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.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction – Richard the Lionheart


Richard the Lionheart plays a central role in Envoy of Jerusalem, and he is without doubt the one character that every reader has at least heard of. Indeed, most readers probably already have an opinion about Richard before opening the first page of my book, because Richard the Lionheart’s popularity in popular culture goes back at least to the time of the first Robin Hood legends – whenever that was! Today he is familiar from scores of Hollywood films and hundreds of novels. So I knew from the start that readers would come to my book with a picture of him already in their minds.

To make things even more difficult, Richard was highly controversial even in his own lifetime. He was seen by the Church as excessively proud, greedy and sexual. He was detested by the German Emperor, his own brother John, and the French King. On the other hand, he was adored by his hard-headed, practical and highly political mother -- and by his troops. Furthermore, despite the best efforts of his brother John and the King of France, he retained the loyalty of most of his vassals and subjects as well.


To this day historians and laymen tend to fall into “pro” or “con” camps. It seems as if people just can’t be indifferent to Richard.  The main sources of contemporary contention are: 1) whether Richard was a “good” or a “bad” king for England; 2) whether Richard was homosexual or not; 3) whether Richard was a stupid, bloodthirsty brute or an intelligent and judicious king and commander. Since my novel is set exclusively in the Holy Land, the first question isn’t terribly relevant, but answering the latter two, particularly the last, was important. So before writing anything, I tried to find answers to these questions and come to a personal understanding of this complex and controversial king. As a second step, I then reflected on how the man I “discovered” would have interacted with my characters.

Richard, it seems to me, was a product of his age, birth and upbringing. Born a prince to two of the most ambitious, politically savvy, proud and passionate people of the 12th century, Richard had little chance of being humble, meek, dispassionate, indecisive, or easy-going. Richard and his brothers fought their father and each other as well as their liege lord Philip II and any rebellious vassal that dared raise his head. Clearly, Richard was ambitious, aggressive and tenacious, but his heritage also ensured that he was politically astute and acutely attuned to shifting alliances and power constellations.


Richard was, furthermore, only 13 when he was first invested with authority as Duke of Aquitaine. While children in the Middle Ages undoubtedly grew up faster than children do today, that is still a very young age to be raised to such high status. It is hard to imagine that the dignity, power and importance of this title did not go to his head. So Richard would never have been humble or self-effacing, but he was also unlikely to have been touchy about his titles. They were not something new or something he had to guard consciously because by the time he came on crusade they were an organic part of him.

Another thing that struck me was that Richard’s relationship with his father was far more complex than that of an impudent son, but while fascinating this wasn’t all that relevant to my novel. Richard’s deep love for his mother, on the other hand, was relevant because it must have influenced his attitude toward women generally ― and sexual relations are important in any novel. Richard’s relationship with his mother was forged when he was at her court in Poitiers from the ages of nine to thirteen. He surrendered the Aquitaine to her and her alone, trusting her not to give it to one of his brothers. His very first act as king was to order her release from detention. He sought her advice when he was with her and entrusted her with royal authority during his absence. Arguably there was no other human being that he trusted as much as he trusted his mother. A man who has that much respect for a woman’s intelligence and political acumen is bound to respect other intelligent women, and this was an important insight for my novel as it dictated how Richard would react to and inter-act with my female protagonist, Maria Comnena.


At the same time, Richard was anything but a “mama’s boy.” He was strong, athletic, and comradely. He won the affection of his troops because he could swear, fight and whore as hard as they did. Indeed, the Church was highly critical of his sexual excesses. It has become popular to impute homosexuality to Richard, but there is no evidence that he was suspected of this in his lifetime. Certainly, he had mistresses and at least one illegitimate son, so if he was also a practicing homosexual he was bi-sexual. We will probably never know what his sexual preferences were and, frankly, I don’t much care. In my novel I chose to stick to the contemporary image of Richard as heterosexual.


What did strike me as exceptional, however, was his willingness to do manual labor. This was anything but self-evident in a medieval nobleman, much less a king. Yet the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi claims that Richard helped rebuild the defenses of Ascalon “with his own hands,” and describes his example inspiring everyone to work together handing the stones up to the wall (Book 5, Chapter 6). The willingness to do menial labor reveals just how sure Richard felt in his own skin. He was so sure of his own innate nobility that he had no need for royal symbols or ceremony. It was perhaps this that later enabled him to endure captivity at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor. For my novel it was simply an important characteristic.


I was also won over by Richard’s leadership style. Richard was a brilliant strategist – who also led from the front. He risked his own life, but was very cautious with the lives of his soldiers. He understood logistics as well as strategy, and he won his battles with a combination of careful planning and sheer audacity. As one of my readers put it, in the end, I just had to love Richard.


For the most part, therefore, “my” Richard reflects the above characteristics, but the plot of Envoy of Jerusalem required going beyond this fundamental character and looking specifically at Richard’s role in the Third Crusade. On the one hand this meant his continuous quarreling with the French under Philip II and Hugh of Burgundy, and on the other hand his interaction with the barons of Outremer and his initial support for Guy de Lusignan. With regard to the former, I accepted historical consensus that Richard and Philip’s rivalry and hostility was both a clash of personality and fundamental interests. With the later, however, I had to look deeper as this was the very essence of my novel: the evolving relationship between Richard and Ibelin.


Here too, it was rapidly evident that Richard and Ibelin were in many ways opposites in background and character. Richard was born to privilege; Ibelin had to claw his way up by marriage and merit. Richard was flamboyant and showy; Ibelin was humble and retiring. Richard was renowned for his prowess on the battlefield, a man of immense physical strength and skill with arms; Ibelin’s greatest achievements were diplomatic. Richard led from the front with spectacular displays of bravery; Ibelin’s military skills were more organizational and inspirational.


Yet arguably what most set Richard and Ibelin apart was that Richard was crusader, while Ibelin was a native of Outremer. This simple fact determined their initially opposing attitudes and positions at the start of the Third Crusade. Richard arrived in the Holy Land determined to regain Jerusalem ― and consciously or unconsciously convinced that the men of Outremer had lost it, either through their sins or their incompetence. Richard, like other crusaders from the West, were quick to see the natives of Outremer as decadent and compromised. Ibelin, naturally, placed the blame for the catastrophe on its architect, Guy de Lusignan.


It was Richard’s support for Guy de Lusignan, therefore, that initially put Ibelin and the Plantagenet on a collision course. Ibelin recognized Conrad de Montferrat in place of Guy as the rightful king of Jerusalem. Because of this, he was willing to act as Montferrat’s envoy to Saladin in the fall of 1191. This put him in direct conflict with Richard, because Montferrat was willing to cut a deal with Saladin behind Richard’s back. (Saladin called Montferrat’s bluff, and broke off the negotiations with him, but the fact that Ibelin had represented Montferrat in some (though not all) of these negotiations naturally made him seem a traitor, at least in the eyes of some of Richard's followers and later chroniclers.


Yet less than a year after his arrival in the Holy Land, Richard was forced to recognize that he had seriously misjudged Lusignan. He recognized further that his continued support for the strategist of the disaster at Hattin endangered all that he had achieved with his crusade. It is to Richard’s credit that he both recognized his mistake and was willing to reverse his policy.


After Champagne’s election as King of Jerusalem, Ibelin supported Richard’s crusade. He is specifically named as commanding (again) the rear-guard of the army sent to the relief of Jaffa (after Richard went by ship to stiffen the resistance of the garrison). He is also listed as the first and foremost of the emissaries Richard sent to Saladin to negotiate a truce that would enable Richard to return home to his threatened inheritance. Obviously, this had in part to do with the fact that Ibelin had distinguished himself in negotiations with Saladin before, notably at Jerusalem. Nevertheless, no man selects an envoy he does not trust and respect.


It is therefore safe to say that in the almost exactly 16 months that Richard the Lionheart spent in the Holy Land, he came to appreciate, respect, and possibly even like the so very different Baron of Ibelin. It is this evolving relationship that I describe in Envoy of Jerusalem -- as well as attempting to do justice to the complex historical figure that Richard I Plantagenet undoubtedly was.

Richard the Lionheart is a major character only in "Envoy of Jerusalem"





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