Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sneak Preview 4: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, the residents were given 40 days to raise a ransom. At the end of this time, Balian d'Ibelin and his knights escorted some 15,000 civilians to the coastal city of Tyre, the only city of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem still in Christian hands. This scene describes their reception.

Georgios had been serving the Baron of Ibelin for roughly three months now, and he had never seen him look so grim. But now, with the city of Tyre at last in sight, Ibelin looked as if he had turned to stone.
Georgios cast him a nervous side-long glance. His cheeks were hollowed out and his eyes sunken in his skull. His hair which had been a dark, lustrous brown before Hattin now had white strands that started at his sideburns, and another that originated on his forehead. His lips were badly chapped, and his face unshaven.
“Damn him!” Ibelin spat out making Georgios jump. “He’s not lowering the drawbridge.”
Georgios looked back toward Tyre and at last noticed what the baron had seen moments earlier. The city was maintaining its vigilant stance as if the approaching 15,000 people were an enemy army rather than Christian refugees. Over the deepened and widened moat that now effectively turned the peninsula on which Tyre stood back into an island were firmly raised the bridges were firmly raised; the gates were shut. The ramparts were manned and the late afternoon sun glinted on the helmets of the soldiers on the wall-walk.
Without a word to his squire, Balian put spurs to his aging palfrey and sprinted forward leaving the slow-moving, lumbering column of refugees in his wake. Georgios was left kicking his less agile gelding to try to catch up. Ibelin galloped to the very edge of the moat and drew up sharply, shouting up at the walls even before his horse had come to a complete halt. “This is Balian d’Ibelin! I have some 15,000 Christian refugees from Jerusalem. I demand that the gates be opened at once!”
Silence answered him, although Georgios could see men scurrying this way and that, apparently seeking instructions.
Ibelin was cursing under his breath in a steady stream, threatening Conrad de Montferrat with various kinds of torture, mutilation, slow-death and damnation. Finally a voice called out from the walls of the city, “Just a moment, my lord! My lord of Montferrat will be here shortly!”
Ibelin swung his horse on forehand to look back at the column of refugees he had been commanding for eleven days. It was still far behind, moving at its snail’s pace, but very visible to the men up on the walls of Tyre.
“He knows exactly who we are and what we want,” Ibelin snarled to his squire without looking at him.  “He’ll have had spies out watching for us ever since he learned the terms of the surrender.”
“Ibelin!” The call came faintly from the closest gate tower.”
“Montferrat?” Ibelin answered, narrowing his eyes against the sun and trying to identify the man who had addressed him.
“The same. I’m lowering the foot bridge. You may enter alone.”
“I’ll tear out his jugular with my own teeth!” Ibelin answered under his breath to Georgios, his eyes fixed on the gate opposite. As they watched, the narrow wooden bridge from one of the posterns started to jerk slowly down from its upright position to the horizontal. Ibelin jumped down from his horse and flung the reins over its head to hand them to Georgios. “Wait here!” He ordered unnecessarily as he strode off in the direction of the bridge that had just settled on the dusty soil this side of the moat.
Ibelin was wearing helmet and chainmail hauberk, but his legs were encased in over-the-knee suede leather boots rather than the heavy and uncomfortable chainmail chausses he wore for battle. His short-sleeved surcoat was particolored: red on the right and bright marigold on the left, and it was studded with crosses in contrasting color. Made of fine Gaza-cotton it rippled and flowed as he strode angrily toward the bridge.
When he reached the far side of the bridge, a man emerged from the narrow, arched door of the postern. Georgios could see only that he was wearing a purple surcoat with what looked like gold, satin trim and black fur edging. Ibelin, who was now much closer, recognized the well-formed and attractive face of Conrad de Montferrat.
The latter bowed (a little mockingly Ibelin found) as the former left the narrow foot-bridge and covered the last several yards to the postern. Ibelin did not return the courtesy. Instead he roared in a harsh, strained and raw voice, “What the hell do think you’re doing keeping your gates shut! I have 15,000 refugees, who have lost practically everything they owned and have been on the road eleven days. They need to get inside these walls before dark so they don’t have to camp out another day! We only have a few more hours of daylight as it is! You shouldn’t be wasting time with whatever goddamned formalities these are!”
“If you’re finished?” Conrad answered with raised eyebrows and an air of superiority.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ibelin snapped back.
“I’m simply asking if you’re done ranting, so I can get a word in edgeways?”
“What the hell is there to say? Lower the goddamned bridge and open the gates!”
For all his bluster, Ibelin had been expecting exactly this answer from the moment he realized that Tyre was remaining on the defensive even after his column of refugees had been sighted. It was anticipation of Montferrat’s refusal that had ignited Ibelin’s rage. He was not surprised, therefore, by Montferrat’s “no.” Rather the confirmation of his suspicions had a chilling effect.
Balian d’Ibelin was an exceptionally tall man. He took two steps closer to Montferrat to stand towering over him. “Say that again!” He ordered in an ominously soft voice.
“I obviously don’t need to,” Montferrat answered, backing up a step so he was not so directly under Ibelin’s glare — and nose. “You heard me the first time and you understood me. This city is already over-crowded and at any moment the Saracens may decide to resume their assaults. We’re under siege in any case, cut off by both land and sea. We cannot — I repeat — cannot admit 15,000 more refugees, most of whom are women and children.”
“You’re saying you intend to deny women and children refuge after all they have suffered already?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Unless I have been misinformed, the terms of the surrender of Jerusalem was that those who could raise their ransom would be free to depart Jerusalem with what goods they could carry and proceed unmolested to Christian territory.” Ibelin noted that, as suspected, Montferrat was very well-informed indeed. “Well,” Montferrat made a flippant gesture with his hand in the direction of the north. “Let them proceed to Tripoli! Tripoli is not under siege!”
“Tripoli is damn near 100 miles away! These women and children have already traveled that distance to get here. They are exhausted — emotionally and physically. They need rest and security.”
“They would have neither in Tyre,” Montferrat answered bluntly. “Salah ad-Din is close on your heels. According to my scouts, he is no more than two days behind you with his whole army. He plans to finish the job of conquering the Kingdom of Jerusalem by capturing this city — the last in the entire kingdom to hold out. The battle for Tyre will start at the latest three days from now, and anyone inside this city will be subject to the dangers of siege engines and assaults — neither of which are my definition of peace and security. Furthermore, the longer we resist the assaults the lower will be our supplies. Even without your 15,000 refugees, we will run short of food within as little as three months! With your 15,000, it will be more like three weeks. I can’t — and won’t — take that responsibility!”
They stared at one another. Two hardened veterans of battles and siege warfare, and they recognized that they were well-matched equals. Ibelin had fought at Montgisard, on the Litani, at La Forbelet, the sieges of Kerak and finally at Hattin before taking over the defense of Jerusalem. Montferrat had a reputation from the interminable wars between the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy See. More recently, he had almost single-handedly won the decisive battle that defeated Alexios Branas’ rebellion against the Greek Emperor, and then brought fire and determination to the demoralized city of Tyre, saving it for Christendom. Montferrat had formed a low opinion of Ibelin on his arrival in Tyre, however, because of his obsession with returning to Jerusalem to save his wife and family. After meeting the Dowager Queen and her daughter, and then hearing about Ibelin’s ferocious defense and miraculous treaty at Jerusalem, he’d been forced to revise his opinion. As they faced each other now, it Montferrat who softened his stance first.
“You have been in my shoes, my lord. You know what I’m talking about. The commander of a city under siege sometimes has to make hard decisions—decisions that seem heartless and cruel to clerics and chroniclers far from the din of battle. But you are a fighting man, Ibelin. You know what I’m saying is absolutely true. I cannot afford to admit 15,000 women and children to this city so long as I am blockaded by sea and invested by land. I cannot reduce the fighting capacity or chances of holding this city as long as all hope of regaining the Holy City for Christendom depends upon our ability to hold Tyre long enough for reinforcements to arrive from the West.”
Ibelin knew that Montferrat was right. He recognized it both intellectually and in the marrow of his warrior bones. Montferrat was right, but how could he go back and tell the people he had led here that? He found himself arguing extraneously, “Not all those 15,000 refugees are women and children. There are over 300 men among them, who helped hold Jerusalem. Men who stood in the breach when the walls came down and fought Saladin’s thousands to a standstill.”
“And they are welcome in Tyre!” Montferrat was quick to agree. “Anyone who can contribute to the defense of this city — first and foremost yourself — are welcome. But I cannot and will not admit non-combatants.”
“Most men — or should I say honorable men — fight for their wives and children not for pay or glory.”
“The fighting men may bring their wives and children into the city,” Montferrat made another concession, “but not their sisters, brothers, parents and cousins. Fighting men and their immediate families only — and, of course, your household.” He smiled as he said this, hoping it would mollify Ibelin.
Ibelin just stared back at him with a look between hatred and despair. Then he nodded and turned away.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Scott Amis' Review of "Defender of Jerusalem"

 A Review by Scott Amis:

Even the most casual students of medieval history, readers of historical fiction, moviegoers, and the public have long been familiar with the heroic King Richard I ‘The Lionhearted’ of England, and Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Richard’s chivalrous nemesis as commander of Islamic forces over the course of the Third Crusade, the most enduringly famous of these fiercely fought holy wars that began over nine hundred years ago. Indeed, until the 2005 release of the at-best questionable Hollywood epic 'Kingdom of Heaven', other persons and events of great importance in the years preceding and during the Third Crusade remained the province of medieval scholars, their students, and those with sufficient interest to explore beyond the superficialities of cinema and, often as not, poorly researched novels.

With 'Knight of Jerusalem' and its sequel, 'Defender of Jerusalem', Dr. Helena Schrader has brought academic rigor, her extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, and her previous experience as an author of historical fiction to bear in recreating the lives and deeds of Baldwin IV, the ‘Leper King’, and his loyal vassal Balian of Ibelin, two great heroes of the Holy Land Crusades brought to long-overdue recognition by way of the well-played yet sadly inaccurate portrayals in 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

Little is to be gained by summarizing 'Knight of Jerusalem' and 'Defender of Jerusalem' for this review; a brief biography of Balian should suffice to introduce readers to the principal character of both volumes. Born in 1143, Balian was the third son of Barisan, lord of the baronies of Ibelin and Ramla in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1169, Balian was granted lordship of Ibelin by his older brother Baldwin, giving the initially landless young knight an entreé into the higher aristocracy of Outremer. Balian had a significant role in leadership of the forces of the ‘Leper King’ Baldwin IV to victory over Salah ad-Din at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, and in the same year, entered into marriage with Maria Comnena, grandniece of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus and dowered widow of King Almaric I of Jerusalem. These fortuitous events, and the gain of the Barony of Nablus by his marriage, made Balian a powerful figure in the Crusader States.

Balian’s reputation was further enhanced by his unwavering support for the dying Baldwin IV and his opposition to the elevation of the incompetent Guy of Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem. Most important was his survival, free and unharmed, after the disastrous Battle of Hattin in July 1187, which made possible his heroic role in commanding the defense of Jerusalem against the forces of Salah el-Din in September and October of the same year, and his hard promises that gained merciful terms of surrender from the Sultan when the fall of the city became inevitable.

Dr. Schrader brilliantly synthesizes the roles of academician and master storyteller. In contrast with 'Kingdom' director Ridley Scott’s careless plot construction and deliberate distortions, Dr. Schrader has meticulously constructed an accurate geographical, environmental, political, and familial landscape using the proven historical record, as well as created finely drawn lead characters from the relatively scant existing information on the life of Balian, the more extensive records of Baldwin, and the numerous but oft-conflicting accounts of Salah ad-Din. The many supporting and minor characters, from the beautiful and wealthy Maria Comnena to the humblest servant, are brought to life with equal assurance.

Though ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ are exhilarating page-turners from first page to last, their qualities of intricate construction make careful reading an agreeable necessity. The essentials of successful medieval novels are firmly in place: abundantly vivid and violent battle scenes; romantic situations entrancing for the modern reader as well as true to the times; and a sense of time and place convincingly evocative of the Middle Ages. But, beyond the pure pleasure of reading, ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ represent a growing and significant trend: the entry of talented academic historians who can write a rip-roaring story into the field of historical fiction; a trend which can only raise the bars of careful research and historical accuracy for all HF writers.

Needless to say, I eagerly await the third volume of Dr. Schrader’s Jerusalem trilogy; for ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’, five stars and the highest recommendation!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cast of Charaters 9: The Chivalrous Saracen Saladin

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels about Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on the man who made Balian a historical figure: the Sultan Salah ad-Din or Saladin.

Saladin as Portrayed in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Salah ad-Din, or Saladin has he is more commonly known in Western literature, has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

This positive view of Saladin in Western literature evolved slowly, starting in 13th century  attempts to explain away a shameful defeat by making the adversary more worthy and more "like us" (see John France's excellent summary of this process in his book Hattin), and culminated in a biography of Saladin published by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1898. While Lane-Poole made a major contribution to Western scholarship by drawing upon Arab sources for his work, he unfortunately did so uncritically, adopting without scruple or embarrassment the purely adulatory descriptions of Saladin penned by the Sultan’s court biographers. The result is a work in which Saladin is described as a man “whose chivalry and generosity excited the admiration of the Crusaders.” More disturbing to the historian, Lane-Poole is so completely under the spell of his Arab sources that he claims: “...civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.”

While the latter statement alone discredits Lane-Poole as a serious historian of the crusades, other historians uncritically followed his lead. The British Orientalist, H.A.R. Gibb, claims that Saladin inspired his followers “not so much by the example of his personal courage and resolution — which were undeniable — as by his unselfishness, his humility and generosity…. He was no simpleton, but for that an utterly simple and transparently honest man…Guileless himself, he never expected and seldom understood guile in others.”

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz points out in his biography of Saladin published in 1972: “The political, social and economic climate prevailing in the Near East in the second half of the twelfth century was not conducive to seeking power through the exercise of tolerance, magnanimity, chivalry or any altruistic behavior.”  Ehrenkreutz goes on to catalogue in his meticulously documented and detailed biography the number of times Saladin used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  He notes that he spent much more time and more resources fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians, and that Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones. Ehrenkreutz concludes that: “Most of Saladin’s significant historical accomplishments should be attributed to his military and governmental experience, to his ruthless persecution of political opponents and dissenters, to his vindictive belligerence and calculated opportunism, and to his readiness to compromise religious ideals to political expediency.”

The real Saladin probably lies somewhere between these two extreme portrayals of his character, but what Ehrenkreutz makes abundantly clear is that even in those well-documented cases of Saladin’s apparent magnanimity, we need to look closer at his the motives.  One case in point is the return of the fortress of Azaz to the ruler of Aleppo.  In June 1176, during one of Saladin’s several attacks on the  legitimate successor regime of Nur al-Din in Aleppo, his army captured the fortress of Azaz. The rest of the campaign against Sunni Aleppo, however, proved less successful, and Saladin was forced to sue for terms. Eventually a treaty was negotiated. Then according to Lane-Poole: “When the treaty was concluded, there came to Saladin a young girl, the little sister of es-Salih [i.e., the man whose place Saladin had usurped and driven from Damascus].  He received her with honour and asked her: “What is thy wish?” “The castle of Azaz,” she said. So he restored the castle to its old owners, loaded the princess with presents, and escorted her back to the gate of Aleppo at the head of his staff.” Now quite aside from the improbability of a Muslim maiden ever setting foot outside the haram of her home (in this case her brother’s home), had she spoken to a man not her relative (Saladin) she would have dishonored her brother (the Sultan of Aleppo) and so most probably would have been stoned to death.  In short, Lane-Poole’s entire story can only be fiction on the same par as an opera and utterly lacks understanding of Islamic culture in the 12th century. Furthermore, as Ehrenkreutz points out, the return of Azaz was quite simply one of the terms of the negotiated treaty. No “princess” had to plea for its return at all. Saladin surrendered it diplomatically because it was virtually impossible to hold militarily after the rest of his campaign collapsed.

Another example is the apparent generosity of Saladin in providing Balian d’Ibelin with a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this an apparently magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture as Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with self-interest.

Likewise, the many instances in which Saladin treated former Sunni foes with leniency, often awarding them new lands and titles within his growing empire, demonstrates not so much his “gentleness” and “chivalry” as his cynical opportunism. If fighting men, particularly the commanders of contingents of troops that offered effective armed opposition to Saladin, could be bought with the promises of riches and titles, then why fight? After all, the alternative (killing or enslaving his opponents on capture) would only have increased the tenacity and fervor of his opponents, and Saladin had a hard enough time subduing them as it was. His mild treatment of defectors is not so much a mark of “gentleness” and “chivalry” as of opportunism that was particularly effective against the fragmented and jealous feudal lords in northern Syria.

Against these documented cases of apparent “gentleness” and “chivalry” are a number of equally well documented incidents of ruthlessness, brutality, duplicity and vindictiveness that are incompatible with the Lane-Poole/Gibbs image of Saladin. To name only a few, Saladin played a key role in eliminating the Egyptian vizier Shawar, even if the actual murder may have been carried out by someone else on the orders of the Fatimid caliph. (Shawar’s head and later that of his son were delivered to Saladin’s uncle in a silver container; no doubt it was the use of silver for transmitting the heads of murdered men that made Lane-Poole conclude that “civilization” was always on the side of the Muslims.) 

Then, having won the confidence and trust of the Fatimid Caliph, who appointed Saladin his vizier, Saladin worked systematically to undermine his regime and carried out a bloody coup d’etat against the Fatimid elite as soon as the Caliph conveniently died. While it might be argued that this was justified by repeated Fatimid conspiracies against Saladin or by Sunni orthodoxy’s hostility to Shiism, the same cannot be said of the slaughter of the unarmed women and children of the Sudanese guard that the “gentle and chivalrous” Saladin ordered burned alive in their homes. And if that weren’t enough, Saladin ended the rebellion of their men by agreeing to spare their lives if they left Cairo — only to break his word and slaughter them after they had laid down their arms.

Saladin next distinguished himself by waging war against the heir of his feudal overlord Nur al-Din, the eleven-year-old al-Salih. First, however, he sent a letter swearing humble and abject submission to al-Salih, ordered the young sultan’s name invoked in the mosques of Egypt and minting coins in his name, evidently with the intent of luring him into a sense of security.  While vowing his allegiance to al-Salih, Saladin also wrote to the under-aged Sultan’s regency council with the absurd claim that: “if death had not prevented him, [Nur al-Din] would have bequeathed to none other but me the guardianship and upbringing of his son.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 123). In fact, Nur al-Din allegedly said on his deathbed that “Nothing makes me so sad except the thought of what will befall my family at the hands of Yusef, the son of Ayyub [i.e. Saladin].” 

Claiming a position he had been neither formally nor informally granted by Nur ad-Din, Saladin set out to gain control of Syria by force, using the resources he had accumulated by his seizure of power in Egypt.  The young Sultan’s legal guardians fled to Aleppo and Saladin gained control of Damascus without bloodshed, but the Turkish commanders and lords around the young Sultan flatly refused to acknowledge Saladin’s bogus claims to be the “true” guardian of the young Sultan. So Saladin marched his army against Aleppo. In northern Syria, Saladin met with real resistance and was ultimately repelled — with a little help from the Christians, who attacked his lines of communication, and the assassins, who made an attempt on Saladin’s life. Saladin returned to Damascus, where he gave up his pretense of serving the interests of al-Salih, and demanded patents for his position as Sultan of Damascus from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. He also issued coins in his own name. He then spent the better part of the next ten years fighting bitter campaigns against the family of Nur al-Din and their supporters based in Aleppo and Mosul and all across northern Syria.

Throughout this bloody, exhausting and bitter struggle for complete supremacy in Syria, Saladin used the excuse of needing to unite Islam for jihad against the crusader states. Ehrenkreuz notes: “…the overly long and bloody conflict in the Muslim camp had been caused, not by Saladin’s ambition to build a united front against the Crusaders, but by his opponents’ realistic refusal to recognize his claims for other than they were: an adventurous and unscrupulous policy of personal and territorial aggrandizement.”

Which is not to say that Saladin did not fight the Christians too. In fact, Saladin undertook a number of campaigns against the Christians including the invasion of 1177 that ended Saladin’s complete humiliation at Montgisard, the invasion of 1179 that ended in the routing of the Templars and the capture of nearly 300 Christian knights and nobles on the Litani. The siege of Beirut in the same year, the campaign that ended in the draw at Le Forbelet in 1182, the equally indecisive campaign of 1183, and the sieges of Kerak in 1183 and 1184. This may sound like an impressive track record, but given Saladin’s overwhelming strategic advantages, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was led by a youth slowing dying of leprosy, his lack of success suggests either strategic and tactical incompetence or anemic motivation.

Not that Saladin didn’t demonstrate his hatred of the Franks.  When in August of 1178, less than a year after Saladin’s scalding defeat at Montgisard, Christian prisoners fell into Saladin’s hands he had them summarily executed, one by one, by members of his retinue. Aside from it being against Sharia law to kill men who had surrendered, it was hardly a demonstration of “chivalry.” Nor was it an isolated incident. When the Christians involved in the Red Sea raids were finally run-to-earth and captured, Saladin again ordered their execution. According to Bernard Hamilton in his excellent work The Leper King and His Heirs, the Christian prisoners were “taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were…slaughtered ‘like animals for sacrifice.’” Clearly these men were mercenaries and they had killed Muslim pilgrims and captured Arab shipping so perhaps they were not worthy of mercy, but the same cannot be said of the “unlucky common Christian soldier whom the sultan had slain when he noticed a minor facial scratch his son al-Afdal [by then in his late teens] sustained in the battle of Arsuf.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 228.)

Last but not least, no discussion of Saladin would be complete without reference to the brutal execution of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. On July 6, these knights and sergeants, bound and helpless, were beheaded in public. Bartlett describes the scene in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom as follows: “Saladin gave the task…to a group of religious Sufis, holy men largely untrained in the arts of war. Some of them took six or seven attempts to sever the heads of their victims…However justified the death of these men might have been in military terms, the cruelty and indignity of their death did Saladin no credit whatsoever. It was an act of violence, almost barbarism, which Saladin’s apologists have all too frequently glossed over.” (Bartlett, p. 204-205.) It is important to remember that this massacre preceded — and may indeed have helped instigate — the slaughter of the Muslim garrison of Acre by Richard the Lionheart four years later.

Saladin in a character in Book II of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Cast of Characters 8: Rogue Baron Reynald de Chatillon

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on the Baron of Oultrejourdain, one of the most colorful characters of the period.

Reynald de Châtillon in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Reynald de Châtillon is often portrayed in history and historical fiction as a “rogue baron” — a violent, self-interested man in large part responsible for breaking the truce with Salah-ad-Din and so triggering the campaign that ended in disaster for Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.  In the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he is depicted as little more than a madman intent on making war. Yet the noted historian of the period Bernard Hamilton has worked hard to rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was an intelligent strategist, who did much to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the reverse.  What follows is a short summary of Châtillon’s life in the Holy Land.

Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a comparatively obscure French nobleman, the Sire of Donzy. William, Archbishop of Tyre, went so far as to describe his as “almost a common soldier,” but was undoubtedly going too far.  It is fair, however, to call him an adventurer, who came to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife committing adultery with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Châtillon was busy seducing Raymond’s wife, the heiress of the Principality of Antioch, Constance. No sooner had Raymond been killed in an ambush in 1153, than Constance took the obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It worth noting that according to Tyre the King of Jerusalem had suggested a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states — to Constance, but the lady chose the patently unsuitable Châtillon.  It was clearly a case of a widow exercising her right to choose her second husband, and so a “love” match — at least on Constance’s part.

It is hard for us, however, to imagine what she saw in him. Within a very short period of time his avarice and violence had scandalized even his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch, who opposed his marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly, Châtillon had him seized, bound and exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was thus tormented with heat and flies until — according to Tyre — the King of Jerusalem intervened. Another version suggests (more plausibly I would think) that he was released when he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money. Regardless of how he secured his release, the Patriarch understandably did not feel safe in Châtillon’s territory and fled to Jerusalem.

Châtillon next attacked the Island of Cyprus, a Christian country under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor. As Tyre points out Cyprus “had always been useful and friendly to our realm.” Châtillon’s justification for the raid was that he had not been paid by the Emperor for his service in subduing the rebellious Armenian Lord Thoros of Cilicia. But as Tyre also points out, the Emperor’s tardy payment of mercenary wages hardly justified over-running an unsuspecting and friendly island destroying cities, wrecking fortresses, plundering monasteries and raping “nuns and tender maidens.” The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex.” The violence of Châtillon’s raid, by the way, is confirmed by Syrian sources and so not simply a function of some alleged “bias” on the part of Tyre. Furthermore, his actions so outraged his contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.

Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch and force Châtillon to submit himself. As the army of the Emperor approached, Châtillon recognized he didn’t stand a chance of defying the Emperor (and probably realized he was in the wrong with no allies) so he threw himself on the Emperor’s mercy in a dramatic gesture. He went barefoot to the Emperor with a noose around his neck and presented his naked sword hilt-first to the Emperor. As if that weren’t enough, he then threw himself face-down at the Emperor’s feet until (according to Tyre) “all were disgusted and the glory of the Latins was turned to shame; for he was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.” Roughly three years had elapsed between the sack of Cyprus and Châtillon’s submission to the Emperor in 1159.

Two years later in 1161 he was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions because his reputation for brutality was not confined to the treatment of Latin clerics and Orthodox civilians but to his enemies as well.  He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage, Bohemond had come of age.  In short, when Châtillon was released from prison in a political exchange (no ransom was high enough for Châtillon’s captor), he was 52 years old and Prince of nothing. Indeed, he was landless and penniless.

A situation he rapidly remedied by marrying the widow (and heiress) of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from a Saracen prison after 15 years and well past his prime was particularly seductive to the widow Stephanie de Milly, and he certainly offered her neither wealth nor high connections, but — in retrospect — he offered her something even more important and maybe we should give her credit for having perceived his value at the time: Châtillon was a brilliant tactician, who proved capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance as long as he lived.

Châtillon’s release and remarriage also coincided with the start of the personal reign of Baldwin IV, who came of age in 1176. He appears to have favored Châtillon. He certainly would have had to approve of his marriage to the Stephanie de Milly and Châtillon’s assumption of the title of Baron of Oultrejourdain. In any case, just a year after his release he was entrusted with a mission to Constantinople in which Baldwin IV renewed his father’s “homage” to the Byzantine Emperor (no doubt Reynald’s earlier dramatic submission to the Emperor made him an ideal candidate to do this, combined with the fact that his step-daughter by his deceased wife Constance was now the Byzantine Empress.) In addition, he was to negotiate details of a joint operation against Egypt that Baldwin IV and Manuel I wanted to pursue. While it is hard to see the Châtillon of film and fiction as an ambassador, it must be conceded that he apparently fulfilled his commission in this case well. The Byzantine Emperor sent a fleet of 70 ships to support and land invasion by troops supplied by the crusader states and armed pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of Philip Count of Flanders combined with Baldwin IV’s leprosy foiled the joint campaign and while the Counts of Flanders and Tripoli with the young prince of Antioch attacked targets on the border of Antioch, Salah-ad-Din invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. It was late 1177, and King Baldwin had less than 400 knights left for the defense of the realm. Still he rushed to Ascalon and raised the commons in defense of the realm eventually delivering a crushing defeat of Salah-ad-Din at the field of Montgisard on November 25, 1177. 

Bernard Hamilton claims that Châtillon was the “real” commander at Montgisard, siting Arab sources. However, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Chronicle of Ernoul, the two contemporary Christian sources both of which were in far better position to position to assess who was commanding on the Christian side, singularly fail to mention his role. He is just one of several prominent men in the King’s forces including Baldwin of Ramla “and his brother Balian, Renaud of Sidon and Count Joscelin, the King’s uncle and seneschal.” The fact that the Arabs attribute the command to Châtillon may have more to do with the fact that they knew him (and hated him) so well than any real role; Châtillon is not the kind of man to be easily overlooked and the Arab sources may have confused prominence on the battlefield with command. Tyre, however, was at this time chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and made a meticulous attempt to interview the survivors of the battle. It is hardly likely that he would have omitted Châtillon’s role had Châtillon really been the mastermind of the victory of Montgisard. In the absence of credible testimony to the contrary, therefore, the assumption should be that the most senior official at the battle was the commander — and that was none other than King Baldwin himself!

Châtillon’s next important contribution to history was his raid deep into Sinai in November 1181. This raid definitely contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce with Salah-ad-Din. However, as Hamilton points out, far from being an opportunistic act of an adventurer with no regard for treaties, the raid was a highly effective tactical move in defense of the crusader kingdoms. The raid occurred immediately after the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir Prince as-Salih in Aleppo. The prince had designated his cousin, a Seljuk prince and lord of Mosul, as his successor with the explicit intention of preventing the Kurdish usurper Salah-ad-Din from taking any more of his father’s inheritance. Salah-ad-Din immediately recognized that the powerful Lord of Mosul was likely to be a far greater obstacle to his ambitions than the weak as-Salih and so immediately ordered his nephews to prevent any forces from Mosul reaching Aleppo.

From the Christian point of view, it was critical to prevent Salah-ad-Din from expanding his power to Aleppo, and the Lord of Mosul was to be preferred to the jihadist Salah-ad-Din.  Châtillon’s raid into Sinai effectively 1) prevented Salah-ad-Din from taking his forces from Egypt north to Aleppo and 2) prevented his nephews from doing his work for him either. Farrukh-Shah had to divert his forces from interdicting the Lord of Mosul to protecting his uncle’s possessions in Sinai. Aleppo therefore did not fall to Salah-ad-Din at this time — a small price to pay for a truce that was due to expire less than six months later. To be sure, Châtillon also enriched himself by seizing a very lucrative caravan and refusing to ransom the survivors or pay compensation for the dead, but this should be seen as Châtillon’s usual avarice and does not detract from his rapid and effective response to critical threat to the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A year latter, Châtillon expanded on his probably ad-hoc raid into Sinai by launching a fleet of ships in the Red Sea. These raids have generally drawn approbation from historians, who portray them as cruel piracy against innocent pilgrims — largely because the Arabs had no fighting ships in the Red Sea at this time and Châtillon’s ship sacked towns and burned ships initially at will. Against this portrayal is the fact that Arab warships and slavers had preyed upon Christian pilgrims for centuries before the First Crusade, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was by this time in a life-or-death struggle with a man who had promised to drive it into the sea. No, Châtillon’s raids were not pretty. Medieval Warfare rarely was. Yes, his ships attacked “unarmed” pilgrims (though it’s hard to imagine Arab men travelling anywhere unarmed at this time). They certainly caused havoc and spread terror across the Arabian Peninsula. And far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, they served a clear strategic purpose.

Hamilton makes the argument that the costs and complexities of launching these ships far exceeded he resources of Châtillon alone and argues convincingly that he must have had the support of the King of Jerusalem himself. He certainly needed the skills of Italian shipwrights and sailors — scarce commodities in his land-locked, desert lordship. More important, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon was challenging Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. As Hamilton words it: “[Salah-ad-Din’s] credibility would have been severely damaged in the eyes of the entire Islamic community if the Franks had succeeded in preventing pilgrims from reaching the holy cities [of Islam] of which he was protector while he and his arms were fighting Sunnite princes in Iraq.” (Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs, p. 181.) Hamilton goes on to point out that the campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power.

Salah-ad-Din had no choice but to respond to the raids. He had warships dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. These eventually tracked the Christian raiders down, bottled them up in the harbor of al-Haura, and when the Frankish crews abandoned their ships, to track down the survivors. The Sultan than dealt with the survivors in a notably non-chivalrous fashion: he ordered them distributed about his kingdom and publicly executed (against the laws of Islam that dictate that prisoners who voluntarily surrender should be shown mercy).  Two of the raiders, presumably the men identified as the leaders, were taken to Mecca and slaughtered like sacrificial animals to the wild jubilation of the crowds of pilgrims on the haj.

Châtillon’s role in these raids (and he took full credit/blame for them despite the probability that he was aided by King Baldwin) made him more hated than ever in the Islamic world. Salah-ad-Din clearly felt personally insulted, and in the years that followed he twice laid siege to Châtillon’s main fortress at Kerak.  The first of these sieges occurred while the Queen Mother, the Dowager Queen and both Princess of Jerusalem had gathered in Kerak for the wedding of Princess Isabella (aged 11) to Humphrey de Toron (aged 15 or 16), but while the High Court of Jerusalem was meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Guy de Lusignan’s deplorable performance as Regent during an invasion of the Kingdom by Salah-ad-Din in October 1183. This meant that Châtillon found himself with only his own fighting men but hundreds if not thousands of non-combatants on his hands. Tyre claims he “rashly” tried to defend the town outside the castle, but was nearly overwhelmed by the suddenness of Salah-ad-Din’s attack, and barely managed to pull back into the castle, his villagers losing everything. Although Tyre tries to make this sound like poor leadership on the part of Châtillon, it sounds far more like a successful surprise attack to Salah-ad-Din’s credit. Châtillon was lucky not to lose his castle under the circumstances and despite the overcrowding and lack of combatants he held his castle for more than a month before the royal army came to his relief.

The Castle of Kerak as it appears today. Photo by Herbert Schrader.
A year later the scene repeated itself, but this time there was no wedding and no constitutional crisis going on. Both sides were better prepared, but the outcome remained the same. The royal army came to the relief of Kerak and Salah-ad-Din was forced to break off his siege. He would not succeed until more than a year after the destruction of the Christian army at Hattin and the execution — at Salah-ad-Din’s own hand — of Châtillon himself.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Châtillon still had two other contributions to history to make. During the succession crisis after the death of Baldwin V, Châtillon threw his weight behind Sibylla — but it is unclear if he supported Guy de Lusignan or not. He is said to have urged the people of Jerusalem to accept Sibylla without naming Guy as her consort. He may have been one of her supporters who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as his consort given his past successes!). Or he may have known she intended to keep Guy as her consort. In any case, he can be counted in her faction.

There is no evidence that I have seen, however, that he was particularly hostile to Raymond of Tripoli and there is no reason to believe he particularly agitated for war in 1187. On the contrary, Salah-ad-Din needed no particular provocation. He’d been launching invasions almost yearly from more than a decade and he knew as well as anyone that Guy de Lusignan was neither popular nor powerful. He recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was weaker than it had been at any time in his own lifetime and he gathered his forces and struck again. Châtillon followed the royal summons to muster — as did all the other barons and fighting men of the kingdom. And, as an experienced battle commander with a large contingent of troops he inevitably played a role in the Battle — but nothing suggests he was the one whispering idiocy in King Guy’s hear: that distinction belongs to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar Gerard de Rideford.  

At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles including Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron. The only thing that made him different from the others is that Salah-ad-Din was not willing to forgive the Red Sea Raids and — again in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy, although Châtillon surrendered no less than the other lords did. Salah-ad-Din allegedly killed Châtillon with his own hand — or wounded him and let his men finish him off. It was a violent end for a violent man; he may well have preferred it to the thought of languishing in a Saracen prison again or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.

Châtillon is an important secondary character in the first two books of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

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