Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST CHRISTIAN HISTORICAL FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, July 20, 2018

House of Ibelin: Hugh the Forgotten

The first Baron Ibelin died in or about 1150 and was succeeded by his eldest son Hugh. Although he is often overlooked or forgotten in histories of the Holy Land, even when speaking of the Ibelins, it was his marital adventures that laid the foundation of future Ibelin successes.


Hugh's date of birth is unknown -- and so is his mother. Hugh, always referred to as "of Ibelin," may or may not have inherited the baronies of Ramla and Mirabel, derived from his father'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. Another explanation would be 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 or about 1157, Hugh married the (not yet but soon to become ) notorious Agnes de Courteney.


Now Agnes de Courteney came from one of the best families in Outremer, but by the time she married Hugh d'Ibelin, she was nothing but a penniless and landless orphan.  The County of Edessa had been hopelessly and completely lost to the Saracens by 1150. She was also already a widow. Her first husband, Reynald of Marash, had been killed in battle in 1149, although there is no way of knowing for sure how old Agnes had been at the time. Since she was probably 12 at the time of her first marriage, by 1157 she was in all probability in her late teens. 

It is unlikely she had much to say about her marriage. At the time it took place, her father was languishing in a Saracen prison (never to return; he died there ca. 1159). Her brother, the ever ineffectual Joscelyn III of Edessa, was in control of her, and both she and he were living on lands held by their mother (since their entire paternal inheritance was in the hands of the enemy) in the Principality of Antioch. Antioch was at the far north of the crusader territories; Ibelin was in the extreme south. It is unlikely that Agnes would have ever met Hugh d'Ibelin, the second Baron of Ibelin, and a man who held a small, unimportant fief not from the crown but from the County of Jaffa. A match between a sub-tenant and a penniless widow was a completely suitable match, even if Agnes' family had previously been powerful. Nothing really remarkable here.

But then things get interesting. Hugh d'Ibelin was taken captive by the Saracens in 1157 -- the year he presumably or allegedly married Agnes. Peter Edbury in his outstanding book John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Boydell Press, 1997, p. 8) speculates based on a variety of primary sources that Agnes was betrothed to Hugh, but that on her arrival in Ibelin to celebrate the marriage, he was already in a Saracen prison. Under the circumstances, since Hugh's father was dead and his brothers were still young children, Agnes' care fell to Hugh's feudal lord, the Count of Jaffa. The Count of Jaffa, however, was none other than the younger brother of the ruling King Baldwin III, Prince Amalric of Jerusalem.

What happened next is shrouded in obscurity, but at least one account suggests that Amalric "took her by force on the advice of his men." (See Edbury). On the other hand, there does not appear to have been any animosity between Hugh and Amalric in later years, and the king may even have helped pay Hugh's ransom. Since many captives did not ever return from captivity (such as Agnes own father) or spent years and years in prison (Raymond de Chatillon spent 15 years in a Saracen dungeon, and Raymond de Tripoli, seven), Hugh may well have viewed giving up a girl he'd never seen in exchange for Amalric's contributions to his ransom a perfectly reasonable, indeed good, deal.

 
In any case, when Hugh was released, Agnes was already married to Amalric and within the next half dozen years gave him two children, Sibylla (ca. 1159) and Baldwin (1161). Hugh, apparently still financially burdened by the after-effects of his ransom, did not marry. Then in February 1163, King Baldwin III died abruptly. His young Byzantine wife, the reputedly stunningly beautiful Theodora, had not yet produced an heir. Amalric, as the younger but mature brother of the king, a fighting man who already had two children, was the obvious best candidate to succeed him.

That the High Court of Jerusalem did not do so rapidly lay in the fact that suddenly objections were raised about Agnes. We do not know why the High Court objected to her. Officially, it suddenly discovered that she and Amalric were related within the prohibited degrees, but this hardly seems credible as it could easily have been overcome by a papal dispensation. Historians have therefore speculated that the real reason was that the barons of Jerusalem feared Agnes would use her influence to reward her penniless relatives with offices (thereby denying them these lucrative appointments) -- or that her reputation was so sullied that she was considered unsuitable to wear a crown in the Holy City. Another explanation is that the Church, which viewed a betrothal as sacrosanct, considered her marriage to Amalric bigamous because -- in the eyes of the Church -- she was still married (via the betrothal) to Hugh d'Ibelin.  


The latter explanation has a certain charm and is supported by the fact that after Amalric set Agnes aside in order to secure the crown of Jerusalem, she became the wife of Hugh d'Ibelin. She was his wife at the time of his death in ca. 1171. 

Since Hugh and Agnes had no children together, the significance of this marriage is often overlooked. Yet, whatever the reasons the High Court objected to Agnes, Amalric must have been very grateful to Hugh d'Ibelin for taking her off his hands and clearing the way to the throne. From Hugh's perspective, on the other hand, Agnes was "damaged goods" (and possibly discarded on moral grounds, i.e. because of infidelity and licentiousness; she was later said to have had affairs with Aimery de Lusignan and with the future patriarch Heraclius.) Yet, while Agnes herself may have been no great prize, she was the mother of the heir to the throne because the High Court explicitly recognized the legitimacy of Amalric's children by Agnes even as it forced him to discard her. Thus Hugh d'Ibelin got a wife of dubious virtue and tarnished reputation, but he earned the gratitude of the king and the status of step-father to the future king. 

Unfortunately for Hugh, he did not live long enough to capitalize on his relationship to the young Baldwin. He was dead in 1171. Yet it may well have been the Ibelins' ties to Agnes de Courtney that brought them within the "royal" circle. Certainly, after Baldwin IV came of age in 1176, the surviving Ibelins were in a stronger position than before as (step) uncles of the king. 


Even Balian d'Ibelin's marriage to the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, the woman who had replaced Agnes in Amalric's bed and had been crowned queen in her place, is quite possibly in an ironic way the result of Agnes influence -- though not necessarily her intention. Agnes and Maria reputedly detested one another, and Maria as a wealthy widow could be compelled by no one -- not even the king -- to marry against her wishes. Yet, perversely it may have been because his sister-in-law was such a powerful woman at court that Balian had the opportunity to meet and court the Dowager Queen Maria. We will never know for sure, but the ties between Agnes and the Ibelins have too often been overlooked. We should never forget, however, that while family relations were more important in power-sharing in the Middle Ages, they were no less fraught with emotional complexities than they are today.


The story of the Ibelins continues next week.

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come. 


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