Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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, January 30, 2015

Poor Prisoner – An Excerpt from “The English Templar”

The faint hope that they would not dare to treat knights and noblemen in the same manner as commoners was shattered on the afternoon of the 19th. That was the day they took the ageing Sir Etienne de Mende to the torture chambers. They extracted his teeth one by one until he had confessed to everything they wanted to hear.

When the guards came and unlocked the chains at his feet, Percy felt such terror of what was ahead of him that he could hardy control his bowels. Sweat glistened on his face. Someone murmured a blessing. Someone else said a prayer for him.

He could hardly walk. His muscles seemed to have frozen. He tripped over his own feet. He smelt his own stench and was ashamed of himself. He was led along a dark, dank corridor, past a chamber full of torture instruments and into a windowless room lit by a torch. Behind a plain wooden table sat the sheriff. At his right hand sat a monk in the habit of the Dominicans. The Inquisition.

To his surprise, a stool was waiting for him. At a gesture from the sheriff, Percy sank down on it. The relief was less than expected. His muscles were not used to sitting anymore and the stool was low. His legs cramped at once and he had to clamp his teeth together to keep from crying out while he tried to shake the cramp from his legs. During the entire procedure the sheriff and the Dominican stared at him like lizards — without the slightest flicker of emotion. The guards who stood just inside the door made some crack to one another in a relaxed tone. Then it was over. He waited.

“Your name?” The sheriff asked.

Percy pulled himself together. He had had enough time to think about what he would say to this inevitable question. “Sir Percival de Lacy, second cousin of the Earl of Lincoln, subject of His Grace King Edward II of England and Knight Templar of the Commandery at Limassol, Cyprus. I hereby protest vehemently at my unlawful detention at the hands of a foreign monarch and demand immediate audience with a representative of the English Crown.” It sounded decisive and self-confident — if only his sweating, stinking body and shaking knees had not betrayed him.

Even so, there was evident surprise and consternation behind the table. The sheriff raised his eyebrows and turned to the Dominican. The Dominican leaned forwards and whispered loud enough for Percy to hear. King Philip had, of course, immediately informed his fellow monarchs of the outrageous crimes committed by the Templars and his own decision to put an end to the perversions which offended God. He had urged his fellow monarchs to follow his example, arrest the Templars and investigate their crimes. As yet, it was too soon to know the response of the English King, but he was due to marry King Philip’s only daughter Isabella in just a few months. He was sure to follow the lead of his wise and devout father-in-law.

The sheriff addressed [Percy]. “Your request has been noted. I will pass it on to my superiors. For now, your cooperation in this grave matter is requested. I am certain that voluntary cooperation will be noted with favor by both your own king and mine. You are aware of the charges levelled against your Order?”

“I have heard what my brothers reported after their interrogations,” Percy answered cautiously.

“Do you agree that the denial of Christ is a vile and heinous crime?”
Percy crossed himself. “With all my heart.”

“And the worship of some idol in place of our dear Saviour must offend every Christian.”

“It is repulsive!” Percy spoke with conviction.

“Yet both these crimes have been confessed to by your brothers.” The sheriff leaned forwards over the table. “How do you explain that?”

“A man will confess to anything to stop pain,” Percy retorted and at once wondered if he had blundered. Hadn’t he just admitted that he too would admit to anything to stop pain? Wouldn’t they recognize how weak he was? Wouldn’t they exploit it?

“But a man who makes a false confession is condemned to the tortures of hell — and hell has no end. The tortures that we poor, imperfect instruments of His will can impose are finite. They can always end in death, and that is — for the truly innocent — a release into paradise. To confess to end earthly torture only to land in the perpetual and eternal torture of hell is the act of a madman.”

“Pain creates madmen,” Percy answered. He had not prepared for these questions. He was not ready for an intellectual discussion about the nature of earthly and divine torture. He had no clue what he should say to defend himself.

“You do not give credence to the confession of your brothers?” The sheriff asked raising his eyebrows.

“How can I? I do not know what they confessed.”

“Ah.” The sheriff lifted the corner of his mouth. For some reason he was genuinely pleased to have a worthy opponent. “Let me read them to you… Your brother and priest, Father Roger of Saint Pierre du Temple confessed the following:

When I took my vows before the chapter, I was led into a small room beside the chapter chamber. There I was told to remove my clothes. This I did without hesitation, thinking that I would now receive the mantle of the Templars. But when I stood naked before the commander, he lifted his habit and ordered me to kiss his navel. I did so. He then turned to back on me and ordered me to kiss his ass. I did so. Then he gave me the kiss of peace.

The sheriff set the parchment aside and looked expectantly at Percy.

Percy stared back and thought of Father Roger’s hands. At the thought of someone tearing off even one of his fingernails, his muscles tensed. Seven of Father Roger’s fingernails had been removed brutally. His hands were swollen like sausages and hot to touch. Blood and pus still oozed from them. And Father Roger was the son of serfs; the pride of his family, the one son who had been allowed to go to school and whose freedom had been bought by the Temple so he could enter the priesthood. Percy knew that now. Sergeant Gautier had told him about Father Roger after they had brought him back from his interrogation.

“Well?” the sheriff prompted. “What do you have to say to that?”
“That Father Roger is a poor, miserable man, whom I pity with all my heart. May Christ have mercy upon him! He did not mean to lie but he was not strong enough to insist upon the truth.” Percy crossed himself. He did not think he was strong enough to withstand torture either.

The sheriff shifted uncomfortably. That too true. Then he suppressed his discomfort. Christ might be merciful; King Philip never. And it was to King Philip he owed his position and his wealth. “Brother Thomas, also of Stain Pierre, confessed to the followed,” he persisted mercilessly. “At my initiation I was forced to deny Christ three times —“

“As did Simon Peter on the day of the Crucifixion.” Percy interrupted without knowing what he did. The stench of Brother Thomas’ charred feet was in his nostrils. He felt nausea rising in his empty belly.

The sheriff looked over at him with a mixture of anger and admiration. He was not used to prisoners interrupting him — unless it was with screams and pleas for mercy. But the remark was correct. And that gave him an exciting idea. “You mean this was routine? Templars re-enact the denial of Christ which Saint Peter made on the day of His Crucifixion?”

“No!” Percy quickly saw the error he had made. “I never denied Christ. I was never asked to deny Christ,” he replied firmly.

“Simon Peter never spat upon Our Lord in his agony,” the Dominican entered the interrogation for the first time. He had a relatively high, frail voice.

“Not that I know of,” Percy retorted. “I wasn’t there.”

“You impudent bastard!” The Dominican sprang to his feet, furious. He thought Percy was mocking him.

The sheriff patted his arm and gestured for him to reseat himself. “But your brother Thomas of Saint Pierre confessed to it” the sheriff remarked calmly. “After denying Christ three times, he was forced to spit upon the crucifix which was held out to him.”

“Read me his confession,” Percy demanded, trying to concentrate all his attention and intelligence on some way out of this spider’s web of lies and torture.

“’I was forced to deny Christ three times and then spit upon his image.’”

Percy noted the difference between this confession and the last. The first confession had been wordy, as if Father Roger had spoken. This confession read like the indictment. They had not torn more than a yes or no answer from Brother Thomas. Or, rather, they had forced him to say yes after countless nos.  He crossed himself. “Christ have mercy. God have mercy. The Holy Spirt have mercy. My brother knew not what he did.”

The sheriff felt first a touch of satisfaction at Percy’s calm but then reminded himself that he would sing a different tune if they were applying the glowing iron to his genitals. He shook his head slowly and leafed through the documents before him. “I think you will agree, sir, that idol worship is not something that can be taken lightly, much less forgiven. Nor is it something an ordinary Christian would think up.”

“Not even the Muslims are idol-worshipers!” Percy retorted.
“Yet I have sworn confession by a brother of yours who describes in detail how the chapter met at midnight, stripped off their habits and trampled on the cross. Then they crept naked, in single file, into a chamber opened by a secret key kept by the commander. In the chamber he idol was kept and each brother bowed before the idol ‘like an Egyptian slave’ I quote,” the sheriff stressed. “’Then after we had bowed three times we kissed the feet of the idol.’ The idol according to this report was shaped like a big head with hands and feet but no body and with cat’s ears. After kissing the feet, each brother retreated backwards so the next brother could enter.”

Percy looked at the sheriff, the Dominican, and then turned and looked at the guards on either side of the door. “You can’s seriously believe that?” Percy asked at last.

“Believe it? It is the testimony of a Templar — freely given I might add, without resort to torture.”

“You think that French noblemen, men who heard mass six times a day, men who fought in Christ’s name, who when captured could gain life by denying Christ, but instead died by the hundred for Christ, secretly worshipped a head with cat’s ears? Have you lost your senses?” Percy felt his protest was much too weak, but he could not find words for his sense of sheer disbelief. The notion of such infantile idolatry was not only too absurd, it was not worthy of the Inquisition or an officer of the crown.

“Let me repeat!” the sheriff said sharply to disguise his own growing embarrassment. “This is a sworn confession — from Saint Pierre, I might add.”

“By whom, in God’s name?”

“Brother Gaston.”

“Gaston?” Percy could not place the name at first. Then it dawned on him. Gaston was the boy. The over-eager boy who had helped him out of his armor. “Gaston is a child!” he said out loud.

“He is twelve and so has reached the age of maturity,” the Dominican retorted with surprising intensity.

Percy was frowning. He did not remember seeing Gaston since the day after the arrest. Gaston had been removed for interrogation — but he had never returned. A shock went through him. “Is Gaston dead? Did you torture him so long that he couldn’t take it? Did you kill him?” Percy, get hold of yourself, he warned himself. You are losing control. Calm down. Shut up. Get hold of yourself. He sat clutching the edge of his stool, shaking and sweating, waiting for a reaction.

“I told you the confession was not made under torture,” the sheriff replied calmly, his eyes narrower. “What makes you think he might be dead?”

“Because he did not return. You took him to an interrogation and he has not returned since.”

“That is true. He was … cooperative. It was not … necessary” the sheriff glanced at his colleague “to returne him to the jail. You need not worry about Gaston.”

A chill went down Percy’s spine. Why did he feel so certain that they had done something vile to Gaston? Surely he should hate the boy for making up such ridiculous stories about heads with cat’s ears and feet! But he could not find hatred for the boy. He closed his eyes and pictured Gaston helping him remove his spurs — the last time he had worn spurs.

“Did you have illicit relations with Gaston?” The tight, jealous question came from the Dominican.

Percy opened his eyes and stared at the man. In that moment he knew this other monk had raped Gasont. Gaston had not been tortured into his confession. His limbs had been left whole. But he had been degraded and humiliated until there was not left of the idealistic youth, proud of his membership in a famous order. Percy did not answer. He stared at the Dominican until the other monk lowered his eyes.

The sheriff had been watching. He knew what his colleague had done. He had not witnessed it, of course, because he found it revolting, but he knew. And he knew that it brought excellent results like this lengthy confession. Furthermore, the boy could be produced as a witness. Cleaned up and properly worked over in advance, his testimony would melt the heart of the pope himself. Oh, Gaston was worth his weight in gold. Gaston was worth more than all the others put together — precisely because there wasn’t a mark on him. Gaston could never, never claim that he had been forced to confess. Gaston could never tell the circumstances of his confession — not without condemning himself to be hanged. That was the beauty of it. And still the sheriff found it distasteful.

He looked at Percy and he was sorry. He liked the young man. He had intelligence, dignity and humanity. It would be a pit to break him, but break him he must. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Black Friday, October 13, 1307 - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

The crash that came from the courtyard made Percy fling off his blankets and grab his aketon. He could hear shouting, the imperative yelling of men giving orders, the thudding of numerous hooves on frozen ground, the pounding of boots on wooden stairs, the clunk of doors being flung open. He pulled his aketon over his head and tightened the laces at the throat.

Men were bursting into the dormitory. By the light of the two candles, Percy could see that they wore round “kettle” helmets over mail coifs and that they held naked swords in their hands.

Percy dragged his hauberk and surcoat together over his head even as the armed men were roughly kicking the serving brothers awake and herding the startled, bewildered men together.

Sergeant Gautier was on his feet and limping forwards in his underwear, calling out, “What is this? Who are you? What do you want?”

“You are all arrested in the name of His Grace King Philip IV of France!”

While some of the serving brother broke into a jumble of confused exclamations of disbelief, Brother Gautier protested in a raised, somewhat hysterical voice, “Why? On what charge?”

The thought that these simple brothers could have done anything to offend the crown of France was so absurd that Percy instantly dismissed the claim as either a mistake or a ruse. Philip of France could hardly know that St. Pierre du Temple existed. The Temple was, in any case, not subordinate to any king and owed Philip neither taxes nor obedience. Percy knew, however, that he no longer had time for his mail leggings and reached instead for his sword.

There came a shout, the sound of someone running and then he was tackled from behind and flung onto to pallet, pinned down by the weight of his assailant on his back. Even as he rammed his elbows backwards agains this attacker, he saw a foot kick out and send his sword skittering across the flagstone floor out of reach. Another man had joined the first on his back, pressing his knee into Percy’s spine. Another had hold of the back of his neck in a powerful grip and forced his face down into the blankets, nearly suffocating him. Someone was wrenching his arms behind his back and tying his wrists together. Percy knew when he was defeated since that too was something a good soldier learned to recognize and he stopped struggly instantly. The pressure on his spine and head eased at once. The men backed off, pulling him to his feet.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the men holding him were indeed wearing the livery of the King of France. It was ridiculous! What could they possibly hope to gain by a breach with the pope? Did Philip of France want to start a feud with Clement V to match the one he had had with Boniface VIII? Weak as Clement was said to be, even he would not tolerate such a flagrant affront to his authority.

The King’s men were already herding the bewildered serving brothers and the priest down the stairs to the courtyard. One old man kept asking is brothers what was happening while Gaston kept looking anxiously over his shoulder to see what had happened to Percy. Serfs by birth, they had been born to docility and as monks they had vowed obedience. Such me, Percy told himself, could not be expected to distinguish between lawful and unlawful authority.

Brother Gautier alone was protesting to the captain in charge. He insisted that he and his brothers were innocent of all wrongdoing. Not one day in their lived had they ever been anything but loyal subjects of the king, he assured the king’s representative in a shaky, strained voice. Terror was written on the aged sergeant’s face and Percy felt sorry for him. Evidently, he was so frightened he had forgotten that the Temple was subordinate to the pope alone.

“It’s not for me to judge your guilt or innocence,” the royal officer told Brother Gautier matter-of-factly. “I have my orders. Take it up with the sheriff.” He was relieved that his mission had gone so well. The orders to attack a house of the Knights Templar and arrest all those within had made him break out in a cold sweat just six hours ago. He had been raised on legends of Templars defending their castles against tens of thousands of Saracens, their small bands matching great armies, their rescue of King Louis II from destruction, their heroic defense of Acre. The captain knew that they were not allowed to withdraw unless the enemy had more than a three-to-one superiority, and he could not know how many men they had in Saint Pierre — which was why he’d mustered his entire company of nearly fifty men. In the event, it was almost ludicrous how easy it had been, he thought shaking his head.

“You can be sure that we will take this up with the sheriff — and the pope! Someone — you, your sheriff or King Philip himself — has overstepped his authority.”

Percy’s voice drew the captain’s attention and he looked up startled at the man held by two of his subordinates.  He took in the chain mail hauberk, the muscular shoulders and thighs and drew the right conclusion. This man was a knight. “Are you the commander, sir?”

“No, I am the commander. This is just a poor traveler. Here for a single night. Whatever crimes we have been unjustly accused of, they cannot apply to him.” Brother Gautier spoke before Percy could get a word out.

The captain looked from Brother Gautier to Percy somewhat uncertainly.

“I am an Englishman, Sir Percy de Lacy of the commandery at Limassol on Cyprus, en route from Poitiers to Limassol,’ Percy confirmed. “And you have no business arresting any Templar since we are subordinate to one but our own officers and the pope himself.”

The arrogance of Percy’s tone angered the captain and he took refuge in the certainties of life: “I have my orders and they were to arrest everyone inside this house. I don’t give a damn if you are a bloody Englishman or the pope himself!”

They turned into the narrow alley leading to the city jail [of Albi]. Percy felt a shock go through his body as he saw that two wagons similar to the one behind him already waited there. Had they made raids on more than one commandery? In a single night? Of course in the same  night, he told himself, otherwise there would be no element of surprise. If was standard police tactics, but the increased pounding of his heard could not be calmed.

They stopped and at once someone came and untied his feet. The pain in his ankles as he moved them again was not insignificant but he was too proud to let it show. He leaned forward at once and vaulted to the ground. He had underestimated the impact of a night tied to the back of a horse. His feet were numb and he lost his footing at once. He staggered and, without his hands free to balance him, fell to the ground — to the general gratification and laughter of the guard. He flushed in embarrassment and anger, but also managed to get his knees under him and right himself. Meanwhile, the other prisoners from Saint Pierre were being pushed off the back of the wagon and into the jail.

As Percy was pushed past the porter of the jail, he turned and addressed the old man. “I demand to see the sheriff and a representative of the Bishop of Albi,” Percy protested.

“Oh, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the sheriff,” came the answer in a sneering voice. And then something particularly curious happened. The called him “an ass-fucking heretic!” and spat after him.

Percy had not recovered from the shock of such an uncalled –for and perverse insult when he found himself at the entrance to the public jail. Before him, spread upon the stale straw, with chains around their feet or chained directly to moldy walls were over one hundred Templars. It took his breath away. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of "Knight of Jerusalem" by Mary Harrsch

May Harrsch published the below review on both Goodreads and amazon: 

Although most of my reviews focus on books about the ancient world, I couldn't resist Knight of Jerusalem, about Balian d'Ibelin, the famous defender of Jerusalem, by author Helena P. Schrader. I had enjoyed Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" but like Helena, I, too, had wondered how much was actually true. Since Helena has a Ph. D. in history from the University of Hamburg and assured me that her biographical novel, the first of a trilogy, used the actual historical record as the framework for her tale, I agreed to read it.

I was not disappointed! The novel not only closely follows Balian's rise to prominence, meticulously tracing his career trajectory, but Schrader fills his life with vibrant characters, many representing real people struggling with the social requirements of medieval society while facing a cataclysmic upheaval between diverse cultures with opposing religious beliefs.

Like Balian, I was drawn to the tragic predicament of the young leper king, Baldwin IV, a courageous boy who struggles with a body disintegrating moment by moment yet with an awareness of the problems of others and a determination far beyond his years to serve his people until his last breath.

Schrader admits in the author's notes that there is no mention of Balian serving as a riding instructor to young Baldwin in the period's sources. But this fictional association between Balian and Baldwin she incorporates into the story serves seamlessly to support two historical facts about these men that are known. Baldwin, though a leper, was renowned for his horsemanship and Balian did manage, despite the strict social hierarchy of the period, to obtain permission to marry Baldwin's stepmother, Queen Maria Zoe Comnena (not Sibylla as depicted in the film) even though Balian was a landless knight due to his birth position as third son of a local baron. Although the historical record is silent about how Balian accomplished this amazing social feat, it seems totally plausible that he did so because of a close bond forged between himself and the young king in some shared activity or momentous event.

As a U. S. Foreign Service officer, Schrader has traveled extensively in the Middle East so I felt totally immersed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem by her descriptions of various locales and castle structures. She has also obviously thoroughly researched the trappings and weapons of armored knights and refers to each piece with precise terminology. I just wish she had included a graphic of an armored knight with each piece labeled. Although Schrader thoughtfully included noble family genealogical charts and maps, as well as a clinical discussion of leprosy, there was no glossary so I had to use context to help me define some of the terms.

Of course a novel about Crusader knights would not be complete without a major battle and the Battle of Montgisard that took place in 1177 is the climactic action in this first book of the trilogy.

"On the afternoon of November 25, [1177] King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne). The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream." - Helena Schrader, Defending Crusader Kingdoms.

Schrader deftly turns up the dramatic tension as each unit of the Crusader army impatiently reacts to the carefully measured advance of the highly disciplined Knights Templar, given the lead position by young King Baldwin. I felt I was riding alongside the Crusaders as they finally explode with pent up fury and charge into the heart of the Saracen camp.

After reading Schrader's tale, I cannot imagine why Ridley Scott chose to veer so far from the historical record in his film. Balian's actual life was full of intrigue, heart-wrenching personal choices and courage. I am definitely looking forward to Schrader's next installment, Defender of Jerusalem, due to be released in September 2015.