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

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

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 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.

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  1. How tragic, to live in the shadow of a disastrous younger brother. Soo, when are you writing a book on Aimery? LOL

  2. Right now! "The Last Crusader Kingdom" describes the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus largely from Aimery's point of view, with Eschiva, John d'Ibelin etc. in supporting roles. I about 3/4 finished and hope to release it later this year.

  3. Seems I've a lot of catching up to do.