Melisende, born in 1105 and queen from 1131 until her death in 1161, was the first and unquestionably the most forceful of Jerusalem’s queens. She was not only the hereditary heir to the kingdom, she tenaciously defended her right to rule against both her husband and her son, weathering two attempts to side-line her, albeit more successfully the first time. She was praised for her wisdom and her administrative effectiveness as well as being a patron of the arts and the church. Although largely forgotten, she ought to be remembered alongside her contemporaries the Empress Mathilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine as one of the powerful women rulers of the 12th century.
Melisende of Jerusalem was born in 1105, the first of four daughters, born to King Baldwin II and his Armenian wife, Morphia of Melitene. At the time of her birth in Edessa, her father was Count of Edessa, but 13 years later in 1118 her father was elected by the High Court of Jerusalem successor to Baldwin I. Some sources claim that her father was urged at this time to set-aside his Armenian wife and seek a new, and better-connected bride who might bear him sons as Morphia had failed to do. Baldwin refused. Furthermore, he designated his eldest daughter as his heir, and she was given precedence in the charters of the kingdom ahead of all other lords both sacred and secular.
In 1128, when Melisende was already 23 years old, her father sent to the King of France, requesting a worthy husband for her. This appeal was sanctioned by the High Court, as all subsequent searches for worthy consorts of Jerusalem’s queens would be in the years to come. The King of France proposed Fulk d’Anjou.
Although Anjou is small, it was a pivotal and powerful lordship in the heart of France. Fulk’s mother had married Philip I of France, and his daughter had been engaged to Henry I of England’s heir, William. When the latter died in a shipwreck, the agreement was mutated so that Henry’s daughter Mathilda married Fulk’s eldest son and heir Geoffrey. It was from this marriage of Fulk’s son Geoffrey and Henry I’s heir Mathilda that the Angevin kings of England sprang.
Meanwhile, however, Fulk had traveled to the Holy Land and served with the Knights Templar. He responded positively to the proposal to marry Melisende, although some sources content that he insisted on being named king, not merely consort. In fact, the terms may have been ambiguous, or at least open to alternative interpretations. Certainly, Fulk had a reputation for centralizing power and ruling unruly vassals with an iron fist. He was seen as militarily able, however, a vital qualification for ruling the ever-vulnerable Kingdom of Jerusalem.
In 1129, Fulk returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and married Melisende, now 24 years old. He was at once associated with his father-in-law in the government of the kingdom. Nevertheless, in 1130 when Melisende gave birth to a son, named Baldwin for his grandfather, the proud grandfather took the precaution of publicly investing his Kingdom to his daughter, his son-in-law and his grandson. This was not a partitioning of the kingdom, but a means of binding his vassals to his heirs. Furthermore, when he fell ill the following year, he reaffirmed on his death-bed the succession of his daughter Melisende, along with her king-consort Fulk and their joint son, Baldwin. Melisende and Fulk were crowned jointly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Despite this, Fulk evidently felt that he had become sole ruler of Jerusalem. Melisende was abruptly excluded from the charters of the kingdom, suggesting she was excluded from power, and the important contemporary chronicle of Orderic Vitalis provides this revealing description of what happened next:
To begin with [Fulk] acted without the foresight and shrewdness he should have shown, and changed governors and other dignitaries too quickly and thoughtlessly. As a new ruler he banished from his counsels the leading magnates who from the first had fought resolutely against the Turks and helped Godfrey and the two Baldwins to bring towns and fortresses under their rule, and replaced them by Angevin strangers and other raw newcomers…; turning out the veteran defenders, he gave the chief places in the counsels of the realm and the castellanships of castles to new flatterers.[i]
While this was bad enough, he also appeared to seek the removal of his wife, Melisende. The suspicion was that he wanted to push aside the legitimate heirs of Jerusalem and replace them with his younger son by his first wife, a certain Elias. His weapon was a not-so-subtle attempt to sully her reputation with an accusation of adultery. In 1134, Melisende was (conveniently) accused of a liaison with the most powerful of the local barons, a certain Hugh, Count of Jaffa.
While all chronicles agree that the charges were trumped up, the very fact that King Fulk was presumed to be behind them induced Jaffa to refuse to face a trial by combat, apparently fearing foul play. The failure to show for a trial by combat, however, gave the king the right to declare him (and with him the queen) guilty, and to attempt to forfeit his fief. (Which some historians suggest may have been Fulk’s main motive in the first place.) What is notable about this incident is that the bulk of the High Court ― and most significantly the Church ― sided with Jaffa rather than King Fulk. This underlines the degree to which Melisende was viewed as innocent of wrong-doing, and the degree to which the local nobility resented the Angevin influence described above.
When the royal army moved against Jaffa, the southern lords, many of them Jaffa’s vassals, held firm for Jaffa. Until Jaffa made a severe tactical error: he sought military support from the Muslim garrison at Ascalon. The later was all too happy to see the Franks fighting among themselves and Jaffa beat off the royal army -- at the price of losing support among his own. Many of his vassals (and his own Constable, Barisan d’Ibelin) deserted his cause and reconciled with the king.
Yet just when Fulk seemed on the brink of complete victory, the Church intervened to end the dangerous self-destructive civil war and forced Fulk to offer astonishingly mild terms to the rebels. Hugh of Jaffa and those men who had remained loyal to him were induced to surrender Jaffa and accept exile for a mere three years, rather than the permanent loss of their fiefs. Although not explicit, subsequent events suggest that Melisende was behind this agreement and Fulk was anything but happy with it. Certainly, before Hugh could leave the kingdom to begin his exile, he was stabbed in the streets of Acre by a knight widely believed to be fulfilling Fulk’s wishes if not his orders.
Hugh survived the attack and went into exile to die before the terms expired just three years later. But sympathy for the injured Hugh was so high that the Angevins found themselves in fear for their lives. Indeed, no one was more outraged than Queen Melisende, and the contemporary historian William of Tyre reports that Fulk feared for his life in the company of the queen’s men. Fulk had won the battle but lost the war. He had discovered he could not rule Jerusalem as he had Anjou. He could not impose his own counsellors or ignore the men (and their sons) who had conquered his kingdom one bloody mile at a time. Most important, he could not replace his wife at whim, but must recognize her as her father had intended as his co-regent, his equal in power.
William of Tyre reports that after Jaffa’s exile Fulk “did not attempt to take the initiative, even in trivial matters, without [Melisende’s] knowledge.”[ii] This assessment is underlined by the subsequent documentary evidence that shows Melisende again jointly signing charters and otherwise actively engaged in the administration of the kingdom. She made some spectacular grants at this time (one presumes to her supporters), most especially to the Church. The reconciliation was furthermore sufficient to bring forth a second son, Amalric, who was born in 1136.
In 1138, when Fulk and Melisende’s son Baldwin turned eight, he too was included in the charters of the kingdom, reaffirming his investiture along with his parents as ruler of Jerusalem, restoring the situation as it had been recognized by the High Court at the time of Baldwin II’s death. This troika of rulers continued until 1143, when Fulk died suddenly at the age of 53 in a hunting accident.
Significantly, at Fulk’s death there was no need for the High Court to convene and elect a new ruler, because Melisende was already crowned and anointed and recognized, not merely as regent for her 13-year-old son, but as queen in her own right.
This outline of the events in the first 38 years of Melisende’s life makes a mockery of modern commentary that dismiss medieval women as “chattels” or pawns. Melisende’s right to inherit the power ― not just the title ― of monarch was not only recognized by the High Court (i.e. her vassals), but defended by both her barons and the Church. Melisende wielded real power, and she won the respect of her contemporaries. William of Tyre, for example, calls her “a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all spheres of state business,” who took “charge of important affairs.”[iii]
The woman herself, her feelings, her temperament, her motives, fears and dreams, are lost to us. A few things are clear, however. First, in contrast to her grand-daughter Sibylla her virtue was considered unimpeachable; no one of importance seriously believed she had committed adultery. Second, her intelligence and abilities as queen were respected sufficiently for people to be willing to fight for her right to rule jointly with her husband. Third, she must have been sufficiently flexible and forgiving to reconcile with her husband despite his attempts to first side-line and then dishonor her. That takes a very wise woman indeed!
When King Fulk died suddenly as the result of a hunting accident in November 1143, there was no interregnum and no need the call together the High Court to elect his successor. Melisende and her son Baldwin III had already been invested, and Melisende (but significantly not Baldwin) had already been crowned and anointed in September 1131. Melisende therefore continued to rule without debate or contradiction, but now her son Baldwin III was also crowned and anointed (and Melisende crowned a second time) on Christmas Day 1143. Since Baldwin was only 13 at the time, however, he was still a minor and not entrusted with the reins of government.
During her son’s minority, Melisende moved rapidly and vigorously to fill all important crown appointments with men loyal to herself. She deftly promoted her husband’s chancellor to Bishop, thereby eliminating his influence at the core of the kingdom with a “golden handshake” that could not offend anyone. To the key position of constable, the effective commander-in-chief in the absence of a king capable of commanding troops, she appointed a relative, and relative newcomer, Manassas of Hierges, a man totally dependent on her favor.
She could not stop the clock, however, and in 1145, Baldwin III, turned 15, the age at which heirs reached their maturity in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin and evidently some members of the nobility expected that he would now be allowed to rule. He was wrong, and Melisende had the law (and evidently the Church) on her side. She was an anointed queen, the hereditary heir, and she’d demonstrated her ability over the previous fifteen years. Perhaps precisely because her husband had tried to sideline her, she was not prepared to let her son do the same thing.
Although there is evidence that Baldwin made sporadic attempts to defy his mother, he failed largely because she had surrounded herself (and evidently obtained the loyalty) of some of the most powerful men in the country. These included the Rohard, Viscount of Jerusalem, Elinard, Lord of Tiberias and Prince of Galilee, Philip of Nablus and, through the latter, the lords of Ramla and Mirabel and of Ibelin. These lords combined with the royal domain in Hebron and around Jerusalem gave her solid control of Samaria and Judea, or the heartland of the kingdom.
Because military action remained the one thing Melisende could not undertake, however, it is perhaps not surprising that it was in this field of endeavor that Baldwin again tried to distinguish himself. In 1147, when he was 17 years old, Baldwin blundered into a campaign against Damascus, issuing the arrière ban (which only he could do), which called up all able-bodied men to the defense of the realm. It is unclear to what extent his mother had approved or even advised on the campaign, but when the military operation ended badly, despite the king’s personal courage, Melisende was able to place the blame on her son.
Significantly, it was after this incident that Melisende started including her young son, Amalric, on royal charters. This suggested that she saw him as a future co-ruler ― or replacement ― to Baldwin. Amalric, who had not been born until 1136, had not known his father well, and was to prove consistently loyal to his mother.
But Baldwin soon had another opportunity to shine militarily: the Second Crusade. In 1148, large forces had arrived in the Holy Land from the West, and in a council meeting prior to the public council in Acre, the decision to attack Damascus (long an ally of Jerusalem) was taken by King Conrad III of Germany, the Knights Templar, and Baldwin III ― without his mother being present. He was also entrusted with the vanguard of the armies. Unfortunately, this campaign was also a miserable failure, damaging the reputation of all participants (though the eighteen-year-old Baldwin suffered less than Conrad and Louis VII). Melisende’s reputation, in contrast, remained intact.
But Melisende’s inability to take the lead in the defense of the kingdom remained a handicap. In June 1149, the defeat of Raymond of Antioch by Nur ad-Din in the disastrous battle of Inab left the Principality of Antioch virtually defenseless. The surviving lords called on the King of Jerusalem to come to their aid. This Baldwin (now 19 years old) did immediately and effectively. Naturally, the lords of Antioch had not called for the help of a woman, but just as significantly Baldwin assumed political control of the principality ― without any concessions to joint rule with his mother.
Melisende took note and started to reduce her son’s role inside Jerusalem by issuing charters in her own name. Tensions were clearly rising between Melisende and her first born. Indeed, the conflict between them was beginning to impinge upon the functionality of the kingdom. At about this time, Melisende appears to have forced the chancellor out of office without being able to replace him. The appointment of a chancellor required the consent of the High Court in which Melisende and Baldwin jointly presided. They were evidently at loggerheads. Melisende therefore tried to replace the chancellery altogether, henceforth issuing charters from her private scriptorium. This forced Baldwin to do the same. There were now effectively two rulers in the kingdom, but they were no-long ruling jointly but rather independently. It was a dangerous situation for a kingdom always so vulnerable to outside attack.
While Melisende was effectively fighting a rear-guard action to retain her hold on power, Baldwin, now 20, was on the ascent. He continued to increase his following and support in the north and along the coast in the economically vital coastal cities of Acre and Tyre. He won to his party the important and capable Humphrey de Toron II, and Guy of Beirut. More significantly, he rebuilt the castle at Gaza, far to the south, thereby cutting off Ascalon, which was still in Egyptian hands. Rather than installing one of his supporters, however, he wisely handed the castle over to the Knights Templar, evidently a (not entirely successful) attempt at gaining their goodwill.
Baldwin was gaining power, but many lords remained loyal to Melisende. So much so, in fact, that when Count Jocelyn of Edessa was captured in May 1150 and Baldwin wanted to led a relief expedition, half his barons did not follow his summons. This was a serious ― and dangerous ― breach of a vassal’s feudal obligation, and can only be explained if these barons did not recognize Baldwin’s authority to issue a summons without the consent of his mother. This is a clear indication of the degree to which Melisende’s right too joint rule was still viewed as legitimate, and the degree to which men respected her ability to exercise that right.
But with Edessa and, indirectly, Antioch at severe risk, this refusal to engage in a military relief operation did more to discredit Melisende and her supporters than to strengthen them. It was also at this time that the queen made a grave tactical error in advocating the marriage of her loyal constable Manassas to the heiress of Ramla and Mirabel, the widow of Barisan d’Ibelin. The marriage rewarded her loyal and landless relative, but alienated Barisan’s three sons, causing them to abandon her and switch their loyalty to Baldwin. To counter this loss, Melisende made a fatal mistake: she unilaterally created the County of Jaffa ― and named her favorite son Amalric Count.
The move was not wise because Amalric was just fifteen and, like her Constable Manassas, already a supporter. In short it gained her little, but by creating a new lordship and investing a new baron without even consulting her co-regent King Baldwin III, Melisende had thrown down the gauntlet. Baldwin could not allow his mother to continue in to ignore him. Furthermore, the elevation of his brother may also have made Baldwin fear that his mother intended to replace him altogether with her favorite son Amalric.
Baldwin’s strength had been growing in any case. Not only had those slighted or disillusioned with his mother (such as the Ibelins) turned to him, he had finally and twice demonstrated the most important skill required of a king in the Holy Land: military and diplomatic skill. In 1150, despite having only a small following, he had gone north to Antioch. There, although the County of Edessa was irredeemably lost, he had proved an able diplomat in negotiations with both the Muslim opponents and the Byzantines. Again in 1151, Baldwin had campaigned successfully against Nur ad-Din in the northeast, and also fought off a naval attack by the Egyptian fleet. With each military victory, Baldwin III’s stature and position vis-à-vis his mother increased. By 1152, when his mother made his brother Count of Jaffa, he was ready for a show-down.
At Easter 1152, Baldwin III demanded a coronation in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without his mother. In medieval parlance this was a clear bid for exclusive power. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, a staunch supporter of Melisende, begged Baldwin to include his mother in the coronation. Baldwin refused, but proceeded to appear in public wearing his crown ― sparking a debate in the High Court in which Baldwin upped the stakes by demanding that the kingdom be divided territorally between himself and his mother. Surprisingly (in my opinion), the High Court agreed, although it was clear that such a division must weaken an already vulnerable kingdom. Perhaps the decision was the re-cognition of the de-facto situation, or was seen as better than an outright civil war that seemed to loom if Melisende and Baldwin refused to work together. Still, it is hard to understand why there was no concerted effort to reconcile the queen and her son at this point. Unless the bulk of the magnates knew what would come next….
Baldwin immediately appointed Humphrey de Toron his constable, and initiated military action against his mother. He captured Mirabel, held by the queen’s loyal constable Manassass, and forced him into exile. He then occupied the unfortified Nablus, his mother’s principal power base. With men rapidly going over to Baldwin, Queen Melisende retreated to the Tower of David with just a handful of loyal followers: her younger son Amalric, Philip of Nablus, and Rohard, Viscount of Jerusalem. Although Patriarch went out to meet Baldwin before the gates of Jerusalem and urge him to respect the terms of the division of the kingdom, which Baldwin himself had proposed, Baldwin, sensing victory, refused.
The citizens of Jerusalem, long loyal to Melisende, could also smell which way the wind was blowing and opened the gates to Baldwin III. Not satisfied with taking the city, Baldwin set siege to the Tower of David, and met with spirited defense. The unseemly fight continued for several days, but eventually the spectacle of the King of Jerusalem attacking the Tower of David held by his mother the queen was too much. Negotiations were resumed and Melisende admitted defeat at last. She surrendered the Tower of David and with it Jerusalem and the kingdom in exchange for a dower portion around Nablus.
Surprisingly given the length, tenacity and vehemence of her fight to retain power, Melisende proved as capable of showing flexibility and conciliation in defeat as in victory. Indeed, she demonstrated that rather than recriminations, bitterness or futile resistance, she was able to carve out a new role for herself. This she did by coming peaceably to a session of the High Court (as Lady of Nablus) and playing a positive, but decidedly feminine, role in trying to reconcile her sister, the Countess of Tripoli, with her husband, the Count, as well as to persuade her other sister, Constance Princess of Antioch, to finally take a new husband. In coming to this session of the High Court and not trying to exert any kind of royal authority, Melisende publicly displayed her complete submission. It was also a public reconciliation with her son.
Baldwin III also showed restraint and refrained from humiliating his mother in any way. He accorded due respect and indeed included her in his charters for the next eight years of his reign, until his mother became too ill for any public role. Early in 1160, Melisende was incapacitated by an unknown illness. She lingered until September 11, 1161, when she died. According to her will, she was buried beside her mother in the shrine of our Lady of Jehoshephat.
Again, we have the facts but very little insight into the personality behind the actions. We can say with certainty that Melisende was no pawn. She was not passive, submissive or docile. She was strong-willed, determined and tenacious, particularly when it came to exercising the power that she believed was her hereditary right. While we can assume that she was never overly fond of her much older and domineering husband, it is harder to know what she felt toward her eldest son.
The fact that she so consistently tried to exclude him from the reins of government might suggest that she didn’t entirely trust him. Had she loved and trusted him the way, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine loved her son Richard, she would surely have worked with him rather than against him. They might then have ruled together harmoniously, dividing up the duties of kingship between them with Melisende ruling supreme in the chancery and Baldwin leading the kingdom’s armies and handing foreign affairs. Obviously that was not possible for some reason.
Perhaps, Baldwin had been Fulk’s favorite and Melisende feared that his father had turned him against her? Yet it is just as possible that they were simply different in temperament and clashed with one another as parents and children often do. The fact that she was able to concede defeat and thereafter play a subordinate but constructive role in the last decade of her life, however, also suggests that whatever divided them was not fatal. They were, in the end, able to work together, albeit with Melisende in the subordinate role. Perhaps she had grown a little weary of ruling. Perhaps Baldwin had matured and developed new qualities that made it easier for her to accept him. We will never know, but I hope that sometime someone will devote the time and energy to write a proper biography of Melisende, or, if sources are lacking for a serious biography then a biographical novel that will bring her more fully to life.
Principal sources: Mayer, Hans Eberhard, “Studies in the History of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem,” in Hans Eberhard Mayer, ed. Probleme des lateinische Koenigreichs Jerusalem, Variorum Reprints, 1983, pp 93-182.
[i] Orderic Vitalis, quoted in translation by Hans Eberhard Mayer, “Angevins versus Normans: The New Men of King Fulk of Jerusalem,” Kings and Lords in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Ashgate Publishing, 1994, p. IV-3
[ii] William of Tyre, quoted in translation by Bernard Hamilton, “Women in the Crusader States: The Queens of Jerusalem (1100-1190),” ed. Derek Baker, Medieval Women, Basil Blackwell, 1978, p. 150.
[iii] Ibid, p. 157.