Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Ibelins on Cyprus and the Role of a Byzantine Princess



Last week I explained why I challenged the common myth about the peaceful reception of Guy de Lusignan on Cyprus. There is, however, another “mystery” which I seek to explain in The Last Crusader Kingdom, namely, the roots of the Ibelin influence on Cyprus. 

Historians such as Edbury posit that the Ibelins were inveterate opponents of the Lusignans until the early 13th century. They note that there is no record of Ibelins setting foot on the island of Cyprus before 1210 and insist that it is “certain” they were not among the early settlers―while admitting that it is impossible to draw up a complete list of the early settlers. Edbury, furthermore, admits that “it is not possible to trace [the Ibelin’s] rise in detail” yet argues it was based on close ties to King Hugh I. Close? Hugh was the son of a cousin, which in my opinion is not terribly “close” kinship.



Even more difficult to understand in the conventional version of events is that the Ibelins became so powerful and entrenched that within just seven years (1217) of their supposed “first appearance” on Cyprus an Ibelin was appointed regent of Cyprus, presumably with the consent of the Cypriot High Court--that is the barons and bishops of the island who had supposedly been on the island far longer and over the heads of King's first cousin.  I don’t think that’s credible. 



My thesis and the basis of this novel is that while the Ibelins (that is, Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin) were inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan, they were on friendly terms with Aimery de Lusignan.  Aimery was, for a start, married to Baldwin’s daughter, Eschiva.  We have references, furthermore, to them “supporting” Aimery as late as Saladin’s invasion of 1183. I think the Ibelins were very capable of distinguishing between the two Lusignan brothers, and judging Aimery for his own strengths rather than condemning him for his brother’s weaknesses.



Furthermore, the conventional argument that Balian d’Ibelin died in late 1193 because he disappears from the charters of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at that date is reasonable -- but not compelling. The fact that Balian d’Ibelin disappears from the records of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1193 may mean that he died, but it could just as easily mean that he was occupied elsewhere. The Ibelin brothers of the next generation, John and Philip, "disappear" from the records of Jerusalem from 1210 to 1217 too, but they were very much alive, active and powerful -- one in Beirut and the other apparently on Cyprus.

Balian's disappearance from the records of Jerusalem could also have been because he busy on Cyprus. The lack of documentary proof for his presence on Cyprus is not grounds for dismissing the possibility of his presence there because 1) the Kingdom of Cyprus did not yet exist so there was no chancery and no elaborate system for keeping records, writs and charters etc., and 2) those who would soon make Cyprus a kingdom were probably busy fighting 100,000 outraged Orthodox Greeks on the island!



But why would Balian d’Ibelin go to Cyprus at this time? 

Because his wife, Maria Comnena, was a Byzantine princess. Not just that, she was related to the last Greek “emperor” of the island, Isaac Comnenus.  She spoke Greek, understood the mentality of the population, and probably had good ties (or could forge them) to the Greek/Orthodox elites, secular and ecclesiastical, on the island. She had the means to help Aimery pacify his unruly realm, and Balian was a proven diplomat par excellence, who would also have been a great asset to Aimery.




If one accepts that Guy de Lusignan failed to pacify the island in his short time as lord, then what would have been more natural than for his successor, Aimery, to appeal to his wife’s kin for help in getting a grip on his unruly inheritance?



If Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena played a role in helping Aimery establish his authority on Cyprus, it is nearly certain they would have been richly rewarded with  lands/fiefs on the island once the situation settled down. Such feudal holdings would have given the Ibelins a seat on the High Court of Cyprus, which explains their influence on it. Furthermore, these Cypriot estates would most likely have fallen to their younger son, Philip, because their first born son, John, was heir to their holdings in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  John was first Constable of Jerusalem, then Lord of the hugely important port city of Beirut, and finally, after King Aimery’s death, became regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for his neice.  Philip, on the other hand, was constable of Cyprus and later regent of Cyprus for Henry I ― notably despite the fact that his elder brother was still alive at the time.



Last but not least, no historian is able to explain why Aimery de Lusignan named John d’Ibelin Constable of Jerusalem in 1198, when John was just 19 years old. It has been suggested that the appointment was “just nominal” and didn’t carry real authority―but there is no evidence of this. On the contrary, the position clearly was powerful throughout the preceding century. Furthermore, even if nominal, why would Aimery appoint the young Ibelin to such a prestigious and lucrative post if Ibelins and Lusignans were still, as historians insist, bitter enemies?   

Postulating a personal friendship between Aimery and John, on the other hand, would explain it. Given their age differences, the relationship of lord and squire is the most plausible explanation. Furthermore, the relationship of lord/squire brought men very close and gave each great insight into the personality, strengths and weaknesses of the other. It was also common for youths to serve a relative, and so quite logical for John would serve his cousin’s husband. 



While this is all speculation, it is reasonable and does not contradict what is in the historical record. It is only in conflict with what modern historians have postulated based on a paucity of records. I hope, therefore, that readers will enjoy following me down this speculative road as I explore what might have happened in these critical years at the close of the 12th century.

In the coming weeks I'll be providing introductions to characters, and "sneak previews" from the Last Crusader Kingdom in the form of excerpts. 


Meanwhile enjoy the Jerusalem Trilogy:


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