Ardent Crusader and Relucant King: Henri de Champagne
Henri of Champagne was one of the most ardent French crusaders to join the Third Crusade. His eagerness to take part in the crusade brought him to the Holy Land well ahead of either of his uncles, the Kings of France and England respectively. Despite his youth, his royal connections assured him a prominent role. Just how prominent, he never dreamed.
Henri was born in the County of Champagne on July 29, 1166. He was the eldest son of the Count of Champagne and his wife, Princess Marie of France. Marie was the daughter of King Louis VII of France by his first wife, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. His father's sister Adela followed Eleanor as wife of Louis VII and became Queen of France, while his younger brother Theobald married Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII’s other daughter Alix. In short, young Henri was very "well connected" to the French royal house, and through his grandmother to the Plantagenets as well.
In 1181, his father died and Henri became titular Count of Champagne, but his mother retained control of the County until he turned 21 in 1187. Hardly had he assumed his inheritance than word reached France that Jerusalem had fallen to the Saracens after the disastrous battle at Hattin. Almost immediately, Henri’s maternal uncle, Richard Count of Poitou (later King of England) took the cross, vowing to restore Jerusalem to Christian rule. He was followed by a wave of other knights and nobles, including (reluctantly) Henri’s paternal uncle, Philip II of France. Henri was not left cold by this crusading fever. Indeed, he appears to have been one of the most fervent crusaders of the entire campaign, incurring huge debts to finance a large contingent of knights and men-at-arms, paying for their transport, and setting out for the Holy Land more than a year before either of his uncles.
Before departing, however, the young, unmarried count made careful provisions for his inheritance. He designated his mother as his regent and his still underage younger brother Theobald as his heir. His vassals duly swore to recognize Theobald as Count of Champagne, if Henri failed to return from the crusade. This was a wise precaution as an estimated one third of all noble crusaders were either killed outright or fell victim to disease and illness while on crusade. What no one envisaged at this time was that Henri might “fail to return” without actually being dead….
Henri arrived in the Holy Land in the summer of 1190 and at once joined the Frankish siege of the Saracen-held city of Acre. His close ties to the French royal house immediately made him a leading commander, despite his youth (he was just 24) and inexperience. Henri was also related to Conrad de Montferrat, and ― anticipating his uncle Philip II ― gave his support to Montferrat in his rivalry with the discredited Guy de Lusignan (the architect of Frankish defeat at Hattin). According to some accounts, he played a role in securing Isabella of Jerusalem’s divorce from Humphrey of Toron thereby paving the way for her marriage to Conrad de Montferrat. Arab sources record that he was wounded in November 1190 during one of the many skirmishes during the siege of Acre.
After the arrival of his uncles, the kings of France and England, Henri initially managed to retain the favor of both, but he appears to have been genuinely outraged (as were most of the French nobles) by Philip II of France’s abrupt departure after the fall of Acre in July 1191. Henri remained in the Holy Land, true to his crusading vow, and when he ran low on funds to pay his troops, he turned to his uncle, the King of England. Richard readily advanced him sufficient funds to retain his contingent in the field, and thereby secured the gratitude and loyalty of the Count of Champagne.
In April 1192, Richard I of England received news that his brother John had allied himself with the Philip II of France and that they were attempting to take his inheritance from him. Recognizing he could not remain much longer in the Holy Land, Richard asked the barons of Jerusalem to select between the rivals, Guy de Lusignan and Conrad de Montferrat, their king. The High Court of Jerusalem chose Conrad de Montferrat, and the King of England bowed to their will. Richard chose his nephew Henri to go to Tyre to assure Conrad that he, Richard Plantagenet, had at last abandoned his protégé Lusignan and was willing to recognize Conrad as King of Jerusalem.
The message delivered, Henri began the journey back to rejoin the crusading army at Ascalon. He had only got as far as Acre, however, when the news overtook him that Conrad had been stabbed to death by two assassins. Henri at once returned to Tyre, probably to verify a story that seemed incredible under the circumstances. In Tyre, Henri discovered that the news was correct: Conrad de Montferrat had been stabbed to death, the newly elected King of Jerusalem was dead.
One version of what happened next has captured the popular imagination and been repeated uncritically in almost every history and novel ever since. This account claims that on the arrival of Henri in Tyre “the people” welcomed him with jubilation and proclaimed him king. This is utter nonsense. Kings were not elected by “popular acclaim” in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The High Court, composed of the most important barons and bishops of the realm, did. The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, which is based in large part on a lost chronicle written in Outremer (rather than the West), explicitly states that “on the advice of the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” Richard nominated his nephew Henri de Champagne as the next king.
We can only speculate on the exact course of events by trying to reconcile the two divergent but parallel accounts. First, it is obvious that the barons of Jerusalem were in an extremely difficult situation. They refused to follow Guy de Lusignan, Richard of England was preparing to depart, and their chosen king was dead. The queen through whom the crown was derived, however, was still alive, albeit a pregnant widow. Thus it was imperative to marry her to nobleman capable of defending the kingdom in its perilous state. Looking around for a suitable candidate, the eyes of those barons who had traveled to Tyre with the news of Conrad’s election would have fallen on Henri de Champagne. There is no way of knowing if they would have chosen someone else if he had not been so conveniently on the scene, but as the nephew to the kings of England and France he was certainly a diplomatic choice. He had also been campaigning in Holy Land for more than 18 months at this point; apparently he had won sufficient respect, despite his youth, to appear a viable candidate from a military point of view as well.
Either the barons took their suggestion first to Richard of England, or (as the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi suggests) they approached Henri directly and he deferred to his uncle. Either way, medieval chronicles agree that Henri de Champagne was initially reluctant to accept the crown. It had clearly come to him completely unexpectedly, and acceptance meant he would not be able to return to his home. The Kingdom itself existed more in people’s hearts and minds than in reality. It was threatened on all sides by the armies of Saladin. The crusading force that had managed to regain the coastline was already disintegrating (the French refused to take orders from the King of England and the King of England had already announced his intention to return home.) Worst of all, however, the throne of Jerusalem came with a serious catch: Henri could only become King of Jerusalem if he married Queen Isabella, Conrad’s widow. What was more: she was already pregnant by Conrad; if she bore a son, Henri would eventually have to surrender his crown to Conrad’s posthumous son rather than see his own offspring on the throne. It did not sound like a very good proposition to the young Count of Champagne.
With and by his marriage, Henry of Champagne became titular King of Jerusalem. \