Conrad Marquis de Montferrat: The Vilest of Villains?

Conrad de Montferrat has gone down in history as a despicable and abdominal scoundrel. The character slander began in his own life-time and was immortalized in the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, one of the main accounts of the Third Crusade. Here he is described shooting a cross-bow at his own father, killing his doctors, abducting a princess, bribing bishops, intentionally withholding food from crusaders, undermining all efforts by Richard of England to defeat Saladin, and finally meeting his just end at the hands of an assassin. Ever since, Conrad has been cast in the role of villain, for example in Graham Shelby’s The Kings of Vain Intent or Andrew Latham’s The Holy Lance. But the Itinerarium is notoriously biased and the historical Montferrat is considerably more complex.

Conrad de Montferrat was born in about 1145 into the prominent north Italian family of Montferrat. He was the second son of William V, Marquis de Montferrat, and his wife Julitta. Julitta is important; she was a sister of Leopold IV of Austria (the man who took Richard the Lionheart captive on his return from crusade, which begins to explain the hatred of the Itinerarium for Conrad) and a granddaughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, making Conrad a first cousin of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. Conrad's maternal aunt, Adelaide, was also important; she married Louis VI of France and was the mother of Louis VII and grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s hated rival, Philip II of France (another strike against Conrad in the Itinerarium.) Conrad’s older brother, William, married Sibylla of Jerusalem and fathered the ill-fated Baldwin V.  Conrad’s younger brother, Rainier married Maria Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Manuel I. In short, Conrad de Montferrat was closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the King of France, and the ruling Queen of Jerusalem. Conrad de Montferrat was not — as some modern novelists would have you believe — an “adventurer” or a parvenu.

Furthermore, he was a very well-educated, well-traveled and militarily experienced nobleman. The family had close ties with famous troubadours and maintained a highly cultivated court. His father participated in the Second Crusade and was initially a staunch supporter of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa in his decades' long struggle with the Lombard League. While Conrad’s older brother left Italy to marry Sibylla of Jerusalem in 1176, Conrad remained behind with his father, who in 1177 switched his allegiance from the Holy Roman Emperor to the Greek Emperor.  The latter secured the alliance by giving his daughter Maria in the marriage to the Marquis’ third son, (Conrad’s younger brother) Rainier. In 1179, Conrad defeated the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor taking the Imperial chancellor captive, and then went to Constantinople, where he was well-received and greatly admired for his good looks, charm and military prowess. However, he wisely departed Constantinople after Emperor Manuel’s death, before his younger brother and sister-in-law were murdered by the Emperor Andronicus.

In 1186, however, the new Emperor Isaac Angelus sought to re-establish the alliance with the Montferrats by offering Conrad the hand of his sister Theodora.  Conrad returned to Constantinople and was raised to the rank of “Caesar.” He demonstrated his utility to the Emperor by putting down a rebellion led by the popular general Alexios Branas, but his very success led his brother-in-law to look on him with jealousy and suspicion. By mid-1187, the tensions between them were so high that Conrad feared for his life (his brother, after all, had been murdered in Constantinople only five years earlier), and he fled Constantinople, heading for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where his father was established.

Arriving off Acre sometime between July 10 and July 14 aboard a Genoese merchantman, Conrad learned of the catastrophe at Hattin from a pilot boat sent out to inquire the ship’s business. The ship’s captain had become suspicious because the church bells of Acre were not ringing, and had dropped anchor. The news that the city had surrendered to Saladin (probably only the day before) sent the ship scuttling back up the coast to Tyre.

Here Conrad arrived by sea when the city was already invested by land by the Sultan’s army. Negotiations for the surrender were allegedly already underway, whether as a ruse or in earnest. Conrad immediately and forcefully advocated defiance, and by some accounts threw down the Sultan’s banner that had already been planted on the walls. With so many other cities ripe for surrender, Saladin chose not to fight for Tyre, but withdrew to capture Sidon, Beirut, Caesarea, Jaffa, and eventually Ascalon. His failure to take Tyre was to be strongly criticized by Arab chroniclers with the wisdom of hindsight. Meanwhile, the Baron of Sidon moved out to hold and defend his castle at Belfort, and the people of Tyre, which included not only the usual residents but the survivors of Hattin and refugees from across the north of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, swore allegiance to Conrad.  

When Saladin, having taken Jerusalem, returned to finish off Tyre in November, he brought with him Conrad’s father, the aging Marquis de Montferrat, who had fought and been taken captive at Hattin. Saladin offered to release the Marquis in exchange for the surrender of Tyre. The chronicles tell a dramatic tale in which Conrad pointedly refused the deal, saying his father had “lived long enough already” and fired a crossbow in his direction (probably intended to miss or to kill one of his Saracen escorts). Importantly, the chronicles agree that the Marquis either encouraged his son to refuse the offer or called out something to the effect of “well done” when he did refuse. The Marquis of Montferrat had fought too long and hard for the Holy Land to want to see the last remaining bastion of the kingdom surrendered.

In addition to the old Marquis, Saladin had brought another means for reducing the city: the Egyptian fleet. Tyre was now truly besieged and crammed as it was with refugees and cut off from resupply the situation rapidly became precarious. It being winter, no relief or reinforcements could be expected from the West and shortly after Christmas Montferrat devised a plan, which even his enemies conceded was clever: he led the enemy to believe that people were rioting and some of the wealthier residents were going to attempt a breakout. The chain across the harbor entrance was lowered, and the Saracen ships took the bait. Lured i by the ruse, they shot into the harbor, thinking they were about to take the city by the unprotected "back door." Instead, they found themselves attacked by the Pisan vessels in the harbor and eventually, even those that escaped from the inner harbor were driven ashore. Meanwhile, an attack by land was driven off. The very next day, January 1, 1188, Saladin ordered his army to disperse and withdrew.

A year and half later, the situation had not changed substantially when out of the north a small Frankish army appeared led by none other than the architect of the disaster at Hattin, Guy de Lusignan. Guy was accompanied by his wife, through whom he claimed the crown of Jerusalem, and a small force of volunteers from the Principality of Antioch. On his arrival outside Tyre, King Guy naturally ordered the gates opened, so he could enter the only city left of his former kingdom. Conrad de Montferrat, on the other hand, felt he had lost his kingdom at Hattin and had no business in Tyre. He refused Guy admission.

Guy chose to continue south to lay siege to Acre, which was now held by a Saracen garrison. Thus, when the crusaders started to arrive in increasing numbers in 1190 and 1191 there were two centers of Frankish opposition: Tyre and Acre. The latter, however, was an offensive operation (an attempt to recapture the most important city of the former kingdom), while Tyre was not directly at risk anymore. As a result, most of the arriving crusaders, often after a stop in Tyre, continued down to the siege camp at Acre. While this should have increased Guy de Lusignan’s stature, in fact, the arriving contingents of troops tended to recognize their own leaders rather than Guy, and command of the siege devolved more and more to a committee of leading nobles.

Guy’s position was then fatally undermined by the death of his wife and both her daughters in November 1190. Guy, always unpopular, widely viewed by the barons of Jerusalem as a usurper, and discredited by Hattin, lost his last vestige of legitimacy with his wife’s death. The High Court of Jerusalem recognized Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella as the rightful ruler of Jerusalem.

Only there was a problem. The Constitution of Jerusalem recognized the rights of women to rule in their own right, but only if they had a male consort capable of leading the army of Jerusalem. Isabella, to be sure, had a husband, Humphrey de Toron, a local baron.  However, he had once before betrayed the High Court at the critical moment when the High Court was trying to oppose Guy’s usurpation of the throne in 1186. The High Court was not prepared to recognize Humphrey as king. That meant that Isabella had to be separated from him and married to a man more acceptable to the barons of Jerusalem. The details of this are described in
The Abduction of Isabella. For now, suffice it to say that Conrad was the man they chose.

The Itinerarium and most subsequent sources portray Conrad as the driving force behind this marriage to Isabella. He is described as scheming and bribing, as unscrupulous and duplicitous. These portrayals, however, completely ignore the essential fact that it was the High Court of Jerusalem that decided on the marriage of a female heir and the fact that the High Court consistently supported Conrad over Guy. The overblown outrage of the chronicles likewise obscures the plain fact that Isabella was below the age of consent at the time of her marriage to Humphrey (she was 11) and the marriage was without question invalid on basis of contemporary canon law. While it is also highly probable that Conrad was ambitious and coveted the crown, it is absurd to portray his marriage to Isabella as a travesty of justice or an act of moral depravity.

By the time the Kings of France and England arrived in the Holy Land, therefore, there were two rival claimants to the (largely fictional) throne of Jerusalem: 1) Conrad, supported by the High Court and deriving his claim through the legitimate heir, Isabella, and 2) Guy, clinging to the title he had from his now dead wife because he’d be crowned and anointed. Their rivalry immediately became a proxy war between Philip II of France, who backed his kinsman Conrad, and Richard I of England, who backed his vassal Guy. Unfortunately for Conrad, Philip II soon tired of crusading and sailed away, while Richard I remained and recaptured much of the fertile coastal plain although he was unable to regain Jerusalem.

During the critical eleven months from October 1191 to beginning of September 1192, Richard I periodically sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin. Not surprisingly, Conrad feared that Richard would negotiate a deal that left him high and dry, and so he tried to cut a deal of his own. This has been portrayed as the height of infamy by the supporters of Richard, but it is hard to see why it was legitimate for Richard to deal with Saladin but not for Conrad. Saladin, meanwhile, had a strong interest in playing Conrad and Richard off against one another and sowing dissension in the Frankish camp.

However, it is significant that while Richard’s admirers despise Conrad, Richard himself did not. On the contrary, when it became clear that he must return in all haste to the West to defend his inheritance against his brother John and Philip II of France, Richard also recognized that the High Court of Jerusalem must be allowed to elect their own king in accordance with tradition and the Constitution of Jerusalem. When they “unanimously” elected Conrad, Richard accepted the decision. The Lionheart was not a man to “roll over and play dead” if he felt strongly about something, so he clearly had come to accept that Conrad was a suitable candidate for King of Jerusalem.

Tragically, Conrad lived only a few days after his election to King. He was stabbed in the streets of Tyre by two men identified as members of the sect of assassins. Although attempts were made to pin the blame on Richard of England, Saladin and even Humphrey of Toron, the most reasonable explanation is that he had offended the Old Man of the Mountain, who took his revenge in his own time as he so often did.

Conrad de Montferrat is an important character in my novel
Envoy of Jerusalem. I have sought to do him justice as a complex character full of charm, ambition, talent and opportunism.