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.
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.
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.