John was the eldest son of Balian d’Ibelin and the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena, and he was to play a dramatic and important role in the history of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus between 1205 and his death in 1236.
John was probably born in 1179, and was presumably a child of eight when the Battle of Hattin destroyed the world into which he had been born. He was certainly in Jerusalem when father came to the city to rescue his family―only to remain in the city and organize the defense. John, along with his siblings and his mother, however, was escorted from the apparently doomed city by Saladin’s own body-guard in a profoundly generous gesture on the part of the Sultan before the siege.
The next time John is mentioned in the historical record is in 1198, when he is named Constable of Jerusalem by King Aimery de Lusignan. He would have been only 19 at the time, and historians, balking at the idea of such a young man being capable of fulfilling the duties of Constable, hypothesize that the appointment was nominal, a means of providing for him materially. Yet, as his father’s eldest son, he would have already inherited the barony of Caymont, if (as historians assume) his father was already dead. Furthermore, historians appear to overlook the fact that young noblemen and kings came of age at 15 in the Holy Land, so a noblemen of 19 would have been young but not viewed as immature. If kings could command at 15, why shouldn’t a constable at 19? Last but not least, John witnessed all existing charters of King Aimery, suggesting a close relationship between the two men.
John was still quite young, 24, when he was named Regent of Jerusalem first for his half-sister Isabella following the death of her fourth husband, King Aimery, and then for his niece, Isabella's eldest daughter and heir, Maria de Montferrat, after Isabella’s death a few months later. As regent he arranged a marriage between his niece Alice of Champagne (Isabella’s daughter by her third husband, Henri de Champagne) with the heir to the Cypriot throne, Hugh de Lusignan. In addition, he was influential in the marriage of Maria de Montferrat with John de Brienne. Meanwhile, sometime between 1198 and 1205, he had traded the constableship for the lordship of Beirut, and it was as Lord of Beirut that he has gone down into history.
Beirut was retaken for Christendom by German crusaders in 1198, but was so badly destroyed in the process (either by the retreating Saracens or the advancing Germans or both) that it was allegedly an uninhabitable ruin. Despite that, it was an immensely valuable prize because of its harbor, the fertile surrounding coastal territory, and the proximity to Antioch. It was clearly a mark of great favor and trust that John d'Ibelin was granted the lordship of Beirut ― even if it meant giving up the constableship.
John d’Ibelin resettled the city and rebuilt the fortifications. He also built a palace that won the admiration of visitors for its elegance and luxury. It included polychrome marble walls, frescoes, painted ceilings, fountains, gardens, and large, glazed windows offering splendid views to the sea.
John first married (presumably in 1198 or 1199) a certain Helvis of Nephin, about whom nothing is known beyond that she delivered to him five sons, all of whom died as infants. Helvis herself died before 1207, when John married the widowed heiress of Arsur, Melisende. By Melisende, John had another five sons and a single daughter.
In 1210, Maria de Montferrat came of age, married John de Brienne, and the couple were crowned Queen and King of Jerusalem; John’s regency was over. Furthermore, he completely disappeared from the witness lists of the kingdom, suggesting he had withdrawn to Beirut rather than remaining in attendance on the new king and queen―whether voluntarily, or after some dispute is unknown.
While nothing is known for sure about John’s whereabouts between 1210 and 1217, by the latter date John and his younger brother Philip headed the list of witness to all existing charters of King Hugh I of Cyprus. This suggests that at some unknown point before 1217 he had acquired important fiefs on Cyprus. In 1227, he was named regent for the orphaned heir to the Cypriot crown, Henry I.
Only a year later, however, the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich II Hohenstaufen arrived at the head of the Fifth crusade, and John immediately found himself on a collision course. The events are far too complex for this short essay, but resulted in John leading a rebellion against the Emperor and his appointed lieutenants that lasted sporadically from 1229 – 1247. At stake was the constitution of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, with John defending the traditional pre-eminent role of the High Court against the Holy Roman Emperor's attempt to impose absolute monarchy on both kingdoms. The Hohenstaufen eventually suffered a complete defeat, losing his suzerainty over Cyprus altogether, and never able to exercise his royal authority throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
John has been accused by historians of defending only the parochial interests of his family and the leading baronial families. Certainly, his stance undermined central authority in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that ultimately weakened it. Against this argument stands the fact that his rebellion actually strengthened the position of the Kings of Cyprus, and the simple fact that Friedrich II’s heavy handed attempts to disinherit men without due process and run rough-shod over local laws and customs meant John was fighting as much for the rule of law as for personal interests. The depth of his support is demonstrated among other things by the fact that when the Archbishop of Acre placed the city of Acre under interdict because of its allegiance to the Lord of Beirut, the people simply turned to the Orthodox churches rather than caving in; the Pope was forced to rescind the interdict.
The fact that John was strongly supported by the commons of Acre further underlines the fact that he was not solely self-interested. John had no problem accepting the authority of John de Brienne and Henri de Lusignan, after all. I believe, therefore, a strong case can be made for John opposing not the concept of central authority but rather the individual ― Friedrich II, who even his admirers describe as arrogant and authoritarian. Friedrich II believed that, like a Roman Emperor, he was God’s representative on earth. Friedrich II provoked revolts in the West as well as the East, and was excommunicated several times.
The historian John La Monte, on the other hand, has compared John of Beirut to King Louis IX of France. In his introduction to Philip de Novare’s account of the struggle between the Ibelins and Friedrich II, he claims: “…there is a marked resemblance between Ibelin and St. Louis of France, for while both were personally deeply religious neither permitted the Church to dictate to him against the mandates of his own conscience and better judgement.”
John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, stood up to the most powerful monarch on earth and defeated him completely on Cyprus and nearly so in in Syria. Although the Emperor still held Tyre in 1236, Ibelin and his supporters felt strong enough to support a Hospitaller attack from Krak de Cheveliers against Muslim ruler of Hamah. During this campaign, John was mortally injured in a riding accident. He lingered long enough, however, to first settle his estate, ensuring that his younger sons were provided for as rear-vassals of his eldest son an heir, before he joined the Knights Templar. He was carried to Acre, where he died at the age of 58. He was survived by five sons and one daughter. His eldest son Balian (known best as Balian of Beirut to distinguish him from his famous grandfather, the defender of Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187) continued his father’s fight against Imperial power, playing a prominent role in the capture of Tyre for agents of the Emperor.
John was also a child character in the Jerusalem Trilogy, and one of the main characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom.