Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


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, February 25, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: King Baldwin IV

No biography of Balian d’Ibelin can ignore the man who was king for the eleven critical years 1174 – 1185, Baldwin IV. Baldwin has gone down in history as the “Leper King” simply because he suffered from this illness throughout his reign, although this moniker detracts from his significant accomplishments as king. Our image of him today is further distorted by Ridley Scott’s film “The Kingdom of Heaven” in which Baldwin IV is a leading character. So as with Balian himself, I found myself confronted with a popular image of a major character that did not necessarily conform to historical reality ― or suit my purposes as a novelist.

Baldwin IV’s modern biographer, Bernard Hamilton, for example, provides considerable evidence that challenges conventional depictions of Baldwin IV as either peace-loving (ala Ridley Scott) or helpless (ala Jeffrey Lee). Hamilton also makes the critical point that Baldwin IV’s leprosy was not initially debilitating. Baldwin, he points out, retained the use of his left hand/arm and both legs and did not suffer from noticeable disfigurement at the time he ascended the throne. At that time, he had no visible ulcers and was able to move normally. Indeed, the contemporary chronicler and Baldwin’s tutor, the later Archbishop of Tyre, claims that Baldwin was “a good-looking child … and more skilled than men who were older than himself in controlling horses and riding them at a gallop.” 

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself. Unfortunately, this occurred at a time when the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had seized control in both Cairo and Damascus. Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. Unfortunately, internal differences between Frankish leaders delayed the campaign, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and the bulk of the crusader and local barons and knights of Jerusalem undertook a campaign in the north. Salah-ad-Din, who had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion, recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless, and invaded. As he approached Ascalon, a city that had been in Egyptian hands until 1153, he prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knights, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now the King of Jerusalem was in Ascalon and Jerusalem was practically defenseless. Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for heart of the kingdom: Jerusalem. Furthermore, he had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal. (This is such a dramatic historical event that I simply had to include it in my novel, and the best way to do was to have Balian in Ascalon at the time.)

Furthermore, Saladin had miscalculated. King Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. While Jeffrey Lee in his recent biography of Reynald de Châtillon tries to give all the credit for this victory to subject, his case is based on the false assumption that Baldwin IV was already an invalid in a litter. In fact, there is every indication that at Montgisard Baldwin IV led his own troops on horseback, still fit enough to ride and fight.

But the consequences of this victory for Baldwin personally were devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, modern medical experts believe that Baldwin IV suffered initially from polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which is comparatively mild and not necessarily debilitating. However, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), Baldwin’s leprosy deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. While puberty itself can induce such deterioration, so can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that Baldwin's leprosy took a turn for the worse.

When in 1179, Salah-ad-Din invaded a second time, Baldwin was unhorsed in the engagement, a clear indication of his deteriorating condition, and when Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride at all and had to command his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem flat-out refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere again. Baldwin dismissed him as regent, and dragged his disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army to relieve a siege of the castle of Kerak. The mere approach of the Leper King, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw, but by now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year later -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected rather than dismissed as “the leper king.”

As a novelist, the character Baldwin IV presents several challenges ― and opportunities. First and foremost, I was determined to depict the progress of his disease realistically rather than showing him as a worthless blob in a liter from the start, as so many other modern writers. In short, my Baldwin is a youth who is ill but not debilitated when he comes to the throne, but who over the succeeding decade must come to terms with his declining strength, mobility and life-expectancy.

Other issues I had to address were Baldwin’s relationship to his mother and step-mother. Because he was separated from his mother at a very young age he could hardly have formed very close ties to her as a child.  Instead, he was raised at court, primarily by nurses and tutors. Although it is usually assumed they would have had nothing to do with his step-mother Maria Comnena, it is just as possible that she took an interest in him. Indeed, in the inevitably small circle surrounding a ruling king and his heir, she might have been more like an older sister than a step-mother since she was only about seven years older than Baldwin. After becoming king, however, Baldwin welcomed his mother at his court and she rapidly gained inordinate influence over him. This suggests that although Baldwin had not known his mother well, he felt a gap or a need that Maria Comnena (either because of her age or temperament) had not be able to fill.

His relationship to his sisters appear to have been very different. First, Sibylla was only a year older than Baldwin, and although raised in a convent, she would have been present at major holidays and feasts as long as their father was alive. Given Baldwin’s later behavior to Sibylla (allowing her to marry a man totally unsuitable for example), it seems likely that they were close as children. Isabella, on the other hand, was only two years old at her father’s death and thereafter left court so that Baldwin is unlikely to have had strong bonds with her. This is borne out by the cold-hearted manner in which he ordered her taken from her mother at the age of eight and turned over to the “tender” care of a notoriously brutal man, Reynald de Châtillon.

As a novelist, these various actions suggest a youth who loved his mother and sister, but gradually came to see that they were only interested in their personal gain and so acting against the interests of his kingdom. In my novels, Baldwin suffers not only from the increasing ravages of leprosy, but also from a slow disillusionment with his mother and sister.

And then there is the issue of his relationship to Balian himself. Two historical facts suggest a close relationship. First, Baldwin explicitly consented to Balian’s scandalously advantageous marriage to the dowager queen (Baldwin’s step-mother Maria Comnena), and eight years later, when practically on his death-bed, King Baldwin selected Balian to carry his nephew in a crown-wearing ceremony; it would have been more appropriate for his nephew’s guardian (Edessa) or regent (Tripoli) to carry the young king, so this was very clearly a mark of favor quite exceptional for such an insignificant baron.
Based on these admittedly thin shreds of evidence but driven by the compelling duty of a novelist to produce a good story, I created a close and early friendship between Balian and the future king, based on Balian taking over the role of riding-master. (In addition to knowing that Baldwin rode exceptionally well, there are some indications he was taught to ride by the brother of one of his Syrian Christian doctors.) 

Based on the fact that after coming of age, Baldwin turned to his mother and she not only hated Balian’s wife Maria but also arranged for Maria’s daughter by King Amalric to been taken away from her, I postulated a break between Balian and King Baldwin― which is healed only shortly before the king’s death.  

Baldwin IV is an important character in the first two books of my Jerusalem Trilogy. 






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