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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Conquest of Cyprus -- Calculation and Politics

There is no historical evidence that Richard Lionheart planned to conquer the Byzantine island of Cyprus when he set out on the Third Crusade. On the contrary, every indication suggests that he was intent upon reaching the Holy Land as expeditiously as possible and re-capturing Jerusalem for Christendom.

Cypriot Landscape
Had there been no storm, he would have proceeded, as his fellow-crusader Philip II of France had done, without interruption all the way to Tyre/Acre. Only chance scattered his fleet, wrecked some of his ships on the shores of Cyprus and left his fiancĂ© and sister stranded there.  Yet even that would not have resulted in a conquest had the ruler of Cyprus, the self-styled Emperor Isaac Comnenus, acted hospitably to Richard’s ship-wrecked men and ladies. Instead, Isaac plundered the ships, imprisoned the survivors, threatened the royal women, and insulted Richard himself (see The Conquest of Cyprus I: Chance and Passion). Richard’s response was to teach the Byzantine tyrant a lesson, which he did by storming ashore, capturing Limassol and then scattering Isaac’s army in a dawn attack. It all would have ended there if only Isaac had been willing to come on crusade with Richard. Instead he fled to the interior.


Richard responded not with rage but with hard-headed rationality. It was at this point that he appears to have conceived the plan of taking -- and holding -- Cyprus for the crusaders. He rapidly developed and executed a well-crafted strategic plan that made effective use of his large crusader force and fleet. First, he divided his army into three parts. He sent some troops overland to pursue and if possible capture Isaac. He sent part of his fleet to the west, and took the bulk of the fleet eastward. Both parts of the fleet secured ports and castles along the coast as they advanced.



The latter continued to be easy and bloodless due to the unpopularity Isaac. Even before he left Limassol, Richard had been receiving homage from many of the local elite, most notably the Italian merchants. But it wasn’t only the foreigners that evidently welcomed Richard. Many of the Byzantine nobility also appeared to prefer Richard to Isaac — perhaps because they believed he would not stay long and they would soon have the island to themselves again.
Another Cypriot Landscape


Meanwhile, at Famagusta Richard disembarked his troops and advanced toward the inland city of Nicosia. Expecting an ambush, Richard personally commanded the rear-guard of his army. Isaac obliged, attacked and the Greek despot's army was handily defeated yet again by Richard’s superior troops and leadership. Isaac himself, however, escaped as he had on all the previous occasions, and this time he fled to the one of the nearly impregnable mountain fortresses, either Kantara or Buffavento.



These castles, perched on the top of a steep, rocky mountain ridge so narrow that it was not possible to build courtyards or wide halls, could be held with very small garrisons. Attackers had to climb near vertical slopes to reach them, continuously under fire from the defenders — or starve the defenders out with a siege. While a siege was by far the more rational military solution, sieges take time, and that was what Richard of England did not have. Isaac Comnenus clearly expected Richard to give up, continue with his crusade, and leave him to re-take his island at leisure. 

Mountain Fortress of St. Hilarion
He might even have gotten away with it, if Richard’s fleet (the part that had sailed west and reached the norther shore of the island) had not in combination with the forces sent overland captured the coastal city and castle of Kyrenia.  As chance would have it, Isaac’s only child, a girl, was in Kyrenia.



The girl has remained nameless throughout history, referred to only as the “Maid of Cyprus” or as her father’s daughter. Fortunately for the crusader cause, her father, despite all his other faults, loved her. He loved her so much that despite his comparatively secure position in an all-but-unassailable castle, he abjectly surrendered on June 1. Isaac set only one condition: that he not be put in irons. According to legend, Richard of England agreed, only to have fetters made for him of silver.



If Isaac’s hope had been that surrender would enable him to be reunited with his daughter, it was a short-lived reunion. Isaac was handed over to the Hospitallers, who kept him in a dungeon in Marqub (Syria) until 1193 or 1194. The year after his release he was allegedly poisoned for trying to incite the Sultan of Konya to attack the Byzantine Empire. He was dead by 1196. As for his daughter, she was turned over to the care of Richard’s bride and sister and sailed with them first to Palestine and later to Europe. She was used (just like Richard's sister Joanna) as a diplomatic pawn by Richard, and eventually married to an illegitimate son of the Count of Flanders. (During the Fourth Crusade the couple tried to lay claim to Cyprus, but were rapidly sent packing without anyone taking them seriously.)



Thus, in less than a month and with the loss of only two men (according to the contemporary sources), Richard the Lionheart had taken complete control of the rich and strategically important island of Cyprus.   The port of Famagusta is only 118 miles from Tripoli, the closest of the crusader cities, and just 165 miles from Acre.  On a clear day, it is possible to see the coast of Lebanon from Cyprus. Furthermore, Cyprus was a fertile island capable of producing grain, sugar, olives, wine and citrus fruits in abundance.  Its location made it an ideal staging place for future crusades and a strong base for ships to interdict any Saracen fleets intent on preying on the coast of the Levant. Cyprus was thus both a bread-basket and a military base for the existing crusader states.

Ruins of a 13th Century Sugar Mill at Kolosi, Cyprus
Richard of England profited immensely from his conquest. In addition to the plunder he took on the battlefield (that included rich tents, gold plate and armor according to tradition) he had also captured Isaac Comnenus’ treasury. Furthermore, he extracted a tax from the lords and burghers of Cyprus to support his crusade. All this replenished his coffers and enabled him to pursue the war for Jerusalem with sufficient resources to pay the men and purchase the materiel he needed. 

Richard was not, however, interested in retaining control of the island indefinitely. It was too far from home (Aquitaine). Richard’s goal in capturing Cyprus was purely strategic, not dynastic. Rather than holding it for himself, he instead sold the island (thereby further strengthening his financial position) to the Knights Templar for 100,000 pieces of gold. What happened after that is the subject of my current work-in-progress: The Last Crusader Kingdom.


The capture of Cyprus is a minor episode in the third book of the Jerusalem Trilogy:




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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Conquest of Cyprus: Chance and Passion



"Aphrodite's Birthplace" on the Coast of Cyprus, Photo by HPSchrader
The last and most enduring of the crusader states was established on the island of Cyprus at the end of the 12th century. It lasted for over 300 years, thriving long after the Kingdom of Jerusalem had disappeared from the political map, if not memory. How that crusader state came into being is a dramatic story that began with a chance conquest by one of the most charismatic of all crusaders: Richard the Lionheart.

Richard's Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault

After a tempestuous winter on Sicily, the men of the Third Crusade led by the Kings of England and France were ready to sail for the Holy Land. The kings, however, had quarreled with one another and so departed separately. Philip II departed with his contingent of crusaders on March 30. He arrived off Tyre without incident three weeks later on April 20.



Richard was not so lucky. His fleet of a hundred ships did not set sail until April 10 — and almost immediately encountered a vicious storm. The fleet was scattered as the vessels, some large, some small, some oared and some pure sailing ships, each struggled to survive as best they could.  Richard’s galley with a rump of the fleet eventually made safe harbor on the island of Rhodes on April 22, but the ship carrying his betrothed, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, and his sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, was missing.  


For the next ten days, Richard remained at Rhodes while ships were dispatched to try to round-up the stragglers, and the surviving ships were made seaworthy again.   On May 1, with the ships he had collected, Richard set out in search of his lost vessels and his bride. He made for Cyprus, the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean. His hope was that many of his missing ships, including the one with his bride and sister, might have found refuge there.



And indeed they had! But their reception had been far from welcoming. Rather than receiving the charity expected from a Christian monarch (Cyprus was ruled at this time by a self-styled Byzantine “Emperor”), the crews of three ships wrecked on the coast of the island were –- in Richard’s own words –- “robbed and despoiled.”  The ship carrying the royal ladies had avoided shipwreck, but in a state of distress had taken refuge in the harbor of Limassol.  The knights aboard this vessel somehow received word of what had happened to their comrades, and Joanna of Plantagenet (a woman who deserves a bookof her own!) was clearly not buying the assurances offered by “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus about her safety if she came ashore.  She smelt a rat and stayed aboard her damaged vessel.



Thus when Richard sailed into Limassol harbor on the evening of May 5, he found his bride-to-be and sister in a precarious situation aboard an unseaworthy vessel running out of water, but afraid of being held for ransom or worse if they went ashore.  Richard at once sent an envoy to Isaac Comnenus requesting that his men be set free, compensation paid for the property seized (from the wrecks), and permission to come ashore for water and provisions. According to all contemporary accounts, the envoy returned with a very rude reply.



Richard responded as could only be expected of the proud Plantagenet: he attacked.



The exact sequence of events varies according to which chronicle one follows.  One version has Richard ordering his galleys to break through a blockade of ships at the mouth of Limassol harbor and then storming ashore on foot.  Another version claims he landed on a beach beyond Limassol harbor against opposition, and then took Limassol from landward. Either action (and the later appears the most likely) was extremely risky.





Indeed, an amphibious operation from small ships and boats against a defended shore is one of the most dangerous in warfare. Period. Think of the beaches of Normandy — and Gallipoli. Unlike the Allies on D-Day in WWII, Richard did not have protective fire from big battle ships hammering the shore with shells. Instead, Richard had to rely upon covering fire from cross-bow men kneeling or sitting on boats bobbing up and down in the waves — not a good platform for accurate fire with any kind of small arm, let alone a bow and arrow! The enemy archers, in contrast, would have been firing their bows from solid earth. Furthermore, as Richard and his men approached the shore, he had to jump overboard into the sucking surf not in combat boots but chainmail leggings. He then had to fight his way up the rolling stones of the beach in the face of both enemy fire and attacks. To put it simply: the fact that Richard pulled this off is remarkable and unquestionably heroic.



He was helped, however, by the fact that his opponent was highly unpopular with his own subjects and relying primarily upon mercenaries. 


Cyprus, an integral part of the early Byzantine Empire, had become a target for expanding Islam in the mid-7th century. Although it was not conquered and incorporated into the Muslim world, it was partially occupied, frequently raided, and forced to pay tribute to various Muslim overlords until 965, when Constantinople re-established control of the island. The three hundred years of turmoil had made it poor, and it remained a Byzantine back-water until the establishment of the crusader states following the First Crusade. Thereafter, Cyprus benefitted from the flood of Western pilgrims heading to the Holy Land, and prospered from trade with the booming cities of the Levant. In 1126, the Venetians obtained trading concessions on the island, and contributed to its commercial revival. After the death of Manuel I Comnenus, however, Constantinople drifted into chaos as first his son was murdered and then his son’s murderer was torn to pieces by a mob. Constantinople was too pre-occupied with this succession crisis to pay any attention to Cyprus, and into the vacuum stepped Isaac Comnenus. 

A Portrait of Isaac's Great Uncle Manuel I
Isaac, a member of the Imperial family (a great-nephew of Emperor Manuel I), who had previously been governor of Byzantine Cilicia, arrived on Cyprus in 1182 or 1183, claiming to have been appointed governor.  Some sources claim his letters of appointment were forged, but it is also possible he was indeed legitimately appointed by Manuel I’s son Alexus II or the latter’s mother and regent, Maria of Antioch. In any case, when Alexis II and Maria of Antioch were murdered and Andronicus Comnenus became Emperor in Constantinople, Isaac rebelled against Andronicus. He thereafter claimed Cyprus as his personal domain. Andronicus didn’t take this sitting down. He prepared a fleet to reclaim the island for Cyprus. Isaac responded by forging an alliance with Sicily, which sent a fleet. In a naval engagement, the Sicilians fighting for Isaac defeated the Byzantine fleet. By the time Richard of England arrived in 1191, Isaac had been in effective control of Cyprus for roughly 8 years. In that short space of time, however, he had so ruthlessly exploited, taxed and terrorized his subjects that they did not want to fight — much less die — for him. Lack of morale on the part of Isaac’s forces enabled Richard to successfully land his forces.



Nevertheless, although Richard had taken the beach and then the city of Limasol, Isaac Comnenus still had his army largely intact. He had simply withdrawn with the bulk of his troops farther inland. This situation was obviously precarious, and Richard knew he had to eliminate this latent threat. So he off-loaded some of his warhorses, exercised them through the night so they could get back their land-legs, and then attacked Isaac Comnenus’ army at dawn the next day. The location is sometimes identified as Kolossi, the later site of a lovely Hospitaller commandery.






The Hospitaller Commandery at Kolossi as it looks today. (Photo by the author)


Richard’s early morning attack allegedly caused panic among the self-styled Emperor’s forces. Isaac Comnenus took flight again, and Richard’s men overran the enemy camp, capturing huge quantities of booty without casualties.  As at the earlier engagement, the self-styled “Emperor” had little support among the population or his mercenaries.  



Richard returned to Limassol and on May 12. Lent now being over, he married Berengaria and had her crowded Queen of England. The exact location is unknown, and several churches in Limassol claim the honor.





These churches for the Hospital (left) and Temple (right) were build much later but incorporate many features typical of church architecture on the island. (Photo by the author)



At this point, Richard was still in a hurry to get to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The crusader kingdom was in desperate straits, having been reduced to the city of Tyre after the defeat at Hattin.  Richard had taken the cross three and a half years earlier, and all sources attest to his burning and sincere desire to recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens. That it had taken him so long to get this far was more a function of prudent preparation and bitter politics than to lack of ardor. The urgency to continue now, however, was increased by the fact that his hated rival, Philip II of France, had already joined the Christian siege of Muslim-held Acre with his large contingent of troops.  Richard had every reason to expect these massive reinforcements of the Christian army would tip the scales and lead to the capture of Acre; Richard had no desire to see Philip take all the glory for a victory of this magnitude.



As a result, Richard accepted Isaac Comnenus’ surrender on comparatively mild terms. He made no claim to Cyprus at this point. He simply demanded reparations from Isaac’s treasury (a welcome infusion of cash to Richard’s war chest so he could finance his crusade for Jerusalem) and, significantly, 100 knights, 500 light cavalry, and 500 foot soldiers for the crusade as well. Isaac was to accompany Richard on the crusade, surrender his only child as a hostage of his good will, and place his castles under the control of Richard’s lieutenants.

The Castle of Kantara, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

The terms were undoubtedly humiliating for a self-styled “emperor,” but they were a far cry from “unconditional surrender.” Nor did they constitute the conquest or confiscation of the island.  Instead, they were clearly intended to bolster Richard’s ability to re-capture Jerusalem. Richard had not lost sight of his primary goal, and had Isaac complied with the terms of the agreement the last crusader kingdom might never have come into being.



But Isaac Comnenus reneged.  That same night he fled inland. On the sharp and narrow ridge that ran roughly east-west like a backbone through the island stood three impregnable castles. These offered refuge and defiance. Isaac was clearly not about to become a crusader, and was banking instead upon Richard being in too much of a hurry to get to Acre to come after him.  

The Ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

Richard had to choose between letting him get away with this treachery and hurrying to join the siege of Acre, or trying to take control of the entire island by force. Up to now, Richard had responded to unexpected developments, taking advantage of a situation that presented itself to him. What followed was far more calculating. Read more next week.

Richard is a character in the third book of the Jerusalem Trilogy:




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Friday, May 12, 2017

Settlers and Sergeants



 “The Italian and the Frenchman of yesterday have been transplanted…We have already forgotten the land of our birth; who now remembers it? Men no longer speak of it…Every day relatives and friends…come to join us. They do not hesitate to leave everything they have behind them. Indeed…he who was poor attains riches here. He who had no more than a few pennies finds himself in possession of a fortune.”

A description of the United States in the late 19th Century? No, the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1125.

Long before the discovery of the “New World,” before the rise from rags-to-riches became known as “the American dream,” and before the Statue of Liberty became of symbol of the United States, the crusader states welcomed immigrants and drew ambitious young men like a beacon.

Obviously, there were huge differences. The crusader states were carved out of territory that had been inhabited by great civilizations for longer than we have written records. The crusaders did not come to a “new” world, but rather occupied a biblical one—literally. Yet the “land of milk and honey” that the crusaders inhabited was not so densely populated that it could not accommodate immigrants. On the contrary, while always a minority, within less than 100 years the immigrant population (first and second generations) made up roughly 20% of the total population. More importantly, the immigrants had contributed greatly to a renaissance in agricultural production and to an economic boom. More land had been brought under cultivation, new settlements had been established, abandoned cities brought back to life and sleepy coastal ports turned into flourishing metropolises.

All that was possible because the crusader states offered immigrants opportunities they did not have at home—not on the same scale or in the same way as America would 600 years later—but in the context of the 12th century. For a start, the immigrants to the crusader states were by definition all freemen. Serfs could not leave their land and could not go on a pilgrimage half-way across the known world. Thus all the men and women who went to the crusader states were free before they left, and if they stayed in the crusader states they enjoyed the status of “burghers” regardless of whether they lived in urban or rural communities.

Archaeological evidence has revealed that contrary to earlier assumptions, during the first roughly one hundred years of crusader rule (i.e. before the Battle of Hattin and Saladin’s invasion), a large number of new settlers lived in agricultural communities, often new towns created by them. As tenants to the feudal and ecclesiastical elites of the kingdom, they owed sometimes as little as one quarter of their produce (or the monetary equivalent) to the lord. The fertility of the land combined with the high value of the products (olive oil, wine, citrus fruits, honey, nuts etc.) ensured that with good management they could be quite prosperous. 

Many other pilgrims of the working-class, however, would have lived not from agriculture as tenants, but rather as tradesmen and craftsmen: butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths, cobblers and tailors, coopers and carpenters, weavers and dyers, not to mention inn-keepers and tavern owners, teamsters and stable masters. Men plying these trades were needed not only in the large urban areas but in the smaller provincial towns as well.

Together the free farmers and the tradesmen/craftsmen made up a distinct class of society known as the “sergeant class.” As such, they provided the infantry for fighting forces of the crusader states. Infantry, while often overlooked in histories, was vital, indeed indispensable, to the armies of this period. They provided a shield around the vulnerable horses of the knights enabling the knights to retain their mobility until the moment for a charge came. Equally important was the role of the infantry as garrison troops in the defense of fixed positions. Warfare in this period required walled strong points, whether castles or cities, to be sufficiently well-defended to hold off assaults and siege sometimes for weeks or months on end. Every castle and city needed fighting men capable of repelling assaults to man the walls long enough for a relief force to come to the city’s aid. The bulk of those fighting men came from the “sergeant class.”

Meanwhile, the merchant classes in the crusader states also enjoyed an exceptional degree of prosperity and status. This was because the Italian city states had provided the naval power necessary to expand crusader control. With the help of Genoese, Pisan and Venetian fleets, the crusaders had spread out from isolated inland cities (Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa) to claim hold of the entire coastline of the Levant. The capture of key coastal cities such as Acre, Tyre, Tripoli and Beirut had only been possible because of the naval blockades set up by the Italian fleets while the Frankish (crusader) armies besieged or assaulted these cities by land. The financially savvy Italian city-states had, however, lent their fighting ships to the crusader cause in exchange for trading privileges in the cities they helped capture. The communes they established in these crusader cities not only enjoyed valuable monopolies on trade, they were also largely autonomous, governing their affairs with little interference from their nominal feudal overlords. In war, these merchant communities likewise provided troops, albeit often mercenaries hired by the wealthy communes, and, of course, naval power.

The large and prominent role played by sergeants/burghers, and merchants in the economy and defense of the crusader states are two features that made Outremer significantly different from the Western European societies of the period.

Men of the sergeant class play significant roles in all three books of the Jerusalem Trilogy.





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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Wives of King Amalric I -- Rivals Through History

Bernard Hamilton (“Women in the Crusader States: Queens of Jerusalem 1000 - 1190” published in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker, Basel Blackwell, Oxford, 1978), argues that Baldwin IV's mother, Agnes de Courtney, had the “misfortune” to have “bad relations to the press.”  He notes that “all contemporary sources are hostile to her”, but argues that that “her influence was not as baneful as the Ibelins and the Archbishop of Tyre would like posterity to presume.” He then goes on to describe Agnes’ rival, Maria Comnena, as “a ruthless and scheming woman.” Now Bernard Hamilton is a noted historian, but my father taught me to judge a person by his/her deeds — not by what others said about them.

Sybilla of Jerusalem as portrayed in the film "Kingdom of Heaven"

So let us look at the record, not the reputation, of the wives of Amalric I of Jerusalem: Agnes de Courtney and Maria Comnena.

Agnes de Courtney was, according to Malcolm Barber, betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin, but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, or she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  Whatever her motives at the time of her marriage, when Baldwin III died childless, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside.

Why, we do not know. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce.  However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press.”


The City of Jerusalem
Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died, married yet a third time. Until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him, and even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court. Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtney had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joceyln of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claim, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Hamilton next applauds Agnes “cleverness” in marrying both heirs to the throne, her daughter Sibylla and her step-daughter Isabella (Maria Comnena’s daughter), to “men of her choosing.” We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. The latter was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch, and then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although Humphrey lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem.


Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to Hamilton, was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well: he allegedly stabbed the unarmed and unarmored Earl of Salisbury in the back, while the latter was escorting Queen Eleanor of England across her French territories. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. This is not a matter of “hostile sources” just the historical record that tells us the dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper – than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.



In contrast, there is only one known instance of Maria Comnena actively intervening in the affairs of the Kingdom. This was when she pressured (or “browbeat” according to Hamilton) her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her marriage with unimpressive and militarily useless Humphrey de Toron in order to marry the man who had just salvaged the last remaining free city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem from destruction. Hamilton portrays this as an act of unbridled, sinister power-seeking on the part of Maria.  Why Agnes’ five appointments should be “clever” (despite the disastrous consequences) but Maria’s effort to rescue the kingdom from the appalling and patently destructive leadership of King Guy should be seen as “power-hungry”  is baffling. It is certainly not an objective assessment of the behavior of the two women.

True, Isabella appears to have become fond of Humphrey de Toron, but she was the heir to the throne and princesses do not marry where their hearts lead but rather for the sake of the kingdom. To an objective observer, forcing an eight year old girl to marry a total stranger is considerably more manipulative and inhumane then for the a mother of a 17 year old princess to put pressure on her teenage daughter to put the interests of the kingdom ahead of her personal preferences. 



To make matters worse, Hamilton reports – with apparent approval! – that Agnes prevented the child Isabella from visiting her mother, effectively imprisoning her in her castle at Kerak from the age of 8 to the age of 11, a period in which, incidentally, Kerak was besieged by Saladin. In short, Agnes was hardly keeping Isabella “safe” – she may even have been courting her capture and death to ensure there was no rival to her own daughter for the throne.  But as that is speculation, I will leave motives aside and focus on the fact that she keep a little girl imprisoned in an exposed castle, denying her the right to even visit her mother.

In short, Hamilton suggests it is legitimate – indeed clever -- to separate an eight year old from her mother and step-father and expose her to danger, but it is devious and self-serving when the mother of a seventeen year old persuades her to set aside the husband forced on her as a child. That’s a warped view of affairs in my opinion.

The English chroniclers and Hamilton attribute to Maria evil motives and accuse her of “scheming” and deviousness without bringing forth a single example to support these allegations – aside from the above instance of pressuring her daughter into an unwanted divorce. In her one recorded act of “interference” she induced her daughter to marry not some adventurer, who would lose the kingdom, but the only man the barons of Jerusalem were willing to rally around after the disaster of Hattin. Her choice for her daughter was a proven military commander, who had just rescued Tyre from falling to Saladin. So even if her “interference” was as selfish and self-seeking as Hamilton implies, it was considerably wiser than Agnes’ choice of Guy de Lusignan.


A 19th Century depiction of a Byzantine Queen

After this one act, although her daughter was queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205 and Maria herself did not die until 1217, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom again – very odd behavior for Hamilton’s unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.  In short, not a single fact supports the allegations against her.

Even taking into account how historians love revisionism, an objective observer ought to recognize that the contemporary sources favorable to Maria may indeed have had justification -- and those hostile to Agnes de Courtney were probably just as right. It’s time modern historians stopped slandering Maria Comnena just for the sake of re-writing history.

Both Agnes de Courtenay and Maria Comnena are characters in my three part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin. Read more in:




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Monday, May 1, 2017

REVIEW: "Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East" by Adrian J. Boas


At the start of each month + Real Crusades History + brings you a review of a book relevant to the crusades or the crusader states. Whereas in centuries past our understanding of the crusades was largely based on written records of the period, modern archaeology increasingly provides hard evidence of crusader lifestyle that challenges or refutes many common assumptions. Today we look at an excellent summary of some of the most important evidence uncovered by archaeologists and art historians.  


Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East by Adrian J. Boas is a well-organized and comprehensive summary of key archaeological finds from the crusader period in the Holy Land. It provides the layman with an overview of the archaeological evidence from the crusader states uncovered to date and the bibliography provides the reader with a large number of sources that can be consulted for greater detail about any specific topic. Boas writes in a fluid and clear style that makes his often highly specialized subject matter comprehensible even for those not familiar with archeological and architectural jargon. This is a good starting point for anyone interested in the archeology of the crusader states.

As Boas demonstrates, modern archeology increasingly provides evidence to challenge many presumptions and prejudices about crusader “barbarity” — or decadence. The exquisite quality of crusader sculpture, frescoes, manuscripts, and glass-work, the evidence of glass-panes in sacred and secular buildings, the bright and wide-range of colors of the textiles, paintings and glass are all evidence of a culture that was anything but primitive. Equally important, the artifacts that have come to light demonstrate the unique and distinctive nature of crusader arts, crafts and, indeed, lifestyle. As Boas underlines with respect to a variety of fields, far from simply adopting the allegedly more civilized life-style of their enemies or predecessors, the crusaders blended familiar styles, particularly Romanesque art and architecture, with Byzantine traditions in mosaics, wall-painting and sculpture. On a more mundane level, textiles in the crusader states were not simply made of the wide range of materials from goat’s and sheep’s wool and linen to cotton and silk, they also included hybrid fabrics using silk and one of the other kinds of thread. 

For the historical novelist, this is a gold-mine of useful information! Boas provides photos, sketches and descriptions that enable a novelist to picture the rural and urban dwellings of both rich and poor.  His descriptions and photos of objections in daily use such as pottery, lamps, and textiles are equally valuable. The book is also filled with gems of information which can be used to give a novel greater color — such as the street in Jerusalem known as the “Street of Evil Cooking,” which was lined with the crusader equivalent of “fast-food” stands catering to pilgrims. Now that’s the kind of fact that any novelist can use to enliven a description of the Holy City in the age of the Leper King!

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.