Visiting with author Helena Schrader about my novel For King and Country

5fd8e47ed036ac5eb5bd484b32302357-1-2 Join me on Helena Schrader’s blog today as we talk about For King and Country. I “met” Helena virtually when Battle Scars I, Men of the Cross, was published and Helena was writing her trilogy on Balian d’Ibelin covering the years prior to the Third Crusade. Our common interests in that time period led to conversation and interviews, so I am delighted to continue that tradition and thank Helena for inviting me back to her blog. I hope you will enjoy the Q&A!


For King and Country is a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree and has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice. It is currently available on Amazon in ebook and print formats.

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: 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, Follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom,

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.


Helena P. Schrader and Defender of Jerusalem

HPS-sculpture (2)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… DEFENDER-OF-JERUSALEM-2

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, Follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom,

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.

Interview with Author Helena P. Schrader

HPS-sculpture (2)

Balian, the landless son of a local baron, goes to Jerusalem to seek his fortune. Instead, he finds himself trapped into serving the young prince suffering from leprosy, an apparent sentence to obscurity and death. But the unexpected death of King Amalric makes the leper boy King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and Balian’s prospects begin to improve…
–Knight of Jerusalem by Helena P. Schrader.

It is a privilege to have Helena P. Schrader visit my blog today.

CS: Wow, Helena! To the general audience, Knight of Jerusalem sounds like incredible fiction: the third son with no prospects for land, title, or wealth, a leper king, and events leading up to the Third Crusade. The plot possibilities are endless. But what makes this story so intriguing is that it is a biographical novel. Balian d’Ibelin was a real person whose history might sound more fiction than fact. So let’s get down to your research and writing… 

Knight of Jerusalem centers on an era that is close to my heart and my own writing. Tell us about your book series. What inspired you to write Balian d’Ibelin’s fascinating story?

HS: The Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom. Knight of JerusalemAlthough it was a beautiful piece of cinematography, as a historian I was immediately suspicious that most of it was pure “Hollywood.” I did a quick check on “Balian d’Ibelin” — only to discover (to my amazement!) that some of the most unlikely parts of the film were historical fact. Furthermore, I learned that the historical Balian had a far more interesting story than the Hollywood Balian. The more I read about the real Balian, the more fascinated I became. I was soon hooked. I started out to write a single book and within nine months knew the story was too complex to handle in a single volume, hence the biography in three parts.

CN: It has been years since I have seen “The Kingdom of Heaven.”  I wasn’t a student of crusades history at the time, so the ‘fiction’ vs. historical fact likely blew right over my head. Was there one thing in particular that you couldn’t believe was true until you did the research? 

HS: Yes, the mass knighting. In the film, when Balian is organizing the defense of Jerusalem and Heraclius tells him they have no knights, Balian tells all the fighting men to kneel and proceeds to knight them all. That seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but it does have a basis in truth. In reality it was only 80 youths “of good birth” – the younger brothers and sons of the men killed or captured at Hattin who had taken refuge in Jerusalem for the most part – that Balian knighted, but he did have a mass knighting because he was the only knight in Jerusalem when he arrived. In my novel, I’m going to have him include men-at-arms he knows and trusts as well (as battlefield knightings of men of lesser birth were not at all unheard of.)

The negotiations with Saladin are almost verbatim what the Arab sources report, but that rang true even when I saw the film for the first time, so I suspected that was accurate.

The stupidist part of the film is how Balian alone survives a shipwreck with a horse who is equally uninjured and then he fights an important emir and wins in a “fair fight.” In reality, of course, Balian was born and raised in Outremer and never had to travel by sea to get there. Nor was he a blacksmith or illegitimate. But his brother had an affair with Sibylla before she married Lusignan and Balian himself married a former queen of Jeruslaem, so even the love affair with Sibylla had an indirect and tenuous relationship to reality.

CN: You weren’t always a novelist. How has your background and education played into writing fiction? 

HS: Well, I was almost always a novelist, I wrote my first novel in 2nd grade, but you are right to speculate that my background and education played a critical role in turning me into a novelist at a very early age. My father was a professor who went to Japan on an exchange program when I was just two years old. Two years later, we returned via Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delphi, Athens, Rome, and then by car up to Denmark before flying to London and from there home. Now, to keep a four-year-old amused on such a long trip my father deployed the simple device of simplifying the explanations of everything we visited into terms of interest to a four year old. Thus, in the Colosseum in Rome he explained succinctly: “This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that interests a four year old! I started looking about the ruins trying to figure out where they’d kept the lions and where they’d kept the Christians and trying to imagine how I would have escaped. I’ve been imagining what life was like in a different times and circumstances ever since. Living in England in my teens was hugely inspiring, feeding my imagination with stories – and then there were the trips to “Cathar Country” in the South of France, and Cyprus, and. . .you get the picture.

CN: What a life! Though I haven’t traveled that extensively, I am a firm believer in the benefits of visiting other places and experiencing other cultures. What about the locations that feature in your novel – have you visited them? 

HS: Usually the visit precedes the novel. I am somewhere, read a plaque or a guide book describing events that happened there, and my imagination starts to run wild. But the plots of novels often lead me to places I have not yet been. I then do everything in my power to get there, because I find a visit to a location makes a huge difference to my understanding of it. For example, I accepted the usual drivel about Sparta being a poor and barren place (see descriptions of it in “Gates of Fire” or “Isle of Stone”) until I came around the bend of the road from road from modern Tripoli to modern Sparti and saw the valley of the Eurotas (the heartland of ancient Sparta) spread out before me. It was one of the most stunningly beautiful – and fertile – places I had ever seen. The contrast between reality and legend was so great it started me down a road of investigation that soon turned up the fact that ancient commentators on Sparta described it as much richer and more fertile than Attica. After I’d revised my understanding of the physical Sparta, I started questioning all the cliches about Spartans being uneducated thugs, thoughtless automatons, etc. etc. I soon discovered that Sparta was a far more liberal and intellectual place than popular literature and TV make it – indeed, arguably more liberal and literate than Athens. (For those interested in the topic, they can visit my website Sparta Reconsidered or my blog:

But I’ve drifted off topic. Yes, I usually try to get to the places I write about but it’s not always possible. For example, the castle and medieval down of Ibelin has been completely obliterated over the centuries. Even the palace and tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem are gone. I couldn’t risk going to Nablus in the Palestinian territories and Kerak lies in Jordan, which I have also been unable to visit as yet. So, I do what I can, but it isn’t always as much as I’d like. For this book, I did, at least, get to the Old City in Jerusalem, to Hattin, Jaffa, Ascalon, Ramla, and Lydda.

CN: With all the traveling you’ve done, do you have a favorite place to visit?

HS: Yes, I’ve travelled a great deal and I’ve lived in Japan, Brazil, England, Germany, Nigeria, and now Ethiopia. The place I’ve chosen for my retirement, however, is an island off the coast of the Peloponnese (once part of Lacedaemon, i.e. the hinterland of Sparta). My husband and I are building a house there with a view across the Maleas Straits to the snow-capped mountains behind Sparta.

CN: That sounds absolutely gorgeous. A perfect writer’s retreat. Speaking of writing, what has been the most challenging part of novel writing for you?

HS: The most difficult challenge for me as a historian (I have a PhD in history) is giving precedence to literary cohesion over historical accuracy. I have a tendency to want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of a novel, but the best works of historical literature are not always 100% correct. Shakespeare’s “histories” are notoriously inaccurate! A great piece of literature captures the spirit and essence of a period, but it may condense events to make them more dramatic or combine characters to keep the book from being overwhelmed with personalities. I’m not saying a novelist can take any amount of license, but sometimes license is justified, and knowing when it is right and good to do so is for me often difficult sometimes.

CN: Do you do a detailed plot and outline?

HS: Because this is a biographical novel, my plot/outline is the historical record. I work from both a chronology and an outline. The chronology contains all the relevant historical facts of the history of the Crusader States (not just Balian’s own life, but also the political, religious, economic events that shaped his lifetime) from the estimated date of Balian’s birth to a couple decades after his presumed death. Based on the historical facts, including the known biographical facts about Balian, his brother, wife, sons, niece etc. I developed an outline identifying which facts I wanted to present in what context and then added the fictional bits around this skeleton.

CN: In the introduction to Knight of Jerusalem, you write, “A biographical novel…is a medium that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.” It’s been my experience that many historians look down on genre fiction. How can we convince them of the value of books like yours?

HS: Most historians are put-off, not to say nauseated, by the number of books out there that call themselves “historical” and then have time travellers, dragons, vampires and I-don’t-know-what- all in them. Nearly as bad are “historical” novels with characters who behave, think, and have the attitudes of modern people, or books that change basic, well-known, important historical facts for no purpose. Honestly, there is so much trash out there masquerading as “historical” fiction that it can be very, very depressing. At the same time, some of the greatest pieces of literature are historical fiction. What else, after all, was the Iliad? Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur? or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? In fact, in my experience, historians readily admit that good historical fiction can make a very valuable contribution to our understanding of history, and many teachers of history relish a good, accurate historical novel as a means of awaking interest and evoking history for often reluctant students. In short, historians are some of my best fans precisely because they appreciate the accuracy and authenticity of my works.

CN: When writing a novel based on an existing historical figure, we often need to extrapolate beyond what our research uncovers in the official written record. Did you ever have the need to bend the truth and get more creative to make the story work?

HS: Absolutely, but “extrapolate” is the operative word here. It isn’t about just making things up, its about looking at the historical record and trying to develop a logical explanation of why a historical figure might have acted one way rather than another. The more famous that person is, the more defensible and logical that extrapolation better be! It’s about understanding human nature and being able to put yourself in someone else’s skin and see the world through his/her eyes. It also means that there are multiple, alternative interpretations, all of which are equally legitimate — just like different actors can interpret the same character in a play very differently without altering a single line.

CN: How long did it take you to write Knight of Jerusalem?

HS: It took about nine months for the first, rough draft. Then I did a re-write, sent it to test readers and re-wrote again based on their comments, before it went to the editor. Altogether from the first scene to publication about 15 months.

CN: Did you plot out the sequels as you were writing the first book, or are those processes completely separate? 

HS: As this is a biographical novel, the skeleton of the book existed before I even started to write. But when I started, I thought it would be just one book only to soon realize that to do justice to Balian and the wider topic, I needed to include more characters and historical events and that it wouldn’t work as one book. Ideally, I should have finished the entire work before releasing Book I because ultimately things will come up in the later books that impact Book I, but for marketing/sales reasons it is better to release the books sequentially. I don’t know if that answers your question, really. Maybe it would be easier to say the rough outline is pre-determined by history and Balian’s biography; the detailed outline is worked out in ever finer detail as I get closer to writing that particular section, and ultimately during writing itself.

CN: Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

HS: If I’m having trouble writing a scene then something’s not right about it. In which case, I have to step back and consider a different approach – maybe a different point of view, or skipping over the scene altogether in favor of something else and only referring to the events of the skipped scene in retrospect. There are lots of devices for telling key events/components of a story. It can be fun playing around with a variety of approaches to see what works best.

That said, if there is a historical character I simply do not understand, then I cannot write a scene from their perspective. Keep in mind, fictional characters are your own creation and if you didn’t understand them, they wouldn’t be there. But biographical fiction inevitably requires certain other characters to appear and sometimes I don’t have any particular insight into what made them do the things recorded in history. This is what has happened to me with Sibylla of Jerusalem. I simply do not understand what made her tick. I can’t get into her head and so I cannot do any scene from her perspective. One of my test readers considered this a serious flaw, saying that given her importance in history I had to explain her actions. Well, that’s a good point, but I can’t do that. It’s a flaw.

CN: I like your tips about various approaches to scenes. I know I’ve experimented, scratched out numerous scenarios, to find what will move the plot forward. Speaking of scenes, do you have a favorite one from Knight of Jerusalem? Which one & why? 

HS: Do you mean the scene I think was most effective? or the one that captivated me most? The sack of Ibelin while Balian’s sister-in-law and niece were trapped in the castle was something I wrote about several times because I became totally absorbed in what it must have been like for a woman with a young child in such a predicament — but then I ended up cutting the scene altogether because it didn’t work in the overall flow. I think the most effective scenes in the book are those with Baldwin IV, particularly when he realizes the leprosy is spreading again.

CN: Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

HS: So many! Balian himself, Maria Comnena, Reynald de Chatillon, of course, and the Leper King. I find the entire cast of characters fascinating at some level, and the historical events equally so.

CN: What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books? Are there any you’ve read multiple times, or that you would give as a gift?

HS: Joseph Conrad was an early favourte, Katherine by Anya Seaton and The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman are books I own and have read more than once, but also Under an English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe, and Champion by Christian Balling.

CN: When can we look forward to book 2 in your series? Does it have a title yet?

HS: I’d like to release the second book in the series, Defender of Jerusalem in September of 2015, one year after the release of Knight of Jerusalem. The goal is to release the third and final book, tentatively titled Envoy of Jerusalem in September 2016.

CN: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working or writing? Favorite past time?

HS: Riding. I have an Arab-Ethiopian stallion here, who is (I confess) too hot for me, but he’s got so much character I can’t give him up for one of the duller horses.

CN:  Helena, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to your posts on Defending the Crusader Kingdom, and hope that others will add Knight of Jerusalem to their to-read lists! 


Read more about Helena on her blog, In addition to the Sparta site she mentions above, follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom,

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 Goodreads, Facebook, and YouTube.