Sunday, March 5, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Agnes de Courtenay

 

Agnes de Courtenay was the power behind Baldwin IV’s throne and she was a viperous enemy of my leading female character, Maria Comnena. Because of both these roles in history, I had to cede her a place in my novels. Furthermore, despite an attempt by historian Bernard Hamilton to rehabilitate her, the commentary of contemporaries and indeed the naked record of her actions condemn Agnes as a singularly stupid woman whose influence on her son was almost entirely negative. Something which, admittedly, fit in with her being the arch-enemy of Maria and so a prime candidate for a negative character in my novels. All novels need some negative characters after all….

So who was Agnes de Courtenay?

Agnes was the daughter of Joceyln II, Count of Edessa, who lost his county to the Saracens, in large part due to neglect and poor leadership. 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.  As a result, Agnes de Courtenay did not have 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. In just six years, her family had fallen from one of the richest and most powerful in the crusader states, to the status “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 probably no more than 10 or 12 years old, as she would have had to be at least 8 at her marriage to Reynald.

According to historian Malcolm Barber, she was next betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin (Balian’s oldest brother), 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.  While historians can leave unanswered the question of her feelings, a novelist cannot. Agnes’ feelings toward Hugh d’Ibelin are critical to the character Agnes in any novel about the Ibelins.

The (historical) plot thickens, however, when at the death of Baldwin III, who was childless, the High Court of Jerusalem refused to acknowledge his next of kin, Baldwin’s younger brother 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 rather about the character of his wife. Regardless of their reasons, such action could only have infuriated and enraged Agnes herself. Rather than becoming Queen, she was repudiated and sent back to her former betrothed (or husband) Hugh d’Ibelin. 

While historians don’t particularly need to figure out why Agnes was so despised by the High Court (the fact that she was is enough), for a novelist there is a gold mine here. It appears that Agnes was considered a ‘bad woman.’ Some historians have suggested that meant nothing more than that she was a Courtenay and expected to favor her family, but that was quite normal in the Middle Ages and hardly seems to justify such an unyielding stance on the part of the High Court. To the novelist, the insinuations that she was a woman of “easy virtue” ― alleged to have had affairs with a bishop (the later Patriarch Heraclius) and with Aimery de Lusignan is far more intriguing―even if not proved.

Likewise, while Agnes’ feelings do not much interest historians, they are hugely important to a novelist. How would a woman, who undoubtedly felt she ought to be queen, feel about the man she is forced to (re)marry to after losing a crown? It hardly seems likely that she was fond of Hugh under the circumstances, and the fact that the marriage was childless suggests it may have been no more than nominal. Certainly she was credited with hating the woman who took her place in Amalric's bed and became -- what she could not be -- his queen: the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena. Maria was latter wife of Balian d’Ibelin. 

But before that happened, Agnes had a stroke of luck. In 1176 Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and he invited his  mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes 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, Jocelyn 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 3) 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.

Her next acts of influence, however, were little short of calamitous: she arranged the marriage of her son’s two sisters (and heirs), Sibylla and Isabella, 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. Toron 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 historian Bernard 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 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. The dying King Baldwin IV 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 after 1183

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. But by then she was already dead.

As a novelist, I had no particular need to alter any of these facts or to engage in any form of revisionism with respect to Agnes. On the other hand, writing about history through the eyes of the Ibelins presented me with a problem usually overlooked by historians and novelists focused on the history of the kingdom. Namely: Agnes was Balian d’Ibelin's sister-in-law. She must have known both he and his brother very well, and their hostility to her (and vice versa) may have had more personal than political reasons

Historians tend to simply dismiss Ibelin hostility to Agnes as “ambition” from a “notoriously” ambitious family. But Balian and his brother belong only to the second generation of Ibelins, and they didn’t yet have a track record of being particularly ambitious or successful for that matter. Indeed, the Ibelins were hardly any different from any of the baronial families at this point. 

Alternatively, historians and novelists point to Agnes’ “natural” hatred of Maria Comnena, who had replaced her in her first husband’s bed and been crowned queen in her place. Certainly, this may have been the root cause of the hostility between Agnes and Maria, and through Maria to Balian and Baldwin d’Ibelin. But the tension might also have been older and deeper. It might have gone back to Agnes’ abandonment of Hugh d’Ibelin when he was in Saracen captivity just so she could marry the Prince of Jerusalem. This is the thesis I chose to expound upon in my novels as it is both logical and adds dimensions to the characters and their relationships.


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