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Monday, May 31, 2021

The Sieges of St. Hilarion and Kantara 1229

 On July 14, 1229, an army led by the Lord of Beirut routed the mercenaries and feudal levees of the five Imperial Baillies of Cyprus. The battle brought to a dramatic end the misrule of Emperor Frederick II's minions. Yet all five Baillies not only survived the battle but fled to safety in three of Cyprus' great castles.  Most significantly, three of the Baillies took refuge in the impregnable fortress St. Hilarion -- and they had the young King of Cyprus, Henry, with them. While the Imperial Baillies held out in the hope of Imperial relief, the Lord of Beirut was forced to lay siege to a castle containing his king -- prima facie an act of treason. Today I look at the course and consequences of that fateful siege.

The Castle of Kantara seen from below. Photo by the author.
Following the Battle of Nicosia, one of the Emperor's Baillies, William de Rivet, sought refuge in the port castle at Kyrenia but surrendered the castle and left Cyprus when no Imperial aid arrived within a specified date. Another of the Baillies, Sir Gauvain de Cheneche, managed to reach the castle of Kantara at the southern tip of the mountain range that parallels the north coast of Cyprus. Here he put up a spirited defense. The castle was besieged by Sir Anseau de Brie, an ardent supporter of the Ibelins. 

The latter built a trebuchet that, allegedly "battered down nearly all the walls," without inducing surrender because the bedrock on and into which the castle was built defied destruction. Meanwhile, multiple attempts to assault the castle were successfully repulsed and sorties from the castle defeated. However, Brie was joined by the Lord of Caesarea, whose father had been killed at the Battle of Nicosia, allegedly by Sir Gauvain de Cheneche. Caeasrea brought a "sharp-shooter," a cross-bowman, who he charged with killing Cheneche.  One presumes the archer received a handsome reward because he was successful. Although Cheneche's stepbrother assumed command of the defense of Kantara, morale was shaken and supplies soon ran low. After ten months, the new commander Sir Philip de Chenard surrendered Kantara to Brie and Caesarea. 

The siege of Kantara is notable too for the recorded deployment of "psychological warfare." One of the adherents of Ibelin, the historian, philosopher, and legal scholar Philip de Novare, wrote satirical verses deriding the defenders of Kantara and sang them outside the castle walls. As one historian noted, this was "a tactic not to be underestimated since...success of a siege depended on the morale...." (Hans-Ulrich Wiblinger, The Mountain Castles of Cyprus, [Nicosia: Pilot Publications, 1993] 25).
Yet despite the success at Kyrenia and the drama at Kantara, the most important siege was that at St. Hilarion. It was here that three of the Imperial Baillies (Amaury Barlais, Amaury de Bethsan, and Hugh de Gibelet) had taken refuge. Not only was Barlais viewed as the most dangerous of the Imperial Baillies, but he also controlled the person of the young, underaged king, who he had with him in St. Hilarion.
The castle of St. Hilarion seen from a distance. (Photo by HPSchrader)

The castle of St. Hilarion had been built by the Byzantines late in the 10th century after the island had been freed from the Arabs. It stands 700 meters (2275 feet) above sea level on the narrow ridge of a mountain range just slightly southwest of the port of Kyrenia. At the time Barlais retreated there, it had never been taken by assault -- and it never would be. The Lord of Beirut, facing such a formidable castle and wishing to avoid a direct assault that would endanger his young king, had no choice but to besiege the castle.

Sieges are notoriously tedious. Leaving his three eldest sons (youths aged at most 21, 22 and 23, if not younger) in command of the siege of St. Hilarion, the Lord of Beirut concentrated on securing the surrender of Kyrenia and overseeing the siege and assaults on Kantara. Unfortunately, as the siege dragged on, the young sons of Beirut, Sirs Balian, Baldwin, and Hugh, got bored and absented themselves from the siege. At once the Imperial Ballies sallied forth out of St. Hilarion, over-ran the siege camp, and captured provisions. These they carried back inside the castle to supplement their own diminishing reserves. 
The Lord of Beirut had five sons, who were referred to as the "Wolflings" by Novare in one of his poems.  
Hearing of the sortie in Nicosia, Sir Balian rushed back with only a handful of knights. He rapidly recovered the siege camp, and "spurring up to the gate of the wall, broke his lance on the iron of the wall gate; he had so few strong men that this battle was amazing...." -- according to the contemporary eye-witness Sir Philip de Novare. (The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus, translated by John de La Monte [New York: Columbia University Press, 1936] 106.) More important, of course, his father realized that a rotation needed to be established so that there was always a commander -- and only one commander -- at all times.

So the siege continued, and Sir Philip attempted his psychological warfare here as well -- with the effect that he became a target for the besieged. According to his own account, he was hit by a thrown lance that penetrated his arm and pinned it to his rib-cage. In this state, unable to defend himself, men from the castle took hold of the bridle of his horse and tried to take him hostage. Meanwhile, from the walls the defenders taunted: "Your singer is dead, he has been killed!" (Novare, 106)  Novare was rescued by Sir Balian and bragged that he wrote a new song that same evening which he soon sang loudly before the castle walls to prove he was not yet dead. 

A troubadour entertains -- here in more civilized circumstances than Novare describes!       
By Easter 1230, those in the castle were suffering from a severe shortage of supplies. They had already slaughtered and eaten their horses and were reduced to killing a captured donkey for their Easter "feast." It was also clear that the Holy Roman Emperor was not going to send an army to rescue them. The Baillies were now in a difficult position. They had made themselves unpopular by their taxation, extortion and general high-handedness. They had lost a decisive battle and no longer had the resources to continue the war. But they held an all-important trump: they had the king.

Henry de Lusignan had been 12 years old when the siege of St. Hilarion started, and he saw his 13th birthday from inside St. Hilarion while food and -- one presumes -- morale dwindled. The men who held him had been appointed his guardians by the Holy Roman Emperor, but he had little reason to love or trust either the Emperor or the Emperor's Baillies. The Emperor had swept down on his kingdom and immediately sparked a rebellion (See: He had then dragged the 12-year-old to Syria, a virtual prisoner and a few months later married him to a woman Henry had never met. Most egregious, the Emperor sold Henry's guardianship to the five Ballies. Regardless of how honorable these men were or how legitimate their grievances against the Ibelins might have been, Henry could only have felt like a puppet in their hands. Certainly, he was afraid of them. (See:

Outside the castle, on the other hand, was the man elected by his barons as his guardian, and more important the brother of the man who had been a father to him from his 2nd to his 11th year. Henry had every reason to want to escape from St. Hilarion and the three men holding him there. But Henry had nothing to say in the matter. 

According to Novare, the Lord of Beirut was also anxious to end the siege. Sieges were notoriously expensive and Beirut's resources were not unlimited. He had already spent a fortune raising the army to invade Cyprus in the first place, and he'd had to support sieges at Kyrenia and Kantara as well. Most important, however, his siege of St. Hilarion put him in the awkward position of besieging his king, his liege. On the surface, this was treason. Beirut could only justify his actions by claiming -- rightly -- that Henry was a prisoner of the Emperor's Baillies and that his siege was in support of, rather than targeted at, the king. Yet, no matter how right Beirut might be in fact, the optics of his siege were negative and so damaging of his reputation. 

Notably, Novare also reports that Beirut "feared that [King Henry] would be taken out of the castle by night and sent to Apulia." (Novare, 110) In short, Beirut believed that the Baillies were capable of spiriting the King of Cyprus away from his kingdom and placing him in the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Once in Apulia, it is doubtful if Henry would ever have set eyes on his kingdom again. It is far more probable he would have remained a "guest" of his "overlord" Frederick II, while the latter claimed the right to appoint regents and retain the revenues of his kingdom. 

Beirut chose the lesser evil. Through the mediation of a knight of the Hospital, William de Teneres, he negotiated the surrender of St. Hilarion. The terms were complete amnesty and, so the retention of all estates and honors, for the Emperor's Baillies. The only thing the Emperor's Baillies lost was the right to call themselves Baillies -- and their control of the king. They became again mere barons of Cyprus, welcomed at court, and treated as if nothing had happened. 

The problem with that was that this solved none of the underlying conflicts. The tensions and rivalries that had festered before the Emperor's arrival and had been exacerbated by his policies during and after the 6th Crusade continued to divide the Emperor's men from the Ibelins and their supporters. It would take a second round and another defeat before the Emperor's men were finally expelled from Cyprus and King Henry was able to rule in his own right. 

The siege of St. Hilarion is described in:

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Monday, May 24, 2021

The Castle of the Queen - Kantara Castle

 Kantara, like St. Hilarion, is located on Cyprus. Its foundations stretch back before the crusader period, but it played an important role in crusader times. It is also shrouded in mystery and legends in addition to being located in a spectacular landscape.

 The view up to the castle.

Kantara is located on the tip of a long, narrow ridge as the Kyrenia mountain range comes to an abrupt end overlooking the plain of Karpas. It sits 630 meters (2,067 feet) above the Mediterranean.

 And the View Down to the Sea

Although the fundamental structure was constructed under the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus  after the Greek Empire re-established firm control over the island of Cyprus, the name is thought to derive from Arab the words "kandara" (high building) or "kandak" (castle).  This suggests there may have been an earlier structure, an outpost or watch tower, that occupied this strategic location before the Comnenus Emperor constructed a full-fledged castle. 

During Richard the Lionheart's invasion of Cyprus in 1191, Kantara served as a temporary refuge for the Greek tyrant Isaac Comnenus, and not even the great Lionheart made any attempt to take it.  Then again, he didn't need too. He captured the seaside fortress of Kyrenia instead and with it Isaac's beloved daughter. The tyrant submitted without any further resistance after his daughter's capture.

During the bitter wars between Emperor Friedrich II and the barons, on the other hand, the castle of Kantara was subjected to a long and brutal siege.   Defended by men loyal to the German emperor, the barons of Cyprus besieged the castle. Their forces were commanded by Anseau de Brie.  Brie built a trebuchet that, according to the contemporary chronicler and witness Philip de Novare (a fighting man in the service of the Ibelins), "battered down nearly all the walls."  While this was doubtless an exaggeration, Novare also reports that the bedrock on and into which the castle was built defied destruction.  Multiple attempts to assault the castle were successfully repulsed.

The castle only surrendered after ten months of siege due primarily to dwindling supplies and the demoralization of the garrison after the death of their commander, Gauvain de Cheneche. The latter was one of the five baillies appointed by Frederick II. (See: The Emperor's Men)

During the Genoese occupation of Cyprus in late 15th century, the castle was held for the crown and was twice attacked by Genoese forces. It resisted both assaults successfully, and became the base for counter-attacks, preventing Genoese control of the Karpas peninsula.

After the collapse of Lusignan rule on Cyprus and the establishment of Venetian control in the 16th Century, the castle was abandoned and began to decay.

Left behind were the impressive structures that gradually became ruins and the legends. The locals started to call it "the castle of a hundred chambers" -- although according to legend the 101st chamber contained a treasure that no one had ever found. Or, alternatively, the 101st chamber was enchanted and if one fell asleep in it, one woke up years later in a lovely garden. Another local name for the castle was "the house/residence of the queen" -- although no specific queen appears to be associated with the castle historically. 

The 19th century traveler D. Hogarth combines these themes suggesting: "...the traveler might imagine it the stronghold of a Sleeping Beauty, untouched by change or time for a thousand years."

Kantara certainly captured my imagination and my heart. It is the setting of many episodes of the (unpublished) "Lion of Karpas" and has a modest role in "The Last Crusader Kingdom" and is an important venue of key events in "Rebels against Tyranny."

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Monday, May 17, 2021

The Stronghold of the Lusignans - St. Hilarion Castle

 In writing about Medieval Cyprus it is impossible to overlook the most powerful and dramatic of all the medieval fortresses: St. Hilarion. It is the setting of several key historical episodes that inherently fall within the framework of my novels -- and I couldn't resist using it for fictional episodes as well. Below is a brief history.

The castle stands 700 meters (2275 feet) above sea level on the narrow ridge of the Kyrenia range just slightly southwest of the port of Kyrenia.  It was built by the Byzantine governor of the island after the Comnenus emperors re-established full control over Cyprus in the late 10th. Constructed between 1102 and 1110, it was called Didymos by the Byzantines for the twin mountain peaks between which the upper castle sits.  The crusaders, however, preferred to call it the castle of "Dieu d'Amour" (the God of Love) and the locals continued to refer to it as St. Hilarion because the saint of that name had built a monastery, been buried and venerated here long before the castle was built. 

  Remnants of the Castle Church

The castle boasts three lines of defense and was never taken by assault. It was, however, frequently besieged. 

 View from the upper to the lower ward.

In July/August 1228, after Emperor Friedrich II accused John d'Ibelin of malfeasance and attempted to seize his fief without trial, Ibelin secured control of St. Hilarion, had it well provisioned and moved his supporters' dependents there in preparation for a confrontation.  Ibelin was persuaded to turn the castle over to the King of Cyprus in exchange for the release of his two hostage sons -- or vice versa, depending on how one interprets the negotiations.

When Friedrich II left the Holy Land for the West, he turned St. Hilarion over to his appointed baillies with orders for them to prevent the Ibelins from setting foot on the island. Within two months, however, the Ibelins had pulled together a sufficient army to challenge this (illegal) order head on. They landed on the south coast and routed the imperial forces at the Battle of Nicosia on July 14, 1229.  The surviving leaders of the imperial supporters fled to the three mountain castles, Kantara, Buffavento and St. Hilarion. A siege began almost at once that lasted nearly a year. Shortly after Easter in 1230, the Imperial forces surrendered to the Ibelins.

Just two years later, in May 1232, fortunes were reversed. The Imperial forces were on the offensive. With the Lord of Beirut, all his sons and the bulk of his knights struggling to relieve a besieged Beirut, the Imperial forces seized control of Cyprus.  The supporters of the Ibelins were forced to seek refuge in St. Hilarion and Buffavento, where they were soon subjected to a siege. Six weeks later, after defeating the Imperial forces at the Battle of Argidi on June 15, 1232, the Ibelins were able to lift the siege of St. Hilarion and rescue their women and children. 

A long period of peace followed this episode, and St. Hilarion was strengthened and embellished by the Lusignan kings to turn it into an idyllic summer residence high above the heat of the coast. In 1348, King Hugh IV retreated to the castle to escape not an enemy but the plague. During the later Genoese invasion, St. Hilarion was an important royal base of operations, the key to disrupting Genoese internal lines of communication.

After that, like Kantara, it lost relevance and fell into disrepair and finally ruin from the 16th century onwards.

St. Hilarion features in several of my novels set in medieval Cyprus including:

Find out more and/or buy at:  
Crusades (

Monday, May 10, 2021

The "Old" Lord of Beirut - John d'Ibelin, Part III

 Contemporaries praised his wisdom and restraint, churchmen called him "exceedingly Christian and energetic,"(1) and modern historians have drawn parallels between him and St. Louis.(2) Significantly, despite his rebellion, John d'Ibelin was never viewed as a hothead. While he won the decisive battles of his war against the Holy Roman Emperor, he was admired not as a military man, but rather as a statesman.

Today I conclude my three-part biography of John d'Ibelin.

When the Emperor sailed away from the Holy Land in May 1228, he evidently believed he had succeeded in his objectives. He had obtained the nominal return of Jerusalem to Christian hands (and others would have to worry about the details of defending it), and he had worn the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, gaining a great propaganda victory in his struggle with the papacy. That he left behind outraged subjects (who expressed their feelings by throwing offal at him) apparently did not bother him in the least. He never once returned to Jerusalem, nor did he send any of his sons to rule the kingdom in his name. Although he claimed the title and the revenues, he left the business of ruling to the lieutenants he appointed. In doing so, he made a major miscalculation: he treated John d'Ibelin as an irritant to be exterminated with the wave of the imperial hand.

On Cyprus, Frederick appointed five men joint "baillies" and ordered them to dispossess the Ibelins and their partisans of their lands and to further ensure that the neither the Lord of Beirut nor any of his sons, kinsmen or supporters ever set foot on the Island of Cyprus again. Note, there had never been a trial before the High Court of Cyprus to establish any wrong-doing on the part of Beirut. The latter had not been given a chance to defend himself before his peers. His sons and supporters were even more innocent of any crime, being guilty only of the "crime" of kinship or loyalty. The emperor's actions were not only arbitrary, they were petty and vindictive. 

The five baillies, furthermore, had been appointed in exchange for payment of 10,000 marks. They needed to raise that revenue. Evidently, expropriating the properties of the Ibelins and their supporters did not promise sufficient revenue to pay that debt in full, because they set about raising taxes.  The actions against the House of Ibelin and their supporters resulted in hundreds of women and children seeking refuge with the militant orders, particularly the Hospitallers, while the new taxes simply served to make the baillies unpopular with the rest of the Cypriot population. 

From the Lord of Beirut's perspective the Emperor had now gone back on his word three times. First, at the banquet when he promised to honor his "beloved cousins" and "honored uncle." Second, during the crusade when, despite swearing to forgive all that had gone before, he attacked the women and children of Ibelin and his supporters while their men served in the Emperor's army, and third, by ordering the baillies to dispossess him and his followers without a judgement of the court, a condition that the Emperor had accepted in his signed agreement with Beirut in September 1228.

Beirut had had enough. He raised an army in Syria which included his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. With this small force, he forced a landing at Gastria, and then rode inland toward Nicosia. During this advance, he announced his intention only of securing the safety and control of the properties that had been illegally confiscated.  He stated that he did not seek to secure restoration of his position as baillie of Cyprus.  In short, he attempted to build a bridge to the Imperial baillies, offering them a compromise that would enable them to retain power, as long as they recognized that no confiscations could take place without a judgement of the High Court.  The baillies chose not to accept this compromise.  They called up the Cypriot army and marched out to meet the Ibelins in battle. 

On July 14, 1229 in a plowed field outside of Nicosia, the Ibelins routed the army of the five baillies. However, all five of the emperor's deputies escaped the field and took refuge in the royal castles at Kantara, Kyrenia, and St. Hilarion. The Ibelins successfully besieged these castles, and one by one they fell to the Ibelins, the last being St. Hilarion shortly after Easter 1230. 

Significantly, Beirut -- against the advice of his closest advisorers -- granted amnesty to the five baillies. Equally significantly, the young King of Cyprus, who had been in the custody of the Emperor and, after his departure, the baillies, welcomed the Ibelins. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Henry of Lusignan favored the Ibelins. It is King Henry's staunch support for the Ibelins even after he was king, combined with the fact that he sought independence from the Holy Roman Emperor, that belie the suggestions Beirut was disloyal to his king. 

In 1232, Emperor Frederick sent an army to Outremer under a Sicilian admiral, Richard  Filangieri.  The latter had the explicit mandate to re-establish Imperial authority -- and to confiscate all lands and titles from the Ibelins and expel them from both Cyprus and Syria. As before, no charges were brought against Beirut, certainly not with regards to his right to hold Beirut for which he held clear royal charters. Curiously, roughly a dozen other Syrian lords were also summarily dismissed by the Holy Roman Emperor at this time.  As before, the Emperor felt entitled to act without a hearing or judgement by their peers. Again Beirut, and now a dozen other Syrian barons, was denied the right to defend themselves before a court. This was a blatant and crude violation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was tyranny.

Beirut got wind of Filangieri's approach and rushed to Cyprus with all his men. On finding Ibelin troops in possession of the ports of Cyprus, however, Filangieri did not attempt a landing but rather sent envoys ashore to King Henry of Cyprus demanding that he banish from his kingdom the Lord of Beirut "and all his relatives." The King replied, he could do neither. First, he could not banish Beirut because he was his vassal and deserving of his support, and, second, he could not banish Beirut's relatives since he too was a kinsman of Beirut. (His mother was Beirut's niece.) 

So Filangieri sailed away and laid siege to John d'Ibelin's power base: Beirut itself. Although the city surrendered quickly, the citadel held out. Beirut mustered all the support he had, including King Henry of Cyprus, and made a dangerous winter crossing to Syria. His initial efforts to lift the siege of Beirut failed, but he managed to slip some reinforcements into the citadel.  He next tried to attract the support of the Prince of Antioch, but this also ended in failure.  Next the Templars, who had initially supported him, turned against him on instructions from the pope, who was temporarily reconciled with the Hohenstaufen.  Meanwhile, his sons suffered a major defeat at the hands of Imperial forces at Casal Imbert.  Nevertheless, Beirut persisted and dramatically won over the commons at Acre and the Genoese to his cause. Imperial forces were at last forced to lift the siege of Beirut. 

Meanwhile, King Henry had come of age, and he remained by Beirut's side. Together, they returned to Cyprus where, in their absence, Imperial forces had seized control of the capital, the ports and were laying siege to the Ibelin women and King Henry's sisters in the fortress of St. Hilarion.

 The castle of St. Hilarion

In a full-scale battle, the Lord of Beirut routed the Imperialist army a second time, forcing it to retreat to Kyrenia. The same day he lifted the imperial siege of St. Hilarion. The re-capture of Cyprus took only days, and the population welcomed the return of their King and the Ibelins as liberators. 

Although the siege of Kyrenia dragged on, the surrender was inevitable and the Emperor never again attempted impose his governors or will on Cyprus. Instead, in 1248 the Pope formally absolved Henry I of all oaths he had made to the Holy Roman Emperor, and Cyprus became a completely independent kingdom, no longer a part of the Empire.

The conflict meanwhile shifted entirely to Syria, where Filangieri as the Emperor's representative created increasing hostility to the Imperial cause. Hisautocratic behavior, not least his repeated attempts to expel Beirut from his fief without cause or trial, had turned the majority of the barons and knights against the Emperor.  As a result, over the next several years a series of legal arguments were developed to deny the Emperor and his heirs any basis of power in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

This did not preclude repeated attempts to mediate between the parties. The Teutonic Knights and the pope himself, among others, attempted to reconcile the barons of Outremer to Hohenstaufen rule. At one point, the Pope threatened the Lord of Beirut and the citizens of Acre, who were loyal to Beirut, with excommunication and interdict respectively -- only to rapidly back down when he learned the citizens of Acre were simply turning to Orthodox Christianity! One of the more creative suggestions that appears to have originated with the Emperor's brother-in-law and brother of the English King, Earl Richard of Cornwall, was that the Emperor should recall Filangieri and replace him instead with his kinsman Simon de Montfort. (Frederick had married the English princess Isabella Plantagenet, whose sister Eleanor was married to Montfort.) Notably, the Lord of Beirut, his sons and two of his nephews were consistently excluded from all the Emperor's promises of pardon, but the barons of Outremer just as steadfastly refused to make a peace without him. 

In 1236, the Lord of Beirut took part in a Hospitaller campaign from Crac de Chevaliers against the ruler of Hamah with 100 Cypriot knights. Beirut, who was now about 57 years old, was involved in some kind of riding accident, in which his horse fell on him. He was so badly injured that he took to his bed, ordered his affairs, and then joined the Knights Templar in preparation for death. 

According to the account left by Beirut's loyal vassal Philip de Novare, Beirut "died well." Novare writes: "For his sins he made amends, and for many things he made amends which most men would not hold as sins; his debts he paid for he had at that day great belongings and property besides his fiefs, and all he gave for God and for his soul, by his own hand with good memory; many fiefs he gave his children, and commanded that they should be vassals of and hold from their oldest brother."(3) In short, his protracted struggle with the most powerful monarch on earth had been won so completely that he was not even impoverished at his death!

Looking back on his rebellion, what is most striking is that he could defy the Holy Roman Emperor -- and at times the Pope -- without seriously undermining his own popularity and the support and devotion of his sons, his brothers-in-law, nephews, vassals, the commons of Acre, and the majority of peers. Yes, Barlais and his co-regents on Cyprus fought Beirut bitterly. Yes, Balian de Sidon (one of his nephews) long tried to remain neutral in the conflict and mediate. Likewise, Eudes de Montbeliard was an Imperial baillie and clearly not in Beirut's camp -- to begin with. Yet, it would have been far more normal for the bulk of the knights and barons to side with the "stronger" in any fight, and by any objective measure the Holy Roman Emperor was "the stronger. " 

Frederick Hohenstaufen had destroyed his Welf rival in Germany. He had eradicated the Saracen threat on Sicily and obliterated the last traces of independence among his Sicilian barons. He scattered the forces of the pope simply by landing in Sicily. He had crushed his son's rebellion with ease. He had smashed the army of Milan at Cortenuova. How was it possible he was defeated by an obscure Syrian baron? Was it simply that he never devoted enough force and attention to a problem he considered an irritant rather than a threat to his grand vision of Emperor of Christendom?  Or was the fundamental injustice of his cause the real reason for his defeat?

Frederick II's war was a vindictive personal war against a vassal without a trace of evidence or an attempt to rely on rational argument -- worse even in some ways than his vicious persecution of his decades long "spokesman" della Vigna. For an monarch usually held up by historians as the embodiment of reason in a age of alleged "bigotry" and "fanaticism," Frederick II's war against the Ibelins was a ugly and distasteful vendetta that historians prefer to sweep under the carpet.

1) Wilbrand, Bishop of Oldenburg, quoted in Peter Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Boydell, 1997.
2) La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 49.
3) Novare, Philip. Translated by La Monte, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 169.

John d'Ibelin, the Old Lord of Beirut, is a major character in the "Rebels of Outremer" Series starting with:

Find out more and buy at: Crusades (

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Reluctant Rebel: John d'Ibelin, Part II

 When the Lord of Beirut stood up to Frederick II's threats and then walked out of the trap set by the Emperor a free man, it was by no means clear that he would ultimately win. He left behind his eldest sons, and, while the bulk of the Cypriot nobles and knights backed him at that moment, he had just flung down the gauntlet at the most powerful man in Christendom. 

Just who was the Lord of Beirut, and what sort of man was he? Today, the second part of my three-part biography.

Having served as regent of the Kingdom ofJerusalem to the satisfaction of his queen and her subjects from April 1205 until October 1210, John d'Ibelin stepped down in Oct. 1210.  The business of government was turned over over to Marie de Montferrat, now 18, and her consort, King John de Brienne. (For details see: The Remarkable Career of John de Brienne, Part II.) 

John then all but disappears from the witness lists of the kingdom. The assumption of historians is that there was some kind of a breach between the former regent and the new king consort, but this is by no means certain.  John had been married early to a certain  Helvis of Nephin. We know nothing about the lady -- except that she bore John five sons, who all died in infancy.  We also know that John remarried the widow, Melisende of Arsur, sometime during his regency, because his eldest sons were old enough to be knighted in 1224.  In addition, John's mother died in 1217. In short, it is possible that John chose to retire from court for personal reasons.

Nevertheless, both John and his younger brother Philip took part in the Fifth Crusade, notably under the banner of the King of Cyprus rather than the King of Jerusalem. Again, this may be indicative of strained relations between the Ibelins and Brienne -- or simply a reflection of more cordial relations between them and the young Lusignan King Hugh, now married to another of the Ibelin's nieces, Alice of Champagne. Certainly, King Hugh commended his kingdom to the keeping of Philip d'Ibelin on his deathbed in 1218. His unexpected death while still a vigorous man in his early twenties took everyone by surprise and left an 18-month-old infant, Henry, as his heir. Philip was duly elected by the High Court to rule until Henry came of age (May 1232), but himself died in 1227.  At his death, the High Court of Cyprus chose his brother, John, the Lord of Beirut, to step into his shoes. It was this election that put John on a collision course with the Holy Roman Emperor.

Two years earlier, in 1225 the Holy Roman Emperor married Yolanda of Jerusalem, the daughter of John de Brienne and Marie of Jerusalem. She was just 13 years old, and no sooner had she landed in Brindisi that her new bridegroom dismissed her father like a superfluous servant and announced the he was henceforth "King of Jerusalem." All the barons of Outremer who had escorted her to her marriage duly took the oath of fealty to Frederick Hohenstaufen. 

John of Beirut was conspicuously absent from Queen Yolanda's escort. Presumably he was still out of favor with Brienne, or simply too busy on Cyprus or in Beirut. There is no reason to presume he would have refused to take the oath, however, since there was a clear precedent for the consort of a ruling queen to take precedence over the widower (even if crowned an anointed) of a deceased queen: this was precisely the precedent set -- with the full and hearty support of John's parents -- when Queen Isabella and Conrad de Montferrat had been preferred over Guy de Lusignan in 1190.

Unfortunately for all, however, by the time the Emperor Frederick finally landed on Cyprus on his way to the Holy Land, his fifteen-year-old empress was dead, leaving behind an infant son, Conrad. This boy was now legally the King of Jerusalem in his own right, and while Frederick was within his rights to claim the regency, he had lost the right to call himself King -- something Frederick either never understood or never admitted. Curiously, he also arrived -- for reasons that remain completely obscure -- determined to "break" the Lord of Beirut.

The basis for the Emperor's hostility to the Lord of Beirut can only be conjectured. Since the Emperor dismissed Brienne discourteously, making him a permanent enemy, it can hardly have been Beirut's less than ardent support of Brienne. However, Beirut's brother had crowned Henry de Lusignan King of Cyprus without awaiting imperial permission. Furthermore, in light of his personal experience with regents plundering his treasury, perhaps it was natural for the Hohenstaufen to assume the Ibelins had enriched themselves illegally at the expense of young King Henry. Edbury suggests it was primarily greed for revenue on the eve of an expensive undertaking that motivated the Emperor. Yet it remains a mystery why the Emperor believed the Lordship of Beirut, which had been given to John d'Ibelin with the appropriate royal charters by his own sister, did not legally belong to him. 

As we have seen, after fair words to lure Beirut, his sons, friends and vassals to a banquet, the Emperor sprang a trap and attempted to bully Beirut into surrendering both revenues and his lordship of Beirut. (See: The Emperor's Banquet.) Beirut must have had some indication that the Emperor was hostile, or his council would not have advised him from attending the banquet, yet it is hard to believe the Beirut truly expected what happened -- and still walked into the trap.

Tellingly, although Beirut angrily rejected an offer to murder the Emperor by over-zealous supporters, he withdrew to the mountain fortresses of Cyprus and readied them to withstand a siege. While this was clearly an act of defiance, it was not a act of treason. Beirut explicitly held the castles for young King Henry of Lusignan, a promise that may sound disingenuous but which later actions proved honest.  His response was rather a proportionate response to the treachery of the Emperor, who had promised honors yet demanded bribes instead. Furthermore, his action which involved no violence, nevertheless check-mated the Emperor, who did not have the time (Sicily was under attack from his father-in-law and the pope) or resources for an all-out war.  

The Emperor was forced to seek terms. In exchange for the return of the castles to royal officers, the Emperor promised to release the hostages.  In addition, Beirut promised to take part in the Emperor's crusade, along with all his vassals, while the Emperor agreed, in writing 1) to take no action against Beirut or his supporters without the judgement of the appropriate court (i.e. the High Courts of Cyprus and Jerusalem respectively), and 2) to bear no malice for all that had passed between them in the preceding months.

The value of the Emperor's sworn and signed word was soon demonstrated when, as soon as he had Beirut and all his men on the mainland, he sent imperial mercenaries to Cyprus to attack, harass and intimidate the wives and children of these same men now serving in his army. He entrusted one of his Sicilian noblemen, the Count of Cotron, with this task. The degree of their success can be measured by the fact that Beirut's his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Philip, was in sufficient fear for her life that she risked a winter crossing to Syria in a small craft with her young children and all nearly drowned in the attempt to escape. 

After concluding his secret peace with al-Kamil and parading around in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in his Imperial crown, Frederick II had had enough of his Kingdom of Jerusalem. After briefly laying siege to Templar headquarters in Acre, threatening the Patriarch, ordering the harassment of the mendicant orders, and being pelted by offal by the common people, Frederick sailed away from Acre never to return -- although he continued to call himself "King of Jerusalem" for the next 25 years. 

But he wasn't done with the Lord of Beirut....

* Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Boydell Press, 1997, p. 56 
** William of Oldenberg, cited in Edbury, p. 57.
*** "...there is a marked resemblance between Ibelin and St. Louis of France, for while both were personally deeply religious neither permitted the Church to dictate to him against the mandates of his own conscience and better judgement." La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 49.

The story of John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, continues next week.
John d'Ibelin, the Old Lord of Beirut, is a major character in the "Rebels of Outremer" Series starting with:

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