Nowadays we tend to think of the Crusades as a series of wars–invasions, really–by Western Europeans into the Islamic world, aimed at possessing the holy city of Jerusalem. This is true enough, but it telescopes the reality that the Crusades were a centuries-long process, and during it Europeans controlled various parts of the Holy Land for a long time. Sibylla, who eventually became the Queen of Jerusalem, was born of French nobility, but she was born in, died and spent almost her entire life in Palestine.
Her story begins some 60 years before her birth, when knights from Europe conquered Jerusalem, after a bloody siege and massacre, in July 1099. The Crusaders established various European-style fiefdoms in the parts of the Holy Land they controlled, the Kingdom of Jerusalem being the most important of them. Sibylla was born the second child of her father, Amalric, who became King Amalric I of Jerusalem in 1063, when she was about three. Her older brother Baldwin was the heir-apparent, and in fact he assumed Amalric’s throne when their father died in 1174. This was a dangerous time in the Crusader states, as Muslims under their new military leader, Saladin, were organizing themselves for another war to expel the Europeans once and for all. And as it turned out Baldwin, now King Baldwin IV, had a big problem: he had leprosy and was going to die fairly soon. When he did, the crown of Jerusalem would pass through Sibylla to whoever her husband was at that time.
She was married once, in 1176, to a knight known as William Longsword. He died within a year, leaving her pregnant. Her brother was still alive but with Saladin threatening, the choice of her next husband was even more crucial. Baldwin eventually married her to a French knight, Guy of Lusignan, who was the brother of the man believed to be Sibylla’s lover. However, Baldwin, who favored peace with Saladin, soon got angry at what he perceived as Guy’s tolerance of Crusader outrages that provoked the Saracens. He fired Guy as his advisor in 1183 and tried to have Sibylla’s marriage to him annulled.
The heavily fictionalized film Kingdom of Heaven portrays events related to the fall of Jerusalem in 1187. Sibylla is portrayed by Eva Green. Edward Norton plays Baldwin IV and Orlando Bloom stars as Bailan of Ibelin.
Things came to a head in 1185, after Baldwin finally keeled over. Crowned the Queen of Jerusalem, Sibylla reaffirmed Guy of Lusignan as her husband, meaning he was now effectively king. By now the Crusaders were hanging on by their fingernails and all that really remained was to organize the final defense of Jerusalem against Saladin’s armies. Guy was captured by the Saracens before Saladin besieged it, so Sibylla pledged fealty to another French knight, Bailan of Ibelin, who led the defense. In early October 1187, Bailan surrendered Jerusalem. After 88 years it was again a Muslim city.
She lived only a little while longer. As the Crusaders retreated to the ports they still held, Acre chief among them, she accompanied many of the bigwigs (including Guy, who was released from prison) as they tried to regroup. In the spring of 1190 she died in an epidemic that swept the military camp.
Sibylla was a woman who was caught up in some of the most truly epic events of her time. She’s obviously an attractive character for fiction; she appears in Cecelia Holland’s novel Jerusalem and is portrayed (heavily fictionalized) by Eva Green in the 2005 Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven. The story of the Crusades is usually portrayed as a story of men, but Sibylla definitely shows there’s more to the story than that.