Friday, December 5, 2014

Balian's Wife: The Controversial (and much maligned) Maria Comnena

Historically, Balian d'Ibelin married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, who English chroniclers called "scheming" and modern historians and novelists alike have vilified. I think unjustly. 

In Bernard Hamilton’s essay “Women in the Crusader States: Queens of Jerusalem 1000 - 1190” published in Medieval Women (ed. Derek Baker, Basel Blackwell, Oxford, 1978), Hamilton argues that it was Agnes de Courtney’s “misfortune” to have “bad relations to the press.”  He notes that “all contemporary sources are hostile to her”, but argues that that “her influence was not as baneful as the Ibelins and the Archbishop of Tyre would like posterity to presume.” He then goes on to describe Agnes’ rival, Maria Comnena, as “a ruthless and scheming woman.” Now Bernard Hamilton is a noted historian, but my father taught me to judge a person by his/her deeds — not by what others said about them.

So let us look at the record, not the reputation, of the wives of Amalric I of Jerusalem: Agnes de Courtney and Maria Comnena.


Medieval King and Queen

Agnes de Courtney was, according to Malcolm Barber, betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin, but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, but she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  Whatever her motives at the time of her marriage, when Baldwin III died childless, 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. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce.  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. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or 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.”



A King receiving the advice of his Vassals

Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died, married yet a third time. Until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him, and 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. Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtney 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, Joceyln 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 claim, 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.

Hamilton next applauds Agnes “cleverness” in marrying both heirs to the throne, her daughter Sibylla and her step-daughter Isabella (Maria Comnena’s daughter), to “men of her choosing.” We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. The latter 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, and then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to Hamilton, 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: he allegedly stabbed the unarmed and unarmoured Earl of Salisbury in the back, while the latter was escorting Queen Eleanor of England across her French territories. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. This is not a matter of “hostile sources” just the historical record that tells us 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 of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.


A medieval depiction of the disastrous Battle of Hattin

In contrast, there is only one known instance of Maria Comnena actively intervening in the affairs of the Kingdom. This was when she pressured (or “browbeat” according to Hamilton) her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her marriage with Humphrey de Toron and accepting Conrad de Montferrat as her husband. Hamilton portrays this as an act of unbridled, sinister power-seeking on the part of Maria.  Why Agnes’ five appointments should be “clever” (despite the disastrous consequences) but Maria’s effort to rescue the kingdom from the appalling and patently destructive leadership of King Guy should be seen as “power-hunger” on the part of Maria is baffling. It is certainly not an objective assessment of the behavior of the two women.

True, Isabella appears to have become fond of Humphrey de Toron, but she was the heir to the throne and princesses do not marry for the sake of their own pleasure but rather for the sake of the kingdom. To an objective observer, forcing an eight year old girl to marry a total stranger is considerably more manipulative and inhumane then for the a mother of a 17 year old princess to put pressure on her daughter to put the interests of the kingdom ahead of her personal preferences. 

To make matters worse, Hamilton reports – with apparent approval! – that Agnes prevented the child Isabella from visiting her mother, effectively imprisoning her in her castle at Kerak from the age of 8 to the age of 11, a period in which, incidentally, Kerak was twice besieged by Saladin. In short, Agnes was hardly keeping Isabella “safe” – she may even have been courting her capture and death to ensure there was no rival to her own daughter for the throne.  But as that is speculation, I will leave motives aside and focus on the fact that she keep a little girl imprisoned in an exposed castle, denying her the right to even visit her mother.


Medieval Mothers were not less fond of their children than mothers today!

In short, Hamilton suggests it is legitimate – indeed clever -- to separate an eight year old from her mother and step-father and expose her to danger, but it is devious and self-serving when the mother of a seventeen year old persuades her to set aside the husband forced on her as a child. That’s a warped view of affairs in my opinion.

The English chroniclers and Hamilton attribute to Maria evil motives and accuse her of “scheming” and deviousness without bringing forth a single example to support these allegations – aside from the above instance of pressuring her daughter into an unwanted divorce. In her one recorded act of “interference” she induced her daughter to marry not some adventurer, who would lose the kingdom, but the only man the barons of Jerusalem were willing to rally around after the disaster of Hattin. Her choice for her daughter was a proven military commander, who had just rescued Tyre from falling to Saladin. So even if her “interference” was as selfish and self-seeking as Hamilton implies, it was considerably wiser than Agnes’ choice of Guy de Lusignan.


Medieval Depiction of Isabella's Marriage to Humphrey de Toron -- but as she was only 11 at the time, it's more likely a picture of her marriage to Henry of Champagne, sponsored as the depicted, by King Richard I

After this one act, although her daughter was queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205 and Maria herself did not die until 1217, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom again – very odd behavior for Hamilton’s unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.  In short, not a single fact supports his allegations against her.

Even taking into account how historians love revisionism, an objective observer ought to recognize that the contemporary sources favorable to Maria may indeed have had justification and just as much reason to condemn Agnes de Courtney. It’s time modern historians stopped slandering Maria Comnena just for the sake of re-writing history.


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