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Monday, January 9, 2023

First Among Equals: the ‘Elected’ Kings of Jerusalem

Perhaps the most obvious curiosity of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was that the kings were ‘elected’ rather than succeeding strictly on the basis of hereditary right.  A legal scholar writing in the kingdom in the thirteenth century claimed unequivocally: ‘When this land was conquered it was by no chief lord, but by … the movement of pilgrims … They made a lord by agreement and by election and they gave him the lordship of the kingdom’.[i] The terminology ‘lordship of the kingdom’ is significant because it implies a position less than that of a sovereign. The King of Jerusalem was viewed by his subjects as no more than ‘first among equals’, and — critically — as such, was no less subject to the law than they. 

 ‘The Law’, however, was still inchoate and evolving. In Godfrey’s short reign, the consuming priority was defending the territory captured. With few men and no financial resources to hire huge mercenary armies, Godfrey adopted the familiar European practice of granting fiefs to men in return for military support; it was effectively a revival of the primitive feudalism of the early Middle Ages. Godfrey gave away land — often land he had not yet conquered — to those men willing and able to recruit enough fighting men to secure said territory. The men to whom Godfrey gave land recruited their armies by promising land in fief to others, creating the traditional pyramid of feudal obligations. For the first few decades, however, the military situation remained so precarious that many fiefs fell vacant, reverting to the crown. These were granted to new lords — often more than one. It was not until the middle of the twelfth century that lordships had stabilised and became largely hereditary among a small number of resident families. 

Nevertheless, the vulnerability of the kingdom in those early decades established other precedents that shaped the balance of power between kings and lords. The kings enjoyed the prestige of being kings, the highest-ranking noble in the kingdom and held extensive royal domains around Jerusalem, as well as directly controlling the cities of Acre and Tyre, and (intermittently) Jaffa and Ascalon, Nablus (Samaria) and Hebron, the latter three in personal union with the crown. These great royal fiefs gave the kings of Jerusalem financial resources far beyond that of any individual vassal, and with these, the ability to create money-fiefs or hire mercenaries. Furthermore, the king summoned and commanded the feudal armies of the kingdom. He summoned parliament and other assemblies. Lastly, he controlled church and state appointments, thereby retaining the ability to obtain clients through patronage.However, from the very inception of the realm, the kings of Jerusalem were extraordinarily dependent upon the cooperation, approval and counsel of their vassals. The geopolitical situation necessitated powerful marcher baronies as the first line of defence for the religious heartland around Jerusalem. These, in turn, needed mighty castles with sizeable garrisons of sergeant-archers and mobile defence forces composed of knights and turcopoles. These baronial armies, while essential to the defence of the realm, could also be turned against the king if their lords became disaffected. As a result, the kings of Jerusalem always had to tread warily not to alienate or offend the important magnates. Those that did, such as Fulk and Frederick II, soon found they had a civil war on their hands. The situation was, as one English scholar summarised it, ‘one which the English barons tried to establish when they forced Magna Carta on their reluctant monarch’.[ii]

In short, the kings of Jerusalem had less power than contemporary European monarchs such as Philip II of France or Henry II, Richard I or Edward I of England. For example, they could only enter the territory of their vassals in times of war or for assemblies. They did not have the guardianship of minor heirs and heiresses, which means they could not use them as tools of patronage. They did not receive ‘relief’ (a feudal payment) on the succession of heirs to a fief. They did not have a monopoly on minting money or collecting salvage.

Yet, without doubt, the most exceptional baronial privilege was that Jerusalem’s constitution recognised a vassal’s legal right to withdraw service, i.e., to rebel, if the king failed to fulfil his feudal obligations. In theory, the process entailed a vassal bringing charges against the king before the High Court (discussed below), and — should the king fail to abide by a judgement of that court in the vassal’s favor —the right to withdraw feudal service to the crown. While this right is implicit in other feudal states, what made Jerusalem exceptional was the vassal’s right to call upon his peers to support him. That is, the king’s failure to respect a judgement of the High Court could trigger a collective feudal ‘strike’.

Historians have pointed out that this rarely worked in practice because solidarity among vassals on any issue was rarely sufficient to make collective action possible. Even where there was a strong consensus, powerful monarchs could employ mercenaries to circumvent the impact of their vassals’ refusal to render service. This is precisely what happened during the war between the barons and Frederick II in the early thirteenth century. Yet there are several instances in the history of the kingdom when the barons acting together forced Jerusalem’s kings to alter their policies — without civil war. Baldwin I, for example, was forced to repudiate Adelaide of Sicily. Likewise, it was the refusal of the knights and nobles to crown Agnes de Courtenay that forced Amalric to renounce her. Another case in point was the collective refusal of Jerusalem’s knights and nobles to tolerate Guy de Lusignan as regent in late 1183. Baldwin IV was forced to dismiss Guy, resume personal governance and physically lead the feudal host to the relief of Kerak. Indeed, even Frederick II was ultimately brought to his knees by the opposition of his barons, despite the deployment of mercenaries.

The position of the kings of Cyprus was entirely different. The conquest of Cyprus was carried out under the unified command of the King of England. He sold his conquest to Guy de Lusignan, who bequeathed it to his closest male heir in strict accordance with the principles of French primogeniture. Thereafter, the kingdom remained a dynastic possession of the Lusignans. The traditions of Jerusalem found only a faint symbolic echo in the coronation ceremony of the Cypriot kings; before the coronation, the officiating cleric asked the assembled clergy, nobles, knights and commons for their approval of the monarch.

[i] John of Jaffa, quoted in Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 262.

[ii] John La Monte, Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1100-1291 (New York: The Medieval Academy of America, 1932), xxii


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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