Helena P. Schrader’s recent works have been awarded Readers’ Favorite Gold, a Feathered Quill, a Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, Chaucer Awards, and indieBRAG Medallions. Helena’s newest novel is The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus, and I invited her to talk to me today. Readers, you are in for a treat – Helena brought pictures!
Welcome to my blog, Helena!
Thanks for having me, Char!
Your new novel, The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus, begins after the events of Third Crusade, which you wrote about in your excellent Balian d’Ibelin series. This novel has ties to the earlier series, but it can stand on its own. What is this book about?
In a sentence: the establishment of a Latin (crusader) kingdom on the previously Byzantine island of Cyprus in the late 12th century.
Since that probably sounds fairly boring to most readers, let me elaborate a little.
Richard the Lionheart conquered the island of Cyprus during the Third Crusade. At the time, it was ruled by a Byzantine despot, who had declared his independence from Constantinople and used Armenian mercenaries to maintain his unpopular rule. Recognizing the strategic value of the island to the Holy Land, but not interested in ruling the island personally, Richard sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar. They, however, ruled with such a heavy hand that within six months they faced an uprising by the native population. The Templars on the island fled, and the Templar leadership concluded they did not have the resources to hold onto this rich and vital territory against open opposition.
Think about that for a minute. The most powerful and wealthiest of the military orders did not have sufficient resources (men or money) to crush a rebellion of Greek peasants and priests (the Greek nobility had already withdrawn to Constantinople). The Templars chose instead to return the island to Richard of England.
Richard was just about to depart for the West to put down another rebellion, one led by his brother John. Richard had even less interest in Cyprus now, so he sold it a second time, this time to the deposed King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan.
Now Guy de Lusignan was the genius behind the Christian defeat at Hattin and was responsible for the loss of the entire kingdom of Jerusalem. We know he was on Cyprus for at most two years, and possibly as little as 18 months. Yet, most histories blithely assert that without any financial resources and only a few knights he succeeded where the Templars had failed. Allegedly, arriving on an “empty” island and clueless about what to do next, he turned to his worst enemy (Saladin) for advice. (Try to picture the psychology of a man who would ask the man who conquered his kingdom and held him in captivity for a year for advice about how to rule his next kingdom!) As the fairy tale goes, the ever chivalrous Saladin advised him to give the land away to knights and barons so they would settle on the “empty” island. After which, Guy was beloved by one and all and left behind a peaceful kingdom that outlived him by 300 years.
If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. First of all, the island was not “empty.” The population was roughly 100,000 according to the best modern estimates. Second, that population had already successfully driven out the Templars. Third, Saladin himself died within months of Guy going to Cyprus. In short, the account you find in 9 out of 10 history books is total nonsense. The remaining histories, however, particularly Greek sources, hint at a different course of events: namely bitter resistance to Latin rule by the native population resulting in casualties, depopulation and impoverishment in the short term.
Yet by 1197 the island had been pacified and the descendants of Aimery (not Guy) de Lusignan ruled a comparatively peaceful island for the next three hundred years. My book, The Last Crusader Kingdom, offers a rational explanation of how that pacification came about ― without “losing” 100,000 people or asking for help from dead enemies.
Was there something in your research for the Jerusalem Trilogy that inspired you to write The Last Crusader Kingdom, for example, a particular character or event?
My interest into the history of Cyprus preceded my research for the Jerusalem Trilogy, but it was while writing the latter trilogy that I became increasingly impressed with Aimery de Lusignan and felt he had been underestimated and neglected in most accounts, let alone literature, about the period. Aimery led me back to Cyprus and the obviously nonsensical accounts of how the Lusignan dynasty was established on the island. Faced with patently absurd stories, I started looking for ― and imagining ― more rational alternatives.
How did you come up with the title?
The title was obvious. Cyprus was the last of the states to be established in the Eastern Mediterranean by crusaders. That is, like the earlier states (the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem), it was conquered by Western military forces, taking part in an organized expedition sanctioned by the pope to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity: a crusade. Furthermore, the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus proved the most enduring of the crusader states, outliving the Kingdom of Jerusalem by roughly 200 years, so it was both the last to be established and the last to be extinguished. It also exemplified all the principal characteristics of crusader states from tolerance for other religions and lifestyle, to high-levels of urbanization, and a powerful High Court that inhibited autocratic government.
As for the subtitle, I always seek to ensure that the subtitle contains key words that readers interested in the novel might use when looking or new reading material. Since I had “crusader” in the title already, I wanted Cyprus in the subtitle. The “dawning of a dynasty” part just came to me one day and I liked it because it can refer to either the Lusignan dynasty or the Ibelin dynasty.
There were rich resources to draw on for research for the Balian d’Ibelin trilogy, but were there contemporary chroniclers writing about the Ibelins and the Lusignans and the settlement of Cyprus? How does the presence or absence of that type of material affect this particular story?
Basically, there are only two Latin chronicles that describe the establishment of Lusignan rule on Cyprus: 1) the (lost) Chronicle of Ernoul (which forms the basis of an existing work usually referred to as the Chronique d’Ernoul et de Bernard le Tresorier), and 2) the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre. The later, however, is in part based on the former, while historians increasingly question whether the “Chronique” itself is “authentic” (i.e. written by an eye-witness) for events after Hattin. In short, the source material is thin and weak on the Latin side.
The best contemporary Greek source are the writings of the Cypriot hermit/monk Neophytos, later sanctified, who lived through this period on Cyprus itself, but whose “history” is lost. The remaining works by Neophytos are primarily religious, and his descriptions of conditions on the island may be intended more to warn of the impending Second Coming than have historical validity. As for Arab sources, because the Muslims had no presence, trade or interest in Cyprus at this period, they provide no additional insight.
What fascinates you most about this particular period in history?
The absence of credible accounts for a short but significant period of history was an open invitation to a novelist’s imagination. How was Cyprus transformed in just five years from an island where insurgents successfully drove out the Knights Templars to a kingdom that enjoyed fundamental peace and prosperity for 300 years? Add the fact that key characters from my Jerusalem Trilogy, Aimery de Lusignan and his Ibelin wife Eschiva, must have played a key role, and that the principal characters of the Jerusalem Trilogy, Balian and his royal Greek wife Maria Comnena, could have played a key role, and I was hooked.
But there’s more as well. Thirty years later, during the 6th Crusade, Balian’s son John was to play a leading role in the resistance to Holy Roman Emperor’s efforts to impose authoritarian rule in Outremer. The “forgotten” piece of history described in The Last Crusader Kingdom corresponds precisely to the period of John d’Ibelin’s coming of age. These must have been formative years for a man who became an even greater legend than his father. So it was fun to speculate about what he might have experienced in this period that could have shaped his attitudes and character enough to make him such a staunch opponent of autocracy in his mature years.
John d’Ibelin is one of my favorite characters. Maybe that’s because I raised two teenage boys. Obviously, John grows up quickly and lives in a vastly different world than my sons. But readers can easily identify with him. What are John’s strengths and weaknesses?
Char, thanks so much for saying that! That’s almost the greatest compliment you could make!
Given what John has gone through ― losing his inheritance and wealth at the age of 8, surviving two Saracen sieges) ― he could have been become sullen and resentful or discouraged and listless. He could have been a teenager who felt “what’s the point?” or that the world “owed him” something. But he isn’t. So,
I’d say John’s greatest strength is his optimism. It enables him to see the best in any situation and not lose heart regardless of what confronts him. The other side of that coin is that he’s a bit naïve. What do you think?
As an actual historical figure, we know what lies ahead for John beyond the end of your book, but did he ever surprise you as you wrote the mostly fictional account of his teenage years?
Not really in that the scenes with John just seemed to write themselves. John was very real to me, and I could trust him to take over and show me what happened.
Your writing definitely gives us a sense of place with wonderful descriptions of the island of Cyprus. Did you visit the island on a research ‘pilgrimage’?
I first visited Cyprus in 1992 and it changed my life forever. It was the start of an enduring love-affair with the Eastern Mediterranean that has ended with my husband and I buying property and building a retirement home on a Greek island. I have visited Cyprus a total of five times, staying on different parts of the island and visiting the places described in the novel and more, most of them several times. My most recent trip was in 2012. It’s time to go back!
Do you have a favorite scene in The Last Crusader Kingdom you can tell readers about without giving away any spoilers?
My personal favorite is when Eschiva has miscarried a child after her arrival on Cyprus and has talked herself into believing Aimery will now set her aside. She is feeling like she wants to die and is praying to God to take her to Him. Just then she looks up and sees what appears to be the Virgin Mary sweeping into the room in answer to her prayers ― only the “Virgin” starts giving angry orders to the frightened servants in Greek. “The Comnena” has arrived to bring order out of chaos.
Is The Last Crusader Kingdom book 1 of a new series? If not, what is up next for you?
The Last Crusader Kingdom is a “bridge” novel. Although it has many common characters with the Jerusalem Trilogy and wraps up many loose ends, it really can stand alone. In fact, the best reviews so far are from readers who had not read the Jerusalem Trilogy.
Nevertheless, although John d’Ibelin will be the focal point for at least two more novels that I plan to write, readers do not need to read The Last Crusader Kingdom in order to understand and enjoy these up-coming books. Again, this book stands on its own.
The book I’m working on right now describes the 6th Crusade led by the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Hohenstaufen (1228-1229). The book is tentatively titled: Defying the Wonder of the World: A Novel of the Sixth Crusade. The “Wonder of the World” was a term used by contemporaries to refer to Friedrich II Hohenstaufen. The book is told predominantly through the eyes of John’s eldest son and heir, who is a very young man of 21 when the 6th Crusade starts, and his future wife.
The 6th Crusade ignited a constitutional struggle between the Hohenstaufen Emperors and the barons of Outremer that lasted more than a decade. The issue at stake was the right of the Emperor to rule the crusader states (as he did Sicily) as an absolute monarch without respect for the constitutions and institutions of Cyprus and Jerusalem. John d’Ibelin led the baronial opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor, consistently arguing for the “rule of law” in the shape of the constitution of both kingdoms. He was supported by his five sons, his nephews and brothers-in-law, and roughly 4/5 of the barons of Cyprus, and ultimately the young King of Cyprus, Henry I. I’m not sure if I can cover that complex conflict, which had a number of battles and amphibious lands, dramatic changes of fortune and shifts of loyalty and more in a single book, so it might end up being another trilogy.
Helena, thanks so much for stopping by. And thank you for sharing your beautiful photos from Cyprus.