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.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Reynald de Châtillon

Reynald de Châtillon was highly controversial in his own life-time. From the 19th century onwards, he has generally been cast in the role of villain and blamed for the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The modern popular image of Châtillon has been shaped largely by the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven,” in which he is depicted as a madman bent on war regardless of consequences. But the noted historian Bernard Hamilton argues persuasively that Châtillon was a brilliant strategist, whose actions did more to help than harm the Kingdom of Jerusalem. More recently still, the journalist Jeffrey Lee has written a light-weight popular biography in which he seeks to completely rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was no more violent than his fellows and suffers only from a bad press.

As a novelist, this character clearly offered significant potential, as a brief summary of his colorful career highlights.

Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a French nobleman, who joined the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife Eleanor 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 comparatively obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It is worth noting that according to the excellent history written by Châtillon’s contemporary, the Archbishop of Tyre, the King of Jerusalem had suggested to Constance a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states, but the lady chose the less suitable 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. As a novelist, therefore, I had to assume that Châtillon ― at least at this stage of his life ― was a charmer.

Within a very short period of time, however, Châtillon also demonstrated levels of avarice and violence that scandalized his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch (who had opposed Châtillon’s marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly), Châtillon had him seized, bound, beaten and then exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey and blood attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was tormented with heat and flies until he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money.

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. The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex,” (again according to Tyre) and this time so scandalized Châtillon’s contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.

Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch himself, and force Châtillon to submit personally. 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 Tyre dryly noted, Châtillon “was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.”

In 1161, Châtillon was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions. He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage had come of age. Notably, the new Prince of Antioch did not want his step-father around – which tells us something about what sort of a step-father he had been to the young prince. Châtillon was now 52 years old and prince of nothing (although he insisted on being addressed by this title for the rest of his life). Indeed, he was landless and penniless.

He rapidly remedied his situation by marrying another widow. This time it was the lady of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from fifteen years in a Saracen prison and well past his prime was particularly attractive to Stephanie, but maybe we should give her (and not just the High Court) credit for perceiving Châtillon’s value as a brilliant tactician, capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance.

He defended his new lordship by dramatically going on the offensive. In November 1181 he led a raid deep into Sinai. This raid has contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce. However, far from being an opportunistic act of an adventurer, the raid served a vital strategic purpose: it prevented Saladin from seizing Aleppo at the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir. Instead, Salah ad-Din’s forces had to be diverted to interdict Châtillon’s raid.

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. However, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon challenged Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. The campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria, while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power. In short, far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, these raids likewise had strategic value.

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 those who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as her consort given his past successes?).

At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles. 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 — in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy. 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 again in a Saracen prison or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.

As a novelist, I wanted to show that Châtillon was far more complex and intelligent than the buffoon of “The Kingdom of Heaven.” My Châtillon, in consequence, is a ruthless but brilliant strategist. I opt to have him in league with King Baldwin with respect to the Red Sea Raids, because this added a new dimension to the “Leper King” as well, underlining the young king’s determination to defend his kingdom.

But there was another very important piece of Châtillon’s biography that is easily skipped over by historians, yet central to a novel about Balian d’Ibelin and his wife Maria Comnena: Châtillon was the man who took control of Maria’s first born child, Isabella, when the latter was sent to live with her future husband, Humphrey de Toron, at the age of eight. Humphrey de Toron was the son of Châtillon’s wife by an earlier marriage, and as such Châtillon was his de facto guardian. What is more, we know that Châtillon’s wife (the chronicles curiously always blame his wife, not him) refused to allow the little girl to visit her mother for three years.

While historians generally put this down to the “wise” (really?) efforts of Châtillon and the royal party in removing the king’s little sister from the “evil” (really? Evidence please!) influence of Queen Maria and “the Ibelins.” Yet, from the perspective of a novelist, there is a great deal more going on here. Isabella was only eight when she was taken unexpectedly from the only home she had ever known. She was then sent to one of the most endangered castles in the kingdom, Kerak, and turned over to a man with a reputation for brutality. While in his “tender” (?) care, she was not allowed to visit her own mother, and then forced into a marriage before she reached the age of consent, which from our perspective was already scandalously young: 12. To top it off, the marriage took place while the castle was under siege from Salah ad-Din. Now if that isn’t material for a novel, what is?

But there’s more! Châtillon was the guardian of Isabella’s young husband, Humphrey de Toron. It is recorded that Humphrey was “more like a girl than a boy,” that he stuttered and was “cowardly and effeminate.” Apparently, Châtillon’s methods of raising youth to manhood was, shall we say, intimidating. A thesis supported by the fact that his step-son by his first wife also loathed him and did not want him in his kingdom. 

In short, two children were handed over to the care of a man who tortured prelates, plundered peaceful Christian countries and routinely broke truces. No matter how strategically useful his later raids were, this is not the kind of man I would want raising my eight-year-old daughter, or my teenage son either! Yet the very terror he imposed on them may have made them seek comfort from one another. This is the emotional response that I explore in my novel.

Châtillon and his wife thus play important roles in the second book of my Jerusalem trilogy.


  1. It would seem that, thanks to men such as Reynald de Châtillon, the Muslims weren't the only ones "fighting amongst themselves." I have to believe that such actions hardly benefited the kingdom.

    1. You took the words out of my mouth. If anything he definitely was villainous and he definitely had his end coming to him a long time.

  2. Actually Salāh ad-Dīn did not violate practices when executing Reynald de Châtillon. He made a promise that the moment he got Reynald a prisoner he would execute him. And so had kept his word. Furthermore, when Guy de Lusignan passed that water cup to Reynald, Salāh ad-Dīn told him that as the cup was meant for only Guy de Lusignan himself, and never for Reynald, therefore Salāh ad-Dīn was not obliged to grant Reynald himself the mercy granted to Guy de Lusignan.