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.
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.
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.
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.