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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Isabella: Princess of Jerusalem

Although a queen in her own right who reigned for twelve years, Isabella of Jerusalem is most often portrayed in history books and literature as a pawn. She was married four times, divorced once, and widowed thrice. She was the mother of six daughters and a single son, who died just weeks before Isabella herself. Saladin besieged the castle in which she was celebrating her first wedding night, and she endured the hardships of a siege camp during the Frankish siege of Acre 1189-1190. She was also the figure head of a coup attempt. One husband spent more than year in Saracen captivity, another died in her arms after being struck down by assassins, and her third husband died in a bizarre accident while still a young man. Isabella died, possibly from the complications of her son’s birth, 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 does no justice to a woman who played such a crucial role in the history of the Holy Land. In two entries, I will be examining her life and role in history. Today, her life as princess, and later her life as queen.

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. Isabella was born in early or mid-1172, and was eleven younger than her father’s son by his first wife, the future Baldwin IV. 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 who contracted 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, however, 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 Baron of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel. 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 only father Isabella consciously knew.

Isabella remained with her mother and step-father, spending time (one presumes) at both Nablus and Ibelin. She soon had two 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. By 1180, Agnes had gained the King’s confidence. She convinced him that his half-sister Isabella was a threat, who needed to be completely “controlled” by men loyal to the Courtenays. The means to this purely political objective was to betrothe 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 .  Thus, Isabella was taken from the only family she had ever known -- over the furious objections of her mother and step-father -- become a prisoner of the brutal Châtillon. She was sent to live in one of the most exposed and bleak castles of the kingdom on the edge of Sinai: Kerak. Furthermore, Châtillon's 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.

Interior of Kerak
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 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 the wedding.

Before the nuptials could take place, however, Kerak camed under siege from the forces of Saladin. The bulk of the barons of Jerusalem were attending a session of the High Court in Jerusalem at the time, so 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 (Baldwin's older sister 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 under 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.) Furthermore, we can assume there was considerable uncertainty about when the relief army would arrive and whether food and water would last until help came --  not to mention that the sanitary conditions in 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 her expectations of spinelessness. He surrendered his important barony of Toron (willingly?) 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 (of which there were 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 in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; she then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort. 

Sibylla and Guy from the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
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 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 not 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 most 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 led the Army of Jerusalem to an unnecessary and devastating defeat. 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” urging) 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 to captivity 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 Acre, Humphrey went with him. Significantly, Isabella accompanied him

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 his 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 could have commanded the attendance of her little sister? Did Humphrey insist on Isabella coming with him because he was jealous of a budding friendship between Isabella and Montferrat? Did King Guy command her to come (and Humphrey dutifully comply) because he (Guy) feared she might be used by the barons (who had always opposed him and now detested him more than ever) 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 both her 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.

Isabella is an important character in two of my novels: 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader has joined the Real Crusades History Team and taken over the position as Editor in Chief of the + Real Crusades History + Blog.


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