Friday, January 29, 2016

Cast of Characters 3: The Queen Mother

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on King Baldwin's influential mother: Agnes de Courteney



Agnes de Courtenay is without doubt one of the women in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem who played a decisive — not to say sinister — role. She is an example of how women exercised power in the 12th century crusader kingdoms, and a reminder that female influence was not always benign.

Agnes de Courtenay was the daughter of the powerful Courtenay family. The French Courtenay’s were of distinguished enough lineage for a daughter of the family to marry the younger brother of King Louis VII of France. In the crusader kingdoms the family derived its importance from the fact that Joscelyn de Courtenay was a first cousin of  Baldwin de Bourcq, one of the leaders of the First Crusade. Baldwin was first Count of Edessa but was later elected King of Jerusalem to rule as Baldwin II. When Baldwin de Bourcq became King, he invested his cousin Joscelyn de Courtenay with his former County of Edessa, which he ruled as Joscelyn I. 

However, under his son Joscelyn II, the County was over-run and lost to the Saracens, in large part due to the neglect and poor leadership of Joscelyn II. The city of Edessa was lost to Zengi in November 1144, and by 1150 the last remnants of the once rich and powerful County were in Saracen hands. Joscelyn II himself was captured in the same year by Nur al-Din and tortured. He eventually died, still in captivity, in 1159. Thus his son, Joscelyn III of Edessa inherited his father’s title — but none of the lands or income that went with it. As titular Count of Edessa, he was to prove a singularly ineffective (not to say incompetent) leader, who distinguished himself by getting captured at a disastrous battle in 1164, playing a key part in the usurpation of the even more disastrous Guy de Lusignan, and finally by surrendering Acre to Saladin in haste when it was completely defensible. His sister was Agnes.

Agnes de Courtenay had not had an easy childhood. She had been married, possibly at an early age, to Reynald of Marash, who was killed in battle in 1149. The following year, her father was captured and never seen again. Her family had fallen in six years from one of the richest and most powerful in the crusader states, to “poor cousins” living on a few estates in Antioch that Agnes’ mother had from her first marriage. Agnes was a widow with no land and no dowry. She was also possibly no more than 10 or 12 years old, as she would have had to be at least 8 at her marriage to Reynald.

Under these circumstances, it appears that Agnes languished for some time in her mother’s much reduced household and was eventually betrothed to a man of comparatively obscure origins and only recent prominence: Hugh d’Ibelin. Hugh was the son of an adventurer of unknown origin, Barisan, who had distinguished himself as a knight and administrator in the reign of Baldwin II and been rewarded with the Constableship of Jaffa and then the newly created barony of Ibelin. Ibelin was small. It owed only ten knights to the feudal levee, and Agnes may have felt it was beneath her dignity as the daughter of a count.  In any case, in 1157, sometime shortly after the betrothal, Hugh d’Ibelin was taken captive at Jacob’s Ford.

This left Agnes in a very difficult position. She was probably about 17 years of age, penniless, her father was still in a Saracen prison, her brother was probably even younger than she was, and now her betrothed was in captivity as well. She may have assumed he would suffer the same fate as her father and never return. She may have felt vulnerable and desperate, or she may simply have been flattered to find that the King’s younger brother took an interest in her. Whether she was the seducer or the seduced, or whether she was outright abducted (as some historians have suggested; see H.E. Mayer, “The Origins of King Amalric”), sometime in 1157 she “married” Prince Amalric of Jerusalem, then Count of Jaffa and Ascalon.

Agnes proceeded to give the Count of Jaffa two children, a daughter, Sibylla, born in or about 1159 and a son, Baldwin, in 1161. Then in February 1163, her brother-in-law, Baldwin III of Jerusalem, died childless. Amalric as his brother, a young and still vigorous man with experience in war and peace, seemed the most obvious candidate to succeed him. But far from being immediately acclaimed king, Amalric faced serious opposition — because of his wife. In fact, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside.

Why, we do not know. Officially, the Church suddenly discovered and was “shocked, simply shocked” to discover (after six years of marriage) that Amalric and Agnes were related within the prohibited degrees. But even the highly educated Church scholar and royal insider William of Tyre found this explanation so baffling that he had to do extra research to track down the relationship. The issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin was certainly another canonical ground for divorce, although not explicitly mentioned. However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife — or her relatives as Malcolm Barber suggests. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or already a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press,” as Bernard Hamilton suggests.

Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died in or about 1170, married yet a fourth time. For a dowerless woman, that’s quite a record, and suggests she may have had charms that are inadequately conveyed by the historical record. She had no children by any of her husbands (or lovers) except Amalaric, and until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him.  Even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court.

Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. She rapidly established herself here as a key influence upon her still teenage son. This was derived from her apparently affectionate relationship with her son, who was by this point obviously afflicted with leprosy.  She travelled with him even on campaigns, and appears to have taken a motherly interest in his health and welfare. Since Baldwin IV was unmarried, Agnes’ influence was all the stronger.  Thus, although she never wore a crown, she was undoubtedly the most powerful woman at court of Baldwin IV, and by the end of Baldwin’s reign she took part in the sessions of the High Court.

She was also, at this stage in her life, allegedly promiscuous. She would have been in her late 30s when her son invited her back to court and she had been widowed three times. Although technically married to Reginald of Sidon, she is rarely mentioned together with him, and they appear to have lived completely separate lives. While her husband kept to his estates and fought the enemy, Agnes was “at court,” where she is said to have had the Archbishop of Caesarea, a native by the name of Heraclius, as her lover. Either after him or simultaneously with Heraclius, she is alleged to have had an affair with Aimery de Lusignan as well.

While her morals are arguably her own affair and modern sensibilities are not greatly offended by a mature woman finding sexual pleasure wherever she pleases, it was Agnes influence on her son that from a historical perspective was reprehensible.  Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtenay had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joscelyn of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claims, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Worse, Agnes also engineered the marriage of not only her own daughter, Sibylla, but of her step-daughter, Isabella, the child born to Amalric by his second wife, Maria Comnena, after Agnes had been set aside. No other actions in Agnes de Courtenay’s life were so detrimental to the welfare of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as these two marriages.  We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively.

The latter, Humphrey, was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch. He then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, Toron apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for a future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well. (See my entries on Guy and Aimery de Lusignan.)  In a short space of time he alienated his brother-in-law, King Baldwin IV, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. The dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper -– than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust on the part of the barons misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons (except Ramla and Tripoli) grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtenay’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.

In retrospect, Agnes de Courtenay was clearly an ambitious woman, who clawed her way from comparative helplessness and impoverishment to the pinnacle of power -- behind the throne of her son. She suffered a number of set-backs in her life, most notably the High Court’s refusal to recognize her as Queen, and she must have been embittered by this. She is credited with hating her successor as Amalric’s wife, the woman who was crowned queen in her place, Maria Comnena bitterly.  The extent to which her subsequent actions were motivated by a consuming thirst for revenge should, therefore, not be under-estimated. Whatever her motives, whether a conscious desire to humiliate those she blamed for her own humiliation or simply a lack of intelligence commensurate to her ambition, her overall impact on the history of the crusader states was tragically negative.

Read more about Agnes and other women in the Kingdom of Jerusalem at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.


My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.




A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.





 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem



Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!


Friday, January 15, 2016

Cast of Characters 2: The Leper King

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels on Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the "Leper King."



Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to the childless King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. 

Just two years latter, Baldwin III died and Amalric ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside Agnes. Although Agnes was rapidly dismissed, Amalric's children of this marriage, two-year-old Baldwin and three-year-old Sibylla, were explicitly recognized as legitimate. They remained at court with their father. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. However, initially, Baldwin retained the use of his other limbs and did not suffer from noticeable disfigurement. His illness was kept quiet.

In 1174, King Amalric died unexpectedly of dysentery on his way back from a campaign against Nur ad-Din, the Sultan of Damascus. Baldwin was elected his successor by the High Court of Jerusalem despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus.  Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendant of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons in the crusader states. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above all ride without apparent impediment.

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself and signaled this by calling his mother back to court and placing his maternal uncle, Joscelyn of Edessa, into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoli appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated.


Baldwin IV in "Kingdom of Jerusalem"



Given his illness, however, and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's heir apparent, his older sister Sibylla.  In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. 
 Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah ad-Din had arranged the murder of the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in 1174 opened the way for Salah-ad-Din to seize control of Damascus as well, with Nur-ad-Din's legal heir fleeing to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177 -- and to bolster his own legitimacy he declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. He hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah ad-Din's Shiia and Arab subjects who resented a Kurdish, Sunni usurper. Unfortunately, the Count of Flanders, who had arrived from the West with a large contingent of knights, thought he should be made King of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and the coalition fell apart. The Byzantine fleet withdrew and Flanders went off to campaign against Syria, taking many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah ad-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon had been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knights, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now Baldwin was trapped inside and Jerusalem was practically defenseless, so Salah ad-Din decided to strike for the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a leper youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177.


A modern depiction of the Battle of Montgisard (copyright Talento)

But the consequences for Baldwin personally were also devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration.  However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah ad-Din that resulted in the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacity to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler, Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer!), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" an princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.


A Royal Marriage

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah ad-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing himself on his death-bed he made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princesses of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. He was dismissed as regent, and Baldwin IV had to drag is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah ad-Din to withdraw. 


The Castle of Kerak, now in Jordan

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year latter -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.


"The Leper King" is a major character in the first to book of my biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin.

Both books Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase in ebook or trade paperback.




A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.





 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem



Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!


Friday, January 1, 2016

Cast of Characters 1: Balian, Baron of Ibelin

The clash of personalities and ambitions, the interplay of love and hate, the struggle between reason and emotion, and the competition between jealousy and loyalty determined the course of history--and still drives contemporary developments. It is because of the role played by historical figures in shaping our past that I write biographical fiction. 

My series centered on Balian d'Ibelin is filled with real historical figures, many of whom are as important as Balian himself. Over the next several months I will be presenting short biographies of the important historical figures that appear in my Balian books. I think you'll discover (as I did) that most of them led lives worthy of a novel of their own! I begin, of course, with the hero of the series: Balian d'Ibelin himself. 

Hollywood made him a blacksmith; Arab chronicles said he was "like a king."  
He served a leper, but defied Richard the Lionheart.
He fought Saladin to a stand-still, yet retained his respect.
Rather than dally with a princess, he  married a dowager queen -- and founded a dynasty. He was a warrior and a diplomat both. 

Balian d'Ibelin was a historical figure, whose biography was significantly different from the Hollywood figure in Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven." What follows is a short synopsis of the known historical facts about his life. 

Balian was born in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem around the middle of the 12th century (the exact year is not recorded).  Because of the subsequent importance of the Ibelins, Historians have tried to trace the origins of the family, but they do not agree among themselves. The most plausible theory, however, is that Balian was the third son of the First Baron of Ibelin, a relatively small barony that had been created in the mid-1140s as a bulwark against the city of Ascalon, then a major stronghold of the Fatimid Caliphate and frequently used for raids against Jerusalem.

The First Baron of Ibelin died in or about 1150, and was succeeded by his eldest son Hugh. However, it is not certain that Hugh (always referred to as "of Ibelin,") also inherited the baronies of Ramla and Mirabel, which were the inheritance of the First Baron's widow, Helvis. Some historians postulate that Helvis did not become an heiress until after the death of her brother, shortly before Hugh's own death. However, another explanation is that Hugh was the son of an earlier marriage and so only entitled to his paternal inheritance, while Ramla and Mirabel went immediately to Helvis' eldest son, Baldwin. In any case, Hugh died childless in or about 1171, and the titles of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel were thereafter held then jointly by the next son, Baldwin.

Balian first enters the historical record when he is mentioned, along with his elder brother Baldwin, playing a decisive role at the important Christian victory over an invading Saracen army led by Saladin at Montgisard in 1177. Shortly thereafter, Balian made a scandalously brilliant match, marrying the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. With this marriage he also became step-father to Princess Isabella of Jerusalem, the half-sister of King Baldwin of Jerusalem. Isabella was second-in-line to the throne after the king's full-sister, Sibylla. At about the same time, and possibly as part of the marriage arrangement, he was accorded the title of Baron of Ibelin; one presumes his older brother was persuaded to turn this, the least of his three titles, over to his younger brother to make him a more suitable match for a dowager queen.

From this point onwards, Balain took part in all of the major military campaigns of the next decade and was also a member of the High Court of Jerusalem. Significantly, in 1183 when Baldwin IV decided to crown his nephew during his own lifetime to reduce the risk of a succession crisis, Balian was selected -- ahead of all the more senior and important barons of the realm -- to carry the child on his shoulders to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

At the death of Baldwin V in the summer of 1186, Balian took a leading role in opposing the usurpation of the throne by Sibylla of Jerusalem and most especially her devious tactics to get her unpopular second husband, Guy de Lusignan, crowned as her consort.  At his wife's dower property of Nablus, just north of Jerusalem, Balian hosted a meeting of the majority of the High Court -- all those opposed to Sibylla and Guy. At this rump-High Court, the bishops and barons proposed crowning Sibylla's half-sister (Balian's step-daughter) Isabella Queen of Jerusalem as a rival to Sibylla and Guy. These plans were thwarted by Isabella's young husband, Humphrey of Toron, who secretly did homage to Guy, robbing Isabella's supporters of a viable alternative to Sibylla/Guy.

In consequence, the majority of the barons became reconciled with Sibylla and Guy's usurpation and did homage to them, but Balian's older brother, Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel, refused.  Instead, in a dramatic gesture, he abdicated his titles in favor of his small son and gave both the boy and his baronies into the keeping of his brother Balian. He then quit the Kingdom to seek his fortune in the Principality of Antioch and disappears from the historical record.

With the departure of his brother, Balian was suddenly elevated to one of the most powerful barons in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, controlling (in the name of his nephew and wife) the second largest contingent of feudal levees owed to the crown. He used this power to try to reconcile the usurper, Guy de Lusignan, with the only baron more powerful than himself: Raymond Count of Tripoli. The latter, like his brother, was refusing to do homage to Guy, despite the clear and present danger posed by Saladin.  

Balian was ultimately successful in his reconciliation efforts, and shortly afterwards Balian and Raymond demonstrated their loyalty to the crown by answering the royal summons to muster under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan when he faced Saladin’s invasion of July 1187.  Against the advice of both Raymond and Balian, Guy chose to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march the army across an arid plateau to  the relief of the beleaguered city of Tiberius. The siege of Tiberius was bait, and Guy led the army into a trap set by Saladin that ended in a disastrous defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin. Balian was one of only three Christian barons to escape the debacle.  Toward the end of the battle, he Ied a successful charge against the Saracens at Hattin, possibly directed at Saladin himself, and effected a break-out. He is believed to have ridden to Tyre or Tripoli with the men he led out of the encirclement.

The destruction or capture of the bulk of the Christian army, however, left the Kingdom of Jerusalem undefended. Saladin followed up his victory at Hattin by capturing one city and castle after another until, by the start of September 1187, Saladin controlled the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem except some isolated castles, the city of Tyre, and the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. 

In Jerusalem were concentrated somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians; twenty thousand inhabitants and between forty and eighty thousand refugees from the territories Saladin had already conquered. But there were no knights in Jerusalem and no commander.  Saladin called a delegation from Jerusalem to him at Ascalon and offered to let those trapped in the city go free in exchange for the surrender of the city. The representatives from Jerusalem refused. According to Arab sources they said that Jerusalem was sacred to their faith and that they could not surrender it; they preferred martyrdom. Saladin vowed to slaughter everyone in the city since it had defied him.

Among the refugees in the city of Jerusalem were Balian’s wife, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his four young children. Balian had no intention of letting his wife and children be slaughtered and so he approached Saladin and requested a safe-conduct to ride to Jerusalem and remove his wife and children. Saladin agreed -- on the condition that he ride to Jerusalem unarmed and stay only one night.

Balian had not reckoned with the reaction of the residents and refugees in Jerusalem. The arrival of a battle-tested baron --one of only two who had escaped Hattin with his honor still intact -- was seen as divine intervention and the citizens along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem begged Balian to take command of the defense. The Patriarch demonstratively absolved him of his oath to Saladin. Balian felt he had no choice. He sent word to Saladin of his predicament and Saladin graciously sent 50 of his own men to escort Balian’s family to the Tripoli (still in Christian hands), while Balian remained to defend Jerusalem against overwhelming odds.

And defend Jerusalem he did.  After conducting foraging sorties to collect supplies for the population from the surrounding Saracen-held territory, he so successfully held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21 – 25 that Saladin was forced to re-deploy his army against a different sector of the wall. On September 29, however, Saladin’s sappers successfully undermined a portion of the wall and brought down a segment roughly 30 meters long. Jerusalem was no longer defensible.

It was now that Balian proved his talent as a diplomat. With Saracen forces pouring over the breech and into the city, their banners flying from one of the nearest towers, Balian went to Saladin to negotiate. According to Arab sources, Saladin scoffed: one doesn’t negotiate the surrender of a city that has already fallen. But as he dismissively pointed to his banners on the walls of the city, those banners were thrown down and replaced again by the banners of Jerusalem. Balian played his trump. If the Sultan would not give him terms, he and his men would not only kill the Muslim prisoners they held along with all the inhabitants: they would desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa Mosque. Saladin gave in.  The Christians were given 40 days to raise ransoms of 10 dinars per man, 5 per woman and 2 per child. Although an estimated fifteen thousand Christians were still marched off into slavery at the end of the forty days, forty to sixty thousand Christians survived as free men and women thanks to Balian’s skill as a negotiator.

Balian escorted a column consisting of roughly one third of refugees from Jerusalem to Tyre, the closest city still in Christian hands. The man commanding Tyre at the time, Conrad de Montferrat, however, could not admit fifteen thousand more people to a city already under siege and at risk of starvation if relief did not come from the West. So while the bulk of the non-combatants continued to Tripoli, Balian and other fighting men remained in Tyre to continue the fight against Saladin.  

In 1188 Saladin released Guy de Lusignan, taken captive at Hattin, but Montferrat refused to either admit him to the city of Tyre or recognize him as king. On the advice of his brother Geoffrey, recently arrived from France, Guy de Lusignan raised troops in the Principality of Antioch and laid siege to the city of Acre, formerly the most important port of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and now in Saracen hands. Balian, despite his profound disagreements with Guy, joined him there; his determination to recapture some of the former kingdom of greater importance to him than his disagreements with Guy de Lusignan.

When Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters by Guy de Lusignan died in 1190, however, the situation changed for Balian. Guy's claim to the thrown was through his wife. With her death, the legitimate queen of Jerusalem was Balian's step-daughter, Isabella. Isabella had been married since the age of 11 to a ineffectual young nobleman, Humphrey de Toron. Realizing that the Kingdom at this time needed a fighting man as its king, Balian and his wife convinced Isabella to set Humphrey aside on the grounds that she had been forced into the marriage against her will before reaching the legal age of consent. (She had been forcibly separated from her mother and step-father at age eight, and married at age eleven.) Having divorced Toron, she at once married Conrad de Montferrat. 

Thereafter, Balian staunchly supported Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. This put him in direct conflict with Richard I of England, who backed Guy de Lusignan, the latter being the brother of one of his vassals. As a result, during the first year of Richard’s presence in the Holy Land, Balian remained persona non grata in Richard’s court. In fact, he served as an envoy for Conrad de Montferrat to the Sultan’s court — something Richard’s entourage and chroniclers viewed as nothing short of outright treason to the Christian cause.

Richard the Lionheart, however, was neither a fool nor a bigot. He recognized that after he went home (as he must) only the barons and knights of Outremer could defend the territories he had conquered in the course of the Third Crusade. He also reluctantly recognized that Guy de Lusignan would never be accepted as King by the barons and knights of the Kingdom he had led to disastrous defeat at Hattin. So in April 1192, Richard withdrew his support for Lusignan and recognized Isabella and her husband as the rightful rulers of Jerusalem. 

By doing so, he opened the doors to cooperation with Balian d’Ibelin.  Soon thereafter, Richard employed Ibelin as a negotiator with Saladin and in August Balian cut a deal with Saladin that provided for a three year truce (neither side wanted peace for both were unsatisfied with the status quo), which allowed free access to Jerusalem for unarmed Christian pilgrims. Like the surrender of Jerusalem five years earlier, this was not a triumph -- but it was far better than what might have otherwise been expected under the circumstances. Notably Balian's truce left Ibelin and Ramla in Muslim hands, something that he must have negotiated with a heavy heart. However, he was compensated with the barony of Caymont near Acre.

Richard the Lionhearted returned to Europe and Isabella was crowned Queen of the much reduced by nevertheless viable Kingdom of Jerusalem. The man crowned as her consort was not, however, Conrad de Montferrat, who had fallen victim to an assassin only shortly before her coronation. Instead, her consort was her third husband, Henry of Champagne, a French noblemen, who had come out to the Holy Land in the Third Crusade. (Henry of Champagne was a grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France, which made him a first cousin of both Philip II of France and Richard of England.)

Balian was the leading nobleman in his step-daughter's kingdom, but he disappears from the historical record in 1194. It is usually presumed that he died about this time, but it is equally possible that instead he was simply out of the kingdom, possibly engaged diplomatically in reconciling the Kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem, the former married to his niece and the latter to his step-daughter. 

He left behind two sons, John and Philip. John became Constable of Jerusalem in 1198 and later the Lord of Beirut. Philip was to be Regent of the Kingdom of Cyprus. From these sons the Ibelin dynasty descended, a family often described as the most powerful of all baronial families in the Latin states of the Eastern Mediterranean for the next three hundred years.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.




A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.





 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem



Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Jerusalem: The Heart of the Crusader Kingdom

Church of the Holy Sepulcher as it is Today*

Jerusalem had been the goal of the first crusade, and Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom named after it. No understanding of Balian's world, therefore, can be complete without understanding what Jerusalem was like during his lifetime. Jerusalem is also the scene of many episodes in the first two books of the Balian d'Ibelin series.  What follows is a description of Jerusalem as it would have been just before it was captured by Saladin.

The Countryside to the East of Jerusalem Today

The Holy City of Jerusalem crowns a hill in semi-arid, hilly countryside and was in crusader times encircled by tall, white-stone walls punctuated with square towers, seven gates and at least three, possibly more, posterns.  To the east, south and west, the land sloped away sharply, but to the north the land was fairly level. There were olive orchards dating back to the time of Christ to the East, and in the crusader period the city was probably surrounded by other kinds of orchards as well. Common at this time were citrus orchards, but figs, dates, and almonds were also cultivated to serve the urban population. Almost certainly, there were also vineyards surrounding Jerusalem during the Christian period as wine was an important product of the kingdom, necessary for the liturgy and consumed in large quantities locally.



Picture of Jerusalem’s Walls

Life within crusader Jerusalem would have been exceptionally pleasant for the period. When the first crusaders took the city by storm in 1099 they carried out a massacre of the garrison and population that — while not as apocalyptic as often portrayed — left the city largely depopulated. The policy of not allowing any Muslims or Jews to live in the Holy City further reduced the population. The early kings of Jerusalem were compelled to invite Christian settlers not just from the West but from Syria as well.  Still the population never fully recovered and is estimated to have been no more than ca. 20,000 people in the second half of the 12th century. In consequence, Jerusalem was not densely populated and there were gardens and open spaces inside the walled city.

A Roof-top Garden in Jerusalem Today

Starting with life at the top, the religious and secular authorities both maintained palaces in Jerusalem. The patriarch’s palace was located beside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and unfortunately nothing is now left of it.  The royal family initially occupied the powerful citadel, whose oldest tower allegedly dated back to the reign of the biblical King David. However, they began construction of a “modern” palace in the first quarter of the 12th century. Although this too has been lost to us, contemporary accounts mention that the royal palace had extensive gardens. Since it was started by King Fulk of Anjou, it was probably inspired by similar to the palaces he was familiar with in France in this period — think of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s magnificent residence in Poitiers, for example, but it would have had “Eastern” elements of design and landscaping as well.


Citadel of David — the “Old Palace”

The gardens, for example, would have included palms, citrus fruits, pomegranates and other distinctive Mediterranean vegetation, such as oleander and hibiscus. More important, this palace (like the Patriarch's) was not fortress intended for defense (as castles in Western Europe), but rather had a purely residential and representational character. There was no need for narrow, “arrow-slit” windows or massive walls. On the contrary, the crusader states had major glass-making centers, notably at Beirut and Tyre, and glazed windows were quite common, certainly among the upper classes. So the royal and patriarchal palaces would not have been dark, dingy and smoky, as in the castles depicted in Hollywood, but rather sunny, well-lit and designed with cross-ventilation for cooling in the summers. The use of mosaic and tile floors would, furthermore, have been inherited from their predecessors (and most of the houses in Jerusalem were taken over in-tact after the Christians seized control), as was the use of slender columns, often dating from the Roman period.  A description of John d’Ibein’s palace in Beirut dating from 1212, for example, mentions mosaic floors so lifelike the observer was afraid of leaving his foot-print in the “sand” and polychrome marble walls as well as fountains and gardens. It offered splendid views of the sea as well — so large windows.  While John’s residence was built half a century later, it was also the home of a mere nobleman rather than a king. I think we can assume the royal palace of the Jerusalem and also the Patriarch’s palace were both very luxurious indeed.



Tiles Walls Today

Besides these two main palaces, Jerusalem housed the headquarters of the Knights Templar on the Temple Mount and the headquarters of the Knight’s Hospitaller, a huge establishment that took up a large city block and enclosed four churches, wards for over two thousand patients, a hospice for pilgrims, administrative buildings, barracks, kitchens etc. These complexes were large, multi-story stone buildings, again with glazed windows, courtyards, and sanitation. The accommodation for the Master and senior officers of these powerful orders would hardly have been less luxurious than for the king and patriarch.



Temple Mount Today: 
The hexagonal building on the left was a Baptistry from Crusader Times. On the right: The "Dome of the Rock" which in Crusader Jerusalem was converted into a church and known as the Temple of Gold


There were also lesser palaces for nobles and wealthy merchants.  The foundations of these houses in some cases dated back to the Roman period, and many were Byzantine or Fatimid since the capture of Jerusalem had not entailed whole scale destruction of the architectural substance. Arab sources stress that even when they re-took Jerusalem in 1187 (after a siege that did entail the use of stone throwers and mining), they still found many beautiful residences with “superb columns of marble and slabs of marble and mosaics in large quantities.” (Ibn al-Athir) Much of this ornamentation would have pre-dated the Christian period, but not all of it. Certainly, many churches were built and/or re-decorated in the crusader period and many of the craftsmen came from or were trained in Constantinople or by Byzantine masters. Undoubtedly some of these craftsmen also found employment on secular as well as sacred building projects.


   Houses with Medieval Features in Jerusalem Today




Life in any medieval Christian city was, of course, characterized by the pervasive presence of the Church and nowhere — except possibly in Rome — was the Church more important than in Jerusalem. There was not just the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Calvary Chapel, but dozens of churches catering to different Christian communities, Syrian and Armenian, Greek and Maronite, as well as the Latins. There were also the two great mosques on the Temple Mount which had been converted into churches, as well as the austere but lovely Church of St. Anne and many more. 


As for the bulk of the population, while accommodation would have ranged from the comfortable to the squalid as in any city in the world, nevertheless, this being an ancient, eastern city, it was well supplied with public cisterns, reservoirs, and baths. Indeed, most of the buildings in Jerusalem at this time had rain-fed cisterns to supplement the municipal water supply.  There was also network of open and covered markets. The covered markets are particularly intriguing and parts are still standing today. They were like tunnels, often running almost the entire width of the city, with vaulted ceilings and flanked by shop after shop. The paved walkway between the shops had steps to accommodate the slope and were not suitable for horses.

Covered Market in Jerusalem

Due to the annual pilgrim traffic, Jerusalem was also a city with many hostels and taverns, and the shops of the city would have catered to pilgrims by selling all the "exotic" things pilgrims sought from relics to silk and Turkish carpets. They would have sold all the necessities for everyday living  as well: shoes, textiles, candles and soap, for example. The city had separate markets for grain, pigs, poultry, fish, herbs and spices. It had quarters for the jewelers, gold and silver smiths, for textile goods, leather goods, glass, and weapons. My favorite is the “street of bad cooking,” which was apparently a medieval precursor of “food courts” for “fast food.”


Another Street Scene in Modern Jerusalem

Last but not least, the streets must have been a veritable “tower of Babel” with the native population speaking Arabic, Greek, Armenian and French, while pilgrims came from the far corners of the earth speaking Norse, English, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, German and more.

* All photos in this entry were taken by the author in 2014.


Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.




A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.





 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem



Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!