Sometimes a seemingly minor incident can trigger a chain of events with profound consequences. According to the 13th-century historian Philip de Novare, the bitter antagonism between the Ibelins and Sir Amaury Barlais, which grew into a full-scale civil war when the Holy Roman Emperor exploited Barlais' bitterness for his own purposes, all started at a tournament...
In a series of novels, I plan to explore and describe the people and principles that tore the Holy Land apart for nearly two decades in the mid-thirteen century. The first book in this series, Rebels against Tyranny, was recently released. As is fitting, the opening scene takes the reader to that fateful tournament in 1225.
“Philip, are you all right?” a young, male voice called out anxiously.
Sir Philip of Novare couldn’t see the owner of the voice because his squire was trying to pry his misshapen great helm off his head—without taking half his face off with it. Philip had just lost a “friendly” joust. Although his opponent had used only a blunted mace, he’d still managed to bash in the side of Philip’s helm.
Philip was sweating profusely, as much from increasing panic as the heat of a Cypriot summer day. The air inside the helm seemed to grow thinner and thinner as his squire Andre twisted the metal pot to try to maneuver it past Philip’s chin. The pounding of his blood in his temples and the rasping of his breath seemed to echo inside the helmet, blotting out most other sounds. He could barely hear Andre answer the newcomer in an anxious, frightened voice. “I can’t get the helm off, sir.”
“Let me try,” the voice answered, coming nearer. “It’s me. Balian.”
“I can hardly breathe anymore, Bal,” Philip gasped.
Firm hands grasped the helmet, and a moment later the air flooded back into Philip’s lungs like a fresh breeze. Balian had twisted the helm so that both the eye slit and breathing holes were in position again. Their eyes met, and Philip could see the concern and question in Balian’s eyes. “I’m fine—if I could just get this damned thing off!” Philip assured his friend.
Balian and he had just spent the last three years earning their spurs together. Yesterday, in an extravagant ceremony, they had been knighted by Balian’s father, the powerful Lord of Beirut, along with Balian’s younger brother Baldwin and five other youths. Today’s jousting was part of the three-day celebration, which would culminate in a full-scale melee pitting the barons and knights of Syria against those of Cyprus.
Balian was already seventeen and had long felt ready for the accolade of knighthood. Philip knew that Balian was both wounded and resentful that his father had delayed his knighting so long—and then knighted his fourteen-month-younger brother at the same time. Being so close in age, the brothers had always been rivals, but the intensity of their competition was aggravated by the fact that they were very different in temperament. Baldwin was like water to Balian’s fire—and took pleasure in dousing Balian’s enthusiasm and pride. Balian’s need to prove himself better than Baldwin in front of all the peers of the realm had provoked him into taking stupid risks this morning. Fortunately, he’d gotten away with them and ridden undefeated from the lists.
Under the circumstances, Philip thought, he might have been forgiven for basking in his hard-won glory and gloating a bit instead of coming down into the dusty tent-city to find out what had happened to his friend. After all, in addition to practically every baron and knight of Outremer, there were scores of ladies and maidens in the stands. Balian had the kind of good looks that appealed to women. By the way the maidens had been biting their fingernails at Balian’s near falls and cheering his successes, Philip could imagine all too vividly the way Balian would be adulated and adored by blushing young beauties the moment he joined the spectators. Instead, Balian hadn’t even taken the time to change out of his sweat-soaked gambeson and dusty surcoat.
“I think I better fetch an armorer, Philip,” Balian told Philip after a moment of inspection.
“He’ll want to cut it open!” Philip protested with a new kind of panic. Unlike Balian who was heir to the lordship of Beirut, son of one of the richest men in both Syria and Cyprus, Philip was an orphan. His father, a knight from Lombardy, had died during the first siege of Damietta when he was only twelve. A Cypriot, Sir Peter Chappe, had taken Philip under his wing, letting him serve as his page until Philip’s skill at reading earned him the patronage of a more powerful lord, Sir Ralph of Tiberias. The latter had been nearing death, however, and Philip had soon found himself without a lord, let alone a fief. Balian’s father had rescued him by bestowing a small Cypriot fief upon him and sending him to serve as a squire in his brother’s household, where he had met and befriended Balian. Philip had spent all the cash he could raise from his one fief just to outfit himself—and now his expensive helm was in risk of being ruined beyond repair.
“Very probably,” Balian agreed calmly, and Philip knew his friend just couldn’t understand. Balian’s armor had cost twice as much in the first place, and he wouldn’t have given a thought to replacing it on a whim. Balian didn’t hesitate to wear silk surcoats on the tiltyard either or buy a sword with an enameled pommel or a saddle with ivory inlays.
“Balian! I can’t afford a new helmet!” Philip protested in exasperation.
“You can’t exactly spend the rest of your life wearing that one either,” Balian retorted practically. “You can’t drink or eat in it for a start. I’m going to fetch the armorer. Andre?” He turned to his friend’s young, inexperienced and frightened squire.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Draw a cold bath for Sir Philip. When we get him out of that thing, he’s going to need to cool off. He very likely got a concussion and doesn’t even know it yet.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I’ll be right back, Philip,” Balian assured his friend, and ducked under the partially opened tent flap.
Outside Philip’s tent, Balian was in a city of canvas. Literally, hundreds of lords and knights had pitched their tents on the plain west of Limassol to take part in this sporting event. Tournaments had been popular in France and Flanders for nearly a century, but for most of that time, the knights and lords of Outremer had been engaged in too much real warfare against the Saracens to seek mock combat. The last decades, however, had been comparatively settled due to squabbling between the heirs of al-Adil. With the Ayyubids fighting among themselves, the Franks had been given a respite from war, and their appetite for sport had grown commensurately.
Although the actual lists were a couple hundred yards away, the dust churned up by the jousting wafted on the wind across the tent city, turning the air a murky beige and the sound of cheering and shouting was only slightly dampened. Clearly, the current joust was exciting the crowd because the shouts and collective groans seemed particularly intense. Balian, however, only glanced in the direction of the lists, knowing that the matches scheduled for this afternoon did not include any of his friends or family. Instead, he tried to decide the best way through the rows of tents to the armorers who had set up shops along the far periphery.
He had only gone a few steps when a new roar of agitation rose from the bleachers. People seemed to be shouting, “Stop! Stop!”
Balian paused to look in the direction of the lists and saw a little man come storming out on foot. It was Sir Amaury Barlais. He was covered with sand, evidently from a tumble, but that was hardly unusual. What was striking was that he was beet red with fury as he cursed and gestured. “I’ll kill him! I swear! I’ll kill him! He was cheating! It was obvious! If they refuse to see that, they’re all cheats and liars!”
Two other knights were running after him, his cousin Sir Grimbert de Bethsan and Sir Gauvain de Cheveché. “Amaury, you might be right that Sir Toringuel was cheating, but it does you no good to accuse the baillie of being in cahoots with him—”
“Why shouldn’t I? Damn it! Toringuel is Ibelin’s knight. If he was cheating, it was with his knowledge and consent!”
Balian flinched at such an accusation. Aside from being baillie, his uncle was an Ibelin, and he had been raised to believe that all Ibelins had an obligation to live by the very highest standards of chivalry. From the time he was a little boy, it had been beaten into him that as an Ibelin he had to be more honest, more charitable, more loyal, more diligent, more persistent, more courageous, more compassionate—in short more noble than other men. That he didn’t always live up to that ideal was obvious, but he had never expected to hear anyone impute that his uncle fell short of the highest standards. People might not like all of his policies, but Balian had never before heard anyone accuse his uncle of anything dishonorable.
Sir Grimbert made a second attempt to calm Barlais. “You don’t know that, Amaury. If you’re so sure Sir Toringuel was cheating, then demand an inspection of his weapons, but don’t lash out at the judges! That only makes them disinclined to support you!”
“They’re all a bunch of bastards!” Barlais insisted, his rage so intense that his veins were pulsing in his temples as he tore off his coif and arming cap. He was in his mid-thirties and his hair was thinning over angular features that made Balian’s friend Philip de Novare compare him to a weasel. The latter image was reinforced because he wore his short, brown hair slicked back away from his sharp face. He ducked into a tent like a rodent going to earth, but as Balian passed by he was still raging, “I’ll kill him! I swear, I’ll kill him!”
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.