Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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.

Friday, August 31, 2018

House of Ibelin: Philip of Cyprus

Philip is often lumped together with his brother John, Lord of Beirut, by chroniclers and historians much the same way his father and uncle, Balian and Baldwin, were treated a generation earlier.  Yet, this should not be taken to mean that the brothers were identical, interchangeable or always in accord with one another. While we know much more about the words and deeds of John of Beirut than of his younger brother Philip, there is one revealing incident recorded in Novare that gives us a glimpse of Philip as an individual in his own right ― and a tantalizing hint of a man with passion and loyalty.

In 1224 or 1225 (the date remains unclear) at the days-long tournament to mark the knighting of John of Beirut’s two eldest sons, a knight of Philip d’Ibelin’s household “smote” down a certain Cypriot lord, Amaury Barlais, in a game of “barbadaye.” (No one nowadays knows exactly what this was, but it is assumed to be a kind of melee.) The next day, Barlais and his men waylaid the knight and came near to killing him.  At this point, according to Novare, “Sir Philip, the bailli, was much angered and wished to attack [Sir Amaury]… My lord of Beirut, his brother, intervened between them and held them apart by force and ordered his son, Sir Balian, to conduct Sir Amaury Barlais there where he wished to go.” (Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Colombia University Press, 1936, p.66.) So Philip was a man who, out of love and loyalty to a man in his service, could become enraged.

Furthermore, Novare tells us, Beirut was so set on reconciling his brother with Barlais, that he “went from Cyprus to Beirut and ordered the seeking out of Sir Amaury Barlais at Easter, and he carried him into Cyprus before his brother so suddenly that the latter knew nothing of it. He [my lord of Beirut] said to his brother that he wished him to pardon Sir Amaury in every manner and in every way; saying that if he would not do this he would never speak to him more….” (Novare, pp.66-67.) This tells us that Philip loved his brother so much that the threat not to speak was enough to make him cave in on a matter that greatly impassioned him.

Yet these are the only incidents that put flesh on the skeleton left by history. How he became the man he did can only be speculated upon based on the known facts.

Philip was the fourth and youngest child of Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena. His earliest possible date of birth was 1181, although he might have been born a year or two later. Like his siblings, he was trapped in Jerusalem after the disaster at Hattin and would have witnessed his father’s dramatic return as well as have benefitted from Saladin’s generosity. Yet, given his young age (at most six and probably younger), it is unlikely that he was shaped by this event.

His childhood years between the ages of roughly five to ten were lived in reduced economic circumstances and great uncertainty. He would surely have been aware that everything might be lost at any moment, and his father would have been frequently absent, particularly during the Third Crusade. His situation, however, would have improved considerably after the Truce of Ramla.  With his half-sister secure on her throne, it is not too far-fetched to imagine Philip obtained his schooling as page and squire at his sister’s court under her husband Henri de Champagne (1192-1197).

Sometime between 1198 and 1200, on turning 17 or 18, he would have been knighted, probably by his brother-in-law the king (now Aimery de Lusignan) or his elder brother John, who was by this time Constable of Jerusalem (1198-1200). In 1205, when Philip was in his early twenties, his sister and her husband died, and his brother John became regent of Jerusalem for their niece Marie de Montferrat. Given how close the brothers were in later years, we can assume that Philip enjoyed substantial trust and power, but we have no details of his actual positions.

In the same year, the crown of Cyprus passed to the 10-year-old Hugh de Lusignan, and Walter de Montbéliard was elected regent by the High Court of Cyprus. Montbéliard was a recent arrival in the Latin East married to King Hugh’s elder sister and heir apparent Burgundia.  Sometime between 1207 and 1210, while Montbéliard was regent of Cyprus and Beirut regent of Jerusalem, they agreed on the marriage of Montbéliard’s sister Alys to Beirut’s brother Philip.  This marriage was clearly a political marriage, possibly designed to bind the two kingdoms closer together ― or possibly to breach differences that had already surfaced between the Montbéliards and Ibelins.

I say this because in 1210, when Hugh of Cyprus came of age, he accused Montbéliard of massive embezzlement and effectively drove him out of Cyprus altogether, while turning to his Ibelin kinsmen for support. His ties to the Ibelins had been strengthened by his marriage to their niece Alice de Champagne. Both Ibelin brothers accompanied Alice to her new kingdom. At the very latest, therefore, 1210 was the year in which Ibelin power in Cyprus began to wax. (This is the traditional interpretation. I have argued elsewhere that the Ibelins may already have been well-entrenched on Cyprus long before this late date. See: http://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-ibelins-on-cyprus-and-role-of.html) Certainly, Philip became a close friend and confidante of the young king and, again based on what happened eight years later, earned the respect and trust of the majority of Cypriot barons. Unfortunately, we know nothing about how he did that.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Marie de Montferrat had married John de Brienne, also in 1210, and Beirut had stepped down as regent. His relationship with King John was evidently cool from the start but deteriorated further after Marie de Montferrat died in childbed in 1212, leaving an infant daughter heiress to Jerusalem.  John de Brienne assumed that he remained king, despite the death of his wife, and continued to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Beirut (and we presume Philip) appear to have questioned Brienne’s claim to rule, following the precedent set by their parents in opposing the rule of Guy de Lusignan after the death of Queen Sibylla three decades earlier. The breach between Beirut and Brienne almost certainly led to the Ibelins spending more time in and building up a client base on Cyprus.  Here they were welcome and either already held or were granted by King Hugh important properties, including at least the lordship of Peristerona and Episkopi. Significantly, during the Fifth Crusade, both John and Philip of Ibelin were listed as vassals of King Hugh of Cyprus rather than King John of Jerusalem, although John d'Ibelin still held the Lordship of Beirut in the latter kingdom.  This suggests either that they had more property in Cyprus, despite Beirut being extremely wealthy, or that they refused to serve under Brienne.

As the crusade got underway, King Hugh and King John quarreled. King Hugh removed himself from the crusade, heading for Antioch. Here he died abruptly (in an accident? of dysentery?) at the age of 23.  He left behind two little girls and a son just nine months old. Cyprus needed a new regent.

According to one of the chronicles of the period, on his deathbed, Hugh recommended Philip d’Ibelin to the High Court as regent for his infant son, Henry. Other chronicles claim that Hugh’s widow Alice of Champagne urged the High Court of Cyprus to select Philip d’Ibelin to “govern the land, hold the court and command over men.” A third version refers only to the knights, nobles, and people of Cyprus selecting Philip d’Ibelin. Clearly, in the eight years since the majority of King Hugh and his death, Philip (not John!) d’Ibelin had established himself as a man who could be trusted with the reins of government. There is no hint of factions or opposition to his appointment, which suggests that he did indeed enjoy widespread support at this time. 

However, the law of crusader kingdoms put him in a more dubious position.  According to the constitution of Cyprus, the regent for minor was the nearest relative, which in this case was the infant king’s mother Alice. At the time of her husband’s death, Alice preferred to name a deputy (the term used was bailli) to rule for her rather than taking up the reins of government herself. Controversial, however, was whether she was at liberty to recall him at any time. Most sources claim that the vassals of the crown swore an oath to Philip until the infant Prince Henry came of age. Other sources, however, suggest that the oath was until either the prince came of age, or Alice remarried.

This is significant because in 1223 or 1224, Alice fell-out with Philip and wanted to replace him. Why is unclear. One source suggests Philip bullied and humiliated Alice. Novare, on the other hand, claims that Philip had “much work and grief, while the queen held the revenues, which she spent freely.” (Novare, p. 63.) One can imagine a situation in which Alice was profligate with her expenditures, perhaps demanding more and more of the revenues, thereby provoking protests, rebukes, and criticism from Philip, which Alice, in turn, felt were “humiliating and bullying.”

In any case, Alice wanted to be rid of Philip, but the High Court wouldn’t hear of it ―clearly siding with Philip. This suggests they did not see him as bullying or over-reaching his authority, but rather as defending the interests of the kingdom. Alice responded by going to Tripoli and marrying the Prince of Antioch.  This only served to weaken her position in Cyprus, however, because she had not bothered to obtain the permission of her knights and nobles. The latter were now more outraged than ever. Rightly or wrongly, they alleged that if Antioch set foot on Cyprus, the life of their “little lord” King Henry would be in danger.

Alice’s position was further weakened by the outrage of the Pope, who claimed Alice and Bohemond were related within the prohibited degrees. He ruled the marriage invalid. Clearly, Bohemond was not going to be able to gain control of Cyprus for her. So Alice tried a different tactic: she appointed the disaffected Sir Amaury Barlais, the man who had already clashed with Philip over the near-murder of one of Philip’s knights, as her bailli.  When Barlais appeared before the High Court of Cyprus to present his credentials as bailli, however, he was accused of treason (because he had sworn an oath to Philip) and challenged to judicial combat by another baron.

In the midst of this power-struggle between Philip d’Ibelin and the dowager queen, Philip had young Henry, now aged eight, crowned king. The move was probably intended to bind the knights and nobles of Cyprus to Henry by oath, and so ensure that Alice and Bohemond ― or Alice and a different husband ― could not so easily depose him. Yet the crowning aroused the outrage of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was technically the overlord of Cyprus.

When the Holy Roman Emperor came east, he accused Philip of misusing the revenues of Cyprus, but by then Philip was already dead. In late 1227 or early 1228, he died of a “mortal malady” that had kept him bed-ridden for at least a year before his death and so weakened him that he had voluntarily offered to resign his position of bailli.

Those are the naked facts, but what do they tell actually tell us about Philip? 

Modern historians are quick to point out that Philip clung to power even though the acknowledged regent no longer wanted him. The allegations of impropriety leveled by the Holy Roman Emperor are also highlighted, casting Philip in a dubious light. Yet the Holy Roman Emperor never allowed his charges to go before a court of law.  On the contrary, he used every kind of force and deceit to ensure they did not come to court ― most probably because he knew his charges were entirely bogus. It is also significant that a large majority (between two-thirds and four-fifths depending on how many knights Cyprus had in this period) of the High Court consistently sided with Philip d’Ibelin. Finally, King Henry was extremely loyal to his Ibelin kin throughout his reign, a poignant hint that he had loved Philip, the man who had been a father for him from the age of one to ten.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week. Meanwhile,
 The Last Crusader Kingdom depicts Philip as a youth, and he appears in Rebels against Tyranny as an adult and regent of Cyprus. I only regret that he dies so early, because as a novelist I think he is a character well worth exploring more deeply.


For readers tired of clichés 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.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

House of Ibelin: Helvis, Lady of Sidon, Lady of Toron

They were the most powerful dynasty in the crusader kingdoms. Historians called them “uncrowned kings” and “over-mighty subjects,” ― but also “loyal counselors and kinsmen.” They were patrons of the arts, sophisticated legal scholars, skilled diplomats and fierce fighters. They were devout Christians who spoke Arabic.

The Ibelins.

Today I continue their story with Helvis, the eldest child of 
Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena.

Helvis was born in 1178, probably at Ibelin although possibly at Nablus. At the time of her birth, her father was still a comparatively unimportant baron, a “rear-tenant” owing fealty to the Count of Jaffa, who was at this time was also King of Jerusalem. Through her mother’s dower lands of Nablus, however, the family had become one of the richest in the crusader kingdom.  Thus we can assume that as the daughter of a Dowager Queen and Byzantine Princess, Helvis enjoyed the best care money could buy and started her life in luxurious surroundings. She would also have shared her nursey with her half-sister, the child of her mother’s first marriage, the Princess (and later Queen) of Jerusalem, Isabella.

Very likely, the removal of Isabella from her family at the orders of the King and against the wishes of her mother and father formed the first crisis of Helvis’ life. Isabella was taken from Queen Maria and Balian in 1180 and placed in the “tender” keeping of the notorious Reynald de Châtillon. To make matters worse, Isabella was held prisoner at the border fortress of Kerak and denied permission to visit her mother. While Helvis was only two when Isabella was dragged away against her will, the ensuing drama as her mother fought to see her eldest daughter and was denied contact would have dominated Helvis’ little world as she grew from a toddler to a child.  It would surely have impressed upon her the power of kings over princesses, and the limited rights of even queens to effectively resist.

In 1184, when Helvis was only six years old, she probably experienced the Saracen sack of Nablus.  While Balian mustered with the men of Ibelin to repel a new Saracen assault on Kerak, Saracen troops attacked and over-ran the unwalled city of Nablus.  We know that Maria Comnena was in the city and successfully defended the citadel until relief came.  The chronicles noted with approval that not one Christian life was lost in the sack of the city, suggesting that Maria had managed to collect the entire Christian population inside the citadel in time.  Whether Helvis was with her at the time is unrecorded, but since she was only six it is far more likely that she was with her mother than the reverse. Furthermore, despite the fortuitous survival of the Christian population, the experience of being crowded with thousands of others in a citadel surrounded by pillaging enemy and cut off from Christian forces must have been terrifying.

Just three years later the situation was even worse. In July 1187, Helvis along with her three younger siblings and her mother found themselves inside Jerusalem when the entire Christian army was annihilated at Hattin. Jerusalem was soon flooded with refugees that poured in from the surrounding areas while Saladin’s armies overran the rest of the kingdom, taking one coastal city after another. By September 1187, only the city of Tyre remained in Christian hands, but a delegation from Jerusalem composed of unnamed “burgesses” had rejected out of hand Saladin’s generous terms.  (Saladin had offered to let the entire population withdraw from Jerusalem with all their moveable goods.) When this was rejected, he offered to give Christendom six months to relief Jerusalem, if the inhabitants would agree to surrender peacefully if (as was to be expected) no relief force came to their aid in that space of time. Again the representatives of Jerusalem refused. At that point, Saladin swore publically to slaughter all the men in Jerusalem and enslave the women and children who fell into his hands.

While it is doubtful Queen Maria would have shared this news with her nine-year-old daughter, it is equally doubtful that an intelligent child living in a city overrun with refugees could have remained ignorant of the danger she was in. Even without knowing the details, the city was full of terrified women and children, who had already been driven from their homes by the advance of Saladin’s troops. The city itself had virtually no fighting men in it because they had all mustered with the feudal army and been killed or captured at Hattin. Queen Maria, and so with her Helvis, could not know if Balian was alive, dead or captured ― until he rode through the gate with the Sultan’s safe conduct to see his wife and children to safety before the siege and slaughter began.

Helvis must have viewed her father as an angel rescuing her from Hell ― until he changed his mind and agreed to stay to defend the city. She would have been dashed into new despair by this, only to suddenly find herself bundled up and deposited in the care of their worst enemy: Salah ad-Din himself. For a nine-year-old, I can only imagine this was very bewildering.

Nor did things get better. The Sultan’s Mamlukes brought Maria and the Ibelin children to a Christian city, we don’t know for sure which one, but probably Tyre or Tripoli.  There they awaited the news of their husband/father’s death. Although he succeeded in negotiating a surrender instead and joined them, he was now a baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer existed. They had lost all their lands, castles, homes, and income. They must have lived on charity, although whose is unclear.  The most likely source of funds were Maria Comnena’s relatives in Constantinople and Antioch, but it is unlikely they would have been terribly generous since her close relatives had already been deposed from power.

It was in this period of acute financial need and overall uncertainty that Helvis’ father married her to a man old enough to be her grandfather: Reginald de Sidon. Helvis was at most eleven or twelve (the latter age is more likely because it was the age of consent). Sidon had briefly been the fourth husband Agnes de Courtney, the Queen Mother of Baldwin IV and Sibylla of Jerusalem. He had, like Balian, fought his way off the field at Hattin, evading capture.  Some chronicles suggest he was demoralized thereafter and was prepared to surrender Tyre to Saladin. Allegedly, he was only prevented from doing so by the arrival of Conrad de Montferrat.  Yet this is far from certain.  He is known to have tried to defend his castle of Belfort against Saladin, and apparently pretended to want to convert to Islam as a ruse to buy time to build up his defenses. He was seized when he came to negotiate and either tortured in sight of the castle (until he ordered the garrison to surrender), or held in captivity in Damascus until the castle surrendered to secure his release. Out of remorse, the chronicles tell us, Saladin restored Sidon to him -- as a fief held from the Sultan of Damascus rather than the crown of Jerusalem.

This may be the reason Ibelin was prepared to marry his very young daughter to the grizzled Baron of Sidon: Sidon was the only baron of Jerusalem that still had at least a promise of land from the victor. If so, it was a miscalculation. Sidon remained a promise until 1197 when it was recaptured for Christendom by the German crusade. I have found no source that explains where or on what Reginald and his bride lived between 1187 and 1197. Ibelin had been given the tiny barony of Caymont in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192, and perhaps he gave shelter to his daughter and her husband there. If so, she shared with her siblings and parents much-reduced circumstances of on a very precarious frontier.

Five years after regaining his barony, in 1202, Reginal de Sidon died. He was probably close to or more than 70 years of age.  Helvis would have been just 24 years old. She was also the mother of a young son named for her own father, Balian. She may also have had two daughters, but the girls are more likely the children of Sidon’s first wife Agnes de Courtenay.

Since Balian of Sidon (b. 1198) was undoubtedly still a minor at his father’s death, Helvis would have assumed control of the barony and served as her son’s regent until he came of age in 1213.  Balian de Sidon was to play a very prominent role in the conflict between the barons of Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Emperor, serving as effective regent of the kingdom (often jointly with others) for many years during Hohenstaufen absenteeism. He repeatedly attempted to serve as a mediator between the factions.  

Helvis, however, married a second time. Since widows, especially widows in control of baronies, could not legally be forced into a second marriage, we can assume that this marriage was of Helvis’ choosing. Her choice fell upon a new-comer to Outremer, a man who had followed the call to the Fourth Crusade but refused to be misused as a mercenary by the Venetians. Rather than joining in the sack of Zara and then Constantinople, he proceeded in the company of his brother and others of their affinity to the Holy Land, arriving in or about the time of Reginald de Sidon’s death.  He was Guy de Montfort.

I have been able to find out very little about him beyond his approximate date of birth, 1160, which made him a good 18 years older than Helvis and already in his early forties when he arrived in the Holy Land. He was widowed and had an adult son and two adult daughters in France already when he came to Outremer. Why Helvis favored him we will probably never know. Perhaps Helvis had become accustomed to older husbands.  He was granted the vacant Syrian barony of Toron, presumably by Queen Isabella before the latter’s death in 1205. Since Helvis was her half-sister, granting her new husband an “appropriate” title would have been common feudal custom.

Helvis had one son by her new husband, who she named for her brother Philip.  She died, however, in or about 1210. She would have been just 32 years old and much the same age as her sister Queen Isabella had been at her death. The probability that she died in child-bed is high.

Her husband Guy returned to the West after her death, joining his brother Simon’s crusade against the Albigensians. Her son, however, remained in the Holy Land and was probably raised by his Ibelin kin because he later became an ardent supporter of the Ibelins.  He played a key role in the capture of Tyre in 1244.

Meanwhile, his cousin Simon de Montfort (the younger) was making a name for himself in England. As brother-in-law of the English King and the Holy Roman Emperor, he was at one point put forward as a compromise candidate for regent in the Holy Land to end the civil war. Unfortunately for all concerned, the Emperor did not make that appointment.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come. 

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For readers tired of clichés 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.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The House of Ibelin: John the Righteous

John d'Ibelin, 1179 - 1236, has gone down in history as "the Old Lord of Beirut." The description originates with 13th century historian and jurist Philip de Novare, who  makes "the Old Lord of Beirut" the hero in his account of the baronial revolt against Emperor Fredrick II.  While modern historians warn that Novare was a vassal of the Ibelins and obviously a biased observer, he nevertheless provides a first-hand account of events that are rarely contradicted outright by other sources. Rather it is the invariable positive "spin" on the motives and actions of the Ibelins that modern historians object to.  Furthermore, none can deny that John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, was a towering figure of the the early 13th century, a man admired for his learning, wisdom and influence.

The seal of John d'Ibelin

John was the eldest son of Balian d’Ibelin and the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena. He was probably born in 1179, the second of their four children.  He was presumably a child of eight when the Battle of Hattin destroyed the world into which he had been born. He was certainly in Jerusalem when father came to the city to rescue his family―only to remain in the city and organize the defense. John, along with his siblings and his mother, however, was escorted from the apparently doomed city by Saladin’s own body-guard in a profoundly generous gesture on the part of the Sultan before the siege.

The next time John is mentioned in the historical record is in 1198, when he is named Constable of Jerusalem by King Aimery de Lusignan. He would have been only 19 at the time, and historians, balking at the idea of such a young man might have been capable of fulfilling the duties of Constable, hypothesize that the appointment was nominal, a means of providing for him materially. Yet, as his father’s eldest son, he would have already inherited the barony of Caymont, if (as historians assume) his father was already dead. Furthermore, historians appear to overlook the fact that young noblemen and kings came of age at 15 in the Holy Land, so a noblemen of 19 would have been young but not viewed as immature. If kings could command at 15, why shouldn’t a constable at 19? Last but not least, John witnessed all existing charters of King Aimery, suggesting a close relationship between the two men.

John was still quite young, 24, when he was named Regent of Jerusalem first for his half-sister Isabella (following the death of her fourth husband, King Aimery), and then for his niece, Isabella's eldest daughter and heir, Maria de Montferrat, after Isabella’s death a few months later. As regent he arranged a marriage between his niece Alice of Champagne (Isabella’s daughter by her third husband, Henri de Champagne) with the heir to the Cypriot throne, Hugh de Lusignan. In addition, he was influential in the marriage of Maria de Montferrat to John de Brienne. Meanwhile, sometime between 1198 and 1205, he had traded the position of Constable for the lordship of Beirut. It was as Lord of Beirut that he has gone down into history.

Beirut was retaken for Christendom by German crusaders in 1198, but was so badly destroyed in the process (either by the retreating Saracens or the advancing Germans or both) that it was allegedly an uninhabitable ruin.  Despite that, it was an immensely valuable prize because of its harbor, the fertile surrounding coastal territory, and the proximity to Antioch and Damascus.  It was clearly a mark of great favor and trust that John d'Ibelin was granted the lordship of Beirut.

John d’Ibelin resettled the city and rebuilt the fortifications. He also built a palace that won the admiration of visitors for its elegance and luxury. It included polychrome marble walls, frescoes, painted ceilings, fountains, gardens, and large, glazed windows offering splendid views to the sea.  

John first married (presumably in 1198 or 1199) a certain Helvis of Nephin, about whom nothing is known beyond that she delivered to him five sons, all of whom died as infants. Helvis herself died before 1207, when John married the widowed heiress of Arsur, Melisende. By Melisende, John had another five sons and a single daughter, all of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1210, Maria de Montferrat came of age, married John de Brienne, and the couple were crowned Queen and King of Jerusalem; John’s regency was over. Furthermore, he completely disappeared from the witness lists of the kingdom, suggesting he had withdrawn to Beirut rather than remaining in attendance on the new king and queen―whether voluntarily, or after some dispute is unknown.

While nothing is known for sure about John’s whereabouts between 1210 and 1217, by the latter date John and his younger brother Philip headed the list of witness to all existing charters of King Hugh I of Cyprus. This suggests that at some unknown point before 1217 he had acquired important fiefs on Cyprus. In 1227, he was named regent for the orphaned heir to the Cypriot crown, Henry I.

Only a year later, however, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen arrived at the head of the Fifth crusade, and John immediately found himself on a collision course. At stake was the constitution of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, with John defending the traditional pre-eminent role of the High Court against the Holy Roman Emperor's attempt to impose absolute monarchy on both kingdoms.  In the long-run, the Hohenstaufen suffered a complete defeat, eventually losing his suzerainty over Cyprus altogether, while neither he nor his heirs were ever able to exercise his royal authority  throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But the cost was high: a civil war that dragged out over a quarter century.

John has been accused by historians of defending only the parochial interests of his family and the leading baronial families. Certainly, his stance undermined central authority in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and ultimately weakened it. Against this argument stands the fact that his rebellion actually strengthened the position of the Kings of Cyprus. Furthermore, Frederick II’s heavy handed attempts to disinherit men without due process and run rough-shod over local laws and customs meant John was fighting as much for the rule of law as for personal interests.   

The fact that John was strongly supported by the commons of Acre further underlines the fact that he was not solely self-interested.  John had no problem accepting the authority of John de Brienne and Henri de Lusignan, after all.  I believe, therefore, a strong case can be made for John opposing not the concept of central authority but rather the individual ― Frederick II, who even his admirers describe as arrogant and authoritarian.  Frederick II believed that, like a Roman Emperor, he was God’s representative on earth. Frederick II provoked revolts in the West as well as the East, and was excommunicated several times.  John d'Ibelin, on the other hand, was widely admired in his own lifetime and has been compared to St. Louis of France by later historians.

He died from injuries obtained fighting against the Saracens on the eastern border of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1236. On his deathbed he joined the Knights Templar. 

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
 The Last Crusader Kingdom depicts John of Beirut as a youth, while Rebels against Tyranny and The Emperor Strikes Back focus on his struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor.

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For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The House of Ibelin: Eschiva the Invisible

Although Eschiva d'Ibelin was the founder of a dynasty that ruled Cyprus for over three hundred years, we know very little about her -- only enough to sense a possibly vital role at a critical juncture in history. 

What we do know is that she was the daughter of Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Lord of Ramla and Mirabel, and his wife Richildis. She was married at a very early age to Aimery de Lusignan -- before his brother came to Jerusalem and seduced his way into a crown. We also know that she had at least six children by Aimery, three of whom lived to adulthood.

One of the most bizarre and curious recorded facts about her life was that she was "captured by pirates" and held for ransom in or about 1196.  She was rescued by the King of Armenia, who had "high regard" for members of her family (i.e. the Ibelins, not the Lusignans.) She was released to her husband and sailed back to safety on Cyprus. 

Once there Eschiva lived long enough to know the Holy Roman Emperor had recognized her husband as King of Cyprus but died shortly before his formal coronation in the fall of 1197.  We do not know how old she was when she died or the cause of death. Within a few months, however, her husband had remarried, this time to Queen Isabella of Jerusalem, the daughter of her Aunt Maria Comnena.

In between these naked facts is a huge amount of possible drama. Eschiva was married to a landless adventurer as a child and ended up married to a king without changing husbands. Her father married her to one Lusignan but hated his brother so much that he preferred to renounce his land and titles and leave the kingdom rather than swear homage to him. Where did that leave Eschiva?  Physically she stayed with her husband, but was her heart with her father? Maybe. Then again maybe not; after all her father had divorced her blameless mother to marry someone more influential -- who would give him sons. 

Eschiva lived in the very vortex of Jerusalem politics in the last two decades of the 12th century. She was an Ibelin by birth and a Lusignan by marriage, and she founded a dynasty that would rule Cyprus for more than 300 years. But was she politically active? Did she have a say in affairs of state? Did she whisper advice to her husband? Or did she console and support her sister-in-law Sibylla? Was she there telling Sibylla not to renounce Guy, no matter what the pressure was from the High Court? Or did she see what her father and uncle saw? That Guy would be a disastrous king, and try to talk Sibylla into doing the reverse? Unless new sources come to light, we will never know.

A Medieval Illustration depicting Nature creating a child.

Yet it does not take too much imagination to see Eschiva as the bridge that enabled the Ibelins to later become the most powerful supporters of the Lusignan dynasty on Cyprus. Historians puzzle over the fact that the Ibelins, who were inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan, could so quickly become entrenched in his brother's kingdom of Cyprus. I see Eschiva as the key -- but we will probably never know. 

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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.

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Friday, August 3, 2018

The House of Ibelin: Balian, Defender of Jerusalem

The Kingdom of Heaven, a film directed by Ridley Scott and released by 20th Century Fox in 2005, was based — very loosely — on the story of Balian d’Ibelin, a historical figure. Although Scott’s film was a brilliant piece of cinematography, the story of the real Balian d’Ibelin was not only different but arguably more fascinating than that of the Hollywood hero.

Balian was born in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem around the middle of the 12th century (the exact year is not recorded) and was probably the third (surviving) son of the First Baron of Ibelin.  He first enters the historical record when he is mentioned, along with his elder brother Baldwin, playing a role at the important Christian victory over an invading Saracen army led by Saladin at Montgisard in 1177. 

Shortly thereafter, Balian made a scandalously brilliant match, marrying the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. With this marriage, he also became the step-father of Isabella, the half-sister of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. Isabella was second-in-line to the throne after the king's full-sister, Sibylla. At about the same time, and possibly as part of the marriage arrangement, Balian was accorded the title of Baron of Ibelin; one presumes his older brother was persuaded to turn this, the least of his three titles, over to his younger brother to make him a more suitable match for a dowager queen.

From this point onwards, Balain took part in all of the major military campaigns of the next decade and was also a member of the High Court of Jerusalem. Significantly, in 1183 when Baldwin IV decided to crown his nephew during his own lifetime to reduce the risk of a succession crisis, Balian was selected -- ahead of all the more senior and important barons in the kingdom -- to carry the child on his shoulders to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

At the death of Baldwin V in the summer of 1186, Balian took a leading role in opposing the usurpation of the throne by Sibylla of Jerusalem and most especially her devious tactics to get her unpopular second husband, Guy de Lusignan, crowned as her consort.  At his wife's dower property of Nablus, just north of Jerusalem, Balian hosted a meeting of the majority of the High Court -- all those opposed to Sibylla and Guy. At this rump-High Court, the bishops and barons proposed crowning Sibylla's half-sister (Balian's step-daughter) Isabella Queen of Jerusalem as a rival to Sibylla and Guy. These plans were thwarted by Isabella's young husband, Humphrey of Toron, who secretly did homage to Guy, robbing Isabella's supporters of a viable alternative to Sibylla/Guy.

In consequence, the majority of the barons became reconciled with Sibylla and Guy's usurpation and did homage to them, but Balian's older brother, Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel, refused.  Instead, in a dramatic gesture, he abdicated his titles in favor of his small son and gave both the boy and his baronies into the keeping of his brother Balian. He then quit the Kingdom to seek his fortune in the Principality of Antioch and disappears from the historical record.

With the departure of his brother, Balian was suddenly elevated to one of the most powerful barons in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, controlling (in the name of his nephew and wife) the second largest contingent of feudal levees owed to the crown. He used this power to try to reconcile the usurper, Guy de Lusignan, with the only baron more powerful than himself: Raymond Count of Tripoli. The latter, like his brother, was refusing to do homage to Guy, despite the clear and present danger posed by Saladin.  

Balian was ultimately successful in his reconciliation efforts, and shortly afterward Balian and Raymond demonstrated their loyalty to the crown by answering the royal summons to muster under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan when he faced Saladin’s invasion of July 1187.  Against the advice of both Raymond and Balian, Guy chose to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march the army across an arid plateau to the relief of the beleaguered city of Tiberius. The siege of Tiberius was bait, and Guy led the army into a trap set by Saladin that ended in the disastrous defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin.

Balian was one of only three Christian barons to escape the debacle.  Exactly, how, he escaped capture is not recorded, however, contemporary sources say he was in command of the rear-guard, so it is possible that he managed to fight his way out the way he'd come. (Note, however, that the rear-guard had been savagely attacked throughout the previous day, decimating the ranks of the Templars, who fought with Balian in the rear; under poor leadership, the Templars had repeatedly chased after the fleeter Arab cavalry.) Arab sources also note that toward the end of the battle, the Franks Ied a more than one charge, one of which endangered Saladin himself. Possibly, one of these broke throught the surrounding Saracen army enough to let Balian and some of his knights escape. However, he escaped, he is believed to have ridden to Tyre or Tripoli with the men he led out of the encirclement.

The destruction or capture of the bulk of the Christian army, however, left the Kingdom of Jerusalem undefended. Saladin followed up his victory at Hattin by capturing one city and castle after another until, by the start of September 1187, Saladin controlled the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem except for some isolated castles, the city of Tyre, and the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. 

In Jerusalem were concentrated somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians; twenty thousand inhabitants between forty and eighty thousand refugees from the territories Saladin had already conquered. But there were no knights in Jerusalem and no commander. Saladin called a delegation from Jerusalem to him at Ascalon and offered to let those trapped in the city go free in exchange for the surrender of the city. The representatives from Jerusalem refused. According to Arab sources, they said that Jerusalem was sacred to their faith and that they could not surrender it; they preferred martyrdom. Saladin vowed to slaughter everyone in the city since it had defied him.
Among the refugees in the city of Jerusalem were Balian’s wife, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his four young children. Balian had no intention of letting his wife and children be slaughtered and so he approached Saladin and requested a safe-conduct to ride to Jerusalem and remove his wife and children. Saladin agreed -- on the condition that he ride to Jerusalem unarmed and stay only one night.
Balian had not reckoned with the reaction of the residents and refugees in Jerusalem. The arrival of a battle-tested baron -- one of only two who had escaped Hattin with his honor still intact -- was seen as divine intervention and the citizens along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem begged Balian to take command of the defense. The Patriarch demonstratively absolved him of his oath to Saladin. Balian felt he had no choice. He sent word to Saladin of his predicament and Saladin graciously sent 50 of his own men to escort Balian’s family to the Tripoli (still in Christian hands), while Balian remained to defend Jerusalem against overwhelming odds.
And defend Jerusalem he did.  After conducting foraging sorties to collect supplies for the population from the surrounding Saracen-held territory, he successfully held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21 – 25.  Saladin was forced to re-deploy his army against a different sector of the wall. On September 29, however, Saladin’s sappers successfully undermined a portion of the wall and brought down a segment roughly 30 meters long. Jerusalem was no longer defensible.
It was now that Balian proved his talent as a diplomat. With Saracen forces pouring over the breach and into the city, their banners flying from one of the nearest towers, Balian went to Saladin to negotiate. According to Arab sources, Saladin scoffed: one doesn’t negotiate the surrender of a city that has already fallen.
But as he dismissively pointed to his banners on the walls of the city, those banners were thrown down and replaced again by the banners of Jerusalem. Balian played his trump. If the Sultan would not give him terms, he and his men would not only kill the Muslim prisoners they held along with all the inhabitants: they would desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Saladin gave in. 
The Christians were given 40 days to raise ransoms of 10 dinars per man, 5 per woman and 2 per child. Although an estimated fifteen thousand Christians were still marched off into slavery at the end of the forty days, forty to sixty thousand Christians survived as free men and women thanks to Balian’s skill as a negotiator. Notably, Balian offered to stand surety for the ransoms owed by the destitute, while efforts were made to raise their ransoms in the west. Saladin rejected the offer, but "gave" Balian 500 slaves as a personal gift. (I.e. he freed 500 Chrisitans that would otherwise have gone into slavery.)
Balian escorted a column consisting of roughly one-third of refugees from Jerusalem to Tyre, the closest city still in Christian hands. The man commanding Tyre at the time, Conrad de Montferrat, however, could not admit fifteen thousand more people to a city already under siege and at risk of starvation if relief did not come from the West. So while the bulk of the non-combatants continued to Tripoli, Balian and other fighting men remained in Tyre to continue the fight against Saladin.  
In 1188, Saladin released Guy de Lusignan, taken captive at Hattin, but Montferrat refused to either admit him to the city of Tyre or recognize him as king. On the advice of his brother Geoffrey, recently arrived from France, Guy de Lusignan raised troops in the Principality of Antioch and laid siege to the city of Acre, formerly the most important port of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and now in Saracen hands. Balian, despite his profound disagreements with Guy, joined him there; his determination to recapture some of the former kingdom was more important to him than his disagreements with Guy de Lusignan.
When Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters by Guy de Lusignan died in 1190, however, the situation changed for Balian. Guy's claim to the throne was through his wife. With her death, the legitimate queen of Jerusalem was Balian's step-daughter, Isabella. Isabella had been married since the age of 11 to an ineffectual young nobleman, Humphrey de Toron. Realizing that the Kingdom at this time needed a fighting man as its king, Balian and his wife convinced Isabella to set Humphrey aside on the grounds that she had been forced into the marriage against her will before reaching the legal age of consent. (She had been forcibly separated from her mother and step-father at age eight and married at age eleven.) Having divorced Toron, she at once married Conrad de Montferrat. 
Thereafter, Balian staunchly supported Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. This initially put him in direct conflict with Richard I of England, who backed Guy de Lusignan, the latter being the brother of one of his vassals. As a result, during the first year of Richard’s presence in the Holy Land, Balian remained persona non grata in Richard’s court. In fact, he served as an envoy for Conrad de Montferrat to the Sultan’s court — something Richard’s entourage and chroniclers viewed as nothing short of outright treason to the Christian cause.
Richard the Lionheart, however, was neither a fool nor a bigot. He recognized that after he went home (as he must) only the barons and knights of Outremer could defend the territories he had conquered in the course of the Third Crusade. He also reluctantly recognized that Guy de Lusignan would never be accepted as King by the barons and knights of the Kingdom he had led to disastrous defeat at Hattin. So in April 1192, Richard withdrew his support for Lusignan and recognized Isabella and her husband as the rightful rulers of Jerusalem. 
By doing so, he opened the doors to cooperation with Balian d’Ibelin.  Soon thereafter, Richard employed Ibelin as a negotiator with Saladin and in August Balian cut a deal with Saladin that provided for a three-year truce (neither side wanted peace for both were unsatisfied with the status quo), which provided for free access to Jerusalem for unarmed Christian pilgrims. Like the surrender of Jerusalem five years earlier, this was not a triumph -- but it was far better than what might have otherwise been expected under the circumstances. Notably, Balian's truce left Ibelin and Ramla in Muslim hands, something that he must have negotiated with a heavy heart. However, he was compensated with the barony of Caymont near Acre.
Richard the Lionhearted returned to Europe and Isabella was crowned Queen of the much reduced but nevertheless viable Kingdom of Jerusalem. The man crowned as her consort was not, however, Conrad de Montferrat, who had fallen victim to an assassin only shortly before her coronation. Instead, her consort was her third husband, Henry of Champagne, a French nobleman, who had come out to the Holy Land in the Third Crusade. (Henry of Champagne was a grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France, which made him a first cousin of both Philip II of France and Richard of England.)
Balian was the leading nobleman in his stepdaughter's kingdom, but he disappears from the historical record in 1194. It is usually presumed that he died about this time, but it is equally possible that he instead he was simply out of the kingdom, possibly on a diplomatic mission -- or helping his niece and her husband establish Latin rule on Cyprus. See: The Ibelins on Cyprus and the Role of a Byzantine Princess

Whenever he died, Balian left behind two sons, John and Philip. John became Constable of Jerusalem in 1198, Lord of Beirut, and Regent of Jerusalem from 1205 - 1210. He also led the baronial revolt against Emperor Frederick II. Philip was to be Regent of the Kingdom of Cyprus. From these sons the Ibelin dynasty descended, a family often described as the most powerful of all baronial families in the Latin states of the Eastern Mediterranean for the next three hundred years.

Balian is the subject of my three-part Jerusalem Trilogy, and plays an important role in The Last Crusader Kingdom:

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come.

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