Sibylla (French: “Sibylle”, c. 1160–1190) was the Countess of Jaffa and Ascalon from 1176 and Queen of Jerusalem from 1186 to 1190. She was the eldest daughter of Amalric I of Jerusalem and Agnes of Courtenay, sister of Baldwin IV and half-sister of Isabella I of Jerusalem, and mother of Baldwin V of Jerusalem. Her grandmother Melisende had provided an example of successful rule by a queen regnant earlier in the century.
She was born into the Frankish noble family of the House of Anjou (descending from Ingelger). Sibylla was raised by her great-aunt, the Abbess Ioveta of Bethany, sister of former Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, who founded the convent of St. Lazarus in Bethany for her sister in 1128, and died there in 1163. In the convent Sibylla was taught scripture and other church traditions.
In 1174, her father sent Frederick de la Roche, archbishop of Tyre, on a diplomatic legation to Europe to drum up support (martial and financial) for the Crusader states, and to arrange a suitable marriage for Sibylla. As her only brother Baldwin suffered from an illness later confirmed as leprosy, Sibylla’s marriage was of paramount concern. Frederick convinced Stephen I of Sancerre, a well-connected young nobleman, to come east and marry the princess. Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, however, Stephen changed his mind (the reason is not known) and he returned to France.
Baldwin IV’s reign
On their father Amalric’s death, Baldwin IV became king in 1174. First Miles of Plancy, then Raymond III of Tripoli became regent during his minority (although Miles was never regent in title, merely function). In 1176, Baldwin and Raymond arranged for Sibylla to marry William Longsword of Montferrat, eldest son of the Marquess William V of Montferrat and his wife Judith or Ita von Babenberg, and a cousin of Louis VII of France and of Frederick Barbarossa. Sibylla was created Countess of Jaffa and Ascalon (previously held by her mother Agnes), the title increasingly associated with the heir to the throne. In autumn they were married. William died by June the following year, leaving Sibylla pregnant. In the tradition of the dynasty, Sibylla named her son Baldwin.
The widowed princess remained a prize for ambitious nobles and adventurers seeking to advance themselves and take control of Jerusalem. Philip of Flanders, a first cousin of Sibylla (his mother, Sibylla of Anjou, was her father’s half-sister), arrived in 1177 and demanded to have the princess married to one of his own vassals. By marrying Sibylla to his vassal, Philip could control the kingship of Jerusalem. The Haute Cour of Jerusalem, led by Baldwin of Ibelin, rebuffed Philip’s advances. Affronted, Philip left Jerusalem to campaign in Antioch.
Sibylla did not remarry until 1180. For a long time, popular narrative histories favoured an account from the 13th century, Old French Continuation of William Tyre, partly attributed to Ernoul, and associated with the Ibelin family. It claims that Sibylla was in love with Baldwin of Ibelin, a widower over twice her age, but he was captured and imprisoned in 1179 by Saladin. She wrote to Baldwin, suggesting they wed when he was released. Saladin demanded a large ransom: Baldwin himself could not pay the ransom, but was released with the promise to pay Saladin later. Once free, Baldwin went to the Byzantine court, where he received a grant from Emperor Manuel, the emperor previously receiving confirmation from his niece, Maria Comnena, the dowager queen, of the likelihood of the Sibylla-Baldwin match. However, Agnes of Courtenay advised her son to have Sibylla married to the newly arrived Frankish knight Guy of Lusignan, brother of her personal constable, Amalric of Lusignan, who Ernoul claims was her lover. By this — so this narrative alleges — Agnes hoped to foil any attempt by Raymond III of Tripoli (the former regent) from marrying her daughter into the rival court faction, led by the Ibelins. It claims that Baldwin of Ibelin was still in Constantinople and unable to wed Sibylla. With pressure mounting to have the Heir Presumptive wed, the marriage was hastily arranged, and Sibylla — whom the author depicts as fickle — easily transferred her affections to the younger man. This account strongly favours the Ibelins, and shows influence from romance.
However, this is not supported by the more contemporaneous and less fanciful accounts of William of Tyre and others. A plan to marry Sibylla to Hugh III of Burgundy had broken down. At Easter 1180, Raymond of Tripoli and Bohemund III of Antioch entered the kingdom in force, with the intent of imposing a husband of their own choice, probably Baldwin of Ibelin, on Sibylla. However, a foreign match was essential to the kingdom, bringing the possibility of external military aid. Baldwin IV himself arranged the marriage to Guy, whose brother Amalric, well-regarded and able, had first come to court as Baldwin of Ibelin’s son-in-law and was now constable of Jerusalem. With the new French king Philip II a minor, Guy’s status as a vassal of the King and Sibylla’s first cousin Henry II of England – who owed the Pope a penitential pilgrimage — was useful in terms of offering a source of external help. Baldwin of Ibelin was in Jerusalem at the time of Sibylla’s marriage, and did not go to Constantinople until later in the year — contradicting the claims in the Old French Continuation. Also in 1180, Baldwin IV further curtailed the ambitions of the Ibelins by betrothing the eight-year-old Isabella to Humphrey IV of Toron, removing her from the control of her mother and the Ibelins, and placing her in the hands of her betrothed’s family – Raynald of Châtillon and his wife Stephanie of Milly.
Sibylla bore Guy two daughters, Alice and Maria (their years of birth are unknown). Initially Baldwin IV vested much authority in Guy, appointing him his regent during times of his own incapacitation. But within a year the king was offended and enraged by Guy’s behaviour as regent. Guy overlooked Raynald of Châtillon’s harassment of trade caravans between Egypt and Syria, threatening the stop-gap accord between Jerusalem and Egypt. Baldwin IV deposed Guy as regent in 1183 and had Sibylla’s son crowned as co-king as Baldwin V, thereby passing over her and Guy in the succession. He also attempted to have Sibylla’s marriage annulled throughout 1184. Her son was to succeed with Raymond III of Tripoli as regent. If Baldwin V were to expire during his minority, his “most rightful heirs” would succeed to the regency until his maternal kinsman the King of England and paternal kinsmen the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope should adjudicate between the claims of Sibylla and Isabella. Though her husband was in disgrace for his behaviour as regent, it does not seem that Sibylla herself was held in disfavour.
Throughout these internal political conflicts, an even greater external threat was on the horizon: Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, who was steadily building up his power-base in preparation for invasion. Meanwhile, Agnes died in Acre, sometime in 1184.
Baldwin V and the succession
Baldwin IV died in spring 1185, leaving Sibylla’s son as sole king, Raymond as regent and the boy’s great-uncle Count Joscelin III of Edessa as guardian. Baldwin V’s grandfather, Marquess William V of Montferrat, had also now arrived in the kingdom to give his support. However, the young king, never a healthy child, died in Acre in the summer of 1186. Neither Sibylla’s nor Isabella’s party seems to have been prepared to accept the terms of Baldwin IV’s will, to install a regent and wait for a decision by Baldwin V’s relatives in England, France and Germany.
Baldwin V died at Acre in the autumn of 1186, his solo reign lasting just over a year. Joscelin and the Marquess William escorted the king’s coffin to Jerusalem. Sibylla attended her son’s funeral, arranged by Joscelin. For security an armed escort garrisoned Jerusalem. Raymond III, who wanted to protect his own influence and his political allies, the dowager queen Maria Comnena and the Ibelins, went to Nablus — Maria and Balian’s home — where he summoned those members of the Haute Cour who supported Isabella. Meanwhile, Sibylla was crowned queen by Patriarch Eraclius. Raynald of Châtillon gained popular support for Sibylla by affirming that she was “li plus apareissanz et plus dreis heis dou roiaume” (“the most evident and rightful heir of the kingdom”). Sibylla’s detractors resurrected the claim that Sibylla was illegitimate and intended to hold a rival coronation for Isabella. However, in 1163 the Latin Church of Jerusalem had ruled Sibylla was a legal heir and successor to her father. Either way, Sibylla’s claim held strong as the Haute Cour negotiated to recognize her as queen. Sibylla’s position was further strengthened when Isabella’s husband, Humphrey IV of Toron, Raynald of Châtillon’s stepson, left Nablus to swear fealty to Sibylla and Guy.
Sibylla was crowned alone, as sole Queen. Before her crowning Sibylla agreed with oppositional court members that she would annul her own marriage to please them, as long as she would be given free rein to choose her next husband. (This followed the precedent of her own parents.) The leaders of the Haute Cour agreed, and Sibylla was crowned forthwith. To their astonishment, Sibylla immediately announced that she chose Guy as her husband, and crowned him.
Of Queen Sibylla’s right to rule, Bernard Hamilton wrote “there is no real doubt, following the precedent of Melisende, that Sibylla, as the elder daughter of King Amalric, had the best claim to the throne; equally, there could be no doubt after the ceremony that Guy only held the crown matrimonial.”
Sibylla had shown great cunning and political prowess in her dealings with the members of the opposition faction. She had some support from her maternal relations, the Courtenay family (the former dynasty of the County of Edessa) and their allies and vassals, while her rivals were led by Raymond of Tripoli, who had a claim to the throne in his own right, the Ibelin family and the dowager queen in Nablus on behalf of Isabella.
Queen Sibylla’s chief concern was to check the progress of Saladin’s armies as they advanced into the kingdom. Guy and Raymond were dispatched to the front with the entire fighting strength of the kingdom, but their inability to cooperate was fatal, and Saladin routed them at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187. Guy was among the prisoners. The dowager queen joined her stepdaughter in Jerusalem as Saladin’s army advanced. By September 1187, Saladin was besieging the Holy City, and Sibylla personally led the defence, along with Patriarch Eraclius and Balian of Ibelin, who had survived Hattin. Jerusalem capitulated on October 2, and Sibylla was permitted to escape to Tripoli with her daughters.
Guy was released from his imprisonment in Damascus in 1188, when Saladin realized that returning him would cause strife in the crusader camp and that Guy was a less capable leader than certain others who now held sway. The queen joined him when they marched on Tyre in 1189, the only city in the kingdom that had not fallen. Conrad of Montferrat, brother of Sibylla’s first husband William, had taken charge of the city’s defences. However, he denied them entrance, refusing to recognise Guy’s claim to the remnant of the kingdom, and asserting his own claim to hold it until the arrival of the kings from Europe (in accordance with Baldwin IV’s will). After about a month spent outside the city’s walls, the queen followed Guy when he led a vanguard of the newly arrived Third Crusade against Muslim-held Acre, desiring to make that town the seat of the kingdom. Guy besieged the town for two years (see Siege of Acre).
There, during the stalemate in July or August, possibly July 25, 1190, Sibylla died in an epidemic which was sweeping through the military camp. Her two young daughters had also died some days earlier. (Acre was afterwards conquered in July 1191, mostly by troops brought by Philip II of France and Richard I of England).
Bernard Hamilton wrote “had Sibylla lived in more peaceful times she would have exercised a great deal of power since her husband’s authority patently derived from her”, and that only the conquest by Saladin brought her rule to a speedy end. Her legal successor was her half-sister Isabella, who was forced to end her marriage to Humphrey of Toron and instead to marry Conrad, but Guy refused to relinquish his crown until an election in 1192.
Sibylla has appeared in several novels, notably Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’s Król trędowaty (The Leper King), Graham Shelby’s The Knights of Dark Renown, and Cecelia Holland’s Jerusalem. Holland makes her the heroine of her novel, but ignores her known devotion to Guy to invent a doomed romance for her with a Templar Knight.
A fictionalized version of Sibylla is played by Eva Green in the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven. In this, she is depicted as unhappily married, and has an affair with an equally fictionalized version of Balian of Ibelin. In the movie, she does not want Guy to take the throne and participates in a failed plot for his murder. In the Director’s Cut, it is suggested that she poisons her son, Baldwin V, to spare him from suffering from leprosy. Instead of rejoining her husband after his release, she leaves for France with Balian.