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Monday, July 11, 2022

The Usurper - Guy de Lusignan

 Last week on the anniversary, I reviewed the battle of Hattin. The role played by Guy de Lusignan in that defeat is clear, before continuing with the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem it is useful to look back on the succession crisis that had made Guy de Lusignan king.

As soon as Baldwin IV had been diagnosed with leprosy, it became clear that he would not marry or sire children. His closest relatives were his sister Sibylla, who was two years older than he, and his half-sister Isabella, the daughter of King Amalric by his second wife, Maria Comnena. Isabella was only two years old at the time her father died and eleven years younger than Baldwin. Although the laws and customs of Jerusalem recognized female inheritance, heiresses were required to marry so that a man could fulfill the military obligations that went with the fief. This applied to the kingdom no less than to a barony or knight’s fief. Thus, while Sibylla was recognized as the heir-apparent, the issue that preoccupied the High Court was finding a suitable husband who would, as her consort, command Jerusalem’s feudal army.

Efforts to find a husband for Sibylla pre-dated the death of Amalric. The Archbishop of Tyre was sent to France in 1171/2 and returned with Stephen de Sancerre, a brother-in-law of the Louis VII of France. After only a few months in the kingdom, however, Sancerre withdrew. His reasons can only be guessed. Given the fact that Sibylla herself was still living in a convent and only thirteen years old, it is unlikely that his decision had anything to do with her, although she may have felt slighted.

The next candidate, William de Montferrat, arrived in 1176 and married Sibylla in October. Sibylla, then seventeen, became pregnant almost immediately. Unfortunately, Montferrat died within less than a year, leaving Sibylla pregnant. She bore Montferrat a posthumous son in August 1177. This made marriage to her less appealing to future candidates, as her next husband had to accept that Montferrat’s son took precedence over offspring of any second marriage.  

The Count of Flanders tried to arrange a marriage for Sibylla during his sojourn in the Holy Land. Several sources suggest that he wanted to marry both Sibylla and her sister Isabella to the sons of one of his vassals. These candidates offended the King and the High Court as too lowly. The Kings of Jerusalem might not be royalty of the first rank, but they were unquestionably more exalted than the vassals of a count.

Next, King Baldwin wrote to Louis VII of France, requesting that he select a suitable nobleman to marry Sibylla. The French king chose Hugh, Duke of Burgundy, probably to get this troublesome nobleman out of France. Burgundy was of suitable rank and a mature man of thirty-seven, who had sired several sons by his first wife. However, he failed to arrive; after the death of Louis VII, he decided his future was in France not Jerusalem.  

As each foreign candidate failed for one reason or another, sentiment for a marrying Sibylla to a local nobleman grew. This solution avoided the need to beseech a favor of a fellow monarch—and then trust in his judgment. It eliminated embassies that were away for years. Best of all, it ensured that the candidate was already adapted to the climate, the constitution and the circumstances of the Kingdom. More than one of Sibylla’s barons may have contemplated the advantages of marrying her himself or to his heir, but we know of only one concrete contender: Baldwin d’Ibelin, Baron of Ramla/Mirabel.

Both the Chronicle of Ernoul and William of Tyre’s history report that Baldwin harbored hopes of marrying Sibylla at the latest by 1179, and possibly as early as 1177. More astonishing, the rumors appear to have been so widespread that they made it to the ears of Saladin and the Byzantine Emperor. At least, this is the most logical explanation for Saladin asking a king’s ransom — literally twice the ransom demanded for Baldwin II half a century earlier — when Ramla was captured in a skirmish on the Litani known as Marj Ayun. It also explains why the Byzantine Emperor was willing to pay much of it.  

However, by 1180 Sibylla was twenty-one years old and had other ideas. At Easter she married, in obvious haste, the third son of a Poitevan nobleman by the name of Guy de Lusignan. Guy’s elder brother Aimery had been in the kingdom nearly a decade already and had steadily advanced in royal service. He was competent, likeable and respected. His younger brother Guy, however, arrived under a cloud. According to the biographer of William Marshal, Guy and his older brother Geoffrey attempted to kidnap Eleanor of Aquitaine. While she escaped, Guy (or his brother) struck down the Earl of Salisbury — from behind. Salisbury was allegedly unarmored at the time and in the act of mounting. It was an unchivalrous act, and sharply condemned by contemporaries. Allegedly it made Guy persona non grata in the Plantagenet court. Be that as it may, the younger Lusignan had literally nothing to recommend him and the fact that the marriage took place in a hurry without pomp during Easter Week all point to a scandal.

William of Tyre attempts to explain the haste of the marriage (which he reports) with suspicions on the part of King Baldwin against the Count of Tripoli, Bohemond of Antioch, and Baldwin of Ramla.  Allegedly the king feared these men conspired to marry Ramla to Sibylla and make Ramla king in Baldwin’s stead. Yet Tyre also reports that the alleged conspirators peacefully attended Easter services and then went their separate ways — astonishing behavior for would-be usurpers. Furthermore, the Chronicle of Ernoul offers another, far more credible explanation, namely that Guy seduced Sibylla, and the hasty marriage was necessary to cover up the disgrace.

Whatever the reasons for the marriage, Guy was promptly made Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the traditional title of the heir apparent, and in 1183 when Baldwin suffered one of his recurring bouts of incapacitating fever, he named Guy de Lusignan regent of the realm. Shortly afterwards, Saladin invaded and the largest feudal army ever mustered in the history kingdom collected at Sephorie — and proceeded to do nothing. While Tyre admits he heard conflicting explanations of why and could not ‘fully ascertained the truth of the matter,’[i] King Baldwin blamed Guy de Lusignan for the sorry showing. Tyre reports: ‘Meanwhile the king realized that in the conduct of affairs [in the recent campaign], the Count of Jaffa…had shown himself far from wise or valiant. Through his imprudence and general inefficiency, the condition of the kingdom had fallen into an evil state.’[ii] Moreover, according to Tyre, ‘by the unanimous advice of the barons’, he crowned his nephew, Sibylla’s son by William de Montferrat, co-monarch. Baldwin then summoned the feudal army and the True Cross and marched out to lift the siege of Kerak, which Saladin had undertaken with great vigor in the meantime. Saladin withdrew rather than face the Leper King.

On his return to Jerusalem, Baldwin set out to find a means of dissolving his sister’s marriage to Lusignan. Sibylla refused to cooperate and Lusignan was defiant, going to the extreme of retreating behind the walls of Ascalon and refusing entry to the king. Lusignan next attacked Bedouins under the king’s protection. Yet Sibylla remained devoted to Guy, strong evidence that Ernoul’s version of her marriage is accurate. To her death, Sibylla remained passionately attached to Lusignan, hardly the behavior of a girl forced into a political marriage by her panicked brother. The church sided with the ‘virtuous’ Sibylla; the barons with the king.

Meanwhile, the king’s health continued to deteriorate. Baldwin could no longer ride. Indeed, he could no longer use either his hands or his feet, and he was losing his eyesight. He had to be carried in a litter when he led his army to relieve Kerak in 1183 and again when he confronted Lusignan at Ascalon. He called a council at Acre and turned over the rule of his kingdom to the Count of Tripoli. It was also agreed that Tripoli would serve as regent for Baldwin V, who was just six years old; the boy’s maternal uncle, the Count of Edessa, was named his guardian. Last but not least, the barons swore that should Baldwin V die before he came of age, they would ask the Kings of England and France, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor to adjudicate the succession between Amalric’s surviving children, the Princesses Sibylla and Isabella. In short, the succession had not been satisfactorily resolved when on or around 15 April 1185 Baldwin IV succumbed to his illness, aged just 23.

What happened next amounted to a coup d’etat. The barons of the kingdom had sworn oaths to consult Western leaders on who should succeeded Baldwin V. Even in the absence of such an oath, the election of the successor to a deceased monarch had lain with the High Court since the founding of the kingdom. The High Court had not always selected strictly on the basis of primogeniture and it had successfully imposed conditions on candidates. There was nothing ‘pro forma’ or ‘routine’ about the High Court’s role in selecting a monarch, and nothing automatic about the elder of two sisters being selected to rule.

Thus, when Sibylla persuaded the Patriarch of Jerusalem to crown her queen in the Holy Sepulcher, both consciously acted in violation of the constitution of the kingdom because Sibylla had neither been selected nor approved by the High Court of Jerusalem. She was a usurper, and she knew it. She acted with the support of her closest relatives — her maternal uncle titular Count of Edessa, her father-in-law by her first marriage, William Marquise de Montferrat (who was not a baron of the kingdom), her brother-in-law Aimery, and two avowed enemies of the acting regent: the Master of the Knights Templar and the Lord of Transjordan, Reynald de Châtillon. No other supporters of Sibylla are known by name.

Furthermore, some of these and/or other unnamed supporters demanded that Sibylla divorce her unpopular and distrusted husband Guy de Lusignan and take a new husband. Sibylla agreed on the condition that she be allowed to choose her new husband. As soon as she was crowned, she announced that she chose as her new husband Guy de Lusignan. In short, she intentionally deceived her own supporters. Indeed, she had to crown Guy herself because the Patriarch of Jerusalem was so shocked by her duplicity that he refused to do so.

Meanwhile, the other members of the High Court were meeting in Nablus, having been summoned there by the regent to discuss the succession. There was nothing inherently illegal or suspicious about this venue. The High Court had met outside Jerusalem on various other occasions, Nablus belonged to the royal domain, and it was comparatively close to Jerusalem. What happened at Nablus also belies accusations of treason on Tripoli’s part. When news reached Nablus that Sibylla had been crowned queen, there was no effort to make Tripoli king in her stead. Rather, the assembled barons, bishops and knights agreed to crown Princess Isabella in Bethlehem. Because she had been selected by the High Court, Isabella would have been the legitimate queen of Jerusalem had she been crowned.

While the idea of two rival queens may sound suicidal in light of the threat posed by Saladin, it may not have been as risky as it sounds. If, as Ernoul claims, the overwhelming majority of barons were at Nablus, then they could muster significantly more troops than Sibylla’s supporters. In short, they stood a reasonable chance of defeating known military incompetents such as Edessa, the younger Lusignan, and the pig-headed Templar Master Gerard Rideford. Furthermore, horrible as civil war sounds, it would in fact have been better than what happened under Sibylla and Guy: the near obliteration of the entire kingdom in less than a year.

Isabella’s coronation was prevented by her own husband. Isabella had been married since the age of eleven to Humphrey de Toron, a youth little older than herself. Toron is described in the chronicles variously as ‘cowardly and effeminate’[iii] and ‘more like a woman than a man’ with ‘a gentle manner and a stammer.’[iv] Although present in Nablus, once the High Court had decided to recognize and crown his wife, he slipped out in the dark of the night and went to Jerusalem where he did homage to Sibylla and Guy. This act made it impossible for the High Court to crown him king. Fourteen-year-old Isabella, however, could not rule alone; she needed a consort to fulfill the feudal function of commanding the kingdom’s armies. Humphrey’s homage to Sibylla therefore robbed his wife of a throne and the High Court of a viable alternative to Sibylla and Guy. The majority caved in and duly did homage to the usurpers. Two men did not: Baldwin Baron of Ramla/Mirabel and Raymond Count of Tripoli.

The Baron of Ramla/Mirabel had himself been a contender for Sibylla’s hand, which may explain his bitterness and refusal to accept Lusignan as king. In front of his peers, he refused to do homage to Guy, abdicated his entire inheritance in favor of his infant son, and left both his lands and his son in the care of his younger brother Balian before departing the kingdom. Ramla went to Antioch, where he was welcomed, and then disappears from the pages of history. While his action was dramatic, it did not weaken or endanger the kingdom particularly as his brother was mature and capable of governing Ramla/Mirabel and leading its troops.

Tripoli, on the other hand, did not abdicate but rather withdrew to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. This was the main city in the Principality of Galilee, which Tripoli held by right of his wife. Guy responded by summoning the feudal army to invade Galilee. Tripoli countered by requesting assistance from Saladin, which the sultan graciously granted.

Although Guy had provided the provocation by threatening an invasion, Tripoli’s pact with Saladin was treasonous. The Principality of Galilee was a component part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Tripoli had no right to make a separate peace with an avowed enemy in order to preserve his control over it. Furthermore, Galilee sat on the border with the Sultanate of Damascus and extended inwards almost to Nazareth. His treaty with Saladin gutted the kingdom and made it indefensible, not to mention removing the 100 knights of Galilee from the feudal levee. While his refusal to acknowledge Guy as king was understandable and based on sound legal principles, his treaty with Saladin was an action that endangered not only the crown but every man, woman and child in the kingdom. It is not defensible.

Balian d’Ibelin offered to act as a mediator between Lusignan and Tripoli, but Lusignan had meanwhile seized Beirut, another of Tripoli’s fiefs, and Tripoli would not negotiate until Beirut was restored to him. In the midst of this stand-off, Reynald de Châtillon broke the existing four-year truce with Saladin by attacking a caravan traveling from Cairo to Damascus. Unlike earlier actions by Châtillon, this does not appear to have had any strategic dimension to justify it. When Lusignan ordered Châtillon to restore the prisoners and plunder to Saladin, Châtillon flatly refused. Tellingly, Châtillon justified his action with the assertion that he was absolute ruler of Transjordan and did not have to take orders from the King in Jerusalem. This suggests Châtillon had backed the usurpation of Lusignan precisely because he viewed Lusignan as so weak and ineffectual that he could ignore him altogether. The kingdom that had repeatedly rallied around the Leper King was disintegrating as a direct consequence of the usurpation of Lusignan.

Saladin, smelling blood, was quick to react. With the truce off, he gathered his forces for a full-scale invasion. In advance, he sent a reconnaissance in force into the kingdom. In accordance with the terms of his agreement with Tripoli, he demanded and received a ‘safe-conduct’ for his men to pass unmolested through Galilee. Near the springs of Cresson, this force encountered a small a body of Templars, Hospitallers and secular knights estimated at perhaps 120. Although greatly outnumbered, the Templar Master ordered an attack. The result was the slaughter of nearly every Frankish knight in the engagement. The sight of Templar heads on the lance tips of the victorious Saracen patrol as it passed back out of Galilee shook Tripoli. He agreed to come to terms with Lusignan. When the two men met, Tripoli went on his knees before Lusignan, and the later raised him up to embrace him. It was May 1187. Saladin's next invasion was just around the corner. It could climax at the Battle of Hattin as described last week.

[i] Tyre, Book XXII, Chapter 27, 498.

[ii] Tyre, Book XXII, Chapter 27, 501.

[iii] Anonymous, The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre translated by Peter Edbury as ‘The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade’ (Crusades Texts in Translation) [Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998] chpt. 105, 96.

[iv] Anonymous, Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi translated by Helen Nicholson as ‘The Chronicle of the Third Crusade’ (Crusades Texts in Translation) [Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997] book 1, chapter 63, 122.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Guy de Lusignan is a significant character in the Jerusalem Trilogy.


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