Crusader queens: the formidable female rulers of Jerusalem
For centuries, accounts of the crusades have left out one key element: the actions of women. Katherine Pangonis chronicles the lives of the formidable queens who ruled and fought in Jerusalem
On 2 October 1187, Jerusalem – the holy city held by Christians for four generations, and the prize of the First Crusade – fell to the Sultan Saladin after a short siege. The Christians were outnumbered ten to one, but the city held out long enough for favourable terms to be negotiated. Jerusalem was defended by an unlikely trio: Patriarch Heraclius, a high-ranking religious official; a knight named Balian of Ibelin; and Sibylla, queen of Jerusalem, who’d been crowned only a year earlier, following the deaths of her male relatives (see box at bottom of article for more on her background).
Between them they made a robust defence against impossible odds. Food stores and sanitation within the city were under great strain, and they had next to no trained knights or men-at-arms – the army had been destroyed nearly three months previously at the battle of Hattin, where Sibylla’s husband, Guy de Lusignan, had been taken captive.
Though a woman, I seemed a warrior… though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness
An ordinary woman called Margaret of Beverley, who had come to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, had become trapped in the city as Saladin advanced. Wearing a cooking pot as a helmet, Margaret helped defend the city. She related: “I carried out all the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.”
Nevertheless, historians have disputed the role of women in the siege of Jerusalem – and indeed what part Queen Sibylla herself played in the strategy and defence of her city, with many being reluctant to give her much credit. This is part of a wider trend of historians not including women in their accounts of the past.
But the role that women played in commanding sieges in the Latin East is well documented, and at least one contemporary source places Sibylla in Jerusalem during the siege. It is natural that she as queen regnant, the highest-status figure in the city, would have taken a commanding role. Sibylla had the authority to command, Balian the military expertise to strategise, and Heraclius controlled the city’s funds.
As Jerusalem’s citizens fought to repel the attackers from the walls, inside the city women shaved their heads, repented and begged for salvation. All the men who could fight in Jerusalem were knighted to boost their confidence and galvanise them in their fight against the enemy. But it was to no avail. When the walls began to collapse and resistance became hopeless, the commanders decided to negotiate terms of surrender.
The best that Sibylla, Balian and Heraclius could hope for was the survival and freedom of the Christians within the city, and Sibylla’s personal safety. On the brink of defeat, they were not in a strong bargaining position.
Despite this, Saladin did agree to the offer of surrender. He did not have much choice: when he initially refused, Balian swore not only to fight to the death, but also to destroy the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred sites of Islam, if the sultan did not offer terms. Sibylla’s freedom was guaranteed, and the Christians within the city’s walls were allowed to purchase their freedom.
For all this, Jerusalem was lost, and Sibylla was a queen without a kingdom.
The Christians had held Jerusalem for 88 years. Out of the blood and ashes of the First Crusade, the kingdom of Jerusalem had been forged. Meanwhile, the Christian states of Outremer had grown from a rag-tag group of sequentially secured principalities and counties, centring on the kingdom of Jerusalem. Legends of the questing knights in shining armour who had led the First Crusade abounded in Europe, feeding into the outpouring of Arthurian literature of the High Middle Ages. The crusade became the stuff of legend to those Europeans left at home. Songs were written, as well as stories, poetry, and perhaps most importantly, histories as well. The First Crusade and the formation of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem became one of the best documented events in medieval history and provides a rich trove of sources for historians today.
However, something important is missing from both medieval and modern histories of Outremer, and that is the voices of the women of the kingdom. For centuries the stories of the queens and princesses of Outremer have been all but written out of the historical record. Where they are included, the details are sketchy, and they have led to highly sexualised and Orientalist portrayals in popular culture. Take, for instance, Eva Green as Queen Sibylla in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven whose costumes blend eastern styles and cultures with the aim of making her appear “exotic”. In the film Sibylla cheats on her husband, Guy, and plots his murder – despite all the evidence suggesting Sibylla was completely faithful to him and that she laid her kingdom at his feet.
The historical legacy of women rulers is subject to a variety of unpredictable forces: when they’ve been studied at all, each of the queens and princesses of Jerusalem have received very different treatment at the hands of historians. Some have been turned into sexual fantasies; some have had achievements or crimes attributed to them for which there is little evidence; others have simply been ignored. Most have been remembered as the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of powerful men, not as autonomous individuals and active leaders with their own political agency. This is changing. A new interest in medieval queenship has been piqued in the last 50 years, and more attention has begun to be paid to uncovering the lives of women.
Penchant for power
The most significant woman ruler of medieval Outremer was Sibylla’s grandmother, the first queen regnant of Jerusalem and “a woman of unusual wisdom”. Her name was Melisende, daughter of Baldwin II and Morphia of Melitene. As the eldest of four daughters, she was named her father’s heir.
In 1152, 35 years before Sibylla faced Saladin, Melisende also defended the city against a besieging army. The attack she endured was relentless, with the contemporary historian William of Tyre writing “the besieged were denied any chance to rest”, but they “resisted with all their might and strove to repel force by force... They hesitated not to hurl back injuries upon their enemies and to work equal destruction upon them.”
It was not the army of an Islamic sultan that Melisende had to repel, but rather that of her own son, Baldwin III of Jerusalem. Queen Melisende, now 47, was fighting to keep at bay the son who wanted to oust her from the throne she had occupied for more than 20 years. Just as Melisende was determined not to cede power, Baldwin was equally determined to claim it. Shocking as this scene may have been, a Christian mother and son openly at war over the holiest city in Christendom, the real surprise was that it had taken this long for the conflict to arise.
On his deathbed, Melisende’s father had made an amendment to his will which safeguarded her hereditary right to rule. Instead of leaving control of the kingdom of Jerusalem to her husband, Fulk, as had been expected, Baldwin II created a triumvirate of power and left it in equal parts to his daughter, son-in-law and infant grandson – that very same Baldwin III who 20 years later would beleaguer his mother with “ballistae, bows and hurling machines”.
Baldwin II made his deathbed decision for many politically and dynastically motivated reasons. He wanted to make sure his son-in-law, Fulk, could not as king invent a pretext to divorce Melisende and take another wife, thus writing Melisende and Baldwin III out of the succession. The old king wanted the throne to stay tied to his bloodline. Furthermore, Fulk, being French, was a foreigner in Jerusalem and unlikely to command unswerving respect from the local nobility – unlike Melisende, who was second-generation crusader royalty, born and raised in the east and half Armenian through her mother.
Melisende’s designation as heir closely mirrored that of Matilda of England, whose father, Henry I of England, similarly left his kingdom to his daughter. Yet whereas Matilda was never able to gain England’s throne as her father had wished, it was a different story entirely for Melisende.
When Baldwin II of Jerusalem died, his daughter and son-in-law were crowned king and queen without demur. But while Melisende’s accession to the throne was smooth, her quest for power was not. In the early years of her reign, Fulk sought to circumvent her authority in matters of government, and it was only after a scandal of epic proportion involving an alleged affair, trial by combat and an outright rebellion that Melisende was able to exert her authority in the ruling of Jerusalem. This brings us to consider the distinction between authority and power. Authority is the right to rule, and power is the ability to actually do so. Medieval queens faced the dual challenge of first being awarded authority in a fiercely patriarchal world, and then converting it into tangible power. The former challenge hinged on politics, the latter on personality.
Bitter pill of female rule
The unique instability and near constant state of crisis in Outremer created a political environment in which noble-born women could be propelled to prominence and wield real power. Life expectancy was short for a fighting man in Outremer: in the 12th century a king of Jerusalem who was born in Outremer died on average at the age of 26, in contrast to native kings of France who enjoyed an average life expectancy of 57. If he was not slaughtered on the battlefield or in an unexpected raid, he could be struck down by disease or mishap. For instance, Sibylla’s brother, Baldwin IV, died childless under the scourges of leprosy, and following the death of his young nephew, his throne eventually passed to his sister. Women began to outlive their male relatives who normally would have controlled them, and they became lynchpins of power and political loyalty in their own right. Beyond this, by pure chance the kings of Jerusalem found themselves blessed with daughters rather than the sons they desperately craved. This forced society in Outremer to adapt to the concept of queenship and swallow the bitter pill of female rule.
The unique instability and near constant state of crisis in Outremer meant women could wield real power
Melisende not only succeeded in converting her authority into power, but she also managed to retain it for nearly a decade once her authority had expired. Fulk died in a hunting accident, and afterwards Melisende remained unmarried and ruled independently. Soon after Fulk’s passing she received a letter from Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, and one of the most influential figures of the day. He wrote to her: “The eyes of all look to you and on you alone the whole weight of the kingdom falls. You must put your hand to strong things and show a man in a woman, doing what is to be done in the spirit of counsel and fortitude.”
Melisende must have snapped her fingers at this. She knew this already and had been ruling jointly with her husband for years before this point. Yet the letter remains a remarkable document: a senior churchman giving his blessing to the independent rule of a woman. But Bernard also emphasised that Melisende’s role as sole ruler should last only until her son was of age. Baldwin II certainly never intended Melisende to rule once Baldwin III was an adult, and yet when the time came to cede power to her son, Melisende declined. For six years, she stifled Baldwin III’s claims to the kingdom until the situation climaxed in the scene related earlier, in which the son besieged his mother in the citadel of Jerusalem. She did eventually step back from governing, and Baldwin III took over ruling the kingdom – although Melisende remained highly respected.
Making their mark
Melisende was only the second queen regnant to be famed in Europe, after Urraca of Leon-Castile, and her strength and independence set an example of queenship for noblewomen in the east and the west. Eleanor of Aquitaine travelled to Jerusalem as part of the Second Crusade, and while she was there she met Melisende at the height of her power. This encounter must have made an impression on Eleanor: the example of a woman ruling a kingdom independent of her husband, and clearly having a higher status than her son, would have been hard for an ambitious woman like Eleanor to overlook.
However, Melisende was not alone in her struggles to assert agency as a woman in Outremer. Her sister Alice became princess of Antioch. Widowed in her late teens or early twenties, she attempted to defy first her father and then her brother-in-law, both the kings of Jerusalem, and rule Antioch on her own, as regent for her young daughter. Three times she was thwarted before eventually retiring from public life, having attempted all manner of tactics, from attempting to ally with the Turkish Atabeg Zengi against her father, to uniting the similarly discontented lords of Tripoli and Edessa against Fulk, to simply trying to turn the people of the city against the king. She was succeeded by her daughter Constance, who was likewise widowed young and held similar ambitions of independent rule to her mother.
Constance in contrast erred on the side of subtlety in her endeavours and was met with greater success than her mother. She ruled Antioch independently for a number of years, before falling head over heels in love with the mercenary soldier Reynald de Châtillon and marrying him.
Hodierna of Tripoli, Melisende and Alice’s younger sister, was implicated in two assassination attempts as she battled for power: one against a rival claimant to the county of Tripoli, and the other against her own husband, Raymond of Tripoli, who was mysteriously assassinated after a spat with his wife. The argument was of such epic proportions that Hodierna had resolved to leave him to journey to Jerusalem with her sister, and although the general consensus was that he was murdered by members of the Hashashin sect, he was a highly unusual target for this Islamic group, and the timing of his argument with his wife was suspicious. After Raymond’s death, Hodierna was allowed to remain unmarried and rule Tripoli as regent for her two children.
For better or for worse, the queens of Jerusalem made their marks on the history of the region and that of medieval queenship. The dynasty represents a unique line of women rulers, whose experiences and achievements deserve further attention.
Blinded by love: Did Queen Sibylla’s controversial decision to marry her former husband cause her kingdom to crumble?An illumination depicting Sibylla and Guy de Lusignan’s wedding. Many have pointed to her decision to remarry the domineering Guy, whom Sibylla deferred to, as the reason for her kingdom’s defeat
Jerusalem’s queens didn’t always make the correct choices. For instance, Sibylla – who was crowned queen of Jerusalem in 1186, a year before the city fell to Sultan Saladin – sparked fury among the region’s barons on the day of her coronation.
As soon as she was anointed and the crown settled on her brow in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sibylla rose and declared to the congregation: “I, Sibylla, choose for myself as my king and as my husband Guy of Lusignan, the man who has been my husband.”
Sibylla pressed on, proclaiming: “He is a worthy man and in every way of upright character: with the help of God he will rule his people well.”
The explanation for this curious speech and the reaction to it is as follows. Sibylla, after the deaths of all her male relatives, stood as the heir to the kingdom. Those nobility willing to support her only did so on the condition that she divorce her unpopular second husband, Guy (she had been first married to William of Montferrat, but he had died in 1177). Sibylla agreed – as long as she would be allowed to choose her third husband from among the nobility afterwards. Shrugging, they agreed. They did not expect her to select her recently divorced Guy as her third husband the minute the holy oil had made her queen.
This was a powerful act of agency on Sybilla’s part, but this first autonomous act of her reign may also have been her last. Guy was likely the dominant partner in their relationship. Sibylla had the right to rule as queen regnant rather than queen consort, a key distinction between being the actual ruler, or simply the wife of the ruler, but this was a right she does not seem to have claimed. Many blame her devotion to Guy and her willingness to let him make decisions for the defeat of the army and collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
Katherine Pangonis is a historian specialising in the medieval world of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Her book, Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule, is out now from W&N. Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine