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.