Helena P. Schrader and Defender of Jerusalem

I am delighted to have Helena P. Schrader on my blog today to talk about Defender of Jerusalem, Book II of her biographical series of novels about Balian d’Ibelin. Book I follows Balian from landless household knight to Baron of Ibelin, married to the Dowager Queen Maria Comnena. It is set against the increasing threat of Saladin who is unifying Muslim forces in the Holy Land. In Book II, the leper king, Baldwin IV, is dying. The Kingdom of Jerusalem must be defended not only against Saladin, but also against internal politics that are tearing it apart.

CN:  Welcome Helena! Primary sources are always critical for an author writing historical and biographical fiction. What sources did you use for research on the life of Balian d’Ibelin for this series? Were some years more sparse than others, and what was your approach when Balian was not identified as being present for notable historic events?

HS: The most important source for the life of Balian d’Ibelin is the lost Chronicle of Ernoul that was written by Balian’s squire. The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre is considered the surviving source that is most closely based on the lost Chronicle of Ernoul. I also relied heavily on the Arab sources, Baha ad-Din and Imad ad-Din. For the general history of the period, William of Tyre is essential and the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi is useful if used with caution, as it is very biased and marred by ridiculous tirades.

Yes, there are huge gaps in Balian’s biography. We know virtually nothing about his early life, for example, and he is first mentioned at Battle of Montgisard in 1177, fighting alongside his elder brother. We also do not know where or when he died. However, based on the key role he played in several pivotal moments of the history of Jerusalem, it is possible to interpolate and develop a coherent story. This is fiction. I have changed no known facts, but I have created a great deal of new material, mostly to give the reader more insight into life in the crusader states in this period and to make the history come to life.

CN:  Defender has a multitude of colorful, historical figures who played key roles in the ultimate downfall of Jerusalem in 1187. Let’s talk about the major players… 

Guy de Lusignan becomes King of Jerusalem by virtue of his marriage to Baldwin IV’s sister Sibylla. He had been a rebellious baron in King Henry II’s Angevin Empire. What brought Guy to the Holy Land? 

HS: He was clearly fortune-hunting. This was a familiar pattern, followed by many in the period. Note, however, that Guy was not a baron in the West. He was the fourth son of the Lord of Lusignan, and at the time he came to the Holy Land, the family lands had passed to his eldest brother Hugh. He had two additional older brothers, Geoffrey and Aimery. Aimery had been in the Holy Land at least half a decade already, and is widely credited with suggesting to Guy that he come East.

CN: You made Guy a pretty despicable character, rivaling Reynald de Châtillon. Who is your favorite bad guy and why? 

HS: I’m going to confess, I had a very hard time getting inside Guy.

Guy was responsible for a completely unnecessary but utterly devastating defeat of the army of Jerusalem at Hattin, the consequences of which were the loss of the entire Kingdom to Saladin. Remember, a boy suffering from leprosy had managed to defeat Saladin again and again! There was absolutely nothing inevitable about Saladin’s victory, much less anything inevitable about the entire kingdom being overrun by the Saracens. Rarely in human history is a defeat as devastating as Hattin so clearly attributable to poor leadership. Guy de Lusignan must carry the personal blame for ignoring the good advice provided by Tripoli and supported by all the other barons. He alone caused the defeat at Hattin and the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

So, that’s the historical fact. My problem was trying to create a character who was capable of such a monumental mistake. Some historians portray him as fundamentally weak, saying he just listened to the last person to talk to him. But then why wasn’t he talked out of his stupid decision by someone else before it was too late? Was he just stupid? But most people of limited intelligence recognize the fact and defer to those who are cleverer than they are. Guy didn’t. So not only was he stupid, he also had to be very arrogant and not have recognized his own weaknesses.

And then there’s the historical fact that Sibylla was madly in love with him. She defied all attempts by her brother and the High Court to get her to divorce Guy. She went to him in captivity. She even followed him to the siege of Acre and died there with her infant daughters. She was a devoted wife. Why? What on earth could there have been about this arrogant idiot that so completely enchanted her?

I had to imagine characters with traits that would explain both his and Sibylla’s historical behavior. I didn’t set out to make Guy despicable, but then again he couldn’t have been very nice or he would not have alienated the entire High Court of Jerusalem and made a bitter enemy of his brother-in-law Baldwin IV, would he?

CN:  That was my feeling about Guy – he appeared to respect no one and completely ignored the advice of men who had so much more knowledge of Saladin’s tactics and the harsh, unforgiveable terrain. I’m not certain who is more the idiot – Guy or Sibylla! She sacrificed her Kingdom for love or lust.

Reynald de Châtillon had been in the Holy Land since the Second Crusade. Would you call him a competent military leader? He seemed to spend a lot of time breaking treaties and raiding Muslim caravans, and had been captured in 1161 and spent 15 years in captivity. Do you think that influenced his character? Did he have any influence over the decisions King Guy makes regarding the Battle of Hattin?

HS: Fifteen years in a dungeon had to leave psychological scars, especially since Châtillon was allegedly kept chained in a dungeon not politely under “house arrest” as other prisoners like Raymond de Tripoli. However, some of his most notorious acts of brutality predated his imprisonment. He either flogged and tied up or buried up to his neck in sand the Patriarch of Antioch, then smeared honey over his wounds and/or head, and left him (crawling with flies) in the sun until he agreed to give Reynald money. Reynald next attacked the friendly, Christian island of Cyprus, pillaged and laid waste to towns, sacked monasteries and raped nuns. Breaking truces and attacking caravans were really some of the milder things he did, and arguably some of the more useful.

As Bernard Hamilton makes clear, his raids into Sinai and his famous Red Sea raids with warships were well timed to prevent Salah ad-Din from consolidating his power in Syria and really served the interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem very well. I think you can argue that in his early career, particularly as Prince of Antioch, he was more interested in his own wealth and power, but after he was released from captivity his hatred of the Saracens was honed to the point where his violence was directed against them rather than his fellow Christians. He was certainly brutal and ruthless, but he was also very intelligent with a brilliant grasp of tactics and strategy— which precludes him being on the side of those who urged Guy to abandon the Springs and march the Army of Jerusalem toward Tiberias. He just wasn’t that stupid. The honor goes entirely to Gerard de Ridefort, the Master of the Temple, who never showed a shred of tactical sense in his entire life and recommended the suicidal advance to Guy, and Guy de Lusignan, who—as I said above—retains the lion’s share of the blame for following that idiotic advice.

CN:  Barry and Sibylla – fact vs. fiction – What does the historical record have to say about their betrothal? I wasn’t aware that Barry (Balian’s brother) was asked by Baldwin to declare that Barry and Sybilla had been betrothed, officiated by a priest.  What drove you to pursue that path? 

HS: It was logical. King Baldwin IV desperately wanted to eliminate Guy from the succession. He went to great lengths to try to exclude him — e.g. by crowning his nephew co-king during his lifetime and later making his barons swear to consult the Kings of France and England along with the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor about the succession rather than accept Sibylla (much less Guy). Furthermore, a church synod was convened with the explicit purpose of finding a means to dissolve Sibylla’s marriage to Guy. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. The church needed a basis for declaring Sibylla’s marriage to Guy invalid. Consanguinity, the usual excuse for aristocratic divorce in this age, just wouldn’t work with Guy as they weren’t related in even the most distant way. Nor could it be claimed that either party to the marriage had been too young to consent. Sibylla was nearly 20 and Guy older. That left only “pre-contract” as a possible tool for invalidating the wedding, and there had obviously been rumors about Sibylla and Balian’s older brother being betrothed. These rumors are recorded by William of Tyre, and Saladin’s ransom demand for the elder Ibelin — which was substantially higher than that for even reigning kings — is a clear indication that the rumors of an impending marriage between Baldwin d’Ibelin and Sibylla had reached all the way to Damascus. The fact that Byzantine Emperor helped pay the ransom tells us that the rumors had reached Constantinople as well. So what could have been more obvious than to try to use that well-known fact as a means to remove Guy?

CN:  I love your portrayal of the relationship between Balian and his wife, Maria Zoë. She exemplifies the strong, highly-competent, medieval woman. Because she was a dowager queen, was there a lot in the historical record of her life, or do former queens disappear into the woodwork, overshadowed by husbands, or in her case, by her step-son Baldwin IV?

HS: Thank you! Unfortunately, there is not that much known about Maria Comnena in large part because she did not try to interfere in political affairs after she was widowed and remarried, except for the famous incident in which she was instrumental in convincing her daughter by King Amalric, Isabella, not to make the same mistake Sibylla had made. Maria convinced Isabella to set aside an unpopular husband in favor of a man backed by the barons and bishops of Jerusalem, something that was very much in the interests of her former kingdom.

What we do know about her is that she benefited from the high level of education that Comnenan princesses routinely enjoyed, and that she appears to have been a patron of the arts, who encouraged an influx of Byzantine artists to the Kingdom of Jerusalem during her husband’s reign. After she was widowed, she held the extremely wealthy barony of Nablus for life, and defended it against Saladin. Since she could not be forced to remarry and had more than enough income to live in the height of luxury, we can be sure her second marriage was of her own choosing. We know she was safely escorted from Jerusalem by Saladin’s Mamlukes after Balian agreed to take over the defense of Jerusalem, but that she did not scuttle for safety in the Byzantine Empire, but rather remained in her adopted country. We know she had used her influence to convince her daughter Isabella to set Humphrey de Toron aside and marry Conrad de Montferrat. Isabella became Queen of Jerusalem and all subsequent monarchs of the kingdom were descended from her.

CN:  I also must commend you for your vivid description of the Battle of Hattin, which was a devastating defeat for the Christians and led to the downfall of Jerusalem a few months later. In this (as well as other conflicts) you describe the tactics of battle and the terrain, and you capture the emotions of men in the thick of battle. It is exhilarating, but horrifying!

What strikes me as I read Defender book are the parallels to current events. After 800+ years humans still argue whether aggression is the best response to fanaticism. We can always speculate – would Saladin have continued his campaign (and been victorious) if King Guy had ignored Ridefort’s advice that led to the loss at Hattin and ultimately Jerusalem’s surrender?  

HS: If you’re asking me, I think if the Christian army had followed the tried and true tactics of Baldwin IV, they could have held Saladin off in 1187 — and every subsequent year he invaded until he died. They only had to hold him off that long, because it was predictable that at his death his empire would either completely disintegrate into warring factions or be far too preoccupied with internal power struggles to have the resources to invade the crusader states. While the Christian kingdoms suffered from a shortage of male heirs, the Muslim states generally had too many. Saladin, remember, had 17 sons, and primogeniture was not as well established in the Muslim states at this time, giving ample room for younger sons — or brothers as in Saladin’s case — to lay claim to the succession. So it was really just about fighting defensive wars until Saladin died. I think they could have done that under almost any king but Guy — William de Montferrat had he lived, Baldwin de Ramla, had Sibylla married him, Raymond de Tripoli. Anyone but Guy.

CN:  What do you personally consider the most important theme or topic covered in Defender?

HS: Most books about the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century end with Hattin. They describe this military disaster and then wipe their hands of the whole kingdom — the settlers and native Christians, the farmers, merchants, tradesmen, churchmen, wives, widows and children — and effectively say “and the rest is history.” Well, yes and no. What happened may have been inevitable, but there were still some 400,000 Christians living in the crusader kingdom that were suddenly defenseless and leaderless. This was a terrifying and shocking moment!

I wanted my readers to take the time to confront that fact and put themselves in the shoes of those who weren’t at Hattin, but were impacted by it. I also wanted to show how remarkable the defense of Jerusalem under the circumstances was.

People tend to dismiss the defense of Jerusalem in 1187. The city fell in just days rather than after weeks as in the First Crusade. Yes, well in the First Crusade there was a garrison of crack Egyptian soldiers defending it, the “useless mouths” (such as Christians) had been expelled to ensure it could withstand a siege better, and the attacking army was a decimated remnant of the crusader force, half-starved and too small to even encircle the city! In 1187, Saladin had a huge, well-discipline, battle-hardened and extremely well supplied army to besiege the inside, while inside there were NO fighting men in Jerusalem at all! Women and children outnumbered able-bodied men (meaning priests, youths and elderly who had not mustered with the army) by 50 to 1. Think about that: fifty women and children to each man. Not just that, the city was flooded with refuges. The population had swelled to at least three times the normal — and all those women and children had to be fed. The defense of Jerusalem in 1187 was an amazing statement of faith, courage and charismatic leadership.

CN:   Are you well into writing book 3 in the series?  What time period does it encompass? When can we expect to see it published?

HS: Defender of Jerusalem ends with Balian’s surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin. The third book in the series, Envoy of Jerusalem, opens in Tyre, where Maria and her children are, when news reaches the city that Jerusalem has fallen. It describes the siege of Tyre by Saladin, the release of Guy and Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey of Toron from Saracen captivity, and the subsequent efforts to regain the lost Kingdom of Jerusalem including the siege of Acre, and the Third Crusade. It ends when Richard the Lionheart sails back for England and some of the remaining prisoners are finally released.

I’m still hoping to release Envoy of Jerusalem next summer or fall.

CN: What’s next on your writing agenda? 

HS: That depends on how well the Balian trilogy sells. Envoy of Jerusalem does not end with Balian or Maria’s death and though both disappear from the historical record, a lot was going on in the crusader states in the period after Richard sailed away. Several key secondary characters in the trilogy, namely Isabella, Aimery de Lusignan and his wife Eschiva d’Ibelin, were key actors in those events. For example, Aimery de Lusignan, who is a character in all three of my Balian books, became first King of Cyprus and then, after marrying Isabella, King of Jerusalem as well. He reigned longer than his younger brother Guy, by the way, and much better — though that wasn’t hard. At one point his wife, Eschiva d’Ibelin, was captured by pirates too. I personally think it would be fun and interesting to add a final volume to the series that covers these exciting events as well and escorts Balian (and maybe Maria) to their graves.

I’ve also already written a three-part novel set in 13th century Cyprus featuring the completely fictional nephew of Balian and Balian’s historical sons, John and Philip, in their revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich II. If there is any interest, I could re-work and release those books.

But in the absence of strong interest in any more Ibelin books, I will turn to a project I’ve been planning for well over a decade now, a biographical novel about Edward the Black Prince and his cousin and wife, Joan of Kent. Great material here! But, of course, changing time periods will require a huge amount of additional research and the development of new marketing platforms etc. A lot of work that I can’t tackle before I retire.

CN: I know many people eagerly await Envoy. Balian has become part of the family and I would miss reading about him if the series ends with Book 3, but your other projects sound intriguing, too!

Defender of Jerusalem is available on Amazon for Kindle and in print. Thanks so much for visiting today, Helena. 


Read more about Helena on her blog, http://www.helenapschrader.com. Follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom, http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com

Helena has published numerous works of fiction about the Middle Ages and Sparta and works of non-fiction. You will also find Helena on social media on GoodreadsFacebook, and YouTube.

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