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Maria Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Queen of Jerusalem, and Lady of Ibelin

By Helena Schrader

The twelfth century was an age of strong and powerful women. It was the century that saw the fierce Empress Matilda fighting for her kingdom, and witnessed Eleanor of Aquitaine’s rebellion against her husband, and defense of her son’s crown. It was a period when women such as Nicola de la Haie, defended castles, and held borders as “lords,” “vassals”, and crown officials. While Queen Maria Comnena’s deeds were less dramatic than that of some of her sisters, her story is still worth telling.

Maria Comnena was born in approximately 1155, the daughter of John Doukas Komnenos (1128–1176), of the Byzantine Imperial family. At the time of her birth, her great-uncle Manuel I (1118–1180) had been Emperor of the Eastern Empire for over 30 years, and had consistently pursued a policy of cooperation with the crusader states. His policies included joint military operations and a series of marriage alliances. Thus, when Amalric I of Jerusalem (1136–1174) needed a second wife, he turned to Emperor Manuel. His emissaries arrived in Constantinople in 1165, and two years later Maria Comnena landed at Tyre as her great-uncle’s choice for Queen of Jerusalem.

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We know nothing about Maria’s childhood, or why she was selected. We can, however, presume that Maria had enjoyed not only the luxurious lifestyle of the Greek Imperial family but — more importantly — a very high level of education typical of her peers. The Comnenas were not only literate in Greek classics, but versed in theology and history. Furthermore, under the Comnenas, Byzantine arts and letters experienced a renaissance, including the introduction of new styles in mosaics and frescoes. Thus, Maria came to Jerusalem with a substantial dowry, a large retinue of Byzantine advisors and scholars, and with the knowledge and tastes cultivated in the most sophisticated Christian circles of the age.

Miniature of the marriage of Amaury with Maria Comnena, with an inscription ‘MARIA’ on the wall of a church – British Library MS Royal 15 E I fol. 353r

At the time Maria married Amalric, and was crowned queen in August 1167, she was at most thirteen years old; Amalric was already 30. Unsurprisingly, we hear little of her during her first years at court in Jerusalem. However, four years after his marriage to Maria, Amalric undertook a state visit to Constantinople, the first Latin king to do so as a reigning monarch. According to Byzantine sources he acknowledged Manuel I as his overlord during this trip. It was also in this period that the Church of the Nativity was renovated with mosaics heavily influenced by Byzantine art. Maria’s influence in both these developments is plausible, but not recorded.

In 1172, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Isabella. Two years later, King Amalric was dead. As his widow, Maria took part in the meeting of the High Court of Jerusalem that elected the next king. Amalric’s only son, Baldwin, born of Amalric’s his first marriage to Agnes de Courtenay, was rapidly recognized as King, and crowned as Baldwin IV (1161– 1185). Because King Baldwin was only 11 years old, Count Raymond of Tripoli (1140–1187) was appointed regent.

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By the age of 20, Maria was a very wealthy widow with complete independence. King Amalric had settled on her the large and wealthy barony of Nablus as her dower-portion. This lordship, directly north of the royal domain of Jerusalem, owed 85 knights to the feudal levee, and included the ancient city of Nablus – famous for its perfumes and soaps. It was one of the more diverse baronies, inhabited by a sizable population of Samaritans, Jews, and Muslims. She had enough wealth and enough men to protect herself, her property, and her independence. She was a Dowager Queen, and mother of the second-in-line to the throne. Furthermore, in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, she could not be forced into a second marriage by her step-son, although she needed his permission to re-marry. Maria, however, was in no hurry to remarry. She retired to Nablus, and made no attempt to interfere in the government of the realm.

It is notable, however, that in mid-1177, the Count of Flanders, who had come to the Holy Land with a small army of crusaders, sought her out in Nablus. Flanders was at loggerheads with Baldwin IV and the High Court of Jerusalem about a husband for Baldwin’s full-sister and heir, Princess Sibylla (1160–1190). Flanders also disagreed with King Baldwin about a proposed campaign against Egypt that was supported by Manuel I. The Byzantine Emperor had sent a fleet of seventy warships to support this invasion. Flanders wanted assurances that he would be made king of Egypt if he helped conquer it. Baldwin IV, on the other hand, felt that any territory won by the expedition should belong to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. That Philip sought out Maria in Nablus suggests that he saw her as a woman who could advise him on the likely reaction of the Byzantine Emperor to his demands. Even more noteworthy, however, is that as a result of his meetings with Maria, he had a change of heart. From Nablus, he sent messengers to Jerusalem declaring his acceptance of the High Court’s decisions. Maria Comnena, at just 23, was evidently a woman who could talk politics with the savviest of Western noblemen and be persuasive without the least personal interest in the outcome.

In late 1177 Maria Comnena, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, made a surprise second marriage to Balian d’Ibelin (1143–1193), the younger brother of the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. We can assume that Maria’s marriage to Balian was a love-match — at least on her part. Ibelin was too far beneath her in rank for it to have been selected for political or financial gain. Furthermore, had the marriage not been to her liking, she could have rejected it out of hand with the full support of the Byzantine Emperor. We also know that King Baldwin explicitly gave his consent.

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Shortly afterward, Maria faced the first serious crisis of her life. In 1180, her daughter by Amalric, eight-year-old Isabella was taken from her. The King had betrothed her to Humphrey de Toron (1166–1198) and sent her to live with her future husband. Young Humphrey lived with his mother and her third husband, the infamous Reynald de Chatillon (1125–1187). The marriage was allegedly the brainchild of the Queen Mother, Agnes de Courtenay, who had been set aside by Amalric when he took the throne. Maria had not only taken Agnes’ place in Amalric’s bed, but she had worn the crown denied to Agnes. Historians presume that Agnes had no kind feelings toward Maria.

The timing of the marriage is also significant. Agnes had just engineered the marriage of her daughter Sibylla to Guy de Lusignan (1150–1194) — thereby earning the bitter enmity of Baldwin d’Ibelin. The latter had harbored hopes of marrying Sibylla himself. From 1180 onwards, Ramla and his younger brother Ibelin were staunch opponents of Guy de Lusignan. King Baldwin apparently felt compelled — or heeded the poisonous advice of his mother — to remove his half-sister Isabella from Ibelin’s control out of fear that, if he did not, Ramla and Ibelin would use her to challenge Sibylla and Guy’s claim to the throne.

For three years, Isabella was denied the right to see her mother. When she was still only 11 years old, she was married to Humphrey at Kerak. Maria was presumably among the wedding guests. However, no sooner had the wedding guests arrived at the bleak mountain castle beyond the Dead Sea than Saladin (1137-1193) laid siege to the castle. Maria was trapped inside with her daughter, her new son-in-law, and hundreds of other wedding guests.

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One year later, Maria’s own city of Nablus came under siege. Returning from a second unsuccessful attempt to capture Kerak, Saladin withdrew plundering and burning his way north to Damascus. Nablus, an unwalled town, was in his path. The inhabits had found refuge in the citadel. Historians conjecture that Maria was responsible for this exemplary defense of her citizens, because King Baldwin had mustered the army of Jerusalem to relieve Kerak, which meant her husband with the knights, sergeants, and archers of Nablus was with the field army rather than in Nablus.

In 1186 Baldwin V died. The next in line to the throne was Princess Sibylla, but the majority of the barons opposed her because of their mistrust of her husband Guy. (Note: Jerusalem did not have a strictly hereditary monarchy, but one in which the High Court, composed of the barons, had to select/approve the ruler.) Sibylla and Guy staged a coup d’etat while the bulk of the barons were meeting outside of Jerusalem. Since even Sibylla’s supporters did not trust Guy, Sibylla promised to set him aside provided she was allowed to choose her next husband. Once she was crowned, she announced she “chose” Guy as her next husband and proceeded to crown him herself.

The majority of barons were not present at this illegal coronation because they were meeting — significantly — in Nablus. When news of Sibylla’s coup reached them, they proposed crowning Maria’s daughter Isabella and her husband Humphrey as legitimate rulers. Unfortunately, Humphrey snuck out in the dark of night to do homage to the usurpers. The baronial opposition to Guy collapsed.

One year later, King Guy led the army of Jerusalem to a completely unnecessary defeat at the Battle of Hattin. On July 4, 1187 Saladin destroyed almost the entire Christian army, killing or enslaving roughly 17,000 men, and taking the King of Jerusalem, most of his barons, and the Grand Masters of both the Templars and Hospitallers captive. Nablus, like every other city and castle in the crusader kingdom, lay completely vulnerable to the victorious Saracen army. Maria abandoned the defenseless city and fled to Jerusalem with her four children, all under the age of ten.

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Jerusalem was already flooded with refugees. As many as 30,000 to 60,000 Franks are believed to have sought refuge in Jerusalem after Hattin. Most of those refugees were women, children, churchmen and old people. The unexpected arrival of the Baron of Ibelin, a respected and experienced battle-commander, sparked jubilation in the militarily leaderless city — until the people learned of Ibelin’s intention to rescue his family and withdraw. He had received a safe-conduct from the Sultan to come unarmed to Jerusalem and had sworn to stay only a single night. While this was a tribute to Ibelin’s love for Maria and their children, the rest of the population felt betrayed. They begged Ibelin to remain and take command of the city’s defenses and resistance. The Patriarch graciously absolved Ibelin of his oath to Saladin. Ibelin recognized it was his duty to remain.

Saladin’s response was unexpected. He sent fifty of his personal guard to Jerusalem to escort Maria Comnena and her children to safety. Why? The romantic answer is that he was chivalrous. The more realistic answer is that Maria Comnena was first cousin of the new Byzantine Emperor and Saladin had signed a truce with the Byzantines. He had no desire to have a Byzantine Princess caught in a city he had vowed to take by storm.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Maria and Balian were reunited, but they now had no income and were nobodies in a kingdom that no longer existed. It is unclear how they survived, but it is notable that at this moment, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to a single city, Tyre, Maria did not choose to return “home.” That she remained in the pitiable remnants of the crusader states was a tribute to her loyalty to her second husband.

In 1190, Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters died of fever in the Christian siege camp outside of Acre. With her death, Guy de Lusignan’s right to the throne of Jerusalem was extinguished — and Isabella became the next in line to the throne. Isabella was eighteen years old and still married to the man imposed on her by her half-brother Baldwin IV, Humphrey of Toron — the very man who had betrayed the barons at Nablus by refusing to accept the crown they offered him.

There was no question that Isabella had been too young to consent at the time of her marriage to Toron (she had been 11), so there were legal grounds for the annulment of her marriage. The problem was that Isabella had grown attached to Humphrey.

At this critical moment, Maria for the first time publicly exercised her power as a Dowager Queen. She threw the full force of her personality and relationship with Isabella behind her husband Balian, and the barons of Jerusalem. The chronicles claim that she “browbeat” Isabella into agreeing to the divorce. The sources we have are all hostile to Conrad de Montferrat (†1192) and should therefore be treated with caution. Furthermore, the divorce was undoubtedly in the best interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Maria should be given credit, not blame, for putting the interests of the kingdom ahead of the affections of her teenage daughter.

Interestingly, there is no indication that Maria’s stand resulted in any breach, much less lasting tensions, between mother and daughter. Maria and Ibelin both remained at Isabella’s court long after Conrad de Montferrat was dead. Nor should we forget that when Conrad de Montferrat was murdered, Isabella did not turn back to Humphrey de Toron and marry him again as a consenting adult. Instead, she accepted the King of England’s choice for her third husband. In short, far from being desperately in love with Toron and forced against her will to separate from him by her evil and ambitious mother, Isabella was wise enough to understand that she needed the consent of the High Court in order to be Queen — and she wanted to be queen more than she wanted to be married to Toron.

Isabella’s elevation to the throne opened the gates for Maria to play a role similar to Agnes de Courtenay’s — but she did not. Rather, she retired with Ibelin and their children to the much-reduced estates now at their disposal. Yet Ibelin, as step-father of the queen, took precedence over all other lords until he disappears from the historical record after 1193; historians presume he died at about this time.

Maria, however, was still alive when Aimery de Lusignan (1153–1205) married Isabella and appointed her eldest son John, Constable of Jerusalem at the age of 19. She lived to see John enfeoffed with the Lordship of Beirut, and may well have personally enjoyed the palace he built there with its lifelike mosaics, polychrome marble, and views of the sea. Indeed, she was still alive when John became Regent of Jerusalem for her grand-daughter Marie, in 1205. When Maria Comnena died in 1217, her five-year-old great-granddaughter Isabella II was Queen of Jerusalem, and her second son Philip would soon be Regent of Cyprus. Maria Comnena was the founder of two dynasties: the royal House of Jerusalem and (almost royal) House of Ibelin.

Helena Schrader is an award-winning novelist, who has won more than 20 literary awards. Her novels are set in World War Two, Ancient Sparta and the Crusades. Her Jerusalem Trilogy won a total of 15 literary accolades including “Best Biography 2017” from Book Excellence Awards and “Best Christian Historical Fiction” from Readers’ Favorite. Visit her website: www.helenapschrader.com for a complete description and reviews of her publications. Follow her blog: schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com for updates on current works in progress, recent reviews and excerpts.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Amalric and Marie Comnena riding. From Les Estoires d’outremer par Guillaume de Tyr, BNF Français 2630

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