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W.B Bartlett in his recent work, Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom: The Battle of Hattin and the Loss of Jerusalem (The History Press, 2007), writes in the Prologue:

During the latter decades of the twelfth century, Outremer was sleepwalking to disaster. Seemingly oblivious to the dangers of a resurgent Islam, the kingdom began to split apart. The nobles who governed with the king sought to outmaneuver one another, seeking to raise themselves up and bring their political opponents down.

This is by no means an isolated view, and most modern fiction about the period has followed the portrayal whether it is Cecilia Holland’s Jerusalem in which, according to the New York Times review, she brings to life the “atmosphere of conspiracy, betrayal…and political intrigue….” or Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” in which the fictional Tiberius condemns the struggles for power and land that he claims corrupted the ideals of the Holy City.

But let’s be realistic. There has never been a kingdom or state that has been entirely without factions — not even in monolithic and totalitarian dictatorships.  To expect a state to have perfect harmony and unity is not merely idealistic, it is naive. Where there is power, there will be differences of opinion on policy, and where there are competing policy options there will be factions — usually aggravated by personalities, rivalries and the prospect of personal gain associated with proximity to power or the execution of one policy over another.

It is, in short, absurd to expect the Kingdom of Jerusalem to be without factions supporting competing policies.  Whether these can be divided into “hawks” and “doves” or “insiders” and “outsiders” is not the issue here. The fact is that the mere presence of advisors advocating competing policies and/or even passionate rivalry between powerful noblemen in a medieval kingdom is neither unusual nor inherently self-destructive.

The question is whether the divisions within the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the twelfth century mortally crippled the kingdom to the point where the threat posed by Salah-ad-Din was ignored.  Let's look at the historical record.

Although it is safe to say that no kingdom on earth would have welcomed the ascension of a man suffering from leprosy, the High Court of Jerusalem took no longer than usual to recognize Baldwin IV as his father’s heir.  Furthermore, a powerful regent was rapidly installed who peacefully surrendered the keys to the kingdom to the leper prince when he turned fifteen. No sign of exceptionally destructive factions here, despite the explosive situation of a leper boy being heir to the throne.

Just a little over a year after Baldwin IV came of age, the Kingdom of Jerusalem faced the first full-scale invasion led by Salah-ad-Din.  The Count of Tripoli, the Hospitallers and hundreds of other knights from the Kingdom were laying siege to Hama in Syria when Salah-ad-Din invaded from Egypt and immediately invested Ascalon. It was a very dangerous situation. The sixteen-year-old king, with no experience of battle whatsoever, gathered his forces — some 376 knights — and rode to the relief of Ascalon. He then broke out of Ascalon, met up with a Templar force from Gaza and called up the army of Jerusalem. And they came. At Montgisard, under Baldwin IV’s personal leadership, the Christian army dealt Salah-ad-Din a devastating and humiliating defeat. The bulk of the Saracen army was killed or captured, and Salah-ad-Din barely escaped on a pack camel. Nothing about this suggests a kingdom divided against itself — nor blind to the threat posed by Salah-ad-Din.

The very next year, Baldwin ordered the construction of a castle at Jacob’s Ford — a clear indication that he recognized the threat posed by the Kurdish leader. Two years later, during the next invasion by Salah-ad-Din, Baldwin again successfully mustered his forces and successfully broke the Saracen vanguard.  Unfortunately, the Templars (who were not under Baldwin’s command) were routed by Salah-ad-Din’s main forces at the same time. When the Templars fell back, the entire Christian army withdrew. While the Templars lack of coordination is certainly to be condemned, it has nothing to do with internal rivalries or factions among the barons of Outremer.

The first hint of serious internal divisions surfaces in 1180. According to William Archbishop of Tyre, who was chancellor to Baldwin IV and so not only a contemporary but an insider, Baldwin IV’s illness had taken a dramatic turn for the worse by this time. It was clear, therefore, that the crown of Jerusalem would pass through Baldwin’s older sister Sibylla to whoever her husband might be; Sibylla in 1180 was a twenty-year-old widow. 

For whatever reasons (and they are controversial), the Baron of Ramla and Mirabelle with the backing of the Count of Tripoli and the Prince of Antioch considered himself the best candidate for Sibylla’s hand, but Sibylla — with or without her brother’s consent — married a young French noblemen of dubious character, Guy de Lusignan

Now Guy de Lusignan was a younger son with no title or wealth, and, more important, according to some sources he had allegedly been expelled from the realm and territories of Baldwin IV’s first cousin, Henry II Plantagenet, for killing the Earl of Salisbury by stabbing him in the back.  Not a very savory character, to say the least, and I submit it is entirely understandable that the barons of Jerusalem did not think him a suitable man to become their liege lord — not to mention be crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns…..

And yet! The uproar did not tear the country apart. To be sure, Ramla refused to do homage to the new Count of Jaffa (the title given by Baldwin to his sister’s husband) — but he still brought his troops to muster at each of the subsequent invasions by Salah-ad-Din — as did the other barons. Admittedly, in 1182 during the full-scale invasion that led to the battle at La Forbelet, Baldwin IV was still personally in command of the army, leading from a litter. But a year later, in September 1183, Baldwin IV had officially abdicated his authority, retaining only the title of King, the city of Jerusalem and an annual income of 10,000 gold pieces, while naming Guy de Lusignan regent.  Yet the barons of Jerusalem all mustered — even Tripoli and Antioch and Ramla. It was allegedly the largest army ever mustered by the crusader kingdoms. Indeed, the force was so big that Salah-ad-Din preferred not to give battle and withdrew to lay siege to the castle of Kerak on his way home to Egypt instead.

Nevertheless, something happened here that has escaped the pages of history. William of Tyre had been passed over for the post of patriarch and apparently lost his insider knowledge. He was to die shortly afterwards, and with him we lost our window into what was happening inside the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this crucial moment. But one thing is clear, the barons of Jerusalem refused to go to the relief of Kerak under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan. Baldwin IV — whether reluctantly or furiously — dismissed him from the regency and had himself dragged in a litter all the way to Kerak with his army around him. Salah-ad-Din abandoned the siege rather than face the leper in a liter across a battlefield.

Baldwin IV returned from Kerak determined to find a way to dissolve his sister’s marriage to Guy de Lusignan. Why? Regardless of possible personal slights the most obvious reason is simply that the barons of Outremer, who had rallied readily enough in September of 1183, were by November of the same year not prepared to follow Lusignan. Baldwin IV knew he could not leave his kingdom in the hands of a man who did not command the respect of the barons. 

So here is a dangerous rift — but hardly one in which the kingdom is “sleepwalking to disaster.” Baldwin IV was obviously acutely aware of the danger. He sent out a desperate, indeed almost pathetic, plea to the most powerful Christian monarchs, the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of France, and the King of England, to come to Jerusalem’s aid. He offered whichever Western monarch would come to the defense of Outremer the keys to the Tower of David, effectively offering to abdicate — and bypassing both his sisters — and turn the crown over to whoever would pick up the burden of defending Jerusalem.

Baldwin IV’s appeal went unheeded, and so to prevent Guy de Lusignan from becoming king he had his nephew, Sibylla’s son by her first husband, crowned in his own lifetime as Baldwin V. At Baldwin IV’s death, the crown passed seamlessly to Baldwin V and the Count of Tripoli was named regent by the High Court of Jerusalem. Again, there is amazing unity here.

Unfortunately, Baldwin V died within a year. Defying Baldwin IV’s wishes and without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, Sibylla had herself crowned Queen of Jerusalem and then placed the crown on her husband’s head as her consort.  This was a clear “coup d’etat,” a usurpation of the throne. And here — in the summer of 1186 — the Kingdom started to crack.  Faced with a usurpation, a number of barons considered crowning a rival king, the husband of Baldwin IV’s younger sister, Isabella. But the young man, Humphrey de Toron, rejected the role of rival-king and paid homage to Guy de Lusignan.  So, reluctantly, did all the other barons with two notable exceptions.

The key here is that despite a clear case of usurpation, the danger of division was fully recognized. Humphrey de Toron must be credited with putting the well-being of the kingdom ahead of his personal ambitions, and the bulk of the other barons likewise swallowed their distaste of Lusignan, and did homage. The two exceptions were the Baron of Ramla, Guy de Lusignan’s erstwhile rival for the hand of Sibylla, and the Count of Tripoli. Ramla took the unprecedented course of turning his entire inheritance over to his younger brother, Balian d’Ibelin, and leaving the kingdom, never to be heard of again. Tripoli simply withdrew to his own territories and concluded a separate peace with Salah-ad-Din.

This was an act that can best be described by the German term “Landesverrat.” In contrast to “Hochverrat” (treason against the state or government), Landesverrat is treason against the nation. Tripoli might have legally been correct not to recognize Guy de Lusignan as his overlord, but by allying himself with the man who had vowed to drive the Christians from the Holy Land, he hurt more than King Guy: he hurt all the crusaders states and their inhabitants.

King Guy threatened to invade Tripoli’s territories and “force” his submission, but the rest of the Christian leadership — from the Grand Masters of the Military Orders to the Patriarch of Jerusalem — recognized that this was suicidal in the face of Salah-ad-Din’s threat. No one was stumbling blindly to destruction here except, perhaps the two embittered protagonists themselves!  

Guy was prevailed upon to send mediators instead of troops. The Masters of the militant orders, the Archbishop of Tyre and two leading barons, including Balian d’Ibelin, whose brother had been such an inveterate opponent of King Guy, were sent to Tripoli to effect reconciliation between Tripoli and King Guy. They were ultimately successful.

When Salah-ad-Din again invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Raymond de Tripoli was among the commanders who mustered, bringing with him the largest contingent of feudal troops. His voice in the war councils was a voice of reason, but it went unheeded. Despite this — and unlike the fictional characters of Tiberias and Balian d’Ibelin in “The Kingdom of Heaven,” when Guy de Lusignan marched the Christian army out onto the Horns of Hattin, he lead the entire army of Jerusalem including Tripoli and Ibelin. To destruction.

In retrospect, perhaps more division would have served the crusader kingdom better. If Raymond de Tripoli (with the men of Tripoli and Galilee) and Balian d’Ibelin (with the troops of Nablus, Ramla, Mirabelle and Ibelin) had not been at Hattin, the Kingdom — or at least Jerusalem — might have been defensible even after this devastating defeat. But no one believed that the combined forces of Jerusalem could be so poorly led that they would be obliterated by the same man the Leper King had forced to withdraw on no less than five occasions. And had Tripoli and Ibelin failed to muster, they would have been blamed for the defeat. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Guy de Lusignan alone lost Jerusalem. 

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century and covers most of the issues describes above.

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem

A KIngdom Divided? Political Factions in the Kingdom of Jerusalem