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.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Scott Amis' Review of "Defender of Jerusalem"

 A Review by Scott Amis:

Even the most casual students of medieval history, readers of historical fiction, moviegoers, and the public have long been familiar with the heroic King Richard I ‘The Lionhearted’ of England, and Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Richard’s chivalrous nemesis as commander of Islamic forces over the course of the Third Crusade, the most enduringly famous of these fiercely fought holy wars that began over nine hundred years ago. Indeed, until the 2005 release of the at-best questionable Hollywood epic 'Kingdom of Heaven', other persons and events of great importance in the years preceding and during the Third Crusade remained the province of medieval scholars, their students, and those with sufficient interest to explore beyond the superficialities of cinema and, often as not, poorly researched novels.

With 'Knight of Jerusalem' and its sequel, 'Defender of Jerusalem', Dr. Helena Schrader has brought academic rigor, her extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, and her previous experience as an author of historical fiction to bear in recreating the lives and deeds of Baldwin IV, the ‘Leper King’, and his loyal vassal Balian of Ibelin, two great heroes of the Holy Land Crusades brought to long-overdue recognition by way of the well-played yet sadly inaccurate portrayals in 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

Little is to be gained by summarizing 'Knight of Jerusalem' and 'Defender of Jerusalem' for this review; a brief biography of Balian should suffice to introduce readers to the principal character of both volumes. Born in 1143, Balian was the third son of Barisan, lord of the baronies of Ibelin and Ramla in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1169, Balian was granted lordship of Ibelin by his older brother Baldwin, giving the initially landless young knight an entreé into the higher aristocracy of Outremer. Balian had a significant role in leadership of the forces of the ‘Leper King’ Baldwin IV to victory over Salah ad-Din at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, and in the same year, entered into marriage with Maria Comnena, grandniece of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus and dowered widow of King Almaric I of Jerusalem. These fortuitous events, and the gain of the Barony of Nablus by his marriage, made Balian a powerful figure in the Crusader States.

Balian’s reputation was further enhanced by his unwavering support for the dying Baldwin IV and his opposition to the elevation of the incompetent Guy of Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem. Most important was his survival, free and unharmed, after the disastrous Battle of Hattin in July 1187, which made possible his heroic role in commanding the defense of Jerusalem against the forces of Salah el-Din in September and October of the same year, and his hard promises that gained merciful terms of surrender from the Sultan when the fall of the city became inevitable.

Dr. Schrader brilliantly synthesizes the roles of academician and master storyteller. In contrast with 'Kingdom' director Ridley Scott’s careless plot construction and deliberate distortions, Dr. Schrader has meticulously constructed an accurate geographical, environmental, political, and familial landscape using the proven historical record, as well as created finely drawn lead characters from the relatively scant existing information on the life of Balian, the more extensive records of Baldwin, and the numerous but oft-conflicting accounts of Salah ad-Din. The many supporting and minor characters, from the beautiful and wealthy Maria Comnena to the humblest servant, are brought to life with equal assurance.

Though ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ are exhilarating page-turners from first page to last, their qualities of intricate construction make careful reading an agreeable necessity. The essentials of successful medieval novels are firmly in place: abundantly vivid and violent battle scenes; romantic situations entrancing for the modern reader as well as true to the times; and a sense of time and place convincingly evocative of the Middle Ages. But, beyond the pure pleasure of reading, ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ represent a growing and significant trend: the entry of talented academic historians who can write a rip-roaring story into the field of historical fiction; a trend which can only raise the bars of careful research and historical accuracy for all HF writers.

Needless to say, I eagerly await the third volume of Dr. Schrader’s Jerusalem trilogy; for ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’, five stars and the highest recommendation!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cast of Charaters 9: The Chivalrous Saracen Saladin

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels about Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on the man who made Balian a historical figure: the Sultan Salah ad-Din or Saladin.

Saladin as Portrayed in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Salah ad-Din, or Saladin has he is more commonly known in Western literature, has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

This positive view of Saladin in Western literature evolved slowly, starting in 13th century  attempts to explain away a shameful defeat by making the adversary more worthy and more "like us" (see John France's excellent summary of this process in his book Hattin), and culminated in a biography of Saladin published by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1898. While Lane-Poole made a major contribution to Western scholarship by drawing upon Arab sources for his work, he unfortunately did so uncritically, adopting without scruple or embarrassment the purely adulatory descriptions of Saladin penned by the Sultan’s court biographers. The result is a work in which Saladin is described as a man “whose chivalry and generosity excited the admiration of the Crusaders.” More disturbing to the historian, Lane-Poole is so completely under the spell of his Arab sources that he claims: “...civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.”

While the latter statement alone discredits Lane-Poole as a serious historian of the crusades, other historians uncritically followed his lead. The British Orientalist, H.A.R. Gibb, claims that Saladin inspired his followers “not so much by the example of his personal courage and resolution — which were undeniable — as by his unselfishness, his humility and generosity…. He was no simpleton, but for that an utterly simple and transparently honest man…Guileless himself, he never expected and seldom understood guile in others.”

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz points out in his biography of Saladin published in 1972: “The political, social and economic climate prevailing in the Near East in the second half of the twelfth century was not conducive to seeking power through the exercise of tolerance, magnanimity, chivalry or any altruistic behavior.”  Ehrenkreutz goes on to catalogue in his meticulously documented and detailed biography the number of times Saladin used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  He notes that he spent much more time and more resources fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians, and that Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones. Ehrenkreutz concludes that: “Most of Saladin’s significant historical accomplishments should be attributed to his military and governmental experience, to his ruthless persecution of political opponents and dissenters, to his vindictive belligerence and calculated opportunism, and to his readiness to compromise religious ideals to political expediency.”

The real Saladin probably lies somewhere between these two extreme portrayals of his character, but what Ehrenkreutz makes abundantly clear is that even in those well-documented cases of Saladin’s apparent magnanimity, we need to look closer at his the motives.  One case in point is the return of the fortress of Azaz to the ruler of Aleppo.  In June 1176, during one of Saladin’s several attacks on the  legitimate successor regime of Nur al-Din in Aleppo, his army captured the fortress of Azaz. The rest of the campaign against Sunni Aleppo, however, proved less successful, and Saladin was forced to sue for terms. Eventually a treaty was negotiated. Then according to Lane-Poole: “When the treaty was concluded, there came to Saladin a young girl, the little sister of es-Salih [i.e., the man whose place Saladin had usurped and driven from Damascus].  He received her with honour and asked her: “What is thy wish?” “The castle of Azaz,” she said. So he restored the castle to its old owners, loaded the princess with presents, and escorted her back to the gate of Aleppo at the head of his staff.” Now quite aside from the improbability of a Muslim maiden ever setting foot outside the haram of her home (in this case her brother’s home), had she spoken to a man not her relative (Saladin) she would have dishonored her brother (the Sultan of Aleppo) and so most probably would have been stoned to death.  In short, Lane-Poole’s entire story can only be fiction on the same par as an opera and utterly lacks understanding of Islamic culture in the 12th century. Furthermore, as Ehrenkreutz points out, the return of Azaz was quite simply one of the terms of the negotiated treaty. No “princess” had to plea for its return at all. Saladin surrendered it diplomatically because it was virtually impossible to hold militarily after the rest of his campaign collapsed.

Another example is the apparent generosity of Saladin in providing Balian d’Ibelin with a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this an apparently magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture as Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with self-interest.

Likewise, the many instances in which Saladin treated former Sunni foes with leniency, often awarding them new lands and titles within his growing empire, demonstrates not so much his “gentleness” and “chivalry” as his cynical opportunism. If fighting men, particularly the commanders of contingents of troops that offered effective armed opposition to Saladin, could be bought with the promises of riches and titles, then why fight? After all, the alternative (killing or enslaving his opponents on capture) would only have increased the tenacity and fervor of his opponents, and Saladin had a hard enough time subduing them as it was. His mild treatment of defectors is not so much a mark of “gentleness” and “chivalry” as of opportunism that was particularly effective against the fragmented and jealous feudal lords in northern Syria.

Against these documented cases of apparent “gentleness” and “chivalry” are a number of equally well documented incidents of ruthlessness, brutality, duplicity and vindictiveness that are incompatible with the Lane-Poole/Gibbs image of Saladin. To name only a few, Saladin played a key role in eliminating the Egyptian vizier Shawar, even if the actual murder may have been carried out by someone else on the orders of the Fatimid caliph. (Shawar’s head and later that of his son were delivered to Saladin’s uncle in a silver container; no doubt it was the use of silver for transmitting the heads of murdered men that made Lane-Poole conclude that “civilization” was always on the side of the Muslims.) 

Then, having won the confidence and trust of the Fatimid Caliph, who appointed Saladin his vizier, Saladin worked systematically to undermine his regime and carried out a bloody coup d’etat against the Fatimid elite as soon as the Caliph conveniently died. While it might be argued that this was justified by repeated Fatimid conspiracies against Saladin or by Sunni orthodoxy’s hostility to Shiism, the same cannot be said of the slaughter of the unarmed women and children of the Sudanese guard that the “gentle and chivalrous” Saladin ordered burned alive in their homes. And if that weren’t enough, Saladin ended the rebellion of their men by agreeing to spare their lives if they left Cairo — only to break his word and slaughter them after they had laid down their arms.

Saladin next distinguished himself by waging war against the heir of his feudal overlord Nur al-Din, the eleven-year-old al-Salih. First, however, he sent a letter swearing humble and abject submission to al-Salih, ordered the young sultan’s name invoked in the mosques of Egypt and minting coins in his name, evidently with the intent of luring him into a sense of security.  While vowing his allegiance to al-Salih, Saladin also wrote to the under-aged Sultan’s regency council with the absurd claim that: “if death had not prevented him, [Nur al-Din] would have bequeathed to none other but me the guardianship and upbringing of his son.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 123). In fact, Nur al-Din allegedly said on his deathbed that “Nothing makes me so sad except the thought of what will befall my family at the hands of Yusef, the son of Ayyub [i.e. Saladin].” 

Claiming a position he had been neither formally nor informally granted by Nur ad-Din, Saladin set out to gain control of Syria by force, using the resources he had accumulated by his seizure of power in Egypt.  The young Sultan’s legal guardians fled to Aleppo and Saladin gained control of Damascus without bloodshed, but the Turkish commanders and lords around the young Sultan flatly refused to acknowledge Saladin’s bogus claims to be the “true” guardian of the young Sultan. So Saladin marched his army against Aleppo. In northern Syria, Saladin met with real resistance and was ultimately repelled — with a little help from the Christians, who attacked his lines of communication, and the assassins, who made an attempt on Saladin’s life. Saladin returned to Damascus, where he gave up his pretense of serving the interests of al-Salih, and demanded patents for his position as Sultan of Damascus from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. He also issued coins in his own name. He then spent the better part of the next ten years fighting bitter campaigns against the family of Nur al-Din and their supporters based in Aleppo and Mosul and all across northern Syria.

Throughout this bloody, exhausting and bitter struggle for complete supremacy in Syria, Saladin used the excuse of needing to unite Islam for jihad against the crusader states. Ehrenkreuz notes: “…the overly long and bloody conflict in the Muslim camp had been caused, not by Saladin’s ambition to build a united front against the Crusaders, but by his opponents’ realistic refusal to recognize his claims for other than they were: an adventurous and unscrupulous policy of personal and territorial aggrandizement.”

Which is not to say that Saladin did not fight the Christians too. In fact, Saladin undertook a number of campaigns against the Christians including the invasion of 1177 that ended Saladin’s complete humiliation at Montgisard, the invasion of 1179 that ended in the routing of the Templars and the capture of nearly 300 Christian knights and nobles on the Litani. The siege of Beirut in the same year, the campaign that ended in the draw at Le Forbelet in 1182, the equally indecisive campaign of 1183, and the sieges of Kerak in 1183 and 1184. This may sound like an impressive track record, but given Saladin’s overwhelming strategic advantages, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was led by a youth slowing dying of leprosy, his lack of success suggests either strategic and tactical incompetence or anemic motivation.

Not that Saladin didn’t demonstrate his hatred of the Franks.  When in August of 1178, less than a year after Saladin’s scalding defeat at Montgisard, Christian prisoners fell into Saladin’s hands he had them summarily executed, one by one, by members of his retinue. Aside from it being against Sharia law to kill men who had surrendered, it was hardly a demonstration of “chivalry.” Nor was it an isolated incident. When the Christians involved in the Red Sea raids were finally run-to-earth and captured, Saladin again ordered their execution. According to Bernard Hamilton in his excellent work The Leper King and His Heirs, the Christian prisoners were “taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were…slaughtered ‘like animals for sacrifice.’” Clearly these men were mercenaries and they had killed Muslim pilgrims and captured Arab shipping so perhaps they were not worthy of mercy, but the same cannot be said of the “unlucky common Christian soldier whom the sultan had slain when he noticed a minor facial scratch his son al-Afdal [by then in his late teens] sustained in the battle of Arsuf.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 228.)

Last but not least, no discussion of Saladin would be complete without reference to the brutal execution of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. On July 6, these knights and sergeants, bound and helpless, were beheaded in public. Bartlett describes the scene in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom as follows: “Saladin gave the task…to a group of religious Sufis, holy men largely untrained in the arts of war. Some of them took six or seven attempts to sever the heads of their victims…However justified the death of these men might have been in military terms, the cruelty and indignity of their death did Saladin no credit whatsoever. It was an act of violence, almost barbarism, which Saladin’s apologists have all too frequently glossed over.” (Bartlett, p. 204-205.) It is important to remember that this massacre preceded — and may indeed have helped instigate — the slaughter of the Muslim garrison of Acre by Richard the Lionheart four years later.

Saladin in a character in Book II of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Cast of Characters 8: Rogue Baron Reynald de Chatillon

Today I continue my series of short biographies featuring the historical figures who play a role in my biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin. Today I focus on the Baron of Oultrejourdain, one of the most colorful characters of the period.

Reynald de Châtillon in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Reynald de Châtillon is often portrayed in history and historical fiction as a “rogue baron” — a violent, self-interested man in large part responsible for breaking the truce with Salah-ad-Din and so triggering the campaign that ended in disaster for Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.  In the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he is depicted as little more than a madman intent on making war. Yet the noted historian of the period Bernard Hamilton has worked hard to rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was an intelligent strategist, who did much to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the reverse.  What follows is a short summary of Châtillon’s life in the Holy Land.

Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a comparatively obscure French nobleman, the Sire of Donzy. William, Archbishop of Tyre, went so far as to describe his as “almost a common soldier,” but was undoubtedly going too far.  It is fair, however, to call him an adventurer, who came to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife committing adultery with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Châtillon was busy seducing Raymond’s wife, the heiress of the Principality of Antioch, Constance. No sooner had Raymond been killed in an ambush in 1153, than Constance took the obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It worth noting that according to Tyre the King of Jerusalem had suggested a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states — to Constance, but the lady chose the patently unsuitable Châtillon.  It was clearly a case of a widow exercising her right to choose her second husband, and so a “love” match — at least on Constance’s part.

It is hard for us, however, to imagine what she saw in him. Within a very short period of time his avarice and violence had scandalized even his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch, who opposed his marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly, Châtillon had him seized, bound and exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was thus tormented with heat and flies until — according to Tyre — the King of Jerusalem intervened. Another version suggests (more plausibly I would think) that he was released when he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money. Regardless of how he secured his release, the Patriarch understandably did not feel safe in Châtillon’s territory and fled to Jerusalem.

Châtillon next attacked the Island of Cyprus, a Christian country under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor. As Tyre points out Cyprus “had always been useful and friendly to our realm.” Châtillon’s justification for the raid was that he had not been paid by the Emperor for his service in subduing the rebellious Armenian Lord Thoros of Cilicia. But as Tyre also points out, the Emperor’s tardy payment of mercenary wages hardly justified over-running an unsuspecting and friendly island destroying cities, wrecking fortresses, plundering monasteries and raping “nuns and tender maidens.” The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex.” The violence of Châtillon’s raid, by the way, is confirmed by Syrian sources and so not simply a function of some alleged “bias” on the part of Tyre. Furthermore, his actions so outraged his contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.

Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch and force Châtillon to submit himself. As the army of the Emperor approached, Châtillon recognized he didn’t stand a chance of defying the Emperor (and probably realized he was in the wrong with no allies) so he threw himself on the Emperor’s mercy in a dramatic gesture. He went barefoot to the Emperor with a noose around his neck and presented his naked sword hilt-first to the Emperor. As if that weren’t enough, he then threw himself face-down at the Emperor’s feet until (according to Tyre) “all were disgusted and the glory of the Latins was turned to shame; for he was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.” Roughly three years had elapsed between the sack of Cyprus and Châtillon’s submission to the Emperor in 1159.

Two years later in 1161 he was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions because his reputation for brutality was not confined to the treatment of Latin clerics and Orthodox civilians but to his enemies as well.  He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage, Bohemond had come of age.  In short, when Châtillon was released from prison in a political exchange (no ransom was high enough for Châtillon’s captor), he was 52 years old and Prince of nothing. Indeed, he was landless and penniless.

A situation he rapidly remedied by marrying the widow (and heiress) of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from a Saracen prison after 15 years and well past his prime was particularly seductive to the widow Stephanie de Milly, and he certainly offered her neither wealth nor high connections, but — in retrospect — he offered her something even more important and maybe we should give her credit for having perceived his value at the time: Châtillon was a brilliant tactician, who proved capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance as long as he lived.

Châtillon’s release and remarriage also coincided with the start of the personal reign of Baldwin IV, who came of age in 1176. He appears to have favored Châtillon. He certainly would have had to approve of his marriage to the Stephanie de Milly and Châtillon’s assumption of the title of Baron of Oultrejourdain. In any case, just a year after his release he was entrusted with a mission to Constantinople in which Baldwin IV renewed his father’s “homage” to the Byzantine Emperor (no doubt Reynald’s earlier dramatic submission to the Emperor made him an ideal candidate to do this, combined with the fact that his step-daughter by his deceased wife Constance was now the Byzantine Empress.) In addition, he was to negotiate details of a joint operation against Egypt that Baldwin IV and Manuel I wanted to pursue. While it is hard to see the Châtillon of film and fiction as an ambassador, it must be conceded that he apparently fulfilled his commission in this case well. The Byzantine Emperor sent a fleet of 70 ships to support and land invasion by troops supplied by the crusader states and armed pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of Philip Count of Flanders combined with Baldwin IV’s leprosy foiled the joint campaign and while the Counts of Flanders and Tripoli with the young prince of Antioch attacked targets on the border of Antioch, Salah-ad-Din invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. It was late 1177, and King Baldwin had less than 400 knights left for the defense of the realm. Still he rushed to Ascalon and raised the commons in defense of the realm eventually delivering a crushing defeat of Salah-ad-Din at the field of Montgisard on November 25, 1177. 

Bernard Hamilton claims that Châtillon was the “real” commander at Montgisard, siting Arab sources. However, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Chronicle of Ernoul, the two contemporary Christian sources both of which were in far better position to position to assess who was commanding on the Christian side, singularly fail to mention his role. He is just one of several prominent men in the King’s forces including Baldwin of Ramla “and his brother Balian, Renaud of Sidon and Count Joscelin, the King’s uncle and seneschal.” The fact that the Arabs attribute the command to Châtillon may have more to do with the fact that they knew him (and hated him) so well than any real role; Châtillon is not the kind of man to be easily overlooked and the Arab sources may have confused prominence on the battlefield with command. Tyre, however, was at this time chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and made a meticulous attempt to interview the survivors of the battle. It is hardly likely that he would have omitted Châtillon’s role had Châtillon really been the mastermind of the victory of Montgisard. In the absence of credible testimony to the contrary, therefore, the assumption should be that the most senior official at the battle was the commander — and that was none other than King Baldwin himself!

Châtillon’s next important contribution to history was his raid deep into Sinai in November 1181. This raid definitely contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce with Salah-ad-Din. However, as Hamilton points out, far from being an opportunistic act of an adventurer with no regard for treaties, the raid was a highly effective tactical move in defense of the crusader kingdoms. The raid occurred immediately after the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir Prince as-Salih in Aleppo. The prince had designated his cousin, a Seljuk prince and lord of Mosul, as his successor with the explicit intention of preventing the Kurdish usurper Salah-ad-Din from taking any more of his father’s inheritance. Salah-ad-Din immediately recognized that the powerful Lord of Mosul was likely to be a far greater obstacle to his ambitions than the weak as-Salih and so immediately ordered his nephews to prevent any forces from Mosul reaching Aleppo.

From the Christian point of view, it was critical to prevent Salah-ad-Din from expanding his power to Aleppo, and the Lord of Mosul was to be preferred to the jihadist Salah-ad-Din.  Châtillon’s raid into Sinai effectively 1) prevented Salah-ad-Din from taking his forces from Egypt north to Aleppo and 2) prevented his nephews from doing his work for him either. Farrukh-Shah had to divert his forces from interdicting the Lord of Mosul to protecting his uncle’s possessions in Sinai. Aleppo therefore did not fall to Salah-ad-Din at this time — a small price to pay for a truce that was due to expire less than six months later. To be sure, Châtillon also enriched himself by seizing a very lucrative caravan and refusing to ransom the survivors or pay compensation for the dead, but this should be seen as Châtillon’s usual avarice and does not detract from his rapid and effective response to critical threat to the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A year latter, Châtillon expanded on his probably ad-hoc raid into Sinai by launching a fleet of ships in the Red Sea. These raids have generally drawn approbation from historians, who portray them as cruel piracy against innocent pilgrims — largely because the Arabs had no fighting ships in the Red Sea at this time and Châtillon’s ship sacked towns and burned ships initially at will. Against this portrayal is the fact that Arab warships and slavers had preyed upon Christian pilgrims for centuries before the First Crusade, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was by this time in a life-or-death struggle with a man who had promised to drive it into the sea. No, Châtillon’s raids were not pretty. Medieval Warfare rarely was. Yes, his ships attacked “unarmed” pilgrims (though it’s hard to imagine Arab men travelling anywhere unarmed at this time). They certainly caused havoc and spread terror across the Arabian Peninsula. And far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, they served a clear strategic purpose.

Hamilton makes the argument that the costs and complexities of launching these ships far exceeded he resources of Châtillon alone and argues convincingly that he must have had the support of the King of Jerusalem himself. He certainly needed the skills of Italian shipwrights and sailors — scarce commodities in his land-locked, desert lordship. More important, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon was challenging Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. As Hamilton words it: “[Salah-ad-Din’s] credibility would have been severely damaged in the eyes of the entire Islamic community if the Franks had succeeded in preventing pilgrims from reaching the holy cities [of Islam] of which he was protector while he and his arms were fighting Sunnite princes in Iraq.” (Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs, p. 181.) Hamilton goes on to point out that the campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power.

Salah-ad-Din had no choice but to respond to the raids. He had warships dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. These eventually tracked the Christian raiders down, bottled them up in the harbor of al-Haura, and when the Frankish crews abandoned their ships, to track down the survivors. The Sultan than dealt with the survivors in a notably non-chivalrous fashion: he ordered them distributed about his kingdom and publicly executed (against the laws of Islam that dictate that prisoners who voluntarily surrender should be shown mercy).  Two of the raiders, presumably the men identified as the leaders, were taken to Mecca and slaughtered like sacrificial animals to the wild jubilation of the crowds of pilgrims on the haj.

Châtillon’s role in these raids (and he took full credit/blame for them despite the probability that he was aided by King Baldwin) made him more hated than ever in the Islamic world. Salah-ad-Din clearly felt personally insulted, and in the years that followed he twice laid siege to Châtillon’s main fortress at Kerak.  The first of these sieges occurred while the Queen Mother, the Dowager Queen and both Princess of Jerusalem had gathered in Kerak for the wedding of Princess Isabella (aged 11) to Humphrey de Toron (aged 15 or 16), but while the High Court of Jerusalem was meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Guy de Lusignan’s deplorable performance as Regent during an invasion of the Kingdom by Salah-ad-Din in October 1183. This meant that Châtillon found himself with only his own fighting men but hundreds if not thousands of non-combatants on his hands. Tyre claims he “rashly” tried to defend the town outside the castle, but was nearly overwhelmed by the suddenness of Salah-ad-Din’s attack, and barely managed to pull back into the castle, his villagers losing everything. Although Tyre tries to make this sound like poor leadership on the part of Châtillon, it sounds far more like a successful surprise attack to Salah-ad-Din’s credit. Châtillon was lucky not to lose his castle under the circumstances and despite the overcrowding and lack of combatants he held his castle for more than a month before the royal army came to his relief.

The Castle of Kerak as it appears today. Photo by Herbert Schrader.
A year later the scene repeated itself, but this time there was no wedding and no constitutional crisis going on. Both sides were better prepared, but the outcome remained the same. The royal army came to the relief of Kerak and Salah-ad-Din was forced to break off his siege. He would not succeed until more than a year after the destruction of the Christian army at Hattin and the execution — at Salah-ad-Din’s own hand — of Châtillon himself.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Châtillon still had two other contributions to history to make. During the succession crisis after the death of Baldwin V, Châtillon threw his weight behind Sibylla — but it is unclear if he supported Guy de Lusignan or not. He is said to have urged the people of Jerusalem to accept Sibylla without naming Guy as her consort. He may have been one of her supporters who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as his consort given his past successes!). Or he may have known she intended to keep Guy as her consort. In any case, he can be counted in her faction.

There is no evidence that I have seen, however, that he was particularly hostile to Raymond of Tripoli and there is no reason to believe he particularly agitated for war in 1187. On the contrary, Salah-ad-Din needed no particular provocation. He’d been launching invasions almost yearly from more than a decade and he knew as well as anyone that Guy de Lusignan was neither popular nor powerful. He recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was weaker than it had been at any time in his own lifetime and he gathered his forces and struck again. Châtillon followed the royal summons to muster — as did all the other barons and fighting men of the kingdom. And, as an experienced battle commander with a large contingent of troops he inevitably played a role in the Battle — but nothing suggests he was the one whispering idiocy in King Guy’s hear: that distinction belongs to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar Gerard de Rideford.  

At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles including Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron. The only thing that made him different from the others is that Salah-ad-Din was not willing to forgive the Red Sea Raids and — again in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy, although Châtillon surrendered no less than the other lords did. Salah-ad-Din allegedly killed Châtillon with his own hand — or wounded him and let his men finish him off. It was a violent end for a violent man; he may well have preferred it to the thought of languishing in a Saracen prison again or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.

Châtillon is an important secondary character in the first two books of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sneak Preview 3: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

When "Envoy of Jerusalem" opens, Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, is in Tyre with her daughter and household. They had been escorted to safety here by members of Saladin's own guard. Her husband, Balian, however, remained behind in Jerusalem to defend the city -- a city that has just fallen to Saladin. 

Maria took a hand-held, glass lamp in one hand and her skirts in the other and mounted the interior wooden stairs to the floor above. On the landing she stopped to listen. There were four chambers on this floor. The largest had been turned into a nursery for her two youngest children, her sister-in-law’s two little boys, and her niece’s two babies along with the nurse. The smallest of the four rooms was where her confessor and her children’s tutor, Father Angelus, and the three school-aged children slept. The remaining two rooms were for herself, her adult daughter Isabella, her sister-in-law Eloise, and her husband’s niece Eschiva. 

The nursery seemed thankfully still. Either the children had not grasped the significance of the fall of Jerusalem, their nurse had managed to quell their fears, or they had simply been given enough wine to make them sleep. From the schoolroom on the other hand, Maria could hear the angry voice of her eldest son, John. John was now eight and he was a bright and alert child. He had been very cognizant of what fate had awaited them in Jerusalem — and over-joyed when his father arrived like an archangel to spirit them away to safety. That his father had decided to remain behind in Jerusalem while the women and children were sent to safety in Tyre, however, had outraged him. He’d been too frightened to want to remain, but he’d been furious with his father too. He was querulous now, and she could sense the rage in his voice even without hearing his words. Why, why, why did his father have to die? Why had he thrown his life away when he could have been here, with us, safe in Tyre?

Maria knew she ought to go to him and comfort him, but how could she? How could she help when part of her felt the same childish rage? Better to leave him to the seasoned and stoical Father Angelus, whose calm voice rumbled in answer to the boy’s high-pitched piping.

Maria turned and continued down the hall. Then next room was silent she noted with relief because she had no desire to face her sister-in-law Eloise. At last she reached her own chamber and took a deep breath, knowing that her daughter Isabella would be waiting up for her on the other side of the door. Part of her would have preferred to be left alone, but what sort of daughter would just go to bed when her mother had just learned she was a widow?

Maria pushed open the door to find not just Isabella but Eschiva, her husband’s niece, sitting beside the little table at the window overlooking the street. The young women had been raised together for several years as children and their friendship had withstood separation and marriage. They were evidently in earnest conversation, but they jumped up at the sound of the door opening.

Isabella ran to her mother. “Mama! We were getting worried! Are you alright?” Isabella was 15 years old and even her mother could see she had left childhood behind and was now very much a nubile beauty with a womanly figure as well as a lovely face. She seemed to fly across the room to take her mother in her arms, her expression of concern both sincere and melodramatic.

“I’m not on the brink of collapse, if that’s what you mean,” Maria answered her daughter, at once muting her emotions and patting her in thanks. With their arms locked, Maria and Isabella returned to the table as Eschiva slipped onto the wooden window seat to vacate her chair for the Dowager Queen.

In this company, Eschiva often felt like the dowdy sparrow or the poor cousin. Maria Comnena might be thirty-three years old, but she was still a strikingly handsome woman. She had, after all, been selected as a bride for King Amalric in part because she was an exceptionally pretty child, and it was largely from her that Isabella had her budding beauty. Eschiva on the other hand had never been deemed a great beauty, and she had not withstood the trials of life as apparently unscathed as Maria. Eschiva had grieved for the loss of two infants and been abandoned by both her parents separately. At 22 she looked more like 30, a fact underlined by her simple linen wimple and plain cotton gown. Here in the company of princesses and queens, she remained nothing but the wife of a landless, younger son — that, or wife of a man, whose brother had squandered a kingdom on a single day, or the wife of the constable of a kingdom that no longer existed.

A single candle burned in a silver candlestick on the little table, but there was a silver pitcher filled with wine, another with water and three silver chalices as well — all goods the Dowager Queen had sagely packed onto the backs of protesting brood mares as she salvaged as much of her movable fortune as possible from Jerusalem. As Maria settled herself in the armed chair softened with down-filled cushions, Isabella reached for the pitcher. “Mixed or pure, Mama?”

“I think I need it pure, sweetheart,” Maria admitted leaning her head against the high back of the chair and closing her eyes for a moment. Then she half opened them and considered her companions. Eschiva might technically be only her niece by marriage, but she had come to live with Maria and Balian at Ibelin when her mother retired to a convent. She had remained in their household two years, and the bonds forged in those two years had never weakened. Eschiva looked to Maria more as an elder sister than an uncle’s wife, while Maria’s protectiveness of Eschiva had been tempered by growing respect for her strength in adversity and common sense. It was too Eschiva, therefore, that she directed her next remark, “So what have you decided we should do?”

Eschiva started slightly, surprised by the Dowager Queen’s directness, but she was pleased by this mark of the older woman’s respect for her common sense. “Well, the first thing we need to do is demand more information from Salah ad-Din. After all, we don’t know for sure that Uncle Balian is dead. He might have surrendered and been taken captive as were our husbands.” Eschiva’s husband, Aimery de Lusignan, and Isabella’s husband, Humphrey de Toron, had both been taken captive at Hattin and were being held in the citadel at Aleppo.

Maria considered the two women before her. Both were nodding vigorously. She shook her head and reminded them: “You know as well as I do the Council in Jerusalem said they would kill their own families and then sortie out to certain death before they would surrender Jerusalem.”

“But the Patriarch condemned that as unchristian and Uncle Balian opposed it as fanaticism.” Isabella pointed out passionately.

“Men are always braver before a battle than after one,” Eschiva added with a cynicism Maria had not expected of her. “I don’t mean Uncle Balian,” Eschiva hastened to explain, mistaking Maria’s expression of surprise. “No one can doubt his courage, but the rest of the men on the council — they were merchants, tradesmen and clerics. Remember too that no one crowed louder about fighting for Christ than my brother-in-law Guy, yet he surrendered, did he not?”

Maria only raised her eyebrows, too exhausted to give vent to her feelings about Guy de Lusignan. She reminded the younger women instead, “My lord husband broke his word to Salah ad-Din when he chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than just bring me and the children to safety. Salah ad-Din is ruthless to those he thinks have betrayed him.”

“He sent his own men to escort you to safety,” Eschiva pointed out.

Maria dismissed it with a wave of her hand and retorted tartly, “He did that because he didn’t want to provoke my cousin in Constantinople.”

Eschiva and Isabella exchanged a glance. They wanted to believe the Sultan would be generous; so much depended on it.

As if sensing their distress, Maria softened her stance. “You are right to suggest appealing directly to Salah ad-Din, Eschiva. He still wants the good will of the Greek Emperor, and he will respond to an inquiry from me with courtesy — regardless of the news. If he has killed Lord Balian, than I can request him to return the remains. If he has him in prison, I can ask what ransom he has set.” She nodded and reached for the wine.

Isabella and Eschiva drank too as Maria sipped cautiously, evidently lost in thought as she stared at the candle. “There is one thing that puzzles me,” Maria admitted softly. Her two companions looked at her expectantly. “In all their jubilation and triumph today, the Saracens failed to brag about the slaughter that had taken place. That’s not like them, you know. They revel in telling us of their bloody deeds. It was from them that we learned of the execution of the captive Templars and Hospitallers. They were proud of hacking off the heads of bound and kneeling prisoners. And they had promised to ‘wash away’ the slaughter of 88 years ago in a new river of blood. Don’t you remember how our escort told us that ‘if your horses walked in blood up to their fetlocks, ours will swim in blood.’ Remember?”

Eschiva nodded and gripped her chalice, remembering how terrified she had been when one of the escort who spoke French had ridden beside them to deliver this message with an expression of gleeful hatred. She had been sure it was a prelude to violence against them, and she had started praying frantically. Instead, he had been called to order by the escort commander, and they had been treated courteously thereafter. Isabella, however, jumped to her feet in agitation. “For all their silks and perfumes they are more bloodthirsty than ravenous wolves! They are —“

“Hush, Isabella,” her mother admonished, gesturing for her to sit down. “You are right, but the point is that they did not brag about the rivers of blood and mountains of corpses they had created in Jerusalem. They did not even taunt us with the fact that my husband’s ‘faithlessness’ had been repaid. It would have been more in character if they had described in detail the way they had tortured him to death.”

Isabella and Eschiva were staring at the Dowager Queen in horror, seeing for the first time the nightmares she had concealed from them. This was what she had been living with since their departure from Jerusalem: the fear that the man she loved would not meet a noble death in battle but live to be tortured and humiliated. It was a fear she had not dared breathe to anyone because she did not want to add to their already considerable uncertainty and grief. She had carried it alone.

Now she looked from her daughter to her niece and back again, and something like hope shimmered in her eyes. “I’m sure they would have gloated if they could, which means it didn’t happen. Jerusalem has fallen, but there was no slaughter in the streets, and Lord Balian was not publicly tortured and butchered. So. We must find out what did happen.”
My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life."

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