Balian d'Ibelin has been made famous by a Hollywood movie, which successfully distorts his biography in almost every significant way. The historical Balian was far more interesting, important and inspiring.
The youngest of Barisan’s sons and his namesake was an infant at the time of his father’s death, two years old when his stepfather was exiled, and eight years old at his mother’s death. He first enters the historical record at the age of 17 where he is the only knight amidst barons credited with a prominent role in the important Christian victory at Montgisard in 1177.
At roughly the same time, Balian made a scandalously brilliant match, marrying the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. With this marriage, he became a relative of the Byzantine emperor and a stepfather of the king’s half-sister Isabella. Possibly as part of the marriage arrangement, Balian was accorded the title of Lord of Ibelin. One presumes his older brother was persuaded to turn this, the smaller of his two lordships, over to his younger brother to make him a more suitable match for a dowager queen.
It is important to remember that, as a widow who was not an heiress, the dowager queen could not be forced into a new marriage. She was financially independent, holding one of the most prestigious and wealthy fiefs of the kingdom, Nablus. This made her "lord" over one of the largest contingents to the feudal host. She did not need to remarry. Maria Comnena’s marriage to Balian d’Ibelin can only have been voluntary.
The dowager queen brought with her into her second marriage her dower portion, the wealthy and strategically important royal domain of Nablus. As Maria’s consort, Balian assumed command of the barony’s feudal levees, including eighty-five knights. Combined with Ibelin’s ten knights, this made Balian one of the most powerful feudal lords — with more than twice the troops of his elder brother Baldwin of Ramla. He was frequently referred to as Balian of Nablus in the records of the time, although the title of Ibelin is more common now.
In accordance with his new status, Ibelin took part in every major military campaign of the next decade and was also a member of the High Court of Jerusalem. In 1183, when Baldwin IV decided to crown his nephew during own his lifetime to reduce the risk of a succession crisis, Ibelin was selected — ahead of all the more senior barons in the kingdom — to carry the young king on his shoulders to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He also raised Princess Isabella until 1180, when she was forcibly taken from her mother and taken to live with her betrothed, Humphrey de Toron, at the border fortress of Kerak.
When Baldwin V died in the summer of 1186, Ibelin took a leading role in opposing Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne and her devious tactics to crown her unpopular second husband, Guy de Lusignan. When efforts to crown Isabella as a rival to Sibylla failed due to Toron’s defection, the majority of the barons, including Balian, did homage to Guy and Sibylla. After his brother Baldwin’s departure, Balian took control of Ramla’s forty knights, making him leader of one of the largest contingents of feudal levees owed to the crown. He used this power to try to reconcile the usurper, Guy de Lusignan, with the only baron more powerful than himself: Raymond, Count of Tripoli. Like his brother, Raymond was refusing to do homage to Guy, despite the clear and present danger posed by Saladin.
Ibelin was ultimately successful in his reconciliation efforts. Shortly thereafter, he and Tripoli demonstrated their loyalty to the crown by answering the royal summons to muster under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan to stop Saladin’s invasion of July 1187. Against the advice of Tripoli, Balian d’Ibelin and others, Guy chose to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march the Christian army across an arid plateau to the relief of the beleaguered city of Tiberius.
Tripoli commanded the van of this army, and King Guy the centre, and Ibelin commanded the rearguard. The latter was savagely attacked throughout the advance on July 3, decimating the ranks of the Templars fighting with Ibelin. As commander of the rearguard, Ibelin was not with the Count of Tripoli when the latter broke through the encirclement. However, Arab sources note that towards the end of the battle, the Franks Ied several charges, one of which endangered Saladin himself. Possibly, one of these broke through the surrounding Saracen army enough to enable Ibelin and some of his knights to escape. All that is certain is that Ibelin was one of only three barons to fight his way off the field at Hattin. Based on the number of survivors, it appears that roughly 3,000 men escaped with him to Tyre.
Ibelin’s wife and four children, all under the age of 10, however, were trapped in Jerusalem with some 60,000 other refugees. As Saladin’s armies overran the rest of the kingdom and a siege of Jerusalem became inevitable, Balian did a remarkable thing: he approached Saladin and requested a safe conduct to ride to Jerusalem and remove his wife and children.
Saladin agreed — on the condition that he ride to Jerusalem unarmed and stay only one night. Ibelin agreed to these conditions but had not reckoned with the reaction of the residents and refugees in Jerusalem. The citizens and Patriarch of Jerusalem begged Ibelin to take command of the defence. The patriarch demonstratively absolved him of his oath to Saladin. Ibelin felt he had no choice. He sent word to Saladin of his predicament, and Saladin graciously sent fifty of his personal Mamluks to escort Balian’s family to Christian-held territory, while Ibelin remained to defend Jerusalem against overwhelming odds.
And defend Jerusalem he did. After conducting foraging sorties to collect supplies for the population from the surrounding Saracen-held territory, he successfully held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21-25. Saladin was forced to redeploy his army against a different sector of the wall. On September 29, Saladin’s sappers successfully brought down a segment of the northern wall roughly 30 metres long. Jerusalem was no longer defensible.
With Saracen forces pouring over the breach and into the city, their banners flying from one of the nearest towers, Ibelin went to Saladin to negotiate. According to Arab sources, Saladin scoffed: one does not negotiate the surrender of a city that has already fallen. But as he dismissively pointed to his banners on the walls of the city, those banners were thrown down and replaced with those of Jerusalem. Ibelin played his trump card. If the sultan would not give him terms, he and his men would kill the Muslim prisoners along with the inhabitants, desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city – including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque – and then sally forth to die a martyr’s death, taking as many Saracens as possible with them. Saladin relented.
The Christians were given forty days to raise ransoms of ten dinars per man, five per woman and two per child. Although an estimated fifteen-thousand Christians were still marched off to slavery at the end of the forty days, between forty-five and sixty-thousand Christians survived as free men and women thanks to Ibelin’s skill as a negotiator. Notably, Ibelin offered to stand surety for the ransoms owed by the destitute, while efforts were made to raise their ransoms in the West. Saladin rejected his offer but ‘gave’ Balian 500 slaves as a personal gift; that is, he freed 500 Christians that would otherwise have gone into slavery.
Ibelin escorted a column consisting of roughly one-third of the refugees from Jerusalem to Tyre, the closest city still in Christian hands. The man commanding Tyre at the time, Conrad de Montferrat, however, could not admit 15,000 additional people to a city about to come under siege. They would have risked starvation if relief did not come from the West. So, while the bulk of the non-combatants continued to Tripoli, Ibelin and other fighting men remained in Tyre to continue the fight against Saladin.
In 1188, when Guy de Lusignan laid siege to the city of Acre, Ibelin – despite his profound disagreements with Guy – joined him there; his determination to regain territory was more important to him than his disagreements with Lusignan. However, when Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters by Guy de Lusignan died in 1190, the situation changed. Guy's claim to the throne was through his wife. With her death, Ibelin’s stepdaughter, Isabella, became the legitimate queen. Recognizing that the kingdom at this time needed a fighting man as its king, Ibelin and his wife played the deciding role in convincing Isabella to set aside her husband Humphrey de Toron. The grounds for annulment of the marriage were that she had been forced into the marriage against her will before reaching the legal age of consent. Having divorced Toron, Isabella immediately married Conrad de Montferrat.[i]
Thereafter, Ibelin staunchly supported Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. This initially put him in direct conflict with Richard I of England, who backed Guy de Lusignan, the latter being the brother of one of his vassals. As a result, during the first year of Richard’s presence in the Holy Land, Ibelin remained persona non grata in Richard’s court. In fact, he served as an envoy for Conrad de Montferrat to the Sultan’s court — something Richard’s entourage and chroniclers viewed as treason to the Christian cause.
Richard the Lionheart, however, was neither a fool nor a bigot. He recognised that after he went home (as he must), only the barons and knights of Outremer could defend the territories he had recovered during the Third Crusade. He also reluctantly realised that Guy de Lusignan would never be accepted as king by the barons and knights of the kingdom he had led to such a disastrous defeat at Hattin. So, in April 1192, Richard withdrew his support for Lusignan and recognised Isabella and her husband as the rightful rulers of Jerusalem.
Thereafter, Richard employed Ibelin as a negotiator with Saladin, and in August, Ibelin negotiated the truce that ended hostilities and allowed free access to Jerusalem for unarmed Christian pilgrims. Like the surrender of Jerusalem five years earlier, this was not a triumph, but it was far better than what might have been expected under the circumstances. Notably, Ibelin’s truce left Ibelin and Ramla in Muslim hands, something he must have negotiated with a heavy heart, despite being compensated later with the barony of Caymont near Acre.[ii]
Richard the Lionheart returned to Europe, and Isabella was crowned queen. Ibelin became the foremost nobleman in his stepdaughter's kingdom, but he disappears from the historical record in 1194. It is usually presumed that he died about this time, but it should be noted that there are other reasons for noblemen to cease signing charters. Both of Ibelin’s sons disappear from the charters of King John de Brienne, not because they were dead, but because they were active in Cyprus. Balian and his Byzantine wife may also have taken an active role in establishing Frankish rule in Cyprus,[iii] or, like his brother Hugh, he might have gone on a pilgrimage to the West or been engaged in diplomatic activities anywhere from Constantinople to Cairo.
From relative obscurity as the youngest and landless son of a rear-vassal, Balian d’Ibelin rose to premier lord of the realm. Yet Balian’s most pivotal role was that of a peacemaker — between Tripoli and Lusignan, between Richard the Lionheart and Montferrat and between Richard and Saladin. He was also instrumental in setting aside the ineffectual Humphrey de Toron, paving the way for the re-establishment of a viable monarchy around which the barons could unite. Yet, his moment of greatest glory was when he offered himself as a hostage for 15,000 destitute refugees who could not pay their ransom. Saladin rejected his gesture, but that does not diminish the spirit of compassion and charity that inspired it.
[i] This incident is the source of much slander against both Balian and Maria Comnena. For more details, see: 'Abduction of Isabella of Jerusalem', crusaderkingdoms.com
Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Balian is the main protagonist of Balian d'Ibelin, Defender of Jerusalem, Envoy of Jerusalem, and The Last Crusader Kingdom.
For more about the Ibelins and the world they lived in read: