Henri de Champagne: Ardent Crusader, Reluctant King

Henri of Champagne was one of the most ardent French crusaders to join the Third Crusade. His eagerness to take part in the crusade brought him to the Holy Land well ahead of either of his uncles, the Kings of France and England respectively. Despite his youth, his royal connections assured him a prominent role. Just how prominent, he never dreamed.

Henri was born in the County of Champagne on July 29, 1166. He was the eldest son of the Count of Champagne and his wife, Princess Marie of France. Marie was the daughter of King Louis VII of France by his first wife, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. His father's sister Adela followed Eleanor as wife of Louis VII and became Queen of France, while his younger brother Theobald married Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII’s other daughter Alix. In short, young Henri was very "well connected" to the French royal house, and through his grandmother to the Plantagenets as well.

In 1181, his father died and Henri became titular Count of Champagne, but his mother retained control of the County until he turned 21 in 1187.  Hardly had he assumed his inheritance than word reached France that Jerusalem had fallen to the Saracens after the disastrous battle at Hattin. Almost immediately, Henri’s maternal uncle, Richard Count of Poitou (later King of England) took the cross, vowing to restore Jerusalem to Christian rule. He was followed by a wave of other knights and nobles, including (reluctantly) Henri’s paternal uncle, Philip II of France.  Henri was not left cold by this crusading fever. Indeed, he appears to have been one of the most fervent crusaders of the entire campaign, incurring huge debts to finance a large contingent of knights and men-at-arms, paying for their transport, and setting out for the Holy Land more than a year before either of his uncles.

Before departing, however, the young, unmarried count made careful provisions for his inheritance. He designated his mother as his regent and his still underage younger brother Theobald as his heir. His vassals duly swore to recognize Theobald as Count of Champagne, if Henri failed to return from the crusade. This was a wise precaution as an estimated one third of all noble crusaders were either killed outright or fell victim to disease and illness while on crusade. What no one envisaged at this time was that Henri might “fail to return” without actually being dead….

Henri arrived in the Holy Land in the summer of 1190 and at once joined the Frankish siege of the Saracen-held city of Acre. His close ties to the French royal house immediately made him a leading commander, despite his youth (he was just 24) and inexperience. Henri was also related to Conrad de Montferrat, and ― anticipating his uncle Philip II ― gave his support to Montferrat in his rivalry with the discredited Guy de Lusignan (the architect of Frankish defeat at Hattin). According to some accounts, he played a role in securing Isabella of Jerusalem’s divorce from Humphrey of Toron thereby  paving the way for her marriage to Conrad de Montferrat. Arab sources record that he was wounded in November 1190 during one of the many skirmishes during the siege of Acre.

After the arrival of his uncles, the kings of France and England, Henri initially managed to retain the favor of both, but he appears to have been genuinely outraged (as were most of the French nobles) by Philip II of France’s abrupt departure after the fall of Acre in July 1191. Henri remained in the Holy Land, true to his crusading vow, and when he ran low on funds to pay his troops, he turned to his uncle, the King of England. Richard readily advanced him sufficient funds to retain his contingent in the field, and thereby secured the gratitude and loyalty of the Count of Champagne. 

In April 1192, Richard I of England received news that his brother John had allied himself with the Philip II of France and that they were attempting to take his inheritance from him. Recognizing he could not remain much longer in the Holy Land, Richard asked the barons of Jerusalem to select between the rivals, Guy de Lusignan and Conrad de Montferrat, their king. The High Court of Jerusalem chose Conrad de Montferrat, and the King of England bowed to their will. Richard chose his nephew Henri to go to Tyre to assure Conrad that he, Richard Plantagenet, had at last abandoned his protégé Lusignan and was willing to recognize Conrad as King of Jerusalem.

The message delivered, Henri began the journey back to rejoin the crusading army at Ascalon. He had only got as far as Acre, however,  when the news overtook him that Conrad had been stabbed to death by two assassins. Henri at once returned to Tyre, probably to verify a story that seemed incredible under the circumstances. In Tyre, Henri discovered that the news was correct: Conrad de Montferrat had been stabbed to death, the newly elected King of Jerusalem was dead.

One version of what happened next has captured the popular imagination and been repeated uncritically in almost every history and novel ever since. This account claims that on the arrival of Henri in Tyre “the people” welcomed him with jubilation and proclaimed him king. This is utter nonsense. Kings were not elected by “popular acclaim” in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The High Court, composed of the most important barons and bishops of the realm, did. The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, which is based in large part on a lost chronicle written in Outremer (rather than the West), explicitly states that “on the advice of the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” Richard nominated his nephew Henri de Champagne as the next king. 

We can only speculate on the exact course of events by trying to reconcile the two divergent but parallel accounts. First, it is obvious that the barons of Jerusalem were in an extremely difficult situation. They refused to follow Guy de Lusignan, Richard of England was preparing to depart, and their chosen king was dead. The queen through whom the crown was derived, however, was still alive, albeit a pregnant widow. Thus it was imperative to marry her to nobleman capable of defending the kingdom in its perilous state. Looking around for a suitable candidate, the eyes of those barons who had traveled to Tyre with the news of Conrad’s election would have fallen on Henri de Champagne. There is no way of knowing if they would have chosen someone else if he had not been so conveniently on the scene, but as the nephew to the kings of England and France he was certainly a diplomatic choice. He had also been campaigning in Holy Land for more than 18 months at this point; apparently he had won sufficient respect, despite his youth, to appear a viable candidate from a military point of view as well.

Either the barons took their suggestion first to Richard of England, or (as the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi suggests) they approached Henri directly and he deferred to his uncle. Either way, medieval chronicles agree that Henri de Champagne was initially reluctant to accept the crown. It had clearly come to him completely unexpectedly, and acceptance meant he would not be able to return to his home. The Kingdom itself existed more in people’s hearts and minds than in reality. It was threatened on all sides by the armies of Saladin. The crusading force that had managed to regain the coastline was already disintegrating (the French refused to take orders from the King of England and the King of England had already announced his intention to return home.) Worst of all, however, the throne of Jerusalem came with a serious catch: Henri could only become King of Jerusalem if he married Queen Isabella, Conrad’s widow. What was more: she was already pregnant by Conrad; if she bore a son, Henri would eventually have to surrender his crown to Conrad’s posthumous son rather than see his own offspring on the throne. It did not sound like a very good proposition to the young Count of Champagne.

According to the chronicles, one of two things changed Henri’s mind. According to the Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, Richard Plantagenet promised to return with a new crusading army and restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem to its former glory as well as conquer Constantinople (hindsight after the Fourth Crusade???) and give Cyprus to Henri too (some Richard had already given to Guy de Lusignan). According to the Itinerarium, on the other hand, Isabella of Jerusalem paid a visit to Henri and persuaded him to marry her by her grace and beauty. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in both accounts (Richard promised to return and Isabella convinced Henri that being married to her would not be all bad). In any case, Henri married Isabella eight days after she had been so unexpectedly widowed, on May 5, 1192.

With and by his marriage, Henry of Champagne became titular King of Jerusalem.  As the consort of Queen Isabella of Jerusalem from May 1192 until September 1197, Henry of Champagne was recognized by the High Court of Jerusalem and by all his contemporaries, domestic and foreign, as the rightful King of Jerusalem ― yet he preferred to call himself the Count of Champagne to the day he died. We can only speculate on whether that preference sprang from humility or a failure to identify with his adopted kingdom. Certainly, Henry of Champagne came to the throne unexpectedly and with little preparation, and had he lived longer, he might well have come to feel more comfortable in his role as King of Jerusalem. But his life was cut tragically short in an accident at the age of 31.

His reign started auspiciously. His first act as King of Jerusalem appears to have been to persuade his uncle the King of England to remain through the campaign season rather than depart for England at once. As a result, the crusading army was kept together long enough for a second (albeit equally unsuccessful) attempt on Jerusalem. 

Richard of England then set his mind to regaining the coast between Tyre and Tripoli, a clear means of strengthening Henri’s new kingdom, but Saladin’s sudden assault on Jaffa forestalled him. Richard immediately took a handful of knights in a few ships and set off for Jaffa to stiffen the defense long enough for relief to come by land.  

Henri meanwhile mustered the Army of Jerusalem and started down the coast to relieve Jaffa. When the army found its advance blocked just south of Caesarea by Saladin’s forces, however, Henri followed his uncle’s example and took ship with just a few men for Jaffa ― abandoning his army. It was not a particularly regal or strategic thing to do, but Henri appears to have gotten away with it. The relief of Jaffa was eventually successful, and his ignominious behavior at Caesarea was forgotten.

A month later, a truce had been signed with Saladin lasting three years and eight months or until April 1196. Richard Plantagenet was free to return to his besieged inheritance in the West, taking with him not only the bulk of the crusaders but the enormous shadow he had cast over Henri. Henri was at last in a position to show his merit as a king.

Unfortunately, Henry stumbled at once. Almost immediately after Richard’s departure, the Pisans started attacking shipping going to Acre. Whether this was state-piracy or instigated by the still-embittered deposed-King Guy de Lusignan is not clear. In any case, Henri blamed the Pisan Commune in Acre of abetting their countrymen, and when Aimery de Lusignan, the  older brother of Guy, defended the Pisans, Henri saw a Lusignan plot against him. He ordered Aimery de Lusignan arrested for treason. 

This only had the effect of angering Henri’s vassals and the Masters of both the Knights Templar and the Knights of St. John. Aimery de Lusignan, unlike his younger brother Guy, had been in the Holy land for nearly two decades by this point and he enjoyed the respect of his peers. He had been appointed Constable of the Kingdom by Baldwin IV, long before the catastrophe of Hattin.  Furthermore, and most important, the King of Jerusalem did not have the right to arrest the Constable ― only the High Court did.  Henri was forced to back down, but Aimery (not surprisingly) did not want to remain in a Kingdom ruled by a man who had arrested him unjustly. He surrendered the office of Constable and went to join his brother on Cyprus.

Henry’s next known act is considerably more to his credit. Sometime during the truce with Saladin ca. 1195, King Leo of Armenia seized Prince Bohemond of Antioch during a state visit in revenge for a similar incident years earlier. He demanded the surrender of Antioch to Armenia. Prince Bohemond ordered the surrender (to secure his own release), but the citizens of the city led by his own sons and the patriarch refused to follow his orders to surrender the city. Instead they sent to Henry of Champagne to negotiate the release of the Prince of Antioch on more reasonable terms. Henri appears to have carried out this diplomatic mission successfully, arranging that an Armenian princess marry Bohemond’s heir. 

On his return trip, Henri traveled via Cyprus, where Aimery de Lusignan had not only succeeded his brother as lord of the island but persuaded the Holy Roman Emperor to make him a King. Meeting now as equals, the two men were reconciled, and to symbolize their new friendship (and secure the future of their houses) they agreed that Aimery’s three sons should be betrothed to Henri’s three daughters by Isabella of Jerusalem. 

Henri then returned to his own Kingdom as the truce with the Saracens drew to a close.  Saladin had meanwhile died and his brother al-Adil had successfully eliminated Saladin’s eldest and second sons to seize power for himself in Damascus and Cairo. As the truce ended, he took a large force to attack Acre, evidently seeking to bolster his popularity and support by delivering a victory against the Franks. 

Champagne went out to meet al-Adil with a force composed primarily of German crusaders, who had since arrived in the Holy Land in anticipation of the end of the truce, and the knights and barons of Jerusalem. These proved insufficient to defeat the threat, and Champagne had to call up the commons as well, who then managed to thwart the invasion and send al-Adil back across the border. Little is really known about this engagement, but the Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre gives the entire credit for this victory to a local baron, Hugh of Tiberius, with Champagne simply taking advice. While implausible as written, the account may be indicative of a general feeling among the local barons that Champagne was not a terribly effective battle commander, certainly not comparable to his famous uncle Richard the Lionheart.

His death, however, may have contributed to this retroactive assessment of him. On September 10, 1197 Henry of Champagne accidentally fell from a window into a courtyard of the royal palace at Acre and broke his neck. There was no question of foul play. One version says he stepped backwards into the window and lost his balance. Another says he leaned out of the window and the railing gave way. Apparently his jester, a dwarf, either tried to stop him and also lost his balance, or flung himself after him in grief. Either way he allegedly landed on top of Champagne, ensuring his injury was fatal. 

Henry of Champagne left behind three young daughters, the eldest of which died young, and the second of which, Alice, became Queen of Cyprus in accordance with the agreement he had made with Aimery de Lusignan. 

He also left behind an ugly law-suit. Since he had never returned from the Holy Land, his brother Theobold laid claim to the County of Champagne and his sons after him, but Henri’s surviving daughters, Alice and Philippa, challenged their cousins claim. They argued that as the daughters of the elder son (Henry) they were the rightful heirs to Champagne. In an effort to negate Alice and Philippa’s (very valid) claim, Theobold’s son attempted to argue that Henry’s marriage to Isabella had been bigamous, thereby making his cousins Alice and Philippa illegitimate. The reasoning was that Isabella’s divorce from her first husband Humphrey de Toron had been bogus and so she was still married to him (since he was still alive) at the time of her marriage to Henry. This claim was spurious and never accepted by the courts, but it colored the chronicles (all written in France).  As a result, this court case has left lasting legacy of distorted historiography, which casts Isabella’s divorce from Toron is a lurid light and makes villains of all who supported it -- from Henry himself to Isabella's  mother, Maria Comnena, and her step-father Balian d'Ibelin.

Henry de Champagne is a significant character in “Envoy of Jerusalem,” where his relationship to Isabella is developed and examined.

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem