Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

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.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Last Crusades

There were to be four more crusades, but all of them were, each in their own way, dismal failures, mere echoes of the First and Third Crusades, and none could halt the inevitable end of the crusader kingdoms. Nevertheless, the Seventh Crusade was notable for being led by a man who would later be sainted, King Louis IX of France. I will deal with them all in this, my last entry, on the history of the crusades.

The Fifth Crusade: 1218-1221

The fate of the children sent a new shock through the courts of Europe, and a new attempt was made to rally political support for a military campaign to rescue Jerusalem. Pope Innocent III called officially for a new crusade in 1215, but the forces gathered were too weak for a direct assault. The leaders, none of whom were prominent, chose instead to put pressure on the Sultan of Egypt by laying siege to the Egyptian coastal city of Damietta. Although Damietta fell to the crusaders in 1219, this minor victory had no impact on the situation in the Holy Land. Two years later the crusaders withdrew.

The Sixth Crusade: 1228-1229
The Sixth Crusade was led by Emperor Friedrich II of Germany, however, the Emperor’s motives were largely secular. He laid claim to the title of King of Jerusalem by right of his wife, and wanted to establish his control over the Kingdom (such as it was) and furthermore exert his claim to overlordship of the Kingdom of Cyprus. He was, furthermore, under a ban of excommunication at the time he undertook the crusade, which made it difficult for the Knights Templar or the Knights Hospitaller to support him. In the end, he negotiated a treaty that returned Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the Christians for 10 years, but denied the Christians the right to fortify the city. This outraged the local nobility and the militant orders, who recognized that the Saracens would be able to retake Jerusalem at whim – and that they would be expected to bleed and die in the attempt to save it long after Friedrich had departed for Germany.

The Seventh Crusade: 1248-1254

As had been foreseen, Jerusalem was soon seized and sacked by Saracen forces (in 1244). That same year, King Louis IX of France was on his deathbed in Paris. With his family and barons gathered around to hear his last wishes, he had a vision of Jerusalem, and when he recovered seemingly miraculously from his illness, he was convinced that God had restored his health so that he could lead a new crusade to free Jerusalem. Not since the Third Crusade had there been a ruling monarch who took the cross out of religious fervor. Louis IX overcame the reluctance of his nobles and assembled a considerable force, said to have numbered 2,000 knights. He sailed for Outremer in 1248 from Aigues-Mortes in southern France, accompanied by his three younger brothers – the Counts of Artois, Poitiers, and Anjou – and by his queen.

After staging in Cyprus over the winter, Louis’ army embarked for Egypt and captured Damietta after a battle before the gates (but without a siege) in June 1249. The crusaders collected their forces in Damietta, and then in early 1250 started up the Nile with the objective of capturing Cairo. In February 1250 their advance was halted by a large Muslim force holding the fortified city of Mansourah. A rash attack by the vanguard, led by the Count of Artois, resulted in heavy losses, including the Count of Artois and nearly all the Knights Templar on the expedition. Meanwhile the Sultan’s forces had succeeded in cutting off the crusaders’ supplies from Cyprus and the Holy Land, and the French were soon suffering from hunger, dysentery, and scurvy.
In April, King Louis, along with all his surviving knights and men, was taken captive. The wounded were slaughtered, as were most of the priests and any of the captives considered too weak to make good slaves. The commoners were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Only the wealthy knights and noblemen were held for ransom.
Louis’ queen and consort, nine months pregnant and in Damietta with only a weak guard, rejected the advice to flee for her safety, wisely recognizing that Damietta was her husband’s most valuable bargaining chip. Within only a few weeks, a deal had been struck, by which Damietta was returned to the Sultan of Egypt in exchange for King Louis’ release, and a huge ransom in gold was paid by the King of France for all the rest of the surviving crusaders in Egyptian hands.
The Sultan with whom this deal was made, however, was murdered before Louis’ eyes before the deal could be implemented. The murderers of the Sultan were rebellious Mamlukes, technically slaves, who formed the backbone of the Sultan’s military leadership and his bodyguard. The Mamlukes cut the Sultan’s heart out of his chest in full view of the French king, then came aboard King Louis’ galley and held it out to him, demanding to know what he would give them for the heart of his “enemy.” Louis was (to his credit!) speechless. The Mamlukes next threatened the Christians with execution, and most of them confessed their sins to one another (because the priests had already been slaughtered by their captors), and prepared to die. In the morning, however, the Mamlukes consented to the agreed ransom. After Damietta was turned over and the first installment of the ransom paid, King Louis, his surviving brothers, and the most important noble captives – but not all the knights nor any of the commoners – were released.
King Louis – against the advice of his nobles – remained in the Holy Land for another four years, and engaged in sophisticated diplomatic maneuvering with the Sultan of Damascus (a descendant of Saladin, appalled by the Mamlukes’ murder of his cousin), the Mongols, and the Assassins. When his mother, left in France as his regent, died in 1254, however, he returned to France. By that time he had secured the release of at least 3,000 prisoners and had signed treaties that stabilized the fragile status quo in the Christian territories.
The Eighth Crusade: 1270
Although the Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258 and took Aleppo and Damascus in 1260, by 1265 the new Sultan of Egypt, the Mamluke general Baibars, had put them on the defensive, and he soon felt strong enough to focus his attention on eliminating the remaining Christian strongholds in the Holy Land. In 1265 he captured Caesarea and Arsuf. In 1266 he took Safed and Galilee. In 1268, Baibars took Jaffa, Antioch, and Sidon.
King Louis IX, although now 66 years old and very ill, “took the cross” again. He gathered an army and sailed for North Africa, where he laid siege to Tunis, but his army was soon decimated by sickness and demoralized by the death of King Louis himself on August 25, 1270. This was the ignominious end of the last official crusade.
Edward of England in the Holy Land: 1271-1272
Prince Edward of England, later Edward I, was in the Holy Land in 1271-1272, but despite tactical successes he had insufficient military strength to make a lasting impact on the imbalance of forces.
The End of Christian Palestine
Baibars’ successor, Kala’un, another Mamluke emir who murdered his way to power, was determined to eliminate the remaining Christian strongholds on the coast. Breaking a truce he had made with the Christians, he captured the Hospitaller fortress of Marquab in 1285. In 1289 he took the Christian city of Tripoli, slaughtering all the males and flooding the slave markets with the women and children. In 1291, the last Christian outpost, the city of Acre, was besieged and captured. The military orders withdrew from their remaining fortresses without a fight and re-established their headquarters on Cyprus. The Christian kingdoms established in the Holy Land by the First Crusade had been extinguished and there wound never again be an armed pilgrimage by Christians to recapture the sites of Christ’s passion.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Children’s Crusade: 1212

The Fourth Crusade had exposed the corruption of the ruling elites, particularly the greed of the Italian city-states, and had patently failed to achieve the objective of freeing Jerusalem. Yet religious fervor was again on the rise. Genuine grass-roots passion for a new crusade took tragic shape in a movement to free Jerusalem by love rather than force.
A French shepherd boy, Stephan, claimed to have had a vision of Christ dressed as a pilgrim. Almost simultaneously, in Germany, a 10-year-old boy, Nicolas, had a similar vision. The concept of this crusade was that the sins of the earlier crusaders – and the very fact that they sought to use force to achieve their objective – made them unworthy of success. Only the innocent could free Jerusalem – or so the leaders and adherents of this new crusade believed. They expected Jesus to welcome them to his homeland and drive out the Saracen.
An estimated 20,000 children followed Nicolas’ call to free Jerusalem. Allegedly entire villages were emptied of children, and many believe that the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has its roots in this crusade. Most of these children died crossing the Alps, and those who reached Rome were freed from their crusading vow by the Pope.
Meanwhile, Stephan had led his some ten thousand followers to Marseilles, only to discover that merchants and ship owners had no intention of transporting his child crusaders to Outremer free of charge. Eventually, however, some Genoese ship owners agreed to provide passage to the children – and promptly sold them to Arab slave traders.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Hijacked Crusade

The achievements of the Third Crusade should never be under-estimated. The disaster at Hattin had destroyed the native Christian forces in the crusader kingdoms, and within months nothing was left of the Kingdom of Jerusalem except the city of Tyre. Yet by the end of the Third Crusade, the crusader kingdoms had been re-established, and indeed strengthened by the establishment of a Latin Kingdom on the island of Cyprus that provided the crusader kingdoms with a secure source of food and protection from Muslim fleets.
Castle of Kantara -- just one of the great fortresses on the island
Nevertheless, Jerusalem had been lost, and this inevitably altered the dynamics of crusading in the following century. Saladin had proved that the Christian kingdoms were vulnerable, and this made it easier for subsequent Muslim leaders to inspire to their followers with religious zeal. Meanwhile, in the West, crusaders and crusading had lost the aura of invincibility. Men increasingly doubted God’s Will when it came to the crusades. But the process was slow. Five more crusades – or six depending on how one counts – occurred before the last outpost of Outremer fell to the Saracens in 1291.

The first of these crusades was preached by Pope Innocent III already in 1198. Enthusiasm for this crusade was notably diminished compared to the three earlier ones. No king, nor any important nobleman, was prepared to lead it, and financing was so short that when the crusaders reached the port of embarkation, Venice, they were unable to pay for transport. The Venetians offered to provide the shipping for “free” – in exchange for crusader help in eliminating their (Christian) commercial rival, the city of Zara. Over the vehement protest of many participants -- and the Pope! -- and after much soul-searching, the crusade’s commanders agreed to do Venice’s dirty work, but they were no closer to Jerusalem.
At this juncture, a deposed Byzantine emperor sought the aid of the crusaders, alleging that he would be welcomed with jubilation by the people of Constantinople and offering huge rewards. The crusaders took Constantinople, only to find that the people did not welcome the deposed prince. A coup soon brought another emperor to power, one hostile to the crusaders, and the troops were unpaid and in worse straights than ever. At this juncture, Venice proposed taking the wealthy city of Constantinople on their own account, and on April 13, 1204, the erstwhile crusaders captured and sacked one of the greatest Christian city in the world.

Although this action was repudiated by the Pope and reviled by many devout Christians throughout Western Europe, the damage had been done. Although Western barons held control of Constantinople and much of what is modern Greece for 60 years, all hope of unity between the Eastern and Western churches was destroyed, and the strength of the Byzantine Empire as a bulwark against Islam was broken.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem" by Stanely Lane-Poole: A Review

Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by Stanley Lane-Poole attracted my attention since I am working on a novel about his adversary at Jerusalem, Balian d'Ibelin.
Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a eulogy rather than a biography. Here's my review:
In his introduction to this book, Lane-Poole claims that “no complete Life of the celebrated adversary of Richard Coeur de Lion” is available in the English language. This may have been true when it was first published at the end of the 19th century, but it is no longer the case. Nevertheless, the price (just $.99 cents) seduced me. Before others make the same mistake, here's my assessment.
While understanding that every biographer is to some extent the captive of his sources, this book is far more than biased: it singularly fails to provide the analysis and context so vital to a good biography. Furthermore, it is based on two false assumptions. First, that Muslims have the right to all territory that was ever ruled by Muslims, and blindly denies both Jews and Christians any right to the territories that was theirs long before the Muslim invasion of the 7th Century AD. Second and more important, Lane-Poole ignores the fact the population of these lands – even at the end of the 12 century – was not predominantly Muslim, much less Sunni Muslim.  The population was completely fragmented into Jews, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jacobites, Maronites,  Coptic Christians, Nestorians and Shiia Muslims as well as Sunni Muslims. The latter distinction is very important because Shiite leaders, both the Fatimid Caliphate and the Assassins, made repeated pacts and alliances with the Christians to fight the Sunnis – and Saladin himself -- and the Shiite population in Palestine probably opposed Saladin at least as much if not more than the Jews and some of the Christians.  (For more information on the population of the crusader kingdoms and their relations to their rulers I recommend either Malcolm Barber’s book, “The Crusader States,” or to Professor Kenneth Harl’s excellent series of lectures in The Great Courses series.)
Lane-Poole, however, is clearly not interested in the facts.  Instead, he slavishly follows his pro-Saladin sources without standing back to question or balance these sources with information drawn from other chronicles and historians or – indeed – simple common sense.  For example, he repeatedly mentions that Christian clerics were prepared to absolve Christian leaders of oaths made to non-Christians – but does not once mention that Muslim clerics told their fighting men exactly the same thing only in reverse: that they need not keep their word with non-Muslims.  Likewise, it gets very tedious to have every tactical defeat of a Christian force portrayed as a “humiliating retreat” with the Christians departing “with their tails between their legs” – in one case this was after just one week in the field! -- while every set back Saladin suffered (and he sometimes spent many months in pointless sieges!) is explained away as a wise decision not to pursue a time-consuming campaign or the need to let his troops go home to see their families.  Indeed, Lane-Poole mentions several times how attached Muslims are to their wives and children, but does not credit Christians with the same feelings.  As for Saladin’s defeat at Mont Gisard, where Saladin’s army of 20,000 was put to flight by roughly 500 knights led by a 16 year old king suffering from leprosy, it is glossed over as “inexplicable” and takes up less than two pages of the narrative. A real biographer would have been intent on explaining both how it happened – and what Saladin learned from it; as a historian, the latter point is particularly important as such a bitter defeat (Saladin had to escape on a pack camel and lost almost his entire body guard) surely left its scars on his psyche.
It is likewise the mark of a dilettante rather than a historian to claim that Richard I “was honeymooning” on Cyprus, when in fact he was conquering the island from a tyrant and by so doing secured the lines-of-communication and a breadbasket for the crusader states for the next hundred years. Indeed, the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus outlived the crusader kingdoms by more than 200 years.
The book is also littered with gratuitous and unfounded insults as well. For example, Lane-Poole calls the sailors of the age “timid” because they did not venture into the Mediterranean in winter.  Apparently, Lane-Poole has never seen the fury of Mediterranean winter storms much less considered what it would be like to face them in a fragile wooden vessel without a weather channels, radar, navigational equipment, radio communications etc. etc.
Lane-Poole’s bias is so extreme it is even applied to even little things such as the way the “wooden [sic] bells of the Christians harshly clashed [wood?] instead of the sweet and solemn chant of the muezzin.” (As someone who hears the call to prayers five times a day, I beg to differ with that utterly subjective statement!)
About four fifths of the way through the book, Lane-Poole casts aside all pretense of being a historian and biographer and declares his partisanship in the statement: “But the students of the Crusades do not need to be told that in the struggle of civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.” (Chapter XIX) Now, students of the crusade know just the opposite: that there were atrocities, betrayals, cruelties, excesses and also magnanimity, generosity, courage and gentle culture on BOTH sides.
The greatest weakness of this book is that by its excessive bias it detracts from its hero.  Saladin deserves our respect because he was exceptional, not because he was perfect. Saladin stands out as an impressive and attractive example of integrity, tenacity, leadership, piety and generosity – particularly when compared to his successors, such as Baibars. He was undoubtedly a more chivalrous figure than Guy de Lusignan, and even Christians despised and repudiated butchers like Ranaud de Chatillon. But Saladin deserves a real biography that attempts to explain him as a statesmen and a military leader; this book is not it, but I'll keep looking.


Friday, November 1, 2013

The Second and Third Crusades

After the "excursion" of the last six weeks to the Languedoc and the Albigesian Crusades, I'd like to return to my series of essays on the Crusades to the Holy Land. I left off on September 13 with a description of the Crusader Kingdoms.

Here the Crusader Castle of Kerak
The Second Crusade,1146 - 1148

The crusader kingdoms were a remarkable achievement that astonished the contemporary world. But less than a half century after the re-capture of Jerusalem by Christian forces, the new Christian kingdoms suffered their first major set back. In 1144, the Principality of Edessa was captured by Saracen forces. By 1146, the Principality of Antioch was also threatened, and an appeal went out – not to the Byzantine Emperor, who was deemed untrustworthy -- but to the West.  The lords of "Outremer" expected more help from the kingdoms that had taken Jerusalem in 1099 than the Greeks in large part because the ruling elite retained cultural, linguistic and family ties with the West, particularly France.
This call for help elicited an enthusiastic response. This time even kings were persuaded to take the cross (i.e., the crusader vow): namely, the King of France, King Louis VII, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Konrad III. Furthermore, Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most respected clerics of the age and a gifted orator, preached passionately in favor of the new crusade.

Konrad raised about 80,000 troops and set out first, but his army was so decimated by cavalry attacks, heat, and hunger after crossing into territory held by the Seljuks that he returned with what remained of his army (approximately 7,000 men) to Nicaea to await the arrival of the French. Louis’ army (including his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine) advanced slowly but with less significant losses, reaching Jerusalem in the spring of 1148 with an estimated 50,000 men.
There the fateful decision was made to try to seize Damascus, presumably to humiliate or weaken the enemy. Although a siege was established, news that a strong relief army was on the way spread so much panic among the crusaders that the crusading army disintegrated. This humiliating failure did profound damage to the support for crusades in the West, because it demonstrated that “God” was not inherently on the side of the crusaders and that victory was not assured. It also restored the confidence of the Saracen leaders.

The Fall of Jerusalem: Crisis in Christian Palestine
Between 1167 and 1174, a charismatic and gifted Kurdish general, Salah ad Din (Saladin), secured succession to the title of Sultan of Egypt and defeated his rivals for the title of Sultan of Syria. With the united forces of these two powerful states, Saladin attacked the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1177 and tried to capture Jerusalem. Although Saladin was soundly defeated before reaching Jerusalem by forces under King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, who forced Saladin to retreat, the Christian army was not strong enough to pursue Saladin or deliver a decisive blow against the Kurdish leader. An uneasy truce ensued, while Saladin turned his attention to his Muslim rivals, captured Aleppo, and moved his capital to Damascus. In 1185, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem died, and the throne passed, after the death of his 8-year-old nephew a few months later, to his sister Sibylla and her husband, Guy de Lusignan, a French noblemen.
The violation of a 4-year truce by Reynold of Chatillon, a French adventurer who had married the widow of a powerful baron of Outremer,  led to a full-scale war between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin in 1187. Saladin invaded with the largest force he had ever assembled, and captured the city of Tiberias in just one hour.  Guy de Lusignan called up his entire feudal host – roughly 1,200 knights, 2,000 native riders, and 10,000 foot soldiers. This Christian host advanced to meet Saladin’s army, but due to a series of tactical errors was decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187. King Guy and many other leading barons were taken prisoner, and – more important psychologically – a relic believed to be the cross on which Christ was crucified, the True Cross, fell into Muslim hands.
Saladin then proceeded to capture one after another of the Christian cities and fortresses, and took Jerusalem itself on October 2, 1187. Saladin – unlike the crusaders of the First Crusade – spared the lives of the citizens (in exchange for a ransom) and did not destroy the churches. Within days after he had taken control of Jerusalem, it was safe for Christian pilgrims to return to the city.

The Third Crusade: 1189-1192

The loss of Jerusalem and the True Cross shocked the West. Not only did the Pope call for a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem, but the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich I (Barbarossa), King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Henry II of England took crusading vows. Again, the Germans campaigned independently. They rapidly crossed the Balkans and modern Turkey, but Friedrich I drowned crossing a river and his army disintegrated. Meanwhile, Henry II of England had died and been succeeded by his son, Richard I “the Lionhearted.” Richard I was passionately committed to the crusade, and he and King Philip II agreed to campaign jointly, making the radical – and hugely expensive – decision to take their armies to the Holy Land by sea.
In 1190 Richard and Philip reached Sicily, expecting to join forces there with troops supplied by Richard’s brother-in-law, the King of Sicily. Unfortunately, William II of Sicily had died, but he had provided financial support and more ships for the crusade in his testament. Meanwhile, Richard’s and Philip’s armies and fleets collected in Sicily, where they wintered – not without the usual conflicts and tensions between expeditionary troops and local inhabitants. More ominous was the increasing hostility between Richard and Philip. By the spring of 1191, the tension between the two Christian monarchs was so intense that Philip sailed without Richard.  When Richard’s fleet put to sea, it was further delayed by storms, part of which was forced ashore on the Greek island of Cyprus. Richard captured this strategically significant base for crusader operations in just six weeks (I’ll write more about this in a later entry), but it delayed his arrival in the Holy Land until June.

At this point, King Guy (released by Saladin) and what forces he could rally was laying siege to the city of Acre, held by Saracen forces. Just a month after Richard’s arrival, on July 12, Acre capitulated to the Christians, and Philip of France returned to the West, leaving Richard of England in sole command of the Christian forces. Richard promptly moved out to capture Jerusalem, taking control again of Haifa and Caesarea, and confronted Saladin’s army at Arsuf. Richard defeated Saladin in the battle, but Saladin was able to rapidly rally his forces, blocking the route to Jerusalem. Richard therefore proceeded to retake Jaffa and Ascalon.
In 1192 Richard again gathered his forces for an assault on Jerusalem, but as soon as his forces moved inland, Saladin seized Jaffa behind Richard’s back. Richard returned and recaptured Jaffa, but had to face the fact that he did not have sufficient force to hold the coastal cities and recapture Jerusalem.
On September 2, 1192, Richard signed a peace treaty with Saladin, one which left the coastal cities in Christian hands and guaranteed Christians the right to pilgrimage in Jerusalem and other holy cities (e.g., Nazareth) still in Muslim hands – for 5 years. Saladin died the following year.