Defender of Jerusalem

A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin

Fiction - Historical - Personage
631 Pages
Reviewed on 04/23/2016
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader has a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. Her non-fiction books include "Sisters in Arms" about women pilots in WWII, "The Blockade Breakers” about the Berlin Airlift," and "Codename Valkyrie," a biography of General Olbricht based on her dissertation. Helena has also published historical novels set in World War Two, Ancient Sparta and the Middle Ages.

“Defender of Jerusalem” won the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction Set in the Middle Ages, and the Silver Award for Spiritual/Religious Fiction in the 2016 Feathered Quill Literary Awards. It was also a finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction and a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

Visit her website: for a complete description and reviews of her publications, or follow her blog: for updates on current works in progress, recent reviews and excerpts. For more on the crusader kingdoms and Balian d’Ibelin visit: or follow her blog on the Crusader Kingdoms at: Helena is a U.S. diplomat currently serving in Africa.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin is an historical novel written by Helena P. Schrader. This is the second book in Schrader’s historical trilogy which follows the life of Balian d’Ibelin during the 12th century. The author precedes her story with a detailed list of characters, the family trees of the Ibelin family, the kings and queens of Jerusalem and the Greek/Byzantine Emperors, as well as maps of modern-day Jerusalem, the 12th century kingdom of Jerusalem and a map showing the Baronies of Jerusalem. In her introduction, Schrader gives a brief digest of the contents of the first book in the series, Knight of Jerusalem, which followed Ibelin’s life from 1171-1177. As the youngest son of the first Baron d’Ibelin, Balian was landless and was charged by Jerusalem’s King Amalric to care for young Prince Baldwin, who had been diagnosed as having leprosy. The two became close friends; a relationship which survived Amalric’s sudden demise and Baldwin’s unexpected accession to the crown. At first, little changed within the kingdom until Baldwin reached his majority. He then turned from the advice and counsel of his former regent to that of his mother, Agnes de Courtenay, whose ambition and bitterness towards Maria Comnena, Amalric’s second wife would precipitate a rift between Balian and his former royal friend. Before that break, however, Baldwin approved the marriage of Ibelin to his step-mother, the dowager queen, Maria Comnena, and persuaded Ibelin’s eldest brother to give Balian the barony known as Ibelin.

In the opening pages of Defender of Jerusalem, the barons and counselors to Baldwin have met to discuss their lack of access to the dying king. Agnes, his mother, has blocked all of them, supposedly to protect him, but Balian knew exactly how to get past the gatekeeper and gain access to his friend. Baldwin’s main concern during his illness was for the future of Jerusalem if he should die, which he fully expected would happen. His younger sister, Sibylla, would have to be married off, and quickly, as she was not queen material and would need a strong hand to guide her. While the fever that had nearly killed the king had abated, his concerns about the succession remained; however, his plans ran counter to everything that Balian and his other counselors recommended. She would marry the Duke of Burgundy, a match that would empower the kingdom, but Baldwin’s plans for Princess Isabella, Maria’s daughter from Amalric, caused the beginning of that great rift between Ibelin and Baldwin. The eight-year-old, who lived with her mother and Ibelin, would be married off to Humphrey de Toron, and while the marriage would still be some years away, she would be leaving immediately to live with him in Kerak, under the care and supervision of his mother, Stephanie de Milly. This, Agnes de Courtenay believed, would remove Isabella from the influence of Balian and her mother.

This was the worst of times for a break in ties between the ailing king and his traditional counselors as relations between Jerusalem and the Kurdish leader, Salah ad-Din, continued to break down. A series of skirmishes between the Christian Franks and the Muslims seemed destined to end any attempts at truces and negotiations. Truces were often broken by barons for their own profit or glory, giving no thought to the impact of their action on the kingdom. While Jerusalem had the barons, the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers to defend the Kingdom and the Holy City, there was no getting past the fact that Salah ad-Din had infinitely larger forces at his command. There was so much at stake as well. Jerusalem had historic religious importance to both Christians and Muslims, and the pilgrims who arrived daily had to be kept safe.

Helena P. Schrader’s historical novel, Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin, is a meticulously researched and well-written work that examines a crucial time in the history of the Christian occupation of Jerusalem. This is a complex, professional and intellectually challenging work that is well worth the effort a reader will put into it. The author’s introductory materials and digest of the first book in the series were infinitely valuable for me as reference tools as I began reading. I had not read the first book, and while I was able to enjoy and appreciate Defender of Jerusalem, I found myself wishing I had begun with the first book in the series -- the story is that good. Schrader makes this time in history come alive. The reader gets a real feel for the culture in Jerusalem and the Middle East at the time both for the Christians and, to a lesser extent, the Muslims. She eloquently conveys the impact of the Crusades on the area and the challenges faced by the Christians who settled and had made the kingdom their home. I was fascinated by the political machinations that take place in Defender of Jerusalem and found myself often reminded of Robert Graves’ biographical novel, I, Claudius, as I watched children being wrested from their families and royal babies dying untimely deaths. While there is no villain in Defender of Jerusalem quite as ambitious and evil as Livia, Claudius’ grandmother, some characters in this tale come relatively close.

Schrader’s battle scenes, and there are lots of them, are brilliant. She gets the confusion and chaos of hand-to-hand combat and graphically conveys the sounds of battle, the shouting and the screams of horses, and the sight of the almost mesmerized combatants fighting desperately and at times nearly insensibly. Her Leper King is valiant, unforgettable and larger than life as he grips on his charger with his legs, having lost the use of his hands and leads his troops into battle. Balian is seen at home, on the battleground, and in the midst of diplomatic discussions where thousands of lives are at stake, and it’s a joy to see how he rises to each occasion and becomes a true statesman.

The author concludes her tale with an Historical Note which details the factual basis for her plot, and then she discusses those areas where she blended fiction in with those facts. There’s also a fascinating historical note on leprosy, a glossary, and an extensive list of recommended readings. I was so impressed by the depth of Schrader’s research and the job she did in recreating what was for me, at least, a little known historical time and place. Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin is a grand read. It’s not light reading, but it’s so worth any initial effort getting involved with the characters and the history behind it. This historical novel is most highly recommended.

Romuald Dzemo

Set against the backdrop of a turbulent period of the history of Jerusalem from 1178 to 1187, Defender of Jerusalem is a ground-breaking, epic tale of one of the key players in the liberation of Jerusalem from the forces of Salah-ah-Din. Hemmed in from all sides by vicious enemies and on the brink of being overrun by the Kurdish invasion, the city of Jerusalem is vulnerable under a king suffering from leprosy, but it is then that an unusual friendship creates a formidable hero in the person of Balian d'Ibelin. Readers will be enthralled with the drama, the masterful blend of a wide selection of themes, enticing subplots that add color and an aching sense of suspense to the already compelling tale, and of course the kind of prose that reads smoothly.

Balian d’Ibelin is a second son of a local baron, who has virtually nothing to his name, so he comes to Jerusalem in the hopes of making his fortune, but ends up serving the young prince afflicted with leprosy. Things change when King Amalric dies, leaving behind a young, intelligent and wealthy widow, the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena, while the young prince becomes King Baldwin IV. With the impending threats from the advancing forces of Salah-ah-Din and internal conflicts that threaten to tear the kingdom apart, the young king has to create a winning war strategy to save Jerusalem from falling, and he counts a lot on the experience, skill, and bravery of the one man who has stood by him all along; his own servant, Balian d’Ibelin.

The opening line of Defender of Jerusalem by Helena P. Schrader is dismal and powerful, an irresistible hook that immediately evokes in readers a quiet anticipation and a strong sense of curiosity to discover what happens next: “Jerusalem is dying.” And readers won’t be disappointed, because the author fulfills her promise with skill and ingenuity, creating conflicts at all levels of the story and a sense of suspense that makes the story a page-turner. Schrader has created an impressive and beautiful tapestry of rich, colorful, and compelling historical characters, and as readers fall in love with them, readers will want to know what happens to them. Whether they are foul like the Kurdish leader or brave like d’Ibelin, these characters will provoke all kinds of powerful emotions in readers. Schrader makes history come alive through the drama she creates in her work and an honest representation of historical facts. The pace is fast and driven by engaging dialogue and intense action. This is one of the historical novels that will soon be cited among gifted authors like Sir Walter Scott; a tale of a rare friendship, love, religion, and bravery.

Marta Tandori

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian D’Ibelin is the second book in a three-part biographical novel series based on the historical figure of Balian, Baron of Ibelin. This spellbinding tale by author Helena B. Schrader seamlessly combines the grandiose vision of a Hollywood epic with the earmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy that will leave readers exhausted, yet eager for the final installment in the Balian trilogy.

Schrader’s tale begins in June of 1178 in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Jerusalem is under threat, both from outside and from within. From the outside, the threat is in the form of Salah ad-Din Yusuf, Sultan of Egypt and Damascus, whose Saracen army is a mighty force to be reckoned with. Young King Baldwin IV, current ruler of Jerusalem, is slowly dying of leprosy and must choose a successor. Weak and sickly, he has only a few people he can trust, among them his mother, the once disgraced Agnes de Courtenay, and his former tutor, Balian D’Ibelin. Balian is loyal to King Baldwin and would give his life to protect him, due in part to the fact that he is now married to the king’s stepmother, Maria Zoe Comnena, princess of the Imperial Greek family, and widow of the deceased King Amalric I, Baldwin’s father. As the leprosy slowly eats away at King Baldwin’s useless limbs, he can no longer fight in battle and is proving to be a liability, which in turn is making Salah ad-Din and his Saracen forces an even greater threat.

Without a clear successor in place, King Baldwin wants his sister, Sibylla, to marry Balian’s brother, a fearless knight in his own right, so that he can rule Jerusalem. However, Sibylla won’t hear of it as she wishes to marry the charming Guy Lusignan, Count of Jaffa. At first, King Baldwin refuses to listen to her entreaties, but eventually he capitulates after some pressure from his mother, Agnes de Courtenay. Agnes, meanwhile, sees young Isabella, Baldwin’s half-sister and daughter of Balian’s wife, Maria Zoe Comnena, as a potential threat to the throne and has Baldwin banish her off to the house of Reynald de Chatillon, Lord of Oultrejourdain, where she becomes betrothed before the age of ten to Humphrey de Toron IV, hated stepson of the Lord of Oultrejourdain. Maria Zoe begs Balian to intervene on her young daughter’s behalf so that Isabella may stay, but despite Balian’s efforts, King Baldwin refuses to be swayed and this causes a huge rift in Balian’s friendship with the king. With treachery, betrayal and scheming running rampant inside the king’s court, this leaves Jerusalem even more vulnerable…

The Defender of Jerusalem is a larger-than-life tale of epic proportions, made even more so by some of its main characters, beginning with the titular protagonist, Balian, Baron of d’Ibelin. An aggressive warrior in battle, Balian is nevertheless a man of God, a defender of king and family, and a benevolent ruler of his own small kingdom. Somewhat enlightened for a man of his time, when most are barely literate and little more than barbarians, Balian actually has what can only be termed a modern-day relationship with his wife, Maria Zoe. He respects her opinion and seeks her counsel on important matters. King Baldwin IV, the Leper King, as he is referred to by his people, is someone born to be king yet is looked upon with pity, thanks to the leprosy which riddles his body. Balian’s wife, Maria Zoe Comnena, is also a fascinating figure in her own right. Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Princess of the Imperial Greek family, widow of the deceased King Amalric I and King Baldwin’s stepmother, Maria Zoe is the personification of what it means to “marry well.”

Schrader has paid great attention to historical detail and this is clearly evident in her prose. The story is resplendent with vivid descriptions that prove a feast for the reader’s senses – so vivid, in fact, that one can effortlessly picture the open market stalls where owners ply their wares, where one can see and smell the large pigs roasting on outdoor spits, and feel the oppressive desert heat where there’s nary the slightest breeze to ruffle the fronds of the palms above. This is a time when slavery was common, when having a fiefdom meant power and position, and where individuals from near and far migrated to the mecca known as Jerusalem. The images are haunting, evocative, and laid open for us in masterful detail. A wonderful treat for historical readers, especially those with a penchant for the Crusades, Defender of Jerusalem is a long journey back in time well worth taking.

Janet Wertman

Between this review and the excerpt online I can't wait to read it! So excited!

Anthony Hargis

An excellent review!

While I appreciate the historically inaccurate movie -- "Kingdom of Heaven" -- that first brought Balian to my attention, I much prefer the true life story of this fascinating man. And Professor Schrader paints a marvelous picture.

The real man is a much more exciting and interesting individual, accomplishing far more than the movie ever showed. Once having come to know the real man -- as Professor Schrader brings him to life in the pages of her books -- I become more and more disappointed with that movie and really view it as an injustice done to the memory of the real Balian d’Ibelin.

I strongly encourage anyone who has not already done so to read the Professor Schrader's books. You will not be disappointed.

Diana Page

Well done! The three Balian books should be read together.

I think it's important to see is how the author takes both European and Arab sources of the events, then works out a believable story that does not deviate from the historical record. You can see a good example in her recent blog on the Fall of Jerusalem, Sept. 30, 1187.

Scott Amis @ Real Crusade

From my own humble self and the corps at Real Crusades History: Congratulations to Dr. Helena Schrader for her outstanding scholarly and literary achievements!

My joint review of 'Knight of Jerusalem' and 'Defender of Jerusalem', as well as one separate for 'Envoy of Jerusalem', can be found on and