Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Guy de Lusignan

Writing about Guy de Lusignan in my Jerusalem trilogy posed serious problems for me. He played a fateful (not to say fatal) role in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and hence ignoring him was not an option. Indeed, he is such a significant historical figure that one of my test readers kept urging me to give him a larger role and more space in the novels. To do that, however, I would have had to be able to get inside his skin and see the world through his perspective ― something I found very difficult to do well. I simply do not understand how anyone could have been as stupid, stubborn and arrogant as Guy de Lusignan.

The situation is complicated by the fact that, as with most of these historical figures from so long ago, there are many things we don’t know about Guy ― starting with his date of birth, and hence his age when he seduced Sibylla. Another thorny issue is whether the contemporary allegations against Guy as the murderer of the Earl of Salisbury are true or not. Developing a character depends very much on whether you believe him capable of stabbing an unarmed man in the back―or not.

Even more difficult for a novel set in the Holy Land is the complete blank in the historical record about why the barons of Jerusalem almost unanimously refused to accept Guy as regent after campaigning under him in the fall of 1183. Guy had been named regent, he had called up the feudal army, and they had all come. In short, the subsequent revolt was not a fundamental refusal to serve under Guy. If, as historians suggest, it was just resentment of a comparative new-comer or an “unworthy” husband for Sibylla, they wouldn’t have mustered at all. The barons did  not revolt against Guy until after the campaign of 1183. But then their revolt was overwhelming and emphatic, refusing to go to the relief of the critical border castle of Kerak and the rescue of the the King’s sisters and mother, until Guy had been dismissed and Baldwin IV had resumed the reins of government. Something happened. But we don’t know what, and without knowing what, it is very difficult to craft a character. Something about him that alienated his fellow barons, including Balian and his brother, but just what was it?

Of course, one could argue that the absence of historical documentation opened the way to more creative speculation on my part. True. But, I confess, I drew a blank. I just couldn’t picture vividly enough what sort of man this Guy was.

Several novelists have taken the approach that he was simply a weak-willed dandy easily manipulated by stronger men such as the Templar Master Ridefort and Reynald de Chatillon. But does weakness provoke aversion on the part of stronger men? The absolute hatred that would induce a man to renounce all his titles and surrender all his property (as Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel did) rather than serve him? Does weakness alone engender so much contempt that a man would prefer to commit treason (as Tripoli did) rather than serve him? Maybe, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

And what was it about this man ― who provoked such negative reactions from his male peers ― that attracted the love of a twenty-year-old princess?  Sibylla, whether she was seduced by him before their marriage or not, was passionately loyal to Guy to the day she died. Her love for Guy led not only to the loss of her kingdom, it led her into Saracen captivity and finally to her death. Had she not followed him to the siege of Acre, she would not have died along with her infant daughters in 1190. Whatever else one has to say about Sibylla, she was a devoted wife!

So Guy couldn’t have been all bad, right? Again, I’m not so sure. 

It was that uncertainty made it difficult for me to conjure up a character that was credible, convincing and compelling. In the absence of a compelling character capable of telling me what he thought, said and did, I had only one choice: to give him as small a role as history would allow.

Guy de Lusignan is a minor character in my books. He is viewed mostly from the outside, through the eyes of Balian and others. Only very occasionally do I step inside his skin and show the reader how Guy’s might have understood his circumstances and surroundings. These are critical junctures, in which I felt a rare sense of insight, but for the most part Guy remained an enigma to me.  I leave it to another novelist to try to find and reconstruct Guy’s personality in greater detail and nuance. 

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Aimery de Lusignan

The "Grael" Tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones
Guy de Lusignan is remembered as the king who lost the Kingdom of Jerusalem by his incompetent leadership in 1186-1187, and he has consequently received a lot of attention in histories and novels. Yet Guy was not the only Lusignan to make his fortune in the Holy Land. On the contrary, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Aimery, and it was Aimery, not the feckless Guy, who founded a dynasty. 

Furthermore, for a series of novels about the Balian d’Ibelin, Aimery was in many ways more important than Guy because, long before his more famous younger brother landed in the Holy Land, Aimery had married an Ibelin Baldwin’s daughter/Balian’s niece Eschiva. Critically, while the bitter hostility of the Ibelin brothers to Guy de Lusignan is well documented, the facile assumption made by most historians that the Ibelins were automatically also hostile to Aimery is, I think, seriously flawed.  

On the contrary there are clear indications (starting with the marriage of Eschiva) that the Ibelins were initially and again later on good terms with Aimery.  After all, Aimery and Guy were two very different people, and opposition to an arrogant and incompetent usurper does not automatically entail or require opposition to a modest, wise and competent older brother ― no matter how loyal he was to his brother. Last but not least, within just a few short years of Guy's death, the Ibelins had become (and were proud to be) the staunchest defenders of Aimery’s dynasty. They held extensive fiefs in Aimery’s kingdoms, and Aimery appointed Balian’s eldest son Constable within two years of becoming King of Jerusalem. That doesn’t sound like the actions of bitter rivals to me. 

It seems far more likely that Aimery and the Ibelins had a more complex relationship. One of mutual respect, but sometimes clashing interests ― just as can happen in any family. This is what I attempted to trace and depict in my Jerusalem trilogy.  

So who was Aimery de Lusignan? 

"The Shadow" by Edmund Leighton
Aimery de Lusignan was the third son of a Poitevan nobleman, Hugh VIII de Lusignan, a troublesome vassal of the Dukes of Aquitaine. Indeed, there was an infamous incident in 1166 when the “Lusignan brothers” — some sources expressly say Geoffrey and Guy — attacked and killed the Earl of Salisbury. Since Salisbury was unarmed, unarmored and stabbed in the back, it was a notorious act. Significantly, Aimery’s name is never linked to the murder of Salisbury. 

In or about 1174, Aimery left Poitou for the Holy Land. He was following in the footsteps of three generations of Lusignans, who had been crusaders before him. His own father had died in a Saracen prison. Aimery too was captured shortly after his arrival, and his father’s fate must have haunted him. Fortunately, King Amalric was prepared to pay his ransom.  This is an important tidbit as it suggests that Aimery was an agreeable enough young man ― unlike his younger brother ― to win friends in high places. 

This assessment is reinforced by the fact that, despite being a younger (third) son, he married the daughter of one of the richest and most powerful barons. This was not the usual case of a Western adventurer seducing a widow, because his bride, Eschiva d’Ibelin, was only a young girl, and the marriage was concluded with her father., the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel.  

in 1180, his younger brother arrived in the Holy Land and promptly seduced the widowed (and recently jilted) Princess Sibylla. (Allegations that Aimery were behind this are spurious. Aimery did not return to the West at this time.) Sibylla's brother King Baldwin IV sanctioned a wedding, how willingly is a matter of debate. As a novelist, I suspect Aimery may have been a little jealous of his younger brother’s spectacular success, but he would obviously also have recognized that he had much to gain from it. His Ibelin in-laws on the other hand were outraged. His father-in-law had hoped to marry Sibylla himself, and was never reconciled to this marriage. In short, Aimery's improved status (as brother of the future king) came at the price of an unpleasant break with his wife’s kin. That probably didn’t seem too high a price at the time. As the brother of the future king-consort, Aimery was rewarded within a couple of years with the powerful and prestigious post of Constable.  

This appointment may have been due to family connections, but Aimery acquitted himself well as constable, notably at the Battle of Le Forbelet. Likewise, a year later when Saladin tried to seize control of the important springs of La Tubanie, Aimery — notably supported by the Ibelins — successfully beat-off the attack. So, angry or not, the Ibelins were still willing to fight with him, which again suggests Aimery knew how to get along with people better than his little brother. 

When his brother Guy made a bid for the crown in a coup d’etat three years later, however, it is unsurprising that Aimery backed his brother. This support does not necessarily imply, however, that he thought highly of his brother or his brother’s leadership. This might simply have been a matter of family loyalty and self-interest.  

And he may well have regreted it. His loyalty to Guy took him to the Horns of Hattin, humiliating defeat and captivity. As the Lusignan brothers and most of the other barons of Jerusalem moldered in a Saracen prison, the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem fell city by city and castle by castle to Saladin until only the city of Tyre and isolated castles still held out. There was now no kingdom from which to raise ransoms for any of them. As 1188 dawned, Aimery de Lusignan must have expected he would suffer his father’s fate and die in Saracen captivity.

Instead, in May 1188, Saladin released the Lusignan brothers. The brothers went to Antioch, the only Crusader kingdom that was still more or less in-tact, and there recruited some 700 knights and 9,000 other ranks to attempt a re-capture Guy's lost kingdom. (This was in violation of an oath Guy had taken to Saladin, by the way.) Guy, Aimery and his little army set out for the only city of his kingdom that was still free,Tyre, only to discover that the man controlling it (Conrad de Montferrat) refused to admit them. Guy de Lusignan was persona non grata in his own kingdom ― and Aimery with him. What was more: Conrad was soon to claim the crown for himself by right of his wife, Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella. For the next three years, Guy and Conrad would be rivals, fighting over the crown of a kingdom that existed more in people's minds than in fact.
Meanwhile, the Lusignans recognized they had to do something, so they laid siege to Acre — formerly the most important port of his former kingdom and now garrisoned by Saladin’s troops. This siege was to drag on for two years and cost thousands of lives as arriving crusaders joined the siege ― and died there of disease, malnutrition, and the a constant skirmishing with the Saracen forces both inside the city and surrounding the siege camp. In November 1190, disease took the lives of Queen Sibylla and her two daughters — Guy's only off-spring. With them died Guy’s sole claim to the throne of Jerusalem. Aimery remained loyally with his brother, but one wonders what he thought of him by this stage? 

In the spring of 1191, the kings of England and France finally arrived with sufficient men and machines to bring the siege of Acre to a successful conclusion. Although Philip II soon sailed home for France, Richard the Lionheart stayed on to fight. He also staunchly backed his vassal Guy as king, but the barons and burghers of Outremer remained vehemently opposed to Guy. Richard re-established Christian control of most of the coastal cities, but then his time ran out; he had to return to his hereditary lands or risk losing them to Philip of France. Richard wanted to leave that the rump state he had helped create in hands strong and capable enough to ensure its survival; that was patently not Guy de Lusignan. Richard did the responsible thing: he dropped his support for Guy and recognized Isabella as the rightful Queen of Jerusalem and her husband (first Conrad de Montferrat and then Henry of Champagne) as King. 

That was a bitter disappointment for both Guy and Aimery, but this is where things get interesting for the Lusignans. On his way to the Holy Land, Richard I had conquered Cyprus. This immensely wealthy island which had long been part of the Byzantine Empire had been seized by a self-proclaimed “Emperor,” whose tyrannical policies had so alienated his subjects that for the most part welcomed and cooperated with Richard of England. Richard first sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, but by April 1192 the entire island was in rebellion against their rule. The Templars, recognizing that they did not have the resources to subdue the island and fight for the Holy Land, returned the island to the King of England. 

Richard sold it to Guy de Lusignan! 

That was all very well for the King of England's purse, but the fact was, with the entire population now up in arms against the rule of the crusaders, Guy first had to conquer the kingdom he had bought. He set off with what few supporters he still had. Significantly, his brother Aimery did not accompany him. This is concrete evidence that the relationship between the brothers had become strained. 

Whatever their relationship in private, however, outsiders naturally still assumed they were close. The new King of Jerusalem, Henry of Champagne, was clearly suspicious of Aimery’s loyalty. When Aimery sided with the Pisans, who Henry suspected of plotting against him, he was promptly imprisoned. Aimery’s arrest, however, provoked protests from the barons of the  kingdom, which supports my earlier thesis that — in contrast to Guy who seems to have been singularly adept at making enemies — Aimery was still popular among his adopted countrymen. The fact that King Henry gave in to the protests and released Aimery on the condition that he surrender the office of Constable furthermore suggests that Aimery’s supporters were very influential. I can’t help but suspect that they included Balian d’Ibelin, who was King Henry’s de jure father-in-law (he was married to Queen Isabella’s mother). Aimery duly surrendered his office of Constable of Jerusalem and promptly went to Cyprus to assist his brother Guy in taking control of his new lordship. 

Yet less than two years later, Guy de Lusignan was dead ― and he designated his elder brother Geoffrey — not Aimery who had been with him so long and through so much for him— as his heir. This is the most convincing evidence that the relations between Aimery and Guy had deteriorated badly (if they had ever been good). Fortunately for Aimery, Geoffrey de Lusignan had no interest in Cyprus. So Guy’s vassals chose Aimery as his successor. 

At last Aimery could demonstrate his own talents, rather than trailing in the wake of an incompetent brother. Within three years of becoming the Latin/crusader overlord of Cyprus, Aimery had established peace on the island, set up a Latin ecclesiastical hierarchy alongside the Orthodox one, and raised Cyprus to the status of a kingdom.  

Nor was that the end of Aimery's astonishing life. In 1196/1197, Eschiva d’Ibelin died. When Henry of Champagne died in September 1197, Aimery was selected as fourth husband for Isabella of Jerusalem. Aimery promptly used his Cypriot resources to help strengthen his new kingdom. In the same year that he assumed the crown of the kingdom his brother had squandered, he recaptured the key coastal city of Beirut from Saracen control. The following year, he concluded a five year truce with the Saracens that gave the kingdom much needed breathing space to retrench and consolidate itself. It was also the year in which he named Balian d’Ibelin’s son John to his old position of Constable of Jerusalem — an exceptional mark of favor for a young man not yet 20 and one presumes more a gesture of gratitude to his father than a mark of confidence in one so young. As noted above, this is one of the reasons I think Aimery had a more cordial relationship with Balian and his family than is usually assumed. 

Aimery also used the peace to commission a codification of the Laws of Jerusalem, the written records of which had been lost along with the Holy City. Drawing on the memory of the surviving members of the High Court, he attempted to capture the living memory of the unique laws of the lost kingdom and provide a constitutional basis for future legal procedures. This "Book of the King" was a significant contribution to feudal legal scholarship in the 13th century.

In 1204, with the Fourth Crusade diverted to Constantinople, Aimery concluded a new truce with the Saracens, this one with a six year duration. This gave his kingdom the peace it needed for economic recovery, but he did not live long enough to enjoy it.  In April 1205, Aimery died from foodpoisoning after eating fresh fish. Isabella followed shortly afterwards. The crown of Cyprus passed to Aimery's son by Eschiva d’Ibelin, Hugh, and the crown of Jerusalem to Isabella’s oldest surviving child, her daughter Maria of Montferrat.

My novels attempt to separate Aimery from Guy and portray him throughout as an independent and very different personality to his feckless younger brother. Because his marriage to Eschiva occurred in the late 1170s, he is a character in all three books of my trilogy--and indeed beyond in my current work-in-progress about the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus. Throughout, Aimery's relationship with Guy is fraught with jealousies, tensions and disagreements that are only barely patched-over for the sake of family unity -- just as in many families today.

Find out more by reading:

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Agnes de Courtenay


Agnes de Courtenay was the power behind Baldwin IV’s throne and she was a viperous enemy of my leading female character, Maria Comnena. Because of both these roles in history, I had to cede her a place in my novels. Furthermore, despite an attempt by historian Bernard Hamilton to rehabilitate her, the commentary of contemporaries and indeed the naked record of her actions condemn Agnes as a singularly stupid woman whose influence on her son was almost entirely negative. Something which, admittedly, fit in with her being the arch-enemy of Maria and so a prime candidate for a negative character in my novels. All novels need some negative characters after all….

So who was Agnes de Courtenay?

Agnes was the daughter of Joceyln II, Count of Edessa, who lost his county to the Saracens, in large part due to neglect and poor leadership. The city of Edessa was lost to Zengi in November 1144, and by 1150 the last remnants of the once rich and powerful County were in Saracen hands. Joscelyn II himself was captured in the same year by Nur al-Din and tortured. He eventually died, still in captivity, in 1159.  As a result, Agnes de Courtenay did not have an easy childhood. She had been married, possibly at an early age, to Reynald of Marash, who was killed in battle in 1149. The following year, her father was captured and never seen again. In just six years, her family had fallen from one of the richest and most powerful in the crusader states, to the status “poor cousins” living on a few estates in Antioch that Agnes’ mother had from her first marriage. Agnes was a widow with no land and no dowry. She was also probably no more than 10 or 12 years old, as she would have had to be at least 8 at her marriage to Reynald.

According to historian Malcolm Barber, she was next betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin (Balian’s oldest brother), but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, but she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  While historians can leave unanswered the question of her feelings, a novelist cannot. Agnes’ feelings toward Hugh d’Ibelin are critical to the character Agnes in any novel about the Ibelins.

The (historical) plot thickens, however, when at the death of Baldwin III, who was childless, the High Court of Jerusalem refused to acknowledge his next of kin, Baldwin’s younger brother Amalric, as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside. Why, we do not know. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce. However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but rather about the character of his wife. Regardless of their reasons, such action could only have infuriated and enraged Agnes herself. Rather than becoming Queen, she was repudiated and sent back to her former betrothed (or husband) Hugh d’Ibelin. 

While historians don’t particularly need to figure out why Agnes was so despised by the High Court (the fact that she was is enough), for a novelist there is a gold mine here. It appears that Agnes was considered a ‘bad woman.’ Some historians have suggested that meant nothing more than that she was a Courtenay and expected to favor her family, but that was quite normal in the Middle Ages and hardly seems to justify such an unyielding stance on the part of the High Court. To the novelist, the insinuations that she was a woman of “easy virtue” ― alleged to have had affairs with a bishop (the later Patriarch Heraclius) and with Aimery de Lusignan is far more intriguing―even if not proved.

Likewise, while Agnes’ feelings do not much interest historians, they are hugely important to a novelist. How would a woman, who undoubtedly felt she ought to be queen, feel about the man she is forced to (re)marry to after losing a crown? It hardly seems likely that she was fond of Hugh under the circumstances, and the fact that the marriage was childless suggests it may have been no more than nominal. Certainly she was credited with hating the woman who took her place in Amalric's bed and became -- what she could not be -- his queen: the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena. Maria was latter wife of Balian d’Ibelin. 

But before that happened, Agnes had a stroke of luck. In 1176 Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and he invited his  mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Jocelyn of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes’ lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claim, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally 3) an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Her next acts of influence, however, were little short of calamitous: she arranged the marriage of her son’s two sisters (and heirs), Sibylla and Isabella, to men of her choosing. We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. 

The latter was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch. Toron then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem. 

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to historian Bernard Hamilton, was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. The dying King Baldwin IV preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper –- than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army after 1183

Nor was this mistrust of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom. But by then she was already dead.

As a novelist, I had no particular need to alter any of these facts or to engage in any form of revisionism with respect to Agnes. On the other hand, writing about history through the eyes of the Ibelins presented me with a problem usually overlooked by historians and novelists focused on the history of the kingdom. Namely: Agnes was Balian d’Ibelin's sister-in-law. She must have known both he and his brother very well, and their hostility to her (and vice versa) may have had more personal than political reasons

Historians tend to simply dismiss Ibelin hostility to Agnes as “ambition” from a “notoriously” ambitious family. But Balian and his brother belong only to the second generation of Ibelins, and they didn’t yet have a track record of being particularly ambitious or successful for that matter. Indeed, the Ibelins were hardly any different from any of the baronial families at this point. 

Alternatively, historians and novelists point to Agnes’ “natural” hatred of Maria Comnena, who had replaced her in her first husband’s bed and been crowned queen in her place. Certainly, this may have been the root cause of the hostility between Agnes and Maria, and through Maria to Balian and Baldwin d’Ibelin. But the tension might also have been older and deeper. It might have gone back to Agnes’ abandonment of Hugh d’Ibelin when he was in Saracen captivity just so she could marry the Prince of Jerusalem. This is the thesis I chose to expound upon in my novels as it is both logical and adds dimensions to the characters and their relationships.

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