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Monday, January 25, 2021

The Remarkable Career of John de Brienne - Part III - Emperor in Constantinople

 As the 13th-century historian, philosopher and jurist Philip of Novare worded it, “A good knight, by the fame of his valour and by his effort, has frequently come to great riches and acquisitions. And many of them have been crowned kings, and others have had great riches and lordships.”[1] No career was more spectacular than that of John de Brienne, the younger son of a minor French count, who rose to be not only King of Jerusalem but Emperor of Constantinople as well. Today I conclude my three-part series on his life.

With the collapse of the Fifth Crusade in humiliating defeat, most of the survivors could return home and forswear crusading altogether, if they wished. John de Brienne, however, King of Jerusalem, did not have that option. His kingdom was more vulnerable than ever before, now that the Ayyubids had every reason to question the efficacy of Christian arms. John was in his late forties, a widower for the second time, and his only surviving child was his little girl by Marie de Montferrat, Yolanda/Isabella, who was now ten years old.

Rather than returning to his kingdom and daughter, however, John de Brienne embarked on an expansive “tour” of Western Europe intended to raise funds, troops, and support for a new crusade to rescue his beleaguered kingdom. Between 1223 and 1225, Brienne traveled to Flanders and England, to Metz and Cologne, across northern Italy and down into what is now Spain.  

In the latter, he visited the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostella, but more important contracted a third marriage, this time to Berengaria of Castile, the daughter of Alfonso IX. The couple was married in Toledo in May 1224. Berengaria had the advantage of being a niece of the Queen Blanch of France, thereby strengthening Brienne’s ties with the French monarchy.

Yet the more important marriage that Brienne arranged during the first three years following the end of the Fifth Crusade was that between his daughter Yolanda, the heiress of Jerusalem, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. It is unclear where the idea of Frederick II marrying the future queen of Jerusalem originated. Pierre Boulle, one of Frederick II’s biographers, suggests it was the Pope’s idea. Another possible father for the idea is Herman von Salza, the tireless and diplomatically gifted, Master of the Teutonic Knights. Or, the idea might have originated with Brienne himself. In any case, the idea had the obvious advantage of giving Frederick II a material interest in finally fulfilling his multiple crusade vows. Brienne, the Pope, and the Masters of the military orders all hoped that if Frederick were to marry the heiress of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he would finally do something to shore it up.

Although historians presume there was a marriage contract negotiated by Herman von Salza, no copy has survived into our own time. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that Frederick II agreed to allow John de Brienne to retain the title, dignity, revenues, and functions of King of Jerusalem for his lifetime. The marriage was celebrated in Acre by proxy (the Archbishop of Capua standing in for the absent Emperor) in the summer of 1225. At the time Yolanda was only twelve-years-old, this being the legal age of consent for girls.  The proxy wedding was followed by Yolanda’s coronation at Tyre, before she boarded a ship, accompanied by leading barons of her kingdom, and sailed for Brindisi.  On November 9, 1225 (still possibly short of her thirteenth birthday), Yolanda married Frederick II in person ― and the very next day Frederick demanded homage from the knights and barons of Jerusalem that had accompanied his wife to Brindisi. There can be no question that Brienne himself ― but also the Pope and Salza ― all believed that Frederick’s actions were in violation of the terms they had negotiated.

What he had promised during the negotiations interested Frederick II (who liked to call himself the “Wonder of the World”) not one iota. The knights and barons of Jerusalem, moreover, were all too ready to swap the ineffective and impoverished Brienne for the powerful and wealthy Holy Roman Emperor. All those present did homage as demanded. They lived to regret it.

Despite the marriage, Frederick still failed to fulfill his crusading vow by the agreed date of Sept. 1227.  To be sure, he made the attempt, but much of his army and leading commanders were struck down by illness. The Emperor himself became so sick after setting sail that he returned to Apulia. The Pope, now Gregory IX, promptly excommunicated him for failing (yet again) to fulfill his vows. 

Frederick was unimpressed and set about raising a new army. Meanwhile, according to various chronicles (admittedly hostile to Frederick), the Emperor abused his bride. On the one hand, he was said to neglect her for his harem slaves or other women, and on the other is said to have beaten her so severely that she lost, or nearly lost, a child.  She certainly did lose her first child, but since she was at most 14 at the time, abuse may have had nothing to do with it. Equally certain, she died in May 1228 just ten days later after giving birth to a son when she was still only 15 years of age. 

Frederick was now in exactly the same situation that Brienne had been at the death of his wife Queen Marie. Like Brienne, he blithely insisted that he remained King of Jerusalem, although the tie that bound him to Jerusalem was dead. Naturally, he could ― like Brienne ― claim to rule for his infant son, the heir to the crown, but ― again like Brienne ― he claimed more, until the day he died he insisted on the title and dignity of King of Jerusalem. He did not do so without opposition. John d’Ibelin would oppose him in this, just as he had opposed Brienne, and far more successfully, but that will have to be the subject of a separate entry.

For Brienne, of course, the loss of his daughter was not material; he claimed the crown because he had been crowned and anointed, just as Guy de Lusignan had done before him and Emperor Frederick was doing too.  Brienne was fortunate to have a powerful patron in the pope.

Pope Honorius was at loggerheads with the Holy Roman Emperor over a variety of issues that far exceed the parameters of this essay. It is enough to say that in his struggle with Frederick II, Brienne was a useful tool. Brienne had already allied himself with the Lombard League, the northern Italian cities then in revolt against Frederick’s rule. Brienne evidently enjoyed much respect and sympathy among the Lombards.  Honorius clearly wanted to keep Brienne on hand and on his side, so he furnished Brienne with substantial income by appointing him “rector” in the papal state of Tuscany. Honorius was succeeded as pope by Gregory IX, an even more inveterate opponent of the Hohenstaufen.  He immediately confirmed Brienne in this position as rector and then turned to him as an experienced military commander to lead (among others) papal forces directed at the Frederick II’s Kingdom of Sicily.

Frederick himself had set off on his much-postponed crusade despite being excommunicate and despite the fact that Pope Gregory expressly forbade him from setting out. (The Pope called Frederick’s expedition to the Holy Land an “anti-crusade.”) Frederick took only a few troops with him, but many scholars, archbishops, and harem slaves. He conducted no military operations against the Saracen, preferring to attack his barons on Cyprus and the Knights Templar in the heart of Acre. Secretly he begged the Sultan al-Kamil for terms that would restore Jerusalem to Christian hands, without consulting any of his allies.  Although he ultimately succeeded in obtaining a ten-year truce that included restoration of Jerusalem and some other territory, his treaty with al-Kamil had many flaws (as I will show in a future entry). All this took time, however, and while he was away, Pope Gregory’s army assaulted his holdings in southern Italy.

The papal war against the Frederick has gone down in history as the “War of the Keys” because papal forces used the papal keys as their insignia. The forces fighting for the pope were commanded by not only John de Brienne but also Cardinal Pelagius (of Fifth Crusade ill-repute) and Cardinal Colonna. Together, they initially enjoyed significant successes, but these were built on sand: Frederick’s absence.  As soon as the Emperor returned from the Holy Land, landing at Brindisi on June 10, 1229, rebellious cities and lords got cold feet. They soon abandoned their rebellion or the papal cause, depending on how you look at it. 

This defeat was not nearly as devastating for Brienne as it may seem on the surface. This is because roughly six months before Frederick’s return from the Holy Land and the collapse of the “War of the Keys,” Brienne had been offered the Imperial crown of Constantinople, the Latin empire built (precariously) upon the foundations of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) that had fallen to Latin mercenaries after the capture of Constantinople in 1204.

Without getting into too much detail, the throne in Constantinople had fallen vacant following the death of Emperor Robert of Courtenay in 1228. His heir was his younger brother Baldwin, who was only 11 years old at the time. With the Latin empire under threat from resurgent Greeks under both John III Doukas Vatazes and Theodore of Epiros, the barons did not want to wait for Baldwin to grow up. They wanted a tried military leader now

Unfortunately for them, Constantinople did not have the emotional appeal of Jerusalem. Many knights and barons continued to view the conquest of Constantinople as scandalous or even sinful. Many men who were prepared to risk life, limb, and fortune to secure the Holy Land, were completely disinterested in Constantinople. In short, there were no great kings or barons willing to give up their secure hereditary lands in the West for a throne that was already tottering on the brink of collapse.  Brienne, on the other hand, had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Before setting out for Constantinople, however, Brienne negotiated terms that, “reflect the fact that he was now in a much stronger position, vis-à-vis desperate Latin Constantinople, than he had been two decades earlier when negotiating for the throne of Jerusalem. He seems to have refused to accept a mere regency for young Baldwin de Courtenay. Instead, it was agreed that John would become sole emperor (not co-emperor, as is still sometimes said).”[1] Brienne was to be Baldwin’s guardian until the latter came of age, after which Baldwin was to swear fealty to Brienne until Brienne’s death. He would then succeed Brienne. Meanwhile, Baldwin was to marry Brienne’s daughter Mary and be invested with all territory of the empire in Asia Minor ― just as soon as somebody had conquered it again. Brienne’s sons were also to be provided for from territories of his new empire, which for all its weakness still theoretically stretched from the Balkans deep into what is now Turkey.

So Brienne once again went recruiting for the men and money to defend the throne to which he had been elected. He received strong support from the Venetians, who were largely responsible for the creation of Latin empire in Greece and offered very generous terms for the transport of Brienne’s army (in contrast to the debacle of 1204). It is an indication of Brienne’s greater prestige after two decades in the international arena that he was able to muster a significantly larger force for his move to Constantinople than he had been able to pull together for his arrival in Jerusalem. The transport treaty with Venice suggests he brought 500 knights, 1,200 horses, and 5,000 infantry. Yet, in the end, it was not nearly enough.

The challenge Brienne faced in Constantinople was considerably greater than what he had confronted in Jerusalem. The Latin empire was flanked by hostile, Christian powers, and ruled over a population that was at best indifferent to the Frankish elite. Unlike in Jerusalem, the native Orthodox population had not invited the Franks in and did not see them as an improvement over what had been before. The “enemy,” particularly the Greeks rallying around John III Doukas Vatatzes, was widely perceived as more legitimate than the Frankish rulers. Furthermore, while the Ayyubids had been divided among themselves and fighting each other as often as they fought the Franks, shortly after Brienne arrived in Constantinople, the Vlach-Bulgar kingdom switched alliances and started supporting the Orthodox Byzantines rather than the Latin Franks.

In 1235, four years into Brienne’s reign, the Byzantines and Bulgars jointly attacked the Latin Empire. They rapidly eliminated the Latin outposts in Asia Minor and in Thrace and the combined forces appeared before Constantinople. They had sufficient force to attack in two places at once, and the strategy appeared to be to attack in one place, draw the defenders to that part of the wall, and then launch a second attack somewhere else. Brienne responded with cavalry sallies that evidently astonished and disrupted the besiegers, but meanwhile, the native population within the city was far from trustworthy, adding another dimension of danger.  Fortunately, the timely arrival of a fleet of ships from Venice broke the coordinated attacks of the enemy by destroying 24 Greek ships and putting the rest to flight.

The Venetians docked in triumph, celebrated their victory, and sailed for home. The enemy returned, renewing the siege of Constantinople through the winter of 1235-1236. Having received a “bloody nose” in the earlier assaults, however, the combined Byzantine-Bulgar army now attempted to force surrender through siege alone. Brienne managed to get word to Rome of his dire situation ― and the West rallied.

In a rare instance of self-interest over-riding rivalries, the Venetians, Pisans, and Genoese jointly rallied to the defense of Constantinople.  Equally important, the  Frankish Prince of Achaea (essentially the Peloponnese) likewise brought up troops to relieve Constantinople. As the prospects of success dimmed, the Bulgars abandoned the Byzantines, seeking reconciliation with Rome via envoys.  The Byzantines, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the siege on their own, likewise withdrew.

Brienne had won a surprising victory against overwhelming forces, but his Empire was no stronger than it had been before. Indeed, it had been weakened by the year-long siege. It was clearly just a matter of time before the next assault would be made by the Byzantines that would never accept a Latin Constantinople.  But Brienne had run out of time. In mid-March (the exact date is unknown), John de Brienne, Emperor of Constantinople and former King of Jerusalem, died in Constantinople.  His young wife died within weeks of him, leading historians to speculate that he died of some siege-related illness, (siege conditions often lead to the spread of various communicable diseases). He was survived by three sons and a daughter, all the children of his third wife. 

[1] Perry, Guy. John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Emperor of Constantinople, c. 1175-1237. Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 151.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Find out more at:



1 comment:

  1. Ahhh, back-stabbing politics at its finest! It makes for great history and is fantastic fodder for stories! Woot!


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