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, August 5, 2017

Characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom: John d’Ibelin

Many of the characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom are familiar to readers of this blog from the Jerusalem Trilogy: Balian d’Ibelin, Maria Comnena, Guy and Aimery de Lusignan, Eschiva d’Ibelin-Lusignan, Isabella of Jerusalem and Henri de Champagne. I have provided short biographies of all of them and discussed writing about them in earlier entries. But there are a few characters in this novel that played only a minor role in the Jerusalem Trilogy, or did not feature at all. Over the next weeks I will be introducing these characters, starting with the historical figures, followed by the fictional characters.

The most important “new” character in The Last Crusader Kingdom is John d’Ibelin.

The Seal of John d'Ibelin

John was the eldest son of Balian d’Ibelin and the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena, and he was to play a dramatic and important role in the history of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus between 1205 and his death in 1236. Unfortunately, however, little is known about his early life, and nothing whatever is known about the period of his life described in this novel.

John was probably born in 1179, and was presumably a child of eight when the Battle of Hattin destroyed the world into which he had been born. He was certainly in Jerusalem when father came to the city to rescue his family―only to remain in the city and organize the defense. John, along with his siblings and his mother, however, was escorted from the apparently doomed city by Saladin’s own body-guard in a profoundly generous gesture on the part of the Sultan before the siege .

The next time John is mentioned in the historical record is in 1198, when he is named Constable of Jerusalem by King Aimery de Lusignan. He would have been only 19 at the time, and historians, balking at the idea of such a young man being capable of fulfilling the duties of Constable, hypothesize that the appointment was nominal, a means of providing for him materially. Yet, as his father’s eldest son, he would have already inherited the barony of Caymont, if (as historians assume) his father was already dead. Furthermore, historians appear to overlook the fact that young noblemen and kings came of age at 15 in the Holy Land, so a noblemen of 19 would have been young but not viewed as immature. If kings could command at 15, why shouldn’t a constable at 19? Last but not least, John witnessed all existing charters of King Aimery, suggesting a close relationship between the two men.

John was still quite young, 24, when he was named Regent of Jerusalem first for his half-sister Isabella following the death of her fourth husband, King Aimery, and then for his niece, Isabella's eldest daughter and heir, Maria de Montferrat, after Isabella’s death a few months later. As regent he arranged a marriage between his niece Alice of Champagne (Isabella’s daughter by her third husband, Henri de Champagne) with the heir to the Cypriot throne, Hugh de Lusignan. In addition, he was influential in the marriage of Maria de Montferrat with John de Brienne. Meanwhile, sometime between 1198 and 1205, he had traded the constableship for the lordship of Beirut, and it was as Lord of Beirut that he has gone down into history.

Beirut was retaken for Christendom by German crusaders in 1198, but was so badly destroyed in the process (either by the retreating Saracens or the advancing Germans or both) that it was allegedly an uninhabitable ruin.  Despite that, it was an immensely valuable prize because of its harbor, the fertile surrounding coastal territory, and the proximity to Antioch.  It was clearly a mark of great favor and trust that John d'Ibelin was granted the lordship of Beirut ― even if it meant giving up the constableship.

John d’Ibelin resettled the city and rebuilt the fortifications. He also built a palace that won the admiration of visitors for its elegance and luxury. It included polychrome marble walls, frescoes, painted ceilings, fountains, gardens, and large, glazed windows offering splendid views to the sea.  

 The Mediterranean Coast of the Levant

John first married (presumably in 1198 or 1199) a certain Helvis of Nephin, about whom nothing is known beyond that she delivered to him five sons, all of whom died as infants. Helvis herself died before 1207, when John married the widowed heiress of Arsur, Melisende. By Melisende, John had another five sons and a single daughter.

In 1210, Maria de Montferrat came of age, married John de Brienne, and the couple were crowned Queen and King of Jerusalem; John’s regency was over. Furthermore, he completely disappeared from the witness lists of the kingdom, suggesting he had withdrawn to Beirut rather than remaining in attendance on the new king and queen―whether voluntarily, or after some dispute is unknown.

While nothing is known for sure about John’s whereabouts between 1210 and 1217, by the latter date John and his younger brother Philip headed the list of witness to all existing charters of King Hugh I of Cyprus. This suggests that at some unknown point before 1217 he had acquired important fiefs on Cyprus. In 1227, he was named regent for the orphaned heir to the Cypriot crown, Henry I.

Only a year later, however, the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich II Hohenstaufen arrived at the head of the Fifth crusade, and John immediately found himself on a collision course. The events are far too complex for this short essay (but will be revisited later!), but resulted in John leading a rebellion against the Emperor and his appointed lieutenants that lasted sporadically from 1229 – 1232.  At stake was the constitution of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, with John defending the traditional pre-eminent role of the High Court against the Holy Roman Emperor's attempt to impose absolute monarchy on both kingdoms.  The Hohenstaufen suffered a complete defeat, eventually losing his suzerainty over Cyprus altogether, and never able to exercise his royal authority  throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

John has been accused by historians of defending only the parochial interests of his family and the leading baronial families. Certainly, his stance undermined central authority in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that ultimately weakened it. Against this argument stands the fact that his rebellion actually strengthened the position of the Kings of Cyprus, and the simple fact that Friedrich II’s heavy handed attempts to disinherit men without due process and run rough-shod over local laws and customs meant John was fighting as much for the rule of law as for personal interests.   

The fact that John was strongly supported by the commons of Acre further underlines the fact that he was not solely self-interested.  John had no problem accepting the authority of John de Brienne and Henri de Lusignan, after all.  I believe, therefore, a strong case can be made for John opposing not the concept of central authority but rather the individual ― Friedrich II, who even his admirers describe as arrogant and authoritarian.  Friedrich II believed that, like a Roman Emperor, he was God’s representative on earth. Friedrich II provoked revolts in the West as well as the East, and was excommunicated several times.

But all this is grist for future blog posts when I come to write about the baronial revolt against Friedrich II in future novels.

Returning to the John of The Last Crusader Kingdom, this is a youth aged 13 at the start of the novel and only 18 at the end. Based on the historical evidence of a close relationship between John and Aimery de Lusignan (the constableship, the lordship of Beirut, and the witness lists), I have hypothesized (or invented if you prefer) a relationship that was based on John serving as Aimery’s squire in his youth. This is not as far-fetched as one may think. In the 12th century it was common for youths to serve as squires to kinsmen, and Aimery was married to John’s first cousin Eschiva. Indeed, John didn’t have many other kinsmen with whom he might have served since his mother’s family had fallen from power in Constantinople, and his father’s brothers were dead.

So this is a novel about John d’Ibelin growing up while serving the man who was to make his fortune later in life. While every aspect of John’s life in this period is fictional because we have no historical records, it is a depiction of John shaped by what he would later become: an upright, honorable and doggedly independent baron, not only willing to take on the most powerful monarch on earth but also capable of rallying to his banner the support of the majority of the knights, lords and commons of Outremer.

Coming soon!

John was also a child character in the Jerusalem Trilogy:

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  1. Hello which book relates to Guy de Luisignan mostly
    And was his head ever in one on the coins, thank you

    1. As far as I know, no, no coins were minted with Guy de Lusignan on them. He lost the kingdom less than a year after being crowned and for the remainder of his reign (1187-1190) the kingdom had no minting capacity. Guy de Lusignan plays a role in both "Defender of Jerusalem" (which covers his marriage to Sibylla and ends with the siege of Jerusalem in 1187) and in "Envoy of Jerusalem" (which covers the aftermath of Hattin through the end of the Third Crusade.) He probably has more space/scenes in "Defender of Jerusalem."