The seal of John d'Ibelin, Balian's eldest son.

 Jerusalem from the South

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Balian d'Ibelin was a historical figure, whose biography was significantly different from the Hollywood figure in Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven." What follows is a short synopsis of the known historical facts. 


Balian was born in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem around the middle of the 12th century (the exact year is not recorded). There is no narrative of the family's origin or early history and based on charters witnessed by one or another individual historians have tried to construct a family history, but do not agree among themselves.


It is certain that First Baron of Ibelin died in or about 1150, and was succeeded as Baron of Ibelin by his eldest son Hugh. However, it is not clear whether Hugh (always referred to as "of Ibelin,") also inherited the baronies of Ramla and Mirabel, to which the First Baron's widow, Helvis, was heiress. Some historians postulate that Helvis did not become the heiress until after the death of her brother, shortly before Hugh's own death. Another explanation is that Hugh was the son of an earlier marriage and so only inherited the paternal barony, while Ramla and Mirabel went immediately to Helvis' eldest son, Baldwin. In any case, Hugh died childless in or about 1171, and the titles of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel were then jointly held by Baldwin.


Balian first enters the historical record when he is mentioned along with his elder brother as playing a decisive role in 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 step-father to the half-sister of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, Isabella. She was second-in-line to the throne. At about the same time, and possibly as part of the marriage arrangement, he 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. Balian also sometimes styled himself "Nablus" because this immensely rich barony was his wife's dower portion and he commanded the feudal levels from Nablus as long as she lived -- and Nablus was in Christian hands.

From this point onwards, Balain took part in all of the major military campaigns of the next decade and was also 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 Vi 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 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 to rival Sibylla and Guy. But these plans fell were thwarted by her young husband, Humphrey of Toron, who 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 his baronies into the keeping of his brother Balian before quitting the Kingdom to seek his fortune in the Principality of Antioch never to enter the historical record again.


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 afterwards 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 come to the relief of Tiberius, besieged by Saladin. 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.  Toward the end of the battle, he Ied a successful charge against the Saracens at Hattin, possibly directed at Saladin himself, and effected a break-out. 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 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; 20,000 inhabitants and 40,000 to 80,000 refugees from the territories Saladin had just 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 if it 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 held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21 – 25 so successfully that Saladin was forced to withdraw and 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 breech 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 of the city: they would desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa 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 ten to 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.

Balian escorted a column consisting of roughly one third of refugees from Jerusalem to the comparative safety of the nearest Christian territory, the County of Tripoli, but he personally returned to Tyre to continue the fight against Saladin.  (Tyre was the only city of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had not capitulated to Saladin, and this was largely due to the heroic defense organized by the Italian nobleman Conrad de Montferrat.) 


In 1188 Saladin released Guy de Lusignan, taken captive at Hattin. He went first to Antioch to be reunited with his wife, Queen Sibylla. THe following year, with several hundred knights, he returned to the last remnant of his former kingdom, Tyre, but Montferrat refused  to recognize his authority or to admit him to the city. Lusignan then continued on to lay 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 of greater importance to him than his disagreements with Guy de Lusignan.


But in October 1190 Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters by Guy de Lusignan died. This changed everything for Balian. Guy's claim to the thrown 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 a completely ineffectual young nobleman, Humphrey de Toron. Realizing that the Kingdom at this time need a fighting man as its king, Balian and his wife convinced Isabella to set aside Humphrey (on the grounds that she had been forced into the marriage against her will before reaching the legal age of consent, after being forcibly separated from her mother and step-father at age eight) and marry Conrad de Montferrat. 


Thereafter, Balian staunchly supported Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. This put him in direct conflict with Richard I of England, who backed Guy de Lusignan because the latter was 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. So in April 1192, he gave up his support for Lusignan and recognized Isabella and her husband and the rightful rulers of Jerusalem.


By doing so, he opened the doors to cooperation with Balian d’Ibelin.  Soon thereafter, Richard employed him 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), and provided for free access to Jerusalem for unarmed Christian pilgrims. Like the surrender of Jerusalem this was not a triumph, but it was also better than what might have otherwise been expected given the weakness of the Christian forces. 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 and/or Arsuf (sources differ).


Richard the Lionhearted returned to Europe and Isabella was crowned Queen of the much reduced by 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. Instead, her consort was her third husband, Henry of Champagne, a French noblemen 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 step-daughter's kingdom, but he disappears from the historical record in 1194. It is usually presumed that he died about this time. He left behind two sons, the elder of which became Constable of Jerusalem in 1198 and later the Lord of Beirut, and the younger of which was 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.


My three part biographical novel starts with Knight of Jerusalem, released in September 2014. It was awarded a BRAG Medallion in May 2015, and was a finalist for the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.


The second book in the series, Defender of Jerusalem was released August 2015.

Balian d'Ibelin: A Short Biography of the Historical Figure