John d'Ibelin:

"The Old Lord of Beirut"

Contemporaries praised his wisdom and restraint, churchmen called him "exceedingly Christian and energetic,"(1) and modern historians have drawn parallels between him and St. Louis.(2)

While he won the decisive battles of his war against the Holy Roman Emperor, he was admired not as a military man, but rather as a statesman.


John d'Ibelin was born in 1179, the eldest son of Balan d'Ibelin and the Byzantine princess and dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena. While born to privilege, he was only eight when Saladin destroyed the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin and over-ran all of John's inheritance, from his mother's vast holdings at Nablus to his father's more modest barony at Ibelin.

John d'Ibelin first enters the historical record ten years later, when as youth of 18 or 19 when Aimery de Lusignan, newly crowned King of Jerusalem, named him Constable of Jerusalem -- a prestigious and important royal official. The Constable was responsible for commanding the feudal army in the absence of the king.

John's appointment rather that that John had matured rapidly in the turbulent years 1187-1197. Although we can not prove it, we cannot exclude the possibility that he was at his father's side (he was old enough to serve as a squire after all) during the Third Crusade, gaining insight into strategy, warfare and diplomacy from Richard the Lionheart and his father. In any case, by 1197 King Aimery was prepared to appoint him to one of the most important and influential royal offices. It did not hurt, of course, that John was half-brother Queen Isabella of Jerusalem, Lusignan's new wife and the woman through whom he had gained the crown.

John may have been appointed by Lusignan, but he was no puppet. Within a year of his appointment, Lusignan accused the Tiberias brothers, Ralph and Hugh, of an attempted assassination and banished them from the kingdom. Lusignan acted without a judgement of the High Court, and for this John d'Ibelin reproached him. Although his objections did not deter the king, it is significant that at these early stage in his life he was involved in a legal case involving the rights of vassals and the role of the High Court.

Nor did John's stand on this matter did not negatively impact his good relationship with King Aimery. Indeed, to the end of his life John d'Ibelin spoke highly of King Aimery. Nevertheless sometime before 1200, John surrendered the Constableship to the king in exchange for being granted the re-captured city and lordship of Beirut. Beirut had fallen to the forces of Saladin in 1187 and had remained in Saracen hands until the German crusade of 1197. According to Beirut's own account, the city and surrounding territory had been devastated and left in such a ruinous state that not even the wealthy militant orders wanted to pick up the burden of re-building. John's sister Queen Isabella and King Aimery bestowed the lordship of Beirut on John d'Ibelin in or about 1200. John of Beirut, as he would henceforth be called, was at this point roughly 21 years of age. He began the process of re-settling and rebuilding the fortifications, castle, port, and city and stimulating the economic activities of the region. He did so with great success.

Indeed, he constructed one of the most magnificent palaces in the Latin East. The Bishop of Oldenburg traveling through the Holy Land in 1212 described a palace with tall glazed windows opening on the sea or on beautiful gardens, with walls paneled with polychrome marble, life-like mosaic floors, vaulted chambers painted like the night sky, and fountains gushing fresh water day and night. In short, within roughly a dozen years of obtaining Beirut, John d'Ibelin had the means to build lavishly and exquisitely.

Yet even before the Bishop could give a witness to John's successful revitalization of Beirut, King Aimery, Queen Isabella and their only son died in quick succession. Isabella's oldest daughter, Marie de Montferrat, inherited the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but was just 13 years old. The High Court of Jerusalem selected Marie's closest male relative on her mother's side (from which she derived the throne) as her regent; John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beirut.

So at the "ripe old age" of 26 John became the de facto King of Jerusalem. He ruled for the next five years wisely and without incident, maintaining the existing truce with the Saracens. During his tenure he married another of his sister Isabella's daughters, Alice, to the King of Cyprus, and negotiated the marriage of his charge, Queen Marie de Montferrat, with the man selected by the King of France at the request of the High Court of Jerusalem: John de Brienne. When John de Brienne at last arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to wed his bride and be crowned king-consort, John's "reign" ended. At the age of 31 he had held the pinnacle of power -- and peacefully surrendered it again.

Both John and his younger brother Philip took part in the Fifth Crusade, notably under the banner of the King of Cyprus rather than the King of Jerusalem. This may be indicative of strained relations between the Ibelins and King John -- or simply a reflection of more cordial relations between them and the young Lusignan King, Hugh I. Hugh was married to another of the Ibelin's nieces, Alice of Champagne. Certainly, King Hugh commended his kingdom to the keeping of Philip d'Ibelin on his deathbed in 1218.

His unexpected death while still a vigorous man in his early twenties took everyone by surprise and left an 8-month-old infant, Henry, as his heir. Philip was duly elected by the High Court to rule until Henry came of age (May 1232), but himself died in 1227. At his death, the High Court of Cyprus chose his brother, John, the Lord of Beirut, to step into his shoes. It was this election that put John on a collision course with the Holy Roman Emperor.

Two years earlier, in 1225 the Holy Roman Emperor married Yolanda of Jerusalem, the daughter of John de Brienne and Marie of Jerusalem. She was just 13 years old, and no sooner had she landed in Brindisi than her new bridegroom dismissed her father like a superfluous servant and announced the he was henceforth "King of Jerusalem." All the barons of Outremer who had escorted Queen Yolanda to her marriage duly took the oath of fealty to Frederick Hohenstaufen.

Unfortunately, by the time the Emperor Frederick finally landed on Cyprus on his way to the Holy Land, his fifteen-year-old empress was dead, leaving behind an infant son, Conrad. This boy was now legally the King of Jerusalem in his own right, and while Frederick was within his rights to claim the regency, he had lost the right to call himself King -- something Frederick either never understood or never admitted. Curiously, he also arrived -- for reasons that remain completely obscure -- determined to "break" the Lord of Beirut.

The basis for the Emperor's hostility to the Lord of Beirut can only be speculated upon. Since the Emperor dismissed Brienne discourteously, making him a permanent enemy, it can hardly have been Beirut's less than ardent support of Brienne. However, Beirut's brother had crowned Henry de Lusignan King of Cyprus without awaiting imperial permission. Furthermore, in light of his personal experience with regents plundering his treasury, perhaps it was natural for the Hohenstaufen to assume the Ibelins had enriched themselves illegally at the expense of young King Henry. Edbury suggests it was primarily greed for revenue on the eve of an expensive undertaking that motivated the Emperor. Yet it remains a mystery why the Emperor believed the Lordship of Beirut, which had been given to John d'Ibelin with the appropriate royal charters by his own sister, did not legally belong to him.

After fair words to lure Beirut, his sons, friends and vassals to a banquet, the Emperor sprang a trap and attempted to bully Beirut into surrendering both revenues and his lordship of Beirut. (See: The Emperor's Banquet.) Beirut must have had some indication that the Emperor was hostile, or his council would not have advised him from attending the banquet, yet it is hard to believe the Beirut truly expected what happened -- and still walked into the trap. Although Beirut faced the Emperor down, demanded due process before the respective High Courts and walked out of the banquet a free man, his two eldest sons and 18 others were seized as hostages — the former put in pillories and otherwise abused.

Tellingly, although Beirut angrily rejected an offer to murder the Emperor by over-zealous supporters, he withdrew to the mountain fortresses of Cyprus and readied them to withstand a siege. While this was clearly an act of defiance, it was not a act of treason. Beirut explicitly held the castles for young King Henry of Lusignan, a promise that may sound disingenuous but which later actions proved honest. His response was rather a proportionate response to the treachery of the Emperor, who had promised honors yet demanded bribes instead. Furthermore, his action which involved no violence, nevertheless check-mated the Emperor, who did not have the time (Sicily was under attack from his father-in-law and the pope) or resources for an all-out war.

The Emperor was forced to seek terms. In exchange for the return of the castles to royal officers, the Emperor promised to release the hostages. In addition, Beirut promised to take part in the Emperor's crusade, along with all his vassals, while the Emperor agreed, in writing 1) to take no action against Beirut or his supporters without the judgement of the appropriate court (i.e. the High Courts of Cyprus and Jerusalem respectively), and 2) to bear no malice for all that had passed between them in the preceding months.

The value of the Emperor's sworn and signed word was soon demonstrated when, as soon as he had Beirut and all his men on the mainland, he sent imperial mercenaries back to Cyprus to attack, harass and intimidate the wives and children of these very men now serving in his army. He entrusted one of his Sicilian noblemen, the Count of Cotron, with this task. The degree of their success can be measured by the fact that Beirut's his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Philip, was in sufficient fear for her life that she risked a winter crossing to Syria in a small craft with her young children and nearly drowned.

When the Emperor sailed away from the Holy Land in May 1228, he evidently believed he had succeeded in his objectives. He had obtained the nominal return of Jerusalem to Christian hands (and others would have to worry about the details of defending it), and he had worn the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, gaining a great propaganda victory in his struggle with the papacy. That he left behind outraged subjects (who expressed their feelings by throwing offal at him) apparently did not bother him in the least. He never returned to Jerusalem, nor did he send any of his sons to rule the kingdom in his name. Although he claimed the title and the revenues, he left the business of ruling to the lieutenants he appointed. In doing so, he made a major miscalculation: he treated John d'Ibelin as an irritant to be exterminated with the wave of the imperial hand.

On Cyprus, Frederick appointed five men joint "baillies" and ordered them to dispossess the Ibelins and their partisans of their lands and to further ensure that the neither the Lord of Beirut nor any of his sons, kinsmen or supporters ever set foot on the Island of Cyprus again. Note, there had never been a trial before the High Court of Cyprus to establish any wrong-doing on the part of Beirut. The latter had not been given a chance to defend himself before his peers. His sons and supporters were even more innocent of any crime. The emperor's actions were not only arbitrary, they were petty and vindictive.

The five baillies, furthermore, had been appointed in exchange for payment of 10,000 silver marks. They needed to raise that revenue. Evidently, expropriating properties of the Ibelins and their supporters did not promise sufficient revenue to pay that debt in full, because they set about raising taxes. The actions against the House of Ibelin and their supporters resulted in hundreds of women and children seeking refuge with the militant orders, particularly the Hospitallers, while the new taxes simply served to make the baillies unpopular with the rest of the Cypriot population.

From the Lord of Beirut's perspective the Emperor had now gone back on his word three times. First, at the banquet when he promised to honor his "beloved cousins and uncle." Second, during the crusade when, despite swearing to forgive all that had gone before, he attacked the women and children of Ibelin and his supporters while their men served in the Emperor's army, and third, by ordering the baillies to dispossess him and his followers without a judgement of the court, a condition that the Emperor had accepted in his signed agreement with Beirut from September 1228.

Beirut had had enough. He raised an army in Syria which included his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. With this small force, he forced a landing at Gastria, and then rode inland toward Nicosia. During this advance, he announced his intention only of securing the safety and control of the properties that had been illegally confiscated. He stated that he did not seek to secure restoration of his position as baillie of Cyprus. In short, he attempted to build a bridge to the Imperial baillies, offering them a compromise that would enable them to retain power, as long as they recognized that no confiscations could take place without a judgement of the High Court. The baillies chose not to accept his peace offer. They called up the Cypriot army and marched out to meet the Ibelins in battle.

On July 14, 1229 in a plowed field outside of Nicosia, the Ibelins routed the army of the five baillies. However, all five of the emperor's deputies escaped the field and took refuge in the royal castles at Kantara, Kyrenia, Buffavento and St. Hilarion. The Ibelins successfully besieged these castles, and one by one they fell to the Ibelins, the last being St. Hilarion shortly after Easter 1230.

Significantly, Beirut -- against the advice of his closest advisors -- granted amnesty to the five baillies. Equally significantly, the young King of Cyprus, who had been in the custody of the Emperor and, after his departure, the baillies, welcomed the Ibelins. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Henry of Lusignan favored the Ibelins. It is King Henry's staunch support for the Ibelins even after he was king, combined with the fact that he sought independence from the Holy Roman Emperor, that belie the suggestions Beirut was disloyal to his king.

In 1232, Emperor Frederick sent an army to Outremer under his marshal Richard Filangieri. The latter had the explicit mandate to re-establish Imperial authority -- and to confiscate all lands and titles from the Ibelins and expel them from both Cyprus and Syria. As before, no charges were brought against Beirut, certainly not with regards to his right to hold Beirut for which he held clear royal charters. Curiously, roughly a dozen other Syrian lords were also summarily dismissed by the Holy Roman Emperor at this time. As before, the Emperor felt entitled to act without a hearing or judgement by their peers. Again Beirut, and now a dozen other Syrian barons, was to be denied the right to defend themselves before a court. This was a blatant and crude violation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Beirut got wind of Filangieri's approach and rushed to Cyprus with all his men. On finding Ibelin troops in possession of the ports of Cyprus, Filangieri did not attempt a landing but sent envoys ashore to King Henry of Cyprus demanding that he banish from his kingdom the Lord of Beirut "and all his relatives." The King replied, he could do neither. First, he could not banish Beirut because he was his vassal and deserving of his support, and, second, he could not banish Beirut's relatives since he too was a kinsman of Beirut. (His mother was Beirut's niece.)

So Filangieri sailed away and laid siege to John d'Ibelin's power base: Beirut itself. Although the city surrendered quickly, the citadel held out. Beirut mustered all the support he could find, including making an appeal to King Henry. The young king (he was just 14 at this time) responded by calling up the entire feudal army of Cyprus and embarking with Beirut on a dangerous winter crossing to Syria.

Beirut’s initial efforts to lift the siege of Beirut failed, but he managed to slip some reinforcements into the citadel. He next tried to attract the support of the Prince of Antioch, but this also ended in failure. Next the Templars, who had initially supported him, turned against him on instructions from the pope, who was temporarily reconciled with the Hohenstaufen. Meanwhile, his sons suffered a major defeat at the hands of Imperial forces at Casal Imbert. Nevertheless, Beirut persisted and dramatically won over the commons at Acre and the Genoese to his cause. Imperial forces were at last forced to lift the siege of Beirut.

Meanwhile, King Henry had come of age, and he remained by Beirut's side. Together, they returned to Cyprus where, in their absence, Imperial forces had seized control of the capital, the ports and were laying siege to the Ibelin women and King Henry's sisters in the fortress of St. Hilarion.

In a full-scale battle, the Lord of Beirut routed the Imperialist army, forcing it to retreat to Kyrenia, and lifted the imperial siege of St. Hilarion. The re-capture of Cyprus took only days, and the population welcomed the return of their King and the Ibelins as liberators. Although the siege of Kyrenia dragged on, the surrender was inevitable and the Emperor never again attempted to impose his governors or will on Cyprus. Instead, in 1246 the Pope formally absolved Henry I of all oaths he had made to the Holy Roman Emperor, and Cyprus became a completely independent kingdom, no longer a part of the Empire.

The conflict now shifted entirely to Syria, where the Emperor's autocratic behavior, not least his repeated attempts to expel Beirut from his fief without cause or trial, had turned the majority of the barons and knights against the Emperor. As a result, over the next several years a series of legal arguments were developed to deny the Emperor and his heirs any basis of power in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, repeated attempts to mediate between the parties were made by the Teutonic Knights and the pope himself, among others. At one point, the Pope threatened the Lord of Beirut and the citizens of Acre, who were loyal to Beirut, with excommunication and interdict respectively -- only to rapidly back down when he learned the citizens of Acre were simply turning to Orthodox Christianity!

One of the more creative suggestions put forward by the Ibelins was that the Emperor should recall Filangieri and replace him instead with his kinsman Simon de Montfort. (Frederick had married Isabella Plantagenet, whose older sister was married to Montfort.) Notably, the Lord of Beirut, his sons and two of his nephews were consistently excluded from all the Emperor's promises of pardon, but the barons of Outremer just as steadfastly refused to make a peace without him.

In 1236, the Lord of Beirut died in consequence of a riding accident in Syria; he was 57 years old. It was left to his sons, under the leadership of his heir, Balian, to completely expel the Imperial forces from the Kingdom of Jerusalem by assaulting the Imperial bastion of Tyre. Tyre fell to the Ibelins in 1243. Richard of Filangieri was recalled by the Emperor in the wake of this disaster and imprisoned by the ever vindictive Emperor for his "failure." Apparently, it never occurred to Frederick that it was his own policies and intransigence that had lead to the utter defeat of his cause in both Cyprus and Syria.

The Emperor continued to illegally call himself "King of Jerusalem" (which he had not been since the death of his abused bride Yolanda in 1227) until the day he died, when he "bequeathed" the kingdom he did not legally hold and no longer controlled to a son with no rights to it whatsoever. His will was correspondingly ignored entirely in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

According to the account left by Beirut's loyal (and favorably biased) vassal Philip de Novare, Beirut "died well." Novare writes: "For his sins he made amends, and for many things he made amends which most men would not hold as sins; his debts he paid for he had at that day great belongings and property besides his fiefs, and all he gave for God and for his soul, by his own hand with good memory; many fiefs he gave his children, and commanded that they should be vassals of and hold from their oldest brother."(3) In short, his protracted struggle with the most powerful monarch on earth had been won so completely that he was not even impoverished at his death!

Looking back on his rebellion, what is most striking is that he could defy the Holy Roman Emperor -- and at times the Pope -- without seriously undermining his own popularity, the support and devotion of his sons, his brothers-in-law, nephews, vassals, the commons of Acre, and the majority of peers. Yes, Barlais and his co-regents on Cyprus fought Beirut bitterly. Yes, Balian de Sidon (one of his nephews) long tried to remain neutral in the conflict and mediate. Yet, it would have been far more normal for the bulk of the knights and barons to side with the "stronger" in any fight, and by an objective measure the Holy Roman Emperor was "the stronger."

Frederick Hohenstaufen had destroyed his Welf rival in Germany. He had eradicated the Saracen threat on Sicily and obliterated the last traces of independence among his Sicilian barons. He scattered the forces of the pope simply by landing in Sicily. How was it possible he was defeated by an obscure Syrian baron? Was it simply that he never devoted enough force and attention to a problem he considered an irritant rather than a threat to his grand vision of Emperor of Christendom? Or was the fundamental injustice of his cause the real reason for his defeat?

His war was a vindictive personal war against a vassal without ever a trace of evidence or an attempt to rely on rational argument. For an monarch usually held up by historians as the embodiment of reason in a age of alleged "bigotry" and "fanaticism," Frederick II's war against the Ibelins was a ugly and distasteful vendetta that historians prefer to sweep under the carpet.

As for John d'Ibelin, he 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 and so 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.

The historian John La Monte, 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 is one of the main characters in
The Last Crusader Kingdom. The story of the Ibelin's struggle with Frederick II is the subject of a new series, starting with Rebels against Tyranny.

1) Wilbrand, Bishop of Oldenburg, quoted in Peter Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Boydell, 1997.
2) La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 49.
3) Novare, Philip. Translated by La Monte, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 169.
* Edbury, Peter. John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Boydell Press, 1997, p. 56
** William of Oldenberg, cited in Edbury, p. 57.
*** "...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." La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 49.