Like the American West centuries later, it was the Latin East that particularly offered men of ambition great opportunities in the 12 and 13th centuries. Yet no career was more spectacular than that of John de Brienne. John, the younger son of a very minor French count, rose to be not only King of Jerusalem but Emperor of Constantinople as well.
John de Brienne was born sometime in the mid to late 1170s ― not thirty years earlier as was long alleged. He was the fourth son of Count Erard II of Brienne and Agnes de Montbéliard. John’s father and grandfather had both participated in the Second Crusade, and his father and uncle died at the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, at which point his elder brother assumed the honor of Brienne as Walter III.
As the fourth son, John appears to have been intended initially for the Church. However, after his father’s death, he returned to his brother’s court and must have made up for lost time because his later career included many feats at arms that won the praise of his contemporaries ― all of whom put a premium on knightly skills and were not lightly impressed. Surviving descriptions of him stress that he was “a huge man, tall and powerful.”
John, like the more famous William Marshal, appears to have excelled on the tourney circuit during this phase of his life, but, unlike Marshal, John had been given land by his elder brother to hold in fief to him. That is, he had become a vassal of his elder brother for at least four villages identified by name by 1201, when he would have been in his mid-twenties. Yet no more might have been heard of him had not his elder brother married Elvira of Sicily, the daughter of the deposed King of Sicily, Tancred.
For the sake of a crown, the young count Walter III of Brienne was willing to fight the regents of the young Hohenstaufen King of Sicily, Frederick II. By 1201, he had defeated forces loyal to the Hohenstaufen and established himself in control of the mainland portions of the Kingdom of Sicily. Meanwhile, due to the deaths of the second and third brothers, John had become the only adult male of the Brienne family besides Walter III. As such, he had been entrusted with ruling Brienne while Walter pursued his crown (or at any rate the large and lucrative principality of Taranto and the county of Lecce) in Southern Italy.
In June 1205, however, Walter was assassinated, leaving behind a posthumous son, Walter IV, as his heir. John officially assumed the role of “regent” for his young nephew, and with that access to the revenues of the small but prosperous County of Brienne.
It was at about this same time that the High Court of Jerusalem started to look seriously for a husband (and so king-consort) to the heiress to the Kingdom, Marie de Montferrat. It appears that the High Court first favored a marriage with Peter II of Aragon, but unfortunately for everyone involved, Peter was already married. After the Aragon option was abandoned, the High Court appealed to King Philip II of France to name a suitable candidate. Philip chose Brienne, although his reasons are unclear.
Brienne was clearly not of the first rank among Philip’s vassals, and as such represented a slap-in-the-face to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the other hand, there was still a strong Champaignois faction within the Kingdom of Jerusalem, left-overs from the reign of Henry, Isabella of Jerusalem’s third husband. More important, the regent of Cyprus at this time was John de Brienne’s cousin, Walter de Montbéliard. Montbéliard may have wanted his cousin in Jerusalem as a means of propping up his own position.
Whatever the reasoning, sometime in 1208 John de Brienne was invited by the High Court to marry Marie de Montferrat and through his marriage to her become the King (consort) of Jerusalem. Brienne carefully requested and received permission from his liege and sovereign, Philip II, and then from Pope Innocent III before committing to the marriage. He clearly recognized that he was of secondary rank and far too poor to bear the burden of the beleaguered Kingdom of Jerusalem without assistance. He recognized that if he was to be an effective king, he would need powerful backers, men with money and influence, who could help him recruit an entourage sufficiently powerful to change the balance of forces in his future kingdom.
Pope Innocent III gave Brienne 40,000 marks ― not directly mind, but through the Templars and Hospitallers, who were instructed to hold the money and only turn it over to Brienne for purposes that were jointly approved by the respective masters and the patriarch of Jerusalem. King Philip also provided Brienne with 40,000 livres ― outright.
But money alone would not expand the confined borders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Brienne needed knights and men-at-arms to do that, so before setting off to his wedding in Acre, he first spent a year recruiting men to come with him to the Holy Land in the hope of, effectively, launching a new crusade upon arrival which would expand and secure his future kingdom.
In 1210, after more than a year of recruiting, John de Brienne arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem with an entourage estimated at 300 knights and an unknown number of squires, sergeants, and archers. Although not insignificant, this was not a vast crusading army likely to tip the balance of power in favor of the Christians even for a temporary time. From the start, therefore, John was something of a disappointment to his subjects in Outremer.
Whether he was also a disappointment to his bride, the 18-year-old Marie de Montferrat, daughter of Queen Isabella by her second husband Conrad de Montferrat, is unknown. There is no reason to assume, however, that the successful tournament champion now in his early 30s should have been displeasing to her. He came from the heartland of chivalry, Champagne, and was himself a writer of poetry and song. The couple was crowned jointly in Tyre ― and the Saracens immediately took advantage of most of the barons being assembled there to attempt an attack on Acre.
Although the (unnamed) barons remaining in Acre effectively repelled the attack and sent the Saracens back where they came from, the raid nevertheless did much damage and it was an inauspicious start to John’s reign. He retaliated with a chevauchée (cavalry raid) of his own. Yet while this did some damage and the participants returned loaded with loot, they achieved no lasting benefit for the kingdom.
John next attempted to strike at Egypt with a sea-borne expedition into the Nile delta but did not have sufficient force to do more than moderate damage to secondary targets. The Ayybids rapidly concluded that John de Brienne was no Richard the Lionheart and was unlikely to do them serious harm. Instead of seeking terms, they brazenly began construction of fortifications on Mount Tabor. These threatened Nazareth, which the Christians had recovered only in 1204.
Meanwhile, John’s small host of crusaders had fulfilled their vows and returned home to France. John had little choice but to conclude a new six year truce with the Saracens with no gains in territory whatsoever ― the first time a treaty without gain had been concluded since the Third Crusade. There can be little doubt that many in John’s new kingdom were less than impressed by this performance.
All might have been forgiven, however, had he at least done his dynastic duty and produced a male heir. Instead, in November 1212 Queen Marie gave birth to a daughter and died shortly afterward. This left the kingdom with an infant, female heir ― the worst possible scenario. It also produced a constitutional crisis.
As king-consort, John’s right to the throne of Jerusalem was derived through his wife. Already in 1190-1192, the precedent had been set that the consort of a ruling queen did not retain his position after her death. Thus, Guy de Lusignan, the widower of Queen Sibylla, had been supplanted by Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella. John, unsurprisingly, took Guy’s stance of insisting that he had been crowned and anointed for life ― or at least until his infant daughter came of age and married.
His daughter was his trump, making the situation similar yet different from Lusignan's. Guy’s daughters had died at the same time his wife Queen Sibylla, leaving him no claim to even a regency. John, who called himself “Count” of Brienne as long as the rightful heir remained a minor, argued that he was still “King” of Jerusalem as long as his daughter was a minor. The argument won over the majority of the barons of his kingdom, with the notable exception of the former regent of the kingdom, John d’Ibelin, and some of his family and followers.
Yet while Brienne remained King of Jerusalem, he was conscious of his vulnerability and moved rapidly to secure an alternative to Jerusalem through marriage to Stephanie of Armenia, the eldest daughter of the ruling King Leo. This gave John a plausible claim to the crown of Armenia since Leo had no sons. At the same time, he appears to have supported, possibly even encouraged, attempts by his nephew Erard de Brienne to lay claim to the County of Champagne by right of his wife, Philippa of Champagne. The story is too complex for this short essay, but it appears indicative of John’s ambition and efforts to ensure he had family in high places.
Meanwhile, Pope Innnocent III was actively advocating for a new crusade which was to regain Jerusalem by putting pressure on the Sultan of Egypt. By now Frederick II Hohenstaufen had come of age and dramatically taken the cross, so there was a general expectation that he would lead this crusade and put the full financial and military power of the Holy Roman Empire behind it. As it turned out, however, Frederick was a rather reluctant crusader, easily distracted by other matters. He repeatedly postponed crusading for what would turn out to be fifteen years. Instead, he sent others to do his fighting for him, and so the crusade, numbered by historians centuries later as the “Fifth,” was launched without him in 1217.
The first phase of this crusade took place in Syria, not Egypt, with a raid largely intended not to regain territory, but rather to capture much-needed supplies and foodstuffs to support the influx of crusaders that the Kingdom itself could not sustain. The exception was an attack on the Saracen fortifications on Mount Tabor. John de Brienne led this successful attack with great élan, something that added greatly to his prestige. Yet, he abandoned the position almost at once, apparently convinced it was too vulnerable to hold. This, in turn, tarnished a reputation that had only just begun to gleam.
Back in Acre, several leading crusaders, notably King Andrew of Hungary, King Hugh of Cyprus and the Prince of Antioch, abandoned the crusade altogether. It was thus not until mid-2018 that enough men and troops had arrived from the West for the crusade to begin in earnest. The crusaders embarked on a siege of the Egyptian city of Damietta. After a year and a half, in late 2019, the crusaders finally captured the city, and John de Brienne succeeded in being recognized as “King” in Damietta, i.e. it was recognized that any territorial gains in Egypt would be accorded to the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the individual leaders fighting in the crusade.
More important, the crusader capture of Damietta induced the Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil to offer the restoration of all territory that had once been part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in exchange for the crusader evacuation of Damietta. To Brienne’s credit, he favored acceptance of this offer. He was supported by the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights, but over-ruled by the other crusade leaders, most notably the papal legate Pelagius and Frederick II’s deputy/representative the Duke of Bavaria. The decision revealed all too clearly that the “King” of Jerusalem was not taken all too seriously by either the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. On the contrary, they (or their representatives) were “calling the shots” and Brienne’s place was to take orders -- and risk life and limb while watching not only the crusade fail but also all hopes for a viable Kingdom of Jerusalem sink in the mud of the Nile with it.
To be sure, Brienne’s reputation as a valorous knight and brave tactical commander was bolstered by his military leadership during the crusade. It did not hurt that, in retrospect, people recognized his wisdom in advising against the disastrous march on Cairo. Yet the fact remained that his name was associated with yet another failed military campaign.
Nor did it help that in 1220, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, his Armenian wife and his son by her died. His hopes for a crown in Armenia died with them just at a time when the Ayyubids, to try to ease the pressure of the crusade on the Nile, struck at the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In a devastating raid, Saracen forces destroyed the coastal city of Caesarea and were soon threatening the Templar’s new stronghold at Athlit. The Templars and many barons and knights abandoned the crusade in Egypt to hasten back to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and repulse the threat. To top it all off, it was at exactly this time that Brienne’s nephew Walter IV came of age, and John lost his title of Count of Brienne as well.
To Brienne’s credit, he did not despair. Instead, he undertook renewed efforts to bring to his beleaguered kingdom the necessary financial and military resources that would enable it to beat back its enemies and re-establish a viable kingdom. John de Brienne embarked on an expansive “tour” of Western Europe intended to raise funds, troops, and support for a new crusade to rescue his beleaguered kingdom. Between 1223 and 1225, Brienne traveled to Flanders and England, to Metz and Cologne, across northern Italy and down into what is now Spain.
In the latter, he visited the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostella, but more important contracted a third marriage, this time to Berengaria of Castile, the daughter of Alfonso IX. The couple was married in Toledo in May 1224. Berengaria had the advantage of being a niece of the Queen Blanch of France, thereby strengthening Brienne’s ties with the French monarchy.
Yet the more important marriage that Brienne arranged during the first three years following the end of the Fifth Crusade was that between his daughter Yolanda, the heiress of Jerusalem, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. It is unclear where the idea of Frederick II marrying the future queen of Jerusalem originated. Pierre Boulle, one of Frederick II’s biographers, suggests it was the Pope’s idea. Another possible father for the idea is Herman von Salza, the tireless and diplomatically gifted, Master of the Teutonic Knights. Or, the idea might have originated with Brienne himself. In any case, the idea had the obvious advantage of giving Frederick II a material interest in finally fulfilling his multiple crusade vows. Brienne, the Pope, and the Masters of the military orders all hoped that if Frederick were to marry the heiress of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he would finally do something to shore it up.
Although historians presume there was a marriage contract negotiated by Herman von Salza, no copy has survived into our own time. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that Frederick II agreed to allow John de Brienne to retain the title, dignity, revenues, and functions of King of Jerusalem for his lifetime. The marriage was celebrated in Acre by proxy (the Archbishop of Capua standing in for the absent Emperor) in the summer of 1225. At the time Yolanda was only twelve-years-old, this being the legal age of consent for girls. The proxy wedding was followed by Yolanda’s coronation at Tyre, before she boarded a ship, accompanied by leading barons of her kingdom, and sailed for Brindisi. On November 9, 1225 (still possibly short of her thirteenth birthday), Yolanda married Frederick II in person ― and the very next day Frederick demanded homage from the knights and barons of Jerusalem that had accompanied his wife to Brindisi. There can be no question that Brienne himself ― but also the Pope and Salza ― all believed that Frederick’s actions were in violation of the terms they had negotiated.
What he had promised during the negotiations interested Frederick II (who liked to call himself the “Wonder of the World”) not one iota. The knights and barons of Jerusalem, moreover, were all too ready to swap the ineffective and impoverished Brienne for the powerful and wealthy Holy Roman Emperor. All those present did homage as demanded. They lived to regret it.
Despite the marriage, Frederick still failed to fulfill his crusading vow by the agreed date of Sept. 1227. To be sure, he made the attempt, but much of his army and leading commanders were struck down by illness. The Emperor himself became so sick after setting sail that he returned to Apulia. The Pope, now Gregory IX, promptly excommunicated him for failing (yet again) to fulfill his vows.
Frederick was unimpressed and set about raising a new army. Meanwhile, according to various chronicles (admittedly hostile to Frederick), the Emperor abused his bride. On the one hand, he was said to neglect her for his harem slaves or other women, and on the other is said to have beaten her so severely that she lost, or nearly lost, a child. She certainly did lose her first child, but since she was at most 14 at the time, abuse may have had nothing to do with it. Equally certain, she died in May 1228 just ten days later after giving birth to a son when she was still only 15 years of age.
Frederick was now in exactly the same situation that Brienne had been at the death of his wife Queen Marie. Like Brienne, he blithely insisted that he remained King of Jerusalem, although the tie that bound him to Jerusalem was dead. Naturally, he could ― like Brienne ― claim to rule for his infant son, the heir to the crown, but ― again like Brienne ― he claimed more: until the day he died he insisted on the title and dignity of King of Jerusalem -- but not without opposition.
For Brienne, of course, the loss of his daughter was not material; he claimed the crown because he had been crowned and anointed, just as Guy de Lusignan had done before him and Emperor Frederick was doing too. Brienne was fortunate to have a powerful patron in the pope.
Pope Honorius was at loggerheads with the Holy Roman Emperor over a variety of issues that far exceed the parameters of this essay. It is enough to say that in his struggle with Frederick II, Brienne was a useful tool. Brienne had already allied himself with the Lombard League, the northern Italian cities then in revolt against Frederick’s rule. Brienne evidently enjoyed much respect and sympathy among the Lombards. Honorius clearly wanted to keep Brienne on hand and on his side, so he furnished Brienne with substantial income by appointing him “rector” in the papal state of Tuscany. Honorius was succeeded as pope by Gregory IX, an even more inveterate opponent of the Hohenstaufen. He immediately confirmed Brienne in this position as rector and then turned to him as an experienced military commander to lead (among others) papal forces directed at the Frederick II’s Kingdom of Sicily.
Frederick himself had set off on his much-postponed crusade despite being excommunicate and despite the fact that Pope Gregory expressly forbade him from setting out. (The Pope called Frederick’s expedition to the Holy Land an “anti-crusade.”) Frederick took only a few troops with him, but many scholars, archbishops, and harem slaves. He conducted no military operations against the Saracen, preferring to attack his barons on Cyprus and the Knights Templar in the heart of Acre. Secretly he begged the Sultan al-Kamil for terms that would restore Jerusalem to Christian hands, without consulting any of his allies. Although he ultimately succeeded in obtaining a ten-year truce that included restoration of Jerusalem and some other territory, his treaty with al-Kamil had many flaws. All this took time, however, and while he was away, Pope Gregory’s army assaulted his holdings in southern Italy.
The papal war against the Frederick has gone down in history as the “War of the Keys” because papal forces used the papal keys as their insignia. The forces fighting for the pope were commanded by not only John de Brienne but also Cardinal Pelagius (of Fifth Crusade ill-repute) and Cardinal Colonna. Together, they initially enjoyed significant successes, but these were built on sand: Frederick’s absence. As soon as the Emperor returned from the Holy Land, landing at Brindisi on June 10, 1229, rebellious cities and lords got cold feet. They soon abandoned their rebellion or the papal cause, depending on how you look at it.
This defeat was not nearly as devastating for Brienne as it may seem on the surface. This is because roughly six months before Frederick’s return from the Holy Land and the collapse of the “War of the Keys,” Brienne had been offered the Imperial crown of Constantinople, the Latin empire built (precariously) upon the foundations of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) that had fallen to Latin mercenaries after the capture of Constantinople in 1204.
Without getting into too much detail, the throne in Constantinople had fallen vacant following the death of Emperor Robert of Courtenay in 1228. His heir was his younger brother Baldwin, who was only 11 years old at the time. With the Latin empire under threat from resurgent Greeks under both John III Doukas Vatazes and Theodore of Epiros, the barons did not want to wait for Baldwin to grow up. They wanted a tried military leader now.
Unfortunately for them, Constantinople did not have the emotional appeal of Jerusalem. Many knights and barons continued to view the conquest of Constantinople as scandalous or even sinful. Many men who were prepared to risk life, limb, and fortune to secure the Holy Land, were completely disinterested in Constantinople. In short, there were no great kings or barons willing to give up their secure hereditary lands in the West for a throne that was already tottering on the brink of collapse. Brienne, on the other hand, had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Before setting out for Constantinople, however, Brienne negotiated terms that, “reflect the fact that he was now in a much stronger position, vis-à-vis desperate Latin Constantinople, than he had been two decades earlier when negotiating for the throne of Jerusalem. He seems to have refused to accept a mere regency for young Baldwin de Courtenay. Instead, it was agreed that John would become sole emperor (not co-emperor, as is still sometimes said).” Brienne was to be Baldwin’s guardian until the latter came of age, after which Baldwin was to swear fealty to Brienne until Brienne’s death. He would then succeed Brienne. Meanwhile, Baldwin was to marry Brienne’s daughter Mary and be invested with all territory of the empire in Asia Minor ― just as soon as somebody had conquered it again. Brienne’s sons were also to be provided for from territories of his new empire, which for all its weakness still theoretically stretched from the Balkans deep into what is now Turkey.
So Brienne once again went recruiting for the men and money to defend the throne to which he had been elected. He received strong support from the Venetians, who were largely responsible for the creation of Latin empire in Greece and offered very generous terms for the transport of Brienne’s army (in contrast to the debacle of 1204). It is an indication of Brienne’s greater prestige after two decades in the international arena that he was able to muster a significantly larger force for his move to Constantinople than he had been able to pull together for his arrival in Jerusalem. The transport treaty with Venice suggests he brought 500 knights, 1,200 horses, and 5,000 infantry. Yet, in the end, it was not nearly enough.
The challenge Brienne faced in Constantinople was considerably greater than what he had confronted in Jerusalem. The Latin empire was flanked by hostile, Christian powers, and ruled over a population that was at best indifferent to the Frankish elite. Unlike in Jerusalem, the native Orthodox population had not invited the Franks in and did not see them as an improvement over what had been before. The “enemy,” particularly the Greeks rallying around John III Doukas Vatatzes, was widely perceived as more legitimate than the Frankish rulers. Furthermore, while the Ayyubids had been divided among themselves and fighting each other as often as they fought the Franks, shortly after Brienne arrived in Constantinople, the Vlach-Bulgar kingdom switched alliances and started supporting the Orthodox Byzantines rather than the Latin Franks.
In 1235, four years into Brienne’s reign, the Byzantines and Bulgars jointly attacked the Latin Empire. They rapidly eliminated the Latin outposts in Asia Minor and in Thrace and the combined forces appeared before Constantinople. They had sufficient force to attack in two places at once, and the strategy appeared to be to attack in one place, draw the defenders to that part of the wall, and then launch a second attack somewhere else. Brienne responded with cavalry sallies that evidently astonished and disrupted the besiegers, but meanwhile, the native population within the city was far from trustworthy, adding another dimension of danger. Fortunately, the timely arrival of a fleet of ships from Venice broke the coordinated attacks of the enemy by destroying 24 Greek ships and putting the rest to flight.
The Venetians docked in triumph, celebrated their victory, and sailed for home. The enemy returned, renewing the siege of Constantinople through the winter of 1235-1236. Having received a “bloody nose” in the earlier assaults, however, the combined Byzantine-Bulgar army now attempted to force surrender through siege alone. Brienne managed to get word to Rome of his dire situation ― and the West rallied.
In a rare instance of self-interest over-riding rivalries, the Venetians, Pisans, and Genoese jointly rallied to the defense of Constantinople. Equally important, the Frankish Prince of Achaea (essentially the Peloponnese) likewise brought up troops to relieve Constantinople. As the prospects of success dimmed, the Bulgars abandoned the Byzantines, seeking reconciliation with Rome via envoys. The Byzantines, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the siege on their own, likewise withdrew.
Brienne had won a surprising victory against overwhelming forces, but his Empire was no stronger than it had been before. Indeed, it had been weakened by the year-long siege. It was clearly just a matter of time before the next assault would be made by the Byzantines that would never accept a Latin Constantinople. But Brienne had run out of time.
In mid-March (the exact date is unknown), John de Brienne, Emperor of Constantinople and former King of Jerusalem, died in Constantinople. His young wife died within weeks of him, leading historians to speculate that he died of some siege-related illness, (siege conditions often lead to the spread of various communicable diseases). He was survived by three sons and a daughter, all the children of his third wife.
 Perry, Guy. John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Emperor of Constantinople, c. 1175-1237. Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 151.