Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Peculiar Custom of Electing Kings - The Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 - 1197.

Medieval Manuscript Illustration of the Election of Baldwin V of Jerusalem

When we think of kings, we generally don't think of elections. Monarchies are usually hereditary, after all, and changes in dynasty most often came about through bloodshed -- assassinations, invasions, and the like. The concept of a king being "elected" is almost unthinkable, at least in the high and late Middle Ages. Yet in one kingdom it was the norm: namely in the Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1099 and 1197.

Not, of course, that these were democratic elections in the sense of "one-man,one-vote" (let alone one-man or one-woman, one vote), but the kings of Jerusalem were for the first hundred years elected by their peers, i.e. the nobles, secular and sacred, of the kingdom.

It all started with the First Crusade. To the bewilderment of the Byzantine Emperor and the various Sultans, Emirs and Caliphs in the East, the First Crusade did not have a single, all-powerful leader. It was led by a motley band of noblemen with a variety of titles from duke on down, and not one of them was recognized as more senior or regal than the rest. Raymond de Toulouse was perhaps the wealthiest of the band, and Hugh de Vermandois was perhaps the best connected as the brother of the French king, but, by the time the remnants of the crusaders had reached Jerusalem, military prowess and piety had come to mean as much a bloodlines and money to the participants. 

Medieval Manuscript Illustration showing Godfrey de Bouillon leading the First Crusade
In any case, after capturing Jerusalem in July 1099, the leaders of the First Crusader were confronted with a situation not unfamiliar today: post-conflict reconstruction. It seems, that the leaders of the crusade had set out on their almost impossible mission without a clear plan for what they would do with Jerusalem and environs if they succeeded.

The fact was, the vast majority of the crusaders (or armed pilgrims as they were called at the time) had come to liberate the Holy Land and the sites of Christ's passion -- but not to live there. Mission accomplished, they wanted to return home to their families, their lands, their trades. (Historians now estimate that no more than one sixth of the crusaders remained in the Holy Land after completing their pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher.) 

It was obvious to the leaders of the crusade, however, that if they all went home, the Holy Land would immediately be reoccupied by the vastly more powerful and populous Muslim states surrounding it. They agreed that a Latin Christian state had to be established that would protect the Holy Land, and being the products of feudalism they really couldn't imagine any other form of government beyond a monarchy. So they "elected" from among their number the man they considered most capable and suitable to rule the new kingdom they had created .

To his credit, the man they elected, Godfrey de Bouillon, refused "to wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns," and he officially only carried the title "Advocate of the Holy Sepulcher." He died, however, within a year, and the remaining crusaders faced the same dilemma as before: they needed a ruler. 

Admittedly, the franchise was again very limited (the few Latin nobles and prelates still in the Holy Land at the time), but importantly it was not uncontested. The patriarch of Jerusalem at the time seemed to think the Holy City should be held by the Church (namely him) rather than a secular lord. Furthermore, by the right of primogeniture Godfrey's successor should have been his elder brother Eustace. The latter, however, was back in France and it seemed risky to send for him. So the men with anything to say in the kingdom, elected, Godfrey's younger Baldwin. The latter, by the way, had no scruples about wearing a "crown of gold" and allowed himself to be crowned with such in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

When Baldwin I too died without children in 1118, the secular and sacred leaders again gathered to decide on who should be his successor.  By now, as you can see, a precedent had been set and solidified. Thereafter, at the death of each king, the tenants-in-chief (both sacred and secular) met to decide who would succeed. While they always showed a strong bias in favor of a close relative of the previous monarch, they were by no means a mere "rubber stamp." Debates could be heated, and conditions could be set -- such as divorcing an unworthy wife, for example. Furthermore, this council of leading churchmen and barons was by now institutionalized as the "High Court" of Jerusalem. It had acquired a number of other significant constitutional functions above and beyond determining the next king after the death of the last -- but that is beyond the scope of this essay.

The importance of the High Court and the notion of consent by the subjects (well, the tenants-in-chief) can best be illustrated by the case of Queen Sibylla. When Baldwin V died still a child, his closest relatives were his mother, a daughter of King Amalric I by his first wife, and his aunt Isabella, the daughter of King Amalric by his second wife. Since Sibylla was the elder sister, she appeared the most logical candidate for successor. Unfortunately she was married to a wholly unsuitable man, who had managed to alienate virtually the entire nobility of the kingdom. The High Court was divided between a minority that was prepared to crown Sibylla on the condition that she divorce her husband and replace him with someone more suitable, and a majority that inclined to crowning her half-sister Isabella. Sibylla opted to ignore both. She had herself crowned with the support of the minority, and then broke her promise to them by not divorcing the unpopular and despised Guy de Lusignan but crowning him as her consort instead.

Queen Sibylla and Guy de Lusignan in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
The High Court, effectively circumvented, considered crowning Isabella as a rival (and tearing the country apart), but her husband was unwilling to play along and so the bulk of the nobles capitulated and accepted Sibylla as their queen. End of the elected kingship, you say. 

No, not quite.

Sibylla's claim to the throne remained flawed by the lack of HIgh Court consent, but because she had the best claim she was tolerated. Not so her husband. As soon as Sibylla died, the High Court took its revenge. Isabella (long the preferred candidate of the High Court) was pressured into deposing her ineffective husband (who had betrayed the High Court earlier), and marry a man of the High Court's choosing (Conrad de Montferrat). Henceforth the nobles of the kingdom viewed Conrad (who was not anointed) as the rightful king of Jerusalem rather than Guy (who was anointed).

Admittedly, at the time all this was happening the Kingdom of Jerusalem had ceased to exist. Guy had lost the entire kingdom in a disastrous battle in 1187, and all that remained was the city of Tyre (controlled by said Conrad) and a siege army around the city of Acre (led by Guy). Acre itself was in the hands of some of Saladin's elite troops, while Saladin himself commanded the army surrounding Guy siege force; in short, the besiegers were themselves besieged and would have been wiped out if they hadn't periodically received reinforcements and supplies by sea. 

The situation was soonfurther complicated by the arrival of the Third Crusade, led by Richard I of England, who staunchly backed his vassal Guy against the claims of Conrad, and Philip II, who backed his distant relative Conrad.  Unfortunately for Conrad, Philip soon packed up and went home, and he was left with the Lionheart.

Yet even the famous Lionheart could not force or persuade the High Court of Jerusalem to forfeit their right to elect their ruler. In a famous and telling episode, Richard called together the leaders of the entire crusade but most especially those men from the former Kingdom of Jerusalem that would remain behind in the Holy Land to defend it after the crusaders like himself had returned home. He asked them who should be king, and -- allegedly to Richard's surprise -- they unanimously chose Conrad. At which point, the Lionheart capitulated and recognized Conrad.

Nor was that the end. Shortly afterwards, Conrad was assassinated. Now, according to Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi (a pro-Richard source) "the people...elected [Henri de Champagne] their prince and lord." This language is particularly opaque and cannot possibly mean what we understand today by "the people" or "elect," but it is clear that Henri de Champagne was the choice of someone other than Richard of England. On the contrary, Richard advised Henri against marrying Isabella! Henri, however, ignored his uncle, married the heiress, and became de facto (though not de jure) king of Jerusalem for the next five years.

When Henri died in a freak accident, it was back to the old rule. The High Court of Jerusalem selected Isabella's husband for her because her consort would be the next king. They chose Aimery de Lusignan, who was duly "elected" King of Jerusalem in 1197.

Sibylla's usurpation of the throne is a key event in:

A divided kingdom,

                          a united enemy,

                                             and the struggle for Jerusalem!


Defender of Jerusalem

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For more fascinating customs from the past continue on this blog-hop!

New Release!

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2 
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An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.

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