Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Rebels against Tyranny - The Forgotten and Unloved Bride of an Emperor

While the hostility between the Ibelins and Amaury Barlais aggravated the civil war in the crusader states, the root cause of the war lay in the marriage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, to the heiress of Jerusalem, Yolanda. Frederick II is a legendary monarch, famed for his success in holding onto power from the Baltic Sea to Sicily.  He is often characterized as a monarch "ahead of his time," and admired for his learning.  His struggles with the Lombard League, his own son, and his bitter conflict with the papacy are the subject of countless works of fiction and non-fiction. Yolanda, on the other hand, has largely been lost in the history books because she was an unloved second wife who died less than three years after her marriage to Frederick. I wanted to give her a face and voice -- if only for a brief moment.

Cheering from the city marked the progress of the queen toward the harbor. They all turned to watch and shortly afterward, the queen’s party emerged. Yolanda was riding on a very pretty, dish-faced white palfrey decked out in a saddlecloth with the arms of Jerusalem on it. She herself wore a practical russet gown, but over this, a surcoat of white silk “dusted” with gold crosses. Her head was encased in a white, gauze wimple to mark her status as a married woman, despite the fact she was still a maiden. 

The cheering of her people made the girl-queen blush with embarrassment, but it also made her smile and wave. Beirut’s heart went out to her. She was still so very young. Indeed, she was the same age as his only daughter, Bella. He couldn’t have borne the thought of sending his little girl across the water to an utter stranger, and he found his dislike of John de Brienne hardening. 

Despite the death of his wife, Brienne continued to claim the crown of Jerusalem, dubiously Beirut thought, because of Yolanda. Yet he hadn’t bothered to visit her in five years. And while Beirut recognized the advantages of Yolanda’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, he was also a father. He loved his six children more than his own life, and sometimes more than Jerusalem. Based on what he had heard, he would not have sent his daughter Bella to marry Frederick Hohenstaufen—not for all the gold in Constantinople. 

Queen Yolanda approached, flanked on one side by Eudes de Montbéliard and on the other by a young woman Beirut did not recognize. “Who is the young lady with the Queen?” Beirut asked Sidon. 

“Ah, that is Eudes’ sister Eschiva. The Queen asked her to join her household,” Sidon hastened to explain, anticipating Beirut’s objections to the “parvenu” Montbéliards again successfully positioning themselves close to the crown. 

To Sidon’s surprise, Beirut nodded with approval. Now that they were nearer, he recognized the girl as the most sensible of all the maidens in attendance on the Queen over the past three weeks. He had noticed and approved of the way she had kept to the background while the other girls preened and flirted—all too often with his son Balian. More important, it had been this girl who repeatedly calmed or encouraged an uncertain and nervous Yolanda. He simply had not realized that she was Montbéliard’s daughter. Now that Sidon identified her, however, he noticed that she shared a family resemblance with her brother from the bright blond hair and blue eyes to the long face and nose. Unlike her brother, however, she smiled and chattered excitedly with the Queen. Like his son Hugh, she seemed delighted to be going West, something that would surely help the Queen overcome her obvious foreboding. 

As the Queen reached the gangway to the Imperial dromond, she drew up. At once, a knight from her entourage sprang down to hold her off-stirrup. As she touched the ground, a groom came forward to lead her horse away. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain descended the gangway to bend his knee, his hand on his heart, before her. Beirut was glad she was traveling on an Imperial ship commanded by a Sicilian captain because there had been some very unseemly squabbling between the Pisans, Genoese and Venetian communities of Outremer about who should have the honor of transporting the Queen and her party. 

Before the captain could lead Yolanda aboard his ship, however, Beirut stepped forward. “My lady queen!” Yolanda turned, startled, in the direction of his voice. She looked at Beirut uncertainly, unsure who he was. 

“John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, my lady.” Beirut helped her out of her dilemma, and she broke into a wide smile.

“Of course, my lord. I should have remembered you, but I’ve met so many new people these last few weeks.” 

“I understand entirely, my lady. I have come to see you off, and give you a little gift—more for your voyage than your marriage.” As he spoke he gestured to his sons, and Balian at once opened his father’s saddlebag to remove an object wrapped in painted leather. He handed this to his father, and Beirut unwrapped the leader cover to withdraw a book. This he held out to Queen Yolanda. 

Eschiva de Montbéliard had come to stand behind her queen. At the sight of the book, she let out a little gasp of delight. 

Beirut cast the Montbéliard girl a smile before addressing the Queen again. “This was your great-grandmother’s book. She would have wanted you to have it.” 

Queen Yolanda looked up at him frowning slightly as she tried to work it out. “My great-grandmother? Queen Maria Comnena? Your mother?” Yolanda might not have recognized him, but she had learned the lessons about her dynasty well. 

“Exactly.” Beirut lovingly opened the ivory cover of the book to reveal the interior, eliciting another appreciative gasp from the Montbéliard girl. “It is, I am afraid, in Greek, but I was told you were taught Greek.” It was as much a question as a statement. 

The Queen nodded vigorously, going on tip-toe to see the book better. Beirut at once lowered his hands to make it easier for her to see and explained. “It is the story of a Greek sailor trying to return home after a long war in what is now the Empire of Nicaea. Along the way, he suffers many adventures and hardships that take him all across the Mediterranean. Although the journey is embellished with many fanciful beasts and mythical adventures, still I think you will find it a lively and informative companion on your journey. At least I hope you do.” Beirut bowed deeply and handed the book to his Queen. 

Yolanda took it from him and held it to her still flat chest. “It is very, very kind of you, my lord! I can’t wait to read it!” For an instant, she was a little girl again rather than a queen and bride. 

Beirut bowed again. “I hope it will always bring you pleasure—and remind you of your home and your heritage.” 

Yolanda seemed to want to say more, but Eudes de Montbéliard was moving from foot to foot to indicate his impatience. He cleared his throat and admonished, “We do not want to miss the tide, my lady.” He always managed to sound as if he thought he knew better than everyone else, Beirut thought. 

Yolanda responded as if she had been guilty of some misdeed and hastened to do as Montbéliard urged. She started for the ship, but then she stopped to say over her shoulder with heartfelt emphasis, “Thank you again, my lord! I love books!” 

Montbéliard shooed his queen and his sister aboard the ship, giving her no chance to stay on deck to watch them cast off. They are prisoners already, Beirut thought—not entirely logically. Yolanda was on her way to be crowned Holy Roman Empress—arguably the most powerful woman on earth. So why did he feel so sorry for her, and so sad?

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Rebels Against Tyranny - A Fateful Fall

Sometimes a seemingly minor incident can trigger a chain of events with profound consequences.  According to the 13th-century historian Philip de Novare, the bitter antagonism between the Ibelins and Sir Amaury Barlais, which grew into a full-scale civil war when the Holy Roman Emperor exploited Barlais' bitterness for his own purposes, all started at a tournament...

In a series of novels, I plan to explore and describe the people and principles that tore the Holy Land apart for nearly two decades in the mid-thirteen century. The first book in this series, Rebels against Tyranny, was recently released. As is fitting, the opening scene takes the reader to that fateful tournament in 1225.

“Philip, are you all right?” a young, male voice called out anxiously.

Sir Philip of Novare couldn’t see the owner of the voice because his squire was trying to pry his misshapen great helm off his head—without taking half his face off with it. Philip had just lost a “friendly” joust. Although his opponent had used only a blunted mace, he’d still managed to bash in the side of Philip’s helm.

Philip was sweating profusely, as much from increasing panic as the heat of a Cypriot summer day. The air inside the helm seemed to grow thinner and thinner as his squire Andre twisted the metal pot to try to maneuver it past Philip’s chin. The pounding of his blood in his temples and the rasping of his breath seemed to echo inside the helmet, blotting out most other sounds. He could barely hear Andre answer the newcomer in an anxious, frightened voice. “I can’t get the helm off, sir.”

“Let me try,” the voice answered, coming nearer. “It’s me. Balian.”

“I can hardly breathe anymore, Bal,” Philip gasped.

Firm hands grasped the helmet, and a moment later the air flooded back into Philip’s lungs like a fresh breeze. Balian had twisted the helm so that both the eye slit and breathing holes were in position again. Their eyes met, and Philip could see the concern and question in Balian’s eyes. “I’m fine—if I could just get this damned thing off!” Philip assured his friend.

Balian and he had just spent the last three years earning their spurs together. Yesterday, in an extravagant ceremony, they had been knighted by Balian’s father, the powerful Lord of Beirut, along with Balian’s younger brother Baldwin and five other youths. Today’s jousting was part of the three-day celebration, which would culminate in a full-scale melee pitting the barons and knights of Syria against those of Cyprus.

Balian was already seventeen and had long felt ready for the accolade of knighthood. Philip knew that Balian was both wounded and resentful that his father had delayed his knighting so long—and then knighted his fourteen-month-younger brother at the same time. Being so close in age, the brothers had always been rivals, but the intensity of their competition was aggravated by the fact that they were very different in temperament. Baldwin was like water to Balian’s fire—and took pleasure in dousing Balian’s enthusiasm and pride. Balian’s need to prove himself better than Baldwin in front of all the peers of the realm had provoked him into taking stupid risks this morning. Fortunately, he’d gotten away with them and ridden undefeated from the lists.

Under the circumstances, Philip thought, he might have been forgiven for basking in his hard-won glory and gloating a bit instead of coming down into the dusty tent-city to find out what had happened to his friend. After all, in addition to practically every baron and knight of Outremer, there were scores of ladies and maidens in the stands. Balian had the kind of good looks that appealed to women. By the way the maidens had been biting their fingernails at Balian’s near falls and cheering his successes, Philip could imagine all too vividly the way Balian would be adulated and adored by blushing young beauties the moment he joined the spectators. Instead, Balian hadn’t even taken the time to change out of his sweat-soaked gambeson and dusty surcoat.

“I think I better fetch an armorer, Philip,” Balian told Philip after a moment of inspection.

“He’ll want to cut it open!” Philip protested with a new kind of panic. Unlike Balian who was heir to the lordship of Beirut, son of one of the richest men in both Syria and Cyprus, Philip was an orphan. His father, a knight from Lombardy, had died during the first siege of Damietta when he was only twelve. A Cypriot, Sir Peter Chappe, had taken Philip under his wing, letting him serve as his page until Philip’s skill at reading earned him the patronage of a more powerful lord, Sir Ralph of Tiberias. The latter had been nearing death, however, and Philip had soon found himself without a lord, let alone a fief. Balian’s father had rescued him by bestowing a small Cypriot fief upon him and sending him to serve as a squire in his brother’s household, where he had met and befriended Balian. Philip had spent all the cash he could raise from his one fief just to outfit himself—and now his expensive helm was in risk of being ruined beyond repair.

“Very probably,” Balian agreed calmly, and Philip knew his friend just couldn’t understand. Balian’s armor had cost twice as much in the first place, and he wouldn’t have given a thought to replacing it on a whim. Balian didn’t hesitate to wear silk surcoats on the tiltyard either or buy a sword with an enameled pommel or a saddle with ivory inlays.

“Balian! I can’t afford a new helmet!” Philip protested in exasperation.

“You can’t exactly spend the rest of your life wearing that one either,” Balian retorted practically. “You can’t drink or eat in it for a start. I’m going to fetch the armorer. Andre?” He turned to his friend’s young, inexperienced and frightened squire.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Draw a cold bath for Sir Philip. When we get him out of that thing, he’s going to need to cool off. He very likely got a concussion and doesn’t even know it yet.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I’ll be right back, Philip,” Balian assured his friend, and ducked under the partially opened tent flap.

Outside Philip’s tent, Balian was in a city of canvas. Literally, hundreds of lords and knights had pitched their tents on the plain west of Limassol to take part in this sporting event. Tournaments had been popular in France and Flanders for nearly a century, but for most of that time, the knights and lords of Outremer had been engaged in too much real warfare against the Saracens to seek mock combat. The last decades, however, had been comparatively settled due to squabbling between the heirs of al-Adil. With the Ayyubids fighting among themselves, the Franks had been given a respite from war, and their appetite for sport had grown commensurately.

Although the actual lists were a couple hundred yards away, the dust churned up by the jousting wafted on the wind across the tent city, turning the air a murky beige and the sound of cheering and shouting was only slightly dampened. Clearly, the current joust was exciting the crowd because the shouts and collective groans seemed particularly intense. Balian, however, only glanced in the direction of the lists, knowing that the matches scheduled for this afternoon did not include any of his friends or family. Instead, he tried to decide the best way through the rows of tents to the armorers who had set up shops along the far periphery.

He had only gone a few steps when a new roar of agitation rose from the bleachers. People seemed to be shouting, “Stop! Stop!”

Balian paused to look in the direction of the lists and saw a little man come storming out on foot. It was Sir Amaury Barlais. He was covered with sand, evidently from a tumble, but that was hardly unusual. What was striking was that he was beet red with fury as he cursed and gestured. “I’ll kill him! I swear! I’ll kill him! He was cheating! It was obvious! If they refuse to see that, they’re all cheats and liars!”

Two other knights were running after him, his cousin Sir Grimbert de Bethsan and Sir Gauvain de Cheveché. “Amaury, you might be right that Sir Toringuel was cheating, but it does you no good to accuse the baillie of being in cahoots with him—”

“Why shouldn’t I? Damn it! Toringuel is Ibelin’s knight. If he was cheating, it was with his knowledge and consent!”

Balian flinched at such an accusation. Aside from being baillie, his uncle was an Ibelin, and he had been raised to believe that all Ibelins had an obligation to live by the very highest standards of chivalry. From the time he was a little boy, it had been beaten into him that as an Ibelin he had to be more honest, more charitable, more loyal, more diligent, more persistent, more courageous, more compassionate—in short more noble than other men. That he didn’t always live up to that ideal was obvious, but he had never expected to hear anyone impute that his uncle fell short of the highest standards. People might not like all of his policies, but Balian had never before heard anyone accuse his uncle of anything dishonorable.

Sir Grimbert made a second attempt to calm Barlais. “You don’t know that, Amaury. If you’re so sure Sir Toringuel was cheating, then demand an inspection of his weapons, but don’t lash out at the judges! That only makes them disinclined to support you!”

“They’re all a bunch of bastards!” Barlais insisted, his rage so intense that his veins were pulsing in his temples as he tore off his coif and arming cap. He was in his mid-thirties and his hair was thinning over angular features that made Balian’s friend Philip de Novare compare him to a weasel. The latter image was reinforced because he wore his short, brown hair slicked back away from his sharp face. He ducked into a tent like a rodent going to earth, but as Balian passed by he was still raging, “I’ll kill him! I swear, I’ll kill him!”

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

House of Ibelin: Margaret, Lady of Tiberias, Lady of Caesarea

Hook: She lost her home to Saladin at the age of eight. Her first husband was exiled for an attempted assassination by her brother-in-law. Her second husband died fighting beside her brother in rebellion against the Holy Roman Emperor. She was the only child of Maria Comnena to ever visit Constantinople, and the only child of Balian d’Ibelin to live long enough to reclaim control of Ibelin: Margaret d’Ibelin.

Margaret, Balian and Maria’s second daughter, was the only one of their children to ever seen Constantinople ― and the only one to live long enough to see the return of Ibelin from Saracen control. Like most women of the age, however, we know of her only indirectly and we can only speculate about her feelings and personality.

Margaret was the third child of Balian and Maria, born at the earliest in 1180, and possibly later. Like Philip, she would have been very young when her birthplace and inheritance of Ibelin was lost to the Saracens and would have understood little of what was happening when her father came to Jerusalem or when she was escorted out by Mamlukes. The next years of comparative poverty and uncertainty may have left more lasting memories, but she would have been little more than 12 when the Treaty of Ramla stabilized the situation and reduced the immediate threat.

Sometime in her late teens, Meg married Hugh of Tiberias. Hugh was the son and heir of the Prince of Galilee, and a stepson of Raymond de Tripoli.  Indeed, Hugh had fought beside Tripoli at Hattin and escaped the field at the same time. Hugh must, therefore, have been at least ten years older than Meg and probably 12 to 15 years older. Since Galilee had been lost in the aftermath of Hattin, Hugh was effectively landless, and it is unclear what his source of income was at the time of his marriage, but as a staunch supporter of Henri de Champagne we can assume that he enjoyed royal patronage and drew income from either royal offices or a money fief in one of the coastal cities granted by the king.

When Henri de Champagne died in the fall of 1198, Hugh proposed his younger brother Ralph as a suitable consort for the widowed Queen Isabella of Jerusalem. The High Court turned down the proposal, however, on the grounds that Ralph brought no new resources ― either financial or human ― to the kingdom.  Instead, the High Court chose Aimery de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, as Isabella’s fourth husband.

In 1198, Aimery de Lusignan barely escaped an assassination attempt.  His suspicions fell on the Tiberias brothers because he suspected them of still coveting his throne.  He seized their properties and ordered them out of the kingdom.  Significantly, the barons of Jerusalem, including Hugh’s brother-in-law and the Queen’s half-brother, John of Beirut rallied to the support of the Tiberias brothers.  Beirut, although he’d been appointed Constable of Jerusalem by Aimery, argued that the king did not have the right to pass judgement on a vassal without the judgement of the High Court. Meg would surely have been gratified by her brother’s strong stand with her husband, but no matter how right his logic was, the Tiberias brothers did not feel safe in Lusignan’s kingdom.  They chose exile, whether voluntarily or not.

Meg and Hugh went first to Tripoli, where they stayed two or three years.  In 1204, however, Constantinople fell to a mercenary army of Latin Christians, and they decided to try their luck there. It is easy to imagine that Meg, as the daughter of a Byzantine Princess, was the driving force behind this move.  She would have grown up hearing her mother’s tales of the “Queen of Cities.” Indeed, her mother was at this time still alive, yet widowed. She might well have visited or even joined Meg in Constantinople for a time. However, Hugh’s arrival in the city is the last recorded event of his life. He evidently died in Constantinople sometime between 1204 and 1210. The couple had no children. 

After her husband’s death, Meg was free to return to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, something Meg evidently did, probably to live with her brother John in Beirut. Sometime before 1210 she remarried, this time Walter of Caesarea. Walter was the heir to the Lordship of Caesarea, but he did not at this time control it. His mother had remarried a certain Aymar of Laron, and they jointly controlled Caesarea ― very much to Walter’s disadvantage, since Aymar loaded the lordship with debt.

Frustrated in his access to his inheritance, Walter sought his fortune elsewhere, namely on Cyprus. Some sources say he was appointed Constable there as early as 1206, but this would have meant an appointment by Walter of Montbéliard, which for various reasons seems unlikely. The other date offered for his appointment is 1210, the year in which King Hugh came of age and married Alice de Champagne, which seems far more plausible.

Alice de Champagne was Meg’s niece, the daughter of her half-sister Isabella of Jerusalem by Henri de Champagne. We know that Meg’s brothers, John and Philip, escorted Alice to Cyprus to her wedding. She would certainly have needed women attendants. What would have been more natural than for Meg to be the chief among these? Through her connections to the new queen, it would have been easiest for Walter to obtain a royal appointment.

However and whenever it came about Walter performed his duties as Constable with credit. He led a contingent of 100 Cypriot knights to Egypt for the siege of Damietta in 1218.  He was still in Egypt when Saracen forces broke through to Caesarea and laid it to waste, effectively ending his interest in regaining control.  He was present at the coronation of Yolanda (Isabella II) of Jerusalem at Tyre in 1225, and a witness to the banquet in Nicosia where Emperor Frederick II made allegations against the Ibelins and seized hostages, setting off what was to be a long civil war. As long as he lived, Walter was a steadfast supporter of the Ibelin cause in their struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor. Indeed, Walter was killed fighting with the Ibelins at the Battle of Nicosia on July 14, 1229.

Meg was left a widow with one son and four daughters, all of whom must have been less than 20 years of age.  She did not remarry and probably remained on Cyprus where she had spent most of her married life and undoubtedly had properties.

She was roughly 60 years old when in 1241 her birthplace of Ibelin was recovered from the Saracen’s by treaty. Notably, according to the law of Jerusalem, the lordship fell to her rather than to her nephew, the eldest son of the eldest son, because she was the “nearer” relative of the last lord of Ibelin, namely her father Balian.  It must have been deeply satisfying to her to regain Ibelin after more than half a century. One can only hope that she had died before it was lost again in 1253.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week. Meanwhile, Meg is a minor character in
 The Last Crusader Kingdom and Rebels against Tyranny.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

House of Ibelin: Philip of Cyprus

Philip is often lumped together with his brother John, Lord of Beirut, by chroniclers and historians much the same way his father and uncle, Balian and Baldwin, were treated a generation earlier.  Yet, this should not be taken to mean that the brothers were identical, interchangeable or always in accord with one another. While we know much more about the words and deeds of John of Beirut than of his younger brother Philip, there is one revealing incident recorded in Novare that gives us a glimpse of Philip as an individual in his own right ― and a tantalizing hint of a man with passion and loyalty.

In 1224 or 1225 (the date remains unclear) at the days-long tournament to mark the knighting of John of Beirut’s two eldest sons, a knight of Philip d’Ibelin’s household “smote” down a certain Cypriot lord, Amaury Barlais, in a game of “barbadaye.” (No one nowadays knows exactly what this was, but it is assumed to be a kind of melee.) The next day, Barlais and his men waylaid the knight and came near to killing him.  At this point, according to Novare, “Sir Philip, the bailli, was much angered and wished to attack [Sir Amaury]… My lord of Beirut, his brother, intervened between them and held them apart by force and ordered his son, Sir Balian, to conduct Sir Amaury Barlais there where he wished to go.” (Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Colombia University Press, 1936, p.66.) So Philip was a man who, out of love and loyalty to a man in his service, could become enraged.

Furthermore, Novare tells us, Beirut was so set on reconciling his brother with Barlais, that he “went from Cyprus to Beirut and ordered the seeking out of Sir Amaury Barlais at Easter, and he carried him into Cyprus before his brother so suddenly that the latter knew nothing of it. He [my lord of Beirut] said to his brother that he wished him to pardon Sir Amaury in every manner and in every way; saying that if he would not do this he would never speak to him more….” (Novare, pp.66-67.) This tells us that Philip loved his brother so much that the threat not to speak was enough to make him cave in on a matter that greatly impassioned him.

Yet these are the only incidents that put flesh on the skeleton left by history. How he became the man he did can only be speculated upon based on the known facts.

Philip was the fourth and youngest child of Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena. His earliest possible date of birth was 1181, although he might have been born a year or two later. Like his siblings, he was trapped in Jerusalem after the disaster at Hattin and would have witnessed his father’s dramatic return as well as have benefitted from Saladin’s generosity. Yet, given his young age (at most six and probably younger), it is unlikely that he was shaped by this event.

His childhood years between the ages of roughly five to ten were lived in reduced economic circumstances and great uncertainty. He would surely have been aware that everything might be lost at any moment, and his father would have been frequently absent, particularly during the Third Crusade. His situation, however, would have improved considerably after the Truce of Ramla.  With his half-sister secure on her throne, it is not too far-fetched to imagine Philip obtained his schooling as page and squire at his sister’s court under her husband Henri de Champagne (1192-1197).

Sometime between 1198 and 1200, on turning 17 or 18, he would have been knighted, probably by his brother-in-law the king (now Aimery de Lusignan) or his elder brother John, who was by this time Constable of Jerusalem (1198-1200). In 1205, when Philip was in his early twenties, his sister and her husband died, and his brother John became regent of Jerusalem for their niece Marie de Montferrat. Given how close the brothers were in later years, we can assume that Philip enjoyed substantial trust and power, but we have no details of his actual positions.

In the same year, the crown of Cyprus passed to the 10-year-old Hugh de Lusignan, and Walter de Montbéliard was elected regent by the High Court of Cyprus. Montbéliard was a recent arrival in the Latin East married to King Hugh’s elder sister and heir apparent Burgundia.  Sometime between 1207 and 1210, while Montbéliard was regent of Cyprus and Beirut regent of Jerusalem, they agreed on the marriage of Montbéliard’s sister Alys to Beirut’s brother Philip.  This marriage was clearly a political marriage, possibly designed to bind the two kingdoms closer together ― or possibly to breach differences that had already surfaced between the Montbéliards and Ibelins.

I say this because in 1210, when Hugh of Cyprus came of age, he accused Montbéliard of massive embezzlement and effectively drove him out of Cyprus altogether, while turning to his Ibelin kinsmen for support. His ties to the Ibelins had been strengthened by his marriage to their niece Alice de Champagne. Both Ibelin brothers accompanied Alice to her new kingdom. At the very latest, therefore, 1210 was the year in which Ibelin power in Cyprus began to wax. (This is the traditional interpretation. I have argued elsewhere that the Ibelins may already have been well-entrenched on Cyprus long before this late date. See: http://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-ibelins-on-cyprus-and-role-of.html) Certainly, Philip became a close friend and confidante of the young king and, again based on what happened eight years later, earned the respect and trust of the majority of Cypriot barons. Unfortunately, we know nothing about how he did that.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Marie de Montferrat had married John de Brienne, also in 1210, and Beirut had stepped down as regent. His relationship with King John was evidently cool from the start but deteriorated further after Marie de Montferrat died in childbed in 1212, leaving an infant daughter heiress to Jerusalem.  John de Brienne assumed that he remained king, despite the death of his wife, and continued to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Beirut (and we presume Philip) appear to have questioned Brienne’s claim to rule, following the precedent set by their parents in opposing the rule of Guy de Lusignan after the death of Queen Sibylla three decades earlier. The breach between Beirut and Brienne almost certainly led to the Ibelins spending more time in and building up a client base on Cyprus.  Here they were welcome and either already held or were granted by King Hugh important properties, including at least the lordship of Peristerona and Episkopi. Significantly, during the Fifth Crusade, both John and Philip of Ibelin were listed as vassals of King Hugh of Cyprus rather than King John of Jerusalem, although John d'Ibelin still held the Lordship of Beirut in the latter kingdom.  This suggests either that they had more property in Cyprus, despite Beirut being extremely wealthy, or that they refused to serve under Brienne.

As the crusade got underway, King Hugh and King John quarreled. King Hugh removed himself from the crusade, heading for Antioch. Here he died abruptly (in an accident? of dysentery?) at the age of 23.  He left behind two little girls and a son just nine months old. Cyprus needed a new regent.

According to one of the chronicles of the period, on his deathbed, Hugh recommended Philip d’Ibelin to the High Court as regent for his infant son, Henry. Other chronicles claim that Hugh’s widow Alice of Champagne urged the High Court of Cyprus to select Philip d’Ibelin to “govern the land, hold the court and command over men.” A third version refers only to the knights, nobles, and people of Cyprus selecting Philip d’Ibelin. Clearly, in the eight years since the majority of King Hugh and his death, Philip (not John!) d’Ibelin had established himself as a man who could be trusted with the reins of government. There is no hint of factions or opposition to his appointment, which suggests that he did indeed enjoy widespread support at this time. 

However, the law of crusader kingdoms put him in a more dubious position.  According to the constitution of Cyprus, the regent for minor was the nearest relative, which in this case was the infant king’s mother Alice. At the time of her husband’s death, Alice preferred to name a deputy (the term used was bailli) to rule for her rather than taking up the reins of government herself. Controversial, however, was whether she was at liberty to recall him at any time. Most sources claim that the vassals of the crown swore an oath to Philip until the infant Prince Henry came of age. Other sources, however, suggest that the oath was until either the prince came of age, or Alice remarried.

This is significant because in 1223 or 1224, Alice fell-out with Philip and wanted to replace him. Why is unclear. One source suggests Philip bullied and humiliated Alice. Novare, on the other hand, claims that Philip had “much work and grief, while the queen held the revenues, which she spent freely.” (Novare, p. 63.) One can imagine a situation in which Alice was profligate with her expenditures, perhaps demanding more and more of the revenues, thereby provoking protests, rebukes, and criticism from Philip, which Alice, in turn, felt were “humiliating and bullying.”

In any case, Alice wanted to be rid of Philip, but the High Court wouldn’t hear of it ―clearly siding with Philip. This suggests they did not see him as bullying or over-reaching his authority, but rather as defending the interests of the kingdom. Alice responded by going to Tripoli and marrying the Prince of Antioch.  This only served to weaken her position in Cyprus, however, because she had not bothered to obtain the permission of her knights and nobles. The latter were now more outraged than ever. Rightly or wrongly, they alleged that if Antioch set foot on Cyprus, the life of their “little lord” King Henry would be in danger.

Alice’s position was further weakened by the outrage of the Pope, who claimed Alice and Bohemond were related within the prohibited degrees. He ruled the marriage invalid. Clearly, Bohemond was not going to be able to gain control of Cyprus for her. So Alice tried a different tactic: she appointed the disaffected Sir Amaury Barlais, the man who had already clashed with Philip over the near-murder of one of Philip’s knights, as her bailli.  When Barlais appeared before the High Court of Cyprus to present his credentials as bailli, however, he was accused of treason (because he had sworn an oath to Philip) and challenged to judicial combat by another baron.

In the midst of this power-struggle between Philip d’Ibelin and the dowager queen, Philip had young Henry, now aged eight, crowned king. The move was probably intended to bind the knights and nobles of Cyprus to Henry by oath, and so ensure that Alice and Bohemond ― or Alice and a different husband ― could not so easily depose him. Yet the crowning aroused the outrage of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was technically the overlord of Cyprus.

When the Holy Roman Emperor came east, he accused Philip of misusing the revenues of Cyprus, but by then Philip was already dead. In late 1227 or early 1228, he died of a “mortal malady” that had kept him bed-ridden for at least a year before his death and so weakened him that he had voluntarily offered to resign his position of bailli.

Those are the naked facts, but what do they tell actually tell us about Philip? 

Modern historians are quick to point out that Philip clung to power even though the acknowledged regent no longer wanted him. The allegations of impropriety leveled by the Holy Roman Emperor are also highlighted, casting Philip in a dubious light. Yet the Holy Roman Emperor never allowed his charges to go before a court of law.  On the contrary, he used every kind of force and deceit to ensure they did not come to court ― most probably because he knew his charges were entirely bogus. It is also significant that a large majority (between two-thirds and four-fifths depending on how many knights Cyprus had in this period) of the High Court consistently sided with Philip d’Ibelin. Finally, King Henry was extremely loyal to his Ibelin kin throughout his reign, a poignant hint that he had loved Philip, the man who had been a father for him from the age of one to ten.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week. Meanwhile,
 The Last Crusader Kingdom depicts Philip as a youth, and he appears in Rebels against Tyranny as an adult and regent of Cyprus. I only regret that he dies so early, because as a novelist I think he is a character well worth exploring more deeply.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

House of Ibelin: Helvis, Lady of Sidon, Lady of Toron

They were the most powerful dynasty in the crusader kingdoms. Historians called them “uncrowned kings” and “over-mighty subjects,” ― but also “loyal counselors and kinsmen.” They were patrons of the arts, sophisticated legal scholars, skilled diplomats and fierce fighters. They were devout Christians who spoke Arabic.

The Ibelins.

Today I continue their story with Helvis, the eldest child of 
Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena.

Helvis was born in 1178, probably at Ibelin although possibly at Nablus. At the time of her birth, her father was still a comparatively unimportant baron, a “rear-tenant” owing fealty to the Count of Jaffa, who was at this time was also King of Jerusalem. Through her mother’s dower lands of Nablus, however, the family had become one of the richest in the crusader kingdom.  Thus we can assume that as the daughter of a Dowager Queen and Byzantine Princess, Helvis enjoyed the best care money could buy and started her life in luxurious surroundings. She would also have shared her nursey with her half-sister, the child of her mother’s first marriage, the Princess (and later Queen) of Jerusalem, Isabella.

Very likely, the removal of Isabella from her family at the orders of the King and against the wishes of her mother and father formed the first crisis of Helvis’ life. Isabella was taken from Queen Maria and Balian in 1180 and placed in the “tender” keeping of the notorious Reynald de Châtillon. To make matters worse, Isabella was held prisoner at the border fortress of Kerak and denied permission to visit her mother. While Helvis was only two when Isabella was dragged away against her will, the ensuing drama as her mother fought to see her eldest daughter and was denied contact would have dominated Helvis’ little world as she grew from a toddler to a child.  It would surely have impressed upon her the power of kings over princesses, and the limited rights of even queens to effectively resist.

In 1184, when Helvis was only six years old, she probably experienced the Saracen sack of Nablus.  While Balian mustered with the men of Ibelin to repel a new Saracen assault on Kerak, Saracen troops attacked and over-ran the unwalled city of Nablus.  We know that Maria Comnena was in the city and successfully defended the citadel until relief came.  The chronicles noted with approval that not one Christian life was lost in the sack of the city, suggesting that Maria had managed to collect the entire Christian population inside the citadel in time.  Whether Helvis was with her at the time is unrecorded, but since she was only six it is far more likely that she was with her mother than the reverse. Furthermore, despite the fortuitous survival of the Christian population, the experience of being crowded with thousands of others in a citadel surrounded by pillaging enemy and cut off from Christian forces must have been terrifying.

Just three years later the situation was even worse. In July 1187, Helvis along with her three younger siblings and her mother found themselves inside Jerusalem when the entire Christian army was annihilated at Hattin. Jerusalem was soon flooded with refugees that poured in from the surrounding areas while Saladin’s armies overran the rest of the kingdom, taking one coastal city after another. By September 1187, only the city of Tyre remained in Christian hands, but a delegation from Jerusalem composed of unnamed “burgesses” had rejected out of hand Saladin’s generous terms.  (Saladin had offered to let the entire population withdraw from Jerusalem with all their moveable goods.) When this was rejected, he offered to give Christendom six months to relief Jerusalem, if the inhabitants would agree to surrender peacefully if (as was to be expected) no relief force came to their aid in that space of time. Again the representatives of Jerusalem refused. At that point, Saladin swore publically to slaughter all the men in Jerusalem and enslave the women and children who fell into his hands.

While it is doubtful Queen Maria would have shared this news with her nine-year-old daughter, it is equally doubtful that an intelligent child living in a city overrun with refugees could have remained ignorant of the danger she was in. Even without knowing the details, the city was full of terrified women and children, who had already been driven from their homes by the advance of Saladin’s troops. The city itself had virtually no fighting men in it because they had all mustered with the feudal army and been killed or captured at Hattin. Queen Maria, and so with her Helvis, could not know if Balian was alive, dead or captured ― until he rode through the gate with the Sultan’s safe conduct to see his wife and children to safety before the siege and slaughter began.

Helvis must have viewed her father as an angel rescuing her from Hell ― until he changed his mind and agreed to stay to defend the city. She would have been dashed into new despair by this, only to suddenly find herself bundled up and deposited in the care of their worst enemy: Salah ad-Din himself. For a nine-year-old, I can only imagine this was very bewildering.

Nor did things get better. The Sultan’s Mamlukes brought Maria and the Ibelin children to a Christian city, we don’t know for sure which one, but probably Tyre or Tripoli.  There they awaited the news of their husband/father’s death. Although he succeeded in negotiating a surrender instead and joined them, he was now a baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer existed. They had lost all their lands, castles, homes, and income. They must have lived on charity, although whose is unclear.  The most likely source of funds were Maria Comnena’s relatives in Constantinople and Antioch, but it is unlikely they would have been terribly generous since her close relatives had already been deposed from power.

It was in this period of acute financial need and overall uncertainty that Helvis’ father married her to a man old enough to be her grandfather: Reginald de Sidon. Helvis was at most eleven or twelve (the latter age is more likely because it was the age of consent). Sidon had briefly been the fourth husband Agnes de Courtney, the Queen Mother of Baldwin IV and Sibylla of Jerusalem. He had, like Balian, fought his way off the field at Hattin, evading capture.  Some chronicles suggest he was demoralized thereafter and was prepared to surrender Tyre to Saladin. Allegedly, he was only prevented from doing so by the arrival of Conrad de Montferrat.  Yet this is far from certain.  He is known to have tried to defend his castle of Belfort against Saladin, and apparently pretended to want to convert to Islam as a ruse to buy time to build up his defenses. He was seized when he came to negotiate and either tortured in sight of the castle (until he ordered the garrison to surrender), or held in captivity in Damascus until the castle surrendered to secure his release. Out of remorse, the chronicles tell us, Saladin restored Sidon to him -- as a fief held from the Sultan of Damascus rather than the crown of Jerusalem.

This may be the reason Ibelin was prepared to marry his very young daughter to the grizzled Baron of Sidon: Sidon was the only baron of Jerusalem that still had at least a promise of land from the victor. If so, it was a miscalculation. Sidon remained a promise until 1197 when it was recaptured for Christendom by the German crusade. I have found no source that explains where or on what Reginald and his bride lived between 1187 and 1197. Ibelin had been given the tiny barony of Caymont in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192, and perhaps he gave shelter to his daughter and her husband there. If so, she shared with her siblings and parents much-reduced circumstances of on a very precarious frontier.

Five years after regaining his barony, in 1202, Reginal de Sidon died. He was probably close to or more than 70 years of age.  Helvis would have been just 24 years old. She was also the mother of a young son named for her own father, Balian. She may also have had two daughters, but the girls are more likely the children of Sidon’s first wife Agnes de Courtenay.

Since Balian of Sidon (b. 1198) was undoubtedly still a minor at his father’s death, Helvis would have assumed control of the barony and served as her son’s regent until he came of age in 1213.  Balian de Sidon was to play a very prominent role in the conflict between the barons of Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Emperor, serving as effective regent of the kingdom (often jointly with others) for many years during Hohenstaufen absenteeism. He repeatedly attempted to serve as a mediator between the factions.  

Helvis, however, married a second time. Since widows, especially widows in control of baronies, could not legally be forced into a second marriage, we can assume that this marriage was of Helvis’ choosing. Her choice fell upon a new-comer to Outremer, a man who had followed the call to the Fourth Crusade but refused to be misused as a mercenary by the Venetians. Rather than joining in the sack of Zara and then Constantinople, he proceeded in the company of his brother and others of their affinity to the Holy Land, arriving in or about the time of Reginald de Sidon’s death.  He was Guy de Montfort.

I have been able to find out very little about him beyond his approximate date of birth, 1160, which made him a good 18 years older than Helvis and already in his early forties when he arrived in the Holy Land. He was widowed and had an adult son and two adult daughters in France already when he came to Outremer. Why Helvis favored him we will probably never know. Perhaps Helvis had become accustomed to older husbands.  He was granted the vacant Syrian barony of Toron, presumably by Queen Isabella before the latter’s death in 1205. Since Helvis was her half-sister, granting her new husband an “appropriate” title would have been common feudal custom.

Helvis had one son by her new husband, who she named for her brother Philip.  She died, however, in or about 1210. She would have been just 32 years old and much the same age as her sister Queen Isabella had been at her death. The probability that she died in child-bed is high.

Her husband Guy returned to the West after her death, joining his brother Simon’s crusade against the Albigensians. Her son, however, remained in the Holy Land and was probably raised by his Ibelin kin because he later became an ardent supporter of the Ibelins.  He played a key role in the capture of Tyre in 1244.

Meanwhile, his cousin Simon de Montfort (the younger) was making a name for himself in England. As brother-in-law of the English King and the Holy Roman Emperor, he was at one point put forward as a compromise candidate for regent in the Holy Land to end the civil war. Unfortunately for all concerned, the Emperor did not make that appointment.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come. 

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For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.