The origins of the House of Ibelin remain obscure to this day, but one thing is certain: the first "Ibelin" was an adventurer, who made his fortune in the Holy Land. He was one of those men described by Fulk de Chartres, who soon "forgot" his origins and identified wholly with his new land and life in Outremer.
From the beginning of the 14th century, the Ibelins claimed their descent from the Counts of Chartres, but most historians dismiss this claim as concocted. Peter Edbury, one of the most important modern historians of the crusader states, writing in 1991 claims "onomastic evidence points to a presumably less exalted Italian background, perhaps in Pisa or Sardinia.” (Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1191 -1374, p. 39) Six years later, however, Edbury had revised his thesis slightly, now suggesting Tuscan or Ligurian origins (Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, p. 4). Sir Steven Runciman, in contrast, claimed that the house of Ibelin “was founded by the younger brother of a certain Guelin, who was deputy viscount of Chartres, that is to say, the Count of Blois’ representative in Chartres; and such officers in those days did not enjoy hereditary rank but were often drawn from lawyers’ families.” Runciman's preference for this version may have been influenced by the hindsight: so many of the 13th-century Ibelins were renowned lawyers.
Whatever his place of origin and whatever he called himself before coming to the Holy Land, the first man to identify himself as an “Ibelin” was a certain Barisan. Not only are his origins unknown, so are his dates of birth and death. All that we know about him for certain is that in 1115 he was appointed “Constable” of Jaffa. He was not raised to the nobility, however, until 1140, when the new castle of Ibelin, built as a bastion against attacks from Muslim-held Ascalon, was built. At some point (and this is a hotly debated issue among scholars of the topic) he married the heiress to the already extant barony of Ramla and Mirabel, Helvis. She, however, may not have been an heiress at the time of her wedding, as she had a brother, who clearly also had a right to inherit Ramla. Only after her brother's death, did Helvis have clear title to the barony, which she then passed to her husband and sons respectively.
Barisan is known to have had three sons, Hugh, Baldwin, and Barisan the Younger, more commonly known as Balian. Hugh succeeded to his father’s titles at the time of Barisan-the-Elder’s death (ca. 1150) and was active in military campaigns throughout the 1160s. He was also the first man to style himself “of Ibelin.” However, since Barisan-the-elder would have had to be a mature man (at least 30 years old) before he was entrusted with the constableship of one of the most important ports in the kingdom (Jaffa is not a good harbor but is the port closest to Jerusalem), we can assume that he was born no later than 1085. If he did not marry until 1140, he would have been a fifty-five-year-old bridegroom. While this is not exceptional in itself, it is rare for a first marriage, making it far more likely that Hugh was the son of an earlier, unrecorded marriage to a woman of more obscure origins than Helvis of Ramla. The next sons, Baldwin and Balian, however, are almost certainly the children of Helvis, and Baldwin always used his mother’s more prestigious title of “Ramla” rather than Ibelin. Balian, in contrast, initially used “Ibelin” as a family name because he was not lord of Ibelin (his brothers were) until he married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. But that is another story which will be told later.
Barisan-the-Elder died in or about 1150. He probably died peacefully in his bed, as a more spectacular death would have been more likely to attract comment. He would have been about 65 years old when he died, which was a ripe old age in the early 12th century, particularly for a man who spent most of his life-fighting in a notoriously brutal environment. He would have been justified in being well-pleased with his rise from landless, younger son of a quasi-bourgeois family to baron in the Holy Land, but at his death, he could hardly envisage the power, prestige, and fame that his descendants would achieve over the next three centuries.
The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.