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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem


Sibylla of Jerusalem is a historical figure I intensely dislike ― but she is great novel material.  The antithesis of the power-hungry woman, she consistently put her affection for her second husband above the well-being of her kingdom. In so doing, she doomed her kingdom to humiliation, defeat and almost complete annihilation. That is not something I find admirable, but as the following short biography highlights her behavior was astonishingly consistent and comprehensible.

Sibylla was born in 1160, the eldest child of Amalric of Jerusalem. Three years later, her father repudiated her mother in order to become king. Although Sibylla and her brother Baldwin were explicitly recognized as legitimate, their mother was banished from court and Sibylla, despite her tender age, was sent to the convent at Bethany near Jerusalem to be raised by her father’s aunt.

Ten years later, her younger brother Baldwin contracted leprosy. This meant that he might not live to adulthood and, even if he did, he was unlikely to have heirs of his body. Finding a husband for 10-year-old Sibylla was suddenly of paramount importance to the kingdom. The Archbishop of Tyre was dispatched to the West to find a suitable nobleman and returned with Stephen of Sancerre, the  brother-in-law of the King of France. But Stephen unexpectedly refused to marry Sibylla and returned to France, squandering his chance to be King of Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine what about a little girl living in a convent could have so offended an ambitious noblemen, so it is probable that his decision had nothing to do with Sibylla at all. Nevertheless, while his motives are historically unimportant, as a novelist the incident is highly significant: Sancerre probably hurt Sibylla deeply and may have severely damaged her self-confidence―something that later men would have been able to exploit.

In 1174, Sibylla’s father died unexpectedly and her younger brother ascended the throne as Baldwin IV, but this changed nothing with respect to the need to find a husband for Sibylla. This time the king, his regent and the High Court chose William Marquis de Montferrat, who arrived in the Holy Land in October 1176. Within six weeks, he married the then 16-year old Sibylla. There is no reason to think that Sibylla was ill-pleased with this choice of husband, or he with her. He certainly did not reject her and she became pregnant shortly after the marriage. Unfortunately, William de Montferrat became ill within six months and after eight, in June 1177, he was dead. Seventeen-year-old Sibylla gave birth to a posthumous son in August, who was named Baldwin after the king.

At once the search for a new husband for Sibylla commenced. The Count of Flanders, as a close kinsman (his mother was Sibylla’s aunt) felt he was entitled to select Sibylla’s next husband, and put forward the name of one of his vassals. Furthermore, he wanted to marry Sibylla’s half-sister to this man’s younger brother, thereby binding both princesses to his vassals — a crude means of making himself master of the kingdom without actually doing the hard work of fighting for it. This was, understandably, unacceptable to the High Court of Jerusalem.  The Count of Flanders returned to Europe and Sibylla was still without a new husband. What did Sibylla feel about it all? None of the clerical chroniclers care, but as novelist she may have felt insulted (as her brother and the High Court did), or she may have started to enjoy her freedom. After all, she’d already given Jerusalem an heir and her brother was starting to include her on his charters, effectively sharing government with her (at least in appearance.)

Meanwhile, however, King Baldwin, wrote to the King of France and begged him (Louis VII) to choose from among his barons a man who could take up the burden of ruling the “Holy Kingdom” (i.e. the Kingdom of Jerusalem). Louis chose Hugh, Duke of Burgundy, a very high-ranking nobleman indeed. He was expected to arrive in the Holy Land in spring of 1180. Instead, the Duke of Burgundy sent his regrets: the King of France had died leaving the kingdom to his young son Philip II and the Plantagenets were strong and predatory. Burgundy felt he had to remain in France to defend it. While Burgundy’s excuse is plausible, I seriously doubt his reasoning was much comfort to Sibylla. I imagine she (again) felt slighted and insulted.

Abruptly at Easter 1180, only weeks after Burgundy’s decision was made known to her, Sibylla married the landless, fourth son of the Lord of Lusignan, Guy, who had only recently arrived from the West. Some sources (notably the Archbishop of Tyre) suggest her brother rushed her into an admittedly unwise and hasty marriage to block an unwanted suit by the Baron of Ramla. A better explanation of what happened is offered by another contemporary chronicle (now lost) but quoted in later sources, Ernoul.  According to Ernoul, Guy de Lusignan seduced Sibylla and King Baldwin threatened to hang him for “debauching” a Princess of Jerusalem, but was persuaded by his mother (the self-serving and far from intelligent Agnes de Courtenay) and the tears of his sister to relent and allow Sibylla to marry.

This explanation of events appears very plausible. Sibylla had just been jilted for a second time. She was probably feeling very sorry for herself and may even have been wondering if something was “wrong” with her.  Suddenly, there was a dashing, handsome, young nobleman paying court to her, flattering her, making love to her. She fell for him. Not a terribly unusual thing for a 20 year old girl, especially one who was, after all, no virgin but already a widow and mother.

Furthermore, the evidence that Guy was Sibylla’s rather than her brother’s choice is provided by subsequent events. Within three years, Baldwin IV was desperately trying to find a way to annul the marriage, while Sibylla was doing everything she could to preserve her marriage. What is more, after her brother and son’s deaths, when told she could only become Queen if she divorced Guy, she agreed on the condition she be allowed to choose her next husband―and as soon as she was crowned and anointed she chose Guy as her “next” husband. By clinging to Guy as her husband and consort, she alienated not only the barons and bishops already opposed to her but also those who had loyally supported her on the condition she divorce Guy. These are not the actions of a woman in a dynastic marriage, but very consistent with the behavior of a woman desperately in love with her man.

Guy soon proved all his opponents right when within a year of usurping the throne (since he was never approved by the High Court he was not legally King of Jerusalem), he had lost roughly 17,000 Christian fighting men at an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin. Guy himself, furthermore, was a captive of Saladin. Sibylla, meanwhile, found herself trapped in Jerusalem as her no-longer defensible Kingdom crumbled before Saladin’s onslaught. She was the reigning, crowned and anointed Queen, yet at this critical juncture she did nothing — except beg to be allowed to join her husband in captivity. A queen? Asking to be allowed to go into enemy captivity? This is more than a gesture of love, it is evidence of Sibylla’s utter stupidity and lack of sense.

Saladin naturally granted Sibylla the right to join her husband in captivity — what better way to ensure that his enemies were completely in his hands? Meanwhile, the defense of the last remnants of her kingdom fell to her brother-in-law by her first marriage, Conrad de Montferrat, and the Baron of Ibelin.

But Sibylla’s devotion to Guy was not broken even by the humiliation of captivity. When he was released, she joined him at the siege of Acre. Here, while the Christians surrounded Muslim-controlled Acre, Saladin’s forces surrounded the Christian besiegers, hemming them in and cutting them off from supplies and reinforcements by land. Deplorable conditions reigned, including acute hunger at times and, eventually, disease. Yet Sibylla, crowned Queen of Jerusalem, preferred to be with her beloved Guy than act the part of queen―or even protect her dynasty. She not only followed Guy to Acre, she took her only surviving children, two daughters, with her.  She soon paid the price of her blind devotion to Guy: she died of fever along with both her daughters in the squalor of the siege camp at Acre in 1190. She was 30 years old.

Normally, it is admirable for a wife to be devoted to her husband, and a novelist looking for a historical romance could make a great love story out of Sibylla and Guy. But I don’t write romance, and as a historian it is clear that Sibylla shares the blame for losing the Holy Land because it was her stupidity and stubbornness that left the kingdom in the hands of an incompetent and despised man. At no time in her life did she show even a flicker of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Christians entrusted to her care nor did she demonstrate a shred of royal dignity. Had she been a baker’s daughter and a butcher’s wife her devotion to her husband might have been admirable; as a princess/queen she was a tragic clown.

And that’s exactly how I portray her in my novels.  

Sibylla is an important character in the last two books of my Jerusalem trilogy.


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1 comment:

  1. In all your writings of her -- that I've read -- I've yet to find anything to commend her.

    ReplyDelete