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, July 22, 2017

An Empty Island Waiting to Welcome the Destroyer of Jerusalem?

The early history of the Kingdom of Cyprus is largely lost in the mists of time, and much of what we think we know―or what is currently accepted in academic circles―is dubious.

My novel, The Last Crusader Kingdom, looks at both the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus in the years 1193-1199 from a new perspective and challenges conventional window. It is based on two revisionist theses (that I hope to develop more fully in a later non-fiction book on the subject.) The first of those thesis is presented below. 

We know that Richard I of England, having conquered Cyprus in May 1191, sold it to the Knights Templar for 100,000 bezants in July of the same year. According to Peter Edbury, the leading modern historian of medieval Cyprus, their rule was “rapacious and unpopular,” resulting in a revolt in April 1192. Although a Templar sortie temporarily scattered the rebels, the causes of the revolt were hardly addressed and the latent threat of continued/renewed violence was clear. In the circumstances, the Grand Master of the Templars recognized that his Order would have to invest considerable manpower to regain control of the island.  He also recognized that he did not have the resources to fight in both Cyprus and Syria. In consequence, he gave precedence (as he must) to the struggle on the mainland, the Holy Land itself, against the Saracens. The Templars duly returned the island to Richard of England.

Richard promptly sold the island a second time, this time to Guy de Lusignan. Guy de Lusignan had been crowned and anointed King of Jerusalem in 1186 in a coup d’etat engineered by his wife, Sibylla. Although widely viewed as a usurper, the bulk of the barons submitted to his rule in order to fight united against the much superior forces of Saladin that threatened the Kingdom. Guy, however, proceeded to prove the low-opinion of his barons correct by promptly leading the entire Christian army to an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187. He spent roughly a year in Saracen captivity, while his Kingdom fell city by city and castle by castle to Saladin, until only the city of Tyre remained. Needless to say, this further discredited him with the surviving barons, prelates, and burghers of his kingdom. His claim to the crown of Jerusalem was undermined fatally when his wife, through whom he had gained it, died in November 1190. Although Guy continued to style himself “King of Jerusalem,” a fiction at first bolstered by King Richard of England’s support, by April 1192 King Richard gave up on him. Bowing to the High Court of Jerusalem, Richard acknowledged Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. The sale of Cyprus to Guy was, therefore, a means of compensating him for the loss of his kingdom of Jerusalem.

Guy may have left for Cyprus at once, in which case he would have arrived in April 1192.  However, this is far from certain because the Third Crusade was still being conducted.  It is unlikely that Guy would have been able to convince many knights to accompany him as long as Richard the Lionheart was still fighting for Jerusalem and Jaffa. A more likely date for Guy’s arrival on Cyprus is therefore October 1192, after Richard’s departure for the West. 

Guy was apparently accompanied by a small group of Frankish lords and knights whose lands had been lost to Saladin in 1187/1188 and not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. The names of only a few are known. These include Humphrey de Toron, Renier de Jubail, Reynald Barlais, Walter de Bethsan, and Galganus de Chenech√©. (Guy's older brother Aimery is notably absent.) 

Guy would have arrived on an island that was either still in a state of open rebellion or completely lawless. Admittedly, historian George Hill (who was actually an expert in ancient history, coins and iconography rather than a medievalist), tries to explain how Guy arrived on an island eagerly awaiting him by inventing (that is the only word one can use since he sites no source) the story that the Templars “slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; a number of Greeks who sought asylum in a church were massacred; the mounted Templars rode through [Nicosia] spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood…The Templars rode through the land, sacking villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains.” (George Hill, A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432,” Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 37.)

There’s a serious problem with this lurid tale. (Quite aside from the technical one of lances being unsuitable for spitting multiple victims.) As Hill himself admits, the Templars had just fourteen knights on Cyprus and 29 sergeants; the Greek population of the island at this time, however, was roughly 100,000. Yes, in a surprise sortie to fight their way out of Nicosia and flee to Acre (as we know they did), the Templars would surely have killed many civilians, including innocent ones. It is unlikely, however, that the fleeing Templars would have taken the time to stop and slaughter people collected in a church; that would have given the far more numerous armed insurgents (who had forced them to seek refuge in their commandery in the first place) to rally, attack and kill them. They certainly did not have the time and resources to slaughter people in other cities and towns scattered over nearly 10,000 square kilometers of island. In short, we can be sure the Templars slaughtered enough people to be remembered with hatred, but not enough to break the resistance to Latin rule, much less to denude the island of its population. If nothing else, if they had broken the resistance, they would not have fled to Acre, admitted defeat and urged the Grand Chapter to return Cyprus to Richard of England!

Despite the absurdity of the notion that Guy arrived on a peaceful island willing to receive him without resistance, most histories today repeat a charming story. Namely: as soon as Guy arrived on Cyprus he sent to his arch-enemy Saladin for advice on how to rule it. What is more, the ever chivalrous and wise Sultan graciously responded that “if he wants the island to be secure he must give it all away.” (See Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 16.) Allegedly, based on this advice, Guy invited settlers from all the Christian countries of the eastern Mediterranean to settle on Cyprus, offering everyone rich rewards and making them marry the local women. According to this fairy tale, the disposed peoples of Syria, both high and low, flooded to Cyprus and were rewarded with rich fiefs, until Guy had only enough land to support just 20 household knights, but after that everyone lived happily ever after.

History isn’t like that, although―often―there is a kernel of truth in such legends. I think it is fair to assume that very many of the men and women who had lost their lands and livelihoods to the Saracens after Hattin did eventually come to settle on Cyprus, but I question that they arrived in the first two years after Guy acquired the island. The reason I doubt this is simple. The Knights Templar had just abandoned the island because it would be too costly, time-consuming and difficult to pacify.  In short, whoever came to Cyprus with Guy in early or late 1192 would not have found an empty island―much less one full of happy natives waiting to welcome them with song and flowers. On the contrary, they were already in active rebellion against the Templars and ready to resist further attempts by the Latins to control and dominate them. Perhaps the one sentence about making the settlers marry local women is a hint to a more chilling reality: that after  years of resistance to Latin rule, when the settlers finally came they found a local population with few young men but many widows.

Furthermore, we know that at no time in his life did Guy de Lusignan distinguish himself by wisdom or common sense. He had alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV and nearly the entire High Court of Jerusalem within just three years of his marriage to Sibylla.  He lost his entire kingdom in a disastrous and unnecessary campaign less than a year after he was crowned king. He started a strategically nonsensical siege of Acre that consumed crusader lives and resources for three years. He did nothing of note the entire time Richard the Lionheart was in the Holy Land. Is it really credible that he then took control of a rebellious island (that the Templars thought beyond their capacity to pacify) and set everything right in less than two years?

I think not. And Guy had only two years because he died in 1194, either in April/May or toward the end of the year depending on which source one consults. That is too little time even for a more competent leader to be the architect of Cyprus’ success. That honor belongs, I believe, to his older brother, the ever competent Aimery de Lusignan, who was lord of Cyprus not two years but eleven. 

It was certainly Aimery, who obtained a crown by submitting the island to the Holy Roman Emperor, and it was Aimery who established a Latin church hierarchy on the island. Indeed, there is ample evidence of Aimery’s able administration of both Cyprus and, from 1197 to 1205, the Kingdom of Jerusalem as well.  It was Aimery de Lusignan who collected the oral tradition for the laws of Jerusalem (that had worked so well) and had them written down in a legal codex known as The Book of the King.  Thus, it was Aimery, who founded not only the dynasty that would last three hundred years, but also laid the legal and institutional foundations that would serve Cyprus so well into the 15th century. It is, in my opinion, far more likely that it was Aimery, not Guy, who brought settlers in―after first pacifying the native population and institutionalizing tolerance for the Orthodox church that mirrored the customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is this thesis that forms the basis of : The Last Crusader Kingdom: Founding of a Dynasty in 12th Century Cyprus.

My second revisionist thesis concerning the Ibelins will be the subject of my next entry.

Aimery de Lusignan is an important character in the Jerusalem Trilogy that covers the period leading up to the founding of the Lusignan dynasty on Cyprus.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Last Crusader Kingdom

The Jerusalem Trilogy followed the lives of Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena through two decades of history from 1171 to the end of the Third Crusade in 1192. This was a crucial period, which saw the almost complete destruction of the crusader presence in the Middle East. It covered the dramatic Christian victory over Saladin in 1177, and the more devastating -- and unnecessary -- defeat of the Franks at the Battle of Hattin ten years later. Finally, in the third book of the trilogy, the dramatic defense of Tyre, the last Christian outpost in the Holy Land, and finally the course of the Third Crusade is described.

These events were momentous in their age. The shock of the annihilation of the Christian army at Hattin allegedly killed a pope and set in motion a massive military response: the Third Crusade.  The Third Crusade, in turn, attracted the wealthiest and most powerful of Western monarchs -- Friedrich Barbarossa, Philip Augustus, and Richard the Lionheart. As a result, the period of history covered in the second two volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy was well recorded by contemporaries had has been the focus of historical interest ever since. There are a wealth of primary and secondary sources that I could turn to for inspiration, guidance, plot and characters.

With the end of the crusade, the density and quality of contemporary sources and modern histories drops dramatically. Yet, life went on even after the momentous, eye-catching events ended. Furthermore, as readers will have noted, neither Balian nor Maria were dead.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is a novel set in the period following the Third Crusade. It is populated with familiar characters from that trilogy -- Balian and Maria, Aimery de Lusignan and his wife Eschiva, Queen Isabella and her 3rd husband Henri de Champagne, and more -- but it is not a sequel. It is a stand-alone novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom attempts to explain two historical developments that historians skip over, ignore or admit ignorance about. First, the establishment of a Latin kingdom on the island of Cyprus under the Lusignans. Second, the rise of the Ibelin family to the most powerful, indeed dominant, noble family of Outremer. It is, in short, about historical events of significance, but largely lost to modern understanding because of an absence of sources -- primary or secondary -- that deal with this interlude in detail. In my next two entries, I will describe in greater detail the historical evidence available and the revisionist thesis pursued in this novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is also a "bridge" between the Jerusalem Trilogy and my next novels, which will describe the remarkable resistance of the barons of Outremer (led by the Ibelins) against the despotism of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II Hohenstaufen. 

For those of you who missed The Jerusalem Trilogy, here are the links:

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Acre

The Harbor of Acre today
In Balian's time, Acre was the economic heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, it became the de facto capital of the rump state as well. During the last hundred years of Frankish presence in the Levant, Acre became the principal seat of the Templar and Hospitaller Orders, as well as a the home of the largest "communes" of merchants from the various Italian city-states. 

Acre's Waterfront Today
As a major entrepot, Acre was famous for its cosmopolitan character. At any one time, it harbored a large transient population of sailors and caravan crews. Caravans bringing the riches of Asia and Arabia met and mingled with the crews of ships from all points West, including Ireland and Norway. Even the resident population was diverse and polyglot; Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, French and Italian would all have been spoken by people who called Acre home.

Not terribly surprising, given this diverse and often disreputable nature of the population, Acre in the crusader era was notorious as a city of "low morals" and sinful pleasures. Pilgrims and crusaders alike complained about the "excessive" number of bath-houses. More than once, Richard the Lionheart was compelled to chase his men out of the "flesh-pots" of Acre and remind them of their crusader vows and duties. 

The covered markets, suks, of Acre attracted both good and bad clientele.
Getting a feel for Acre was thus an important part of my research -- even if the tame, touristy modern city could hardly convey the character of crusader Acre. The remains of the massive Hospitaller headquarters did, however, hint at the wealth, power and importance of the military orders. Here some pictures from my visit:


Acre features particularly in the second and third books of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
After Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem was probably the most popular pilgrimage destination in the Holy Land. (For more on the history of Bethlehem and the churches build there visit: Church of the Nativity) It had the advantage of being just over six miles distant from Jerusalem, making it comparatively easy for pilgrims to Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem as well. 

In addition to its importance to Christianity, Bethlehem was the city in which the early Kings of Jerusalem were crowned, giving it political importance in the crusader period as well. It was, however, never a center of trade or industry, remaining -- right to the present time -- a city dependent primarily on religious tourism. 

Although Bethlehem is the venue of only one important episode in the Jerusalem Trilogy, Bethlehem is nevertheless an important place for understanding and envisaging life in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, preserved in the Church of the Nativity are mosaics dating back to the reign of Constantine the Great -- an examples of the kind of mosaics that were even more common in crusader times.  Furthermore, the church underwent extensive renovation in the reign of Amalric, including a series of spectacular mosaic murals. Not only are these considered exquisite and valuable examples of crusader art, they reflect the influence of King Amalric's Greek wife, Maria Comnena. Since Maria was also Balian's wife, these mosaics have a direct tie to Balian's life and provide an alluring hint to the artistic tastes in the world in which John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beruit grew up. 

The Ibelins almost certainly maintained a residence in Jerusalem, and so trips to Bethlehem (for Christmas at least) were almost certainly part of the Ibelin routine. While the mosaics are generally considered the most important artistic feature, it was the Frankish cloisters at Bethlehem, pure Western Romanesque in style, that I personally found most beautiful:

Another, arguably more important, aspect of a trip to Bethlehem today is that the strong presence of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Christians in Bethlehem. They are a compelling reminder of how diverse Christianity was in the crusader period as well. Recent scholarship has documented a far greater tolerance for these other Christians than was previously assumed. For more about the treatment of Orthodox Christians in the crusader states please visit: Liberation or Oppression: Native Christians and the Crusaders

Bethlehem features in the first two books of the Jerusalem trilogy and is the scene of an important episode in Volume II.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Looking for Ibelin in Ibelin -- and Ascalon

The coast near Ibelin.

When writing a biographical novel about a man (Balian of Ibelin) who took his name from the place he was born, an author expects to find inspiration in the hero's birthplace. "Ibelin" was, after all, one of three castles built to defend Jerusalem from raids out Egyptian-held Ascalon. It was granted to Balian's father as a fief in the mid-1140s, and Balian was almost certainly born and raised there. He was so strongly associated with Ibelin that even after Ibelin was lost to Saladin, Balian and his heirs were still referred to as "Ibelins" -- generations after they derived their wealth and power from other fiefs and lordships such as Caymont, Beirut, Jaffa and Ascalon. 

So I went to Ibelin in search of Ibelin. Only to find that there is nothing there.

I drove back and forth through the modern Yavne, the historical Ibelin, and could find not a trace of the crusader city or castle. It was obliterated by highways, shopping malls, apartment buildings and parking lots. 

I continued just 18 miles down the coast to the ruins of Ascalon. Eighteen miles in this case did not bring a significant change in topography or climate, no sudden range of mountains, no gorges, lagoons, or desert. Both cities are located on the fertile plain along the Mediterranean coast. The lush vegetation and intensive cultivation of this landscape today echoes medieval descriptions of this coastal region being exceptionally fertile in the crusader era as well. Although Ascalon has a small harbor and Ibelin has none at all, Ascalon was never an important port.

Ascalon was, however, a very important city in the crusader period. It was held by the Egyptians until 1153, when it was finally taken after a long siege. The Egyptian defenders negotiated an honorable withdrawal and were not slaughtered, but they were expelled and replaced by Christian settlers. In 1187, Ascalon surrendered to Saladin after a feisty defense, but this time it was the Christian defenders, who accepted terms and thereby avoided slaughter and slavery. During the Third Crusade, Saladin evacuated and partially destroyed the city as the Frankish armies under Richard the Lionheart approached. Richard took the city and invested a great deal of time, effort and prestige into rebuilding it; reportedly he worked naked to the waist alongside the common soldiers to rebuild the defenses. Saladin's demand that he surrender Ascalon during the negotiations for a truce, almost caused the talks to fail. Eventually it was agreed that neither side would re-build or re-occupy Ascalon.

Many of the ruins that can be visited today date from the crusader period.
Remnants of the walls of Ascelon -- built in part by Richard the Lionheart?
Ascelon is an important venue for events in the first and third volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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