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Monday, January 18, 2021

The Remarkable Career of John de Brienne - Part II - A Disappointing King

 Today I continue my three-part biography of the remarkable career of John de Brienne. Born the younger son of a minor French count, he rose to be not only King of Jerusalem but Emperor of Constantinople as well. Today’s entry focuses on his years as King of Jerusalem, 1209 – 1225, including his role in the Fifth Crusade based primarily upon Guy Perry’s biography published in 2013.[1]

In 1210, after more than a year of recruiting, John de Brienne arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem with an entourage estimated at 300 knights and an unknown number of squires, sergeants, and archers. Although not insignificant, this was not a vast crusading army likely to tip the balance of power in favor of the Christians even for a temporary time.  From the start, therefore, John was something of a disappointment to his subjects in Outremer

Whether he was also a disappointment to his bride, the 18-year-old Marie de Montferrat, daughter of Queen Isabella by her second husband Conrad de Montferrat, is unknown.  There is no reason to assume, however, that the successful tournament champion now in his early 30s should have been displeasing to her.  He came from the heartland of chivalry, Champagne, and was himself a writer of poetry and song. The couple was crowned jointly in Tyre ― and the Saracens immediately took advantage of most of the barons being assembled there to attempt an attack on Acre.

Although the (unnamed) barons remaining in Acre effectively repelled the attack and sent the Saracens back where they came from, the raid nevertheless did much damage and it was an inauspicious start to John’s reign.  He retaliated with a chevauchée (cavalry raid) of his own. Yet while this did some damage and the participants returned loaded with loot, they achieved no lasting benefit for the kingdom. John next attempted to strike at Egypt with a sea-borne expedition into the Nile delta but did not have sufficient force to do more than moderate damage to secondary targets. The Ayybids rapidly concluded that John de Brienne was no Richard the Lionheart and was unlikely to do them serious harm. Instead of seeking terms, they brazenly began construction of fortifications on Mount Tabor.  These commanding  heights threatened Nazareth, which the Christians had recovered only in 1204.  

Meanwhile, John’s small host of crusaders had fulfilled their vows and returned home to France. John had little choice but to conclude a new six year truce with the Saracens without any territorial gains ― the first time a treaty without gain had been concluded since the Third Crusade. There can be little doubt that many in John’s new kingdom were less than impressed by his performance.

All might have been forgiven, however, had he at least done his dynastic duty and produced a male heir. Instead, in November 1212 Queen Marie gave birth to a daughter and died shortly afterward. This left the kingdom with an infant, female heir ― the worst possible scenario. It also produced a constitutional crisis.

As king-consort, John’s right to the throne of Jerusalem was derived through his wife. Already in 1190-1192, the precedent had been set that the consort of a ruling queen did not retain his position after her death. Thus, Guy de Lusignan, the widower of Queen Sibylla, had been supplanted by Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella. Although Guy was deposed in 1192 by the High Court of Jerusalem, he personally refused to accept the decision and died still calling himself King of Jerusalem. John, unsurprisingly, took Guy’s stance of insisting that he had been crowned and anointed for life ― or at least until his infant daughter came of age and married.  

His daughter was his trump, making the situation similar yet different from Lusignan's. Guy’s daughters had died at the same time his wife Queen Sibylla, leaving him no claim to even a regency. John, who called himself “Count” of Brienne as long as the rightful heir remained a minor, argued that he was still “King” of Jerusalem as long as his daughter was a minor.  The argument won over the majority of the barons of his kingdom, with the notable exception of the former regent of the kingdom, John d’Ibelin, and some of his family and followers.

Ibelin opposition to John de Brienne remaining king may have been based on principle. John d'Ibelin was famous for his understanding of the law. His legal opinion was highly respected and sought after in court cases. In fact, according to the famous legal scholar of the 13th century, Philip de Novare, Ibelin’s legal views were widely considered definitive.  Furthermore, his parents had been the chief opponents of Guy de Lusignan, when he had claimed the crown after the death of Queen Sibylla.  However, the elder Ibelin’s opposition to Lusignan had as much to do with Lusignan’s demonstrated military incompetence (he had been the engineer of the devastating and unnecessary catastrophe at Hattin) as any legal considerations.  Furthermore, Ibelin opposition to Guy de Lusignan in 1190 was also a function of the fact that Balian d’Ibelin was step-father to the rightful heir to the throne, Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella. In short, Ibelin stood to gain significantly by Isabella’s coronation at Guy’s expense.

John d’Ibelin’s opposition to John de Brienne’s claim to remain king may have paralleled his father’s opposition to Guy de Lusignan. On the one hand, there was the legal precedent of Guy’s deposition, but more important was Brienne’s disappointing (albeit hardly disastrous) military record and ― most significantly ― Ibelin’s displacement in the ruling councils of the kingdom by Brienne’s own family, friends, and clients. After all, there was no doubt that Brienne’s daughter, the infant Isabella (or Yolanda), was the rightful heir to the kingdom. It was, furthermore, common (although not inevitable) for a minor’s closest relative, male or female, to serve as regent. In this case, that closest relative was John de Brienne. In short, Ibelin opposition was almost certainly more about self-interest than legal technicalities.

Yet while Brienne won the first round and remained King of Jerusalem, he was conscious of his vulnerability and moved rapidly to secure an alternative to Jerusalem through marriage to Stephanie of Armenia, the eldest daughter of the ruling King Leo.  This gave John a plausible claim to the crown of Armenia since Leo had no sons. At the same time, he appears to have supported, possibly even encouraged, attempts by his nephew Erard de Brienne to lay claim to the County of Champagne by right of his wife, Philippa of Champagne.  The story is too complex for this short essay, but it appears indicative of John’s ambition and efforts to ensure he had family in high places.

Meanwhile, Pope Innnocent III was actively advocating for a new crusade which was to regain Jerusalem by putting pressure on the Sultan of Egypt. By now Frederick II Hohenstaufen had come of age and dramatically taken the cross, so there was a general expectation that he would lead this crusade and put the full financial and military power of the Holy Roman Empire behind it.  As it turned out, however, Frederick was a rather reluctant crusader, easily distracted by other matters. He repeatedly postponed crusading for what would turn out to be fifteen years.  Instead, he sent others to do his fighting for him, and so the crusade, numbered by historians centuries later as the “Fifth,” was launched without him in 1217.

The first phase of this crusade took place in Syria, not Egypt, with a raid largely intended not to regain territory, but rather to capture much-needed supplies and foodstuffs to support the influx of crusaders that the Kingdom itself could not sustain.  The exception was an attack on the Saracen fortifications on Mount Tabor.  John de Brienne led this successful attack with great élan, something that added greatly to his prestige.  Yet, he abandoned the position almost at once, apparently convinced it was too vulnerable to hold. This, in turn, tarnished a reputation that had only just begun to gleam.

Back in Acre, several leading crusaders, notably King Andrew of Hungary, King Hugh of Cyprus and the Prince of Antioch, abandoned the crusade altogether. It was thus not until mid-2018 that enough men and troops had arrived from the West for the crusade to begin in earnest. The crusaders embarked on a siege of the Egyptian city of Damietta. After a year and a half, in late 2019, the crusaders finally captured the city, and John de Brienne succeeded in being recognized as “King” in Damietta, i.e. it was recognized that any territorial gains in Egypt would be accorded to the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the individual leaders fighting in the crusade. 

More important, the crusader capture of Damietta induced the Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil to offer the restoration of all territory that had once been part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in exchange for the crusader evacuation of Damietta. To Brienne’s credit, he favored acceptance of this offer. He was supported by the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights, but over-ruled by the other crusade leaders, most notably the papal legate Pelagius and Frederick II’s deputy/representative the Duke of Bavaria. The decision revealed all too clearly that the “King” of Jerusalem was not taken all too seriously by either the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. On the contrary, they (or their representatives) were “calling the shots” and Brienne’s place was to take orders -- and risk life and limb while watching not only the crusade fail but also all hopes for a viable Kingdom of Jerusalem sink in the mud of the Nile with it.

To be sure, Brienne’s reputation as a valorous knight and brave tactical commander was bolstered by his military leadership during the crusade. It did not hurt that, in retrospect, people recognized his wisdom in advising against the disastrous march on Cairo. Yet the fact remained that his name was associated with yet another failed military campaign.

Nor did it help that in 1220, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, his Armenian wife and his son by her died.  His hopes for a crown in Armenia died with them just at a time when the Ayyubids, to try to ease the pressure of the crusade on the Nile, struck at the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In a devastating raid, Saracen forces destroyed the coastal city of Caesarea and were soon threatening the Templar’s new stronghold at Athlit. The Templars and many barons and knights abandoned the crusade in Egypt to hasten back to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and repulse the threat. To top it all off, it was at exactly this time that Brienne’s nephew Walter IV came of age, and John lost his title of Count of Brienne as well.

To Brienne’s credit, he did not despair.  Instead, he undertook renewed efforts to bring to his beleaguered kingdom the necessary financial and military resources that would enable it to beat back its enemies and re-establish a viable kingdom.  He was to successfully enlist the support of the most powerful Christian monarch of his age ― with disastrous consequences for his own position ― but that is the story for next week’s entry.

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:



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