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Friday, August 28, 2015

Defender of Jerusalem: The True Story of Balian d'Ibelin

Hollywood made him a blacksmith; Arab chronicles said he was "like a king."  
He served a leper, but defied Richard the Lionheart.
He fought Saladin to a stand-still, yet retained his respect.
Rather than dally with a princess, he  married a dowager queen -- and founded a dynasty. He was a warrior and a diplomat both. 

Balian d'Ibelin was a historical figure, whose biography was significantly different from the Hollywood figure in Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven." What follows is a short synopsis of the known historical facts about his life. 

Balian was born in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem around the middle of the 12th century (the exact year is not recorded).  Based on witnesses for charters in the first half of the 12th century, historians have tried to piece together a family history, but they do not agree among themselves. The most plausible theory, however, is that Balian was the third son of the First Baron of Ibelin, a relatively small barony that had been created in the mid-1140s as a bulwark against the city of Ascalon, then a major stronghold of the Egyptians and frequently used for raids against Jerusalem.

The First Baron of Ibelin died in or about 1150, and was succeed as Baron of Ibelin by his eldest son Hugh. However, it is not certain that Hugh (always referred to as "of Ibelin,") also inherited the baronies of Ramla and Mirabel, to the First Baron's widow Helvis was heiress. Some historians postulate that Helvis did not become an heiress until after the death of her brother, shortly before Hugh's own death. Another explanation is that Hugh was the son of an earlier marriage and so only entitled to his paternal inheritance, while Ramla and Mirabel went immediately to Helvis' eldest son, Baldwin. In any case, Hugh died childless in or about 1171, and the titles of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel were then jointly held by Baldwin.

Balian first enters the historical record when he is mentioned, along with his elder brother Baldwin, playing a decisive role at the important Christian victory over an invading Saracen army led by Saladin at Montgisard in 1177. Shortly thereafter, Balian made a scandalously brilliant match, marrying the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. With this marriage he also became step-father Isabella, the half-sister of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, who was second-in-line to the throne after the king's full-sister, Sibylla. At about the same time, and possibly as part of the marriage arrangement, he was accorded the title of Baron of Ibelin; one presumes his older brother was persuaded to turn this, the least of his three titles, over to his younger brother to make him a more suitable match for a dowager queen.

From this point onwards, Balain took part in all of the major military campaigns of the next decade and was also a member of the High Court of Jerusalem. Significantly, in 1183 when Baldwin IV decided to crown his nephew during his own lifetime to reduce the risk of a succession crisis, Balian was selected -- ahead of all the more senior and important barons in the kingdom -- to carry the child on his shoulders to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

At the death of Baldwin V in the summer of 1186, Balian took a leading role in opposing the usurpation of the throne by Sibylla of Jerusalem and most especially her devious tactics to get her unpopular second husband, Guy de Lusignan, crowned as her consort.  At his wife's dower property of Nablus, just north of Jerusalem, Balian hosted a meeting of the majority of the High Court -- all those opposed to Sibylla and Guy. At this rump-High Court, the bishops and barons proposed crowning Sibylla's half-sister (Balian's step-daughter) Isabella Queen of Jerusalem as a rival to Sibylla and Guy. These plans were thwarted by Isabella's young husband, Humphrey of Toron, who secretly did homage to Guy, robbing Isabella's supporters of a viable alternative to Sibylla/Guy.

In consequence, the majority of the barons became reconciled with Sibylla and Guy's usurpation and did homage to them, but Balian's older brother, Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel, refused.  Instead, in a dramatic gesture, he abdicated his titles in favor of his small son and gave both the boy and his baronies into the keeping of his brother Balian. He then quit the Kingdom to seek his fortune in the Principality of Antioch and disappears from the historical record.

With the departure of his brother, Balian was suddenly elevated to one of the most powerful barons in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, controlling (in the name of his nephew and wife) the second largest contingent 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. The latter, like his brother, was refusing to do homage to Guy, despite the clear and present danger posed by Saladin.  

Balian was ultimately successful in his reconciliation efforts, and shortly afterwards Balian and Raymond demonstrated their loyalty to the crown by answering the royal summons to muster under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan when he faced Saladin’s invasion of July 1187.  Against the advice of both Raymond and Balian, Guy chose to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march the army across an arid plateau to  the relief of the beleaguered city of Tiberius. The siege of Tiberius was bait, and Guy led the army into a trap set by Saladin that ended in the disastrous defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin. Balian was one of only three Christian barons to escape the debacle.  Toward the end of the battle, he Ied a successful charge against the Saracens at Hattin, possibly directed at Saladin himself, and effected a break-out. He is believed to have ridden to Tyre or Tripoli with the men he led out of the encirclement.

The destruction or capture of the bulk of the Christian army, however, left the Kingdom of Jerusalem undefended. Saladin followed up his victory at Hattin by capturing one city and castle after another until, by the start of September 1187, Saladin controlled the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem except some isolated castles, the city of Tyre, and the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. 

In Jerusalem were concentrated somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians; twenty thousand inhabitants between forty and eighty thousand refugees from the territories Saladin had already conquered. But there were no knights in Jerusalem and no commander.  Saladin called a delegation from Jerusalem to him at Ascalon and offered to let those trapped in the city go free in exchange for the surrender of the city. The representatives from Jerusalem refused. According to Arab sources they said that Jerusalem was sacred to their faith and that they could not surrender it; they preferred martyrdom. Saladin vowed to slaughter everyone in the city since it had defied him.

Among the refugees in the city of Jerusalem were Balian’s wife, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his four young children. Balian had no intention of letting his wife and children be slaughtered and so 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.

Balian had not reckoned with the reaction of the residents and refugees in Jerusalem. The arrival of a battle-tested baron --one of only two who had escaped Hattin with his honor still intact -- was seen as divine intervention and the citizens along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem begged Balian to take command of the defense. The Patriarch demonstratively absolved him of his oath to Saladin. Balian felt he had no choice. He sent word to Saladin of his predicament and Saladin graciously sent 50 of his own men to escort Balian’s family to the Tripoli (still in Christian hands), while Balian 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 held so successfully held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21 – 25 that Saladin was forced to re-deploy his army against a different sector of the wall. On September 29, however, Saladin’s sappers successfully undermined a portion of the wall and brought down a segment roughly 30 meters long. Jerusalem was no longer defensible.

It was now that Balian proved his talent as a diplomat. With Saracen forces pouring over the breech and into the city, their banners flying from one of the nearest towers, Balian went to Saladin to negotiate. According to Arab sources, Saladin scoffed: one doesn’t 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 again by the banners of Jerusalem. Balian played his trump. If the Sultan would not give him terms, he and his men would not only kill the Muslim prisoners they held along with all the inhabitants: they would desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa Mosque. Saladin gave in.  The Christians were given 40 days to raise ransoms of 10 dinars per man, 5 per woman and 2 per child. Although an estimated fifteen thousand Christians were still marched off into slavery at the end of the forty days, forty to sixty thousand Christians survived as free men and women thanks to Balian’s skill as a negotiator.

Balian escorted a column consisting of roughly one third of 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 fifteen thousand more people to a city already under siege and at risk of starvation if relief did not come from the West. So while the bulk of the non-combatants continued to Tripoli, Balian and other fighting men remained in Tyre to continue the fight against Saladin.  

In 1188 Saladin released Guy de Lusignan, taken captive at Hattin, but Montferrat refused to either admit him to the city of Tyre or recognize him as king. On the advice of his brother Geoffrey, recently arrived from France, Guy de Lusignan raised troops in the Principality of Antioch and laid siege to the city of Acre, formerly the most important port of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and now in Saracen hands. Balian, despite his profound disagreements with Guy, joined him there; his determination to recapture some of the former kingdom of greater importance to him than his disagreements with Guy de Lusignan.

When Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters by Guy de Lusignan died in 1190, however, the situation changed for Balian. Guy's claim to the thrown was through his wife. With her death, the legitimate queen of Jerusalem was Balian's step-daughter, Isabella. Isabella had been married since the age of 11 to a ineffectual young nobleman, Humphrey de Toron. Realizing that the Kingdom at this time need a fighting man as its king, Balian and his wife convinced Isabella to set Humphrey aside on the grounds that she had been forced into the marriage against her will before reaching the legal age of consent. (She had been forcibly separated from her mother and step-father at age eight, and married at age eleven.) Having divorced Toron, she at once married Conrad de Montferrat. 

Thereafter, Balian staunchly supported Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. This 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, Balian 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 nothing short of outright treason to the Christian cause.

Richard the Lionheart, however, was neither a fool nor a bigot. He recognized that after he went home (as he must) only the barons and knights of Outremer could defend the territories he had conquered in the course of the Third Crusade. He also reluctantly recognized that Guy de Lusignan would never be accepted as King by the barons and knights of the Kingdom he had led to disastrous defeat at Hattin. So in April 1192, Richard withdrew his support for Lusignan and recognized Isabella and her husband as the rightful rulers of Jerusalem. 

By doing so, he opened the doors to cooperation with Balian d’Ibelin.  Soon thereafter, Richard employed Ibelin as a negotiator with Saladin and in August Balian cut a deal with Saladin that provided for a three year truce (neither side wanted peace for both were unsatisfied with the status quo), which provided for 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 otherwise been expected under the circumstances. Notably Balian's truce left Ibelin and Ramla in Muslim hands, something that he must have negotiated with a heavy heart. However, he was compensated with the barony of Caymont near Acre and/or Arsuf. (Sources differ.)

Richard the Lionhearted returned to Europe and Isabella was crowned Queen of the much reduced by nevertheless viable Kingdom of Jerusalem. The man crowned as her consort was not, however, Conrad de Montferrat, who had fallen victim to an assassin only shortly before her coronation. Instead, her consort was her third husband, Henry of Champagne, a French noblemen, who had come out to the Holy Land in the Third Crusade. (Henry of Champagne was a grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France, which made him a first cousin of both Philip II of France and Richard of England.)

Balian was the leading nobleman in his step-daughter's kingdom, but he disappears from the historical record in 1194. It is usually presumed that he died about this time, but it is equally possible that he instead he was simply out of the kingdom, possibly engaged diplomatically in reconciling the Kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem, the former married to his niece and the latter to his step-daughter. 

He left behind two sons, John and Philip. John became Constable of Jerusalem in 1198 and later the Lord of Beirut. Philip was to be Regent of the Kingdom of Cyprus. From these sons the Ibelin dynasty descended, a family often described as the most powerful of all baronial families in the Latin states of the Eastern Mediterranean for the next three hundred years.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life." Part I, Knight of Jerusalem, has been on sale since last year. Part II, Defender of Jerusalem, was released this month. 

A divided kingdom,

              a united enemy,

                            and the struggle for                    


Friday, August 21, 2015

Sibylla of Jerusalem: Devoted Wife and Disastrous Queen

Sibylla in the Hollywood film "Kingdom of Heaven"

Sibylla of Jerusalem, Queen of Jerusalem from 1186 – 1190, was a tragic figure. The antithesis of a power-hungry woman, she put her affection for her second husband above the well-being of her kingdom — and in so being doomed her kingdom to humiliation, defeat and almost complete annihilation. 

Sibylla was born in 1160, the daughter of Amalric of Jerusalem, the younger brother of King Baldwin III, and his wife Agnes de Courtenay, the daughter of the Count of Edessa. At the time of her birth, her father was Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, while her mother was landless, since the entire County of Edessa had been lost to the Saracens. Shortly after her birth, however, in 1163, King Baldwin III died without issue, and the High Court of Jerusalem agreed to recognize Amalric as his heir — on the condition that he set aside Agnes de Courtenay. The official grounds for the annulment were that Amalric and Agnes were related within the prohibited degrees of kinship, something the church had suddenly discovered after six years of marriage. Obviously, the real reasons lay elsewhere, but it is not possible to know from this distance in time if it was Agnes' alleged immorality (as the Chronicle of Ernoul imputes) or fear that the Courtenays would try to muscle into positions of power in Jerusalem (as Malcolm Barber suggests in The Crusader States) or some other consideration now lost to the historical record that were the determining factors. For Sibylla the implications, however, were severe. Her mother Agnes was banished from court, while she and her younger brother Baldwin remained under their father’s control.

While Baldwin remained at court to be raised in close proximity to his father and learn his future role as King of Jerusalem, Sibylla was sent to the convent at Bethany near Jerusalem to be raised by her father’s aunt, the youngest daughter of King Baldwin II, the Abbess Yveta. From that point onwards, although she may have seen her father or brother on special occasions, she would have seen almost nothing of her mother, her promptly re-married.

The contemporary cloisters at Bethlehem as the look today.
By 1170 it was apparent that her brother Baldwin was suffering from leprosy. This meant that he might not live to adulthood and even if he did was unlikely to have heirs of his body. Finding a husband for the 10-year-old Sibylla was, therefore, of paramount importance to the kingdom. Friedrich, Archbishop of Tyre, was dispatched to the West to identify a husband for her, a man who would be suitable, when the time came, to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem as her consort. 

A year later, Friedrich of Tyre returned with Stephen of Sancerre of the House of Blois. Stephen was clearly of sufficient rank; his sister was married to Louis VII of France and his brothers were married to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters by Louis VII. But Stephen unexpectedly refused to marry Sibylla and returned to France, squandering his chance to be King of Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine that about a young girl living in a convent could have so offended an ambitious noblemen, and it is probable that his decision had nothing to do with Sibylla at all. Very likely he discovered he disliked the climate, the food, the role of the High Court of Jerusalem, or simply the military situation as Saladin was increasing in power. Then again, given Sibylla’s obvious lack of intelligence as demonstrated by her subsequent actions, maybe Stephen of Sancerre really was disgusted with her. Whatever his motives, Sibylla was probably deeply hurt by the public rejection.

In 1174, Sibylla’s father died unexpectedly and her younger brother ascended the throne as Baldwin IV. He was only 13 at the time and so placed under a regent, Raymond, Count of Tripoli, to whom fell the duty, in consultation with the High Court, of finding another man for Sibylla.  This time the choice of the High Court fell on William Marquis de Montferrat. William was first cousin to both Louis VII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich, and his family had a long tradition of crusading.

William of Montferrat arrived in the Holy Land escorted by a Genoese fleet in October 1176, and within six weeks, he married the then 16-year old Sibylla. He was invested with the title of Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the now traditional title for the heir apparent to the throne.  The contemporary chronicler and then Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, William of Tyre, describes William of Montferrat as follows:

He was reasonably tall and was a good-looking young man with reddish-gold hair. He was brave, but quick-tempered and liable to over-react. He was very generous and completely frank, totally lacking in any kind of pretense. He ate to excess and was a very heavy drinker, but this did not impair his judgment.

There is no reason to think that Sibylla was ill-pleased with this choice of husband, or he with her. He certainly did not reject her and she became pregnant shortly after the marriage. Unfortunately, William de Montferrat became ill within six months and after eight, in June 1177, he was dead. Sibylla gave birth to a posthumous son in August and named him Baldwin after her brother.

At once the search for a new husband for Sibylla commenced. The Count of Flanders arrived with a large force even before Sibylla gave birth to her son, and as a close kinsman (his mother was Baldwin and Sibylla’s aunt) he felt entitled to decide Sibylla’s next husband. The High Court of Jerusalem disagreed. Worse, the name he put forward was a comparatively obscure Flemish noblemen, who the High Court viewed as an insult to the crown of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he wanted to marry this man’s younger brother (of equally inferior status) to Sibylla’s half-sister, Isabella, thereby binding both princesses to his vassals — a crude means of making himself master of the kingdom without actually doing the hard work of fighting for it or ruling it. This was, understandably, unacceptable to the High Court of Jerusalem.  The Count of Flanders returned to Europe and Sibylla was still without a new husband.

According to the Chronicles of Ernoul, it was now, after Sibylla had been widowed, that the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel became interested in marrying Sibylla. While Ernoul is considered a biased and unreliable source, nevertheless, Ramla clearly had designs on Sibylla three years later and it is very possible that it was after Flander’s unsuitable suggestions had been rejected that he started to harbor hopes that the High Court would favor a powerful local baron over an unknown and unsuitable nobleman from the West.

Meanwhile, Baldwin IV took the step of associating his sister with him in some of his public acts as a means to reinforce her stature as his heir. (His great-grandfather, Baldwin II, had done the same toward the end of his reign to stress that his daughter Melisende would succeed him.) Baldwin IV also wrote to the King of France (perhaps convinced that the King of England — as represented by Philip of Flanders — did not have the best interests of his Kingdom at heart) and begged him (Louis VII) to choose from among his barons a man who could take up the burden of ruling the “Holy Kingdom” (i.e. the Kingdom of Jerusalem). Louis’ choice was Hugh, Duke of Burgundy, a very high-ranking nobleman indeed. He was expected to arrive in the spring of 1180.

Meanwhile, Baldwin of Ramla had been taken captive at the engagement on the Litani in the summer of 1179, and Saladin demanded the outrageous ransom of 200,000 bezants.  This was without doubt a “king’s ransom” — indeed higher in monetary terms than the ransom demanded for Baldwin II of Jerusalem when he had been taken captive by 1123, and more than twice the ransom paid for the Count of Tripoli in 1174. It was clearly beyond the resources of Ramla’s baronies to pay, and suggests that Saladin thought (had intelligence to suggest?) that Ramla was destined to Sibylla’s next husband and could command (in advance) the resources of the kingdom. Even more significant: the Byzantine Emperor paid a significant portion of Ramla’s ransom. Again, there is hardly any other plausible explanation of such generosity except that the Byzantine Emperor also believed Ramla was destined to become King of Jerusalem by marrying Sibylla.

It was a scenario that appeared more plausible than ever when, for a second time Sibylla (and Jerusalem) was rejected after everything appeared to be settled. At least the Duke of Burgundy’s excuse was clear: the King of France had died leaving the kingdom to his young son Philip II and the Plantagenets were predatory. Burgundy felt he had to remain in France to defend it.

Sibylla was now approaching 20 years of age and had been a widow for three years. Two noblemen from Europe had jilted her, and one had been rejected on her behalf by the High Court of Jerusalem. Her name was apparently associated with the Baron of Ramla, who had set aside his first wife (according to Ernoul) to be able to marry her, but there had been no official announcement of a betrothal. Then, abruptly at Easter 1180, only weeks after Burgundy’s decision could have been made known to her, she married the landless, fourth son of the Lord of Lusignan, Guy.

Guy de Lusignan was newly arrived in the Holy Land, probably arriving at much the same time as the news that Burgundy was not coming. Meanwhile, Ramla was in Constantinople trying to raise his ransom. Shortly before Easter, according to William of Tyre, and shortly after the news of Burgundy’s default on his promise, King Baldwin learned that Prince Bohemond of Antioch and the Count of Tripoli had entered the kingdom with an army. According to Tyre, Baldwin became so terrified that they had come to lay claim to his kingdom that he “hastened his sister’s marriage” to a man that Tyre patently describes unworthy of her (Guy de Lusignan), adding pompously “acting on impulse causes harm to everything.”

With all due respect for the Archbishop of Tyre, his explanation of Sybilla’s marriage to Guy makes no sense at all. Antioch and Tripoli were Baldwin’s closest relatives on his father’s side. They had been bulwarks of his reign up to now, Tripoli had served as his regent, and they continued to be his supporters to his death. Baldwin himself chose Tripoli to act as regent again for his nephew. There is no trace of evidence — except this speculation by Tyre — of treason on their part at any time during Baldwin IV’s life. Even Tyre admits that they “completed their religious devotions in the normal way” and returned home without the least fuss upon learning that Sibylla was already married. That’s hardly the way men intending a coup d’etat would have reacted. In short, they probably came to Jerusalem for Easter and, despite having large entourages with them (as nobles of the period were wont to have), they never posed any threat to the king.

A far better explanation of what happened is offered by the much-maligned Ernoul. He claims that Guy de Lusignan seduced Sibylla, that Baldwin threatened to hang him for “debauching” a Princess of Jerusalem, and was then persuaded by his mother (the highly influential but self-serving and far from intelligent Agnes de Courtenay) and the tears of his sister to relent and allow Sibylla to marry Guy. This explanation of events makes perfect sense and appears borne out by Sibylla’s subsequent behavior. Sibylla had just been jilted for a second time. She was probably feeling very sorry for herself and may even have been wondering if something was “wrong” with her.  Ramla may have been his own choice for her husband rather than hers--or he might just have been too far away at a critical moment. Suddenly, there was a dashing, handsome young nobleman who was paying court to her, flattering her, making love to her. She fell for him. Not a terribly unusual thing for a 20 year old girl, who was no virgin but a widow and mother.

The evidence that Guy was Sibylla’s choice and not her brother’s is provided by subsequent events. Within three years, Baldwin IV was desperately trying to find a way to annul her marriage while Sibylla was doing everything she could to prevent it. Had Sibylla been forced into a dynastic marriage by her brother in 1180, she would have been just as willingly talked into a dynastic divorce in 1183/1184. She was not.

What is more, by the time her brother and young son by Montferrat were dead, it was obvious that virtually the entire High Court, secular and sacred, mistrusted her husband Guy and did not want to see him crowned king beside her. Bernard Hamilton in his excellent history of Baldwin’s reign, The Leper King and his Heirs, admits that even sources favorable to Guy de Lusignan admit that Sibylla’s supporters “required her to divorce Guy before they would recognize her as queen.” (The Leper King, p. 218.) Sibylla reportedly agreed to divorce Guy but asked that she be allowed to choose her next husband. This was agreed to. She then proceeded to choose Guy as her next husband. By clinging to Guy as her husband and consort, she alienated not only the barons and bishops already opposed to her but also those who had loyally supported her on the condition she divorce Guy. Again, these are hardly the actions of a woman in a dynastic marriage, but very much the actions of a woman desperately in love with her man.

Normally, it is admirable for a wife to be devoted to her husband, as church chroniclers were quick to point out. For a queen, however, clinging to an unpopular man at the expense of alienating her entire nobility is neither intelligent nor wise.

Furthermore, it is rare for a man to provoke so much unanimous opposition and animosity as Guy de Lusignan. Even if we cannot fully fathom it today, there is no reason to think that hostility was baseless. On the contrary, Guy proved all his opponents right when within a year of usurping the throne (since he was never approved by the High Court he was not legally King of Jerusalem), he had lost roughly 17,000 Christian fighting men (the flower of Jerusalem’s Christian manhood!) at an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin and, worse, lost the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem with it! Guy himself, furthermore, was a captive of Saladin, yet he ordered Ascalon to surrender to Saladin (when it might well have resisted), then promised Saladin never to take up arms against him again only to break his promise and lay siege to Muslim Acre. Guy had few if any redeeming characteristics! But that is getting ahead of the story.

In September of 1187, Sibylla found herself trapped in Jerusalem as the rest of the Kingdom crumbled before Saladin’s onslaught for lack of defenders because her husband had led them all into death and slavery. She was the reigning, crowned and anointed Queen, and she did nothing — except beg to be allowed to join her husband in captivity! A queen? Asking to be allowed to go into enemy captivity? This is more than a gesture of love, it is evidence of Sibylla’s utter stupidity and lack of sense.

Saladin naturally granted Sibylla the right to join her husband in captivity — what better way to ensure that his enemies were completely in his hands? Meanwhile, the defense of the last remnants of her kingdom fell to her former brother-in-law, Conrad de Montferrat, the younger brother of her first husband in Tyre, and the Baron of Ibelin in Jerusalem.

But Sibylla’s devotion to Guy was not broken even by the humiliation of captivity. When he was released, she joined him at the siege of Acre. While the Christians surrounded Muslim-controlled Acre, Saladin’s forces surrounded the Christian besiegers, hemming them in and cutting off all supplies except by sea. Deplorable conditions reigned, including acute hunger at times and, eventually, disease. Yet Sibylla, crowned Queen of Jerusalem, preferred to be with her beloved Guy than in any way act the part of queen. She paid the price. She died of fever with both her children by Guy in the squalor of the siege camp before Acre in 1190. She was 30 years old.

She shares the blame for losing the Holy Land with Guy de Lusignan because it was her stupidity and stubbornness that left the kingdom in the hands of an incompetent and despised man. At no time in her life did she show even a flicker of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Christians entrusted to her or a shred of royal dignity. Had she been a baker’s daughter and a butcher’s wife her devotion to her husband might have been admirable; as a queen she was a tragic clown. 

Sibylla plays a major role in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Read more about Sibylla's predecessors and successes on Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

A Forgotten Christian Victory over Saladin: Le Forbelet

In much popular literature, the Sultan Salah ad-Din, more commonly known as Saladin, is portrayed not only as chivalrous but also invincible.  Even his critical biographer, Andrew Ehrenkreutz, attributes Saladin’s failure to defeat the forces of Christianity sooner than 1187 to Saladin’s obsession with crushing his Muslim rivals rather than to any capability on the part of his Christian foes.  While it is undoubtedly true that Saladin spent more time and resources defeating his Muslim rivals, the theory glosses over the fact that Saladin led three full scale invasions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem before his successful campaign of 1187 — and he was defeated each time. Furthermore, in all three instances he commanded significantly more numerous forces and was forced to withdraw by smaller forces of Christians.

Saladin’s first invasion ended in a crushing defeat in the Battle of Montgisard. His second invasion was not launched until five years later in the summer of 1182.  Significantly, this invasion occurred after the death of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, who had been a staunch supporter of the crusader kingdoms. Under Manuel I, the Christian Kingdoms in Constantinople and Jerusalem had undertaken a number of joint military operations, notably against Egypt, and the Byzantine Empire provided the crusader kingdoms with a degree of protection. However, with Manuel I’s death and the assassination of his wife, daughter and son-in-law, the minor Emperor Alexius II was controlled by a clique completely hostile to the Latin kingdoms.  It was furthermore launched after Saladin had concluded a truce with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. In short, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was isolated and could expect no short-term support.

Manuel I Comnenus, Emperor of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire
Saladin’s forces crossed into the Kingdom of Jerusalem on July 13 and immediately laid siege to the castle of Bethsan in southern Galilee on the River Jordan. Due to the nature of medieval warfare, i.e. the slow speed at which large forces can be mustered, Saladin’s intentions had not remained concealed. Far from surprising the King of Jerusalem, Saladin’s invasion was anticipated and the King had already called up his feudal levies and mustered them at the Springs of Sephorie (also written Saffuriya). While the Christians had shorter lines of communication and could probably muster more rapidly than Saladin’s diverse forces drawn from as far away as Cairo, the fact that the Christians had already mustered before Saladin’s army crossed the Jordan nevertheless speaks of considerable competence on two levels. 

On the one hand, the Kingdom of Jerusalem evidently enjoyed excellent intelligence of enemy movements, and on the other the King’s subjects were capable of a rapid response. The extent to which the Christians had reliable intelligence networks inside Saladin’s empire is something almost completely overlooked or neglected in most studies of the crusader kingdoms. Good intelligence is, of course, by its very nature almost invisible. Furthermore, it was only in the second half of the last century that spy thrillers became popular and the importance of intelligence widely recognized. For most of human history, spies have been despised as somewhat unsavory (not to say dishonorable) creatures, whose services were used but not valued. This may explain why no Christian chronicle highlights or even acknowledges the fact that the Christian kingdoms did have access to intelligence from inside the Muslim world. There were two important sources of this intelligence. First and foremost, traders who, we know, did travel across the cultural and religious borders of the age almost irrespective of the state of hostilities. Second, and perhaps even more important, were the large communities of Christians who lived in both Egypt and Syria at this time.

Medieval Caravan on the Silk Road
The second fact, that Baldwin IV could muster his forces rapidly when he summoned them, has also received far too little acknowledgement. For a Kingdom that so many describe as divided by factions and intrigue (see Ehrenkreutz, Bartlett, and others) that is quite remarkable. In fact, the ease and speed with which the feudal levies of Jerusalem mustered undermines the thesis of internal divisions — at least at this point in time.

Just two days after Saladin laid siege to Bethsan, the Christian army under King Baldwin IV confronted Saladin’s army in a bitter, full-scale battle. William of Tyre, who was Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this time and could rely on first-hand accounts of the battle, reports that the older, more experienced Frankish commanders claimed never to have seen a Saracen force of this magnitude before, but there are no reliable estimates of just how large that force actually was. Five years later, however, Saladin mustered roughly 45,000 troops for the campaign that led to his victory at Hattin, including 12,000 cavalry. It is probable that Saladin’s army in 1182 was somewhat less numerous than at Hattin, simply because Saladin had not yet subdued his rivals in Mosul and so could not call on their contingents.  An educated guess might therefore put his army at as little as 35,000 of which 9,000 were horse.  On the Christian side were just 700 knights (compared to 1,600 at Hattin) and unknown numbers of Turcopoles and infantry. Again, using Hattin as a yardstick, and paring the numbers down proportionally, the Christian infantry probably did not number more than 10,000, probably less.

The battle was fought in such intense heat that a monk died of sunstroke while carrying the reliquary containing what was believed to be a fragment of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The battle was, furthermore, an all-day affair, and the dust churned up on a battlefield in the midst of the summer dry season must have been nearly as unbearable as the heat. What fighting in metal armor under these conditions was like is literally unimaginable to modern man. It is probable that heat stroke and thirst contributed nearly as much as enemy action to the casualties.  

Hollywood's Portrayal of a Frankish Army carrying the True Cross into Battle; "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Unfortunately, there is no detailed account of the sequence of events; Tyre was a churchman, not a soldier, and the Arabs had “nothing to write home about.”  As Professor Bernard Hamilton words it: “Le Forbelet was a Frankish victory: a far larger Muslim army had been forced to retreat with heavy losses by a determined Frankish cavalry force.”

The few facts we do have, however, suggest that Hamilton may be slighting the Christian infantry in his above assessment. While there were practically no casualties among the Christian knights, the losses among the infantry were reportedly much greater. This suggests that the Frankish cavalry remained behind their infantry protection long enough to wear-down their enemy and then — still comparatively fresh — they launched an effective counter attack. These are the tactics that worked so well for Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade, and they weren’t new. These were the tactics the Franks had used again and again. It all came down to disciplined infantry that held the line, timing the cavalry charge correctly, and then carrying it out with verve and discipline. From the outcome, it is clear that the Christian forces at Le Forbelet did all three.

That would not have been possible without effective command, and clearly that still lay with Baldwin IV at this time. He was present at the battle, but after being unhorsed at the Battle on the Litani and given the ravages of three more years of leprosy, it is almost certain he did not lead his army from horseback at the front. Rather, as in the following year, he was probably reduced to commanding from a liter at the back of his army. That despite this he could still defeat an army likely three times the size of his and commanded by the tactically astute Saladin suggests on the one hand that he still commanded the respect of his barons and troops, and on the other that he had some very competent field commanders.

The small number of Frankish knights involved is attributable to the fact that the forces of neither Tripoli nor Antioch took part in this battle, both being pinned down elsewhere. So the most probable commanders at Le Forbelet were all from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, first and foremost, the Constable of the Kingdom, Aimery de Lusignan, followed by Reynald de Ch√Ętillon, Lord of Oultrejourdain, and Baldwin d’Ibelin, Lord of Ramla and Mirabel. Both of the latter had very strong reputations as battle commanders and fielded large contingents of troops.

Whoever deserves the credit, the victory proved fleeting. Baldwin’s successor, Aimery’s younger brother Guy, failed to follow the tactics that had worked so well at Le Forbelet. He led the Christian army to a devastating defeat just five years later — almost to the day — at Hattin. That was a defeat from which the crusader states never recovered, and so it obscured and turned to insignificance the crusader success at Le Forbelet.

The Battle of Le Forbelet is described in detail in Book II of my three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin:

A divided kingdom,

                             a united enemy,

                                                       and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Agnes de Courtenay, Wife and Mother of Kings

Agnes de Courtenay is without doubt one of the women in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem who played a decisive — not to say sinister — role. She is an example of how women exercised power in the 12th century crusader kingdoms, and a reminder that female influence was not always benign.

Agnes de Courtenay was the daughter of the powerful Courtenay family. The French Courtenay’s were of distinguished enough lineage for a daughter of the family to marry the younger brother of King Louis VII of France. In the crusader kingdoms the family derived its importance from the fact that Joscelyn de Courtenay was a first cousin of the Baldwin de Bourcq, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, who had been Count of Edessa before he was elected King of Jerusalem to rule as Baldwin II. At Baldwin de Bourcq’s elevation to King, he invested his cousin Joscelyn de Courtenay with his former County of Edessa, which he ruled as Joscelyn I. 

However, under his son Joscelyn II, the County was over-run and lost to the Saracens, in large part due to the neglect and poor leadership of Joscelyn II. The city of Edessa was lost to Zengi in November 1144, and by 1150 the last remnants of the once rich and powerful County were in Saracen hands. Joscelyn II himself was captured in the same year by Nur al-Din and tortured. He eventually died, still in captivity, in 1159. Thus his son, Joscelyn III of Edessa inherited his father’s title — but none of the lands or income that went with it. As titular Count of Edessa he was to prove a singularly ineffective (not to say incompetent) leader, who distinguished himself by getting captured at a disastrous battle in 1164, playing a key part in the usurpation of the even more disastrous Guy de Lusignan, and finally by surrendering Acre to Saladin in haste when it was completely defensible. His sister was Agnes.

Agnes de Courtenay had not had an easy childhood. She had been married, possibly at an early age, to Reynald of Marash, who was killed in battle in 1149. The following year, her father was captured and never seen again. Her family had fallen in six years from one of the richest and most powerful in the crusader states, to “poor cousins” living on a few estates in Antioch that Agnes’ mother had from her first marriage. Agnes was a widow with no land and no dowry. She was also possibly no more than 10 or 12 years old, as she would have had to be at least 8 at her marriage to Reynald.

Under these circumstances, it appears that Agnes languished for some time in her mother’s much reduced household and was eventually betrothed to a man of comparatively obscure origins and only recent prominence: Hugh d’Ibelin. Hugh was the son of an adventurer of unknown origin, Barisan, who had distinguished himself as a knight and administrator in the reign of Baldwin II and been rewarded with the Constableship of Jaffa and then the newly created barony of Ibelin. Ibelin was small. It owed only ten knights to the feudal levee, and Agnes may have felt it was beneath her dignity as the daughter of a count.  In any case, in 1157, sometime shortly after the betrothal, Hugh d’Ibelin was taken captive at Jacob’s Ford.

This left Agnes in a very difficult position. She was probably about 17 years of age, penniless, her father was still in a Saracen prison, her brother was probably even younger than she was, and now her betrothed was in captivity as well. She may have assumed he would suffer the same fate as her father and never return. She may have felt vulnerable and desperate, or she may simply have been flattered to find that the King’s younger brother took an interest in her. Whether she was the seducer or the seduced, or whether she was outright abducted (as some historians have suggested; see H.E. Mayer, “The Origins of King Amalric”), sometime in 1157 she “married” Prince Amalric of Jerusalem, then Count of Jaffa and Ascalon.

Agnes proceeded to give the Count of Jaffa two children, a daughter, Sibylla, born in or about 1159 and a son, Baldwin, in 1161. Then in February 1163, her brother-in-law, Baldwin III of Jerusalem, died childless. Amalric as his brother, a young and still vigorous man with experience in war and peace, seemed the most obvious candidate to succeed him. But far from being immediately acclaimed king, Amalric faced serious opposition — because of his wife. In fact, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside.

Why, we do not know. Officially, the Church suddenly discovered and was “shocked, simply shocked” to discover (after six years of marriage) that Amalric and Agnes were related within the prohibited degrees. But even the highly educated Church scholar and royal insider William of Tyre found this explanation so baffling that he had to do extra research to track down the relationship. The issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin was certainly another canonical ground for divorce, although not explicitly mentioned. However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife — or her relatives as Malcolm Barber suggests. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or already a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press,” as Bernard Hamilton suggests.

Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died in or about 1170, married yet a fourth time. For a dowerless woman, that’s quite a record, and suggests she may have had charms that are inadequately conveyed by the historical record. She had no children by any of her husbands (or lovers) except Amalaric, and until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him.  Even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court.

Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. She rapidly established herself here as a key influence upon her still teenage son. This was derived from her apparently affectionate relationship with her son, who was by this point obviously afflicted with leprosy.  She travelled with him even on campaigns, and appears to have taken a motherly interest in his health and welfare. Since Baldwin IV was unmarried, Agnes’ influence was all the stronger.  Thus, although she never wore a crown, she was undoubtedly the most powerful woman at court of Baldwin IV, and by the end of Baldwin’s reign she took part in the sessions of the High Court.

She was also, at this stage in her life, allegedly promiscuous. She would have been in her late 30s when her son invited her back to court and she had been widowed three times. Although technically married to Reginald of Sidon, she is rarely mentioned together with him, and they appear to have lived completely separate lives. While her husband kept to his estates and fought the enemy, Agnes was “at court,” where she is said to have had the Archbishop of Caesarea, a native by the name of Heraclius, as her lover. Either after him or simultaneously with Heraclius, she is alleged to have had an affair with Aimery de Lusignan as well.

While her morals are arguably her own affair and modern sensibilities are not greatly offended by a mature woman finding sexual pleasure wherever she pleases, it was Agnes influence on her son that from a historical perspective was reprehensible.  Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtenay had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joscelyn of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claims, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Worse, Agnes also engineered the marriage of not only her own daughter, Sibylla, but of her step-daughter, Isabella, the child born to Amalric by his second wife, Maria Comnena, after Agnes had been set aside. No other actions in Agnes de Courtenay’s life were so detrimental to the welfare of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as these two marriages.  We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively.

The latter, Humphrey, was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch. He then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, Toron apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for a future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well. (See my entries on Guy and Aimery de Lusignan.)  In a short space of time he alienated his brother-in-law, King Baldwin IV, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. The dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper -– than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust on the part of the barons misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons (except Ramla and Tripoli) grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtenay’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.

In retrospect, Agnes de Courtenay was clearly an ambitious woman, who clawed her way from comparative helplessness and impoverishment to the pinnacle of power -- behind the throne of her son. She suffered a number of set-backs in her life, most notably the High Court’s refusal to recognize her as Queen, and she must have been embittered by this. She is credited with hating her successor as Amalric’s wife, the woman who was crowned queen in her place, Maria Comnena bitterly.  The extent to which her subsequent actions were motivated by a consuming thirst for revenge should, therefore, not be under-estimated. Whatever her motives, whether a conscious desire to humiliate those she blamed for her own humiliation or simply a lack of intelligence commensurate to her ambition, her overall impact on the history of the crusader states was tragically negative.

Agnes plays a major role in the first two books of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Read more about Agnes and other women in the Kingdom of Jerusalem at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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