When Sibylla was born in 1160, the Crusader state of Jerusalem was not a safe or stable place. Although the land had been claimed in the First Crusade, and was ruled over by her family, the Ayyubid Sultanate also had their eye on the heart of the Holy Land, and the crown only precariously rested on their head. Sibylla’s father was Amalric, Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, and brother of King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, but her mother, Agnes de Courtenay, had seen her family’s lands in the northernmost Crusader state of Edessa lost to the Saracens. When Baldwin III died without any heirs, the court of Jerusalem decreed that Amalric was the rightful heir to the throne, and he would be king – under one condition: he agree to annul his marriage with Agnes.
The official reasons given by the court for the annulment were that Amalric and Agnes were related, an unfortunate fact discovered after six years of marriage, however, it is likely the reasons were far more politically motivated. A landless woman from a powerful family would make a dangerous queen, and it is probable the court feared that the Courtenay clan would use her position to gain power in Jerusalem. There were also claims she had been married to another man before her husband, and so was a bigamist. Whatever the reasons, Amalric agreed to annul the marriage in order to claim the throne and rule the kingdom. Aged just three, Sibylla watched as her mother was banished from court with a single word; Agnes would not play a major part in her daughter’s life, she was landless, a political pawn, quickly married off. From her earliest memories Sibylla was thrust into a world where a woman’s voice, her opinions, her hopes and desires, bared no importance.
Sibylla was separated too. While her younger brother, Baldwin, remained at their father’s side in court to learn the art of being a king, she was sent to a convent in Bethany, just outside of the Holy City. There she was raised by the Princess-Abbess Yveta, her father’s aunt. It is likely that she rarely saw her father or brother. In the convent all her teaching focused on scripture and church traditions; she was taught little of ruling – after all, she was a girl and all the focus was on her brother. In these hallowed walls she grew, and although we can’t be certain what she looked like, she most likely inherited the famous characteristics of her family: long blonde hair, tall height and aquiline features. Sibylla blossomed into a beautiful princess, and it is likely that she was told of this beauty repeatedly.
In another world Sibylla would have led a quiet life, but by 1170, something had become clear. Her brother Baldwin – the only male heir of the family – was suffering from a disease we now know as leprosy. Not only did this put a limit on his life span, but it also meant that even if he reached adulthood it was unlikely he would produce any heirs. So, aged just ten, all the eyes in Jerusalem turned to Sibylla. Acquiring a husband for the girl had always been important, but now it would decide the fate of the kingdom. It was inevitable that one day Sibylla would be queen, and the man who married her would one day have to rule as her consort. Jerusalem needed to find a strong, suitable ruler; any mistake here would see the very ground crumble beneath their feet.
Less than a year later, a suitable match was found. Stephen of Sancerre was of high enough rank, he was from the illustrious House of Blois and his family had certainly proved themselves capable of running a complex nation – his sister was married to Louis VII, King of France. He came to Jerusalem to meet his bride, but then, unexpectedly, and rather publicly, rejected Sibylla. The reasons for this rejection are unlikely to be anything to do with Sibylla herself; it is difficult to imagine what the nobleman disliked about a pretty young girl living in a convent. Whether he was put off by the increasing military threat in Jerusalem, the almighty High Court, or even the food or weather, for a young girl who was told repeatedly how pretty she was and that her purpose was to marry a strong husband and birth children, the rejection was likely humiliating and devastating.
Meanwhile, time had ran out for Sibylla’s father. In 1174, when she was just 14, Amalric passed away. The throne and the kingdom fell to Baldwin, now crowned Baldwin IV. Aged just 13, and suffering from his leprosy, he was not the strong king Jerusalem wanted and needed. With a high chance of him dying at any point, it was now more important than ever that Sibylla be wed. This time the High Court got involved and a new spouse was quickly plucked for the princess.
In October 1176, William of Montferrat arrived in Jerusalem. Tall and handsome with a head of auburn hair, he made no delay in marrying the 16-year-old Sibylla. It is unlikely she was displeased with the match. He hadn’t rejected her for one, and he was a generous man, if a little hot tempered. It did not take long for Sibylla to fall pregnant, and it seemed that things were finally settling in for a stable future for her country. But disaster, it seemed, haunted Sibylla’s life; within eight months, with Sibylla still pregnant, William was dead. He had been claimed by a fast-acting illness, and aged 17, the princess was not only a mother, but also a widow.
With Sibylla’s son by William now set to be her immediate heir, she became a less appealing option for any ambitious young nobleman. In fact, before her son was even born and her husband still warm in his grave, one ambitious man attempted to use her for a different purpose. The Count of Flanders, who was a close kinsman of Sibylla, claimed it was his right to choose her husband. The names he put forward were all unknown noblemen who also coincidentally were his own vassals. His motive was clear: marry the heir of Jerusalem to his own man, thereby making him ruler of the nation without actually having to fight for it. The court immediately saw through his plan and Flanders returned to Europe empty handed. The court wanted her married, but they weren’t willing to sacrifice the kingdom to someone unworthy to do so.
Baldwin IV, acutely aware that his remaining time may be short, took efforts to involve Sibylla in his public appearances. Not only would this help ‘train’ her in the art of ruling, but also put out a clear message to any would-be bachelors of her availability. There are some accounts that hint this may have worked. Baldwin of Ibelin, Lord of Ramla and Mirabel, was one such local man who demonstrated interest in Sibylla. This possibility is backed up by the excessive ransom of 200,000 bezants put on his head when he was captured in 1179 by Saladin. Such an outrageous amount hints that he was destined for more than simple feudal lordship, and that instead, Saladin wished to bleed Jerusalem – his ultimate goal – dry. This is further supported by the fact that the Byzantine Emperor actually paid a high percentage of the amount, which suggests that he too believed Ramla would become King of Jerusalem shortly.
However, things were still looking grim for Sibylla. A hopeful potential match had been arranged by Baldwin IV with Hugh, Duke of Burgundy – a high-ranking nobleman well suited to serve as king. However, this quickly fell apart, with Burgundy claiming he couldn’t leave France at such perilous time. Whatever the reason, it is likely that this rejection stung even more than the last one. By now Sibylla was a 20-year-old widow who had experienced multiple rejections by some of the most respected men in Europe. It was in the Easter of 1180, with whispers of the Lord of Ramla’s intentions sweeping across the country, that Sibylla took a step that shocked everyone. She married again. Not to a European nobleman, or a descendant of kings, but to a landless, virtually unknown fourth son – Guy de Lusignan.
The reasons behind this union have baffled historians for generations. William of Tyre, the archbishop at the time, stated that Baldwin felt obliged to hasten his sister’s marriage with any available man as he feared invasion from Prince Bohemond of Antioch and the Count of Tripoli. However, this seems to be mere speculation that ignores the facts – both of these men were close relatives of Baldwin, and both of them he trusted greatly, as can be seen in the fact Baldwin chose one of them as his regent. If they had wanted to conquer his kingdom, it seems unlikely that Sibylla’s marriage to a man of little importance would have stopped them.
A far more likely story, which would have been difficult for many men of the period to understand, is that Sibylla was simply in love. She had suffered multiple humiliating rejections, she was a widow with a young child, and then Guy arrived in Jerusalem. He wasn’t a particularly prominent man, but he was young, handsome and most importantly, he wanted her. Where before she had been passed from ambitious man to ambitious man, Guy lavished her with gifts, wooed her and seemed to adore her, is it any wonder that the 20-year-old sheltered princess fell head over heels for the romantic stranger?
It is very unlikely Baldwin was happy about the union, but the king may have been persuaded by his sister’s desperate pleas and also the influence of his mother. Guy de Lusignan was, after all, a vassal of Henry II, and it is likely Agnes believed his marriage to Sibylla may win them influence over the only Western ruler in a position to help Jerusalem. But Baldwin’s decision to allow the marriage would haunt the remaining years of his life. Coming to his senses and quickly realising this man was not suitable to rule his kingdom, Baldwin did all within his power to force an annulment of the marriage. Had Sibylla been a tool in Baldwin’s ploy, she would have gladly accepted the annulment, but she was no puppet. Sibylla loved Guy; the marriage had been one of her own choosing and she wasn’t going to give it up willingly.
Guy was appointed Baldwin’s regent, but the two men did not see eye to eye. Baldwin did not think prolonged war with the Ayyubids would be sustainable, and he sought peace with Saladin. Guy, however, appeared to differ in opinion, and Baldwin fired his brother-in-law from the position in 1183. Although Sibylla and Guy had two daughters together at this time, Baldwin was so doubtful of Guy’s ability to rule that he crowned Sibylla’s son as co-king – this would take Sibylla and, by association, Guy out of the line of succession.
This was all Baldwin could do to try and protect his kingdom, and in 1185, the leper king was finally claimed by the illness that plagued his rule. His death caused a division in the nation between those loyal to Sibylla and those who had sworn loyalty to her son. However, this conflict did not last long, as in late 1186, Sibylla’s son, Baldwin V, always a sickly child, died. In truth, only one option remained – Sibylla was to be queen.
There was one problem with this. Baldwin’s mistrust in his sister’s husband had spread among the high court. Almost every member doubted Guy’s abilities and did not wish to see him crowned as king. Even those who were ardent supporters of Sibylla gave her a condition – she would be queen, if she annulled her marriage with Guy. Sibylla accepted with one of her own conditions – she be free to choose her next husband as queen. Desperate to be rid of Guy, and to maintain order in Jerusalem with Saladin’s troops growing ever stronger, the court agreed.
When Sibylla was crowned as queen, the patriarch said to her: “Lady, you are a woman; it is fitting that you have a man by you who can help you govern your Kingdom. You see that crown…take it and give it to such a man as can govern.” Sibylla took the crown, then called to a man: “Sire, come up and receive this crown, for I do not know where better I can bestow it.” And as he knelt before her, she placed the crown on his head. The shock in the room must have been astounding, as the man Sibylla had called was none other than Guy, her husband.
Some could argue this action was admirable. Rather than being forced into a loveless marriage, Sibylla followed her heart in a world very unaccustomed to doing that. She had nerves of steel to rebel against the High Court, and her loyalty was unmatched. However, Sibylla’s decision was unwise, and many more would argue the actions of an unintelligent, love-struck woman. Guy was hated in Jerusalem, and by aligning with him she risked upsetting and alienating the entire nobility. This was a very dangerous action for the new leader of a country that was barely clinging to power and land as it was.
Sibylla’s immediate concern was likely not the nobles, but Saladin’s troops marching on the city. Guy mustered together the fighting strength of the kingdom, but as his critics feared, he was not born to rule, neither nations nor armies. At the Battle of Hattin, thousands of Crusaders were killed, with Guy being taken prisoner. Meanwhile, Sibylla prepared for the defence of the city. However, the lack of defenders due to the losses at Hattin meant the outcome was inevitable – Jerusalem fell to the Ayyubids and Sibylla was forced to escape with her daughters to the County of Tripoli.
Saladin, unlike Guy, was a very capable and cunning ruler. He realised that by keeping Guy prisoner he was actually aiding the Crusader cause. So in 1188, he released Guy, aware he was much less able than those currently leading Crusader armies. Guy was reunited with Sibylla and together they marched on Tyre, the only city in their kingdom that had not yet fallen. However, they were denied entry. Conrad of Montferrat, leading the city’s defences, refused to acknowledge Guy’s right to rule, using Baldwin IV’s will as evidence. Guy and Sibylla were truly alone, with no land to rule and no friends.
The royal couple remained outside the castle walls for about a month, and when men from the Third Crusade finally arrived, Guy led a vanguard against the city of Acre, currently held by the Ayyubids. Guy had ambitions to make Acre the new seat of his kingdom and Sibylla joined him. The Crusaders surrounded the city, but Saladin’s forces then surrounded them in turn, cutting them off from any supplies except those by sea. In this siege, the conditions quickly worsened – supplies were low and disease was rife. A deadly epidemic swept through the Crusader forces and even Sibylla was not immune. It was here, in the war-torn besieged town, that Sibylla passed away, just 30 years old, and only a few days after her daughters lost their lives to the same illness.
Guy survived the epidemic and refused to give up his crown for another two years, despite Sibylla’s half sister and her husband claiming the kingship. The conflict surrounding the two opposing kings waged, until eventually it was decided by a vote from the barons of the kingdom. It was of no great surprise that Guy was defeated unanimously. He had, after all, been responsible for the loss of roughly 17,000 soldiers, one of the most crushing defeats suffered thus far, and even the fall of the kingdom itself. The history books are quick to point fingers at Guy’s incompetence, but Sibylla too must shoulder some of the blame – love blinded her and took over the senses required of a queen. She let stubbornness and her own interests rule over the wellbeing of her nation, and she paid for it with her kingdom and her life.
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- B Hamilton, The Leper King and his Heirs: Baldwin IV and
- The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Cambridge University Press, 2000
- William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. by EA Babcock and AC Krey, Columbia University Press, 1943
- C Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Penguin, 2007
- Various Sources, The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade, trans. Peter W Edbury, Routledge, 1998