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 clichés 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.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sneak Preview 5: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

In this scene, Balian d'Ibelin is reunited with the men he left behind in Tyre, and his children, who had been escorted by Saladin's men from Jerusalem after he decided to remain and defend the city. Neither he nor his children had ever expected to see each other again.

Sir Bartholomew led the party to the back entrance for ease of stabling the horses, and as Ibelin led his horse in out of the rain he was ambushed by Eskinder. “My lord!” the Ethiopian youth asked anxiously, taking the bridle of Ibelin’s horse but standing still and confronting his lord. “Where is my father? Where are my sister and Beth and Menelik?”

Maria Zoë saw her husband stiffen as if he’d been hit, but his face remained an impenetrable mask. “Your father, sister, and Beth with Menelik did not wish to endure another siege. They chose to continue to Tripoli, and from there to Ethiopia.”

“And Dawit?” Eskinder demanded. “Sir Bartholomew said he was killed in the siege, but I have a right to know more. How and when did he die?”

“Yes, you do,” Ibelin agreed solemnly. “Everyone should hear the news, for it was after the Saracens had breached the walls and I had gone out to negotiate with Salah ad-Din that some Saracens managed to take the northeastern tower. They planted the Sultan’s banners on it, and Salah ad-Din pointed to them, mocking my attempts to negotiate by scoffing that ‘one did not negotiate for a city one already held.’ In that moment a Christian counterattack flung the banners and the Sultan’s men down off the walls. We saw them fall, and I could answer that the city was not yet his.” He paused to lend his words greater weight before continuing, “It was Dawit who led that desperate attack against the men already on our walls.”

A murmur of awe and appreciation surrounded them, and several men crossed themselves.

“On the very last day, the last hour …” Eskinder murmured in numbed horror.

“Dawit gave his life for—” Ibelin broke off. He had been about to say “for Jerusalem,” but that was not true. When Dawit died, Jerusalem was already been lost. “For sixty thousand Christian lives.”

Eskinder stared at him, and around them everyone else had fallen so still and silent that they could hear the rain splattering on the cobbles of the street outside.

Ibelin continued, “If he had not done so—if he had failed—none of us would have survived in freedom,” Ibelin told them. “Not one man, woman, or child. Dawit gave his life for his his father, sister, wife, and son. I cannot believe that he regrets that choice.”

A murmur of assent followed, and many crossed themselves again as they commended Dawit’s soul to God.

 “And Gabriel?” It was Ernoul who asked the next question. Like Eskinder, he knew already from Sir Bartholomew that Gabriel was dead, but he too wanted more of the details.

“Gabriel was with me until the night before the surrender. That night we made a last sortie in the hope of reaching the Sultan’s tent and killing him.” Ibelin paused. Had he really hoped to reach the Sultan’s tent? No, that had been a fairy tale for the others. He’d hoped only to die honorably rather than face humiliation, slavery, and possibly torture. “We were overwhelmed by the Sultan’s cavalry and forced back through the Jehoshaphat Gate almost as soon as we sallied forth. Unfortunately, Gabriel’s horse went down in the confusion, and he fell into Saracen hands. I had hoped to ransom him after the surrender had been negotiated, but Salah ad-Din told me personally that Gabriel had refused to accept imprisonment and requested execution. I suppose at the time he thought our situation was hopeless and preferred a quick end to the prospect of slavery.” Ibelin paused, thinking for the hundredth time of Gabriel’s dilemma and regretting again that he had allowed this to happen. Out loud he said simply, “He was very proud.”

 Ernoul remained stunned in place as Ibelin and his lady continued toward the passageway to the house. Gabriel had been Ernoul’s only friend when he came to the Ibelin household as an incompetent and unwilling squire. Gabriel had saved Ernoul’s life at Hattin, dragging him onto his own horse, after Ernoul had been severely wounded and was about to fall between the horses to his death. Gabriel had tended Ernoul’s wounds and loaded him on a sledge behind his horse to get him from Hattin to Safed and then Tyre. And it was only because Ernoul was still recovering from his wounds that Gabriel had gone with their lord to Jerusalem, while Ernoul stayed behind in Tyre. The news of his heroic death left Ernoul feeling very cold and lonely.

The sound of voices echoing in the passage from the stables alerted Balian’s children to the fact that their father had evaded their ambush at the front door and taken them by surprise from the rear. With a cry of outrage, John ran across the inner courtyard and flung himself at his father just as the latter reached the kitchen entrance. The little boy collided with his father so hard that the tall man staggered slightly. Then he realized what had hit him and closed his arms around his son like a drowning man his rescuer.

As Maria Zoë watched, her husband seemed to crack, and tears began flooding down his face as he clung to his son. Then Helvis and Margaret and Philip caught up with John, and he let go of John to try to embrace them all. Margaret and Philip were jumping up and down with excitement, while Helvis cuddled up against her father.

Then one of his tears splashed on Helvis’ cheek and she looked up to ask, “Why are you crying, Daddy? Aren’t you glad to see us?”

“Christ!” Balian gasped and broke down altogether.

Maria Zoë gently but firmly pushed her bewildered children apart and took Balian in her own arms. “It’s all right, my love. You’re home safe.”

Balian couldn’t answer, but he held her to him—and the children stood around gazing up at him, silenced and sobered by the sight of their father crying, while the household looked at one another in both concern and sympathy.

Slowly, Balian got hold of himself and released his grasp on Maria Zoë. Taking a deep breath, he turned to Helvis and smiled at her through his wet face, reaching out to stroke her silky curls as he reassured her. “Yes, sweetheart, I’m glad to see you. You see, tears can be a sign of joy as well as sadness.”

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

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cast of Characters 11: Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin and Founder of Two Dynasties

Uta von Naumburg

In late 1177 Maria Comnena, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, made a surprise second marriage to Balian d’Ibelin, the younger brother of the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Although it is recorded that Maria had the explicit consent of the king for this marriage, there is no reason to suppose this marriage was imposed on her. The very fact that the candidate was the younger brother of a local baron from a parvenu family makes it all the more likely that he was her choice; otherwise she would have rejected him as far beneath her dignity — with the full backing of the Byzantine Emperor in saying ‘no.’ No one, much less the weakened Baldwin IV, would have risked a break with the Byzantine Emperor over a marriage that brought no apparent advantages to the crown.

In short, we can assume that Maria’s marriage to Balian d’Ibelin was a love-match — at least on her side. While Balian’s motives may have been more venal, what followed provides ample evidence that Balian and Maria became close and were viewed by others as a pair, a team, a partnership. Altogether, Maria was to give Balian four children, two sons and two daughters, all born between 1178 and 1183.

Meanwhile, Maria faced the first serious crisis of her life.  In 1180, her daughter by Amalric, the 8 year-old Princess of Isabella was taken from her (and Balian) and betrothed to Humphrey de Toron IV, the grandson of the formidable and much-admired Humphrey de Toron II.  By this time, however, the old Constable was dead as was his son and the fourth Humphrey de Toron was still a minor, living with his widowed mother and her third husband, the infamous Reynald de Chatillon. The marriage between Humphrey and the child Princess Isabella was allegedly idea of the Queen Mother, Agnes de Courtenay, who had been set aside by King Amalric and replaced by Maria. It can be assumed that Agnes had no kind feelings toward Maria. The timing of the marriage is also significant. Agnes had just engineered the marriage of her own daughter to Guy de Lusignan — thereby earning the bitter enmity of Baldwin d’Ibelin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, who apparently had had hopes of marrying Sibylla himself. Certainly, from 1180 onwards, Ramla and his younger brother Balian were staunch opponents of Guy de Lusignan. Under the circumstances, King Baldwin apparently felt compelled — or more likely was compelled by the poisonous advice of his mother — to remove his half-sister Isabella from Balian’s control out of fear that if he did not the Ibelin’s would use her to challenge Sibylla and Guy’s claim to the throne.

The historical record amply demonstrates, however, that King Baldwin was unjustified in imputing treasonous intentions to the Ibelins; both brothers were staunchly loyal to both him and his nephew Baldwin V. Indeed, although Baldwin refused to do homage to Guy after he usurped the crown, preferring to leave the kingdom, Balian honorably served Guy de Lusignan right up until the death of Sibylla in 1190.  Furthermore, there is no objective way to portray this removal of a small child from her mother and the only father she had known as benign. The fact that she was not only taken from her parents but sent to a border fortress controlled by a notoriously brutal man was a cruel, vindictive act that undoubtedly acerbated the hostility between Maria and Agnes and between the Ibelins and Lusignans, in both cases to the detriment of the kingdom.

For three years, Isabella was denied the right to even visit her mother in Nablus, and it was not until 1183 that Maria saw her daughter again — on the occasion of her daughter’s marriage to Humphrey when Isabella was still only 11 years old. No sooner had Maria, Agnes and other wedding guests arrived at the bleak castle of Kerak, set atop a mountain overlooking the desert, than Salah-ad-Din laid siege to the castle.  Maria was trapped inside with her daughter, her new son-in-law and hundreds of other guests. The bulk of the barons of Jerusalem, including Balian, on the other hand were still in Jerusalem at a meeting of the High Court. It was a stormy session in which the barons unanimously refused to accept Guy de Lusignan as regent — not even to go to the relief of their wives, the Dowager Queen, the Queen Mother and the Princesses of Jerusalem. That is quite a resounding vote of “non-confidence” in the incompetent but arrogant Guy de Lusignan. Baldwin IV, now completely lamed and going blind with leprosy, had to take up the reins of government himself and lead the royal army to the relief of Kerak. Salah-ad-Din retreated before King; Maria — and Isabella — were reunited with Balian.

One year later, Maria found herself under siege a second time, and this time it was at home in Nablus.  Salah-ad-Din had set-out on a second attempt to capture Kerak, but was again thwarted by the timely arrival of the feudal host of Jerusalem. He withdrew, but plundered and burned his way north to Damascus.  Nablus, an unwalled town, was in his path, and Maria commanded in the city since Balian with his knights, sergeants and other feudal levees was with the army. Remarkably, although the city was unwalled and so virtually indefensible, there were no Frankish casualties because Maria provided refuge to the entire civilian population in the citadel. This was in marked contrast to neighboring towns and cities. The citadel of Nablus was not a major castle and it has completely disappeared over the centuries — nothing like the almost impregnable Kerak. The over-crowding must have been appalling and the risks enormous, but the Christian army was hot on Salah-ah-Din’s heels and came to Maria’s relief — at least that portion under her husband did.

Such an action was unthinkable the next time Saracen forces threatened to overrun Nablus. That was in July 1187 and Salah-ad-Din had just destroyed almost the entire Christian army, killing or enslaving roughly 17,000 men, and taking the King of Jerusalem, most of his barons, and the Grand Masters of both militant orders captive. In short, like every other city and castle in the crusader kingdom, Nablus had no hope of relief because there was no longer an army left to come to its aid. Furthermore, unlike the port cities from Ascalon to Beirut, there was also no hope of relief by sea from the kingdoms in the West. Maria was a realist. She abandoned Nablus and with her children (and probably with the majority of the other inhabitants) fled to Jerusalem.  

The choice of Jerusalem was probably dictated more by sentiment than logic: it was not the closest defensible city.  Arsuf, Jaffa and Caesarea were all geographically closer, and they were seaports with both hope of relief or routes of escape. But Jerusalem was the heart of the crusader kingdom and it was a walled city. Furthermore, the Ibelins had a residence there so Maria and her children had someplace to go. In the first moment of shock, as word of the disaster of Hattin reached Nablus when Maria probably did not know if Balian had been killed or captured, it probably seemed like the best place to go. Maria may, however, have come to regret her decision.

Jerusalem was soon flooded with refugees from the surrounding countryside. While the regular population was probably no more than 20,000, a number that swelled to perhaps 30,000 during the pilgrim season, as many as 30,000 or 40,000 Franks sought refuge in Jerusalem after Hattin, bringing the population to over 60,000. (Some estimates put the city's population at this time as high as 100,000.) Most of those refuges were women, children, churchmen and old people because the able-bodied men had been called-up to the army and were now dead or enslaved. Yet despite the lack of fighting men (there is said to have been not a single knight in the city) the leaders chosen (by what means we do not know) to represent the city to Salah-ad-Din refused to surrender the city on generous terms. The Franks in Jerusalem may have been commoners with little experience of combat but they felt the weight of responsibility keenly. As they told Salah-ad-Din, they could not surrender Jerusalem because it would disgrace them for all eternity. They did not expect to defend the city successfully, they simply preferred martyrdom to shame.

It is unknown how Maria Comnena felt about this stand. She was certainly not part of the delegation, although as Dowager Queen and one of the most prominent people in the city she was probably involved in both selecting the delegation that met with Salah-ad-Din and determining what answer they would give him. It is likely that, although she understood the sentiments expressed to Salah-ad-Din, she was less than enthusiastic about sacrificing her four children, all of whom were under the age of 10.  She was in all probability greatly relieved, not to say ecstatic, when against all odds her husband appeared in Jerusalem to escort her to safety.

The arrival of Balian d’Ibelin in Jerusalem sometime after obliteration of the Frankish army at Hattin struck the Christians in Jerusalem as miraculous. It was all but miraculous that Ibelin had escaped from the debacle at Hattin, but even more amazing that, having gained the safety of Tyre or Tripoli, he would return — unarmed — for the sake of bringing his wife and children to freedom. This act more than any other suggests the depth of feeling Balian had for his wife. Other lords, notably Raymond of Tripoli, abandoned their wives to their fate, trusting to Salah-ad-Din’s sense of honor not to humiliate them. Ibelin took the unprecedented and risky — step of seeking a safe-conduct from Salah-ad-Din. To obtain the safe-conduct, he gave his word to go to the city unarmed (and presumably unescorted) remain there only a single night, and then then return to Tyre/Tripoli.

The arrival of a respected and experienced battle-commander in the militarily leaderless city sparked popular jubilation — until the people learned of Ibelin’s intention to rescue his family and withdraw. They then begged Ibelin to remain and take command of the city’s defenses and resistance. The Patriarch graciously absolved Ibelin of his oath to Salah-ad-Din, and Ibelin decided it was his duty to remain.

Did he decide alone? That is hardly conceivable. He had been married to Maria Comnena for almost 10 years at this point in time, but she remained his social superior by many orders of magnitude. They had been equally impoverished by the loss of Nablus no less than Ibelin, but the habits of ten years are not washed away in an afternoon. Balian would not have been in the habit of dictating to his wealthier, better connected and higher-born wife, and at this critical moment he would not have abruptly changed his behavior or tried to do so. Maria Comnena must have shared his decision and very likely contributed to it  — without knowing that Salah-ad-Din had another surprise for both of them.

When Ibelin sent word to the Sultan that he was compelled by the appeals of his countrymen to remain in Jerusalem, Salah-ad-Din was not angry or offended. On the contrary, respecting Ibelin’s decision, he sent fifty of his own personal guard to Jerusalem to escort Maria Comnena and her children to safety. Why? The romantic answer is that he was chivalrous and respected Ibelin. The more realistic answer is that Maria Comnena was first cousin of the Byzantine Emperor and Salah-ad-Din had signed a truce with the Byzantines; he had no desire to muddy the waters by having a Byzantine Princess caught in a city he had vowed to take by storm.  The risks of something happening to her and a diplomatic incident resulting were simply too high.

Maria must have been relieved for the sake of her children to get that escort to safety. She was probably equally distressed to have to leave her husband behind to almost certain death. She could not have known as she rode out of Jerusalem sometime in early September 1187 that Balian would pull off yet another miracle: the ransom of tens of thousands of Christian lives even after the walls had been breached.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Maria and Balian were reunited, but they now had no income and were nobody in a kingdom that no longer existed. It is unclear how they survived, but it is notable that at this moment when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to the city of Tyre and that was a city under siege and frequent attack, Maria did not choose to return “home.” To be sure, her great-uncle was dead and the new Emperor was a tyrant hostile to the Latin west, but she was a Byzantine Princess, a Comnena, and she had many powerful relatives in the Eastern Empire. That she remained in the pitiable remnants of the crusader states was a tribute to her loyalty to her second husband and her daughter.

Balian, probably with considerable misgivings and inner revulsion, joined the army that Guy de Lusignan raised after his release in 1188 and took part in the Christian siege of Muslim Acre. Many women were in the Christian camp, including Queen Sibylla and her two daughters by Guy. Whether Maria Comnena and her children were there went unrecorded. Very likely, she was not. We know only that in 1190 she was in Tyre.

In 1190, Sibylla of Jerusalem and both her daughters died of fever in the Christian camp outside of Acre. With her death, Guy de Lusignan’s right to the throne of Jerusalem was extinguished. To be sure, he had been anointed king, but without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, and in Ibelin’s eyes that made him a usurper, tolerated only so long as the rightful heir to Jerusalem, his wife, reigned jointly with him.  With her death, everything changed for Ibelin.

The next in line to the throne was Maria’s daughter, Isabella. Isabella was now 18 years old and still married to the man imposed on her by her half-brother Baldwin IV, Humphrey of Toron. The problem with Humphrey in the eyes of Ibelin and most of the surviving barons, knights and burghers of Jerusalem was that he was weak (some say effeminate) and was not credited with the ability to play a constructive role in regaining the lost kingdom. In contrast, Conrad de Montferrat, who had saved the city of Tyre at the critical juncture, when it too had been on the brink of collapse, was widely viewed as having the personality and skill to recapture the kingdom. Ibelin and the only other baron to escape Hattin and still be alive, Reginald de Sidon, decided that Isabella must marry Conrad de Montferrat and that the pair should rule the kingdom jointly. There was no question that Isabella had been too young to consent at the time of her marriage to Humphrey and this provided legal grounds for the annulment of her marriage. Unfortunately, Isabella had grown attached to Humphrey and the chronicles agree that her mother had to “browbeat” her into agreeing to the divorce.

While this is usually interpreted as an unscrupulous and ambitious woman (Maria) heartlessly pressuring a sweet young girl into betraying the man she loved, the record is not really quite so unambiguous. First, the sources we have are all hostile to Conrad de Montferrat and should therefore be treated with caution. Second, the divorce was undoubtedly in the best interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Maria should be given credit — not blame — for putting the interests of the kingdom ahead of the affections of her teenage daughter. Third, there is no indication that Maria’s stand resulted in lasting tensions between her and her daughter. Maria and Balian both played roles in Isabella’s court long after Conrad de Montferrat was dead. Fourth, when Conrad de Montferrat was murdered,  Isabella did not try to remarry Humphrey de Toron and make him king, but rather accepted the King of England’s choice for her third husband. Later, she would accept the High Court’s choice for her fourth husband as well. Isabella, I believe, wanted to be Queen and was willing to sacrifice Humphrey de Toron, if reluctantly at first, for that goal.

But back to Maria. Isabella’s elevation to the throne opened the gates for Maria to play a role similar to Agnes de Courtenay’s — but she did not. Rather, she appears to have retired with Balian and their children to the much reduced estates now at their disposal. (The truce between Richard of England and Salah-ad-Din did not include the restoration of Nablus or any of the Ibelin lordships to Frankish control, but Balian was explicitly granted the smaller lordship of Caymont northeast of Caesarea.)  Ibelin, as step-father of the queen, initially took precedence over all other lords, but fades from the historical record after 1193, presumably he became ill, died, or left the kingdom for Cyprus or Europe at about this time.

Maria, however, appears to have been instrumental in reconciling Isabella’s third husband, Henri of Champagne, with the House of Lusignan, now established as kings of Cyprus, by negotiating marriages between Henri and Isabella’s daughters with Aimery de Lusignan’s sons. She was still alive when Aimery de Lusignan married Isabella in 1197, and when Lusignan appointed Maria’s son by Balian — Isabella’s half-brother — to the position of Constable of Jerusalem. She also lived to see this son, John, enfeoffed with the Lordship of Beirut, and she would have personally enjoyed the palace he built there with its lifelike mosaics, polychrome marble and views to the sea.

When Maria Comnena died in 1217, her five-year-old great-granddaughter Yolanda (sometimes also referred to as Isabella II) was Queen of Jerusalem. Her children by Balian had all married into noble families. Her sons John and Philip would both serve as regents, in Jerusalem and Cyprus respectively, and in the centuries to follow, Ibelins frequently married into the royal houses of the Christian East including Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus and Armenia.

Maria is a the female protagonist in all three of the Balian d'Ibelin books

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