In the tumultuous environment of the medieval Middle East, one woman negotiated formidable military and political obstacles to rule the object of so many men’s desire: Jerusalem. In maintaining her grip on the throne, she faced challenges from neighbouring Muslim powers, her husband and even her own son. She was a powerful figure in her own right yet, unlike contemporaries such as the Empress Matilda or Eleanor of Aquitaine, few people have heard of Queen Melisende.
Godfrey of Bouillon had been named the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in July 1099 after a European army took the holy city (and massacred its citizens) during the First Crusade. Surviving under a year, he was succeeded by his brother, Baldwin of Boulogne; in 1118, another Baldwin (of Bourcq, Count of Edessa) took the throne as Baldwin II.
Melisende was born around 1109, eldest daughter of Baldwin II and Morfia, a Greek Orthodox Armenian. When Baldwin became king of Jerusalem, he moved his wife and four daughters to the holy city. He campaigned exhaustively and was captured twice by Muslim forces; during his second captivity, when Melisende was in her teens, Morfia headed negotiations for his release.
After her mother died, probably in October 1126, Melisende was designated the royal heir, destined for a strategic marriage. An embassy was sent to invite the rich and powerful noble Fulk V, Count of Anjou and Maine, to become her husband, and they married in 1129. At first the marriage seemed harmonious, producing an heir. But at Baldwin’s death in 1131 he made an unusual stipulation: that Fulk, Melisende and their son (also Baldwin) were to jointly inherit the throne. Had Melisende’s father been worried that she might be pushed aside by Fulk, thus bypassing the family line?
Listen: Natasha Hodgson explores women’s involvement in the medieval campaigns fought in the Holy Land, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
The early years of Fulk’s reign indicate that this may have been a sensible concern. Charter evidence shows that Melisende was excluded from important decisions in the kingdom, and the contemporary English chronicler Orderic Vitalis recorded how Fulk aggravated the local nobility by appointing “Angevin strangers” to positions of authority. Matters came to a head when one of Melisende’s close supporters, Hugh of Jaffa, rebelled against the king. There were accusations of an affair with the queen, and one of Fulk’s knights tried to assassinate Hugh. Though Fulk denied involvement, Melisende was furious about the attack and – according to the chronicles of William of Tyre – Fulk feared for his life, believing himself threatened by partisans of the queen.
Cowed by Melisende’s rage, Fulk seems to have had a change of heart. He incorporated the queen into his rule, consulting her on the business of the realm and issuing charters jointly. During this period, the famous Melisende Psalter, a richly decorated personal prayer book fit for a queen, was commissioned – possibly by Melisende herself, or by Fulk as a gift. The artwork on the psalter contains elements of eastern and western styles, giving a flavour of the multicultural nature of life in Jerusalem at this time. The royal couple also embarked on a substantial building programme across the kingdom, including major works on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at the traditionally accepted site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.
In 1143, Fulk was killed in a hunting accident and Melisende inherited jointly with her son Baldwin III, then aged 13. She ruled the kingdom skilfully, according to William of Tyre, but by the early 1150s her son was chafing at the bit, egged on by his faction at court. He wanted sole authority, yet his grandfather’s legacy meant that Melisende had a shared right to the throne. He challenged his mother in public and then, at a meeting of the high court in 1152, demanded that they divide the kingdom between them. Fighting erupted, and Baldwin bombarded his mother in the citadel at Jerusalem. After peace was negotiated and Melisende agreed to cede full power to Baldwin, he soon reconciled with his mother and sought her advice. She performed occasional roles in government until her death in 1161.
Melisende’s queenship represented the apogee of royal power in 12th-century Jerusalem. She negotiated with the Muslim ruler of Damascus and defended ‘second generation’ Latin settlers against new arrivals from the west; her dual heritage led her to support Orthodox monasteries and Syriac Christians, too. The psalter attributed to her provides tantalising evidence of a woman in power in a multicultural society.
Natasha Hodgson is senior lecturer in history at Nottingham Trent University. You can hear her discuss Melisende on In Our Time