Although this novel got off to a slow start, I loved discovering the courage, heroism and leadership of a couple of characters I had never heard of before. King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, born in 1161, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in 1174 when he was 13. In 1177, at the age of 16, he won an unexpected victory against Saladin (Salah ad-Din) at the Battle of Montgisard. He continued to weld his fractious nobles together and keep Saladin at bay until his tragic death at the too-early age of 23 or 24 on 16 March 1185. This is all the more remarkable given that he contracted leprosy at the age of 10, the disease which killed him.
His achievement is all the more glorious set against what happened after his death. Under the inept leadership of Guy de Lusignan (husband of Baldwin’s sister Sybilla) it took only 30 months for Jerusalem to fall to Saladin in October 1187, following his victory at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin on 4 July 1187.
Hattin decimated the native-born Frankish ruling class of Outremer, who had town-houses in Jerusalem, and country estates in what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. They were unable to put up much of a fight when Saladin appeared 3 months later with a large army outside Jerusalem.
They would have been unable to put up any fight at all, were it not for the second character I so enjoyed reading about, Balian d’Ibelin, a Frankish noble born in Outremer (the land beyond the sea) in the 1140s, who somehow managed to persuade Maria Comnena (the widowed Queen of Baldwin IV’s father) to become his wife. Balian was a native-born lord of Outremer, (not a “foreigner” from France) and so he was thoroughly acculturated to that interesting blend of French and Arabic cultures that existed in Outremer (the Crusader States) in the 1100s. He spoke Arabic well, which was useful when he had to negotiate terms with Saladin, who wanted to enslave 33,000 of the poorer inhabitants of Jerusalem. Somehow, Balian d’Ibelin managed to convince him not to do that, but to allow everyone to leave peacefully and re-settle in the Christian territories of Tripoli and Antioch.
How inspiring to read about two men who used their gifts to help their people and do the right thing! If the coronavirus is making you depressed, I suggest you reach for this novel. Five stars.