BALDWIN IV was indeed an historical king of Crusader Jerusalem—and he was a leper. He was born in 1161 and ruled between 1174 and 1185. He died at the age of twenty-three. Until recently, historians have long looked upon Baldwin’s reign as a period of decline which culminated in the disastrous loss of the kingdom to Saladin at the Battle of Hattin. As the king succumbed to his disease, so too did the kingdom. Historians thought the young king a weak and ineffectual ruler who, because of his disabling infirmity, could not keep his conniving lords at bay. Even William of Tyre, Baldwin’s tutor and Chancellor, wrote that the king was easily manipulated by those closest to him. Certainly, this is an odd observance given the opinion of a personage no less than Imad ad-Din Isfahani, a Muslim chronicler of the time, who expressed the view that Baldwin was a king who “knew how to make his authority respected”—among his own people and among his enemies.
Fortunately, modern scholarship has begun to see Baldwin’s reign as a brief period of stability and growing prosperity in the face of war—a view that certainly throws into sharper contrast the unexpected and devastating loss of Jerusalem by Guy de Lusignan only two years later. As for his illness, it must have come as a complete shock to the kingdom. Leprosy is a disease that slowly comes upon a person from long exposure—hardly a condition one would expect from a prince born of royal blood. It is certain that the Crusaders held a far more tolerant opinion of the disease than did the Muslims or the rest of Western Christendom. In a bull issued by Pope Alexander III in 1181 calling for new crusade to the Holy Land, he expressed his solemn opinion that the king was “severely afflicted by the just judgment of God.”
As for Baldwin’s own people, they saw their young ruler as a hero and a savior. They loved him and mourned his death greatly no matter whether he was a leper or not. In a time of war, the barons of the Christian kingdom unanimously stood by Baldwin’s claim to the crown by electing him king. Quite easily he could have refused the throne or laid aside the crown as he so often desired in later years and no one would have thought any ill will towards him. Again and again, despite his leprosy and continual bouts of malarial fever, he proved the worth of his election to the throne and managed to help keep Saladin from his treasured prize of Jerusalem for more than a decade. As to how or why he contracted leprosy at such a young age is a mystery, especially since he spent most of his youth under the personal tutelage of Archbishop William in Tyre. Perhaps, a nurse or close childhood friend infected him—or perhaps, it was an affliction of God sent to chastise the war-mongering Crusader kingdom. We will never know.
Turning to MARY MAGDALEN, she has always occupied a peculiar place in Scripture and other mundane writings. She seems to appear and disappear almost at will. Aside from a few meager though very important scenes in the Gospels (which only seem to conflate the problem of her identity) she remains a mystery to even the most learned scholars. But just who was this woman about who so much is written and believed? The Gospels give just enough information to make some speculate wildly beyond the bounds of common reason. What we do know is that: 1) she had seven demons cast out of her; 2) she was a woman of some means (in other words, she had money) who followed Jesus and his disciples with several other women and supported him; 3) she was present at the crucifixion; and 4) she was the first to see the risen Lord.
Beyond these scant, tantalizing facts, we know absolutely nothing more of her. These few tidbits, however, in the way they are presented, are enough to give the overwhelming impression that the Magdalen was sufficiently well known and important that it was not necessary to explain her presence in the Gospels. The early Christians knew her well, even if she disappeared completely from the historical record after the Resurrection. We are left then with traditions that claim she traveled westwards into France and the cultural backwater of Europe that evolved into the late Roman and Medieval periods of history.
By the 11th and 12th centuries, legends about the Magdalen had blossomed in the south of Europe, particularly in the Languedoc whence many of the first Crusaders originated. By then, however, the Church and various heretical groups had done much to malign Mary’s growing reputation. The Church made her out as a harlot and sinner; the heretics claimed she was the wife of Christ, or worse. The Magdalen of the Gospels disappeared into a cycle of legends and cultural stories that bore little resemblance to her true historical character. In fact, in the millennium between Christ and the Crusades, Mary Magdalen, because of her attachment to the Christian story, became a figure of myth herself.
When it comes to the ORDER OF SION we are on far less certain ground. Despite claims to the contrary by modern historians, it is obvious that it existed. In 1099, after Jerusalem fell to the Crusader armies, Godfrei de Bouillon founded an abbey on the ruins of a Byzantine structure located on a hill south of the city called the Abbey of Notre Dame du Mont de Sion, just as he instituted another order of knights and monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There is evidence, albeit thin, in the form of charters, that there was some connection between the Abbey of Sion and the newly formed Order of Templar Knights. But were the Order of Sion and the Abbey one and the same? Beyond these few simple facts we can only speculate. A strong case can be made, as some notable conspiracy theorists claim, that the Templars actually began to function several years before their official founding in 1118. But does this necessarily mean that the continued bad press the Templars have attracted of late is true or that some secret history exists?
Given their known thirst for knowledge of the religious and the arcane, it should come as no surprise that some Templars would be guilty of such. Perhaps, some members of the Order could have formed some sort of esoteric society, but the overwhelming majority of the knights believed that they served God and his Church in defense of the Holy Land. Some have argued that Sion’s influence extended even to the throne of Peter, particularly during the long and dark years of the 11th and 12th centuries. This was the Middle Ages after all, and many strange and unorthodox ideas were beginning to ferment under the oppressive system of feudal Europe. That a group of powerful and influential nobles might think to try and control the Church is not outside the realm of possibility. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa certainly tried for many years to put his own popes in the Lateran Palace.
The sudden and dramatic demise of the Templars at the hands of the Pope and King Philip IV of France has forever fostered all sorts of rumors as to the cause of their downfall. Were the famous warrior-monks devil-worshippers or heretics? Were they too powerful and rich for the Church to allow them to exist? Did they protect a sacred bloodline descended from Jesus and the Magdalen? Were the Templars the military arm of the Order of Sion? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no,” despite the supposed “evidence” of the conspiracy theorists. The Templars were certainly not saints… but neither were they heretics.
I am often asked: Why write a story about the Leper King with the Magdalen and a heretical conspiracy based on facts not in evidence? My answer is simple: Why not? In the past twenty-some odd years or so the world has become fixated by conspiracy theories (i.e. Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, and others) bent on uncovering some elusive mystery lying at the heart of Christianity. Namely, that the Church has long suppressed a hidden secret about Jesus and Mary Magdalen and that various groups have guarded this faith-shattering secret until the present day. In writing The Leper King, I set the story in the timeframe in which the origins of many of these supposed theories are said to have been given birth. By bringing Mary forward in time it gives her the opportunity to answer for herself the charges laid against her by the heretics and a chance to defend her faith against the enemies of the Church. And if such diabolical power and elemental magic was called into play during the turbulent times of the Crusades, could not a curse disguised as a disease devour the life of a young king sworn to defend the holiest place on earth? If the purveyors of wildly heretical nonsense can make such fantastic claims on history, why can’t an historical novel demand any less from the realm of fantasy? Is there really any difference between the two?