John de Brienne, the Man who would be King and Emperor

Posted August 24, 2017 4:30 pm by Abigail Turner under Guest blogs History Volunteering

by Matthieu Isbell

Matthieu Isbell is an undergraduate student of Ancient and Medieval History and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, entering his final academic year. He has an especial interest in the Crusades. He has been volunteering at the Museum of the Order St John over the summer, researching and writing about kings of Latin Jerusalem.

Illuminated Manuscript depicting the coronation of John de Brienne as King of Jerusalem.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

John was the fourth son of Count Erard II of Brienne, a participant in the Second and Third Crusades.[1] Though we do not know his specific date of birth, we can infer he was the youngest child on account of his omission from the earliest reference to Erard’s other sons in a charter dating back to 1177 (the charter itself describes them as “liberis”, “children”).[2] In fact, John’s early years are relatively obscure, with our earliest reference to him by name being from a charter in 1192.[3] Various stories about John pervaded his historiography, with one in particular saying he initially entered monastic life, only to be taken away to become a landless tournament knight nicknamed “Lackland”, though the veracity of such an account has been questioned.[4] What is understood however is that by the beginning of the thirteenth century John came to own some lands in fealty to the counts of Champagne, and when his brother Walter III died while on campaign in southern Italy in 1205 he became the count regent of Brienne in place of his nephew Walter IV until he attained the age of majority in the 1220s.[5]

Portrait of John de Brienne, by Francois-Edouard Picot, 1845
MV 393. © RMN-GP (Château de Versailles) / © Franck Raux

John de Brienne rose to higher prominence in September 1210 when he, with extensive financial backing from Innocent III and Philip Augustus, married Queen Marie of Jersualem, being crowned king of Jerusalem in October, and becoming regent to their daughter Yolanda/Isabella.[6] Colbert-Fontainebleau added that John was selected as a candidate by Philip because the Briennes had shamed his relative Pierre de Courtenay, while another story related that the countess dowager Blanche of Champagne loved him and so Philip, who loved her, sought to get rid of him.[7]

John took over a kingdom occupying a largely coastal territory which did not include the city of Jerusalem, with its central cities instead being Tyre and Acre;[8] the kingdom was additionally recorded by historians as being in a continuously poor state under John.[9] His reign began in 1211 with minor raids against the Ayyubids in the Levant and the Nile Delta.[10] He needed to secure his kingship, following Marie’s passing in 1212, against Jerusalemite nobles such as John of Ibelin, the regent preceding de Brienne, an issue resolved partly by explicit recognition of his kingship by Innocent III.[11] His reign also appears to have seen growing tensions between him and King Hugh of Cyprus, as both supported opposing sides of a succession conflict over Antioch, and both harboured each other’s political rivals.[12] He may also have aided his cousin Erard de Ramerupt in a succession conflict in Champagne against the countess Blanche by allowing the former’s marriage to an heiress of the county of Champagne who was of the Jerusalemite royal family which he married into.[13]

John also became a claimant to the throne of Cilicia in 1214 by marrying the eldest daughter of Leo I and fathering a son, mending relations with the Armenians whom he opposed in Antioch and also accruing a significant dowry to alleviate his financial complications.[14] As the king of Jerusalem, John was one of the leading nobles in the Fifth Crusade from 1218 to 1221, a campaign he encouraged Pope Innocent III to call for in 1213 during a truce with the Ayyubids.[15]

Capture of Damietta, by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, c.1625.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The expedition involved an invasion of Egypt travelling up the Nile, but it was in part hindered by John de Brienne’s repeated struggles with the papal legate Pelagius of Albano for preeminence in the crusade’s leadership, and both men came to conflict on the army’s course of action, delaying the army’s progress.[16] When al-Kamil offered to return the city of Jerusalem and pay tribute for Ayyubid forts in Palestine in exchange for the crusaders’ withdrawal from Egypt, John favoured the terms while Pelagius rejected them.[17] When Damietta was captured, John wanted to secure the city as part of his realm while Pelagius wanted it to go to the Church.[18] John even appears to have tried to solidify his claim to Damietta through numismatics, as seen by certain coins from his reign bearing the inscription “DAMIATA” on the reverse around an image of the king.[19]

Coin of John de Brienne, 1210–1225. LDOSJ JE50

John further compromised the expedition by leaving Egypt in 1219 to make good his claim to Cilicia, a claim which died with his wife and son in the same year.[20] However, he did not return to the campaign until 1221, hampering the army’s ability to advance because according to Oliver of Paderborn the other nobles saw him as the only one who could lead them.[21] However, he may have remained to secure his holdings in the Levant, threatened by al-Mu’azzam’s raids in the region, thus diverting John’s attention away from the campaign in the Nile.[22] When it was decided that the crusaders should march south to Cairo, he joined in that fatal peregrination, returning just when the crusaders were prepared to move.[23] He advised caution in the advance but it seems that his absence from Damietta caused him to lose influence within the army compared to Pelagius.[24] During the march he advised the adoption of more defensive strategies by the crusaders such as taking shelter in a nearby settlement, though his advice was unheeded by the army.[25] The consequence of this was that as the army marched in the river valley in August, it exposed itself to the annual Nile flooding, exacerbated by the Ayyubids breaking sluices and opening floodgates.[26] Ultimately, surrounded and worn down by a combined Ayyubid force, and running low on supplies, the crusaders surrendered. With that defeat, John de Brienne became one of the Ayyubids’ hostages, though he was purportedly entertained by his captors.[27] The Fifth Crusade thus failed.

After the expedition, John travelled extensively in Western Europe, searching for means to secure his realm and improving his relations with various monarchs of Latin Christendom, being the first king of Jerusalem to personally visit the Latin West.[28] He attended the court of Philip Augustus as well as his successor Louis VIII’s coronation, having gained beforehand a substantial monetary donation by Philip for the consolidation of the Jerusalemite realm.[29] In 1223 for a short time John visited England, and, despite being closely connected to their Capetian rivals, was purportedly well received, likely because said connections would allow him to dissuade the Capetians from invading English Poitou, since in correspondence with the pope Louis VIII reported John’s desire for England and France to avoid conflict.[30] The brevity of his stay in England however could be on account of the fact that he did not trust the English, as William of Andres writes.[31]

In 1224 John married Berengaria, sister to Ferdinand III of Castile, while on pilgrimage to Compostela.[32] This helped to tie John more closely to the Capetian family, seeing as Berengaria was sister to the French queen Blanche of Castile.[33] According to one account John had initially intended to marry one of the daughters of King Alfonso IX, Ferdinand’s father, which would have given him a claim to the throne of Leon.[34] Although such behaviour would not be unexpected of John or even his family, seeing as his brother Walter tried to claim Sicily by marriage, it is probable John had already planned his marriage to the Castilian princess at Toledo before he reached Leon.[35]

In searching Western Europe for means of strengthening his rule in Jerusalem, however, John suffered another humiliation by the loss of his position. He married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, with the intent of establishing a marital alliance that would see strong military support for his kingdom while allowing him to remain regent.[36] This arrangement was endorsed equally by the papacy because it gave Frederick II a reason to honour his crusading vows. However, immediately following Frederick and Isabella’s marriage in the summer of 1225 the Holy Roman Emperor rapidly denied John’s authority and set out to take over the kingdom, additionally appropriating the funds given to John by the late king Philip Augustus for the support of Jerusalem.[37] To add insult to injury, the Jerusalemite noblesse readily accepted Frederick, even people close to John like the bailli he appointed, Odo of Montbeliard.[38] This could be explained by the fact that Frederick was the more qualified ruler, by virtue of his marriage to the queen. The time during and after Frederick’s marriage to Isabella was characterised by a deeply inimical relationship between de Brienne and the Hohenstaufen emperor. Stories accounting for such enmity had varied from Frederick fearing that John and Walter IV of Brienne were having designs on his Sicilian holdings, to John threatening Frederick for seducing his niece.[39]

The graceless nature of Frederick’s takeover engendered tensions between the emperor and the papacy, the latter of which under Honorius III explicitly continued recognising John as the true ruler of Jerusalem in correspondences with the emperor by refusing to address Frederick as king of Jerusalem.[40] John, for his part, saw to the undermining of Frederick’s authority in Italy from 1226 onwards. The anti-Hohenstaufen Lombard League saw him as a useful ally because of his connections to the pope that might garner the papacy’s sympathy for them.[41] Honorius III made John rector of the papal states’ Tuscan holdings from Perugia to Stroncone, either because he was a famed soldier who could secure such lands, or to compensate John for the loss of his kingdom, or to keep him away from northern Italy because he was diverting Frederick’s attention from his crusade.[42] John saw another opportunity to avenge himself against Frederick in 1227 when Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick and prepared to seize his Sicilian holdings resulting in the War of the Keys.[43] The papacy compiled a force intended to overthrow the western emperor (who in 1228–9 returned to crusade though such failed to redeem him), one led by John, who had significant military experience and had every reason to try and ruin Frederick, with the possibility of him gaining new lands for himself from the same kingdom his brother Walter III tried to acquire.[44] However, the early success of the papal forces were counteracted by Frederick’s immediate return from the completed crusade, with John withdrawing as well as leaving his offices in Central Italy to gather men and resources for another realm in the east.

In 1228–9 he successfully negotiated to become regent of Constantinople for Baldwin II, a position he temporarily withdrew from the War of the Keys to secure, winning this position from the Bulgar ruler John Asen.[45] Not only did he gain the regency but he also managed to gain the emperorship, ensuring he could never lose his position by Baldwin coming of age, instead Baldwin being made to submit to John as ruler until the latter died.[46] John was crowned emperor in 1231, while Baldwin married John’s daughter.[47] As for the sons Berengaria bore John, they would be given lands not currently owned by the Latin empire of Constantinople, though they ultimately were entrusted to the care of Louis IX by their father on account of their great-aunt Blanche of Castile being Louis’ mother, gaining crown offices under the Capetians, one son’s family even took over the county of Eu.[48] John de Brienne becoming the Latin emperor likely also allowed for the papacy’s eventual recognition of Frederick as king of Jerusalem because the emperorship might have been a suitable replacement for the kingship John had lost.

As emperor he came into repeated conflict with the neighbouring Bulgarian and Nicene empires. Part of the reason he was selected as the Latin emperor was because of the necessity of an emperor able to check the threat posed by John III Vatatzes of Nicaea and expand the Latin empire.[49] However, a significant problem John faced in being able to do so was finance. At the time John was ruling an empire that occupied little territory of its own, thus generating insufficient income for an army; even in the city of Constantinople monetary exemptions were made to the Church, the Venetians and several other city quarters so that not all the revenue generated therein came into his possession.[50] Four contemporaneous friars described the situation as follows:

The land of Constantinople was as if devoid of all protection. The lord emperor John was a pauper. All the paid knights had departed. The ships of the Venetians, Pisans, Anconitans and of other nationes were ready to leave, and some, indeed, had already done so. Considering, then, this abandoned land, we feared danger because it was surrounded by enemies.[51]

Indeed, John recognised an insecurity in his new empire’s position that deterred him from immediately attacking the Nicenes in 1231, and he was criticised as tepid by some writers in his initiative to expand the empire.[52] Nor moreover did he attack Vatatzes when the latter ruler incited rebellion against the Venetians in Crete.[53] He did expand into Lampsacus in 1233 when Vatatzes was occupied with conquering Rhodes, though moving cautiously by hugging the coastline and furtively capturing the port of Pegai.[54] This expansion was short-lived, however, as the Bulgars and Nicenes joined forces in 1235 and besieged Constantinople itself.[55] John appealed to Gregory IX for aid, and the pope did try to summon people from the west to provide assistance as part of their crusading vows, but in vain.[56] However, despite facing a numerically superior and combined force, John led a successful sally against the besiegers on land, a victory about which he boasted to the pope in one of his correspondences.[57]

John passed away in March 1237, although not before he took vows as a Franciscan, being the first royal man to do so, as well as the only Latin emperor to die in the capital city.[58] He was later adulated and commemorated by Franciscan artists and writers, likely striving to increase their order’s prestige by their association to John. For instance, he was depicted among the prominent Franciscans in a fresco at San Francesco in Montefalco, and at the Lower Basilica in Assissi there is a tomb decorated with the Latin empire’s coat of arms as well as a lion, a symbol of the Brienne family and an animal to which John was frequently compared to in the Franciscan Salimbene of Adam’s writings, which might suggest this was meant to be his tomb.[59]



Primary Sources:

Bird, Jessalyn, Peters, Edward, and Powell, James, eds. Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187–1291 (Philadelphia, 2013), especially Oliver of Paderborn’s Capture of Damietta at pp. 158–224.
Tyerman, Christopher, ed. An Eyewitness History of the Crusades: The Fourth Crusade (London, 2004).

Secondary Sources:

Buckley, James Michael, ‘The Problematical Octogenarianism of John of Brienne’, Speculum Vol. 32 No.2 (April, 1957), pp. 315–322.
Hardwick, Mary Nickerson, ‘The Crusader States, 1192–1243’, in A History of the Crusades Vol. II: The Later Crusades 1189–1311, eds. Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard (London, 1969), pp. 522–556.
Perry, Guy, John of Brienne (Cambridge, 2013).
Powell, James M., Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213–1221 (Philadelphia, 1986).
Runciman, Steven, A History of the Crusades Vol. III: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 112–7 and 125–149.
Wolff, Robert Lee, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, in A History of the Crusades Vol. II: The Later Crusades 1189–1311, eds. Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard (London, 1969), pp. 187–234.


[1] Guy Perry, John of Brienne (Cambridge, 2013), p. 24.
[2] James Michael Buckley, ‘The Problematical Octogenarianism of John of Brienne’, Speculum Vol. 32 No.2 (April, 1957), p. 317.
[3] Ibid., p. 316.
[4] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 26–7.
[5] Ibid., pp. 34–6.
[6] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Vol. III: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 112–3.
[7] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 30 and 39.
[8] Ibid., p. 52.
[9] Ibid., p. 62.
[10] Ibid., pp. 55–6.
[11] Ibid., pp. 68–70, and 74.
[12] Ibid., pp. 77–8.
[13] Ibid., pp. 83–6.
[14] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 113; Mary Nickerson Hardwick, ‘The Crusader States, 1192–1243’ in A History of the Crusades, Vol. II, eds. Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard (London, 1969), p. 537.
[15] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, pp. 113 and 125.
[16] Ibid., p. 131.
[17] Christopher Tyerman, ed., An Eyewitness History of the Crusades: The Fourth Crusade (London, 2004), p. 189.
[18] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 137.
[20] Tyerman, ed., The Fourth Crusade, p. 193; Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 139.
[21] Tyerman, ed., The Fourth Crusade, p. 194; James Powell, Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213–1221 (Philadelphia, 1986), pp. 201–2.
[22] Powell, Anatomy of a Crusade, pp. 192–3; Jessalyn Bird, Edward Peters, and James Powell, eds. Crusade and Christendom (Philadelphia, 2013), p. 194.
[23] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 141; Christopher Tyerman, God’s War (London, 2006), p. 646.
[24] Tyerman, God’s War, pp. 644–5.
[25] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 141.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., p. 142.
[28] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 124 and 164.
[29] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 147.
[30] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 128 and 131–2.
[31] Ibid., p. 132.
[32] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 147.
[33] Perry, John of Brienne, p.131.
[34] Ibid., p. 129.
[35] Ibid. pp. 130–1; Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, p. 112.
[36] Hardwick, ‘The Crusader States, 1192–1243’, p. 541.
[37] Runciman, History of the Crusades, Vol. III, pp. 148–9.
[38] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 136–7.
[39] Ibid., p. 135.
[40] Ibid., p. 139.
[41] Ibid., p. 140.
[42] Ibid., pp. 141–3.
[43] Ibid., p. 144.
[44] Ibid., pp. 145–6.
[45] Ibid., pp. 147; Robert Lee Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’ in A History of the Crusades Vol.II, eds. Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard (London, 1969), p. 216.
[46] Perry, John of Brienne, p. 151.
[47] Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, pp. 216–7.
[48] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 164–5.
[49] Ibid., p. 149.
[50] Ibid., pp. 159–161.
[51] Ibid., pp. 161–2 ; Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, p. 218.
[52] Perry, John of Brienne, p. 162.
[53] Ibid., p. 166.
[54] Ibid., p. 172.
[55] Ibid., p. 174; Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, p. 219.
[56] Perry, John of Brienne, p. 179.
[57] Ibid., p. 175; Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, p. 219.
[58] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 182 and 186; Wolff, ‘The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204–1261’, p. 219.
[59] Perry, John of Brienne, pp. 183–7.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.