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Friday, May 27, 2016

The Ideal Feudal State: Jerusalem

Feudalism was a system of government based on interdependency between a monarch and his subjects. In contrast to absolute monarchy based on the “divine right of kings,” feudalism rejected centralism and authoritarian rule. Instead, evolving in an age when the speed of communication was restricted by the speed of a horse or sailing ship, and literacy was restricted to the elite, it was a highly decentralized system. Feudalism depended on local elites administering justice and raising taxes, protecting borders and fostering economic growth. It was a system that consciously devolved power downwards rather than concentrating it in distant, difficult to reach capitals.  It also recognized the value of collective decision-making and checks on royal power. Obviously, this is not the same thing as “democracy” (in any of its forms), but it was far less arbitrary and more legalistic than many people today realize.

Historians have argued that the Kingdom of Jerusalem, created not organically over the centuries but consciously by men from already developed feudal states, was the “perfect” or ideal feudal state. (See, for example, John La Monte’s Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1100 to 1291, Cambridge, 1932.) The Kingdom of Jerusalem also presents us with an exceptional case study in feudalism because a number of legal treatises cataloguing and analyzing the laws of Jerusalem were produced by first rate legal scholars in the 13th century and have survived to this day — the so called Assises of Jerusalem.

As English history demonstrates — from the baronial revolt against King John (that gave us Magna Charta) to Simon de Montfort’s Oxford Provisions and the English Civil War itself, curbing the power of kings was a difficult, dangerous and often divisive task. The High Court of Jerusalem is, therefore, particularly remarkable as an example of an effective feudal check on royal power because it ensured the integrity of the kingdom with only one instance of civil war. Notably, the Rule of Law (as represented by the High Court) won against the despotism (in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II). 

The High Court of Jerusalem combined in itself judicial, legislative and executive functions. As La Monte words it: “Its word was law, or rather its interpretation of the existing body of custom made law, and the king who endeavored to act without the advice of, or contrary to the decision of, his High Court found himself confronted with a legalized rebellion on the part of his subjects.” In Jerusalem, the elected king (see The Elected Kingship) remained “first among equals” vis-√†-vis his barons and bishops rather than a sovereign.

The High Court was composed of all the vassals or tenants-in-chief of the king. The ecclesiastical lords held seats by virtue of their land holdings rather than their spiritual positions. It met in no set place (such as Parliament did in London), but rather could be convened in any place within the kingdom. As long as Jerusalem was Frankish, it met most frequently there, according to some in the Tower of David. After the loss of Jerusalem, it most commonly convened in Acre. 

Tower of David in the Citadel of Jerusalem
Strikingly, the King’s presence was not essential for a meeting of the High Court. The king could designate a representative, but the Court could also meet in the absence of the King—as it did after the death of each king in order to elect the next. Also notable is the fact that outsiders, including King Richard I of England and King Louis IX of France, might be invited to attend and speak at sessions of the High Court. They might, by virtue of their prestige, even “preside” over the session. Yet they did not have a vote — albeit, one presumes, such respected and charismatic men must have wielded considerable influence over those who did vote!

The duties of the High Court were first and foremost the election of the ruler, and during minorities or when the monarch was otherwise incapacitated by illness or capture, the appointment of regents (baillies) of Jerusalem. The preference was always for a close blood relation of the previous monarch, but from the beginning this did not entail applying the rules of primogeniture strictly and at almost all elections there were multiple claimants from the royal family contending for the honor. In cases where a woman was the closest relative of the reigning king, the High Court chose her husband for her to thereby elect the king indirectly.

The High Court made domestic policy technically not by passing laws but by “interpreting” the “customs” of the kingdom as recorded by the “wise men” who had advised Godfrey de Bouillon. Effectively, however, the High Court established the law in all matters, including — interestingly — ecclesiastical issues, but most importantly with revenue collection (taxation, customs duties, etc.), military obligations, and inheritance law. In fact, no fief could change hands (except to the hereditary heir based on primogeniture) without the approval of the court (i.e. gifts and sales of land needed High Court approval). The High Court also made foreign policy by concluding or rejecting treaties.

In practice, law evolved out of the adjudication of disputes in which the High Court ruled based on its interpretation of “customs,” and then recorded the decision and the reasoning behind as a reference for future cases. This is “case law” in its purest form.
The decisions of the High Court were binding on everyone, including the king/queen, and could only be rescinded by the High Court itself.

As a judicial body, the fundamental principle was that all members of the court were equals (peers), and trial by one’s peers was the sacrosanct foundation of law in Outremer — with important consequences for Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox Christians, who were thereby also accorded trial by their peers rather than the alien Frankish elite. Even the Italian communes had their own courts. But for the Frankish, land-holding elite, the High Court was the only court authorized to adjudicate disputes involving everything from charges of murder, rape, and assault to wardship, debt, sale of land or horses (!), default of service, inheritance, and — of course — High Treason.  

In at least three recorded incidents, the High Court of Jerusalem effectively opposed an attempt by the ruling king to dispossess one of their members. In 1193, Henri de Champagne, consort of Isabella I of Jerusalem, accused Aimery de Lusignan of abetting his brother Guy (the deposed King of Jerusalem) in a plot to over throw him. He arrested Aimery, but was forced to release him by the High Court of Jerusalem. Aimery was persuaded (one presumes by the High Court) to resign his post as Constable of Jerusalem and join his brother on Cyprus. Notably, just five years later, the High Court would elect Aimery their king by selecting him as Queen Isabella’s last husband after the tragic death of Henri de Champagne.

As king, however, Aimery made the same mistake as his predecessor: he disposed Ralph of Tiberius on charges of treason, only to run into the refusal of the High Court to accept his judgement. In fact, the Lord of Beirut (John d’Ibelin, eldest son of Balian d’Ibelin) refused feudal service and was joined by other barons in an act of passive rebellion until Ralph was restored to his fief.

The most dramatic instance in which the High Court effectively opposed the despotism of a monarch was, however, in the baronial revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II led by John d'Ibelin — but that is material for another entry.

The High Court plays a role in my biographical novel about Balian d’Ibelin, particularly in books II and III:

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Friday, May 20, 2016

The Conquest of Cyprus II: Calculation and Politics

Cypriot Landscape

There is no historical evidence that Richard Lionheart planned to conquer the Byzantine island of Cyprus when he set out on the Third Crusade. On the contrary, every indication suggests that he was intent upon reaching the Holy Land as expeditiously as possible and re-capturing Jerusalem for Christendom. Had there been no storm, he would have proceeded, as his fellow-crusader Philip II of France had done, without interruption all the way to Tyre/Acre. Only chance scattered his fleet, wrecked some of his ships on the shores of Cyprus and left his fianc√© and sister stranded there.  Yet even that would not have resulted in a conquest had the ruler of Cyprus, the self-styled Emperor Isaac Comnenus, acted hospitably to Richard’s ship-wrecked men and ladies. Instead, Isaac plundered the ships, imprisoned the survivors, threatened the royal women, and insulted Richard himself (see The Conquest of Cyprus I: Chance and Passion). Richard’s response was to teach the Byzantine tyrant a lesson, which he did by storming ashore, capturing Limassol and then scattering Isaac’s army in a dawn attack. It all would have ended there if only Isaac had been willing to come on crusade with Richard. Instead he fled to the interior.

Richard responded not with rage but with hard-headed rationality. It was at this point that he appears to have conceived the plan of taking -- and holding -- Cyprus for the crusaders. He rapidly developed and executed a well-crafted strategic plan that made effective use of his large crusader force and fleet. First, he divided his army into three parts. He sent troops under the command of Guy de Lusignan to pursue and if possible capture Isaac (who had landed on the island from the siege at Acre to beg Richard to join the siege in all haste). He sent part of his fleet to the west, and took the bulk of the fleet eastward. Both parts of the fleet secured ports and castles along the coast as they advanced.

The latter continued to be easy and bloodless due to the unpopularity Isaac. Even before he left Limassol, Richard had been receiving homage from many of the local elite, most notably the Italian merchants. But it wasn’t only the foreigners that evidently welcomed Richard. Many of the Byzantine nobility also appeared to prefer Richard to Isaac — perhaps because they believed he would not stay long and they would soon have the island to themselves.

Another Cypriot Landscape

Meanwhile, at Famagusta Richard disembarked his troops and advanced toward the inland city of Nicosia. Expecting an ambush, Richard personally commanded the rear-guard of his army. Isaac obliged, attacked and the Greek despot's army was handily defeated yet again by Richard’s superior troops and leadership. Isaac himself, however, escaped as he had on all the previous occasions, and this time he fled to the one of the nearly impregnable mountain fortresses, either Kantara or Buffavento.

These castles, perched on the top of a steep, rocky mountain ridge so narrow that it was not possible to build courtyards or wide halls, could be held with very small garrisons. Attackers had to climb near vertical slopes to reach them, continuously under fire from the defenders — or starve the defenders out with a siege. While a siege was by far the more rational military solution, sieges take time, and that was what Richard of England did not have. Isaac Comnenus clearly expected Richard to give up, continue with his crusade, and leave him to re-take his island at leisure. 

Mountain Fortress of St. Hilarion
He might even have gotten away with it, if Richard’s fleet (the part that had sailed west and reached the norther shore of the island) had not in combination with the forces under Guy de Lusignan captured the coastal city and castle of Kyrenia.  (This is, as far as I can see the one and only time Guy de Lusignan ever did anything useful for the cause of the Holy Land!) As chance would have it, Isaac’s only child, a girl, was in Kyrenia.

The girl has remained nameless throughout history, referred to only as the “Maid of Cyprus” or as her father’s daughter. Fortunately for the crusader cause, her father, despite all his other faults, loved her. He loved her so much that despite his comparatively secure position in an all-but-unassailable castle, he abjectly surrendered on June 1. Isaac set only one condition: that he not be put in irons. According to legend, Richard of England agreed, only to have fetters made for him of silver.

If Isaac’s hope had been that surrender would enable him to be reunited with his daughter, it was a short-lived reunion. Isaac was handed over to the Hospitallers, who kept him in a dungeon in Marqub (Syria) until 1193 or 1194. The year after his release he was allegedly poisoned for trying to incite the Sultan of Konya to attack the Byzantine Empire. He was dead by 1196. As for his daughter, she was turned over to the care of Richard’s bride and sister and sailed with them first to Palestine and later to Europe. She was used (just like his sister Joanna) as a diplomatic pawn by Richard, and eventually married to an illegitimate son of the Count of Flanders. (During the Fourth Crusade the couple tried to lay claim to Cyprus, but were rapidly sent packing without anyone taking them seriously.)

Thus, in less than a month and with the loss of only two men (according to the contemporary sources), Richard the Lionheart had taken complete control of the rich and strategically important island of Cyprus.   The port of Famagusta is only 118 miles from Tripoli, the closest of the crusader cities, and just 165 miles from Acre.  On a clear day, it is possible to see the coast of Lebanon from Cyprus. Furthermore, Cyprus was a fertile island capable of producing grain, sugar, olives, wine and citrus fruits in abundance.  Its location made it an ideal staging place for future crusades and a strong base for ships to interdict any Saracen fleets intent on preying on the coast of the Levant. Cyrpus was thus both a bread-basket and a military base for the existing crusader states.

Ruins of a 13th Century Sugar Mill at Kolosi, Cyprus
Richard of England profited immensely from his conquest. In addition to the plunder he took on the battlefield (that included rich tents, gold plate and armor according to tradition) he had also captured Isaac Comnenus’ treasury. Furthermore, he extracted a tax from the lords and burghers of Cyprus to support his crusade. All this replenished his coffers and enabled him to pursue the war for Jerusalem with sufficient resources to pay the men and purchase the materiel he needed. 

Richard was not, however, interested in retaining control of the island indefinitely. It was too far from home (Aquitaine). That Richard’s goal in capturing Cyprus was purely strategic, not dynastic. Rather than holding it for himself, he instead sold the island (thereby further strengthening his financial position) to the Knights Templar for 100,000 pieces of gold. What happened next will have to be the subject of a later entry.

The capture of Cyprus is described tangentially in Envoy of Jerusalem, the setting of my novel St. Louis' Knight. 

                     A crusader in search of faith

                     A lame lady in search of revenge

                     And a king who would be saint.

      St. Louis' Knight takes you to the Holy Land in  the 13th century, and a world filled with knights, nobles, prophets -- and assassins.