Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Last Crusader Kingdom

The Jerusalem Trilogy followed the lives of Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena through two decades of history from 1171 to the end of the Third Crusade in 1192. This was a crucial period, which saw the almost complete destruction of the crusader presence in the Middle East. It covered the dramatic Christian victory over Saladin in 1177, and the more devastating -- and unnecessary -- defeat of the Franks at the Battle of Hattin ten years later. Finally, in the third book of the trilogy, the dramatic defense of Tyre, the last Christian outpost in the Holy Land, and finally the course of the Third Crusade is described.

These events were momentous in their age. The shock of the annihilation of the Christian army at Hattin allegedly killed a pope and set in motion a massive military response: the Third Crusade.  The Third Crusade, in turn, attracted the wealthiest and most powerful of Western monarchs -- Friedrich Barbarossa, Philip Augustus, and Richard the Lionheart. As a result, the period of history covered in the second two volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy was well recorded by contemporaries had has been the focus of historical interest ever since. There are a wealth of primary and secondary sources that I could turn to for inspiration, guidance, plot and characters.

With the end of the crusade, the density and quality of contemporary sources and modern histories drops dramatically. Yet, life went on even after the momentous, eye-catching events ended. Furthermore, as readers will have noted, neither Balian nor Maria were dead.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is a novel set in the period following the Third Crusade. It is populated with familiar characters from that trilogy -- Balian and Maria, Aimery de Lusignan and his wife Eschiva, Queen Isabella and her 3rd husband Henri de Champagne, and more -- but it is not a sequel. It is a stand-alone novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom attempts to explain two historical developments that historians skip over, ignore or admit ignorance about. First, the establishment of a Latin kingdom on the island of Cyprus under the Lusignans. Second, the rise of the Ibelin family to the most powerful, indeed dominant, noble family of Outremer. It is, in short, about historical events of significance, but largely lost to modern understanding because of an absence of sources -- primary or secondary -- that deal with this interlude in detail. In my next two entries, I will describe in greater detail the historical evidence available and the revisionist thesis pursued in this novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is also a "bridge" between the Jerusalem Trilogy and my next novels, which will describe the remarkable resistance of the barons of Outremer (led by the Ibelins) against the despotism of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II Hohenstaufen. 

For those of you who missed The Jerusalem Trilogy, here are the links:

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Acre

The Harbor of Acre today
In Balian's time, Acre was the economic heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, it became the de facto capital of the rump state as well. During the last hundred years of Frankish presence in the Levant, Acre became the principal seat of the Templar and Hospitaller Orders, as well as a the home of the largest "communes" of merchants from the various Italian city-states. 

Acre's Waterfront Today
As a major entrepot, Acre was famous for its cosmopolitan character. At any one time, it harbored a large transient population of sailors and caravan crews. Caravans bringing the riches of Asia and Arabia met and mingled with the crews of ships from all points West, including Ireland and Norway. Even the resident population was diverse and polyglot; Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, French and Italian would all have been spoken by people who called Acre home.

Not terribly surprising, given this diverse and often disreputable nature of the population, Acre in the crusader era was notorious as a city of "low morals" and sinful pleasures. Pilgrims and crusaders alike complained about the "excessive" number of bath-houses. More than once, Richard the Lionheart was compelled to chase his men out of the "flesh-pots" of Acre and remind them of their crusader vows and duties. 

The covered markets, suks, of Acre attracted both good and bad clientele.
Getting a feel for Acre was thus an important part of my research -- even if the tame, touristy modern city could hardly convey the character of crusader Acre. The remains of the massive Hospitaller headquarters did, however, hint at the wealth, power and importance of the military orders. Here some pictures from my visit:


Acre features particularly in the second and third books of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
After Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem was probably the most popular pilgrimage destination in the Holy Land. (For more on the history of Bethlehem and the churches build there visit: Church of the Nativity) It had the advantage of being just over six miles distant from Jerusalem, making it comparatively easy for pilgrims to Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem as well. 

In addition to its importance to Christianity, Bethlehem was the city in which the early Kings of Jerusalem were crowned, giving it political importance in the crusader period as well. It was, however, never a center of trade or industry, remaining -- right to the present time -- a city dependent primarily on religious tourism. 

Although Bethlehem is the venue of only one important episode in the Jerusalem Trilogy, Bethlehem is nevertheless an important place for understanding and envisaging life in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, preserved in the Church of the Nativity are mosaics dating back to the reign of Constantine the Great -- an examples of the kind of mosaics that were even more common in crusader times.  Furthermore, the church underwent extensive renovation in the reign of Amalric, including a series of spectacular mosaic murals. Not only are these considered exquisite and valuable examples of crusader art, they reflect the influence of King Amalric's Greek wife, Maria Comnena. Since Maria was also Balian's wife, these mosaics have a direct tie to Balian's life and provide an alluring hint to the artistic tastes in the world in which John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beruit grew up. 

The Ibelins almost certainly maintained a residence in Jerusalem, and so trips to Bethlehem (for Christmas at least) were almost certainly part of the Ibelin routine. While the mosaics are generally considered the most important artistic feature, it was the Frankish cloisters at Bethlehem, pure Western Romanesque in style, that I personally found most beautiful:

Another, arguably more important, aspect of a trip to Bethlehem today is that the strong presence of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Christians in Bethlehem. They are a compelling reminder of how diverse Christianity was in the crusader period as well. Recent scholarship has documented a far greater tolerance for these other Christians than was previously assumed. For more about the treatment of Orthodox Christians in the crusader states please visit: Liberation or Oppression: Native Christians and the Crusaders

Bethlehem features in the first two books of the Jerusalem trilogy and is the scene of an important episode in Volume II.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Looking for Ibelin in Ibelin -- and Ascalon

The coast near Ibelin.

When writing a biographical novel about a man (Balian of Ibelin) who took his name from the place he was born, an author expects to find inspiration in the hero's birthplace. "Ibelin" was, after all, one of three castles built to defend Jerusalem from raids out Egyptian-held Ascalon. It was granted to Balian's father as a fief in the mid-1140s, and Balian was almost certainly born and raised there. He was so strongly associated with Ibelin that even after Ibelin was lost to Saladin, Balian and his heirs were still referred to as "Ibelins" -- generations after they derived their wealth and power from other fiefs and lordships such as Caymont, Beirut, Jaffa and Ascalon. 

So I went to Ibelin in search of Ibelin. Only to find that there is nothing there.

I drove back and forth through the modern Yavne, the historical Ibelin, and could find not a trace of the crusader city or castle. It was obliterated by highways, shopping malls, apartment buildings and parking lots. 

I continued just 18 miles down the coast to the ruins of Ascalon. Eighteen miles in this case did not bring a significant change in topography or climate, no sudden range of mountains, no gorges, lagoons, or desert. Both cities are located on the fertile plain along the Mediterranean coast. The lush vegetation and intensive cultivation of this landscape today echoes medieval descriptions of this coastal region being exceptionally fertile in the crusader era as well. Although Ascalon has a small harbor and Ibelin has none at all, Ascalon was never an important port.

Ascalon was, however, a very important city in the crusader period. It was held by the Egyptians until 1153, when it was finally taken after a long siege. The Egyptian defenders negotiated an honorable withdrawal and were not slaughtered, but they were expelled and replaced by Christian settlers. In 1187, Ascalon surrendered to Saladin after a feisty defense, but this time it was the Christian defenders, who accepted terms and thereby avoided slaughter and slavery. During the Third Crusade, Saladin evacuated and partially destroyed the city as the Frankish armies under Richard the Lionheart approached. Richard took the city and invested a great deal of time, effort and prestige into rebuilding it; reportedly he worked naked to the waist alongside the common soldiers to rebuild the defenses. Saladin's demand that he surrender Ascalon during the negotiations for a truce, almost caused the talks to fail. Eventually it was agreed that neither side would re-build or re-occupy Ascalon.

Many of the ruins that can be visited today date from the crusader period.
Remnants of the walls of Ascelon -- built in part by Richard the Lionheart?
Ascelon is an important venue for events in the first and third volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Oh, Jerusalem!

The "Jerusalem" in the title of Jerusalem Trilogy (Knight of Jerusalem, Defender of Jerusalem, and Envoy of Jerusalem) refers to the kingdom and king of the same name more than the city itself, yet it would have been impossible to write this trilogy of novels without having visited Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not only the capital of the kingdom by that name, it was the call, the magnet, the symbol and the heart of crusades and the crusader kingdoms. 

While men fought and died for the abstract notion of "Jerusalem," and the city was also the ultimate pilgrimage destination of medieval Christians because it was the site of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection Yet, despite all that, it remained a very real, secular and material city as well. Furthermore, it had a long history of habitation.  For the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the period of my books (1170-1192), the city already had a rich history and its face and character were the product of diverse influences. 

Jerusalem was, of course, originally a Jewish city. In the crusader period, the most important monument dating to the Jewish kings was the Tower of David, which formed an integral part of the medieval Citadel.

The Tower of David as it looks today.
Jerusalem had also been a Roman city, most importantly, at the time of Christ. The venue of key episodes in Christ's life were Roman, e.g. the palace of Pontius Pilate. But although some Roman columns and mosaics survived and were integrated into later architecture, very little is recognizable today. The Mount of Olives, however, cannot have changed all that much. Here a picture as it looks today:


The Byzantine city has also largely been effaced what came afterwards, but here is a model that historians have developed based on archaeological research: 

The Arabs were the most recent inhabitants of Jerusalem before the crusader period, and the most spectacular of their monuments was the "Dome of the Rock" erected on the Temple Mount. The Crusaders admired this structure greatly and far from defacing, damaging, destroying or neglecting it, they turned it into a church, the "Temple of God," and raised a cross over the dome in place of the half moon of Islam. Here are a couple of modern photos of the Temple Mount today, with the Dome of the Rock restored to a mosque.

The crusaders, however, also left a remarkable imprint upon Jerusalem. The most famous of the crusader/Frankish monuments is, of course, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: 

But the Church of St. Anne is also a masterpiece of Frankish architecture which has survived so well because it was converted into a mosque in the period after Jerusalem was re-captured by Saladin. It is now a church again:

As the setting for a novel (are important parts of it), however, it was the more secular buildings and institutions that are important -- the markets and suks, the houses, inns, streets and plazas. Here some photos of remnants of the Frankish city:

But what was Jerusalem like when Balian actually lived there? Find at more at: The Heart of the Crusader Kingdom. 

Jerusalem is particularly important as a venue in the first two books of the trilogy:

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Places for the Imagination

My novels are very character-centric with the main focus on character development and interaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of my novels are inspired by people.  My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real people, whose stories fascinate me ― General Friedrich Olbricht, Leonidas of Sparta, Balian d’Ibelin. Other stories, were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history ― a passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion, a short description of a donor or a grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….

Yet almost as important as people, places too inspire the imagination.  I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he led me through the Coliseum alone and confined himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.

I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour took) trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? where the Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?

Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon. I wrote a tale about an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about traveling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi are pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.

At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon, but now I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth, and Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves…. 

Although I never wrote that novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass field, and imagined the gentle peace shattered by the telephone, the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Doe wrote to me in a hand-written letter I treasure to this day. He said I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.” 

No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in the book saying you got the it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.

In coming weeks, I will be selecting some of venues relevant to the Jerusalem Trilogy and my current work-in-progress, The Last Crusader Kingdom. I hope my descriptions will inspire you to visit these unique places – either in my books or in person.