Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

HPS-sculpture (2) “..Jerusalem was lost. The site of Christ’s Passion. The home of the Holy Sepulcher. Lost. What was there left to fight for?”
–Envoy of Jerusalem

It is the year 1187. Saladin has crushed Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin and secured almost every city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem for his own, including Jerusalem.

Author Helena P. Schrader whisks us back to that precarious time in her latest book, Envoy of Jerusalem, the third in her biographical novel series about Balian d’Ibelin.

From the book blurb: He was a warrior and a diplomat both: Balian d’Ibelin. Balian has survived the devastating defeat on the Horns of Hattin, and walked away a free man after the surrender of Jerusalem, but he is baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists. Haunted by the tens of thousands of Christians now enslaved by Saladin, he is determined to regain what has been lost. The arrival of a vast crusading army under the soon-to-be-legendary Richard the Lionheart offers hope — but also conflict, as natives and crusaders clash and French and English quarrel.

Helena, I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk with you about your latest novel. Let’s get right down to the questions! You note that your books are historical biography. Can you tell the casual reader what is the difference between that genre and other works of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is fiction set in the past. It may include encounters with real historical 51PhFSyGoJLfigures as, for example, when King Richard makes an appearance in your novels, but it doesn’t necessarily. Many books of historical fiction involve entirely fictional characters and create storylines for them. No real people figure in the novel; the time period, setting, society, and background events are what make it “historical.” Neither novels with completely fictional characters nor primarily fictional characters with cameo appearances by historical figures are biographical fiction.

Biographical fiction tells the life story of historical figures, people who really lived and for whom there is a historical record, but it goes beyond the skeleton of known facts to imagine feelings, thoughts, motives, fears etc. that are not documented and so “fiction.” In biographical fiction, the author must adhere to the historical record, but can interpolate where evidence is missing and interpret particularly controversial events and evidence to create a consistent and believable character. Sharon Kay Penmen’s novels about Richard III, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine are all excellent examples of biographical fiction.

What is the biggest thing that people think they know about this subject that isn’t so and can you talk about how you’ve used that information to further the plot, the times, the people?

Balian d’Ibelin is a fairly obscure historical figure – unless you’re a scholar studying the crusader states in the late 12th century. However, he was the hero of a Ridley Scott film titled “The Kingdom of Heaven.” So most people who have heard of Balian saw the film – which is full of inaccuracies starting with the fact that Balian was the legitimate son of a baron, he was born in the Holy Land, and he didn’t have an affair with Princess Sibylla, but rather married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena. Unlike in the film, he not only fought in the Battle of Hattin, he commanded the rear guard, and – most important to this book in the trilogy – unlike in the film he did not simply slink away after the fall of Jerusalem to become a blacksmith in France. Instead, he remained in the Holy Land and played a decisive role in re-establishing the kingdom including negotiating the truce between Saladin and Richard of England in 1192.

What is the most important thing that people don’t know about your subject that they need to know?

I think I covered most the points about Balian above, so I’ll interpret this question to mean what people don’t know about Balian’s world – i.e. the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century. There is a common misconception that the crusader states were predominantly Muslim and the crusaders were a tiny, unwelcome “occupying power.” This is not true. The Holy Land was still predominantly Christian when the first crusaders arrived in 1099 and an estimated 140,000 additional Christian settlers came to the Holy Land from Western Europe in the years between the First Crusade and the fall of Jerusalem. These settlers made up almost one quarter of the population. The Syrian, Armenian, Greek and other Christians in the Holy Land were, furthermore, very grateful for crusader rule because it had freed them of many oppressive taxes and humiliations they had suffered under Arab and Turkish rule. Nor is it correct that these Orthodox Christians were oppressed by the crusaders; they were allowed to retain their own churches, customs and courts. Large numbers of native Christians, known as Turcopoles, fought alongside the crusaders. Depictions of Turcopoles as half-breeds and converts from Islam are nonsense.

In previous interviews, you had talked about the origins of this series being the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven which features a very different background for Balian d’Ibelin, but what in particular fascinates you about this era?

I think it’s because we again find ourselves confronting jihadists and so forced to define who we are and what our values are. We need to assess which of our values we can sacrifice for security and which we must be prepared to defend with our lives.  These books are as much about who we are today as about Balian d’Ibelin, the Leper King or Saladin.

Unlike the kings and the sultan, Balian doesn’t have someone keeping his ‘diary’ and we are left with the impressions of him through other contemporary chronicles, which don’t always represent him in a good light. What did Salah ah-Din and the Muslims think of him? What about Richard’s chroniclers? And tell us about the Lost Chronicle of Ernoul.

The Arab chronicles describe Ibelin (to them Ibn Barzan) as “like a king” and stress that he was a very influential man – despite having only a small barony. The lost Chronicle of Ernoul, on the other hand, was written by a man who identifies himself as being in the household of Balian d’Ibelin and accompanying him, which has led people to assume he was a squire to Balian, possibly the son of another baron and a man who rose to power on Cyprus. Certainly he was a native of the Holy Land, rather than a crusader, and his account generally reflects this fact. The perspective of natives of Outremer and crusaders could be very different! Unfortunately, however, the original text of Ernoul’s chronicle has been lost and we have only a variety of Western histories that appear to be based in part on the lost chronicle of Ernoul, but were supplemented or modified by Western churchmen in the early 13th century. This was the same period in which the principle account of Richard in the Holy Land, the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi was written.

This is significant because it was a period in which there was a bitter dispute over the inheritance of the County of Champagne. The surviving French and English chronicles are heavily influenced by viperous partisan support for the French candidate with the consequence that they very crudely slander Balian d’Ibelin and his wife.

Let me explain: When Henri de Champagne set out on the Third Crusade, he naturally had to consider the possibility that he – like tens of thousands of crusaders before him – might die in the Holy Land or on the way there or back. Since he was unmarried and had no children, he designated his brother as his heir in the event that he failed to return. And, indeed, Henri never did return to Champagne, but he did not die on crusade! Instead, he married Isabella, Queen of Jerusalem, and had three daughters by her. The eldest of these, Alice, became Queen of Cyprus, and in due time she laid claim to Champagne by right of her father.

Naturally, Henri’s brother and his heirs, who had been ruling in Champagne ever since Henri failed to return, were not inclined to just walk away from that which they had come to see as rightfully theirs. To retain their rich inheritance, however, they had to somehow prove that Alice had no claim to it. They (or their legal advisors) decided that the best point of attack against Alice was her parent’s marriage.

Alice’s mother, Isabella of Jerusalem, had been married at the age of eleven to Humphrey de Toron. Although this marriage had been annulled by a Church council, headed by a Papal Legate in 1190, Humphrey de Toron was still alive in 1192 when Isabella married Henri of Champagne. So if the French contenders for Champagne could prove that the marriage to Toron had not been properly dissolved, then Henri’s marriage to Isabella was bigamous and Alice was a bastard – and as such had no right to Champagne.

To prove that, of course, the French contenders for the County of Champagne had to discredit the Church Council composed of five Archbishops, and villainize everyone involved in the annulment of Isabella’s marriage to Toron. Since Isabella’s mother and step-father, Maria Comnena and Balian d’Ibelin, were the moving forces behind the divorce, they became the two of the targets of slander and character assassination. The Church Council was dismissed as having been bribed. The fact that Isabella had been below the canonical age of consent at the time of her marriage to Toron (and so any Church council would have ruled against the marriage) was simply ignored or denied.

Frankly, I sympathize with the nephews of Henri de Champagne’s desire to retain their inheritance and can therefore understand why they pursued this line of reasoning. I even understand why French chroniclers were willing tools of local patrons as opposed to a distant woman unlikely to leave them land or alms. However, the damage to Maria and Balian’s reputation has been enormous because most people don’t bother to find out what was motivating the re-writing of history in the early 13th century.

I guess we cannot put politics aside, but I find it incredible to believe that King Richard actually supported Guy de Lusignan (King of Jerusalem by his marriage to Sibylla, the Queen) when he knew the disaster at Hattin in July 1187 and subsequent fall of Jerusalem could be laid in the hands of de Lusignan. Can you give us a little background to the family connections and history behind de Lusignan as compared to the other contender to the throne Conrad de Montferrat?

Lusignan was a vassal of Richard as Count of Poitou, and feudal oaths were reciprocal, not one-sided. (I’ve written about this in one of my blogs posts.) More important, Montferrat was related by marriage to Richard’s archrival Philip II of France and Philip had already thrown his weight behind Montferrat before Richard arrived. I believe Richard backed Lusignan more to thwart Philip than for any other reason.

Balian and Richard, while fighting on the same side, are initially at odds with each other in the months after Richard’s arrival in the Holy Land in June 1191. What causes Richard to begin to trust Balian?

I try to describe that in the second half of the book. Balian was an effective commander and leader of men, as his escape from Hattin and his defense of Jerusalem proved; Richard respected men who were brave and good leaders. Richard was, furthermore, no bigot and he made a point of seeking advice from the natives of the Kingdom; with Lusignan completely discredited, Ibelin was “like a king,” first among equals, and the fact that the other barons respected and deferred to him would have impressed Richard. Richard would also have soon realized that Saladin too respected Ibelin and trusted his word, a fact that increased Ibelin’s value to him. Last but not least, he was step-father of the legitimate Queen of Jerusalem, and his wife was from the Byzantine Imperial family; in an age where bloodlines were everything that was a connection even the King of England could not ignore.

[And, by the way, Helena does an excellent job of showing Balian in this light. You can see Richard coming round. Well done!]

Can you give an example of where there is no historical evidence that records Balian’s presence at specific events where you chose to place him and why?

There’s no evidence whatsoever that Ibelin fought at the Battle of Arsuf, but the battle is just too important to the history of the Third Crusade to skip over. Furthermore, there were contingents from Outremer in the Battle and there’s no reason why Ibelin wouldn’t or couldn’t have been present. I’ve never found even a hint that he might have been somewhere else. He was fighting man and this crusade was about regaining his country, his barony, freeing the captives and the Holy Sepulcher – everything that mattered to him. I think he was there.

True or False: was Balian shot with a poisoned arrow at the siege of Tyre?

False or rather pure fiction.

I especially enjoyed your characterization of the relationship between Maria Comnena, the dowager queen of Jerusalem (and married to Balian) and her daughter Isabella. The scene regarding Isabella’s need to set aside her husband Humphrey of Toron is very powerful. Were there any sources that gave you a feel for these women? How much of that scene, or their relationship in general, is fact-based?

As I mentioned above, Isabella’s divorce from Toron is described in considerable detail in the chronicles. The Itinerarium (most hostile to Balian) stresses that although Isabella at first resisted the idea of divorcing Humphrey, she was soon persuaded to consent to divorce because “a woman’s opinion changes very easily” and “a girl is easily taught to do what is morally wrong.”  On the other hand, the Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre, which is generally seen as most faithful to the lost Chronicle of Ernoul – who was an intimate of the Ibelin family at this time, remember – provides the following insight: Having admitted that Isabella “did not want to [divorce Humphrey], because she loved [him],” the Lyon Continuation explains that her mother Maria persuasively argued that so long as she (Isabella) was Humphrey’s wife “she could have neither honor nor her father’s kingdom.” Moreover, Queen Maria reminded her daughter that “when she had married she was still under age and for that reason the validity of the marriage could be challenged.” At which point, the continuation of Tyre reports, “Isabella consented to her mother’s wishes.”

This is the core of my interpretation of what happened. I will note, however, that most people tend to dismiss Isabella as pawn, doing what other people wanted her to do. I don’t see her that way. I think she made a very clear choice: in favor of a crown over the man she loved. I think she was far more ambitious and politically savvy than usually portrayed.

For those interested in exploring the subject or theme of your book, where should they start?

With my website: http://defenderofjerusalem.com. The website has a lot of short essays on the crusader kingdoms, biographies of leading characters, and, of course, a list of primary and secondary sources and reviews.

How do you feel when you finally finish the last page of a book and you release it to the world?

Those are two separate moments. When I finish the last page, I’m about to start the first re-write and then send it off to test readers. I may continue to re-write the ending several times and it isn’t finished until I sign-off on the release form. I generally have a fit of anxiety at that point, afraid it isn’t really ready yet.

When it is released to the public (i.e. goes “live” on Amazon and B&N), I start frantically marketing, and generally worry about forgetting something I could do to help draw attention to the new release. With 4,000 books being published every day it’s very difficult to gain any attention these days.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a book tentatively called “The Last Crusader Kingdom” that looks at the establishment of a Latin Kingdom on the Island of Cyprus, a kingdom that lasted over three hundred years. It could also, in modern parlance, be called a novel about “post-conflict reconstruction.”

Although “Envoy of Jerusalem” concludes the Balian d’Ibelin trilogy, it does not end with his death; it closes instead with the Treaty of Ramla that ended the Third Crusade. This is the last time Balian played a recorded role in history. He last witnessed a charter in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1193, so historians “presume” he died shortly thereafter. But there’s no evidence. Records/Charters might simply have been lost, or he might have been absent from the kingdom – for example on Cyprus.

Furthermore, while historians agree that the Ibelin family was “the” leading family on Cyprus for the next three hundred years, none of them are able to explain exactly how that came about. However, we know that several of the important secondary characters in the Balian trilogy played a critical role in the history of Cyprus. Most important: Aimery de Lusignan became the first King of Cyprus. His wife Eschiva was with him in the early years. Balian’s younger son Philip became regent of Cyprus, and Balian’s elder son John led a baronial revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor in Cyprus as well as Beirut.

So in my next novel, I move into territory that is less well documented than the events covered in “Defender of Jerusalem” and “Envoy of Jerusalem,” but events that form a bridge to the very well documented Ibelin Revolt against Friedrich II in the early 13th century. I put forward a plausible, if undocumented, thesis of how the Ibelins became so well entrenched on Cyprus. In fact, much of the Balian trilogy lays the foundation for this book, and Aimery, Eschiva and John d’Ibelin are the principle characters, although Balian and Maria are in supporting roles. Eventually, I hope to write about the Ibelin-led insurrection against Friedrich II in a book titled (tentatively) “Barons against the Emperor.”

Thank you so much for sharing the incredible history of Balian d’Ibelin with me today. Best of luck with this series!

Buy Envoy of Jerusalem: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Connect with 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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5 thoughts on “Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Anthony. Helena knows her subject matter extremely well and I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing her about her Balian novels three times now. 🙂

  1. “The Syrian, Armenian, Greek and other Christians in the Holy Land were, furthermore, very grateful for crusader rule because it had freed them of many oppressive taxes and humiliations they had suffered under Arab and Turkish rule. ”

    Nope. Most of the native Middle Eastern Christians were Oriental Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christianity is NOT the same thing as Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

    Eastern Orthodox Christianity is part of Chalcedonian Christianity, as is Roman Catholicism.

    Oriental Orthodox Christians are a diverse group that include the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. They split away from Chalcedonian Christianity in the 5th century and Justinian I tried to have all the Oriental Orthodox banned from the Byzantine Empire as heretics. Some of them fled to the Sassanian Empire, whose leaders were mostly Zoroastrians, but found common ground with the Oriental Orthodox in their shared hatred of the Byzantine Empire. The Assyrian Church of the East is not considered part of the Oriental Orthodox churches, but they also found common cause with the Sassanians.

    The medieval Papacy were interested in healing the schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox, but had no interest in having a dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox. This is understandable, because the differences between Chalcedonian Christianity and Oriental Orthodox Christianity are profound. They disagree about the very nature of Christ, which is a far more difficult problem to try to get around than whether priests can marry or the authority of the pope. Even now, there has not been much progress at healing this old, old schism.

    Now, some of the Armenian nobility who allied with the Crusaders belonged to Armenian Apostolic Church*, but that had more to do with the Armenians’ continued distrust of the Byzantines. The Crusaders did not all treat the Oriental Orthodox Christians well. According to William of Tyre, Raymond II of Tripoli blamed the Syrian Christians (members of the Syriac Orthodox Church) for the death of his father, so he had a bunch of them arrested and tortured.

    That Schrader does not understand this shows a shameful lack of fact-checking on her part. A simple google search could have cleared this up for her, but she obviously just assumed that Oriental Orthodox is the same thing as Eastern Orthodox and went on from there.

    * This does not include Thoros of Edessa or Gabriel of Melitene. Both of them were Eastern Orthodox.

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