Guy de Lusignan enters history with his marriage to Sibylla of Jerusalem, King Amalric’s first-born child and older sister too King Baldwin IV. Or does he?
In the spring of 1168, the Earl of Salisbury was escorting Queen Eleanor of England to Poitiers with a small escort when the party was ambushed by “the Lusignans.” The Lusignans had recently been dispossessed of their lands for rebelling against Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. They hoped by capturing Eleanor to gain a bargaining chip for the restoration of their fortunes. The Earl of Salisbury turned over his own horse, which was stronger and faster, to Eleanor so she could escape, but while he was remounting he was fatally pierced from behind by a lance. Salisbury’s nephew William Marshal (later famous as the tutor of the Henry the Young King, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England) was in Salisbury’s entourage. According to the 13th-century biography of William Marshal, commissioned by his eldest son and based on the accounts of many of Marshal’s contemporaries, this ambush was led by Guy de Lusignan and his brother Geoffrey. Some sources claim that Guy himself wielded the murderous lance. Allegedly, this act made Guy persona non grata in the courts of the Plantagenets and induced him to seek his fortune in Outremer. Maybe, but there was a gap of some 12 years, so maybe not.
Nevertheless, when considering Guy de Lusignan’s later reputation, it is important to remember that he was accused of a profoundly unchivalrous murder by contemporaries — before he ever set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Guy appears to have arrived in Jerusalem in late 1179 or early 1180 at the invitation of his elder brother Aimery. Aimery was making a career in Jerusalem, according to some, by sleeping with the Queen Mother, Agnes de Courtenay. At the time Guy arrived in the Holy Land, Baldwin IV was king — and clearly dying of leprosy. Since it was also clear that Baldwin IV would not sire heirs of his body, his nephew Baldwin was his heir apparent. This boy had been born to his elder sister Sibylla after the death of her first husband, William of Montferrat. Sibylla herself was thus a young (20-year-old) widow. There were rumors, however, that she had pledged herself to the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. The rumors were widespread enough for Salah-al-Din to demand a king’s ransom when Ramla was taken captive on the Litani in 1179 (apparently in anticipation of Ramla becoming King of Jerusalem) — and for the Byzantine Emperor to pay that exorbitant ransom (since Ramla could not possibly pay it from his own resources) in anticipation of the same event.
But suddenly at Easter of 1180, Sibylla married not Ramla (who was on his way back from Constantinople) but the virtually unknown and landless Guy de Lusignan. The wedding was concluded in a hasty ceremony lacking preparation and pomp. According to the most reliable contemporary source, the Archbishop of Tyre (who was also Chancellor at the time and so an “insider,”) Baldwin rushed his sister into the marriage with the obscure, landless and discredited Guy because the Prince of Antioch, the Count of Tripoli and the Baron of Ramla were planning to depose him and place Ramla on the throne as Sibylla’s consort.
Perhaps, but there is no other evidence of Tripoli’s disloyalty, and Ramla’s hopes of marrying Sibylla had been known for a long time — and all the way to Damascus and Constantinople. Why did that marriage suddenly seem threatening to Baldwin IV?
Another contemporary source, Ernoul, suggests another reason for the hasty and unsuitable (for there is no way the third son of a Poitevin baron could be considered a suitable match for a Princess of Jerusalem) marriage: that Guy had seduced Sibylla. Aside from the fact that this had happened more than once in history, the greatest evidence for a love match is Sibylla’s steadfast — almost hysterical — attachment to Guy, as we shall see. Meanwhile, however, the marriage alienated not only the jilted Baron of Ramla, but the Count of Tripoli as well. In short, it was not a very wise political move and thus hard to explain as a political decision. Last but not least, even the Archbishop of Tyre admits the King soon regretted the decision. All these factors point to Ernoul’s explanation of a seduction, a scandal and an attempt to “put things right” by a King who was devoted to his sister.
Guy was named Count of Jaffa and Ascalon and appears to have been accepted by the Barons of Jerusalem as a fait accompli that could no longer be changed — until, in September 1183, King Baldwin became so ill that he named his brother-in-law Regent. As such, Guy took command of the Christian forces during Salah-ad-Din’s fourth invasion of the Kingdom. What happened next is obscure. Although Saladin managed to burn some monasteries and there were some bitterly fought skirmishes, ultimately the Saracens were forced to withdraw; an apparent Christian victory (and certainly better than what happened four years later, the next time Guy was in command!)
Yet something more must have happened on this campaign because just two months later, when word reached Jerusalem that the vital castle of Kerak was besieged by Saladin, the barons of Jerusalem “unanimously” refused to follow Guy. They flat out refused to come to the relief of an important border fortress in which both royal princesses (Sibylla and Isabella), the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen were all trapped (because of a wedding) until Guy was stripped of the regency.
That is an incredibly strong statement. The fact that the historical record is too patchy to enable us to explain it does not negate the importance of the event. The collective barons of Outremer were not dolts, cowards or fools. They had accepted Guy’s command two months earlier. Even Tripoli and Ramla, who both detested him, had mustered under Guy’s command to face Salah-ad-Din in September, putting the welfare of the kingdom ahead of their personal feelings. But two months later even men who had previously shown no particular animosity toward Lusignan refused to accept his leadership. King Baldwin had no choice but to take back the reins of government, command of his army and have his nephew crowned as co-king. The latter was to reassure the barons that even if he died in the near term (as he expected), they would not have to pay homage to Guy.
After Kerak had been successfully relieved, Baldwin IV sought desperately to have his sister’s marriage to Guy annulled. This had nothing to do with personal grievances against Guy (although he had those too); it was necessary in order to find a long-term solution to the succession crisis. His nephew was a sickly boy, and the kingdom needed a vigorous and militarily competent leader. Baldwin’s efforts to replace the discredited Guy were thwarted by Sibylla, who refused to consider a divorce — something she is hardly likely to have done, if the marriage had been political in the first place. If Sibylla had married for reasons of state, she would have divorced for reasons of state. Less than a decade later, her half-sister Isabella put the kingdom ahead of her affections when she divorced the ineffectual Humphrey de Toron to marry the man around whom the barons had rallied, Conrad de Montferrat.
Baldwin IV died in 1185 and was succeeded by his nephew with Raymond de Tripoli as regent. The fact that Tripoli was made regent — with the consent of the High Court — and the Count of Edessa was made the boy's guardian are both indications of the intensity of the animosity and suspicion the bishops and barons of Jerusalem harbored for Guy de Lusignan by this time. There was, after all, a precedent for a queen reigning for an under-aged son, Melisende had reigned in her own right for her son Baldwin III.
At the death of Baldwin V roughly one year later, hostility to Guy had not substantially weakened. As was usual following the death of a king, the High Court was convened to elect the next monarch. Some modern historians have made much of the fact that Tripoli summoned the High Court to Nablus rather than convening in Jerusalem itself. This is interpreted as a sign of disloyalty, but there is nothing inherently disloyal about meeting in another city of the kingdom. High Courts also met in Acre and Tyre at various times. Nablus was part of the royal domain, comparatively close to Jerusalem, and the Templars under their new Master, Gerard de Ridefort (surely the worst Master the Templars ever had), were said to have taken control of the gates and streets of Jerusalem. The Templars did not have a seat in the High Court, but they controlled 300 knights and the decision to hold the High Court in Nablus can better be explained as the legitimate desire to avoid Templar pressure than as disloyalty on the part of Tripoli.
In any case, while the bulk of the High Court was meeting in Nablus, Sibylla persuaded the Patriarch to crown her queen in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In addition to the Patriarch (allegedly another former lover of her mother) and the Templars (whose Grand Master had a personal feud with Tripoli), Sibylla was supported by her uncle Joscelyn Count of Edessa and the colorful and controversial Reynald de Chatillon, Lord of Oultrejourdan by right of his wife. We know of no other supporters by name, but we know that Reynald de Chatillon sought to increase Sibylla’s support by saying she would be queen in her own right without mentioning Guy. Even Bernard Hamilton, one of Guy’s modern apologists, admits that: "Benjamin Kedar has rightly drawn attention to sources independent of the Eracles [e.g. Ernoul] and derived from informants on the whole favorable to Guy de Lusignan, which relate that Sibyl's supporters in 1186 required her to divorce Guy before they would agree to recognize her as queen.” (The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000 p. 218).
According to these sources, Sibylla promised to divorce Guy and choose another man for her husband as her consort. Instead, once she was crowned, she chose Guy as her consort — and crowned him herself when the Patriarch refused. Once again, Sibylla had chosen Guy over not only the wishes of her subjects but in violation of an oath/promise she had made to her supporters (not her enemies, note, to her supporters). I repeat: this is not the behavior of a woman who had been forced into a hasty and demeaning marriage by her brother out of political expediency; it is consistent with a woman who was passionately in love with the man who she had foisted upon her brother and her subjects against their wishes.
With this dual coronation, Sibylla and Guy had usurped the throne of Jerusalem, but without the Consent of the High Court they were just that — usurpers. The High Court (or rather those members of it meeting at Nablus) was so outraged that, despite the acute risk posed by Salah-ad-Din, they considered electing and crowning Sibylla’s half-sister Isabella. To risk civil war when the country was effectively surrounded by a powerful and united enemy is almost incomprehensible — and highlights just how desperate the opposition to Guy de Lusignan was. In retrospect, it seems like madness that men would even consider fighting their fellow Christians when the forces of Islam were so powerful, threatening and well-led.
en again, with the benefit of hindsight, maybe it would have been better to depose of Guy de Lusignan before he could lead the country to utter ruin at Hattin?
In the event, Humphrey de Toron, Isabella’s young husband, didn’t have the backbone to confront Guy de Lusignan. In the dark of night, he fled Nablus to go to Jerusalem in secret and pay homage to Guy. With this act, the High Court lost their alternative monarch and capitulated — except for Ramla and Tripoli, the most inveterate opponents of Lusignan. Ramla preferred to quit the kingdom altogether, turning over his lucrative lordships to his younger brother and seeking his fortune in Antioch. (He disappears from history and we don’t know where or when he died.) Tripoli simply refused to recognize Guy as his king and made a separate peace with Salah-ad-Din — until he was reconciled after a tragic incident in May 1187.
Two months later, Guy de Lusignan proved that Ramla, Tripoli and the majority of the High Court had rightly assessed his character, capabilities and suitability to rule. Guy led the Christian kingdom to an unnecessary but devastating defeat which resulted in the loss of the holiest city in Christendom, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire kingdom save the city of Tyre. Only a new crusade would restore a fragment of the Kingdom and enable Christendom to hang on to the coastline for another century.
With all due respect to revisionism and the legitimate right of historians to question familiar and popular interpretations of events, it is also wise to remember that chronicles and other historical documents provide us with an imperfect and incomplete picture. The actions and judgment of contemporaries, on the other hand, were based on much more comprehensive knowledge and information we do not have. Based on the actions of Guy de Lusignan’s contemporaries, I believe the Ernoul’s portrayal of Guy de Lusignan is closer to the mark than the apologist image of modern historians.
Guy de Lusignan has the distinction of being the man who lost the Kingdom of Jerusalem by leading the Christian army to an unnecessary but utterly devastating defeat at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Such noted modern historians as Malcolm Barber, Bernard Hamilton and W.B. Bartlett argue Lusignan’s disastrous decision to abandon the Springs of Sephoria and march to the relief of the garrison of Tiberius in July 1187 can be explained by the fact that he was criticized for not taking the offense in the campaign of 1183. Guy, they argue, was in a difficult psychological position and had every reason to doubt the Count of Tripoli’s loyalty. They generally portray Guy more as a victim of circumstances than the cause of disaster. Indeed, it has become popular to blame the “disloyalty” of other lords rather than Guy for the loss of his kingdom. Guy’s contemporaries saw it differently.
So who has the right of it? A brief resume of Guy de Lusignan’s career.