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Monday, July 26, 2021

Conquest of Cyprus - Part I

 The last and most enduring of the crusader states was established on the island of Cyprus at the end of the twelfth century. It lasted for over 300 years, thriving long after the Kingdom of Jerusalem had disappeared from the political map -- if not from memory. In a seven-part series, I'll be looking at this important -- but often forgotten -- crusader state. It all began by accident --

Richard's Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault

After a tempestuous winter on Sicily, the men of the Third Crusade led by the Kings of England and France were ready to sail for the Holy Land. The kings, however, had quarreled with one another and so departed separately. Philip II departed with his contingent of crusaders on March 30. He arrived off Tyre without incident three weeks later on April 20.

Richard was not so lucky. His fleet of a hundred ships did not set sail until April 10 — and almost immediately encountered a vicious storm. The fleet was scattered as the vessels, some large, some small, some oared and some pure sailing ships, each struggled to survive as best it could.  Richard’s galley with a portion of the fleet eventually made safe harbor on the island of Rhodes on April 22, but the ship carrying his betrothed, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, and his sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, was missing.  

For the next ten days, Richard remained at Rhodes while ships scoured the seasto find and round-up the stragglers and damaged ships were made seaworthy again.   On May 1, with the ships he had collected, Richard set out in search of the remaining lost vessels and his bride. He made for Cyprus, the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean. His hope was that many of his missing ships, including the one with his bride and sister, might have found refuge there.

And indeed they had! But their reception had been far from welcoming. Rather than receiving the charity expected from a Christian monarch (Cyprus was ruled at this time by a self-styled Byzantine “Emperor”), the crews of three ships wrecked on the coast of the island were –- in Richard’s own words –- “robbed and despoiled.”  The ship carrying the royal ladies had avoided shipwreck, but ir had taken refuge in the harbor of Limassol in a state of distress.  The knights aboard this vessel somehow received word of what had happened to their comrades, and Joanna of Plantagenet (a woman who deserves a book of her own!) was clearly not buying the assurances offered by “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus about her safety if she came ashore.  She smelt a rat and stayed aboard her damaged vessel.

Thus when Richard sailed into Limassol harbor on the evening of May 5, he found his bride-to-be and sister in a precarious situation aboard an unseaworthy vessel running out of water, but afraid of being held for ransom or worse if they went ashore.  Richard at once sent an envoy to Isaac Comnenus requesting that his men be set free, compensation paid for the property seized (from the wrecks), and permission to come ashore for water and provisions. According to all contemporary accounts, the envoy returned with a very rude reply.

Richard responded as could only be expected of the proud Plantagenet: he attacked.

The exact sequence of events varies according to which chronicle one follows.  One version has Richard ordering his galleys to break through a blockade of ships at the mouth of Limassol harbor and then storming ashore on foot.  Another version claims he landed on a beach beyond Limassol harbor against opposition, and then took Limassol from landward. Either action (and the latter appears the most likely) was extremely risky.

Indeed, an amphibious operation from small ships and boats against a defended shore is one of the most dangerous in warfare. Period. Think of the beaches of Normandy — and Gallipoli. Unlike the Allies on D-Day in WWII, Richard did not have protective artillery fire from big battleships hammering the shore with shells. Instead, Richard had to rely upon cross-bow men kneeling or sitting on boats bobbing up and down in the waves — not a good platform for accurate fire with any kind of small arm, let alone a bow and arrow! The enemy archers, in contrast, would have been firing their bows from solid earth. Furthermore, as Richard and his men approached the shore, he had to jump overboard into the sucking surf, not in combat boots but chainmail leggings. He then had to fight his way up the rolling stones of the beach in the face of both enemy fire and attacks. To put it simply: the fact that Richard pulled this off is remarkable and unquestionably heroic.

He was helped, however, by the fact that his opponent was highly unpopular with his own subjects and relying primarily upon mercenaries.

Cyprus, an integral part of the early Byzantine Empire, had become a target for expanding Islam in the mid-7th century. Although it was not conquered and incorporated into the Muslim world, it was partially occupied, frequently raided, and forced to pay tribute to various Muslim overlords until 965, when Constantinople re-established control over the island. The three hundred years of turmoil had made it poor, and it remained a Byzantine back-water until the establishment of the crusader states following the First Crusade. Thereafter, Cyprus benefitted from the flood of Western pilgrims heading to the Holy Land and prospered from trade with the booming cities of the Levant. In 1126, the Venetians obtained trading concessions on the island and contributed to its commercial revival. After the death of Manuel I Comnenus, however, Constantinople drifted into chaos as first his son was murdered and then his son’s murderer was torn to pieces by a mob. Constantinople was too pre-occupied with this succession crisis to pay much attention to Cyprus, and into the vacuum stepped Isaac Comnenus.
A Portrait of Isaac's Great Uncle Manuel I
Isaac, a member of the Imperial family (a great-nephew of Emperor Manuel I), who had previously been governor of Byzantine Cilicia, arrived on Cyprus in 1182 or 1183. He claimed to have been appointed governor.  Some sources claim his letters of appointment were forged, but it is also possible he was indeed legitimately appointed by Manuel I’s son Alexus II or the latter’s mother and regent, Maria of Antioch. In any case, when Alexis II and Maria of Antioch were murdered and Andronicus Comnenus became Emperor in Constantinople, Isaac rebelled against Andronicus. He thereafter claimed Cyprus as his personal domain. Andronicus didn’t take this sitting down. He prepared a fleet to reclaim the island for Cyprus. Isaac responded by forging an alliance with Sicily, which sent a fleet. In a naval engagement, the Sicilians fighting for Isaac defeated the Byzantine fleet. By the time Richard of England arrived in 1191, Isaac had been in effective control of Cyprus for roughly 8 years. In that short space of time, however, he had so ruthlessly exploited, taxed and terrorized his subjects that they did not want to fight — much less die — for him. Lack of morale on the part of Isaac’s forces was probably the most decisve factor enabling Richard to successfully land his troops. 

Nevertheless, although Richard had taken the beach and then the city of Limassol, Isaac Comnenus still had his army largely intact. He had simply withdrawn with the bulk of his troops farther inland. This situation was obviously precarious, and Richard knew he had to eliminate this latent threat. So he off-loaded some of his warhorses, exercised them through the night so they could get back their land-legs, and then attacked Isaac Comnenus’ army at dawn the next day. The location is sometimes identified as Kolossi, the later site of a lovely Hospitaller commandery.

The Hospitaller Commandery at Kolossi as it looks today. (Photo by the author)

Richard’s early morning attack allegedly caused panic among the self-styled Emperor’s forces. Isaac Comnenus took flight again, and Richard’s men overran the enemy camp, capturing huge quantities of booty without casualties.  As at the earlier engagement, the self-styled “Emperor” had little support among the population or his mercenaries. 

Richard returned to Limassol and on May 12. Lent now being over, he married Berengaria and had her crowned Queen of England. The exact location is unknown, and several churches in Limassol claim the honor.
These churches for the Hospital (left) and Temple (right) built much later but incorporate many features typical of church architecture on the island. (Photo by the author)

At this point, Richard was still in a hurry to get to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The crusader kingdom was in desperate straits, having been reduced to the city of Tyre after the defeat at Hattin.  Richard had taken the cross three and a half years earlier, and all sources attest to his burning and sincere desire to recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens. That it had taken him so long to get this far was more a function of prudent preparation and bitter politics than to lack of ardor. The urgency to continue now, however, was increased by the fact that his hated rival, Philip II of France, had already joined the Christian siege of Muslim-held Acre with his large contingent of troops.  Richard had every reason to expect these massive reinforcements of the Christian army would tip the scales and lead to the capture of Acre; Richard had no desire to see Philip take all the glory for a victory of this magnitude.

As a result, Richard accepted Isaac Comnenus’ surrender on comparatively mild terms. He made no claim to Cyprus at this point. He simply demanded reparations from Isaac’s treasury (a welcome infusion of cash to Richard’s war chest so he could finance his crusade for Jerusalem) and, significantly, 100 knights, 500 light cavalry(turcopoles), and 500 infantry from Cyprus for the crusade. Isaac was to accompany Richard on the crusade, surrender his only child as a hostage of his goodwill, and place his castles under the control of Richard’s lieutenants.
The Castle of Kantara, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

The terms might have been humiliating for a self-styled “emperor,” but they were a far cry from “unconditional surrender.” Nor did they constitute the conquest or confiscation of the island.  Instead, they were clearly intended to bolster Richard’s ability to re-capture Jerusalem. Richard had not lost sight of his primary goal and had Isaac complied with the terms of the agreement the last crusader kingdom might never have come into being.

But Isaac Comnenus reneged.  That same night he fled inland. On the sharp and narrow ridge that ran roughly east-west like a backbone through the island stood three impregnable castles. These offered refuge and defiance. Isaac was clearly not about to become a crusader and was banking instead upon Richard being in too much of a hurry to get to Acre to come after him.  
The Ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

Richard had to choose between letting him get away with this treachery and hurrying to join the siege of Acre or trying to take control of the entire island by force. Up to now, Richard had responded to unexpected developments, taking advantage of a situation that presented itself to him. What followed was far more calculating. Read more next week.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Balian of Beirut - Part II: From Rebel to Regent

 Balian, the Lord of Beirut’s eldest son and heir, was the head of the Ibelin family in the fourth generation of the House.  He was a grandson of that Balian d’Ibelin who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187, and the eldest son and heir of the leader of the baronial opposition to Frederick II, the “Old Lord” of Beirut. Yet according to his close friend and “compeer” Philip de Novare, he was a man of decidedly different temperament and personality from his more famous forefathers. Today I conclude my biographical sketch of Balian d’Ibelin II.  

Philip de Novare tells us that when making his testament, the “Old Lord” of Beirut “gave many fiefs to his children and ordered that they should hold them of their eldest brother and be his vassals.”[i] In short, Balian was to the senior and greatest beneficiary of his father’s estate.  Clearly, Balian had been fully forgiven of any transgressions against his father. He assumed the leadership of the family. Yet we should make no mistake that his authority was equal to his father’s. Brothers are brothers, and all Balian’s brothers were relatively close to him in age. 
Between his father’s death and the start of the Baron’s crusade in 1239, we have no indication of where Balian was or what he did, but he was still Constable of Cyprus and may have remained in that kingdom after briefly regulating his affairs in Beirut. In 1239, however, he resigned that position in order to take part in what has become known as the “Baron’s Crusade” led by Thibaud of Champagne, King of Navarre, and Richard, Duke of Cornwall. Balian was evidently not involved in the ill-advised attack on Gaza, however, it was probably at this time that he became acquainted for the first time with his cousin Philip de Montfort.

Philip was the son of Balian’s aunt Helvis and her second husband Guy de Montfort. The latter was a younger brother of the elder Simon de Montfort, who is now infamous for his role in the Albigensian crusades. Philip had been a child of only four or five when his mother died and so had returned with his father to France, where his father had died in 1228. He had evidently been raised by his Montfort relatives, who included a first cousin roughly his own age, Simon, later Earl of Leicester and leader of the English parliamentary reform movement of 1258-1265.

Philip came east in the company of his cousin Simon, who had only the year before married the sister of the English king, Eleanor Plantagenet. Philip de Montfort, on the other hand, was already a widower. He was soon persuaded by his Ibelin cousins to take a new wife. His connections with the English court enabled Philip to marry very well: Maria of Armenia, heiress to the Lordship of Toron. Henceforth he would be not only a loyal adherent of the Ibelin cause but a forceful voice in the politics of Outremer generally — and an extremely close friend of Balian.
Meanwhile, however, Emperor Frederick had also married a sister of Henry III, Isabella, making cousin Simon de Montfort a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor through his wife. It was probably this fact that, in 1241, induced the Ibelins to put forward a proposal to the Emperor in which they agreed to submit to the Emperor and disband the Commune of Acre (which did not recognize the Emperor’s writ) if he would replace the hated Riccardo Filangieri with Simon de Montfort and pardon the rebels. Although submitted in the name of “the barons, knights and citizens of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” Balian d’Ibelin heads the list of signatories. It seems highly probably that Balian was the leading force behind this proposal.  Furthermore, Edbury contends that “there is no doubt the proposal was intended to lead to a reconciliation.”[ii] One can only speculate on how the history of both the crusader states and England might have been different if the proposal had been accepted by Frederick II. It was not. 

No sooner had the crusaders departed, however, than the Imperial baillie Riccardo Filangieri decided he could risk a new attack on the baronial faction. In Oct. 1241, after Balian had returned to Beirut and his brother Baldwin and Guy were on Cyprus, Filangieri won over two prominent members of the Acre Commune and the Hospitallers to the Imperial cause. Slipping into the city by a postern leading to the garden of the Hospital, he set about wringing oaths of allegiance from various leading citizens. Philip de Montfort got wind of the planned coup, however, and raised the alarm. He exploited the hostility of the Venetians and Genoese to the Emperor, and they secured the streets, while Montfort (on what authority is unclear) arrested the two leading conspirators. He also sent messengers flying to his friend Balian.

The Hospital in Acre Today

Balian returned immediately to Acre and took command. Believing Filangieri to still be within the Hospital, he laid siege to it. The Master of the Hospital was absent at the time but returned in alarm on learning that his brothers were under siege. He encamped with a large body of Hospitallers outside of Acre. At once mediators set to work reconciling Balian with the Hospital. Balian not only ended the siege, he also acknowledged his mistake and expressed his “greatest possible regret.” The Hospital accepted his apology, but it is hard to believe there were no hard-feelings. 
In April of the following year 1242, Conrad Hohenstaufen, the son of Emperor Frederick and Yolanda of Jerusalem, announced that he had come of age (14) and that he was, therefore, recalling the unpopular Imperial baillie Riccardo Filangieri. Unfortunately for Conrad, boys did not come of age in the Kingdom of Jerusalem until 15, so Frederick (who was obviously behind the letters) was, once again, blissfully but illegally applying the customs of the Holy Roman Empire to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Furthermore, while Filangieri was hated, Tommasso of Acerra was also known quantity -- a man who had a reputation for brutally enforcing imperial policies on the Sicilian nobility. Edbury concludes that his appointment “cannot have been intended as a conciliatory gesture.”[iii] It was certainly not received as one.
It was now nearly 14 years since Balian had been tortured by the Emperor’s men because his father had stood up to false accusations, extortion, and an attempt to disseize him without due process. For the last 10 years, an uneasy stalemate had held, with the imperial forces in Tyre and the baronial forces in Acre. Both sides had claimed to have the law on their side; neither side had been seriously willing to compromise, but neither side had dared to attack the other either. The threat of a Hohenstaufen king (not just regent) and a new Imperial “Baillie” appears to have alarmed Balian. When four citizens from Tyre came to Balian claiming that the Imperial party was “greatly hated” and offered to surrender the city to him, the temptation was too great to resist. Balian met with his closet advisors (first and foremost Philip de Montfort) and they agreed they should seize the city. Balian does not appear to have cared much about the law at this point; this was a pure power play.

Novare, however, came up with stratagem to give the action a veneer of legality. He pointed out that when Conrad came of age in accordance with the laws of Jerusalem (in April 1243) all of Emperor Frederick’s claims to be his regent would be dissolved. At that point, the constitution of Jerusalem called for the closest relative of the monarch resident in the kingdom to act as regent until the king could come in person. If he didn’t come, that candidate would become monarch in his place. The closest relative of King Conrad resident in the Kingdom was Alice of Champagne, the dowager Queen of Cyprus and the sister of Conrad’s grandmother. Alice of Champagne was roughly 45 years old at this time. She was recently married to a certain French nobleman, Sir Ralph of Soissons, who Philip de Montfort (it is said) had persuaded to marry her in order to have a claim to Jerusalem. Alice and Ralph eagerly accepted the notion that Alice should be proclaimed queen until Conrad came to the Kingdom of Jerusalem to claim his inheritance. 

According to John, Count of Jaffa, another contemporary and witness of these events, the High Court first dutifully sent Conrad a letter saying he was required to come in person to be recognized as their liege, and it was only in a second session of the High Court that Alice of Champagne was recognized. There is some ambiguity in the sources, but Jaffa and Novare both refer to Alice as “queen” and report that the barons did homage to her. This would suggest that they were already anticipating Conrad’s failure to appear.  The first to take the oath of homage was Balian of Beirut, followed by his cousin Philip de Montfort, Lord of Toron.The exact date of these events is uncertain.   
The entire process with letters being sent at probably two sessions of the High Court probably dragged out over the latter part of 1242 and the spring of 1243. It was also probably in the early spring of 1243 that Filangieri, the Emperor’s face for the last fourteen years, obeyed the Emperor’s recall. He sailed with his most of family, leaving only his brother Lothar to hold the city of Tyre until Thomas of Accera could arrive. 
Alice de Champagne promptly played her role by demanding the surrender of Tyre to her person. Lotario Filangieri predictably refused. Balian d’Ibelin and Philip de Montfort proceeded immediately with military plans that had obviously been drawn up well in advance, presumably while the legal pretext was being given a chance to unfold. 

Tyre was a nearly invincible city that had held out against Saladin twice. It was virtually unassailable by land and Balian’s strategy entailed using a postern that opened onto the sea, which Ibelin sympathizers had promised to leave unlocked. Balian led a mounted force along the base of the city on the seaward side, a very dangerous operation because, as Novare reports, “the sea was high and the horses fell on the stones and many people were in danger of death.”[iv] The postern was indeed opened from the inside, but the attackers were nearly overwhelmed before their supporting galleys could pass over the chain (also lowered by sympathizers inside Tyre). However, they were able to win the upper hand, assisted by many residents of the city who took the opportunity to attack the Imperial partisans.

However, just as at Beirut thirteen years earlier, only the city had been captured in this daring attack; the citadel held firm for the emperor. Lotario Filangieri and the bulk of the Imperial mercenaries had taken refuge there and knew that Imperial reinforcements under Tommaso de Accera were underway. They were prepared to withstand a long siege.

But then the Ibelins had a stroke of luck: Riccardo Filangieri, their old enemy, had encountered terrible storms on his way back to Sicily. His vessel had foundered, but just before it sank he managed to transfer to a smaller vessel. This second ship, however, was too small to risk crossing the open sea. Filangiere and his party had, therefore, followed the coast back to Tyre, ignorant of the fact that the city had meanwhile fallen to the Ibelins. They sailed blissfully into Tyre harbor — and were immediately seized. 
Medieval Shipping by Charles Hamilton Smith

The prisoners were initially taken into custody by Sir Ralph de Soissons as the King Consort, but Balian “requested” (one imagines forcefully) that he be given custody of Filangieri because of the great injuries Filangieri had done to his castle at Beirut. Soissons resisted. Novare takes credit for convincing him that Filangieri’s fear of Balian would be greater and this could be used to their advantage. Significantly, according to Novare: “[Balian of] Beirut made such chains of iron as the emperor had made for him when he held him prisoner and hostage at Limassol.” 
Filangieri was also persuaded to send a message to his brother in the citadel, informing him of his capture and requesting the surrender of the castle. His brother steadfastly refused. Balian did not hesitate to have Riccardo Filangieri, another of his brothers and a nephew led to a prominent point with nooses around their necks. Lotario caved in and called out for the Ibelins to send someone to negotiate. Novare was sent and successfully negotiated the surrender.
Interestingly, the terms allowed for the Filangieris to go in peace with all their belongings. Yet on his arrival in Sicily, Riccardo was imprisoned by the ever-vindictive Emperor for his "failure." Apparently, it never occurred to Frederick that it was his own policies and intransigence that had lead to the utter defeat of his cause in both Cyprus and Syria.

Yet while Balian kept his word to the Filangieris, he acted far less honorably towards his “queen.” Once the Imperial forces were gone, Ralph de Soissons, as the consort of the queen, demanded that Balian surrender Tyre to him.  Balian flatly refused, using a flimsy excuse. Soissons “saw then that he had no power nor command and that he was but a shade. As a result of the disgust and the chagrin which he had over this, he abandoned all, left the queen his wife, and went to his own country.”[v]  (Soisson's actions confirm that his interest in Alice of Champagne was exclusively in her claims to the crown of Jerusalem.) According to Edbury, the Venetians were also shortchanged (by their own account), although given Venice’s near-insatiable greed in this period it is hard to know if their expectations for reward were justified or excessive in the first place. 

Yet, niceties aside, Balian had succeeded where his honorable father had failed. He had reduced the last stronghold of the imperialists, expelled the last imperial “Baillie” and ensured that his replacement did not dare set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Tommaso di Acerra landed in Tripoli and remained there, with no influence in Outremer whatsoever.

Balian was rewarded by being named Baillie of Jerusalem by King Henry I of Cyprus when the latter succeeded his mother as the closest relative of the absent Conrad Hohenstaufen. Thus, for the last year of his life Balian d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, was not only the ruler of Jerusalem in fact but also in name.

He died on September 4, 1247, of unknown causes. He would have been roughly 40 years of age. He left behind at least one son, John, who succeeded to the title of Lord of Beirut. 

Tomb of William of Salisbury
Clearly, Balian was a very different — and less admirable — man than his father. Balian was not prepared to risk arrest and death for the sake of an honorable reputation. He was not prepared to trust promises, certainly not from the Emperor. Novare never describes him, as he does his father, prostrating himself on the earth face-down in prayer, nor does he publicly declare his faith in God. Balian d’Ibelin does not, like his father, get named in the same breath as St. Louis. 
Nearly alone among his generation of peers he was not famous as a legal scholar, a historian, a philosopher, or a troubadour. There may be a reason. Tellingly, Balian insisted on custody of Filangieri because of what Filangieri had done to Beirut ten years earlier. Likewise, he insisted on the same kind of pillory for Filangieri as the Emperor had made for him. This suggests to me that Balian was traumatized by the experience of being tortured in the Emperor’s custody. The 21-year-old nobleman had not expected the treatment he received, and he never fully recovered from it psychologically. 
Balian appears to shine only as a soldier, a leader of men — and as a husband. He did not give up his Eschiva, he forced first his stubborn, principled and pious father and then pope himself to recognize the marriage instead. He did not do that for lands — he had more than enough and there were plenty of other heiresses including ones with royal blood he could have had. He did it for love.

Balian II is a wonderfully flawed hero for a novel, a man of passion more than principle, and a man of courage, iron will and determination. He is the hero of my current series of novels starting with:

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Monday, July 12, 2021

Balian of Beirut - Part I: Heir to a Legend

  Balian of Beirut died as regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he had been the man to capture the last Imperial bastion, Tyre. Throughout his adult life, he had been an ardent supporter of his father’s struggle for the Rule of Law in Outremer and took over the leadership of the baronial opposition to Hohenstaufen rule at his father’s death in 1236. Yet, he had a decidedly different temperament and personality from his father and grandfather. What follows is a biography in two parts.


Balian first enters the historical record on the (unnamed) day of his knighting. Interestingly, Novare notes that he and his younger brother Baldwin were knighted jointly, suggesting that either Balian’s knighting was delayed or his brother’s was moved forward — or both. The knighting of a lord’s eldest son was always celebrated more or less lavishly, and a lord was often allowed to levy special taxes to help finance the occasion. Knighting two sons at once was a means of getting the most out of that expenditure. More significantly, the entire event was held in Cyprus rather than in Balian’s future lordship of Beirut.  At the time of the knighting (ca. 1224), Beirut’s younger brother Philip was acting regent of Cyprus for the child king Henry I.  The fact that Balian was knighted on Cyprus suggests that he had served his apprenticeship as a squire with his uncle in Cyprus. The event was marked by great celebrations lasting several days and including jousting, plays, and other games. Unfortunately, it was in one such game that Sir Amaury Barlais believed he had been cheated by a certain Sir Toringuel, a charge that eventually led to attempted murder and exile, and contributed to the tensions that eventually erupted in civil war. (See: Seeds of Civil War).

While Balian had no role in this drama aside from being the cause of the celebration, his father tasked him with escorting Barlais out of the Kingdom of Cyprus. It was a delicate mission for one so young, and subsequent events suggest that he may not have handled it all too well. Then again maybe nothing he could have done would have convinced Barlais that the Ibelins were not his enemies.

Balian’s next historical appearance was more fateful. In 1228, when the Holy Roman Emperor arrived on Cyprus on his way to Syria, he sent avowals of his great love and respect for his “dear uncle” of Beirut (i.e. uncle of his deceased Empress Yolanda) and invited him and all his sons to a banquet. Balian and one of his brothers (sources differ on whether it was Baldwin or Hugh) were singled out for the greater “honor” of serving the Emperor at the table, “one with the cup and the other with the bowl.”[i] As related in The Emperor’s Banquet, Frederick II used the occasion (when his guests were unarmed and he had hundreds of armed men surrounding them) to attempt to extort money from Beirut.  When the latter refused to cave-in without a judgment of the court, Frederick took twenty hostages, including both of Beirut’s sons. They were to serve as assurances that Beirut would appear before a court. Again, Balian is here an object rather than an actor.

He was a victim next. Novare records that Balian and his brother were “put in pillories, large and exceedingly cruel; there was a cross of iron to which they were bound so that they were able to move neither their arms nor their legs….”[ii] Note: they were hostages for their father’s good behavior; the Emperor had not so much as accused them of committing a crime — much less proven that they were guilty of wrong-doing. Furthermore, Balian and his brother were not released until weeks later. Novare notes that the Ibelin sons “had endured so long an imprisonment on land and in the galleys at sea and were so miserable that it was pitiful to behold them.”[iii]

Despite this, Novare claims that after his release, Balian joined the Emperor’s household “willingly and amiably.” This is a little too much “goodness and light” in the opinion of historians. Peter Edbury’s far more logical interpretation is that Balian remained a hostage — albeit under better conditions.[iv] That the Emperor considered holding Balian the best means of coercing his father is clear from Novare’s report which puts the following words into the Emperor’s mouth: “I well know that Balian is your very heart and so long as I have him I shall have you.”[v]

Yet again, he was not the only hostage. The Emperor released Baldwin (or Hugh) but insisted that Beirut’s fourth son John, a youth of no more than 13 or 14, join his household as a squire. Clearly he was a second hostage, and one can only speculate why Frederick preferred the younger son over the older hostage Baldwin/Hugh.  Surprisingly, John ingratiated himself so well with the Emperor that he was offered a fief in Italy (Foggia). Balian, on the other hand, remained an inveterate opponent of the Hohenstaufen — something wholly understandable after having been tortured for nothing.

Henceforth, Balian is found at the forefront of the struggle against the Emperor. He sailed with his father in June 1229 to Cyprus and at the Battle of Nicosia, after his father had been unhorsed and isolated and his uncle slain, it was Balian who rallied the knights of Ibelin and led a decisive charge that put their enemies to flight. (See: Battle of Nicosia).

He was also active in the siege of St. Hilarion, at one point when a sally from the castle had over-run the Ibelin camp, “Sir Balian came… recovered the camp, and, spurring up to the gate of the wall, broke his lance on the iron of the wall gate.”[vi] At another point, when Novare was badly wounded before the castle, Balian “succored him and rescued him most vigorously.”[vii] Even taking into account Novare’s bias and affection for his “compeer” Balian, it would appear that Beirut’s heir, now about 22 years old, was developing into an exceptionally bold knight. 

It was probably at this juncture, after the defeat of the five imperial baillies but before the expedition of Riccardo Filangieri in 1231, that Balian married Eschiva de Montbèliard. Eschiva was the daughter and heiress of Walter de Montbèliard, the former Regent of Cyprus (1205-1210), and his wife Burgundia de Lusignan; her maternal grandparents were Aimery de Lusignan and Eschiva d’Ibelin. She had married sometime before 1229 Gerard de Montaigu, a nephew of both the Templar and Hospitaller Masters, Pedro and Guerin de Montaigu respectively, and also the nephew of the Archbishop of Nicosia, Eustorge de Montaigu.  Gerard had been killed in the Battle of Nicosia (July 14, 1229), fighting on the Ibelin side. The traditional year of mourning would have ended in July 1230, making the second half of 1230 the most probably date of the wedding.

Because Balian and Eschiva were cousins (Balian’s uncle Philip had married Eschiva’s aunt Alys, the sister of her father) they needed a dispensation from the pope for their marriage. However, this appears to have been lacking. Because it was lacking, Edbury states that the Archbishop of Nicosia excommunicated them and was then “hounded…out of his province” to take refuge in Acre.[viii] According to other sources, a papal excommunication was issued on March 4, 1231, however, in Cyprus at this time the year started on March 25, so a date of March 4, 1231 in Cypriot chronicles corresponds to March 4, 1232 in today's reckoning.*

Most probably, Nicosia (an uncle of Eschiva’s deceased husband and possibly offended by her desire to remarry so soon) threatened an excommunication. Something (probably intimidation from Balian and his friends) induced him to flee to Acre before he could implement it. At that point, the Archbishop may have appealed to the Papal Legate and Patriarch of Jerusalem, but the latter — owing much to the Lord of Beirut and being a bitter opponent of Frederick II — did nothing. So the Archbishop appealed over the Patriarch’s head, directly to the pope. The latter then issued the excommunication in March of 1232, the news reaching Outremere only shortly before the Battle of Argidi.

In any case, we know that in the fall of 1231, the Lord of Beirut entrusted his heir with holding the key port of Limassol against the Emperor’s fleet with some 600 knights and roughly 3,800 other fighting men on board. These men under the Imperial Marshal Riccardo Filangiere had been sent to re-establish imperial rule on Cyprus. Balian was so successful (despite having few troops at his disposal) that Filangieri opted not to force a landing at all. Instead, the imperial ships sailed across to Syria, where Filangieri promptly took the city of Beirut — but not the citadel.

The citadel of Beirut was well-provisioned with supplies and water, but Beirut had reduced the garrison to a minimum to concentrate his fighting men on Cyprus. Now it faced a siege with woefully inadequate manpower. Beirut, who was still on Cyprus, recognized the peril his castle was in and appealed to the King of Cyprus to aid him in recovering his city and relieving his castle. The King of Cyprus not only agreed but called up the entire army of Cyprus.

Delayed by storms and bad weather, however, it was the spring of 1232 before the Ibelin army reached Beirut. It was rapidly apparent that the Ibelin forces were too weak to dislodge the Imperialists, so the next best option was to send men through the Imperial blockade to reinforce the garrison. Roughly 100 men (knights, sergeants and squires) volunteered for this dangerous mission, and Balian expected to be entrusted with it. Instead, Beirut chose his younger brother Johnny — much to Balian’s outrage. Why? There is no mention of displeasure or excommunication. Rather, Beirut blandly announced that he had “greater need” for Balian “without than within.”[ix] In other words, young John was expendable; Balian was not.

Short term, Beirut wanted his heir to undertake a diplomatic mission to win the Prince of Antioch to the Ibelin cause. Antioch, however, appears to have doubted the Ibelin’s chances of success in their rebellion against the most powerful monarch on earth and preferred not to anger the Hohenstaufen. Balian found himself isolated and cut off, as the Prince of Antioch refused him permission to return to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Balian’s frustration and determination to rejoin his father can be measured by the fact that he contracted with the Genoese to bring two ships from Cyprus to take him off, and when they were disabled, he sought a safe-conduct from the Sultan of Damascus so he might pass through Saracen territory and from there to Acre to join his father.

As fate would have it, he did not need to make use of this safe-conduct. The Lord of Beirut had persuaded the Genoese of Acre to aid him and obtained so much support from his peers that the Imperial forces feared a confrontation. They abandoned Beirut and withdrew to Tyre, which was an Imperialist stronghold. Balian coming south from Antioch was the first Ibelin to reach Beirut after the siege was lifted. He found the citadel badly damaged but was greeted with great joy by his younger brother John and the rest of the garrison. Because he remained in Beirut, he was not present at the debacle of Casal Imbert, where his brothers Baldwin, Hugh and Guy, were humiliated and defeated in a surprise night attack.

Encouraged by their success at Casal Imbert, Amaury Barlais led Imperial mercenaries back to Cyprus and seized control of the entire island in the Emperor’s name. According to Novare, the Imperialist return had been so sudden that:

“most of the ladies and damsels and children of Cyprus were … not able to go to [the fortress of St. Hilarion] and so they took refuge in the churches and houses of religion, and many there were who took refuge and hid in the mountains and caves. These ladies dressed themselves as shepherdesses and their children as shepherds’ children, and these women went to glean the grain which was there and on this they lived, both themselves and their children, in such great misery that it is pitiful to relate.”[x]

Notably, Balian’s wife was not one of those who took refuge in a church or disguised herself as a shepherdess. Eschiva de Montbèliard, Novare tells us, “… dressed in the robes of a minor brother and…mounted a castle called Buffavento…[and] she provisioned it [Buffavento] with food, of which it had none.”[xi]

Meanwhile, Novare tells us dramatically,

“The Langobards…committed all the abominations and outrages and villainies of which they knew and were capable. They broke into the churches and the Temple and the house of the Hospital and all the religious houses, and they dragged the ladies and the children who clung to the altars and to the priests who chanted Masses….They put the ladies and children into carts and on donkeys most shamefully and sent them to [Kyrenia] to prison.”[xii]

The King of Cyprus could not allow these conditions to reign in his kingdom and he hurried back with the Cypriot host. He had come of age on May 3, during the Battle of Casal Imbert, and he led his army, but he wisely left the command to the experienced Lord of Beirut.

And Balian? He joined his father directly from Beirut, as the Cypriot army sailed up the coast of the Levant from Acre. The Cypriots made landfall at Famagusta that was strongly garrisoned by Imperial forces. They therefore landed on an island off the coast connected by a ford at low tide. They were able to off-load men and horses out of range of the Imperial forces. During the night small boats were sent into the city by cover of darkness, causing great confusion among the enemy. Frightened into thinking they were outnumbered, the Imperial forces set fire to their ships and pulled out. Throughout this operation there is no mention of Balian, suggesting that he was indeed in “disgrace” at this time. This would have been consistent with a March 1232 excommunication.

The King of Cyprus advanced unopposed to his capital. The Imperial forces chose to make a stand across the road from Nicosia to Kyrenia, selecting a strong position on the flank of the steep mountain range that cuts Nicosia off from the coast. The Imperial forces were drawn up on the slope and had the tactical advantage. All they really had to do was wait, but over-estimating their own strength they threw this advantage away. They charged the Cypriots. And Balian? This is what Novare, who was present at the battle, has to say:

Sir Balian, his son, had always in this war led the first troop. At this time [Beirut] made [Balian] come before him and demanded that he swear to obey the command of the Holy Church, for he was under sentence of excommunication because of his marriage. [Balian] replied that he could not accede to this request. The noble man [Beirut] … said: “Balian, I have more faith in God than in your knighthood, and since you do not wish to grant my request, leave the array for, and it please God, an excommunicated man shall never be a leader of our troop.”[xiii]

Balian disobeyed. 

More than that, as Novare tells us:

“…he escaped and went to the first rank where were his brother Sir Hugh and Sir Anceau; he gave them advice and showed them that which he knew to be of advantage, and then he left them and placed himself before them to the side. He had but few men who were with him, for at that time there were only five knights who would speak to him, all the others having sworn to respect the command of Holy Church…

“When the advance guard of the first company of Langobards approached the division of my lord of Beirut and the king, Sir Balian spurred through a most evil place, over rocks and stones, and went to attack the others above the middle of the pass. So much he delayed them and did such feats of arms that no one was able to enter or leave this pass…Many times was he pressed by so many lances that no one believed that he would ever be able to escape. Those who were below with the king saw him and knew him well by his arms and each of them cried to my lord of Beirut: “Ah, Sir, let us aid Sir Balian, for we see that he will be killed there above.” [The Lord of Beirut] said to them: “Leave him alone. Our Lord will aid him, and it please Him, and we shall ride straight forward with all speed, for if we should turn aside we might lose all.”[xiv]

The Cypriot forces were eventually victorious and chased the Imperial troops up and over the mountain to Kyrenia. Here the survivors, including the leaders of the Imperial faction, took refuge in the powerful fortress on the shore.  Because the Cypriots lacked a fleet, however, the leaders of the Imperial party were able to sail from Kyrenia to safety. Barlais, Bethsan, and Gibelet sailed to Italy where they were received by the Emperor and rewarded with Italian fiefs. Filangieri sailed for Tyre, where he continued to assert his claim to be Baillie of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a strong garrison held the castle of Kyrenia for the Emperor, and the Ibelins were forced to besiege it.

The siege was bitter with treason on both sides. Sir Anceau de Brei, one of the Ibelin’s staunchest and most colorful supporters, was wounded in the thigh by a crossbow and died some six months later of the infection. The Queen of Cyprus, Alice of Montferrat, who had sided with the Langobards and put herself in the castle of Kyrenia of her own free will, died of illness during the siege. At one point, Balian is reported leading an assault on the city that was fought off after grievous injuries to the attackers. So, apparently, Balian was back in his father’s favor, yet it is unclear if the excommunication had been lifted in the meantime or not.

Kyrenia fell after roughly a year-long siege, and the Lord of Beirut returned to Syria, where the Emperor tried to convince him that all would be forgiven and forgotten if he would just — as a point of honor — first come into the Emperor’s territory and place himself at the Emperor’s mercy. Beirut answered by relating a fable of a stag who an aging lion sweet-talks into coming into his lair. Twice he escapes with serious wounds, but the third time he is killed. Beirut stoutly declared he would heartless (more like brainless!) to trust the Emperor after all the times the Emperor had broken his word and attacked him or his without cause or due process.

Balian, however, appears to have remained in Cyprus with King Henry.  At all events, In March 1236 he was named Constable of Cyprus. In October of the same year, however, his father died. At the age of 29 or at most 30 Balian had become Lord of Beirut. 

The first half of Balian's life was characterized by deeds of courage, military competence and leadership, but also by undeniable impetuosity and passion. He charged in regardless of risks, and once he gave his heart nothing would induce him to abandon his lady. He does not appear to have inherited his grandfather's gift for negotiation and there is not a trace of his father's caution, calm and reason in the stories told about him. Yet he would need both to step into his father's shoes effectively.

Balian's story continues next week. Meanwhile, you can learn more about Balian in my current series describing the war between Frederick II and the barons of Outremer starting with:

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[i] Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936) 77.
[ii] Novare, 81
[iii] Novare, 87.
[iv] Edbury, Peter. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374 (Cambridghe: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 59.
[v] Novare, 81.
[vi] Novare, 106.
[vii] Novare, 106.
[viii] Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997) 56
[ix] Novare, p.132.
[x] Novare, 142.
[xi] Novare, 142
[xii] Novare, 143.
[xiii] Novare, 151.
[xiv] Novare,153
* Peter Edbury demonstrated this peculiarity in the dating of Cypriot events of the 12th and 13th centuries in his essay: "Redating the death of Henry I of Cyprus?" Law and History in the Latin East (Farnham Surry: Ashgate, 2014) 339-348.