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 clich├ęs 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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem

Sibylla of Jerusalem is a historical figure I intensely dislike ― but she is great novel material.  The antithesis of the power-hungry woman, she consistently put her affection for her second husband above the well-being of her kingdom. In so doing, she doomed her kingdom to humiliation, defeat and almost complete annihilation. That is not something I find admirable, but as the following short biography highlights her behavior was astonishingly consistent and comprehensible.

Sibylla was born in 1160, the eldest child of Amalric of Jerusalem. Three years later, her father repudiated her mother in order to become king. Although Sibylla and her brother Baldwin were explicitly recognized as legitimate, their mother was banished from court and Sibylla, despite her tender age, was sent to the convent at Bethany near Jerusalem to be raised by her father’s aunt.

Ten years later, her younger brother Baldwin contracted leprosy. This meant that he might not live to adulthood and, even if he did, he was unlikely to have heirs of his body. Finding a husband for 10-year-old Sibylla was suddenly of paramount importance to the kingdom. The Archbishop of Tyre was dispatched to the West to find a suitable nobleman and returned with Stephen of Sancerre, the  brother-in-law of the King of France. But Stephen unexpectedly refused to marry Sibylla and returned to France, squandering his chance to be King of Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine what about a little girl living in a convent could have so offended an ambitious noblemen, so it is probable that his decision had nothing to do with Sibylla at all. Nevertheless, while his motives are historically unimportant, as a novelist the incident is highly significant: Sancerre probably hurt Sibylla deeply and may have severely damaged her self-confidence―something that later men would have been able to exploit.

In 1174, Sibylla’s father died unexpectedly and her younger brother ascended the throne as Baldwin IV, but this changed nothing with respect to the need to find a husband for Sibylla. This time the king, his regent and the High Court chose William Marquis de Montferrat, who arrived in the Holy Land in October 1176. Within six weeks, he married the then 16-year old Sibylla. There is no reason to think that Sibylla was ill-pleased with this choice of husband, or he with her. He certainly did not reject her and she became pregnant shortly after the marriage. Unfortunately, William de Montferrat became ill within six months and after eight, in June 1177, he was dead. Seventeen-year-old Sibylla gave birth to a posthumous son in August, who was named Baldwin after the king.

At once the search for a new husband for Sibylla commenced. The Count of Flanders, as a close kinsman (his mother was Sibylla’s aunt) felt he was entitled to select Sibylla’s next husband, and put forward the name of one of his vassals. Furthermore, he wanted to marry Sibylla’s half-sister to this man’s younger brother, thereby binding both princesses to his vassals — a crude means of making himself master of the kingdom without actually doing the hard work of fighting for it. This was, understandably, unacceptable to the High Court of Jerusalem.  The Count of Flanders returned to Europe and Sibylla was still without a new husband. What did Sibylla feel about it all? None of the clerical chroniclers care, but as novelist she may have felt insulted (as her brother and the High Court did), or she may have started to enjoy her freedom. After all, she’d already given Jerusalem an heir and her brother was starting to include her on his charters, effectively sharing government with her (at least in appearance.)

Meanwhile, however, King Baldwin, wrote to the King of France and begged him (Louis VII) to choose from among his barons a man who could take up the burden of ruling the “Holy Kingdom” (i.e. the Kingdom of Jerusalem). Louis chose Hugh, Duke of Burgundy, a very high-ranking nobleman indeed. He was expected to arrive in the Holy Land in spring of 1180. Instead, the Duke of Burgundy sent his regrets: the King of France had died leaving the kingdom to his young son Philip II and the Plantagenets were strong and predatory. Burgundy felt he had to remain in France to defend it. While Burgundy’s excuse is plausible, I seriously doubt his reasoning was much comfort to Sibylla. I imagine she (again) felt slighted and insulted.

Abruptly at Easter 1180, only weeks after Burgundy’s decision was made known to her, Sibylla married the landless, fourth son of the Lord of Lusignan, Guy, who had only recently arrived from the West. Some sources (notably the Archbishop of Tyre) suggest her brother rushed her into an admittedly unwise and hasty marriage to block an unwanted suit by the Baron of Ramla. A better explanation of what happened is offered by another contemporary chronicle (now lost) but quoted in later sources, Ernoul.  According to Ernoul, Guy de Lusignan seduced Sibylla and King Baldwin threatened to hang him for “debauching” a Princess of Jerusalem, but was persuaded by his mother (the self-serving and far from intelligent Agnes de Courtenay) and the tears of his sister to relent and allow Sibylla to marry.

This explanation of events appears very plausible. Sibylla had just been jilted for a second time. She was probably feeling very sorry for herself and may even have been wondering if something was “wrong” with her.  Suddenly, there was a dashing, handsome, young nobleman paying court to her, flattering her, making love to her. She fell for him. Not a terribly unusual thing for a 20 year old girl, especially one who was, after all, no virgin but already a widow and mother.

Furthermore, the evidence that Guy was Sibylla’s rather than her brother’s choice is provided by subsequent events. Within three years, Baldwin IV was desperately trying to find a way to annul the marriage, while Sibylla was doing everything she could to preserve her marriage. What is more, after her brother and son’s deaths, when told she could only become Queen if she divorced Guy, she agreed on the condition she be allowed to choose her next husband―and as soon as she was crowned and anointed she chose Guy as her “next” husband. By clinging to Guy as her husband and consort, she alienated not only the barons and bishops already opposed to her but also those who had loyally supported her on the condition she divorce Guy. These are not the actions of a woman in a dynastic marriage, but very consistent with the behavior of a woman desperately in love with her man.

Guy soon proved all his opponents right when within a year of usurping the throne (since he was never approved by the High Court he was not legally King of Jerusalem), he had lost roughly 17,000 Christian fighting men at an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin. Guy himself, furthermore, was a captive of Saladin. Sibylla, meanwhile, found herself trapped in Jerusalem as her no-longer defensible Kingdom crumbled before Saladin’s onslaught. She was the reigning, crowned and anointed Queen, yet at this critical juncture she did nothing — except beg to be allowed to join her husband in captivity. A queen? Asking to be allowed to go into enemy captivity? This is more than a gesture of love, it is evidence of Sibylla’s utter stupidity and lack of sense.

Saladin naturally granted Sibylla the right to join her husband in captivity — what better way to ensure that his enemies were completely in his hands? Meanwhile, the defense of the last remnants of her kingdom fell to her brother-in-law by her first marriage, Conrad de Montferrat, and the Baron of Ibelin.

But Sibylla’s devotion to Guy was not broken even by the humiliation of captivity. When he was released, she joined him at the siege of Acre. Here, while the Christians surrounded Muslim-controlled Acre, Saladin’s forces surrounded the Christian besiegers, hemming them in and cutting them off from supplies and reinforcements by land. Deplorable conditions reigned, including acute hunger at times and, eventually, disease. Yet Sibylla, crowned Queen of Jerusalem, preferred to be with her beloved Guy than act the part of queen―or even protect her dynasty. She not only followed Guy to Acre, she took her only surviving children, two daughters, with her.  She soon paid the price of her blind devotion to Guy: she died of fever along with both her daughters in the squalor of the siege camp at Acre in 1190. She was 30 years old.

Normally, it is admirable for a wife to be devoted to her husband, and a novelist looking for a historical romance could make a great love story out of Sibylla and Guy. But I don’t write romance, and as a historian it is clear that Sibylla shares the blame for losing the Holy Land because it was her stupidity and stubbornness that left the kingdom in the hands of an incompetent and despised man. At no time in her life did she show even a flicker of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Christians entrusted to her care nor did she demonstrate a shred of royal dignity. Had she been a baker’s daughter and a butcher’s wife her devotion to her husband might have been admirable; as a princess/queen she was a tragic clown.

And that’s exactly how I portray her in my novels.  

Sibylla is an important character in the last two books of my Jerusalem trilogy.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Guy de Lusignan

Writing about Guy de Lusignan in my Jerusalem trilogy posed serious problems for me. He played a fateful (not to say fatal) role in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and hence ignoring him was not an option. Indeed, he is such a significant historical figure that one of my test readers kept urging me to give him a larger role and more space in the novels. To do that, however, I would have had to be able to get inside his skin and see the world through his perspective ― something I found very difficult to do well. I simply do not understand how anyone could have been as stupid, stubborn and arrogant as Guy de Lusignan.

The situation is complicated by the fact that, as with most of these historical figures from so long ago, there are many things we don’t know about Guy ― starting with his date of birth, and hence his age when he seduced Sibylla. Another thorny issue is whether the contemporary allegations against Guy as the murderer of the Earl of Salisbury are true or not. Developing a character depends very much on whether you believe him capable of stabbing an unarmed man in the back―or not.

Even more difficult for a novel set in the Holy Land is the complete blank in the historical record about why the barons of Jerusalem almost unanimously refused to accept Guy as regent after campaigning under him in the fall of 1183. Guy had been named regent, he had called up the feudal army, and they had all come. In short, the subsequent revolt was not a fundamental refusal to serve under Guy. If, as historians suggest, it was just resentment of a comparative new-comer or an “unworthy” husband for Sibylla, they wouldn’t have mustered at all. The barons did  not revolt against Guy until after the campaign of 1183. But then their revolt was overwhelming and emphatic, refusing to go to the relief of the critical border castle of Kerak and the rescue of the the King’s sisters and mother, until Guy had been dismissed and Baldwin IV had resumed the reins of government. Something happened. But we don’t know what, and without knowing what, it is very difficult to craft a character. Something about him that alienated his fellow barons, including Balian and his brother, but just what was it?

Of course, one could argue that the absence of historical documentation opened the way to more creative speculation on my part. True. But, I confess, I drew a blank. I just couldn’t picture vividly enough what sort of man this Guy was.

Several novelists have taken the approach that he was simply a weak-willed dandy easily manipulated by stronger men such as the Templar Master Ridefort and Reynald de Chatillon. But does weakness provoke aversion on the part of stronger men? The absolute hatred that would induce a man to renounce all his titles and surrender all his property (as Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel did) rather than serve him? Does weakness alone engender so much contempt that a man would prefer to commit treason (as Tripoli did) rather than serve him? Maybe, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

And what was it about this man ― who provoked such negative reactions from his male peers ― that attracted the love of a twenty-year-old princess?  Sibylla, whether she was seduced by him before their marriage or not, was passionately loyal to Guy to the day she died. Her love for Guy led not only to the loss of her kingdom, it led her into Saracen captivity and finally to her death. Had she not followed him to the siege of Acre, she would not have died along with her infant daughters in 1190. Whatever else one has to say about Sibylla, she was a devoted wife!

So Guy couldn’t have been all bad, right? Again, I’m not so sure. 

It was that uncertainty made it difficult for me to conjure up a character that was credible, convincing and compelling. In the absence of a compelling character capable of telling me what he thought, said and did, I had only one choice: to give him as small a role as history would allow.

Guy de Lusignan is a minor character in my books. He is viewed mostly from the outside, through the eyes of Balian and others. Only very occasionally do I step inside his skin and show the reader how Guy’s might have understood his circumstances and surroundings. These are critical junctures, in which I felt a rare sense of insight, but for the most part Guy remained an enigma to me.  I leave it to another novelist to try to find and reconstruct Guy’s personality in greater detail and nuance. 

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Aimery de Lusignan

The "Grael" Tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones
Guy de Lusignan is remembered as the king who lost the Kingdom of Jerusalem by his incompetent leadership in 1186-1187, and he has consequently received a lot of attention in histories and novels. Yet Guy was not the only Lusignan to make his fortune in the Holy Land. On the contrary, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Aimery, and it was Aimery, not the feckless Guy, who founded a dynasty. 

Furthermore, for a series of novels about the Balian d’Ibelin, Aimery was in many ways more important than Guy because, long before his more famous younger brother landed in the Holy Land, Aimery had married an Ibelin Baldwin’s daughter/Balian’s niece Eschiva. Critically, while the bitter hostility of the Ibelin brothers to Guy de Lusignan is well documented, the facile assumption made by most historians that the Ibelins were automatically also hostile to Aimery is, I think, seriously flawed.  

On the contrary there are clear indications (starting with the marriage of Eschiva) that the Ibelins were initially and again later on good terms with Aimery.  After all, Aimery and Guy were two very different people, and opposition to an arrogant and incompetent usurper does not automatically entail or require opposition to a modest, wise and competent older brother ― no matter how loyal he was to his brother. Last but not least, within just a few short years of Guy's death, the Ibelins had become (and were proud to be) the staunchest defenders of Aimery’s dynasty. They held extensive fiefs in Aimery’s kingdoms, and Aimery appointed Balian’s eldest son Constable within two years of becoming King of Jerusalem. That doesn’t sound like the actions of bitter rivals to me. 

It seems far more likely that Aimery and the Ibelins had a more complex relationship. One of mutual respect, but sometimes clashing interests ― just as can happen in any family. This is what I attempted to trace and depict in my Jerusalem trilogy.  

So who was Aimery de Lusignan? 

"The Shadow" by Edmund Leighton
Aimery de Lusignan was the third son of a Poitevan nobleman, Hugh VIII de Lusignan, a troublesome vassal of the Dukes of Aquitaine. Indeed, there was an infamous incident in 1166 when the “Lusignan brothers” — some sources expressly say Geoffrey and Guy — attacked and killed the Earl of Salisbury. Since Salisbury was unarmed, unarmored and stabbed in the back, it was a notorious act. Significantly, Aimery’s name is never linked to the murder of Salisbury. 

In or about 1174, Aimery left Poitou for the Holy Land. He was following in the footsteps of three generations of Lusignans, who had been crusaders before him. His own father had died in a Saracen prison. Aimery too was captured shortly after his arrival, and his father’s fate must have haunted him. Fortunately, King Amalric was prepared to pay his ransom.  This is an important tidbit as it suggests that Aimery was an agreeable enough young man ― unlike his younger brother ― to win friends in high places. 

This assessment is reinforced by the fact that, despite being a younger (third) son, he married the daughter of one of the richest and most powerful barons. This was not the usual case of a Western adventurer seducing a widow, because his bride, Eschiva d’Ibelin, was only a young girl, and the marriage was concluded with her father., the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel.  

in 1180, his younger brother arrived in the Holy Land and promptly seduced the widowed (and recently jilted) Princess Sibylla. (Allegations that Aimery were behind this are spurious. Aimery did not return to the West at this time.) Sibylla's brother King Baldwin IV sanctioned a wedding, how willingly is a matter of debate. As a novelist, I suspect Aimery may have been a little jealous of his younger brother’s spectacular success, but he would obviously also have recognized that he had much to gain from it. His Ibelin in-laws on the other hand were outraged. His father-in-law had hoped to marry Sibylla himself, and was never reconciled to this marriage. In short, Aimery's improved status (as brother of the future king) came at the price of an unpleasant break with his wife’s kin. That probably didn’t seem too high a price at the time. As the brother of the future king-consort, Aimery was rewarded within a couple of years with the powerful and prestigious post of Constable.  

This appointment may have been due to family connections, but Aimery acquitted himself well as constable, notably at the Battle of Le Forbelet. Likewise, a year later when Saladin tried to seize control of the important springs of La Tubanie, Aimery — notably supported by the Ibelins — successfully beat-off the attack. So, angry or not, the Ibelins were still willing to fight with him, which again suggests Aimery knew how to get along with people better than his little brother. 

When his brother Guy made a bid for the crown in a coup d’etat three years later, however, it is unsurprising that Aimery backed his brother. This support does not necessarily imply, however, that he thought highly of his brother or his brother’s leadership. This might simply have been a matter of family loyalty and self-interest.  

And he may well have regreted it. His loyalty to Guy took him to the Horns of Hattin, humiliating defeat and captivity. As the Lusignan brothers and most of the other barons of Jerusalem moldered in a Saracen prison, the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem fell city by city and castle by castle to Saladin until only the city of Tyre and isolated castles still held out. There was now no kingdom from which to raise ransoms for any of them. As 1188 dawned, Aimery de Lusignan must have expected he would suffer his father’s fate and die in Saracen captivity.

Instead, in May 1188, Saladin released the Lusignan brothers. The brothers went to Antioch, the only Crusader kingdom that was still more or less in-tact, and there recruited some 700 knights and 9,000 other ranks to attempt a re-capture Guy's lost kingdom. (This was in violation of an oath Guy had taken to Saladin, by the way.) Guy, Aimery and his little army set out for the only city of his kingdom that was still free,Tyre, only to discover that the man controlling it (Conrad de Montferrat) refused to admit them. Guy de Lusignan was persona non grata in his own kingdom ― and Aimery with him. What was more: Conrad was soon to claim the crown for himself by right of his wife, Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella. For the next three years, Guy and Conrad would be rivals, fighting over the crown of a kingdom that existed more in people's minds than in fact.
Meanwhile, the Lusignans recognized they had to do something, so they laid siege to Acre — formerly the most important port of his former kingdom and now garrisoned by Saladin’s troops. This siege was to drag on for two years and cost thousands of lives as arriving crusaders joined the siege ― and died there of disease, malnutrition, and the a constant skirmishing with the Saracen forces both inside the city and surrounding the siege camp. In November 1190, disease took the lives of Queen Sibylla and her two daughters — Guy's only off-spring. With them died Guy’s sole claim to the throne of Jerusalem. Aimery remained loyally with his brother, but one wonders what he thought of him by this stage? 

In the spring of 1191, the kings of England and France finally arrived with sufficient men and machines to bring the siege of Acre to a successful conclusion. Although Philip II soon sailed home for France, Richard the Lionheart stayed on to fight. He also staunchly backed his vassal Guy as king, but the barons and burghers of Outremer remained vehemently opposed to Guy. Richard re-established Christian control of most of the coastal cities, but then his time ran out; he had to return to his hereditary lands or risk losing them to Philip of France. Richard wanted to leave that the rump state he had helped create in hands strong and capable enough to ensure its survival; that was patently not Guy de Lusignan. Richard did the responsible thing: he dropped his support for Guy and recognized Isabella as the rightful Queen of Jerusalem and her husband (first Conrad de Montferrat and then Henry of Champagne) as King. 

That was a bitter disappointment for both Guy and Aimery, but this is where things get interesting for the Lusignans. On his way to the Holy Land, Richard I had conquered Cyprus. This immensely wealthy island which had long been part of the Byzantine Empire had been seized by a self-proclaimed “Emperor,” whose tyrannical policies had so alienated his subjects that for the most part welcomed and cooperated with Richard of England. Richard first sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, but by April 1192 the entire island was in rebellion against their rule. The Templars, recognizing that they did not have the resources to subdue the island and fight for the Holy Land, returned the island to the King of England. 

Richard sold it to Guy de Lusignan! 

That was all very well for the King of England's purse, but the fact was, with the entire population now up in arms against the rule of the crusaders, Guy first had to conquer the kingdom he had bought. He set off with what few supporters he still had. Significantly, his brother Aimery did not accompany him. This is concrete evidence that the relationship between the brothers had become strained. 

Whatever their relationship in private, however, outsiders naturally still assumed they were close. The new King of Jerusalem, Henry of Champagne, was clearly suspicious of Aimery’s loyalty. When Aimery sided with the Pisans, who Henry suspected of plotting against him, he was promptly imprisoned. Aimery’s arrest, however, provoked protests from the barons of the  kingdom, which supports my earlier thesis that — in contrast to Guy who seems to have been singularly adept at making enemies — Aimery was still popular among his adopted countrymen. The fact that King Henry gave in to the protests and released Aimery on the condition that he surrender the office of Constable furthermore suggests that Aimery’s supporters were very influential. I can’t help but suspect that they included Balian d’Ibelin, who was King Henry’s de jure father-in-law (he was married to Queen Isabella’s mother). Aimery duly surrendered his office of Constable of Jerusalem and promptly went to Cyprus to assist his brother Guy in taking control of his new lordship. 

Yet less than two years later, Guy de Lusignan was dead ― and he designated his elder brother Geoffrey — not Aimery who had been with him so long and through so much for him— as his heir. This is the most convincing evidence that the relations between Aimery and Guy had deteriorated badly (if they had ever been good). Fortunately for Aimery, Geoffrey de Lusignan had no interest in Cyprus. So Guy’s vassals chose Aimery as his successor. 

At last Aimery could demonstrate his own talents, rather than trailing in the wake of an incompetent brother. Within three years of becoming the Latin/crusader overlord of Cyprus, Aimery had established peace on the island, set up a Latin ecclesiastical hierarchy alongside the Orthodox one, and raised Cyprus to the status of a kingdom.  

Nor was that the end of Aimery's astonishing life. In 1196/1197, Eschiva d’Ibelin died. When Henry of Champagne died in September 1197, Aimery was selected as fourth husband for Isabella of Jerusalem. Aimery promptly used his Cypriot resources to help strengthen his new kingdom. In the same year that he assumed the crown of the kingdom his brother had squandered, he recaptured the key coastal city of Beirut from Saracen control. The following year, he concluded a five year truce with the Saracens that gave the kingdom much needed breathing space to retrench and consolidate itself. It was also the year in which he named Balian d’Ibelin’s son John to his old position of Constable of Jerusalem — an exceptional mark of favor for a young man not yet 20 and one presumes more a gesture of gratitude to his father than a mark of confidence in one so young. As noted above, this is one of the reasons I think Aimery had a more cordial relationship with Balian and his family than is usually assumed. 

Aimery also used the peace to commission a codification of the Laws of Jerusalem, the written records of which had been lost along with the Holy City. Drawing on the memory of the surviving members of the High Court, he attempted to capture the living memory of the unique laws of the lost kingdom and provide a constitutional basis for future legal procedures. This "Book of the King" was a significant contribution to feudal legal scholarship in the 13th century.

In 1204, with the Fourth Crusade diverted to Constantinople, Aimery concluded a new truce with the Saracens, this one with a six year duration. This gave his kingdom the peace it needed for economic recovery, but he did not live long enough to enjoy it.  In April 1205, Aimery died from foodpoisoning after eating fresh fish. Isabella followed shortly afterwards. The crown of Cyprus passed to Aimery's son by Eschiva d’Ibelin, Hugh, and the crown of Jerusalem to Isabella’s oldest surviving child, her daughter Maria of Montferrat.

My novels attempt to separate Aimery from Guy and portray him throughout as an independent and very different personality to his feckless younger brother. Because his marriage to Eschiva occurred in the late 1170s, he is a character in all three books of my trilogy--and indeed beyond in my current work-in-progress about the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus. Throughout, Aimery's relationship with Guy is fraught with jealousies, tensions and disagreements that are only barely patched-over for the sake of family unity -- just as in many families today.

Find out more by reading:

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