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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The House of Ibelin - Balian of Beirut, 1207 - 1247

 The “Old Lord” of Beirut’s oldest son and heir, although named for his famous grandfather Balian, was like neither his wise father nor his diplomatic grandfather. Balian of Beirut, the “young” lord of Beirut was hot-headed, passionate and uncannily successful in his endeavours — an almost archetypical medieval nobleman.


Balian, the Lord of Beirut’s eldest son and heir, first appears in the historical record on the (unnamed) day of his knighting. Significantly, the entire event was held in Cyprus rather than in Balian’s future lordship of Beirut, which suggests he had spent his youth on Cyprus, consistent with the medieval custom of sending adolescents to serve as squires away from home.

At the banquet in Limassol where Frederick II confronted the Lord of Beirut, Balian and his younger brother Baldwin were among the twenty hostages turned over to the emperor as guarantors for Beirut’s appearance before the High Court. 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’.[i] Balian and his brother were not released until weeks later. By that time, Novare notes, they ‘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’.[ii] Despite his release, Balian was forced to remain in the emperor’s household, in effect still a hostage, albeit under more respectable conditions.

As soon as the emperor sailed from Acre on 1 May 1229, Balian stood at the forefront of the struggle against him. He sailed with his father to Cyprus in June 1229 and took part in the Battle of Nicosia. After his father had been unhorsed and isolated, and his uncle of Caesarea slain, Balian rallied the knights of Ibelin and led a decisive charge that put their enemies to flight. He was active in the siege of St. Hilarion; at one point, when a sally from the castle had overrun 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’.[iii] In another instance, when Novare himself was badly wounded before the castle, Balian ‘succored him and rescued him most vigorously’.[iv] Even considering Novare’s bias and affection for his ‘compeer’, by the age of 22, Beirut’s heir had a reputation as an exceptionally bold knight. 

At about this time, Balian married Eschiva de Montbèliard, the daughter and heiress of Walter de Montbèliard, the former Regent of Cyprus (1205-1210) by his wife, Burgundia de Lusignan. Eschiva was the widow of a knight, who had been killed in the Battle of Nicosia while fighting on the Ibelin side, Gerard de Montaigu. Furthermore, Balian and Eschiva were cousins and needed a papal dispensation to marry;  for whatever reason they failed to obtain this in advance. The Archbishop of Nicosia took the case to Rome, and the pope excommunicated the couple on 4 March 1232.[v] The news of this excommunication reached Outremer shortly before the Battle of Agridi in June 1232.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1231, the Lord of Beirut entrusted his heir with holding the port of Limassol against the emperor’s fleet. Although Balian had only a few troops, Filangieri opted not to force a landing, sailing instead to Syria, where he captured the city of Beirut — but not the citadel. In early 1232, Balian crossed over to Syria with his father and the Cypriot army to relieve the citadel. When it became necessary to smuggle additional fighting men through a sea blockade by night to reinforce the citadel’s garrison, Balian volunteered to lead the task force. Much to Balian’s outrage, Beirut chose his younger brother John instead — reasoning that young John was expendable, but Balian was not.

Instead, Beirut sent Balian to Tripoli to persuade the Prince of Antioch to support the Ibelin cause. Antioch preferred neutrality. Although he did not arrest or harm Balian, he prevented him from returning to his father. Balian’s frustration with his enforced inactivity can be measured by the fact that he sought a safe conduct from the Sultan of Damascus so he might pass through Saracen territory to rejoin his father at Acre.

As fate would have it, before he could make use of his safe conduct, the imperial forces abandoned Beirut and withdrew to Tyre. Coming south from Antioch with just his personal entourage, Balian was the first Ibelin to reach Beirut after the siege was lifted. He found the citadel severely damaged but was received with great joy by 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.

When the imperial forces seized Cyprus, Balian’s wife was one of the few women of the Ibelin faction who neither sought sanctuary nor suffered imprisoned at the hands of the imperial authorities. Instead, Eschiva de Montbèliard, ‘dressed in the robes of a minor brother … mounted a castle called Buffavento … [which] she provisioned with food, of which it had none’.[vi]

Balian joined King Henry and his father when they led an army back to Cyprus, yet conspicuously played no role in the capture of Famagusta, evidently because news of his excommunication had reached the Lord of Beirut. On the eve of the Battle of Agridi, Novare reports that 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 nobleman [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’.[vii]

Balian disobeyed. 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 [Imperial troops] 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”.’[viii]

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, first took refuge in the citadel before later sailing to safety. A garrison of imperial loyalists held the castle for almost a year against a bitter siege in which Balian (evidently back in his father’s favour) led an assault on the city. After the surrender of the castle at Kyrenia, the Lord of Beirut returned to Syria, but Balian remained in Cyprus with King Henry. In March 1236, he was named Constable of Cyprus, but his father died in October of the same year. At the age of 29, Balian had become Lord of Beirut. 

In 1239, Balian resigned the constableship of Cyprus to take part in what has become known as the ‘Barons’ Crusade’, led by Thibaud of Champagne, King of Navarre; and Richard, Duke of Cornwall. Although Sir Balian was not involved in the ill-advised attack on Gaza, the crusade is significant because it brought Balian together with his cousin Philip de Montfort. Balian signed the letter to Emperor Fredrick in which the Ibelins agreed to accept imperial rule if the emperor would name Simon de Montfort his baillie in Jerusalem. One can only speculate on how the history of the crusader states and England might have been different if Frederick II had accepted the proposal. 

In April 1242, Conrad Hohenstaufen, the son of Emperor Frederick and Yolanda of Jerusalem, announced that he had come of age (14) and was replacing Riccardo Filangieri with Tomaso of Acerra as his regent. While Filangieri was hated, Acerra had a reputation for brutally enforcing imperial policies on the Sicilian nobility. His appointment amounted to an imperial declaration of war.

It was nearly fourteen years since the emperor’s men had tortured Balian because his father had stood up to false accusations, extortion and an attempt to disseize him without due process. For the last ten, the imperial forces held the north of the kingdom, and the rebels occupied the south in an uneasy stalemate. Both sides claimed to have the law on their side; neither side seriously considered a compromise, yet neither side dared attack the other. The threat of a Hohenstaufen king (not just regent) and a new imperial ‘baillie’ alarmed Balian of Beirut.

When four citizens from Tyre offered to surrender the city to Beirut, the temptation was too great. Balian consulted his closest advisors (first and foremost Philip de Montfort) and decided to seize the city. Balian does not appear to have cared much about the legality of his action; this was war. Nevertheless, a legal fig leaf was found, as described earlier. 

Tyre was a nearly invincible city that had held out against Saladin twice. However, allies inside the city opened a seaward postern, enabling Balian and some of his knights to enter. Although almost overwhelmed, other sympathisers lowered the harbor chain enabling Venetian galleys to sail into Tyre harbor in time to reinforce Balian and his men. Assisted by the many residents who joined in the attack, the Ibelins and their allies captured the city of Tyre.

Lotario Filangieri and the bulk of the imperial mercenaries took refuge in the citadel. Aware that Accera was already on his way with strong imperial reinforcements, they prepared to hold out, but luck favoured the Ibelins. Riccardo Filangieri, who had sailed for Sicily before the Ibelin attack, encountered terrible storms. His ship foundered, and he returned to Tyre in a coastal vessel, unaware that the city had meanwhile fallen to his enemies. Balian of Beirut took personal custody of the imperial marshal and manifestly subjected Filangieri to the same treatment he had suffered at the emperor’s hands in 1229. Furthermore, he had the imperial marshal led to a prominent point with a noose around his neck. Riccardo’s brother caved in and agreed to surrender the citadel of Tyre. The Filangieris and their men were then allowed to depart with their portable treasure.

Yet while Balian kept his word to the Filangieris, he acted far less honourably towards his ‘queen’. Balian flatly refused to hand Tyre over to the queen or her French consort, using a flimsy excuse. The queen’s consort ‘saw then that he had no power nor command and that he was but a shade. As a result of the disgust and the chagrin which he had over this, he abandoned all, left the queen his wife, and went to his own country’.[ix] 

It is unimaginable that John of Beirut would have acted with so little regard for the law or respect for his queen. Yet Balian had succeeded where his principled father had failed. He had reduced the last stronghold of the imperialists, expelled the last imperial ‘baillie’ and ensured that the latter’s replacement did not dare set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acerra landed in Tripoli and remained there, with no influence in Jerusalem whatsoever.

Four years later, Balian was named Baillie of Jerusalem by King Henry I of Cyprus, who the barons of Outremer recognised as regent for the absent Conrad Hohenstaufen at the death of his mother, Queen Alice. Balian died on 4 September 1247 of unknown causes. He would have been roughly 40 years of age. He left behind at least one son, John, who succeeded to the title of Lord of Beirut. 

Balian was less admirable than his father. Balian was not prepared to risk arrest and death for the sake of an ethical reputation. He did not trust promises, certainly not from the emperor. Novare never describes him, as he does his father, prostrating himself face down on the earth in prayer. Rather, Balian's life was characterised by deeds of courage, military competence and leadership, and also by undeniable impetuosity and passion. He charged in, regardless of risks.  Nor does he appear to have inherited his grandfather's gift for negotiation, and there is not a trace of his father's caution, calm, restraint and reason in the stories told about him. Nearly alone among his generation of peers, he was not famous as a legal scholar, historian, philosopher or troubadour.

There may be a reason. Balian insisted on custody of Filangieri because of what Filangieri had done to Beirut ten years earlier. Likewise, he insisted on the same kind of pillory for Filangieri as the emperor had made for him. This suggests that Balian was traumatised by the experience of being tortured in the emperor’s custody. The 21-year-old nobleman had not expected the treatment he received, and he never fully recovered psychologically.

Balian appears to shine as a soldier, a leader of men — and as a husband. He did not give up his Eschiva; he forced first his stubborn, principled, and pious father – and then the pope himself – to recognise the marriage. He did not do it for land, he had more than enough, and there were plenty of other heiresses, including ones with royal blood he could have had. He did it for love. Once Balian gave his heart, nothing would induce him to abandon his lady.

[i] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 81.

[ii] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 87.

[iii] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 106.

[iv] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 106.

[v] The date is often given as 4 March 1231, but at that time, the Kingdom of Cyprus used a calendar in which the new year started on 25 March, so the date corresponds to 4 March 1232.

[vi] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 142.

[vii] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 151.

[viii] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 153

[ix] Novare, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, 199. 

Balian is the hero of the Rebels of Outremer series starting with Rebels against Tyranny.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Helvis and Meg are characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom.


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 For more about the Ibelins and the world they lived in read:


1 comment:

  1. It's official; Balian "the Young Lord" is now among my favorites and John, "the Old Lord" has dropped a notch.

    Screw Frederick II, the Pope, the Prince of Antioch and John, the "Old Lord." Call me an "old" hot head.


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