In late 1177 Maria Comnena, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, made a surprise second marriage to Balian d’Ibelin, the younger brother of the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Although it is recorded that Maria had the explicit consent of the king for this marriage, there is no reason to suppose this marriage was imposed on her. The very fact that the candidate was the younger brother of a local baron from a parvenu family makes it all the more likely that he was her choice; otherwise she would have rejected him as far beneath her dignity — with the full backing of the Byzantine Emperor in saying ‘no.’ No one, much less the weakened Baldwin IV, would have risked a break with the Byzantine Emperor over a marriage that brought no apparent advantages to the crown.
In short, we can assume that Maria’s marriage to Balian d’Ibelin was a love-match — at least on her side. While Balian’s motives may have been more venal, what followed provides ample evidence that Balian and Maria became close and were viewed by others as a pair, a team, a partnership. Altogether, Maria was to give Balian four children, two sons and two daughters, all born between 1178 and 1183.
Meanwhile, Maria faced the first serious crisis of her life. In 1180, her daughter by Amalric, the 8 year-old Princess of Isabella was taken from her (and Balian) and betrothed to Humphrey de Toron IV, the grandson of the formidable and much-admired Humphrey de Toron II. By this time, however, the old Constable was dead as was his son and the fourth Humphrey de Toron was still a minor, living with his widowed mother and her third husband, the infamous Reynald de Chatillon. The marriage between Humphrey and the child Princess Isabella was allegedly idea of the Queen Mother, Agnes de Courtenay, who had been set aside by King Amalric and replaced by Maria. It can be assumed that Agnes had no kind feelings toward Maria. The timing of the marriage is also significant. Agnes had just engineered the marriage of her own daughter to Guy de Lusignan — thereby earning the bitter enmity of Baldwin of Ramla, Balian's elder brother, who apparently had had hopes of marrying Sibylla himself. Certainly, from 1180 onwards, Ramla and his younger brother Balian were staunch opponents of Guy de Lusignan. Under the circumstances, King Baldwin apparently felt compelled — or more likely was compelled by the poisonous advice of his mother — to remove his half-sister Isabella from Balian’s control out of fear that if he did not the Ibelins would use her to challenge Sibylla and Guy’s claim to the throne.
The historical record amply demonstrates, however, that King Baldwin was unjustified in imputing treasonous intentions to the Ibelins; both brothers were staunchly loyal to both him and his nephew Baldwin V. Indeed, although Baldwin refused to do homage to Guy after he usurped the crown, preferring to leave the kingdom, Balian honorably served Guy de Lusignan right up until the death of Sibylla in 1190. Furthermore, there is no objective way to portray this removal of a small child from her mother and the only father she had ever known as benign. The fact that she was not only taken from her parents but sent to a border fortress controlled by a notoriously brutal man was a cruel, vindictive act that undoubtedly acerbated the hostility between Maria and Agnes and between the Ibelins and Lusignans, in both cases to the detriment of the kingdom.
For three years, Isabella was denied the right to even visit her mother in Nablus, and it was not until 1183 that Maria saw her daughter again — on the occasion of her daughter’s marriage to Humphrey when Isabella was still only 11 years old. No sooner had Maria, Agnes and other wedding guests arrived at the bleak castle of Kerak, set atop a mountain overlooking the desert, than Salah-ad-Din laid siege to the castle. Maria was trapped inside with her daughter, her new son-in-law and hundreds of other guests. The bulk of the barons of Jerusalem, including Balian, however, were still in Jerusalem at a meeting of the High Court. It was a stormy session in which the barons unanimously refused to accept Guy de Lusignan as regent — not even to go to the relief of their wives, the Dowager Queen, the Queen Mother and the Princesses of Jerusalem. That is quite a resounding vote of “non-confidence” in the incompetent but arrogant Guy de Lusignan! Baldwin IV, now completely lamed and going blind with leprosy, had to take up the reins of government himself and lead the royal army to the relief of Kerak. Salah-ad-Din retreated before King; Maria — and Isabella — were reunited with Balian.
One year later, Maria again found herself under siege, and this time it was at home in Nablus. Salah-ad-Din had set-out on a second attempt to capture Kerak, but was again thwarted by the timely arrival of the feudal host of Jerusalem. He withdrew, but plundered and burned his way north to Damascus. Nablus, an unwalled town, was in his path, and Maria commanded in the city since Balian with his knights, sergeants and other feudal levees was with the army. Remarkably, although the city was unwalled and so virtually indefensible, there were no Frankish casualties because Maria provided refuge to the entire civilian population in the citadel. This was in marked contrast to neighboring towns and cities. The citadel of Nablus was not a major castle and it has completely disappeared over the centuries — nothing like the almost impregnable Kerak. The over-crowding must have been appalling and the risks enormous, but the Christian army was hot on Salah-ah-Din’s heels and came to Maria’s relief — at least that portion under her husband did.
Such an action was unthinkable the next time Saracen forces threatened to overrun Nablus. That was in July 1187 and Salah-ad-Din had just destroyed almost the entire Christian army, killing or enslaving roughly 17,000 men, and taking the King of Jerusalem, most of his barons, and the Grand Master of the Knights Templar captive. In short, like every other city and castle in the crusader kingdom, Nablus had no hope of relief because there was no longer an army left to come to its aid. Furthermore, unlike the port cities from Ascalon to Beirut, there was also no hope of relief by sea from the kingdoms in the West. Maria was a realist. She abandoned Nablus and with her children (and probably with the majority of the other inhabitants) fled to Jerusalem.
The choice of Jerusalem was probably dictated more by sentiment than logic: it was not the closest defensible city. Arsuf, Jaffa and Caesarea were all geographically closer, and they were seaports with both hope of relief or routes of escape. But Jerusalem was the heart of the kingdom and it was a walled city. Furthermore, the Ibelins had a residence there so Maria and her children had someplace to go. In the first moment of shock, as word of the disaster of Hattin reached Nablus and Maria probably did not know if Balian had been killed or captured, it probably seemed like the best place to go. Maria may, however, have come to regret her decision.
Jerusalem was soon flooded with refugees from the surrounding countryside. While the regular population was probably no more than 20,000, a number that swelled to perhaps 40,000 during the pilgrim season, as many as 30,000 or 40,000 Franks sought refuge in Jerusalem after Hattin, bringing the population to over 60,000. (Some estimates put the population at this time as high as 100,000.) Most of those refugees were women, children, churchmen and old people because the able-bodied men had been called-up to the army and were now dead or enslaved. Yet despite the lack of fighting men (there is said to have been not a single knight in the city) the leaders chosen (by what means we do not know) to represent the city to Salah-ad-Din refused to surrender the city on generous terms. The Franks in Jerusalem may have been commoners with little experience of combat but they felt the weight of responsibility keenly. As they told Salah-ad-Din, they could not surrender Jerusalem because it would disgrace them for all eternity. They did not expect to defend the city successfully, they simply preferred martyrdom to shame.
It is unknown how Maria Comnena felt about this stand. She was certainly not part of the delegation, although as Dowager Queen and one of the most prominent people in the city she was probably involved in both selecting the delegation that met with Salah-ad-Din and determining what answer they would give him. It is likely that, although she understood the sentiments expressed to Salah-ad-Din, she was less than enthusiastic about sacrificing her four children, all of whom were under the age of 10. She was in all probability greatly relieved, not to say ecstatic, when against all odds her husband appeared in Jerusalem to escort her to safety.
The arrival of Balian d’Ibelin in Jerusalem sometime after the fall of Hattin struck the Christians in Jerusalem as miraculous. It was all but miraculous that he had escaped from the debacle at Hattin, but even more amazing that having gained the safety of Tripoli, he would return — unarmed — for the sake of bringing his wife and children to freedom. This act more than any other suggests the depth of feeling Balian had for his wife. Other lords, notably Raymond of Tripoli, abandoned their wives to their fate, trusting to Salah-ad-Din’s sense of honor not to humiliate them. Ibelin took the unprecedented – and risky — step of seeking a safe-conduct from Salah-ad-Din and giving his word to go to the city unarmed (and presumably unescorted) remain there only a single night and then then return to Tripoli.
The arrival of a respected and experienced battle-commander in the militarily leaderless city sparked popular jubilation — until the people learned of Balian’s intention to rescue his family and withdraw. They then begged Balian to remain and take command of the city’s defenses and resistance. The Patriarch graciously absolved Balian of his oath to Salah-ad-Din, and Balian decided it was his duty to remain.
Did he decide alone? That is hardly conceivable. He had been married to Maria Comnena for almost 10 years at this point in time, but she remained his social superior by many orders of magnitude. They had been equally impoverished by the loss of Nablus no less than Ibelin, but the habits of ten years are not washed away in an afternoon. Balian would not have been in the habit of dictating to his wealthier, better connected and higher-born wife, and at this critical moment he would not have abruptly changed his behavior or tried to do so. Maria Comnena must have shared his decision and very likely contributed to it — without knowing that Salah-ad-Din had another surprise for both of them.
When Balian sent word to the Sultan that he was compelled by the appeals of his countrymen to remain in Jerusalem, Salah-ad-Din was not angry or offended. On the contrary, respecting Balian’s decision, he sent fifty of his own personal guard to Jerusalem to escort Maria Comnena and her children to safety. Why? The romantic answer is that he was chivalrous and respected Balian. The more realistic answer is that Maria Comnena was first cousin of the Byzantine Emperor and Salah-ad-Din had signed a truce with the Byzantines; he had no desire to muddy the waters by having a Byzantine Princess caught in a city he had vowed to take by storm. The risks of something happening to her and a diplomatic incident resulting were simply too high.
Maria must have been relieved for the sake of her children to get that escort to safety. She was probably equally distressed to have to leave her husband behind to almost certain death. She could not have known as she rode out of Jerusalem sometime in early September 1187 that Balian would pull off yet another miracle: the ransom of tens of thousands of Christian lives even after the walls had been breached.
After the fall of Jerusalem, Maria and Balian were reunited, but they now had no income and were nobody in a kingdom that no longer existed. It is unclear how they survived, but it is notable that at this moment when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to the city of Tyre and that was a city under siege and frequent attack, Maria did not choose to return “home.” To be sure, her great-uncle was dead and the new Emperor was a tyrant hostile to the Latin west, but she was a Byzantine Princess, a Comnena, and she had very powerful relatives in the Eastern Empire. That she remained in the pitiable remnants of the crusader states was a tribute to her loyalty to her second husband and her daughter.
Balian, probably with considerable misgivings and inner revulsion, joined the army that Guy de Lusignan raised after his release in 1188 and took part in the Christian siege of Muslim Acre. Many women were in the Christian camp, including Queen Sibylla and her two daughters by Guy. Whether Maria Comnena and her children were there went unrecorded. Very likely, she was not. We know only that in 1190 she was in Tyre.
In 1190, Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters died of fever in the Christian camp outside of Acre. With her death, Guy de Lusignan’s right to the throne of Jerusalem was extinguished. To be sure, he had been anointed king, but without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, and in Balian’s eyes that made him a usurper, tolerated only so long as the rightful heir to Jerusalem, his wife, reigned jointly with him. With her death, everything changed for Balian.
The next in line to the throne was Maria’s daughter, Isabella. Isabella was now 18 years old and still married to the man imposed on her by her half-brother Baldwin IV, Humphrey of Toron. The problem with Humphrey in the eyes of Balian and most of the surviving barons, knights and burghers of Jerusalem was that he was weak (some say effeminate) and was not credited with the ability to play a constructive role in regaining the lost territories of the Kingdom. In contrast, Conrad de Montferrat, who had saved the city of Tyre at the critical juncture when it too had been on the brink of collapse was widely viewed as having the personality and skill to recapture the kingdom. Balian and the only other baron to escape Hattin and still be alive, Reginald de Sidon, decided that Isabella must marry Conrad de Montferrat rule the kingdom jointly. There was no question that Isabella had been too young to consent at the time of her marriage to Humphrey and this provided legal grounds for the annulment of her marriage. Unfortunately, Isabella had grown attached to Humphrey and the chronicles agree that her mother had to “browbeat” her into agreeing to the divorce.
While this is usually interpreted as an unscrupulous and ambitious woman (Maria) heartlessly pressuring a sweet young girl into betraying the man she loved, the record is not quite so unambiguous. First, the sources we have are all hostile to Conrad de Montferrat and should therefore be treated with caution. Second, the divorce was undoubtedly in the best interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Maria should be given credit — not blame — for putting the interests of the kingdom ahead of the affections of her teenage daughter. Third, there is no indication that Maria’s stand resulted in lasting tensions between her and her daughter. Maria and Balian both played roles in Isabella’s court long after Conrad de Montferrat was dead. Fourth, when Conrad de Montferrat was murdered, Isabella did not try to re-marry Humphrey de Toron and make him king, but rather accepted the King of England’s choice for her third husband. Later, she would accept the High Court’s choice for her fourth husband as well. Isabella, I believe, wanted to be Queen and was willing to sacrifice Humphrey de Toron, if reluctantly at first, for that goal.
But back to Maria. Isabella’s elevation to the throne opened the gates for Maria to play a role similar to Agnes de Courtenay’s — but she did not. Rather, she appears to have retired with Balian and their children to the much reduced estates now at their disposal. (The truce between Richard of England and Salah-ad-Din did not include the restoration of Nablus or any of the Ibelin lordships to Christian control, but Balian was explicitly granted the smaller lordship of Caymont northeast of Caesarea.) Balian, as step-father of the queen, initially took precedence over all other lords, but fades from the historical record after 1193, presumably he became ill or died at about this time.
Maria, however, appears to have been instrumental in reconciling Isabella’s third husband, Henri of Champagne, with the House of Lusignan, now established as kings of Cyprus, by negotiating marriages between Henri and Isabella’s daughters with Aimery de Lusignan’s sons. She was still alive when Aimery de Lusignan married Isabella, and when Lusignan appointed John d'Ibelin, Maria's son by Balian and Isabella’s half-brother, to the position he had himself once held under Baldwin IV: Constable of Jerusalem. She also lived to see John enfeoffed with the Lordship of Beirut and would have personally enjoyed the palace he built there with its lifelike mosaics, polychrome marble and views to the sea.
When Maria Comnena died in 1217, her five-year-old great-granddaughter Yolanda (sometimes also referred to as Isabella) was Queen of Jerusalem, while her children by Balian had all married into noble families. Her sons John and Philip would both serve as regents, in Jerusalem and Cyprus respectively, and in the centuries to follow, Ibelins frequently married into the royal houses of the Christian East including Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus and Armenia.
Maria Comnena is the leading female character in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin starting with Knight of Jerusalem, released in September 2014.
The Castel of Kerak
An allegedly contemporary depiction of Maria Comnena
Empress Irene in Hagia Sophia
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Frankish Courtyard in Jerusalem