Melisende of Jerusalem
Queen of Jerusalem, 1131-1161
"Determined to be a real queen"
Independent, principled, a firm ruler, Melisende reigned over Jerusalem for twenty-two tempestuous years. She was one of the rare medieval queens who were true rulers, "queens regnant," not figureheads willing to occupy the back corridors of power.
When in 1131 King Baldwin II of Jerusalem named her as heir to his throne, Jerusalem had been a kingdom for only thirty-two years, since the Christian Franks seized it from the Turks in 1099 during the First Crusade. It was a fragile kingdom, actually a loose coalition of quarrelsome fiefdoms. Without a son, Baldwin made Melisende, his eldest daughter, his heir, then set out to train her in the essentials of kingship. By the time she became queen, she was well versed in diplomacy, finance and dealing with ambitious vassals who competed for power.
But in spite of her readiness to rule, Baldwin believed she should be suitably wed to a husband who could live up to the title of King of Jerusalem. He chose Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine in France. Fulk was a famous Crusader, an able warrior, a skilled administrator—just what Baldwin wanted in a son-in-law. He was also short, fat, red-haired and sixteen years older than his bride. It is reported that he fell genuinely in love with the beauteous young princess. But his affection was not reciprocated.
They married in 1129. Their son, Baldwin III, was born in 1130. His canny grandfather, perhaps already suspicious that Fulk might try to usurp sole control from Melisende, left the kingdom jointly to Melisende, Fulk and Baldwin III. He named his daughter as the child's sole guardian. Having done all he could to insure the dynasty's continuance, he died in 1131.
Sure enough, Fulk at once began to undercut Melisende's authority and for years they were at loggerheads, each attracting a vocal and combative band of supporters. One leading member of Melisende's party was Hugh II, Count of Jaffa, with whom Fulk accused Melisende of having an affair. Maybe, maybe not. Gossip ran like wildfire through the palace and intrigues were rampant. Melisende, a genuinely pious woman, was backed by the church and much of the nobility. At last her faction carried the day and Fulk capitulated.
Despite their stormy relationship, there is reason to believe that to some degree Fulk remained devoted to Melisende. A dazzling piece of evidence is the psalter he presented to her about 1135. This gorgeous illuminated manuscript, now in the British Museum, reflects the best Crusader art, drawing on Byzantine, Islamic, Roman Catholic and Armenian styles. The covers are panels of ivory carved with Biblical scenes and decorated with turquoise beads. The inside pages are ablaze with color—gleaming gold, royal purple, crimson, electric blue.
Was it the gift of the psalter? We don't know, but for whatever reason, the couple reconciled in 1136 and produced their second son.
Fulk died in 1143. After Melisende mourned him properly and publicly, she enthusiastically assumed her role as sole ruler, though technically she was acting as regent during the minority of Baldwin III, her seven-year-old son. She managed to maintain her dominance until he, at twenty-two, asserted himself. Disputes arose at once about who was in charge of governing. Finally the High Court of the kingdom decreed that Baldwin should rule the south and Melisende the north, which included Jerusalem. The slighted Baldwin launched an armed attack, won and as settlement gave his mother Nablus to rule for her lifetime.
Not one to retire quietly, Melisende sought reconciliation, was recognized as co-ruler and began again to be publicly active, both diplomatically and militarily. In 1157, at fifty-two, she conquered the lands of Gilead beyond the Jordan. As she had throughout her life, she busied herself with affairs of the church, founding religious houses and making pious donations.
When she died in 1161, she had reigned over Jerusalem, mostly on her own but sometimes as co-ruler, for thirty years.
The historian William of Tyre pronounced: "She completely triumphed over the handicap of her sex."
In the twelfth century, high praise indeed.
Learn more about Queen Melisende:
Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in
Jerusalem., by Sharan Newman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
The Crusades., by Zoe Oldenbourg. Random House, 1966
Melisende of Jerusalem: The World of a Forgotten Queen., by Margaret Tranovich. East & West
Publishing, London, 2013.