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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The House of Ibelin: John, Count of Jaffa

 Without doubt, the most famous of the fourth generation of Ibelins — and arguably the best-known Ibelin today — was John of Jaffa, the son of Philip. His fame derives not from deeds of arms and high politics, but rather from a book commonly known as the ‘Assises of Jerusalem’, described as one of the great works of thirteenth-century thought.[i] This was his final legacy, written at the end of an eventful life.

John was born in Cyprus two years before his father became regent, and the first fourteen years of his life were probably ones of wealth and privilege. All that abruptly ended when, in February 1229, Emperor Frederick II sent the Sicilian Count of Cotron to lay waste to the Ibelin’s lands. In fear for their lives, John’s mother, Alice de Montbéliard, fled with her children in a small boat, encountering such storms, they all nearly drowned. Having barely escaped death at sea, John arrived in Syria to find the emperor had already given orders to disseize him of his estates. He had not yet come of age, much less taken any action against the emperor; his crime was simply being an Ibelin.

Unsurprisingly, he became a staunch supporter of his uncle, the Lord of Beirut. In 1232, aged seventeen, he was present at the debacle at Casal Imbert and was wounded in the engagement. The experience did not dull John’s ardour for the Ibelin cause; shortly afterwards, he sold properties in Acre to help finance the expedition to Cyprus. He took part in the campaign that ended with the Ibelin victory at Agridi and was tasked by his uncle of Beirut with rounding up the imperial troops still at large.

Throughout the next decade, he was in regular attendance at the High Court of Cyprus, where he was one of the most powerful lords. In 1237, King Henry of Cyprus married the sister of the Armenian King Hethoum, and John married a second sister of Hethoum sometime before 1242. This made John the brother-in-law of both the King of Armenia and the King of Cyprus. For the rest of his life, John moved in exalted circles and was viewed in East and West as a nobleman of the first rank.

Meanwhile, he evolved into a legal scholar. He was probably the author of the proposal, signed by his cousin Balian, proposing Simon de Montfort as imperial baillie of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He was active in devising legal justifications for his cousin’s attack on Tyre. His account of the incident is a case study in creative legality. He even found ‘legal’ explanations for his cousin’s cynical refusal to surrender Tyre to the regent the Ibelins had created, something Peter Edbury rightly calls ‘transparent hypocrisy’. Notably, he played no role in military actions.

When Alice of Champagne died in 1246, John d’Ibelin’s sophisticated legal reasoning warranted declaring King Henry of Cyprus the rightful regent of the still absent Conrad of Hohenstaufen. King Henry, however, could not be treated as a mere figurehead. He had been the reigning monarch of Cyprus for fourteen years. He was 29 years old and brother-in-law of the Armenian king. Henry of Cyprus could not be ignored or dismissed the way Ralph of Soissons had been.

However, King Henry showed no real interest in Jerusalem; he was content to name deputies to rule for him on the mainland. The first of these was Balian of Beirut. At about the same time, Henry granted Tyre to Philip de Montfort, made Balian’s younger brother John of Arsur the Constable of Jerusalem, and enfeoffed his brother-in-law John with the County of Jaffa and Ascalon as well as the traditional Ibelin lordship of Ramla and Mirabel, both of which had been restored to the Kingdom of Jerusalem through treaties concluded with the Ayyubids at the close of the Barons’ Crusade.

Henceforth, John took great pride in his title of ‘count’. In keeping with the spirit of the times, John engaged in lavish displays of pageantry designed to enhance his honour. King Louis IX’s seneschal Jean de Joinville writes of the landing of King Louis’ army on the shore before Damietta, noting:

To left of us, the Comte de Jaffa … was about to land; he made the finest show of any as he came towards the shore. His galley was covered, both under and above the water, with painted escutcheons bearing his arms, which are or with a cross ‘gules patee’. He had at least three hundred rowers in his galley; beside each rower was a small shield with the count’s arms upon it, and to each shield was attached a pennon with the same arms worked in gold.


As the galley approached, it seemed as if it flew, so quickly did the rowers urge it onwards with the powerful sweep of their oars; and what with the flapping of the pennons, the booming of the drums, and the screech of Saracen horns onboard the vessel, you would have thought a thunderbolt was falling from the skies. As soon as this galley had been driven into the sand as far as it would go, the count and his knights leapt on shore, well equipped, and came to take their stand beside us.[ii]

But for all his fine display, John was soon seriously in debt. The cost of restoring and maintaining the defences of his county — the southernmost in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and a frequent target of Saracen raids — was exorbitant. In the succeeding decades, as the Mongols, Khwarizmians and Mamluks increasingly threatened the Frankish kingdom, other secular lords gave large portions of their lands to the military orders, but John of Jaffa stubbornly hung on to his county.

In the decade after the departure of King Louis, Jaffa was periodically called to serve as baillie of the kingdom but does not appear to have been terribly keen to hold the position. He took this office in 1255 but surrendered it to his cousin of Arsur in 1258. The War of St. Sabas had seriously damaged the fabric of the country, and the Mongols successively attacked the trade routes that fed the kingdom’s economy. The Count of Jaffa was forced to conclude truces with the resurgent Saracens. Notably, these were private truces for Jaffa alone, a clear indication of the disintegration of central authority noted earlier. In this period, Jaffa’s wife and the mother of his six (or possibly nine) children returned to her native Armenia, taking most of her children. At about the same time, John was admonished by the pope for carrying on an affair with Cyprus’ young dowager queen, Plaisance of Antioch. It is hard to know which of these events was the cause and which the effect.

In the difficult years of 1258-1266, Jaffa wrote his opus magnum. We catch a glimpse of the author in the preface:

I pray the Holy Trinity that I may receive the grace of the Holy Spirit so as to bring this book to such perfection that it will be to the honour of God and to the profit of my soul and the government of the people of the kingdom of Jerusalem… . I pray, entreat and demand in the name of God that they who read should not use anything here falsely so as to deprive anyone of their rights, but that they use it to defend their rights or those of others as need arises.[iii]

 John died in 1266. He was succeeded very briefly by his son James before Jaffa fell to the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1268. 

The two daughters of this generation, Isabella, the daughter of the Lord of Beirut, and Maria, the daughter of Philip, became nuns.


[i] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277 (New York: Macmillan Press, 1973), 230.

[ii] See note 24, Joinville, Life of Saint Louis, 204.

[iii] John, Count of Jaffa, quoted in John of Jaffa, His Opponents, and His Fiefs, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 128, no. 2 (1984): 134-63,


John is a minor character in the early books of the Rebels of Outremer Series, but will play a more important role in the later books.

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. Interesting and educational, as always, but, I take exception to the phrase "and arguably the best-known Ibelin today." That phrase needs to be qualified with "in certain circles."

    Personally, I never heard of John of Jaffa, until I started reading your works, Professor. My introduction to the Ibelins was Ridley Scott and I'd wager that I'm not alone.

    I'd say that Balian is the best known Ibelin amng non-historians. But, you teach me more with every article, so, keep them coming!


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