Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Of Archbishops and Crusaders -- An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

The power of the Church in 12th Century Europe was not confined to the spiritual realm. On the contrary, because of their aristocratic background, high levels of education, and lack of dynastic ambitions, princes of the church were widely employed as royal officers. As chancellors, particularly, bishops and archbishops often wielded great influence in secular affairs. 
In this excerpt from The Last Crusader Kingdom based on a true incident during the "German Crusade of 1197," John d'Ibelin must convince an Archbishop, the Archbishop of Hildesheim and Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, to take military action.

[John d'Ibelin] burst into the Archbishop's great hall to find it already crowded with men milling about. To his relief, the Archbishops of Acre and Hildesheim sat together on the dais.  They were apparently in earnest discussion with a number of noblemen. John pushed his way through the seething crowds in the lower hall, unable to understand what was agitating the occupants, because they were all speaking German.  He sprang onto the dais, provoking a tardy response from a young knight in Hildesheim's service.  The latter tried to put himself between John and the men at the table, but John shoved him aside so forcefully that two German noblemen sprang to their feet with their hands on their hilts.

"My lord of Hildesheim!" John called out to the Imperial Chancellor from half a dozen feet away. "Your men are plundering and looting in the streets of Acre as if they were in Damascus! And you have nothing better to do than sit and drink?" The outrage in John's voice rang to the vaulted ceiling and reverberated there.

The German noblemen at once drew their swords and shouted back at John, while behind him a general uproar erupted. The Archbishop of Acre, however, leaned back in his chair with an odd smile on his face, and the Imperial Chancellor gestured for silence, telling the noblemen to sheath their swords.

The level of noise dropped but did not fully die away. The Imperial Chancellor spoke into the lull, "It's young John d'Ibelin, is it not?" He spoke in Latin.

"Yes, my lord," John answered in the same tongue, because it was their only common language.

"And you presume to give orders to me? The Imperial Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire?" he asked with raised eyebrows. 

"My sister the queen," John started deliberately. He was breathing heavily, but he had a grip on himself. He answered slowly and clearly, speaking so every man in the hall could hear him, "...is in grief and mourning. The Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, therefore, tasked me with restoring order.  And that I will do, even if it means riding down and butchering your men," John bluffed.  "I would prefer, however, if you brought your men to order."

Behind him he heard men muttering "Juden" and "Schweine," but he ignored them and focused on the Imperial Chancellor.  Hildesheim might be a bishop, but he was a worldly bishop -- and one who know how to wield a mace.

"What makes you so certain you can stop thousands of fighting men from obtaining what they believe is their just reward, young man?"

"My faith in God, my lord bishop," John answered as forcefully as he could, gulping air into his lungs to try to calm his racing pulse. "He knows that what your men do is an offense against His people -- the people he was born to -- and His Holy Gospel, for which He gave His sacred blood.  Even now my men are calling out the watch. If you do not take action, we will." John's heart was pounding furiously in his breast. God help me! He pleaded silently. God help me!

"Is this not what I have been saying for the last hour?" the Archbishop of Acre spoke up, leaning forward and hissing to his fellow bishop: "You know it is the right thing to do."

"My men won a great victory over the Saracens, and what have they got for it? Nothing. No loot. No gold. Nothing."

"They have received the remission of sins past," the Archbishop of Acre countered, "but not, I must stress, absolution for what they are doing now.  The sins they are committing here in the Holy Land against innocent people will take them all to hell, regardless of what they did to al-Adil's army!"

Hildesheim looked over at Acre with raised eyebrows for a moment, but then he pulled his feet under him and stood. He started distributing orders in German. The noblemen around him nodded, turned toward the hall, and started calling to their men.  Abruptly all the men in the hall appeared to scrambling to find their helmets and gauntlets. John felt himself quaking. If they were going to join their men in the looting, he -- no, Acre -- was utterly lost.

As if reading his mind, Hildesheim clapped him on the shoulder and remarked, "You win, boy. I've ordered my knights to rein in their men and move them out of Acre. We'll set up camp outside the walls -- and then look for a Saracen city to sack."

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Bellapais - Inspirational Settings

Aimery de Lusignan established a Latin church hierarchy on Cyprus and throughout their 300-year rule the Lusignans were generous patrons of the Latin Church. One of the most magnificent and inspiring remnants of that symbiotic relationship are the ruins of the "Abbey of Beautiful Peace" -- the Abbaye de la Belle Paix or Bellapais. Below is a short history and some photos.

The Abbey of Bellapais is located on the shoulder of a mountain just six miles (10 km) east of the port of Kyrenia.  Although no archaeological evidence has been found, based on earlier designations of the location historians presume an Orthodox church or bishop's residence once sat on this site, which has natural springs.

Augustinian monks from the Holy Sepulcher, fleeing the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the disaster at Hattin, were the first to found a monastery on the location of the Abbey of Bellapais.  The construction of this first abbey commenced almost immediately after a papal bull of December 1196 formally inaugurated a Latin diocesan establishment on Cyprus. Aimery de Lusignan was personally the abbey's patron, and construction of the first monastery is dated from 1198-1205.  Unfortunately, little of this original building have survived to the present, although the under croft of the refectory likely dates from this period.

Shortly after Aimery's death, the abbey requested permission to follow the Premonstratensian rule, a stricter form of the Augustinian order, and were granted permission by the Archbishop of Nicosia. Because of the white habits of the Premonstratensian canons, the Abbey was also known colloquially as the White Abbey. (Although the white stone against the green vegetation would be another explanation of the name....)

Royal patronage of the abbey continued under Aimery's successors.  The Abbots of Bellais were even granted the right to wear golden spurs and a sword when outside the abbey grounds, rights usually reserved for knights. More important, however, royal patronage probably financed, directly or indirectly, a massive building programs undertaken over the next two centuries.

In the reign of Hugh III (1267 - 1284), the church was built.

But the more impressive architecture dates from a more massive re-building program during the first half of the next century.  This is when the cloisters were "modernized," and the chapter house, dormitory, and refectory that we see today were built. 


The cloisters of Bellapais Abbey

By the 16th century, however, the Abbey was already in decay -- not just physically but morally as well. By then the Lusignan dynasty had fallen and been replaced by Venetian administration. Responding to complaints, the Venetian state investigated conditions at the abbey and reported that not only were the buildings so neglected that they were in a ruinous state but that the canons had abandoned their vows of chastity and lived with women -- allegedly in at least one case with no less than three women.

Venetian plans to expel the corrupt "white monks" and replace them with Franciscans were over taken by events. In 1570 the island fell to the Turks and the monks were driven from the island.  Although the church was probably converted into an Orthodox church, the other buildings of the abbey were used as a quarry for the construction or as stalls and barns for livestock.

Only after the British assumed administration of the island in 1878 did the decay stop.  The refectory was temporarily used as a military hospital and later as a school.  In the early 20th century, the process of preserving and respecting the original buildings finally began. 

Today Bellapais is a museum.

The Last Crusader Kingdom was Cyprus. Follow me to Cyprus as the Lusignans established their rule there with the help of the Ibelins.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

"Rebels Against the Hospital" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusasder Kingdom"

My thesis in "The Last Crusader Kingdom" is that the Lusignans initially faced armed resistance from the local Greek population of CyprusBased on my experiences as a diplomat, I know that insurrections and unrest often target the economic infrastructure, particularly installations that are seen to be benefiting the regime. 
In this episode from "The Last Crusader Kingdom" a sugar factory operated by the Knights Hospitaller has been burned down and John d'Ibelin has been sent by Aimery de Lusignan to question the local inhabitants. He has entered the church of a nearby village. 
The 13th century sugar mill at Kolossi built on the ruins of an earlier sugar factory.
[John's] eyes had adjusted enough to see the two Orthodox priests -- or rather, a priest and a monk -- staring at him warily from the railing before the dark, dilapidated screens. He approached them and addressed them respectfully in his best Greek: "Good sirs, forgive me for interrupting, but I was hoping you could help me." The looks of astonishment on their faces to have a young Frank address them in fluent Greek pleased John.

Their surprise also gave him a moment to study them. The priest had wavy grey hair and a soft, fluffy beard of the same color, but his face was not really old -- no older, John guessed, than his father.  It was marked by lines made more by smiling than frowning.  The monk, on the other hand, was younger, with dark hair and beard, and his face was lined by anger. It also reminded John of someone, but he couldn't quite remember who.

It was the monk who replied hotly, "What do you Franks need help with? Killing, burning, and raping?"

The priest immediately put his hand on the younger man's arm and shook his head. "Curb your tongue, Brother," he told his companion before addressing John to ask, "What might we be able to help you with?"

"The hospital at Kolossi was attacked last Friday by a large mob. They plundered the entire complex, even the church," John stressed, "and they stole from the patients as well. The pri╬Ást was stripped naked and tied backwards on a mule and then chased away." As he related this incident John watched the faces of the two men opposite him. The monk frowned, while the priest raised his eyebrows and looked over at the younger man a if asking for verification.

"He was not harmed -- unlike many of our priests, monks, and nuns!" the monk defended the outrage. "Indeed, no one was raped or killed."

"You seem to know a great deal about what happened," John observed. "Can you tell me more about who was involved in the attack and why? Why attack a hospital caring for the poor? Why destroy a factory that brought work and income to these poor communities?"

"The land was stolen from us! It is our land! Our country! You are not welcome here!"

"Would it be better for people to have neither medical care nor jobs?" John asked with the simplicity of youth.

"You understand nothing! Just like the rest of your stupid, brutal, barbarian people," the monk dismissed him angrily.

"You say he understands nothing, yet he asks good questions," the priest spoke up in a calm, firm voice. "It is what my parishioners have been asking me all week," he added. "They had little enough as it was. Now they have nothing. They do not know how they are going to feed themselves, and they are terrified of retribution. Up to now, all the trouble has been in the north and east; now they fear the Franks will come and take revenge on us here for this."

"The Franks need to be shown they are neither wanted nor invincible! They have to learn they have no place here, and that we can fight them! You," the monk turned on John, "you are not wanted here! Go back where you came from!"

"I can't," John answered, his beardless chin raised in proud defiance. "Salah ad-Din took it away." He pronounced Saladin's name as he had learned it, in Arabic.

"Well go fight him for it, then! Just because you were beaten by the Saracens doesn't give you the right to steal from us!" the monk snarled back, raising his voice in anger.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kolossi - Settings for the "Last Crusader Kingdom"

Richard the Lionheart's first rout of Isaac Comnenus allegedly took place at Kolossi. Later it was the site of a Hospitaller Commandery and a magnificent example of crusader architecture of the 15th century has survived to this day. Although this castle did not yet exist at the time in which The Last Crusader Kingdom is set, we know that the current structure was built on foundations of earlier buildings and this inspired an important episode in the novel. Below is a brief history of Kolossi.

Kolossi is located just 10 kilometers (6  miles) west of Limassol on a fertile coastal plain.  In 1191, according to the chronicles, Isaac Comnenus collected his army here, and Richard the Lionheart surprised the camp at dawn, over-running the tents and capturing a huge treasure in equipment and furnishing, while Isaac Comnenus just barely managed to escape on a swift steed. All sources agree that at this time there was no fortress on the site.

In 1210, however, the estate of Kolossi which included some 60 villages, was turned over to the Knights Hospitaller by King Hugh I.  The original castle is believed to date from this period.  Ruins of this castle have been found and exposed by archaeologists:

The land was fertile and the Hospitaller set about cultivating products for export: wheat, cotton, sugar, oil and wine.  Indeed, the wine produced here became famous as "Commandaria" -- a sweet, red wine allegedly preferred by the Plantagenet kings of England.  

Sugar production and export, however, was also a highly lucrative business, and the remains of a 13th century sugar factory are located directly beside the castle. These are erected on the remains of a 12th century factory. 

Sugar production and refining requires large quantities of water and the remains of the sophisticated aqueducts and drains have also been found at Kolossi.

It was this factory that inspired  me to use Kolossi as the venue of an important incident in The Last Crusader Kingdom -- an attack by the rebels against the economic infrastructure of the island. 

Historically, the Hospitallers moved their headquarters to Cyprus (possibly Kolossi) after the fall of Acre in 1291, but mindful of the greed and jealousy of princes, the Hospitallers wisely acquired the island of Rhodes and moved the bulk of their resources there early in the 14th century.  Nevertheless, Kolossi remained an important source of income, and the castle was last refurbished in the 15th century. This last building is what we can see today.  Below are a number of pictures which I took during my most recent visit in 2012.

Left the "Donjon" from the innerward.

Right one of the ground floor chambers presumably used for storage.  

 The interior stairs from the cellars to the first floor.

One of the spacious upper chambers.


 A fireplace:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

CHANTICLEER REVIEW of "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus
Chanticleer Review 

In the Introduction and Acknowledgements section of her fascinating novel, The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus, Helena P. Schrader notes that ". . . the historical basis for this novel is very thin," and that the book serves as "a fictional depiction of events as I believe they could have happened." Upon finishing the book, one concludes that only the rare reader would disagree with Schrader's version of the historical events that comprise her narrative. Her comprehensive research and impressive scholarship are evident on every single page. This is a work of historical fiction, admittedly, but Schrader clearly was tireless in exhuming every possible detail to piece together as authentic a history of medieval Cyprus, 1193-1198, as possible.  

The establishment of a Latin Kingdom on the formerly Byzantine island of Cyprus in the late twelfth-century is as engrossing and intricate a chapter in history as possible, one that involved a plethora of cultures, religions, family dynasties, battles, treaties, and, inevitably, human greed and vanity. Schrader addresses both public and private lives and demonstrates how their intertwining shaped history. She considers all classes of society, from barons to beggars. It would be easy to get lost amongst the riveting and numerous details, but the author takes the reader by the hand and offers a guided tour to people, places, and events. The novel includes a Cast of Characters, Genealogical Charts for the Houses of Jerusalem, Lusignan, and Ibelin, as well as historical maps of Cyprus and the Outremer. Her Historical Notes underscore the depth of her research, and she also provides a glossary to orient the reader with historical and regional terms.   

Schrader matches her exhaustive research with a thoroughly captivating narrative. Her prose shimmers with elegant confidence and wit. The story traces how this strategically positioned island, formerly fraught with the greatest animosity between the inept and despised Frankish ruler, Guy de Lusignan, and the Greek Orthodox natives is pacified even after the influx of Latin immigrants.  How all this came about is as exciting and adventurous tale as anyone could imagine. Schrader pays keen attention to how power is grasped, nourished, and maintained, and her tale demonstrates the essential and timeless balance of politics, religion, economy, and public relations. Although the novel takes place in medieval times, much of it could serve as a primer for twenty-first-century global politics and diplomacy.

One might expect the medieval world to be dominated by men, yet the author fully addresses the lives of women. Obviously siring male heirs was of importance in the twelfth century, but Schrader does not limit episodes involving female characters to pregnancy and birth. She emphasizes their role as astute advisers to their husbands and other male relations. The women understood that marriages were opportunities for strategic alliances and personal power. Queens and wives of public figures were keenly aware of the critical public relations roles they played in binding their subjects to the ruling families.     

The reader also learns a wealth of information on shipbuilding, irrigation, aqueducts, woodcarving, piracy, on and on.  The Last Crusader Kingdom is not just the story of key families ascending to power; it's also an enlightening overview on the state of technology, the arts, and crime at the close of the twelfth century. The reader trusts Schrader's depiction of events as accurate in large part because her meticulous research makes every scene vivid and memorable.  Schrader matches her exhaustive historical research with a thoroughly captivating narrative.  

Helena P. Schrader is an author who doesn't just bring history to life but one who reminds us that each passing moment is also history. To understand the events reported on the front pages of today's newspapers, there's no greater teacher than the past. The Last Crusader Kingdom is filled with lessons we'd be foolish to neglect.  -- CHANTICLEER REVIEWS