Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Inspirational Settings - Kantara

As I've noted elsewhere, I have often found historical places inspiring. 
Kantara is one of those places. 
I fell so in love with this castle on Cyprus that it is almost possible to say that is responsible for my entire series of novels set on Cyprus -- but not quite. Other places on the island (that I will introduce you to later) also played their part. Nevertheless, many of the characters and events my readers will discover both in "The Last Crusader Kingdom" and "The Lion of Karpas" sprang from the mists that swirl around Kantara. 
Here is a brief history.


 The view up to the castle.

Kantara is located on the tip of a long, narrow ridge as the Kyrenia mountain range comes to an abrupt end overlooking the plain of Karpas. It sits 630 meters (2,067 feet) above the Mediterranean. 



 And the View Down to the Sea

Although the fundamental structure was constructed under the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus  after the Greek Empire re-established firm control over the island of Cyprus, the name is thought to derive from Arab the words "kandara" (high building) or "kandak" (castle).  This suggests there may have been an earlier structure, an outpost or watch tower, that occupied this strategic location before the Comnenus Emperor constructed a full-fledged castle. 

During Richard the Lionheart's invasion of Cyprus in 1191, Kantara served as a temporary refuge for the Greek tyrant Isaac Comnenus and not even the great Lionheart made any attempt to take it.  Then again, he didn't need too. He captured the seaside fortress of Kyrenia instead and with it Isaac's beloved daughter. The tyrant submitted without any further resistance after his daughter's capture.

 
During the bitter wars between Emperor Friedrich II and the barons, on the other hand, the castle of Kantara was subjected to a long and brutal siege.   Defended by men loyal to the German emperor, the barons of Cyprus placed the siege under the command of Anseau de Brie.  Brie built a trebuchet that, according to the contemporary chronicler and witness Philip de Novare (a fighting man in the service of the Ibelins), "battered down nearly all the walls."  While this was doubtless an exaggeration, Ibelin also reports that the bedrock on and into which the castle was built defied destruction.  Multiple attempts at assaulting the castle were successfully repulsed.


 The castle only surrendered after ten months of siege due primarily to dwindling supplies and the demoralization of the garrison after the death of their commander, Gauvain de Cheveche.

During the Genoese occupation of Cyprus in late 15th century, the castle was held for the crown and was twice attacked by Genoese forces. It resisted both assaults successfully, and became the base for counter-attacks, preventing Genoese control of the Karpas peninsula.


After the collapse of Lusignan rule on Cyprus and the establishment of Venetian control in the 16th Century, the castle was abandoned and began to decay.


Left behind were the impressive structures that gradually became ruins and the legends. It was referred to by locals as "the castle of a hundred chambers" -- although according to legend the 101st chamber contained a treasure that no one had ever found. Or, alternatively, the 101st chamber was enchanted and if one fell asleep in it, one woke up years later in a lovely garden. Another local name for the castle was "the house/residence of the queen" -- although no specific queen appears to be associated with the castle historically. 

The 19th century traveler D. Hogarth combines these themes suggesting: "...the traveler might imagine it the stronghold of a Sleeping Beauty, untouched by change or time for a thousand years."



Kantara certainly captured my imagination and my heart. It is the setting of many episodes of the (unpublished) "Lion of Karpas" and has a modest role in "The Last Crusader Kingdom."

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Fathers and Sons" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

It is never easy being 14, but in the Middle Ages boys of 14 were expected to start learning their trade in earnest. For youth from the feudal elite, that meant learning the trade of knighthood by serving as a squire to another knight.  Most commonly, boys served a relative in this capacity, if possible a relative of higher status. The decision, however, was made by parents not the youth involved. 
In this excerpt, John d'Ibelin has broken the rules and now must face his father.


"Fathers and Sons"
An Excerpt



“Please, my lord,” John pleaded earnestly with his father. He was dressed in his chain-mail hauberk and straining to look as mature as possible. “I want to go with Lord Aimery. It’s my place. As his squire.”

Balian frowned. Watching his eldest son grow into a resourceful, responsible, and yet optimistic young man was one of his greatest joys. He did not like being separated from John at all, but up to now he’d been in Acre, only a few hours away. Balian had been able to visit him, or call him home, on short notice. Cyprus was different. Cyprus was across the water, a strange and unfamiliar place. He knew Aimery would do his best to look out for John, but ultimately they were both at the mercy of Guy de Lusignan—the last man on earth Balian trusted.

“Has Lord Aimery asked you to go with him?” Balian growled, preparing to give the former Constable a piece of his mind.

“No, he didn’t. He told me I was released from his service, but I―I told him I wanted to go with him.” John stumbled a little over his words.

Balian knew his son well, and by his reaction quickly guessed he had already pledged himself to Aimery. “Did you give him your word?”

John swallowed guiltily, but stood his ground. “Yes, my lord.”

“You had no right to do that without my permission,” Balian reminded his son sharply.

“My lord—Papa—Lord Aimery’s completely alone! You know how much Guy hates him. He’s as likely to throw Lord Aimery out of his court as Champagne did―”

“Yes, exactly, so what good will you being there do?” Balian retorted dismissively.

To his father’s astonishment, John had a ready answer. Meeting his father’s eye, John declared firmly, “I can make sure his armor glistens and his spurs gleam and ensure that no one can sneer at him for a beggar. I can show him the respect he deserves, and in so doing shame them. Most of all, I can remind them of where you stand, my lord. I can remind them that the Lord of Ibelin holds Aimery de Lusignan in greater honor than either claimant to the crown of Jerusalem.”

Balian caught his breath and held it. When he let it out it was with a sense of rueful respect. “If you don’t master the sword and lance, John, you can make your living in the courts.”

“Does that mean I can go with Lord Aimery?” John jumped at the unspoken shift in his father’s stance.

“Yes, damn it. It means you may go with him, but don’t think I can’t come after you! If I have any reason to think you’re not safe, not keeping good company, or not remembering your duty to God, I will haul you back to Caymont and make you dig irrigation ditches with me!”

John broke into a smile of relief and excitement. He flung his arms around his father with a heartfelt, “Thank you, Papa! You won’t regret this! Wait and see―Lord Aimery plans to demand land from his brother, and when he does, he’ll reward me, too. We’ll have something for Philip and a dowry for Margaret. I promise you, Papa, I’ll make our family richer and stronger!”

Balian shook his head at so much youthful optimism and enthusiasm, but held his son tight for a moment before stepping back with sigh of resignation and capitulation to warn, “You’re very young, John. You have a lot to learn, and not all of what you need to learn will be pleasant. Whatever happens, remember who you are: that the blood of the Eastern Roman Emperors runs in your veins.”

John sobered immediately and looked at his father squarely and earnestly. “I won’t forget that; but even more, I won’t forget that I am the son of Balian d’Ibelin, the man who saved the people of Jerusalem.”

The unexpected blow almost felled his father. He could only defend himself by embracing his son a second time in gratitude and pride.



Saturday, September 2, 2017

Characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom: St. Neophytos

The role of the Greek Orthodox Church in the popular opposition to Frankish rule on Cyprus is an important feature of The Last Crusader Kingdom. As explained earlier, this hypothesis was based on the fact that the only named rebel was a priest and that the Greek aristocracy had largely withdrawn to Constantinople. Yet the idea was also influenced by the fact that the only contemporary Cypriot chronicle for this period was written by a hermit monk named Neophytos. 



In contrast to the Latin and French chronicles (that in a sentence or two claim that the people of Cyprus welcomed Guy de Lusignan―after driving out the Templars―and every one lived happily ever after), Neophytos’ account suggests an extended period of oppression, resistance, violence and struggle. To be sure, Neophytos’ descriptions of all the twelfth century rulers of Cyprus are negative and his commentary on contemporary events is characterized by a pervasive sense of gloom and impending doom. 

Yet the fact remains: he was living on Cyprus during the period described in the novel. As such he is the only eye-witness of events that we can still “hear from” today―and he describes the increasing lawlessness and deterioration of governance that is a major theme of my novel. 

Furthermore, he was known to have traveled to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in his youth, giving him at least a little insight into what the Kingdom of Jerusalem was like. Most important, he received many visitors to his hermitage in the period of the novel. The temptation to have Balian meet him face to face was too great to resist!



The historical Neophytos was born to a peasant family in the Cypriot mountains in 1134. He, like his parents, was illiterate. At the age of 18 he caused a major scandal by running away to a monastery to avoid an arranged marriage. Because he was illiterate, he was initially assigned to tend the monastery vineyard, but after five years he had learned to read and write sufficiently to be made assistant sacristan. He performed these duties for two years, but then he expressed his desire to become a hermit. His superiors did not think he was ripe enough at the age of 25 for such a life, so instead sent him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He spent six months there visiting the sacred sites and other monasteries, but returned to Cyprus still determined to live as a hermit. 


In 1160, Neophytos found a cave in the Trodos Mountains just north of Paphos and began turning this into his hermitage by hand. When the Bishop of Paphos heard about it, he insisted that Neophytos accept consecration as a priest and also take on a disciple. Over time that one discipline turned into many, and an entire monastery grew at the foot of the cliff containing Neophytos’ cave/hermitage. A church was built and dedicated to the Holy Cross. 


Although Neophytos had initially sought solitude, he was (he says) “forced” to interact not only with the monks of his monastery but with the many visitors who sought his advice. He read voraciously and was also an extremely prolific writer, producing numerous biographies of saints, interpreting scripture, composing hymns, codifying the rules of his monastery, and writing a (lost!) history of Cyprus. He also maintained a rigorous correspondence with people as far away as Constantinople. Last but not least, he commissioned the magnificent wall paints of his hermitage, which had grown into a nave, church and cell, which can still be admired to this day. He is believed to have died in 1214.



Both his writings and his letters demonstrate that far from being disinterested in the affairs of the world, Neophytos was actively concerned and, indeed, engaged in with current events―from his cell in the side of a mountain. In short, although he did not want to live with others in a community, he did care about what was happening beyond his cave. More: he recorded ― and at times tried to influence ― the course of events by the advice he offered his visitors and those with whom he corresponded. 


There is considerable evidence that the educated and aristocratic elites disparaged Neophytos’ somewhat simple and direct style of writing, but this may have been the very reason he was so well loved by the common people of Cyprus: they could understand what he was talking/writing about better than the religious tracts of the traditional, erudite elite writing from distant Constantinople. It was above all the common people of Cyprus who saw in Neophytos a man of exceptional spiritual wisdom.



In the period covered by my novel, Neophytos was already a famous “holy man,” although he would not be sanctified until after his death. Furthermore, by the time the Lusignans came to Cyprus, Neophytos’ monastery had been in existence roughly 10 years. It is not, therefore, so far-fetched that a monk (such as my fictional Father Andronicus) would turn to Neophytos for advice and assistance. As a man with great influence, it likewise makes sense for Neophytos to play a mediating role between Orthodox rebels and Frankish invaders. 


It was only after I had decided to include Neophytos in the novel that I saw the wonderful, additional opportunity to have Humphrey de Toron find sanctuary in Neophytos’ reclusive monastery.  While it is recorded that Toron went to Cyprus with Guy, nothing is heard from him after that. Neither he nor his descendants appear in history as lords and vassals of the Lusignans. Furthermore, because he never recognized the annulment of his marriage to Isabella, Humphrey had challenged Isabella’s marriage to both Montferrat and Champagne. Yet he was conspicuously silent about her marriage to Aimery de Lusignan. This has led historians to assume he was dead by 1197, the year of this last marriage of Isabella. Another explanation, however, is that he had by then made peace with his fate and consciously chose to retire from the world. I liked that image and so included it in my novel.