Who ran the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187)?

By Nicholas Morton

Founded in 1099 during the First Crusade, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a precarious affair.  In the decades after its establishment the kingdom prospered, conquering a great deal of territory, especially along the Levantine coastline and to the east in Transjordan. Nevertheless, its power did not rise in a smooth upwards curve and the whole period from 1099 to around 1123 was punctuated by military crises, some of which came within a hair’s breadth causing its collapse. 

From the mid-1120s onwards, matters were a little more settled. Some cities and regions became accustomed to long periods of peace and many areas experienced no raids or invasions for several decades. Still, even at its height, the kingdom remained geographically small; its army grew to become very strong, but it lacked a military population base large enough to recover quickly from a very serious defeat.  Consequently, when the kingdom did suffer the near-total loss of its field army in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin it did not have the capacity to marshal a second line of defence and it collapsed almost in its entirety the following year.


These issues posed ongoing challenges throughout the kingdom’s history, but as we shall see they also framed the principles and hierarchies by which it was ruled, most importantly the fact that governance was always closely linked to war and defence. Another distinctive feature was the composition of the kingdom’s ruling class because, whilst its elite families might occasionally intermarry with local Eastern Christian families, the conduits of power were dominated almost exclusively by warriors or settlers from Western Christendom and their descendants.

This article will discuss the exercise of power in the kingdom of Jerusalem. It will not concern itself too deeply with the theoretical structures defined by law that were supposed to regulate society, rather it will focus more on the reality – the forces that actually determined this kingdom’s overall policy.


The kingdom’s overall leader was naturally the reigning king or queen. It is reported by some that Jerusalem’s first Frankish ruler, Godfrey of Bouillon, refused to adopt this royal title because he did not wish to become ‘king’ over the city of the ‘king of kings’ (a reference to Jesus). Whether this report is true or not, his successors certainly did not have such scruples and adopted a royal title without hesitation. The monarch, however, was no autocrat. From the outset, leading nobles received lordships across the kingdom’s territories which grew in number as it expanded. These magnates formed a high court in Jerusalem, which became the kingdom’s most important decision-making body. Cumulatively these nobles possessed enormous wealth, military power, legal rights and territory, thus the monarch could only rule with their negotiated support. These aristocrats could also be very precious about their legal entitlements and a cadre of legal experts emerged to police their rights.

The aristocracy could be demanding, but there were many other groups with significant influence. The Church exerted a great deal of leverage. The papacy watched developments in the sacred city of Jerusalem very closely and the kingdom contained an intricate hierarchy of priests, bishops and archbishops all the way up to the most senior churchman – the patriarch of Jerusalem. As the Church’s representative in the holy city of Jerusalem, the patriarch possessed enormous influence not merely in spiritual matters but in political matters as well. Leading churchmen maintained many resources which in turn supported a substantial chunk of the kingdom’s army. Many leading religious institutions, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the church built over the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and entombment), possessed international networks of landholdings which gave them considerable wealth and the ability to spread news far and wide. The monarch also relied on the clergy: to offer council, to assist in the succession, and even to maintain the kingdom’s stability at times of incapacity or imprisonment. In short, the kingdom could only function effectively if the Church and monarch worked together.

Among the many important Church institutions present in the Holy Land, few possessed political and military clout comparable to that of the religious military orders. The Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller as well as several smaller orders cumulatively provided a large percentage of the kingdom’s armed forces whilst their vast array of estates and landholdings in Western Christendom despatched huge amounts of wealth to the kingdom every year. These resources enabled them to build and garrison castles on a scale unachievable for the king, queen, the nobility, or anyone else. On one hand, they were a huge asset to the kingdom’s defences but on the other, as institutions of the Church, they were also quasi-autonomous. The ruler could not simply tell them what to do; their support was voluntary.

Then there were the mercantile cities. During the kingdom’s founding years, its survival rested on military assistance received from fleets despatched by the cities of Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Whilst these Italian cities and their representatives offered their help at least in part for spiritual reasons, they were also aware that ports such as Jaffa, Acre, Beirut and Tyre were major waypoints both for local and international trade. Consequently, when they offered their warfleets to the kingdom of Jerusalem for the conquest of these ports, they wanted substantial trading concessions in return. The kingdom’s dependency on these fleets never really diminished. Their vessels brought trade-goods (which could be taxed) as well as pilgrims and crusaders (who could be persuaded to fight or settle).  The regular transit of vessels to and from Western Christendom also enabled communications, all the while keeping the seaways open between Western Christendom and the Crusader States. These cities each had their own agendas, trading partners, rivalries, and diplomatic sensitivities – all of which they expected the king of Jerusalem to respect.

The the Arms of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem on a Hand Basin from the 13th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Other external protagonists also had a stake in the kingdom’s overall direction. Newly-arrived kings or aristocrats leading crusading armies generally expected to use the kingdom as a launchpad for their military operations, but there was no guarantee that they would willingly take direction from the kingdom’s monarch, nor were they necessarily aware or even interested in the sensitivities of regional diplomacy. The kingdom also found it necessary at times to lean on the Byzantine Empire for aid (especially in the 1160s and 1170s), a dependency which empowered the Byzantine emperor to insert his own agenda on the kingdom’s management.  Likewise, the northern Crusader States of Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa all had complex ties of allegiance with Jerusalem’s ruling elite which also demanded the monarch’s attention and care.

There were also the underlying demands of geopolitics and realpolitik. War and diplomacy in the Near East unfolded at a rapid pace. Neighbouring empires and city-states rose and fell in swift succession, their leaders conducting war and forging alliances both with the Crusader States and other powers. Royal policy needed to reflect this rapidly evolving situation, ensuring that the major powerbrokers within its own borders remained politically aligned so that the kingdom could maximise any opportunity and confront any threat.

In this way, to say that maintaining royal authority in the kingdom of Jerusalem was difficult is an understatement. The rulers of Jerusalem were assailed by many different agendas and they could not afford to ignore any of them. Even so, the monarch was not entirely devoid of assets. The royal estates included the massive port cities of Acre and Tyre as well as many further landholdings which cumulatively gave them substantial wealth. The queen or king’s royal title likewise conferred an expectation of authority that demanded obedience.


Still perhaps one of the strongest supports for royal authority was the kingdom’s perpetual fragility. Its many factions may have had their own policies and priorities, but ultimately all their hopes and aspirations rested on the kingdom’s survival and prosperity. To this end, they had no choice but to work together, even when they disagreed, and this in turn required them to look to the monarch for leadership. It may be no coincidence therefore that some of the strongest evidence for civil conflict and the development of rival internal factions during the twelfth century comes from the period when the kingdom was at its strongest in the mid-twelfth century – and therefore arguments about its fragility were at their weakest.

Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history. These include The Crusader States and their Neighbours: A Military History, 1099-1187 (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (Basic Books, 2018). You can follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasMorto11

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Further Reading:

Nicholas Morton, The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (Basic Books, 2022)

Top Image: Ptolemaic map of the Near East, made in 1486 by Johann Reger – Wikimedia Commons