The fortunes of the 13th-century Ibelins had their roots in a single fact: Balian d'Ibelin, although only the landless, third son of a local baron, married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. This made the children of that marriage, the siblings of royalty, namely Maria's daughter by King Amalric of Jerusalem. It was the blood ties to royalty that gave the next generation of Ibelins the right to act as regents in both Cyprus and Jerusalem. Over the next few weeks, I will provide short biographies of the two of the leading historical figures in the thirteenth century from the House of Ibelin: John and Balian of Beirut.
Today, however, I take a closer look at what we know -- and don't know -- about that all-important marriage of Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena.
Let me start by saying, there is no contemporary source that describes or explains the marriage. In fact, and more striking, there is no commentary on the marriage despite the fact that we have two contemporary sources both of which were well-placed to know about the background of the marriage: William of Tyre’s history and the Chronicle of Ernoul written by Balian’s own squire.
What we do know is that Maria Comnena could NOT be forced into a second marriage by anyone. It was against the law and custom of the kingdom to force any widow into a second marriage. As Peter Edbury summarizes in his detailed essay on “Women and the Customs of the High Court of Jerusalem” [Law and History in the Latin East, Ashgate Variorum, 2014, p. 288]
...whereas lords could control the marriage of heiresses, they had no such control over widows who were not heiresses but held dower.
This was exactly the case for Maria Comnena as Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. In Maria’s case, her position to resist unwanted suitors was particularly strong because 1) Nablus was an extremely wealthy lordship owing 85 knights to the feudal levee, which made her rich and powerful enough to resist any unwanted attention, and 2) as Byzantine Princess any marriage beneath her dignity or against her wishes would have offended the powerful Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. In short, Balian d’Ibelin was her choice for second husband.
But why might she have chosen him?
Not for his wealth or power. Balian appears to have been landless (which means without wealth, men or power) at the time of their marriage in late 1177. However, this is not 100% certain. The laws of the Kingdom tried to prevent any lord from holding multiple fiefs. Balian’s oldest brother Hugh had been Lord of Ibelin, his second brother Baldwin was Lord of Ramla & Mirabel (a single lordship despite the double-barrelled name). It is possible, therefore, that Balian had already inherited Ibelin on the death of his brother Hugh, who died childless in or about 1171, while his older brother inherited the larger and more important maternal lands and title of Ramla.
On the other hand, he is not referred to as Lord of Ibelin by William of Tyre at any time. Tyre notes only the following:
When the fortress [of Ibelin] was finished and complete in every detail, it was by common consent committed to a certain nobleman of great wisdom, Balian the Elder. He was the father of Hugh, Baldwin and Balian the Younger, all of whom took the surname Ibelin from this place…After the death of their father, his sons, noble men, valiant in arms and vigilant in every respect, maintained the same careful custody over [the castle of Ibelin] until the city of Ascalon was finally restored to the Christian faith. [A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, Vol 2. Book 15, Chpt. 24]
Note, Tyre explicitly says Ibelin was a surname, not a title.
Furthermore, in two other references to Balian (the Younger) Archbishop William of Tyre refers to Balian only as the brother of Baldwin, Lord of Ramla, not giving him a title in his own right. Namely, when speaking of his prominent role at the Battle of Montgisard [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 21, Chpt. 22] and when speaking of the coronation of Baldwin V [Tyre, Vol 2, Book 22, Chpt. 29]. In Tyre’s only other mention of Balian, during the campaign of 1183, he refers to him as “Balian of Nablus,” which, as we will see, was his wife’s title.
William of Tyre, who was chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this time, says the following about Balian’s marriage:
About the same time [as the Count of Flanders and his crusaders headed north to the County of Tripoli to undertake an operation against the Sultan of Damascus] Balian d’Ibelin, the brother of Baldwin of Ramlah, with the king’s consent espoused Queen Maria, widow of King Amaury and daughter of John the protosebastos, so often referred to above. With Maria, Balian received the city of Nablus, which had been given her under the name of jointure at the time of her marriage and which he was to hold during the life of his wife. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 21, Chpt. 18.]
It seems to me that had Balian held any lordship at the time of this marriage, he would have been referred to by his title and not merely as “the brother of Baldwin of Ramla.”
What is also striking about Tyre’s reference to the marriage is that he expresses neither surprise nor disapproval, but is careful to note that the marriage occurred with the king’s explicit consent. In contrast, Tyre is very critical of Constance of Antioch’s marriage to Reynald de Chatillon writing:
Many there were, however, who marveled that a woman so eminent, so distinguished and powerful, who had been the wife of a very illustrious man, should stoop to marry an ordinary knight. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 17, Chpt. 26]
Likewise, Tyre is not afraid to criticize even his patron the king with respect to Sibylla’s marriage to Guy de Lusignan, writing:
But without waiting to consider that ‘too much haste spoils everything,’ the king, for reasons of his own, suddenly married his sister to a young man of fairly good rank, Guy de Lusignan…Contrary to the usual custom the marriage was celebrated during the week of Easter. [Tyre, Vol. 2, Book 22, Chpt .1]
In short, Tyre felt that Constance married beneath herself and Sibylla married in obvious haste for hidden reasons — which might very well include hiding a scandalous, illicit affair. The contrast between these two passages and Tyre’s description of Balian’s marriage to Maria Comnena makes it clear that despite his lack of land and title, Balian was not considered an unsuitable match for the Dowager Queen.
This still does not answer the question of why or how Balian could have convinced not only Maria herself, but the king and chancellor (Tyre) of his suitability. Presumably, he might have seduced or at least courted Maria into agreement, but that was less likely to earn him the approval of the king, much less the Archbishop of Tyre.
There is, however, one other possible explanation of how Balian d’Ibelin won favor with the king and his chancellor at this point in time. According to Tyre, the marriage took place after the Count of Flanders had headed north in 1177. Very shortly after Flanders went north with 100 knights of the Kingdom, the Knights Hospitaller and many Templars, Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. Baldwin IV rushed to the defense of his realm with just some 376 knights, including 80 Templars. Only five knights are listed by name: the king’s uncle the titular Count of Edessa, the lords of Sidon, Transjordan and “Baldwin of Ramlah and his brother Balian.” On November 25, Baldwin IV’s small force shattered and scattered Saladin’s much more numerous army, forcing Saladin himself to flee on a pack camel.
Despite attempts by Chatillon’s admirers to make him the hero of this dramatic Christian victory, Tyre attributes no particular role to the Lord of Transjordan. Arab sources, which highlight Chatillon, are unreliable in this case because they were justifying Chatillon’s execution ex post facto by stressing the many ways in which he had harmed Islam. Likewise, Chatillon's earlier appointment as Baldwin's deputy for the campaign in Egypt is relevant to the battle of Montgisard because any such appointment is automatically null and void the moment the king himself is present -- as he was at Montgisard.
Furthermore, Michael Ehrlich’s excellent analysis of the battle based on all available sources concludes that the victory at Montgisard was not won because of Saladin’s mistakes so much as by effective Frankish leadership. That leadership came not from Chatillon, who was operating outside his own lordship, but from the “local lord” who knew the terrain best. Ehrlich writes:
It is not clear to what extent Saladin knew the terrain, yet it is clear that [King] Baldwin knew it much better and he thus succeeded in maneuvering Saladin to the place he wanted: a marshy area surrounded by dense hydrophilic flora…In these conditions numerical superiority became a burden rather than an advantage. It demanded additional efforts to maneuver the trapped army, which fell into total chaos. Led by a local lord, who certainly knew the terrain better than anybody else on the battlefield, the Frankish army managed to defeat the Muslim army…. [Michael Ehrlich, “Saint Catherine’s Day Miracle - the Battle of Montgisard,” in Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. XI, 2013, pp. 95–105]
There were two local “lords” present at Montgisard, both men who had grown up nearby and spent all their adult lives in the defense of this region: Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin. The customs of the kingdom gave command of the vanguard to the lord of the territory in which a battle was fought. In this case, that was clearly Baldwin, Baron of Ramla.
We will never know, but I hypothesize that Balian’s role either in advising the king or in the course of the battle was sufficiently prominent and meritorious to “earn” him the approval of the king and chancellor — and apparently the rest of his contemporaries, since we hear of no complaints from other sides — for his marriage to Maria Comnena.
Ehrlich’s article is just one of many sources that came to my attention since the publication of Knight of Jerusalem. Continued, in-depth research in preparation for the release of my non-fiction study of the crusader states with Pen & Sword had resulted in new insights and understanding of Balian and his environment, inducing me to undertake a major revision of Knight of Jerusalem. The new edition will be released later this year. Meanwhile, the current edition remains on the market as part of the Jerusalem Trilogy: