As Byzantine Princess
Through her father John Doukas Comnenos (1128-1186) she is a grandniece of Manuel Comnenos (1118-1180), Emperor of Byzantium, while through her mother Maria Taronitissa she descends from the ancient kings of Armenia. She has one brother, Alexios, briefly in 1185 a pretender to the Byzantine throne (d. 1187), and one sister, Theodora, married to Prince Bohemund III of Antioch.
Her upbringing at the imperial court in Constantinople was interspersed with several long visits to Cyprus during the period of her father's rule of that island.
As Queen of Jerusalem
Maria was the princess chosen to seal with her marriage to Amalric an alliance between the Byzantine Empire and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with a view towards a future joint annexation of Egypt. The negotiations lasted two years, due in large part to the putative bridegroom's insistence that the vassalage of Antioch be returned to him.
Once Amalric conceded the point, the marriage was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance at Tyre on 29 August 1167. As Queen of Jerusalem Maria held fast to her Greek faith, and was a Hellenising influence at court.
She gave birth to her daughter Isabella in 1172 and a stillborn child the following year.
Amalric's previous wife Agnes of Courtenay, discarded so that he might wed Maria, was without power or influence at court during this period. However, their three children (Sibylla, Baldwin IV, and Alix) had been ruled legitimate by the Haute Cour, and stood before Isabella in the line of succession. Her shadow could never quite be erased.
As Queen Dowager
At Amalric's death in 1174 Maria inherited control of the rich fief of Nablus which had been her dower; and established therein her own court. In 1177 she married again, to a husband whose military and political strength compensated for his lack of pedigree: Balian of Ibelin. Through her he became Lord of Nablus, and stepfather to a future queen.
In 1179 Balian's brother Baldwin was captured by Saladin after the Battle of Jacob's Ford. The Ibelins arranged his release the following year, with the ransom ultimately being paid by Maria's uncle, Manuel Comnenus. In 1183 the brothers supported Raymond III of Tripoli against Guy de Lusignan, who was then regent for Baldwin IV while he was busy dying of leprosy.
The marriage of Isabella to Humphrey IV of Toron, contracted in 1180, was celebrated in 1183 at Kerak, the ruling seat of Oultrejourdain. It was a project of Baldwin IV, with twin motives: repaying a debt of honour owed to Humphrey II, and separating the eleven-year-old bride (one of the few remaining heirs of the blood royal) from her mother's control. Isabella was thereafter held closely by Humphrey's mother, Stephanie of Milly, and denied contact with Maria and the Ibelins.
In 1185 Baldwin IV (still dying, still trying to re-organise the succession) had Sibylla's five-year-old son crowned his co-ruler in order to jump over Sibylla herself. Balian carried the new infant king Baldwin V on his shoulders during a formal crown-wearing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to signify the support of Isabella's family.
Baldwin IV died soon afterwards, leaving Baldwin V king with Raymond III of Tripoli (an Ibelin ally) as his regent, and a settlement under which Sibylla and Isabella had in theory equal rights to succeed.
It could be conjectured that Baldwin IV's preference was for Isabella; certainly she was a less contentious figure than Sibylla, daughter of an annulled marriage and wife of the hated Guy de Lusignan. However, after Baldwin V's death in 1186, Isabella's own husband thwarted the plans of the Ibelin faction to see her crowned, by swearing fealty to Guy. One by one the other nobles of the kingdom followed suit, and soon enough Sibylla was Queen of Jerusalem with Guy (by vile trickery) at her side.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Maria was in Jerusalem in 1187 during the series of crushing military defeats which saw vast swathes of territory lost (including her own Nablus). Balian negotiated permission to pass across the battle lines into Jerusalem to escort his family to safety, provided he took oath to leave the city immediately thereafter and never again bear arms against Saladin. He broke this oath (with church permission) in order to organise the defense of the beleaguered Holy City against the infidels at the gates. Saladin seemed to understand this; at any rate he himself provided the necessary escort to see Maria and her children to Tripoli unharmed.
Balian negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem and the ransom of as many of its citizens as could be paid for. He and Heraclius, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, offered their own valuable selves as hostages for the ransoms which could not yet be paid; Saladin refused, and they were amongst the third and last party to leave the city, probably in late November.
Thereupon Balian joined Maria in Tripoli.
Succession of Isabella
Following the deaths of Sibylla and her children in 1190, Isabella was unquestionably the rightful Queen of Jerusalem.
However, Sibylla's widower Guy de Lusignan refused to relinquish the reins of power; and Humphrey of Toron once again let down the Ibelin faction by supporting him. In the autumn Maria and Balian kidnapped Isabella and forced her to consent to an annulment of her marriage to Humphrey and a subsequent remarriage to their candidate, Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was Baldwin V's nearest surviving male kinsman, and had lately distinguished himself by holding Tyre against Saladin. (It was at this stage the only substantial holding the so-called Kingdom of Jerusalem had left.)
Also in 1190, Maria and Balian's daughter Helvis was married to their "extremely ugly and very wise" friend Renaud Grenier, a widower recently released from his captivity by Saladin. (Oddly enough his first marriage had been to Agnes of Courtenay.) He along with Payen of Haifa was part of the Ibelins' "council of iniquity", championing Isabella and Conrad over the Lusignan upstart.
Having been taken up by Richard of England (on the Lusignan side) and Philip II of France (on the Ibelin side), the royal succesion dispute continued a further seventeen months, until Conrad's kingship was at last confrmed in April 1192.
On the 28th of April Conrad was assassinated in Tyre, one day when Isabella and her ladies were late getting home from the hamman. Henry of Champagne, who had recently brought Isabella and Conrad the happy news of the latter's election, married the widowed and pregnant queen eight days later.
Maria's ladies-in-waiting come and go according to whether their families are in favour with her, but for quite some years now she has been attended by the same pair of common-born serving maids.
These two young persons are the bastard daughters of one of the Greek women who came with her from Constantinople when she was first a bride. They are very pretty, cleverer than they ought to be, and much wooed by men of all stations who would have the Queen Dowager's ear.
Agrippina was fathered, apparently, by a Frankish lord, in token of which she has a fine creamy complexion; Damaris, several years her junior, is part-Syrian with a faintly dusky bloom upon her skin. They differ in temperament, the elder sister being fittingly less flighty than the younger, but they are alike in their taste for luxury and intrigue. One or the other or both of them may often be glimpsed in the most peculiar corners; and there is no doubt that they will do whatever it takes to keep their mistress's favour -- and the lifestyle associated with it.
Prominent also amongst her suite is the Greek priest Stephanos, sent to her in 1182 upon the death of her previous confessor. He is a slender man of reptilian aspect and perhaps forty-five years of age, without the usual beard to accent his heavy embroidered vestments -- it is well known that when a very young man he committed a dreadful crime for which he was punished by castration and immurement in an island monastery. Though he has since been rehabilitated, even admitted to the priesthood, his assignment to an imperial cousin in a perilous land is hardly the ripest plum in his church's giving. It is rare to see him in motion, let alone applying himself to any task; he is however much given to gossip, and his tongue is a formidable weapon which Catholics must beware.