John of Brienne

John of Brienne was born in about 1170 CE. He was the youngest son of a minor noble, Count Erard II of Brienne. As a youngest son, he would have been left without inheritance of property, on account of primogeniture, meaning that only the eldest son inherits property from his father.

Like many who were motivated to join the Crusades, John might have thought he could improve his lot and gain land, nobility and fame in the Holy Land. John participated in  the Second and Third Crusades. The outlines of his early life are not well known, but he may have first joined a monastery, and later left the monastery to become a tournament knight. After 1200, his loyalty to the counts of Champagne (in today’s France)  brought him ownership of  land. His brother Walter III of Brienne died in 1205, and he became regent, or temporary custodian, of his son’s brother Walter IV until he became an adult.  

John’s fortunes changed with the support of Pope Innocentt III and King Philip Augustus, who ruled from 1180 to 1223—the first to call himself King of France. With the Pope’s and King’s support and funding, John of Brienne married Queen Marie of Jersualem in 1210, as regent to their daughter Yolanda/Isabella. His domain included the port cities of Tyre and Acre, but Jerusalem had been lost to the Crusaders in 1187, with the defeat by Salahuddin (Saladin). Queen Marie died in 1212, which left his kingship insecure against competing nobles. In further efforts to secure his power and territory, he married the daughter of Leo I of Cilicia (in Armenia) in 1214, and received a large amount of money through this marriage, which gave him a son and heir.

As King of Jerusalem, John joined the Fifth Crusade in 1218 as a military leader. He struggled with Papal Legate Cardinal Pelagius over strategy. When Al-Malik al-Kamil offered a treaty that would return the city of Jerusalem and pay tribute to the king, John was of course in favor. Pelagius dreamt of a wider victory over Egypt. They quarreled over whether the occupied city of Damietta should belong to the Church or to the territory of Jerusalem. Pelagius had the authority to reject al-Kamil’s offer. John left Egypt in 1219 the midst of the campaign, in order to take possession of Cilicia by marriage, but John’s new wife and son both died in 1219. John returned to Egypt in 1221, in time to witness the defeat of the Fifth Crusade. He had enjoyed the support of the military nobles when he arrived, but their allegiance weakened after he left. His military advice was overruled and the Crusaders were overcome by the Nile flood, hunger, and disease, and were forced to surrender. He and Pelagius were taken hostage to secure the agreement that the Crusaders would leave Egypt.

After the Fifth Crusade, John continued to try to shore up his fortunes in Europe by making alliances with Latin kings of Europe, traveling as King of Jerusalem and seeking donations for his realm. In 1224, he made another royal marriage to the sister of Ferdinand III of Castile (Spain). John became involved with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II by marrying his daughter to him in hopes of further securing his continued role as regent of Jerusalem. The Pope supported this marriage to encourage Frederick II to embark on a further Crusade. Frederick II took control of the realm, however, which still did not include Jerusalem (it would later be returned through a treaty with Al-Malik al-Kamil). John lost power in the Holy Land, but because of Frederick II’s tension with the papacy, Pope Honorius III continued to recognize John’s claim to Jerusalem. Competition between Frederick II and John led him to attempt the overthrow of the Emperor’s lands in Sicily with the Pope’s support. This campaign failed, but in 1228, John was named regent of Constantinople for the infant Baldwin II. John became Emperor of Constantinople in 1231, but lacked the money and soldiers to defend or expand the territory of Latin rule over former Byzantine territory. He campaigned to secure the Latin empire until his death in 1237. Before his death, he took vows to enter the order of the Franciscans, and was the first royal leader to join the order.

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