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Isabella of Jerusalem was the founder of two dynasties. Her daughters wore the crowns of Jerusalem and Cyprus and all subsequent monarchs of both houses were her direct descendants. She was the vital link between the proud 1st Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the First Crusade, and the much diminished 2nd Kingdom of Acre established on the rubble of the 1st Kingdom. She was married four times, divorced once, widowed thrice and died at the age of 32. Isabella’s life was short, eventful and tragic, but writing Isabella off as a pawn of the men around her -- as most novelists and many historians do -- does not do justice to a woman who played such a significant role in the history of the Holy Land. What follows is a short summary of her life.
Isabella was the daughter of King Amalric (also Aimery) of Jerusalem by his second wife, Maria Comnena, a great niece of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I. She was born in early or mid-1172, or 11 and 12 years respectively after her father’s son and daughter by his first wife. At the time of Isabella’s birth, her half-brother Baldwin had already been diagnosed with leprosy, so there can be little doubt that her sex was a disappointment to her father; King Amalric had undoubtedly hoped for a son that might replace the stricken Baldwin as his heir. (It was the custom in the Kingdom of Jerusalem for noblemen stricken with leprosy to abdicate their secular titles and join the religious Order of St. Lazarus.) Amalric was still young (in his thirties), and his wife Maria not yet twenty so he undoubtedly hoped the male heir would yet be forthcoming.
Just two years later, however, Amalric fell victim to dysentery and died suddenly. Isabella’s half-brother Baldwin was recognized as King of Jerusalem, and placed under the regency of the Count of Tripoli. Isabella’s mother was now a widow at just 21 years, and retired from court to the wealthy barony of Nablus, her dower portion. Nablus was known for its scents and soaps, and for its large, cosmopolitan population of Jews, Orthodox, Latin Christians, and Muslims. (The latter were specifically granted the right to engage in the haj to Mecca.) One imagines it must have been an exciting place to grown up.
Three years later, when Isabella was just five years old, her mother chose a new husband. Maria Comnena’s choice fell on the younger (landless) brother of the wealthy 2nd Baron of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel (see Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin). The King, who explicitly sanctioned the marriage, was probably responsible for persuading the Baron if Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel to transfer the comparatively insignificant barony of Ibelin to his younger brother to ensure he was a more “suitable” match for the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem. Thus, Maria became the Lady of Ibelin, and her second husband, Balian, became Isabella’s step-father ― and, indeed, the first and only father with whom Isabella had any relationship.
Isabella remained with her mother and step-father, spending time (one presumes) at both Nablus and Ibelin. She soon had two new half-siblings, a sister Helvis and a brother John, born to her mother and step-father. Her idyllic childhood, however, came to an abrupt end at the age of eight. The King’s mother, Agnes de Courtenay, had long been a bitter rival of Maria Comnena because the latter had replaced her in her husband’s bed and been crowned queen in her place (See Agnes de Courtenay). By 1180, Agnes had wormed her way into the King’s confidence sufficiently to be able to influence him. She convinced him that his half-sister was a threat, who needed to be completely “controlled” by men loyal to the Courtenays. The means to achieve purely political objective was to betroth the eight-year-old Isabella to another pawn: the underage nobleman Humphrey de Toron. Humphrey was himself firmly under the control of his widowed mother and her new and already notorious husband: Reynald de Châtillon (See Rogue Baron). Thus, Isabella was taken from the only family she had ever known, over the furious objections of her mother and step-father, to be imprisoned in one of the most exposed and bleak castles of the kingdom on the edge of Sinai: Kerak. She was in the hands of the brutal and godless Reynald de Châtillon, and his lady prohibited the child from visiting her parents for the next three years. In this phase of her life, Isabella was indeed nothing but a pawn.
In late 1183, for reasons lost to history, someone (Châtillon? The King? Agnes de Courtenay?) decided it was time for Isabella and Humphrey to marry. Isabella was only eleven and below the canonical age of consent; she had nothing to say in the matter. Her mother and step-father were not present and presumably not consulted. Humphrey was by now at least fifteen and possibly a couple years older, which may have prompted the marriage as there was the risk that, now that he did have a say over his affairs, he might choose to break the betrothal; a marriage on the other hand could not be so easily reversed. Whatever the reasons, the marriage was planned and the nobility of Outremer invited to attend.
Instead, the castle of Kerak found itself under siege by the forces of Saladin, while the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were attending a session of the High Court in Jerusalem. Trapped inside were largely their ladies, notably Isabella’s mother, who was seeing her daughter for the first time in three years, Isabella’s half-sister Sibylla (now 23 and married for a second time), and the Queen Mother Agnes de Courtenay. The siege lasted roughly two months before the Army of Jerusalem under Baldwin IV came to the castle’s relief. Although no harm came to any of the high-born guests, Isabella spent her wedding night in a castle under siege and bombardment. (Allegedly, Saladin agreed to spare the tower in which the nuptials were taking place, but continued bombarding the rest of the castle with his siege engines.) Before long, furthermore, food and even water rationing probably came into effect and the overall sanitary conditions of a castle crowded with townspeople and extra guests must have been quite unpleasant. It was not an auspicious start to married life, even for an eleven-year-old.
The next phase of Isabella’s life is poorly recorded. Humphrey de Toron, selected as Isabella’s husband by a woman bitterly hostile to her, lived-up to the expectations of spinelessness. He surrendered his important barony of Toron to Agnes de Courtenay’s brother, Jocelyn of Edessa, taking a “money fief” (read: pension) instead. Isabella and he appear to have lived in town houses in either Acre or Jerusalem. For Isabella the implications of her husband’s abdication of effective baronial power may not have been evident (she was only eleven after all), and she probably enjoyed at last being able to visit with her mother, step-father and Ibelin half-siblings (now four).
Then in 1186, the boy King Baldwin V, who had succeeded the “Leper” King Baldwin IV, died without a direct heir. The barons of Jerusalem had sworn to seek the advice of the Kings of England and France, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, but they were far away. Furthermore, Isabella’s half-sister, the mother of Baldwin V and sister of Baldwin IV, felt that she ought to succeed to the throne. While no one doubted her claim, the majority of barons and bishops abhorred her husband and so resisted crowning her. Without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem but with the help of the Templars and Reynald de Châtillon, Sibylla contrived to have herself crowned and anointed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; she then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort.
The majority of the barons and bishops were not in Jerusalem to witness Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne; they were meeting in Nablus to discuss options. The news that Sibylla had seized the throne and crowned her detested husband, pushed them take action. It was agreed that Isabella, as the other surviving child of King Amalric, should be crowned in Bethlehem as a rival (but in this case legitimate because chosen by the High Court) queen to Sibylla. Automatically, her husband would by law become her consort and so king. But the barons had not reckoned with Humphrey de Toron’s cowardice and/or duplicity. Either from fear or simply because he remained abjectly loyal to his step-father, Humphrey foiled the baronial plot by sneaking away during the night to do homage to Sibylla and Guy. Without an alternative rallying point, the baronial resistance to Sibylla/Guy’s coup d’etat collapsed.
That is all recorded history, but what is left out of it is how Isabella felt. Did Isabella side with her husband ― and the man who had kept her imprisoned for three years? Or did she side with her mother and step-father, who both vehemently opposed Sibylla’s usurpation of the throne. Did fourteen-year-old Isabella want to be queen? Or not? We have no way of knowing. But just because the historical record is silent, we should not assume that she simply didn’t care. The historical record that we have is scanty and written almost exclusively by male clerics, who rarely considered the opinions or actions of women important. The fact that they took no interest in Isabella’s feelings should induce us to do the same. We know that Isabella, like most of the barons except Tripoli and her step-uncle of Ramla and Mirabel, accepted the fait accompli, but just as many of the barons (and presumably bishops) nevertheless deeply resented what Sibylla and Guy on one hand and Humphrey on the other had done. Isabella may have been in an identical situation: she had to accept what Humphrey had done and make her peace with Sibylla and Guy, but she may also have resented it intensely. It might even have created marital tensions.
Whatever her feelings, however, history was about to swamp her with new problems. Less than a year after usurping the crown, Guy de Lusignan had led the Army of Jerusalem to an unnecessary and devastating defeat (See Hattin.) Not only was the battle lost, thousands of fighting men were slaughtered, the remainder enslaved, and the bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were taken captive; among them was Isabella’s ever ineffective husband Humphrey.
There are various versions of what happened next. Saladin evidently offered to release Humphrey in exchange for the surrender of the critically important Frankish border fortresses of Oultrejourdain (which Humphrey had just inherited because Saladin had personally decapitated Reynald de Châtillon). According to some (probably romanticized) versions, Humphrey arrived home, only to have the garrisons refuse to obey his orders, at which point he voluntarily (or at his mother’s “loving” urgings) returned to Saracen captivity. It is more probable that Humphrey’s release was contingent on the surrender of Kerak and Montreal, and the surrender never occurred (no chivalrous return from freedom.) Either version of events, however, underlines the fact that Humphrey was 1) prepared to surrender vitally important fortresses just for the sake of his freedom and 2) that the men of the garrisons had so little respect for him they did not follow his instructions.
Both castles, however, were eventually reduced by siege, and at that point Saladin agreed to release Humphrey as he served no useful purpose in prison. Humphrey and Isabella were reunited in early 1189 after roughly 18 months of separation. Where Isabella had been between the catastrophe of Hattin and her reunion with Humphrey is unrecorded. Most likely, she was with her mother and step-father, because her stepfather had managed to escape the trap at Hattin. With King Guy and most of the High Court in captivity, Ibelin was unquestionably one of the most important men in the entire kingdom (Arab chronicles from the period refer to him as “like a king.”) Furthermore, he commanded the respect of those fighting men who had, with him, escaped capture. It would, therefore, have been logical for Isabella to seek his protection in this period.
Ibelin was in Tyre, the only city in the entire kingdom that did not fall or surrender to Saladin in the wake of Hattin. Also in Tyre at this time was Conrad de Montferrat. Montferrat was the brother of Sibylla’s first husband, uncle of Baldwin V, and related to both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, in short a man of very high birth and good connections. More important, he had taken command of the defense of Tyre in a critical moment and enjoyed the support of the people, residents and refugees, crowded into it. If she was in Tyre, Isabella and Conrad would have met and probably known each other well.
When Humphrey returned from captivity, however, he joined not the men who had successfully defended what was left of the kingdom but the architect of the disaster: Guy de Lusignan. Thus when Guy de Lusignan (for no logical reason) decided to besiege Saracen held Tyre, Humphrey went with him. Significantly, Isabella was with him there.
A siege camp is not a pleasant place for anyone, much less a high-born lady, which begs the question: why would Isabella choose to expose herself to the sordid life-style and the mortal hazards of a siege? Was it love of her husband? The passionate desire not to be separated from him again after the eighteen months of forced separation caused by captivity? Did she go to at the insistence of her half-sister Sibylla, who was also at the siege with her two infant daughters and commanded the attendance of her little sister? Did Humphrey insist on Isabella coming with him because he was jealous of a budding friendship with Montferrat? Did King Guy command her to come (and Humphrey dutifully comply) because he feared she might be used by the barons who opposed him to challenge his (much tarnished) right to the throne?
We will never know. The only thing that is certain is that she was still there in November of 1190, when her half-sister Sibylla and her two nieces died of fever. In the eyes of the High Court, which had favored her since the constitutional crisis of 1186, Isabella was no longer a princess but the rightful queen of Jerusalem.
Her reign began with an abduction.
In November 1190, Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem died of fever in the siege camp at Acre. She had been pre-deceased by her brother, King Baldwin IV, her son, King Baldwin V, and both her daughters. The only remaining direct descendent of the King Amalric was her half-sister, Isabella, who now became the heir apparent to the throne of Jerusalem.
Shortly after her sister’s death, in the middle of a November night, Isabella, Princess of Jerusalem, was dragged from the tent and bed she shared with her husband Humphrey de Toron, and taken into the custody of the leading prelates of the church present at the siege of Acre. Among these were the Papal Legate, the Archbishop of Pisa; Philip, the Bishop of Beauvais, and Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury along with two other unnamed bishops. She was informed that an ecclesiastic inquiry was to be conducted on the validity of her marriage to Humphrey of Toron.
Now, Isabella had by this point in time been living under the same roof as Humphrey for fourteen years. She had been married to him for eleven. Although she had no children and, given the above cited description of Humphrey, it is questionable if the marriage had ever been consummated, she nevertheless viewed herself as legally married. All accounts agree that she initially objected to be taken from Humphrey and resisted the efforts to annul her marriage because she “loved” him.
All accounts also agree that in the course of the proceedings, Isabella’s attitude changed. Clerics in the service of the English King and bitterly hostile to her second husband attribute her change of heart to the misogynous thesis that “a girl can easily be taught to do what is morally wrong” and the fact that “a woman’s opinion changes very easily.”[i] The more neutral chronicle attributes her change of heart to the influence of her mother. The following arguments are put in her mother’s mouth:
[Maria Comnena] remonstrated…that she [Isabella] could not become the lady of the kingdom unless she left Humphrey. She reminded her of the evil deed that he had done, for when the count of Tripoli and the other barons who were at Nablus wanted to crown him king and her queen, he had fled to Jerusalem and, begging forgiveness, had done homage to Queen Sibylla….So long as Isabella was his wife she could have neither honor nor her father’s kingdom, Moreover…when she [Isabella] married she was still under age and for that reason the validity of her marriage could be challenged.[ii]
The Dowager Queen’s arguments are enlightening. The Constitution of Jerusalem required a reigning queen to have a consort, and Isabella was married to a man who had betrayed the High Court of Jerusalem in 1186 (see the Constitutional Crisis of 1186); the High Court of Jerusalem was not prepared to accept as king a man who had betrayed them.
Unstated because obvious to all involved in this incident: the Kingdom of Jerusalem had be reduced to the single city of Tyre following the disastrous Battle of Hattin, and the desperate bid to re-capture the city of Acre had bogged down into a war of attrition with the besieges themselves besieged by the army of Saladin that surrounded them on all sides except the sea. Jerusalem needed not just a legitimate queen, it needed a king capable of leading the fight for recovery of the lost kingdom.
Isabella’s husband, Humphrey de Toron, was not that man. Contemporary chronicles describe him as “cowardly and effeminate”[iii] or “more like a woman than a man: he had a gentle manner and a stammer.”[iv] Thus regardless of Isabella’s impeccable claim to the throne of Jerusalem, the High Court (which consisted of the barons and bishops of the kingdom) was not prepared to recognize her as queen unless and until she set aside Humphrey de Toron aside and took another husband more suitable to the High Court.
The High Court had, incidentally, taken the same stance with regard to her elder sister. Sibylla had likewise been told by her supporters in 1186 that she could not ascend the throne of Jerusalem until she set aside her detested husband Guy de Lusignan. Sibylla had agreed to divorce Guy on the condition she be allowed to choose her next husband. She was rushed to a coronation by her supporters before the rest of the High Court could find out what was happening. Once she was a crowned and anointed queen, however, she had blithely announced that she chose none other than Guy de Lusignan as her “new” husband. In short, she reneged on her promise to put him aside. This incident was very much in the minds of the barons when they faced a similar situation with her sister Isabella in 1190. They were determined not to repeat their mistake of four years earlier. Isabella had to be legally separated from Humphrey before the High Court would acknowledge her as queen.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, upheld the sanctity of marriage. Isabella’s marriage to Humphrey could not simply be invalidated. There had to be a reason for annulling it and this too is stated explicitly in the argument put in the mouth of her mother: she had not been of the legal age of consent at the time of her marriage. This objective fact was both indisputable and not subject to Isabella’s whim. Whether she liked it or not, the she was not legally married in the eyes of the Church, and five prelates, including a papal legate, ruled her marriage to Humphrey invalid.
Most accounts of Isabella’s divorce in history and literature, latch onto the fact that she initially resisted the divorce “out of love for Humphrey” and the fact that her mother “remonstrated with” (i.e., bullied) her as evidence that Isabella was again only a pawn in the hands of the powerful people around her. They ignore the fact that Isabella changed her testimony, admitting she had not consented to the marriage with Humphrey, and then, once the marriage to Humphrey was dissolved, married Conrad Marquis of Montferrat within a week. In short, she did not follow her sister’s example and “re-marrying” her first husband. This is an important point. Although her marriage to Humphrey as a child was not valid because she had then been below the canonical age of consent, she could have married Humphrey as a consenting adult in 1190 ― had she wanted to. That she did not, speaks of one thing: Isabella preferred to wear the (at that point almost worthless) crown of Jerusalem over a marriage to the man she “loved.”
So maybe she did not “love” Humphrey all that much? Or she was more ambitious than people give her credit for. Either way she made a choice.
Her second husband, Conrad de Montferrat, was a man with a formidable reputation at arms (See Conrad de Montferrat). He had almost single-handedly saved Tyre from surrender to Saladin in July 1187 and defended it a second time in December that same year. Before that, however, he had charmed the court in Constantinople with his good-looks, manners and education. He was twice Isabella’s age at the time of their marriage.
Isabella would have had no illusions about why Conrad was marrying her: for the throne of Jerusalem. As a royal princess that would neither have surprised nor offended her. Isabella and Conrad, one can argue, chose one another because together they offered the Kingdom of Jerusalem the best means of avoiding obliteration. The legitimacy of Isabella and the military prowess of Conrad gave the barons and people of Jerusalem a rallying point around which to build a come-back. Notably, she called on her barons to do homage to her immediately after her marriage to Montferrat; that is the act of a woman determined to establish her position and remind her vassals of it.
Unfortunately for both Isabella and Conrad, the King of England out of feudal loyalty or sheer petulant hostility to his rival the King of France (who was related to and backed Conrad), chose to uphold the claim of Sibylla’s widowed husband Guy de Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem. What this meant for Isabella was that despite her marriage to the man preferred by the High Court, she was not recognized or afforded the dignities of queen because the powerful King of England (who rapidly seized command of the entire campaign to regain lost territory in what became known as the Third Crusade) opposed her husband. Conrad responded by trying to refusing to support of fight with the crusaders and by seeking a separate peace with Saladin. The Sultan, however, snubbed him, rightly seeing Richard as the greater threat with whom he needed to conclude any truce. We can assume that this was an incredibly frustrating experience, perhaps cheered by Isabella at last conceiving in early 1192.
In April 1192, the English King finally relented, and word reached Tyre that he was prepared to recognize Isabella and Conrad and Queen and King of Jerusalem. The city of Tyre, fiercely loyal to Conrad ever since he’d saved them Saladin, was seized with rapturous rejoicing. In a dramatic gesture, Conrad asked God to strike him down if he did not deserve the honor of the crown of the Holy City. He then walked out into the streets to be stabbed by two assassins. Mortally wounded, he was carried to his residence where, he died in agony in Isabella’s arms. She was not yet twenty years old.
She was, however, still the last surviving direct descendent of the Kings of Jerusalem, and her kingdom had never needed her more. The King of England had already received news that made it imperative for him to return to the West. The precarious gains of the Third Crusade needed defending. Isabella had to remarry, and she had to remarry a man acceptable to the High Court and the King of England. She was given just eight days between the assassination of her second husband and her marriage to her third.
A pawn? Or a queen who put the interests of her kingdom ahead of her own feelings?
Notably, the man selected by the High Court (accounts claiming the “people” of Tyre chose him are nonsense) was the nephew of the Kings of England and France, a grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henri Count of Champagne. The Count had been one of the first to “take the cross” and come out to Outremer to fight for the recovery of Isabella’s kingdom. He was, furthermore, only 26 years old and apparently gallant and courteous. According to Itinerarium, far from being greedy for a crown, he was a reluctant candidate, who was distressed by Isabella’s situation and only persuaded to consent when she herself assured him that it was her wish. Certainly, he never styled himself “King of Jerusalem,” preferring the title to which he had been born.
In the five years of her marriage to Champagne, Isabella gave birth to a posthumous daughter by Montferrat, Marie, and three daughters by Champagne, Marguerite, Alice and Philippa. It was during this marriage that a degree of stability descended over her kingdom with a three-year, eight month truce with the Saracens signed Sept. 2/3, 1192. But on September 10, 1197, Henri fell backwards out of a window to his death. The circumstance remain obscure. A balcony or window-frame possibly gave way, or he simply lost his balance turning suddenly.
Isabella was again a widow and the truce with Saladin had expired. The kingdom was again in need of a king capable of leading armies in its defense. Although they according Isabella four months of mourning this time, in the end the High Court selected Isabella’s next husband. Their choice fell on the ruling King of Cyprus, her former brother-in-law, Aimery de Lusignan. They were married and crowned jointly as King and Queen of Jerusalem in Acre in January 1198.
Their first child, a daughter Sibylle, was born the same year as their marriage (1198) and a second daughter Melusinde, two years later. Their son, named Aimery for his father, was born last but died in February 1205. Two months later, on April 1, 1205 King Aimery died of food poisoning, he would have been between 55 and 60 at the time of his death. Isabella died shortly afterwards, likely shattered by the loss of her only son and her fourth husband in such quick succession. The cause of her death is unknown. She was just 33 years old.
Four of her daughters survived her. The eldest, Marie de Montferrat, now thirteen-years-old and the posthumous daughter of Conrad de Montferrat, succeeded to the crown of Jerusalem. Isabella’s eldest surviving daughter by Champagne, Alice, married her step-brother, Aimery de Lusignan’s eldest son by his first marriage, Hugh I, King of Cyprus. Her eldest daughter by Aimery de Lusignan married Leo I, King of Armenia. Her youngest daughter Melusinde married Bohemund IV, Prince of Antioch.
Isabella’s life was short by modern standards and filled with drama from her separation from her family at age eight to her dramatic divorce, the assassination of one husband, and the death of two more.
[i] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi
[ii] The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre.
[iv] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi