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Monday, September 19, 2022

Civil War in the Crusader States

 Although Frederick II Hohenstaufen spent only a few months in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, his impact on the kingdom was arguably fatal. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that the civil war that he ignited and the policy of absentee monarchy that his dynasty adopted doomed the kingdom more certainly than the actions of Saladin or the Mamluks.


The opening volley in this war occurred incongruously at a banquet shortly after Frederick’s arrival in Cyprus on his way to Acre for the Sixth Crusade. Frederick invited his ‘dear uncle,’ the acting regent of Cyprus and former regent of Jerusalem, the Lord of Beirut, to a banquet. The Emperor used extremely friendly and flattering language and explicitly requested that Beirut bring ‘his children’ to the banquet. Furthermore, the Emperor provided robes and requested that Beirut’s eldest sons serve him at table, all gestures designed to simulate the greatest affection and respect. Under cover of darkness, however, the Emperor brought troops into the venue and hid them. At Frederick’s signal, these armed men came out of their hiding places and surrounded the unarmed guests.

Frederick then proceeded to demand that Beirut surrender his lordship — without stating a reason much less proving any wrong-doing — and also repay all the funds he had allegedly embezzled from the Cypriot treasury during his own and his brother’s tenure as regents. Despite the obvious threat of violence, Beirut responded by saying he held Beirut by right and that neither he nor his brother had ever embezzled a penny of the revenues of Cyprus.

While historians have rightly suggested that the latter is hardly credible, the issue here was not which of the two men was ultimately right but rather the fundamental principle of due process. A eye-witness account written within twenty years of the event puts the following words into the Lord of Beirut’s mouth: “I will furnish you proofs by the usage and by the court of the Kingdom of Cyprus; but be certain that for fear of death or of prison I will not do more unless the judgement of the good and loyal court requires me to do.”[i] While this is unlikely to be a verbatim quote is neatly summarizes the issues at stake. Beirut was able to walk out of the banquet alive with the bulk of the Cypriot knights and barons at his back not because his record as regent was impeccable, but rather because he demanded no more than what his contemporaries viewed as right and just: the right to a trial before his peers. The Emperors response was to threaten violence, to demand hostages, and to allow these to be mishandled while in his custody.

A temporary compromise was worked out in which the Emperor agreed to release the hostages and bring the charges against Beirut in the respective High Courts in exchange for Beirut surrendering the castles of Cyprus to the Emperor’s men and joining his crusade. While Beirut, his adult sons, nephews, and vassals were in Syria, however, the Emperor sent the Count of Cotron to Cyprus to lay waste the lands of Beirut, his family and supporters. Furthermore, Frederick attempted to arbitrarily bestow the lordship and castle of Toron on his clients the Teutonic Knights, ignoring the claims of the hereditary heirs thereby alienating another powerful family in Outremer. He likewise attempted to seize control of the Templar castle of Athlit by force. By all these actions, Frederick demonstrated that he had no interest in the laws or constitution of the kingdom, that he respected no one’s rights but his own, and was perfectly willing to use force against his own subjects to get his way.

When Frederick departed the Holy Land via Cyprus, he sold the regency for the still under-aged King Henry of Cyprus to five Cypriot noblemen. They were ordered to ensure Beirut and his supporters never again set foot in the island kingdom. This demonstrated that all his signed promises to bring his charges against Beirut before the High Court were worthless. He then sailed away never to return.

The ‘five baillies’ of Cyprus (as they have gone down in history) began a rapacious regime that undermined their popularity. In consequence, when Beirut retuned with what must have been a small force, he was able to land at Gastria and advance to the outskirts of Nicosia. The five baillies called up the feudal army of Cyprus and met Beirut’s army at the Battle of Nicosia on 14 July 1229. Although the victory went to the Ibelins, all five baillies escaped to the mountain castles. Beirut was forced to besiege both Kantara and St. Hilarion.  Not until shortly after Easter 1230 did the baillies surrender St. Hilarion in exchange for a full amnesty.

Frederick II, however, had not achieved his objectives. So, in the autumn of 1231 he sent the Imperial Marshal Richard Filangieri with a fleet of thirty-three ships loaded with mercenaries to enforce his rule in the kingdoms of both Cyprus and Jerusalem. In the former, Fredrick issued orders to King Henry in his capacity as the “Overlord of Cyprus.” In Jerusalem, Frederick named Filangieri his “baillie” or deputy.

Filangieri anchored first off Cyprus and sent the Bishop of Melfi ashore as Frederick’s envoy. In Frederick’s name, the bishop ineptly demanded that King Henry of Cyprus expel the Lord of Beirut and all his relatives from his realm. Henry blandly pointed out that he could not comply with the Emperor’s orders because he was himself a relative of Beirut. He further noted that it was a lord’s duty to defend his vassals — not hound them out of their fiefs without cause or trial.

Since Beirut had rushed to Cyprus with all the men and his sons held the ports, the Emperor’s marshal made the wise decision not to attempt a landing in Cyprus against resistance. Instead, he sailed by night and struck at the undefended city of Beirut. The town surrendered without a fight, but the citadel with only a skeleton garrison held firm for their lord. Leaving the bulk of his forces investing the citadel, Filangieri continued to Acre where he presented his credentials as Frederick’s baillie and was recognized as such by the High Court of Jerusalem. However, the Court objected to his seizure of Beirut on the grounds there had been no judgement by the Court against the Lord of Beirut. Filangieri, who had just sworn to uphold the laws and customs of the kingdom, answered that he needed to ‘take counsel’ with his magnates. He withdrew from Acre, set up his residence in Tyre, and joined his troops to pursue the siege of Beirut citadel with increased vigor. In short, Filangieri had no more interest in the laws and customs of the Kingdom than did his master Frederick II. The Lord of Beirut had been disseized by force without a judgement of the High Court.

Beirut, however, refused to concede defeat. Instead, he made a dramatic appeal to King Henry of Cyprus for aid, and the king responded by personally calling up the entire feudal army of Cyprus. After a dangerous winter crossing, this army landed on the Syrian coast. Here the former Imperial baillies and some eighty knights (roughly 20% of the Cypriot feudal elite) defected from King Henry’s host and rode for Tripoli. The remaining troops under the Lord of Beirut and King Henry advanced down the coast to challenge the Imperial army besieging Beirut. When it became clear that the Cypriot army was insufficiently strong to lift the siege, Beirut smuggled roughly one hundred fighting men through the sea blockade into the citadel, and then withdrew with the rest of the army to Acre in search of additional backing.

Beirut put his case before the High Court. This brought him the direct support of some forty knights, while the High Court sent a high-ranking delegation to Filangieri to remind him of the laws and advise him to end his siege. Filangieri’s referred them back to Emperor Friedrich. His blunt dismissal of the concerns of the representatives of the High Court swung public opinion in Outremer behind Beirut.

Meanwhile, the latter had crucially won the support of the Genoese — who were dogged opponents of the Hohenstaufens in Italy already. In addition, the ‘Commune of Acre’ had been created. This was an ad hoc body with no legal basis or function, which served as a rallying point for opponents of Imperial power from all classes, ethnic groups and religions. The ‘Commune’ elected the Lord of Beirut their ‘mayor.’ With these forces Beirut felt strong enough to risk an attack on Filangieri’s base in Tyre. The threat to Tyre, forced Filangieri to lift the siege of Beirut Citadel, and offer to negotiate. While the Lord of Beirut was negotiating with Filangieri’s envoys in Acre, however, Filangieri’s army overran the Cypriot/Ibelin camp at Casal Imbert capturing ships, horses, tents, equipment and twenty-four knights. King Henry barely escaped in his nightshirt, riding all the way to Acre to bring word of the debacle.

In assessments of this incident, too much attention has been paid to the fact that the Cypriots/Ibelins were caught completely off guard, and too little attention to how the defeat significantly increased popular support for the Lord of Beirut. For the first time the two men appointed by Frederick as baillies on his departure from the Holy Land (i.e. the men who represented Imperial power from May 1229 until Filangieri’s arrival in September 1231), Balian of Sidon and Eudes de Montbelliard, joined Beirut.

Presumably they were swayed by the fact that international law prohibits hostilities during negotiations. Thus, not only were the Cyriots/Ibelins fully justified in not expecting an attack, but Filangieri’s surprise strike was considered treacherous. Like the banquet for unarmed guests in which Frederick hid soldiers and like the Count of Cotron’s attack in Cyprus while Beirut was loyally serving under Frederick in Syria, this attack struck contemporaries as deceitful and dishonorable.  

Meanwhile, thinking the Lord of Beirut and the King of Cyprus were effectively knocked out of action by their humiliation at Casal Imbert, Filangieri took his fleet and army to overrun Cyprus. There could be no pretense of acting in the interests of King Henry because the King had come of age. Had Henry previously been coerced into supporting Beirut, he was now free to take revenge. Instead he requested the papal legate to excommunicate Filangieri so he would be justified in seizing Imperial war galleys still tied up in Acre harbor. The papal legate demurred, but suggested Henry take the ships on his own initiative. He did.

In these ships, the Cypriot/Ibelin army returned to Cyprus. They dramatically wrecked the expropriated ships on an coastal island, crossed over a ford only passable at low tide, and took Famagusta from the rear without a fight as the Imperial forces fled in the night. Henry was able to re-occupy his capital without bloodshed. However, Filiangieri still commanded a much larger army of Imperial mercenaries. He also had the support of the eighty knights who had defected at the start of the year. Furthermore, the king’s sisters were trapped in the castle of St. Hilarion, which was besieged by Imperial forces, and supplies were running dangerously low.

The latter forced Henry and Beirut to attempt the relief of St. Hilarion, thereby risking a confrontation with the Imperial forces drawn up on the flank of the mountain ridge separating the Cypriot army from St. Hilarion. The Cypriot/Ibelin army was so small, that in over-confidence the Imperial knights charged down upon it, abandoning their strong position. In the ensuing Battle of Agridi fought on 15 June 1232, the Cypriot/Ibelin force decisively defeated Filangieri’s men. The battle is remembered for the role played by the infantry, largely composed of local troops who came out in support of their king. These reportedly killed unhorsed Imperial knights, while helping Cypriot/Ibelin knights back into the saddle. Imperial casualties were huge by the standards of the day, namely sixty knights. Nevertheless, Filangieri was able to withdraw with the bulk of his troops to the coastal castle of Kyrenia.

From here Filangieri appealed to Antioch, Armenia, and the Emperor for help; he received none. He and those Cypriots who had sided with the him sailed away to safety, while a garrison held Kyrenia for almost a year before surrendering to royal Cypriot forces. Frederick II never again tried to interfere in Cypriot affairs, and in 1246 the pope solemnized the de facto situation by formally absolving King Henry of all oaths of vassalage to the Holy Roman Emperor. Thereafter, the Kingdom of Cyprus was fully independent.

Frederick’s claim to be King of Jerusalem and to rule without the consent of the High Court, however, had not been resolved — and nor had his determination to humiliate the Lord of Beirut. The latter, however, continued to enjoy the solid backing of the bulk of the politically active elements in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including the Knights Templar, the Genoese and the Commune of Acre. On the other hand, the Teutonic Knights were staunchly Imperial in their loyalties, and the Hospitallers tended to the Imperial side. In addition, a significant minority of knights and burgesses, concentrated in Tyre, remained loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor. Thus, the kingdom was effectively split into two entities.

Recognizing that the use of force had failed in the short-term, Frederick II put forward a ‘compromise’ proposal which entailed a general amnesty for everyone who had (in his opinion) committed treason — except the Ibelins. He also recognized the de-facto division of the kingdom into two halves, proposing that henceforth the north of the kingdom would be ruled from Tyre by his baillie Filangieri, while the south of the kingdom with the intransigent Acre would be ruled by a new baillie who he again appointed without the approval of the High Court. The proposal shows just how little the Emperor understood the rebellion. The problem was not one of personnel but principle. The opposition challenged his right to appoint any baillie without the consent of the High Court and objected to his attempts to disseize one of their number without a judgement of the High Court.

In April 1234 the pope became involved in seeking a settlement between the Emperor and his rebellious subjects in the Holy Land. The terms he proposed amounted to unconditional surrender by the rebels, recognition of the Emperor’s right to appoint whoever he liked, dissolution of the Commune of Acre, and no pardons for the Ibelins. The rebels shrugged and ignored the offer, bringing down papal wrath, which included not only excommunication for the Lord of Beirut and his supporters but interdict on the city Acre. By October, the pope was frantically rescinding the interdict because so many Franks were simply turning to the Orthodox churches. At last recognizing that one cannot negotiate an agreement by listening only to one side, the pope asked the rebels to send representatives to Rome to discuss terms.

The men sent to Rome appear to have been intimidated and bullied into accepting disadvantageous terms because on their return they were nearly lynched. New envoys were sent back to the pope, arriving in April 1236. By now, despite the death of the Lord of Beirut (who was still in full possession of his fiefs and wealthy enough dispense largess with both hands on his deathbed), the pope’s relationship with Frederick II was deteriorating again. Pope Gregory IX suddenly discovered that the rebels might have some valid points after all. Thereafter, he made no further attempt to intervene, and the stalemate continued.

In April 1243, the infant boy whose birth had killed Queen Yolanda turned fifteen. In accordance with the laws of Jerusalem, Frederick II’s regency ended. Yet Frederick continued to call himself ‘King of Jerusalem,’ thereby usurping the rights of his own son. Nevertheless, Frederick knew enough about the laws to send instructions to Acre and Tyre in Conrad’s name. The barons weren’t fooled. They became even more inventive in finding transparently self-serving legal arguments for non-compliance. The most important of these was a fictious claim that when a monarch came of age while absent from the kingdom, his/her closest relative resident in the country held the regency until the monarch appeared in person to take the homage of vassals. By this ploy, Conrad’s great-aunt Alice, the dowager queen of Cyprus, became regent. She demanded the surrender of Tyre to her, and when (as expected) Filangieri refused, Balian of Beirut (John d’Ibelin’s eldest son and heir) seized it by force. Filangieri returned to Sicily where Frederick imprisoned him for his years of loyal service and sent in his stead Thomas of Accera. The later did not dare set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and spent his entire tenure in Antioch instead.  

A colorful contemporary account of the conflict written by Philip de Novare, an opponent of the Emperor, has disproportionately influenced modern understanding of the conflict, reducing it to nothing more than a personal struggle between Frederick II and the Lord of Beirut. This is unfortunate. While Beirut was a highly respected nobleman, he did not enjoy the support of roughly four-fifths of the Cypriot nobility, more than half of the Syrian nobility, the Templars, the Genoese and the Commune of Acre because he was such a nice fellow. Rather, the Emperor’s arrogant, arbitrary and unconstitutional attempt to disseize Beirut met with widespread outrage and finally armed opposition because it was seen as a dangerous precedent; the lords of Cyprus and Jerusalem recognized that if the Emperor got away with disseizing a lord as powerful and well-connected as Beirut, than no one else would be safe from arbitrary Imperial actions.

Stripped of personalities and rhetoric, the underlying issue in this conflict between Emperor Frederick and the rebel barons were incompatible views about the nature of monarchy in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick II was a proponent of absolutism, who viewed himself as Emperor and King by the Grace of God. He recognized no fetters on his rights to rule ― neither laws nor constitutions, not institutions nor counsels, nor indeed his own promises, as he reserved to himself the right to change his mind about anything. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, on the other hand, was a feudal state par excellence. Furthermore, by this point in time, the nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had already evolved sophisticated constitutional views and legal procedures.

First and foremost, the nobility of Outremer held to the fundamental feudal concept that government was a contract between the king and his subjects, a reciprocal agreement entailing obligations on both sides. Yet Frederick consistently flaunted the laws and customs of the kingdom and especially the High Court. He did so by not recognizing that his right to the crown of Jerusalem derived from his wife and extinguished at her death, passing then to his son. He did so by not recognizing the role of the High Court in naming regents and baillies. He flaunted the High Court again by not bringing his charges against Beirut before it, and likewise flaunted it by not obtaining the advice and consent of the High Court for his treaty with al-Kamil. What’s more, he did all this within less than four years of his coronation. By the time he departed the Holy Land in May 1228, the Emperor had squandered all credibility as a fair and honorable monarch by repeatedly breaking his word and behaving like a despot.

The baronial faction countered by becoming ever more inventive in discovering ‘laws’ and customs that undermined Hohenstaufen rule. If the barons and their legal scholars were by the end so nimble and creative as to verge on ‘a cynical manipulation of law and custom,’[ii] this was because from 1232 onwards the baronial opposition was desperately trying to keep a proven tyrant from gaining greater control of the kingdom. That does not negate the fundamental belief in the rule-of-law as opposed to the rule-by-imperial whim that lay at the core of the baronial opposition to Frederick.

As a tragic footnote to this conflict, on his deathbed in December 1250, Frederick II bequeathed Italy, Germany, and Sicily to his son Conrad, his son by Yolanda, but suggested that Conrad give the Kingdom of Jerusalem to his half-brother Henry, the son of his third wife, Isabella of England. This proves that Frederick utterly failed to recognize or accept that the crown of Jerusalem was not his to give away. Because it derived from his wife it could only pass to her heirs ― not to whomsoever Frederick pleased and furthermore only with the consent of the High Court. This attempt to give Jerusalem away to someone with no right to it is like a final insult to the bride Frederick neglected and allegedly abused. It also demonstrates that to his last breath he remained either ignorant of or indifferent to the constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

[i] Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Iblins in Syria and Cyprus translated by John La Monte. [New York: Columbia University Press, 1936] xxvii, 79.

[ii] Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. [Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004] 101.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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