission for one so young, and subsequent events suggest that he may not have handled it all too well. Then again maybe nothing he could have done would have convinced Barlais that the Ibelins were not his enemies.

Balian’s next historical appearance was more fateful. In 1228, when the Holy Roman Emperor arrived on Cyprus on his way to Syria, he sent avowals of his great love and respect for his “dear uncle” of Beirut (i.e. uncle of his deceased Empress Yolanda) and invited him and all his sons to a banquet. Balian and one of his brothers (sources differ on whether it was Baldwin or Hugh) were singled out for the greater “honor” of serving the Emperor at the table, “one with the cup and the other with the bowl.”[i] As related in The Emperor’s Banquet, Frederick II used the occasion (when his guests were unarmed and he had hundreds of armed men surrounding them) to attempt to extort money from Beirut.  When the latter refused to cave-in without a judgment of the court, Frederick took twenty hostages, including both of Beirut’s sons. They were to serve as assurances that Beirut would appear before a court. Again, Balian is here an object rather than an actor.

He was a victim next. Novare records that Balian and his brother were “put in pillories, large and exceedingly cruel; there was a cross of iron to which they were bound so that they were able to move neither their arms nor their legs….”[ii] Note: they were hostages for their father’s good behavior; the Emperor had not so much as accused them of committing a crime — much less proven that they were guilty of wrong-doing. Furthermore, Balian and his brother were not released until weeks later. Novare notes that the Ibelin sons “had endured so long an imprisonment on land and in the galleys at sea and were so miserable that it was pitiful to behold them.”[iii]

Despite this, Novare claims that after his release, Balian joined the Emperor’s household “willingly and amiably.” This is a little too much “goodness and light” in the opinion of historians. Peter Edbury’s far more logical interpretation is that Balian remained a hostage — albeit under better conditions.[iv] That the Emperor considered holding Balian the best means of coercing his father is clear from Novare’s report which puts the following words into the Emperor’s mouth: “I well know that Balian is your very heart and so long as I have him I shall have you.”[v]

Yet again, he was not the only hostage. The Emperor released Baldwin (or Hugh) but insisted that Beirut’s fourth son John, a youth of no more than 13 or 14, join his household as a squire. Clearly he was a second hostage, and one can only speculate why Frederick preferred the younger son over the older hostage Baldwin/Hugh.  Surprisingly, John ingratiated himself so well with the Emperor that he was offered a fief in Italy (Foggia). Balian, on the other hand, remained an inveterate opponent of the Hohenstaufen — something wholly understandable after having been tortured for nothing.

Henceforth, Balian is found at the forefront of the struggle against the Emperor. He sailed with his father in June 1229 to Cyprus and at the Battle of Nicosia, after his father had been unhorsed and isolated and his uncle slain, it was Balian who rallied the knights of Ibelin and led a decisive charge that put their enemies to flight. (See: Battle of Nicosia).

He was also active in the siege of St. Hilarion, at one point when a sally from the castle had over-run the Ibelin camp, “Sir Balian came… recovered the camp, and, spurring up to the gate of the wall, broke his lance on the iron of the wall gate.”[vi] At another point, when Novare was badly wounded before the castle, Balian “succored him and rescued him most vigorously.”[vii] Even taking into account Novare’s bias and affection for his “compeer” Balian, it would appear that Beirut’s heir, now about 22 years old, was developing into an exceptionally bold knight. 

It was probably at this juncture, after the defeat of the five imperial baillies but before the expedition of Riccardo Filangieri in 1231, that Balian married Eschiva de Montbèliard. Eschiva was the daughter and heiress of Walter de Montbèliard, the former Regent of Cyprus (1205-1210), and his wife Burgundia de Lusignan; her maternal grandparents were Aimery de Lusignan and Eschiva d’Ibelin. She had married sometime before 1229 Gerard de Montaigu, a nephew of both the Templar and Hospitaller Masters, Pedro and Guerin de Montaigu respectively, and also the nephew of the Archbishop of Nicosia, Eustorge de Montaigu.  Gerard had been killed in the Battle of Nicosia (July 14, 1229), fighting on the Ibelin side. The traditional year of mourning would have ended in July 1230, making the second half of 1230 the most probably date of the wedding.

Because Balian and Eschiva were cousins (Balian’s uncle Philip had married Eschiva’s aunt Alys, the sister of her father) they needed a dispensation from the pope for their marriage. However, this appears to have been lacking. Because it was lacking, Edbury states that the Archbishop of Nicosia excommunicated them and was then “hounded…out of his province” to take refuge in Acre.[viii] According to other sources, a papal excommunication was issued on March 4, 1231, however, in Cyprus at this time the year started on March 25, so a date of March 4, 1231 in Cypriot chronicles corresponds to March 4, 1232 in today's reckoning.*

Most probably, Nicosia (an uncle of Eschiva’s deceased husband and possibly offended by her desire to remarry so soon) threatened an excommunication. Something (probably intimidation from Balian and his friends) induced him to flee to Acre before he could implement it. At that point, the Archbishop may have appealed to the Papal Legate and Patriarch of Jerusalem, but the latter — owing much to the Lord of Beirut and being a bitter opponent of Frederick II — did nothing. So the Archbishop appealed over the Patriarch’s head, directly to the pope. The latter then issued the excommunication in March of 1232, the news reaching Outremere only shortly before the Battle of Argidi.

In any case, we know that in the fall of 1231, the Lord of Beirut entrusted his heir with holding the key port of Limassol against the Emperor’s fleet with some 600 knights and roughly 3,800 other fighting men on board. These men under the Imperial Marshal Riccardo Filangiere had been sent to re-establish imperial rule on Cyprus. Balian was so successful (despite having few troops at his disposal) that Filangieri opted not to force a landing at all. Instead, the imperial ships sailed across to Syria, where Filangieri promptly took the city of Beirut — but not the citadel.

The citadel of Beirut was well-provisioned with supplies and water, but Beirut had reduced the garrison to a minimum to concentrate his fighting men on Cyprus. Now it faced a siege with woefully inadequate manpower. Beirut, who was still on Cyprus, recognized the peril his castle was in and appealed to the King of Cyprus to aid him in recovering his city and relieving his castle. The King of Cyprus not only agreed but called up the entire army of Cyprus.

Delayed by storms and bad weather, however, it was the spring of 1232 before the Ibelin army reached Beirut. It was rapidly apparent that the Ibelin forces were too weak to dislodge the Imperialists, so the next best option was to send men through the Imperial blockade to reinforce the garrison. Roughly 100 men (knights, sergeants and squires) volunteered for this dangerous mission, and Balian expected to be entrusted with it. Instead, Beirut chose his younger brother Johnny — much to Balian’s outrage. Why? There is no mention of displeasure or excommunication. Rather, Beirut blandly announced that he had “greater need” for Balian “without than within.”[ix] In other words, young John was expendable; Balian was not.

Short term, Beirut wanted his heir to undertake a diplomatic mission to win the Prince of Antioch to the Ibelin cause. Antioch, however, appears to have doubted the Ibelin’s chances of success in their rebellion against the most powerful monarch on earth and preferred not to anger the Hohenstaufen. Balian found himself isolated and cut off, as the Prince of Antioch refused him permission to return to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Balian’s frustration and determination to rejoin his father can be measured by the fact that he contracted with the Genoese to bring two ships from Cyprus to take him off, and when they were disabled, he sought a safe-conduct from the Sultan of Damascus so he might pass through Saracen territory and from there to Acre to join his father.

As fate would have it, he did not need to make use of this safe-conduct. The Lord of Beirut had persuaded the Genoese of Acre to aid him and obtained so much support from his peers that the Imperial forces feared a confrontation. They abandoned Beirut and withdrew to Tyre, which was an Imperialist stronghold. Balian coming south from Antioch was the first Ibelin to reach Beirut after the siege was lifted. He found the citadel badly damaged but was greeted with great joy by his younger brother John and the rest of the garrison. Because he remained in Beirut, he was not present at the debacle of Casal Imbert, where his brothers Baldwin, Hugh and Guy, were humiliated and defeated in a surprise night attack.

Encouraged by their success at Casal Imbert, Amaury Barlais led Imperial mercenaries back to Cyprus and seized control of the entire island in the Emperor’s name. According to Novare, the Imperialist return had been so sudden that:

“most of the ladies and damsels and children of Cyprus were … not able to go to [the fortress of St. Hilarion] and so they took refuge in the churches and houses of religion, and many there were who took refuge and hid in the mountains and caves. These ladies dressed themselves as shepherdesses and their children as shepherds’ children, and these women went to glean the grain which was there and on this they lived, both themselves and their children, in such great misery that it is pitiful to relate.”[x]

Notably, Balian’s wife was not one of those who took refuge in a church or disguised herself as a shepherdess. Eschiva de Montbèliard, Novare tells us, “… dressed in the robes of a minor brother and…mounted a castle called Buffavento…[and] she provisioned it [Buffavento] with food, of which it had none.”[xi]

Meanwhile, Novare tells us dramatically,

“The Langobards…committed all the abominations and outrages and villainies of which they knew and were capable. They broke into the churches and the Temple and the house of the Hospital and all the religious houses, and they dragged the ladies and the children who clung to the altars and to the priests who chanted Masses….They put the ladies and children into carts and on donkeys most shamefully and sent them to [Kyrenia] to prison.”[xii]

The King of Cyprus could not allow these conditions to reign in his kingdom and he hurried back with the Cypriot host. He had come of age on May 3, during the Battle of Casal Imbert, and he led his army, but he wisely left the command to the experienced Lord of Beirut.

And Balian? He joined his father directly from Beirut, as the Cypriot army sailed up the coast of the Levant from Acre. The Cypriots made landfall at Famagusta that was strongly garrisoned by Imperial forces. They therefore landed on an island off the coast connected by a ford at low tide. They were able to off-load men and horses out of range of the Imperial forces. During the night small boats were sent into the city by cover of darkness, causing great confusion among the enemy. Frightened into thinking they were outnumbered, the Imperial forces set fire to their ships and pulled out. Throughout this operation there is no mention of Balian, suggesting that he was indeed in “disgrace” at this time. This would have been consistent with a March 1232 excommunication.

The King of Cyprus advanced unopposed to his capital. The Imperial forces chose to make a stand across the road from Nicosia to Kyrenia, selecting a strong position on the flank of the steep mountain range that cuts Nicosia off from the coast. The Imperial forces were drawn up on the slope and had the tactical advantage. All they really had to do was wait, but over-estimating their own strength they threw this advantage away. They charged the Cypriots. And Balian? This is what Novare, who was present at the battle, has to say:

Sir Balian, his son, had always in this war led the first troop. At this time [Beirut] made [Balian] come before him and demanded that he swear to obey the command of the Holy Church, for he was under sentence of excommunication because of his marriage. [Balian] replied that he could not accede to this request. The noble man [Beirut] … said: “Balian, I have more faith in God than in your knighthood, and since you do not wish to grant my request, leave the array for, and it please God, an excommunicated man shall never be a leader of our troop.”[xiii]

Balian disobeyed. 

More than that, as Novare tells us:

“…he escaped and went to the first rank where were his brother Sir Hugh and Sir Anceau; he gave them advice and showed them that which he knew to be of advantage, and then he left them and placed himself before them to the side. He had but few men who were with him, for at that time there were only five knights who would speak to him, all the others having sworn to respect the command of Holy Church…

“When the advance guard of the first company of Langobards approached the division of my lord of Beirut and the king, Sir Balian spurred through a most evil place, over rocks and stones, and went to attack the others above the middle of the pass. So much he delayed them and did such feats of arms that no one was able to enter or leave this pass…Many times was he pressed by so many lances that no one believed that he would ever be able to escape. Those who were below with the king saw him and knew him well by his arms and each of them cried to my lord of Beirut: “Ah, Sir, let us aid Sir Balian, for we see that he will be killed there above.” [The Lord of Beirut] said to them: “Leave him alone. Our Lord will aid him, and it please Him, and we shall ride straight forward with all speed, for if we should turn aside we might lose all.”[xiv]

The Cypriot forces were eventually victorious and chased the Imperial troops up and over the mountain to Kyrenia. Here the survivors, including the leaders of the Imperial faction, took refuge in the powerful fortress on the shore.  Because the Cypriots lacked a fleet, however, the leaders of the Imperial party were able to sail from Kyrenia to safety. Barlais, Bethsan, and Gibelet sailed to Italy where they were received by the Emperor and rewarded with Italian fiefs. Filangieri sailed for Tyre, where he continued to assert his claim to be Baillie of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a strong garrison held the castle of Kyrenia for the Emperor, and the Ibelins were forced to besiege it.

The siege was bitter with treason on both sides. Sir Anceau de Brei, one of the Ibelin’s staunchest and most colorful supporters, was wounded in the thigh by a crossbow and died some six months later of the infection. The Queen of Cyprus, Alice of Montferrat, who had sided with the Langobards and put herself in the castle of Kyrenia of her own free will, died of illness during the siege. At one point, Balian is reported leading an assault on the city that was fought off after grievous injuries to the attackers. So, apparently, Balian was back in his father’s favor, yet it is unclear if the excommunication had been lifted in the meantime or not.

Kyrenia fell after roughly a year-long siege, and the Lord of Beirut returned to Syria, where the Emperor tried to convince him that all would be forgiven and forgotten if he would just — as a point of honor — first come into the Emperor’s territory and place himself at the Emperor’s mercy. Beirut answered by relating a fable of a stag who an aging lion sweet-talks into coming into his lair. Twice he escapes with serious wounds, but the third time he is killed. Beirut stoutly declared he would heartless (more like brainless!) to trust the Emperor after all the times the Emperor had broken his word and attacked him or his without cause or due process.

Balian, however, appears to have remained in Cyprus with King Henry.  At all events, In March 1236 he was named Constable of Cyprus. In October of the same year, however, his father died. At the age of 29 or at most 30 Balian had become Lord of Beirut. 

The first half of Balian's life was characterized by deeds of courage, military competence and leadership, but also by undeniable impetuosity and passion. He charged in regardless of risks, and once he gave his heart nothing would induce him to abandon his lady. He does not appear to have inherited his grandfather's gift for negotiation and there is not a trace of his father's caution, calm and reason in the stories told about him. Yet he would need both to step into his father's shoes effectively.

Balian's story continues next week. Meanwhile, you can learn more about Balian in my current series describing the war between Frederick II and the barons of Outremer starting with:

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[i] Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936) 77.
[ii] Novare, 81
[iii] Novare, 87.
[iv] Edbury, Peter. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374 (Cambridghe: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 59.
[v] Novare, 81.
[vi] Novare, 106.
[vii] Novare, 106.
[viii] Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997) 56
[ix] Novare, p.132.
[x] Novare, 142.
[xi] Novare, 142
[xii] Novare, 143.
[xiii] Novare, 151.
[xiv] Novare,153
* Peter Edbury demonstrated this peculiarity in the dating of Cypriot events of the 12th and 13th centuries in his essay: "Redating the death of Henry I of Cyprus?" Law and History in the Latin East (Farnham Surry: Ashgate, 2014) 339-348. 

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