John of Brienne

John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Emperor of Constantinople, c. 1175 – 1237”, by Guy Perry, ISBN 978-1-107-04310-7, (2013), 221 pages.

Recently, I came across a brief reference to this interesting-sounding historical character. The capsule of his life sounded like a plot Sir Walter Scott would have discarded as too improbable – an ordinary French knight who rose to become King of Jerusalem, leader of the Fifth Crusade, and finally Emperor of Constantinople. Now there should be a tale to brighten a dark winter evening!

I went looking for a book, but there is a caution – Dr. Perry is a sober English academic, not a creative Scottish author of swashbuckling tales. Nevertheless, Dr. Perry has laid out a complex fascinating history. Reality was not as glamorous as the capsule summary might suggest. The author does his best to lead the reader through intricacies of families & politics which rival those of today’s Washington D.C. Swamp.

As an aside, Dr. Perry’s book would be anathema to a modern feminist. Rather than Medieval women being pitiful creatures held down by an oppressive patriarchy, capable women in John’s world were key individuals, inheriting dukedoms & kingdoms and exercising great power. Further, the book also illustrates that chastity for women in those days was not simply an imposition of patriarchal chivalry. Before those dreadful white men developed effective birth control methods and proper medical treatment for pregnancies, having sex was – for the woman – rather close to playing Russian roulette. Both John’s first wife and his daughter died from complications of childbirth.

The much-footnoted story Perry builds from the limited available sources is that John was a younger son of a minor noble family in the Champagne region of northwest France. He was probably sent off as a child to a monastery, destined for the priesthood. But as he grew up unusually tall & strong, knights visiting the monastery recognized his potential. He may have become quite well known through superior performance in jousting tournaments. When his eldest brother left Champagne to fight in Italy, John became the regent for the family estates, bringing him to the attention of his feudal superior, the powerful Countess Blanche of Champagne.

The so-called Kingdom of Jerusalem in those days was merely a threatened narrow strip of land along the eastern Mediterranean, not even including Jerusalem itself. The heiress to the kingdom was the young Queen Maria. Jerusalemites appealed to the West to send them someone to become her king-consort – preferably someone rich with a large army at his back. In the absence of any such volunteers and through machinations of Countess Blanche, John became the next best thing.

He arrived in the Kingdom in 1210 at about age 35 with a small force of knights, married Queen Maria, and became the Zelensky of his day – perpetually begging the Pope, the King of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and anyone else for money & weapons & manpower. The sources commend John for his personal bravery and individual fighting prowess, but with only limited resources at his command, his minor crusade against the threatening Saracens in 1210-1211 was rather ineffectual. However, that experience made him the obvious choice to lead the Pope’s much larger Fifth Crusade in 1218-1221.

John boldly led the Fifth Crusade on an invasion of Egypt, the home territory of the Saracens. Sultan al-Kamil of the Ayyubid dynasty quickly offered a peace treaty which would have restored the Kingdom’s lands lost since the First Crusade, including the city of Jerusalem itself. John recommended accepting this deal, but the European knights who had joined the Fifth Crusade were as interested in seizing booty as in serving God. Strangely egged on by the Pope’s emissary Pelagius, the knights rejected the proffered treaty, carried on with the attack, and were eventually driven out of Egypt in defeat.

Following the Fifth Crusade, John left for Europe in 1222, trying as Regent to drum up more support for the failing Kingdom, and never returned. While in Europe for the next decade, he initially established good relations with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, culminating in his marrying John’s young daughter, now Queen of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Thus Frederick replaced John as regent & king-consort. But relations between John & the Emperor soured after that marriage, and John’s daughter died soon thereafter in childbirth.

However, John retained good relations with the Pope, fighting for him in the “War of the Keys” in Italy. In 1231 after much haggling, the Pope arranged for John at about age 55 to take the place of the deceased Emperor of Constantinople – perhaps analogous to the way that a modern ousted CEO will often find his way to another CEO gig.

Unfortunately, the situation at Constantinople was even more tenuous than in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The “empire” consisted of little more than the city of Constantinople itself, beset on all sides by powerful enemies. Until his death in 1237 in his early 60s, John bravely led his limited forces in holding off those enemies, but lack of resources prevented him from making any real improvements to Constantinople’s dire situation.

The overall observation from this history is that technology changes but human behavior does not. John’s uphill struggle through the vicissitudes of Medieval life seems in many ways all too modern.