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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Conrad de Montferrat

19th Century Depiction of Conrad de Montferrat
Of all the historical characters in my Jerusalem trilogy, Conrad de Montferrat is the one other writers unanimously paint as the villain par excellance. Even Andrew Latham, an otherwise meticulously accurate historian, found it convenient to cast Montferrat as a diabolic evil monster obsessed with this own power in The Holy Lance.


It’s easy for novelists to fall into the cliché because one of the surviving primary sources, Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, delights in heaping abuse on the man who dared to defy Richard the Lionheart. The Montferrat of English legend, therefore, was a man who shot a cross-bow at his own father, killed his doctors, abducted a princess, bribed bishops, intentionally withheld food from crusaders, undermined all efforts by Richard of England to defeat Saladin, and finally met his just end at the hands of an assassin. It would have been easy to follow the tradition of making Montferrat into a sort of medieval Darth Vader.


But I don’t like cartoon characters in my novels. I wanted a more nuanced and comprehensible man for my books. Turning to less biased, particularly German sources, I discovered what I was looking for: a man of “many parts” with a wealth of positive characteristics and achievements to balance the negative portrayal of the Itinerarium.


Conrad de Montferrat, born about 1145, was a first cousin of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and of the French King. His older brother, William, married Sibylla of Jerusalem.  Conrad’s younger brother, Rainier married Maria Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Manuel I. In short, Conrad de Monteferrat was closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the King of France, and the ruling Queen of Jerusalem. Conrad de Montferrat was not — as some modern novelists would have you believe — an “adventurer” or a parvenu.

Furthermore, Conrad was a very well-educated, well-traveled and militarily experienced nobleman. He supported his father in his wars and in 1179 prominently defeated the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor taking the Imperial chancellor captive. He subsequently went to Constantinople, where he was greatly admired for his good looks, charm and military prowess. Although he wisely departed Constantinople after Emperor Manuel I's death -- and shortly before his younger brother and sister-in-law were murdered by the usurping Emperor Andronicus, at the invitation of Emperor Isaac Angelus Conrad returned in 1186 to marry the Emperor’s sister Theodora.  Conrad was raised to the rank of “Caesar,” and put down a rebellion led by the popular general Alexios Branas in a battle where he demonstrated exceptional personal courage. His success led his brother-in-law to look on him with jealousy and suspicion, however, and Conrad soon feared for his life (his brother, after all, had been murdered in Constantinople only five years earlier). He fled Constantinople, and took ship for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, arriving there only days after the catastrophe of Hattin.


Conrad sailed into the harbor at Tyre when it was already invested by land by the Sultan’s army. Negotiations for the surrender were allegedly already underway, whether as a ruse or in earnest. Conrad immediately and forcefully advocated defiance. With so many other cities ripe for surrender, Saladin chose not to fight for Tyre, but withdrew to capture Sidon, Beirut, Caesarea, Jaffa, etc. Meanwhile, the people of Tyre, which included not only the usual residents but the survivors of Hattin and refuges from across the north of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, swore allegiance to Montferrat. 


When Saladin returned to finish off Tyre in November 1187, he brought with him Conrad’s father, the aging Marquis de Montferrat, who had fought and been taken captive at Hattin. Saladin offered to release the Marquis in exchange for the surrender of Tyre. The chronicles tell a dramatic tale in which Conrad pointedly refused the deal, saying his father had “lived long enough already” and fired a crossbow in his direction (probably intended to miss or to kill one of his Saracen escort). Much has been made of this as proof of Conrad’s perfidy or callousness. Yet,  the chronicles agree that Conrad’s father called out something to the effect of “well done” when Conrad refused to surrender. The old Marquis of Montferrat, who had fought long and hard for the Holy Land, did not want to see the last remaining bastion of the kingdom surrendered. I found myself liking Conrad for his iron nerves!


In addition to the old Marquis, Saladin had brought another means for reducing the city: the Egyptian fleet. Tyre was now truly besieged and crammed as it was with refugees and cut off from resupply the situation rapidly became critical. Montferrat devised a trick: he led the enemy to believe that people were rioting and some of the wealthier residents were going to attempt a breakout. The chain across the harbor entrance was lowered as if to let the ships escape.  The Saracens took the bait. They shot into the harbor, thinking they were about to take the city by the back door. Instead, they found themselves attacked by the Pisan vessels in the harbor and fired on from the surrounding walls, towers and buildings. The very next day, January 1, 1188, Saladin ordered his army to disperse and withdrew.

All of the above reflects well on Conrad de Montferrat’s capabilities as a determined, resourceful, and clever commander. But it was his political actions that generally draw approbation and they started a year and a half later when, out of the north, a small Frankish army led by none other than the architect of the disaster at Hattin, Guy de Lusignan, appeared before the gates of Tyre. King Guy ordered the gates of the last free city of his kingdom opened to him. Conrad de Montferrat refused. Again, I can’t say that I blame him.


Guy continued south to lay siege to Acre, which was now held by a Saracen garrison. Thus, when the crusaders started to arrive in increasing numbers in 1190 and 1191 most of them joined the siege of Acre because it was the only active fighting available. While this should have increased Guy de Lusignan’s stature, in fact, the arriving contingents of troops tended to recognize their own leaders rather than Guy. Then in November 1190 Guy’s position was fatally undermined by the death of his wife and both his daughters. Guy, always unpopular, widely viewed by the barons of Jerusalem as a usurper, and discredited by Hattin, lost his last vestige of legitimacy with his wife’s death. The High Court of Jerusalem recognized Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella as the rightful ruler of Jerusalem after Sibylla’s death.


Only there was a problem. The Constitution of Jerusalem recognized the rights of women to rule in their own right, but only if they had a male consort capable of leading the army of Jerusalem. Isabella’s husband Humphrey de Toron had already betrayed the High Court when the High Court was trying to oppose Guy’s usurpation of the throne in 1186. The High Court was not prepared to recognize Humphrey as king. That meant that Isabella had to be separated from him and married to a man more acceptable to the barons of Jerusalem. The details of this are described in The Abduction of Isabella. For now suffice it to say that Conrad was the man they chose.

The Itinerarium and most subsequent sources portray Conrad as the driving force behind his marriage to Isabella. He is described as scheming and bribing, as unscrupulous and duplicitous. These portrayals, however, completely ignore the essential fact that it was the High Court of Jerusalem that decided on the marriage of a female heir and the fact that the High Court consistently supported Conrad over Guy. The overblown outrage of the chronicles likewise obscures the plain fact that Isabella was below the age of consent at the time of her marriage to Humphrey (she was 11) and the marriage was without question invalid according to contemporary canon law. While it is also highly probable that Conrad was ambitious and coveted the crown, it is absurd to portray his marriage to Isabella as a travesty of justice or an act of moral depravity. In my novel, therefore, I emphasize the role of the High Court, while nevertheless depicting Conrad as very ambitious and eager to gain the favor of the High Court.


By the time the Kings of France and England arrived in the Holy Land, there were two rival claimants to the (largely fictional) throne of Jerusalem: 1) Conrad, supported by the High Court and deriving his claim through the legitimate heir, Isabella, and 2) Guy, clinging to the title he had from his now dead wife because he’d been crowned and anointed. Their rivalry immediately became a proxy war between Philip II of France, who backed his kinsman Conrad, and Richard I of England, who backed his vassal Guy. Unfortunately for Conrad, Philip II soon tired of crusading and sailed away, while Richard I remained and recaptured much of the fertile coastal plain although he was unable to regain Jerusalem. In my novels, it is this conflict that initially puts Balian and Richard on opposing sides and so in conflict with one another.


During the critical eleven months from October 1191 to September 1192, Richard I periodically sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin. Not surprisingly, Conrad feared that Richard would negotiate a deal that left him high and dry, and so he tried to cut a deal of his own. This has been portrayed as the height of infamy by the supporters of Richard, but it is hard to see why it was legitimate for Richard to negotiate with Saladin but not for Conrad. Saladin, meanwhile, had a strong interest in playing Conrad and Richard off against one another and sowing dissension in the Frankish camp. However, it appears that Conrad was so desperate (or determined) to get a little kingdom (or county) of his own that he was prepared to fight his fellow Christians, and this seemed to me very telling. Conrad was resourceful, brave, and clever, but he was also ruthlessly ambitious.

In fashioning the Conrad de Montferrat of my novel Envoy of Jerusalem I tried to do justice to him as a complex character full of charm, ambition, talent -- and opportunism. I believe he would have used his charm very judiciously and intelligently to win over the heiress of Jerusalem – even before the succession crisis. She was after all, a guest in “his” city of Tyre, which makes my version of events diverge from the usual portrayal of Isabella as abducted and abused by a man she hates. His ambition and talent are depicted in his defense of Tyre, his refusal to admit Guy, and bid his for the crown.  However, on the assumption that a man with so many enemies was not always pleasant and congenial, I have also made him arrogant, self-willed, immune to advice and at times unscrupulous.

The Conrad de Montferrat is a major character in  Envoy of Jerusalem. 

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1 comment:

  1. You and I might disagree on this point, Professor, but I believe a great many historians . . . lie.

    How so? They lie when they refer to themselves as being "unbiased." Most of them are not.

    Too many view these men with a twenty-first century point of view. They just can't help themselves and are thus . . . bigoted.

    I like your take on Conrad and find myself in ready agreement. Considering the "law" of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the "lawful rights" of the High Court, it was Richard who was in the wrong and "greedy for power" by insisting that his VASSAL be named King of Jerusalem. Richard could easily see himself as "over-lord" of the "Latin east."

    I like Richard, but this is how I see it.

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