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, April 15, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Isabella I


Although Isabella was born a princess and reigned Jerusalem for twelve years, she is most often portrayed in history books and literature as a pawn. She was married four times, divorced once, and widowed thrice. She was the mother of six daughters and a single son, who died before her. She had been besieged by Saladin on her first wedding night, was the object of a coup attempt, and endured the hardships of a siege camp during the Frankish siege of Acre 1189-1191. One husband spent more than year in Saracen captivity, another died in her arms after being struck down by assassins, and her third husband died at the age of 33 in a bizarre accident. Isabella died at the age of 32.

Yet while Isabella’s life was short, eventful and tragic, writing Isabella off as a pawn of the men around her does no justice to a woman who played such a significant role in the history of the Holy Land. Thus one of my principal goals as a novelist when developing the character of Isabella was to show her as human being with a mind and a will of her own.

Trying to understand Isabella started with recognizing that her father died when she was only two years old, and that made her the only child of a young widow ― who also happened to be a Byzantine Princess. Furthermore, from the age two to seven, she lived with that widowed mother, the immensely wealthy Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, in her mother’s dower barony of Nablus ― a pretty good formula for being a very spoiled little girl!

It was probably a terrible shock to Princess Isabella when her mother remarried in late 1177. Suddenly she was no longer the center of her mother’s attention and, indeed, she would have been expected to show respect and obedience to a strange man, which may not have come easily. She also probably had to spend some of her time away from her familiar environment in Nablus, and go with her mother and step-father to Jerusalem and Ibelin, where her step-father had property.

From there, however, things only got worse. Three years later she was completely removed from her mother and step-father’s care and sent to live among strangers in the barren border fortress of Kerak under the care of one of the most notoriously brutal men of the age: Reynald de Châtillon. (See earlier entry.) Worse: she was effectively imprisoned, denied the right to even visit her own mother. Allegedly, this was so she could grow up with her future husband, Humphrey IV of Toron. 

Humphrey was only a few years older than Isabella, and also a minor living with his mother and stepfather. Later in life he was described as more like a girl than a boy, with a stutter, and cowardly. This was probably the result of being intimidated (not to say brutalized) by his step-father Châtillon, his mother’s third husband and his second step-father. Isabella was later to show great devotion to Humphrey, which led me to hypothesize that the two little children, already promised to one another by their guardians, became friends in a hostile world.

Isabella’s release from Châtillon’s clutches came in a dramatic way. When still only 11 years old, she was “married” to Humphrey in the midst of a siege. (Note: this marriage was illegal because Church law required girls to be at least 12 years of age, unless there was a papal dispensation.) Contemporary accounts claim that the Saracens had already taken the town and the castle itself was under bombardment from Saladin’s siege engines during the wedding. But the castle held out until the army of Jerusalem, led by Isabella’s half-brother King Baldwin IV came to the relief of Kerak.

Humphrey, having presumably reached his majority (age 15 in the Holy Land at this time), and Isabella thereafter set up their own household. Although the details of Humphrey’s estate are vague, a variety of charters demonstrate that Humphrey’s “loving” guardian (Châtillon) had in fact bartered away his hereditary fief (Toron) to the king’s maternal uncle, Joscelyn of Edessa, leaving Humphrey with substantial cash income but no land―something that would have been intensely humiliating since Toron was a great barony and his grandfather had been Constable of the kingdom and one of the most respected noblemen of his age. (Humphrey’s own father died very young and before his grandfather did.) Isabella too, much as she apparently loved her childhood friend, as a princess would have found the lack of any kind of landholding insulting. This state of affairs was clearly the work of the queen mother, Agnes de Courtenay, and intended to check-make Isabella’s ability to raise her legitimate claims to the throne of Jerusalem -- and troops to support that claim. At 11 and 12, Isabella may not have understood this, but her mother and step-father certainly did, and after she was released from Kerak she had contact with both of them again.

In fact, after the death of Baldwin V, Isabella was at Nablus with her mother and step-father when the news came that her half-sister Sibylla had illegally seized the crown of Jerusalem and also crowned and anointed her detested husband Guy de Lusignan. The majority of the barons and bishops of the kingdom, meeting at Nablus, agreed to crown Isabella as a (legitimate) rival to her sister. But that same night her husband, Humphrey, secretly went to Jerusalem and did homage to Sibylla and Guy, check-mating the baronial opposition to the usurpers. Isabella must have felt betrayed, insulted and humiliated by Humphrey’s actions. Her mother and step-father (and the majority of the barons and bishops) had seen her as the rightful queen, yet her own husband did not; such a bald betrayal must have been lacerating to Isabella. I do not believe any marriage would have survived a break of this kind without damage.

We do not know for certain where Isabella was when one year later the news came that the army of Jerusalem had been annihilated at the Battle of Hattin and her husband, along with the king and most of the other noblemen present, had been taken prisoner by Saladin. However, we know that her mother and maternal half-siblings were in Jerusalem. Her step-father received a safe-conduct from Saladin to go to Jerusalem and remove them from harm’s way. We know, furthermore, that Isabella’s paternal half-sister (Queen Sibylla) was also in Jerusalem, because Arab sources write that Saladin did not want her in Jerusalem when he assaulted it. I think, therefore, it probable that Isabella was with her mother in Jerusalem and went with her to Tyre.

On Humphrey’s release from captivity, he joined the Frankish siege of Acre and Isabella went with him. Medieval sieges were not picnics, and this one was particularly horrible. The Frankish forces were completely hemmed in by the Saracens by land and dependent on supplies by sea that could be cut off by enemy action or weather. There was frequent skirmishing, hunger, and disease. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, died in this siege ― including Queen Sibylla and her two daughters.  So Isabella, I am forced to conclude was either there by force or she must have still loved Humphrey a great deal, despite his betrayal at Nablus in 1186. Maybe the nearly two years of separation caused by his captivity had made her forgive him and long for him?

At all events, Isabella was sharing Humphrey’s tent in the siege camp when men loyal to the King of France forced their way in, dragged her from her husband’s bed and took her into church custody, while the legality of her marriage to Humphrey was investigated by an ecclesiastical tribunal led by the papal legate. Much has been written about this “abduction” and I refer readers to my own short essay “The Abduction of Isabella.” The gist of the story is that while Isabella initially resisted the thought of divorcing Humphrey “because she loved him,” she changed her mind within a couple of days after her mother made it clear to her that she could not become Queen of Jerusalem unless she agreed to set Humphrey aside. Isabella chose the crown.  This is usually portrayed as weakness, a girl being “badgered and brow-beaten” into giving up the man she loved. I doubt that version. Here's why:

First, there were suggestions that the marriage had never been consummated -- after seven years and with both principals both in what should have been sexually active ages. Second, during the investigation of her marriage, Humphrey’s testimony that Isabella consented to their marriage was challenged by a witness. This man called Humphrey a liar and threw down a gauntlet, challenging Humphrey to defend his word in combat. Significantly, Humphrey did not pick it up. In short, the young man who was according to a contemporary, firsthand account (the Lyon Continuation of Tyre based on the lost chronicle of Ernoul) “cowardly and effeminate” was not willing to fight for his wife. Where did that leave Isabella? She had been married to him as a little girl, and she had lived with him for seven years, but first he betrayed her and prevented her from being crowned queen and now he refused to fight for her. I think that while Isabella had clung to Humphrey as her only friend when an imprisoned child at Kerak, she was by the age of 18 tired of a pretty, stuttering youth who was patently unwilling to recognize her as a queen or even defend his own rights. She dumped him. Her sister Sibylla had stuck to her man and lost her kingdom, Isabella shrewdly made the other choice, she dropped her  man and gained a kingdom.

Her next husband, Conrad de Monterrat, despite the slander heaped on him by the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi and most modern novelists, was not a monster. He was very well-educated, well-traveled, and an allegedly handsome man, who had charmed the court at Constantinople. He was also ambitious, decisive, opportunistic, courageous and audacious. There is no reason to think Isabella disliked him. Indeed, after the weak and ineffectual Humphrey, who had stood in her way of becoming queen, the virile and ambitious Conrad might have literally swept Isabella off her feet. That is a matter of pure speculation, of course, but it is every bit as legitimate as the usual portrayals of her being miserable with him. Why should she have been? She finally had a man who was willing to fight for her and her rights to the crown.

Unfortunately, however, even Conrad ran into insurmountable opposition in the form of Richard the Lionheart. Richard, for reasons of his own, backed the former King Guy, saying that because he was an anointed king he should rule until his death, after which Isabella and Conrad would be his successors. It must have been intensely frustrating for Isabella to have her claims to the throne sabotaged a second time, but at least this time it wasn't by her own husband. 

Eventually Richard of England recognized that Guy was never going to be recognized by the his former subjects, and capitulated. He dropped Guy and recognized Isabella and Conrad as the rightful queen and king of Jerusalem. There was wild jubilation in Tyre -- that turned almost at once to outrage and grief when Conrad was attacked and lethally stabbed by two assassins. Dying, he was brought to Isabella, and bleeding from the well-placed wounds he died in her arms. The experience would have been traumatic no matter what her feelings for Conrad had been.

Isabella had no time to grieve. She was recognized as the Queen of Jerusalem at last, but constitutionally she needed a consort and politically, with Saladin still in occupation of most of her kingdom and the Third Crusade already disintegrating, she needed a consort capable of defending her fragile kingdom. She knew that ― just as she knew that it was not her choice. The High Court of Jerusalem would decide her next husband. Within just days they chose a 24-year-old Frenchman, the grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine and nephew of Richard of England: Henri de Champagne. Isabella and Henri married just eight days after the assassination of Conrad.

And what did Isabella feel about it all? We don’t know but there is one account that says that Isabella personally came to a reluctant Henri de Champagne to assure him that she was in agreement with the marriage. He was allegedly so charmed by her that he abandoned all his scruples and reluctance to take up the burden of Jerusalem.

In summary, my Isabella was spoiled in her early childhood but tempered by extreme hardship and cruel disappointments into a woman who identified with her kingdom. She repeatedly demonstrated her willingness to subordinate her own feelings to the best interests of her kingdom. In this, I think she was very much her mother’s daughter, imbibing with her mother’s milk a strong sense of imperial dignity and destiny. I think Isabella’s ties to her mother were very strong, albeit tested by the breaks, and probably stormy as I see them as both very strong personalities. As for her relationship with her husbands, I think she loved Humphrey as a child but felt betrayed by him and frustrated by his apparent homosexuality. I think she was at first a little infatuated by Conrad, because he was so different and so forceful, but that she would likely have found him overbearing and difficult very soon; he was not the kind of man to be considerate of others, not even his wife. (He'd had two already, after all.) In Henri, however, I think Isabella found a young man she could truly love.

Find out more by reading my Jerusalem trilogy:







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1 comment:

  1. I like your take on Isabella. It is well thought out and reasoned. I find myself in agreement with your assessment of her.

    Of her husbands as well. Everything I've read about Humphrey says "girlie." Conrad sounds like the man the Kingdom needed, but not one prone to affection for a wife.

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