Maria Comnena was probably born in 1154 or 1155, the daughter of John Comnenos, Protovestiarius, the grandson of the Byzantine Emperor John II, and nephew of the ruling Emperor, Manuel I. As such she was a member of the Byzantine Imperial family, but not in direct line to the throne. At the time of her birth, Manuel I had already been Emperor of the Eastern Empire for over 30 years, and had consistently pursued a policy of cooperation with the crusader states, which included joint military operations, and a series of marriage alliances. In 1158, one of Manuel’s nieces, Theodora, had been married to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, and in 1161, Manuel himself took Maria of Antioch, sister of Bohemond III, Prince of Antioch, to wife. Finally, when Amalric I of Jerusalem decided to seek a second wife (the High Court had required him to set aside his first wife in order to be crowned king), he turned to the Byzantine Emperor. An Embassy was sent to Constantinople in 1165, and two years later Maria Comnena landed at Tyre as her great-uncle’s choice for Queen of Jerusalem.
King Amalric’s emissaries to Constantinople had spent two years in the Byzantine capital negotiating the marriage. From the surviving sources, it is impossible to know why the negotiations took so long, but regardless of why they took so long Amalric’s emissaries and the Byzantine Emperor clearly had plenty of time to consider various candidates. Maria was either the most suitable or the most pleasing from the point of view of Amalric’s representatives.
Whatever their reasoning, we can be certain that Maria Comnena had up to this point enjoyed the famously luxurious life-style of the Imperial family, and — more important — the very high level of education typical of the women of her family. The Comnenas were not only literate in Greek classics, but versed in theology and history, as the writings of Anna Comnena, Maria’s great-great-aunt, attest. Furthermore, the Comnenen Emperors had sponsored a significant building program that in turn sparked a revival of Byzantine arts and letters and the introduction of new styles in mosaics and frescoes. Maria would, therefore, have come to Jerusalem with not only a substantial dowry, (her aunt Theodora had a dowry of over 100,000 gold pieces), a large retinue of Byzantine advisors and scholars, but with knowledge and tastes cultivated in the most sophisticated Christian society of the age.
Maria married Amalric and was crowned queen at the end of August 1167 at the age of 12 or 13; Amalric was already 30 years old. While Maria’s young age precluded a major role for her in politics, it is nevertheless probable that the magnificent renovation of the Church of the Nativity, a work that included beautiful mosaics with heavy Byzantine influence, was initiated after her arrival in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Just as notable, her eldest son by her second marriage (i.e. who was not royal) built a house in Beirut of exquisite beauty featuring polychrome marble, mosaics, glazed windows opening onto vistas, and fountains with elaborate pumps and drainage.
It is also notable that 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. Furthermore, Byzantine sources suggest that he acknowledged Manuel I as his overlord during this trip. While this was a political not a personal trip, it is hard to imagine that Maria was not a voice in his ear encouraging this unprecedented step — and just as hard to imagine that he would have listened if he had not respected her opinion or been displeased with his Byzantine bride.
Notably, at the time this trip took place, Amalric’s positive attitude toward his Byzantine bride could not be traced to her fertility because she had yet to give him any children; it is far more likely that he respected her for her education and intelligence, although beauty as a factor cannot be excluded, despite the fact that there is no explicit reference to her attractiveness in existing texts. It was not until the next year, 1172, that she gave birth to a live child, a daughter who was Christened Isabella. Maria was by then 17 or 18 years old.
Two years later, her husband was dead. As his widow, she would have taken part in the meeting of the High Court of Jerusalem that elected the next king. The choice, apparently by mutual consent and without serious dissention, fell on Maria’s step-son, Amalric’s son by his previous marriage to Agnes de Courtenay. Because Baldwin IV was a minor at the time of his father’s death, the kingdom was placed in the hands of a regent, Raymond of Tripoli.
At this point Maria retired from court, but there is no indication she did so in disgrace or displeasure. On the contrary, her retirement appears to have been entirely voluntary. 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 and lying at an important cross-roads, had once been independent, but had reverted to the crown in 1161. It owed 85 knights to the feudal levee, and included the ancient city of Nablus famous for its perfumes and soaps. It was still inhabited by a sizable population of Samaritans, Jews and Muslims. Notably, Maria was granted Nablus for life, but was not enfeoffed, i.e. the lordship reverted to the crown at her death.
In short, at roughly the age of 20, Maria Comnena found herself a very wealthy widow with complete independence. She had enough wealth and enough men (85 knights is only the tip of the iceberg of the men at her command) to protect herself, her property and her independence. She was a Dowager Queen, mother of the second-in-line to the throne, and she could not be forced into a second marriage by either her step-son or her great-uncle, although she needed the former’s 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 who should select Princess Sibylla’s next husband (her first husband had just died unexpectedly) and about a proposed campaign against Egypt that was supported by Manuel I, who had sent a fleet of seventy warships. Philip wanted assurances that he would be made king of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and Baldwin IV and Manuel I felt that any territory won by the expedition should belong to them, as they brought the greater resources to the campaign. 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 actions and demands. Even more noteworthy, however, is that as a result of his meetings with Maria he had a change of heart and sent messengers from Nablus to Jerusalem declaring his acceptance of the High Court’s decisions with respect to the campaign in Egypt. Maria Comnena at 23 was evidently a woman who could talk politics with the most savvy of Western noblemen and be persuasive without the least personal interest in the outcome.
In late 1177 Maria Comnena made a surprise second marriage to Balian d’Ibelin, the younger brother of the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Although it is recorded that Maria had the explicit consent of the king for this marriage, there is no reason to suppose this marriage was imposed on her. The very fact that the candidate was the younger brother of a local baron from a parvenu family makes it all the more likely that he was her choice; otherwise she would have rejected him as far beneath her dignity and had the backing of the Byzantine Emperor in saying ‘no.’ No one, much less the mortally-ill Baldwin, would have risked a break with the Byzantine Emperor over a marriage that brought no apparent advantages to the crown.
In short, we can assume that Maria’s marriage to Balian d’Ibelin was a love-match — at least on her side. While Balian’s motives may have been more venal, what followed provides ample evidence that Balian and Maria soon formed a relationshiop so close that they can be seen as a pair, a team, a partnership. Altogether, Maria was to give Balian four children, two sons and two daughters, all born between 1178 and 1183.
Meanwhile, she faced the first serious crisis of her life. In 1180, her daughter by Amalric, the 8 year-old Princess of Isabella was taken from her (and Balian) and betrothed to Humphrey de Toron, the son of Stephanie de Milly by her first marriage. Stephnie was now, however, on her third husband, the infamous Reynald de Chatillon. The marriage of Isabella to Humphrey was allegedly idea of the Queen Mother, Agnes de Courtenay, who had been set aside by Amalric and, eventually, replaced by Maria. It can be assumed that Agnes had no kind feelings toward Maria. The timing of the marriage is also significant. Agnes had just engineered (or at least secured her son’s consent to) the marriage of her own daughter to Guy de Lusignan — thereby earning the bitter enmity of Baldwin d’Ibelin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, who apparently had had hopes of marrying Sibylla himself. Certainly, from 1180 onwards, Ramla and his younger brother Balian were staunch opponents of Guy de Lusignan. Under the circumstances, King Baldwin may have felt compelled — or more likely was compelled by the poisonous advice of his mother — to remove his half-sister Isabella from Balian’s control out of fear that if he did not the Ibelin’s would use her to challenge Sibylla and Guy’s right to the throne.
The historical record demonstrates that Baldwin was unjustified in imputing treasonous intentions to the Ibelins; both brothers were staunchly loyal to both him and his nephew Baldwin V. Indeed, although Baldwin refused to do homage to Guy after he usurped the crown, preferring to leave the kingdom, Balian honorably served Guy de Lusignan right up until the death of Sibylla in 1190. Furthermore, there is no objective way to portray this removal of a small child from her mother and the only father she had known to live in an endangered border fortress with one of the most notoriously brutal and unscrupulous men of the entire age as benign. It was a cruel, vindictive act that undoubtedly acerbated the hostility between Maria and Agnes and between the Ibelins and Lusignan, in both cases to the detriment of the kingdom.
For three years, Isabella was denied the right to even visit her mother in Nablus, and it was not until 1183 that Maria saw her daughter again — on the occasion of her daughter’s marriage to Humphrey at the age of 11. No sooner had Maria, Agnes and other wedding guests arrived at the bleak castle of Kerak set atop a mountain overlooking the desert, than Salah-ad-Din laid seize to the castle. Maria was trapped inside with her daughter, her new son-in-law and hundreds of others. The bulk of the barons of Jerusalem, including Balian, on the other hand were still in Jerusalem at a meeting of the High Court. It was a stormy session in which the barons unanimously refused to accept Guy de Lusignan as regent — not even to go to the relief of their wives, the Dowager Queen, the Queen Mother and the Princess of Jerusalem. That is quite a resounding vote of “non-confidence” in the incompetent but arrogant Guy de Lusignan. Baldwin IV, now completely lamed and going blind because of his leprosy, had to take up the reins of government himself and lead the royal army to the relief of Kerak. Salah-ad-Din retreated before King, and Maria — and Isabella — were reunited with Balian.
One year later, Maria found herself under siege a second time, and this time it was at home in Nablus. Salah-ad-Din had set-out on a second attempt to capture Kerak, but was again thwarted by the timely arrival of the feudal host of Jerusalem. As he withdraw, his army plundered and burned its way north to Damascus. Nablus, an unwalled town, was in his path, and Maria commanded in the city because Balian, of course, with the knights, sergeants and other feudal levees of Nablus, was with the army. Remarkably, although the city was unwalled and so virtually indefensible, there were no Christian casualties because Maria provided refuge for the entire civilian population in the citadel. This was in marked contrast to neighboring towns and cities. The citadel of Nablus was not a major castle and it has completely disappeared over the centuries; it was not nothing like the impregnable Kerak, and its defense therefore all the more remarkable. The over-crowding must have been appalling and the risks enormous, but the Christian army was hot on Salah-ah-Din’s heels and came to Maria's relief — at least that portion under her husband did.
Such an action was unthinkable the next time Saracen forces threated to overrun Nablus. That was in July 1187 and Salah-ad-Din had just 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. In short, like every other city and castle in the crusader kingdom, Nablus had no hope of relief because there was no longer an army capable of coming to its aid. Unlike the port cities from Ascalon to Beirut, there was also no hope of relief by sea from the kingdoms in the West. Maria was a realist. She abandoned Nablus and with her children (and probably the majority of the other inhabitants) fled to Jerusalem.
The choice of Jerusalem was probably dictated more by sentiment than logic: it was not the closest defensible city. Arsuf, Jaffa and Caesarea were all geographically closer, and they were seaports with both hope of relief or in a worst case chances of escape. But Jerusalem was the heart of the kingdom and it was a walled city. Furthermore, the Ibelins had a residence there so Maria and her children had someplace to go. In the first moment of shock, as word of the disaster of Hattin seeped into Nablus and Maria could did not know if Balian had been killed or captured, it probably seemed like the best place to go. Maria may, however, have come to regret her decision.
Jerusalem was soon flooded with refugees from the surrounding countryside. While the regular population was probably no more than 20,000, a number that swelled to perhaps 30,000 during the pilgrim season, as many as 30,00 to 40,000 Franks sought refuge in Jerusalem after Hattin, bringing the population to over 60,000, or according to some estimates 100,000. Most of those refuges were women, children, churchmen and old people, because able-bodied men had been called-up to the army and were now dead or enslaved. Yet despite the lack of fighting men (there is said to have been not a single knight in the city) the leaders chosen (by what means we do not know) to represent the city to Salah-ad-Din refused to surrender the city on generous terms. The Franks in Jerusalem may have been commoners with little experience of combat but they felt the weight of responsibility for the sites of Christ’s passion keenly. As they told Salah-ad-Din, they could not surrender Jerusalem because it would disgrace them for all eternity. They did not expect to defend the city successfully, but they preferred martyrdom to shame.
It is unknown how Maria Comnena felt about this stand. She was certainly not part of the delegation, although as Dowager Queen and one of the most prominent people in the city she may have been involved in both selecting the delegation that met with Salah-ad-Din and determining what answer they would give him. It is likely that although she understood it, she was less than enthusiastic about sacrificing her four children, all of whom were under the age of 10. She was in all probability greatly relieved, not to say ecstatic, when against all odds her husband appeared in Jerusalem to escort her to safety.
The arrival of Balian d’Ibelin in Jerusalem sometime after the Battle of Hattin struck the Christians in Jerusalem as miraculous. He was almost alone in escaping the debacle at Hattin, but more amazing was the fact that having gained the safety of Tripoli, he returned — unarmed — for the sake of bringing his wife and children to freedom. This act more than any other suggests the depth of feeling Balian had or had developed for his wife. Other lords, notably Raymond of Tripoli, abandoned their wives to their fate, trusting to Salah-ad-Din’s sense of honor not to humiliate them. Ibelin took the unprecedented – and risky — step of seeking a safe-conduct from Salah-ad-Din and giving his word to go to the city unarmed (and presumably unescorted) remain there only a single night and then then return to Tripoli.
The arrival of a respected and experienced battle-commander in the militarily leaderless city sparked popular jubilation — until the people learned of Balian’s intention to rescue his family and withdraw. They then begged Balian to remain and take command of the cities defenses and resistance. The Patriarch dramatically absolved Balian of his oath to Salah-ad-Din. Balian decided it was his duty to remain.
Did he decide alone? That is hardly conceivable. He had been married to Maria Comnena for almost 10 years at this point in time, but she remained his social superior by many orders of magnitude. They had been equally impoverished by the loss of Nablus no less than Ibelin, but the habits of ten years are not washed away in an afternoon. Balian would not have been in the habit of dictating to his wealthier, better-connected and higher-born wife, and at this critical moment he would not have abruptly changed his behavior and tried to do so. Maria Comnena must have shared his decision and very likely contributed to it — without knowing that Salah-ad-Din had another surprise for both of them.
When Balian sent word to the Sultan that he was compelled by the appeals of his countrymen to remain in Jerusalem, Salah-ad-Din was not angry or offended. On the contrary, respecting Balian’s decision, he sent fifty of his own personal guard to Jerusalem to escort Maria Comnena and her children to safety. Why? The romantic answer is that he respected Balian so much and was chivalrous. The more realistic answer is that Maria Comnena was related to the Byzantine Emperor and Salah-ad-Din had signed a truce with the Byzantines; he had no desire to muddy the waters by having a Byzantine Princess caught in a city he had vowed to take by storm. The risks of something happening to her and a diplomatic incident resulting were too high.
Maria must have been relieved for the sake of her children to get that escort to safety. She was probably equally distressed to have to leave her husband behind to almost certain death. She could not have known as she rode out of Jerusalem sometime in early September 1187 that Balian would pull off yet another miracle: the ransom of tens of thousands of Christian lives even after the walls had been breached.
After the fall of Jerusalem, Maria and Balian were reunited, but they now had no income and were nobody 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 the city of Tyre and that was a city under siege and frequent attack, Maria did not choose to return “home.” To be sure, her great-uncle was dead and the new Emperor was a tyrant hostile to the Latin west, but she was a Byzantine Princess, a Comnena, and she had very powerful relatives in the Eastern Empire. That she remained in the pitiable remnants of the crusader states was a tribute to her loyalty to her second husband.
Balian, probably with considerable misgivings and inner revulsion, joined the army that Guy de Lusignan raised after his release in 1188 and took part in the Christian siege of Muslim Acre. Many women were in the Christian camp, including Queen Sibylla and her two daughters by Guy. Where Maria Comnena and her children was there is unrecorded. Very likely, she was not. We know only that in 1190 she was in Tyre.
In 1190, Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters died of fever in the Christian camp outside of Acre. With her death, Guy de Lusignan’s right to the throne of Jerusalem were extinguished. To be sure, he had been anointed king, but without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, and in Balian’s eyes that made him a usurper. While Sibylla had likewise been crowned without the consent of the High Court, she was the rightful heir, with or without the consent of the High Court. Thus with her death everything changed for Balian.
The next in line to the throne now that Sibylla and all her children were dead was Sibylla’s half-sister, Maria’s daughter, Isabella. Isabella was 18 years old and still married to the man imposed on her by her half-brother Baldwin IV, Humphrey of Toron. The problem with Humphrey in the eyes of Balian and most of the surviving barons, knights and burghers of Jerusalem was that he was weak (some say effeminate), and was not credited with the ability to play a constructive role in regaining the lost territories of the Kingdom. In contrast, Conrad de Montferrat, who had saved the city of Tyre at the critical juncture when it too had been on the brink of collapse was widely viewed as having the personality and skill to recapture the kingdom. Balian and the only other baron to escape Hattin and still be alive, Reginald de Sidon, decided that Isabella must marry Conrad de Montferrat and that they must head the kingdom. There was no question that Isabella had been too young to consent at the time of her marriage and so there were legal grounds for the annulment of her marriage, but Isabella had grown attached to Humphrey and the chronicles agree that her mother had to “browbeat” her into agreeing to the divorce. (See TheAbuction of Isabella)
While this is usually interpreted as an unscrupulous and ambitious woman heartlessly pressuring a sweet young girl into betraying the man she loved, the record is not quite so unambiguous. First, the sources we have are all hostile to Conrad de Montferrat and should therefore be treated with caution. Second, the divorce was undoubtedly in the best interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Maria should be given credit — not blame — for putting the interests of the kingdom ahead of the affections of her teenage daughter. Third, there is no indication that Maria’s stand resulted in lasting tensions between her and her daughter. Maria and Balian both played roles in Isabella’s court long after Conrad de Montferrat was dead. Fourth, when Conrad de Montferrat was murdered, although Richard of England had reluctantly recognized that Isabella as the rightful queen, she did not try to make Humphrey de Toron king. Instead, she accepted the King of England’s choice for her third husband, and would later accept the High Court’s choice for her fourth husband. Isabella, I believe, wanted to be Queen and was willing to sacrifice Humphrey de Toron for that goal. (See Isabella I)
But back to Maria. 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 appears to have retired with Balian and their children to the much reduced estates now at their disposal. (The truce between Richard of England and Salah-ad-Din did not include the restoration of Nablus or any of the Ibelin lordships to Christian control, but Balian was explicitly granted the smaller lordship of Caymont northeast of Caesarea.) Balian, as step-father of the queen, initially took precedence over all other lords, but fades from the historical record after 1193, presumably he became ill or died at about this time.
However, it is just as possible that he was simply absent from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, namely helping his neice's husband establish Frankish rule over the Island of Cyprus. (See The Ibelins on Cyprus.) If so, then Maria was again playing a critical role. Cyprus had been a province of the Greek Empire for centuries, and the last Byzantine governor of the island, Isaac Comnenus, was a relative of Maria. She therefore represented a link to the family that the inhabitants considered the legitimate rulers. Furthermore, she spoke Greek and had been raised in the Greek Orthodox Church making her a perfect mediator between the rebellious Greek Orthodox population and the Frankish parvenues.
Maria may also have been instrumental in reconciling Isabella’s third husband, Henri of Champagne, with the House of Lusignan, now established as kings of Cyprus. Certainly, marriages were contracted between Henri and Isabella’s daughters and Aimery de Lusignan’s sons. Maria was lived to see Aimery de Lusignan married to her daughter Isabella, and her son John d'Ibelin appointed first Constable of Jerusalem and then regent for her grand-daughter Maria de Montferrat. She also lived to see John enfeoffed with the Lordship of Beirut, and would have personally enjoyed the palace he built there with it’s lifelike mosaics, polychrome marble and views to the sea.
When Maria Comnena died in 1217, her five-year-old great-granddaughter Yolanda (sometimes also referred to as Isabella II) was Queen of Jerusalem, while her children by Balian had all married into noble families. Her sons John and Philip would both serve as regents of Jerusalem and Cyprus respectively and in throughout the next two centuries, Ibelins married into the royal houses of the Cyprus, Armenia and Antioch.