Queen Melisende of Jerusalem


The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states, with Moslem states (in shades of green) in 1135 during the reign of Melisende.

Within fifty years of its capture, Jerusalem, the most prestigious city in Christendom, was ruled by a woman. Queen Melisende’s powerful and charismatic personality cast its influence across the Levant for over two decades—a remarkable achievement in the most war-torn environment in Christendom and in such a male-dominated age. Broadly speaking, medieval women were characterized as either sinful temptresses, heiresses to the legacy of Eve, or simply lacking the physical strength to govern. Biblical authority indicated women were subject to the authority of their husbands. Melisende came to the throne of Jerusalem through a complex combination of personal determination and circumstance. At first glance, however, the possibility of any woman wielding authority in the Levant seems remote.



As we have seen, the first Frankish ruler of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, refused to call himself king in Christ’s city and modestly took the title of Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre. He died just over a year later, to be succeeded by his more pragmatic brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, who was crowned king in November 1100. Thus began the royal line, headed by one of the great warrior leaders of the First Crusade. King Baldwin I had to expand and consolidate his lands in the face of fierce Muslim opposition. He also needed to establish a dynasty, his first wife having died during the terrible crossing of Asia Minor. And so, in 1098 he married the Armenian noblewoman Arda, partly in an attempt to forge closer links with the indigenous Christians of northern Syria. Arda traveled south to be installed as queen of Jerusalem but within six years, Baldwin—whose wars had made him desperately short of cash—cast her aside to seek a wealthier bride. Arda fled to Constantinople where she is said to have lost her queenly dignity and become a common prostitute. Flagrantly ignoring the fact that Arda was still alive, the king then married the wealthy, but late-middle-aged, Adelaide of Sicily. Once he had spent all her money, Baldwin callously repudiated this queen too and sent her home: apparently the king regarded women as useful sources of financial and political advancement but little else, and in not providing an heir, he had failed in the most vital responsibility of a medieval monarch.

At the time of his death Baldwin I’s closest male relative had returned to Europe. By chance, however, the king’s cousin, also named Baldwin—and, at that time, count of Edessa—was in Jerusalem. Rather than suffer a long interregnum, the nobility agreed he should be crowned and his family soon came south to start a new life in the holy city. Fourteen grim months as a captive of the Muslims in 1123–24 did little to deter Baldwin II from an aggressive military policy and he fought numerous campaigns across the Levant. His Armenian wife, Morphia, bore him four daughters—Melisende, Alice, Hodierna, and Yveta—before she died in 1126. Once again there was no immediate male heir. Circumstances required that an outsider be brought in to marry the eldest princess and become king, although, as we shall see, first Baldwin, and then Melisende, were utterly determined to protect the standing of their own bloodline.4 Transforming this desire into a reality lies at the heart of this episode and in the course of the struggle Melisende challenged and, in her lifetime at least, overturned women’s conventional role as passive and politically inferior to men.

As (often) a child heiress, then a bride, a mother, and finally a widow, women could carry or create the royal line of succession. For every ruling house the maintenance of a dynasty was a matter of the utmost priority; a woman could, therefore, through the various stages of her life, hold or transmit something of inestimable value. By bearing children a woman could derive glory and hold a special place in a ruling family. To convert that into genuine day-to-day influence and to overcome the strictures of churchmen was, for the majority of medieval noblewomen and queens, impossible. Elsewhere in twelfth-century Europe, several women—such as Matilda of England—attempted to become rulers, but their efforts almost invariably failed and were not repeated for centuries. For Melisende the boundaries imposed by her sex were there to be broken.


In August 1131 King Baldwin II marched into Jerusalem after settling a rebellion in northern Syria. Within a week of his return, however, the king was struck down by a serious illness and his condition rapidly deteriorated. Baldwin realized that his last days were at hand and he asked to be carried the three hundred meters from the royal palace in the Temple of Solomon to the palace of the patriarch of Jerusalem in the Holy Sepulchre.

The head of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem occupied a series of spacious apartments connected to the uppermost part of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre. Baldwin could hardly be closer to the core of the Christian faith—the place where Jesus had been buried and had risen again. It was on a quest to free the Lord’s tomb from Muslim hands that Baldwin had set out on the First Crusade and fought and suffered during the three thousand long miles from his homeland in Boulogne to the holy city. Thirty-three years later he was one of the few surviving veterans of the crusade and it was wholly apposite that he chose to die at the place of greatest spiritual resonance for Christian pilgrims.

As his strength faded Baldwin summoned his eldest daughter, the slender, dark-haired Melisende, his son-in-law, Count Fulk V of Anjou, and their son, a two-year-old also named Baldwin. For Melisende it must have been an intensely poignant moment as she witnessed the loss of her remaining parent and the change in her status from princess to queen. Fulk had waited for this time since his arrival in the Holy Land three years earlier. The nobles of Jerusalem had unanimously chosen him to marry Melisende because he was a man of considerable military experience and the head of one of the most important families in western Europe. He was also known to the Franks from an earlier pilgrimage to the Levant when he stayed with the newly founded Order of Knights Templar. When Baldwin passed away, Fulk believed that he would become king of Jerusalem.

As his time drew near, Baldwin had one final, maverick decision to hand down. It was an act that would have profound consequences for Melisende, Fulk, and the future of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin summoned the patriarch and various senior nobles to join his family at his bedside. In front of these witnesses the ailing monarch formally resigned the crown and then—and here lay the twist—he committed the kingdom not to Fulk alone, but to the care of Melisende and the infant Baldwin as well. In other words, he decreed that Jerusalem would be ruled by a triumvirate, not just by one man.

The majority of people in the room murmured their assent—for one individual, however, years of planning and anticipation were in utter ruins. As he heard the pronouncement Fulk must have felt shaken to the core—a mixture of horror and fury; yet at such a solemn moment he could hardly give vent to his true emotions. He had relinquished his position as count of Anjou in order to rule Jerusalem in his own right. He had not surrendered his old life in France to share power with anyone, not even his own wife. Now he had been cornered and confronted with—potentially—the demolition of his sole authority.

As a piece of political drama this deathbed scene was an episode of the highest order. Who could resist the dying command of a hero of the First Crusade, the anointed king of Jerusalem? Baldwin had sent a startlingly clear signal that it was his bloodline—carried in the person of Melisende—and not Fulk’s, that lay at the heart and soul of the kingdom. Baldwin did not, under any circumstances, wish to see the lands that he had fought so hard for absorbed into Fulk’s Angevin Empire. Yet it was precisely because Baldwin’s line had to be transmitted through a woman, with all the disadvantages that this carried in medieval society, that he had needed to stage such a coup de théâtre. Fulk was important as a provider of military leadership and to father children, but Baldwin plainly wished to limit his influence and to ensure that Melisende held power as well. Much depended on how Melisende herself handled this legacy. Some women may have simply acquiesced to their husband’s wishes—as the Church recommended they should—in which case Baldwin’s decree would have become a hollow and worthless act. There were numerous cases of female regents being bullied aside by the political and military muscle of men who sought power for themselves. The dying king knew his daughter well, though; Melisende had the strength of character to uphold her position to the full and as the years unfolded her uncompromising political skills showed her father’s faith in her to be entirely justified.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Fulk. There was no record of any overt tension between Baldwin and his son-in-law in the three years before the king died; in fact, William of Tyre recorded quite the opposite. Fulk is reported to have “devotedly fulfilled all the duties of a son . . . and in deference to the lord king he proved he was not lacking in those qualities which ordinarily win friends.” Yet Orderic Vitalis, who wrote within a decade of these events, offered a different perspective and observed that Fulk had “exercised authority undisturbed as [Baldwin’s] son-in-law and heir throughout the realm during the [last] year of the old king’s life.” Fulk would have been able to stamp his influence on the royal household, and the arrival of a number of Angevin newcomers may have perturbed Baldwin. While the presence of extra warriors was always welcome in the Holy Land, such men would need lands and titles for themselves—which could only come at the expense of the indigenous nobility: those who had grown strong in supporting King Baldwin. The invitation to Fulk was the first time that such a powerful western lord had been asked to settle in the Levant; almost certainly the king had underestimated the wider effects of his being there.

While the nobility of Jerusalem had universally endorsed the choice of Fulk as ruler, evidently they had now reconsidered; some may have feared that he would cast Melisende aside. After all, his father, Fulk le Réchin, had, in spite of his nickname, married four, possibly five times, and Fulk himself had an adult son, Elias, from his first marriage. At the time of his father’s negotiations to wed Melisende, Elias had been expected to succeed to the county of Perche in northern France, but had since been cheated out of this by his father-in-law. Could the next king of Jerusalem lever his own son into the line of succession in the East?

After Baldwin had revealed his final wishes he removed himself from any further controversy when he donned a monk’s cowl and took vows of holy orders. Like many nobles of the time he chose to end his life as a cleric and forsook the secular world to be closer to God. On August 21, 1131, the king died. He was buried near his predecessors in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the foot of Mount Calvary, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion.

Within a month Fulk, Melisende, and the young Baldwin were crowned. The coronations of Baldwin I and Baldwin II had taken place at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, but the 1131 ceremony was moved to the focal point of the kingdom, the Holy Sepulchre—an early indication that Fulk wanted to change direction. The court officials chose September 14, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a commemoration of the discovery of the relic of the True Cross, as an auspicious and appropriate day for the occasion.

The coronation was a great public event, designed to cement in the minds of everyone who witnessed it the beginning of a new period of divinely sanctioned rule. In a society without means of mass communication, such carefully staged displays were vital opportunities to reinforce notions of power and splendor. Detailed descriptions of thirteenth-century coronations allow us to reconstruct the events of 1131 with some confidence; we also have the evidence of an early twelfth-century coronation oath. The minutely calculated ceremonial emphasized the royal dignity, the position of the senior nobility, especially the great officers of state, as well as the authority of the Church. Many parts of the ritual can be traced back to the settlers’ homelands and dated from the age of Charlemagne, giving them further gravitas by the weight of tradition.

Once the coronation date had been announced the preparations began. The nobility of Jerusalem traveled to the capital to take part in the ceremony, as did representatives from Antioch, Tripoli, and Edessa. Bishops, abbots, and all the other churchmen of the realm also started to assemble. A more exotic touch was added by the presence of an embassy from Fatimid Egypt; serious political turmoil prompted the new vizier, Kutayfat, to seek a truce with the Christians and his envoys carried a beautiful gift, a carved ivory tau or staff, to advance their cause. Most of the annual pilgrim visitors were still in the Holy Land and they must have been delighted to witness an event of such importance. As the great day approached, people were drawn toward the holy city to watch or take part in the coronation; Jerusalem must have been overflowing with visitors staying with friends, fellow religious groups, or in the many hostels.

On September 14 Fulk and Melisende dressed in the royal palace, assisted, as ever, by their servants. They wore special robes, beautifully embroidered dalmatics—wide-sleeved tunics, open at the sides—and stoles. The family assembled in the Temple complex at the entrance to the royal palace where the marshal and the constable awaited them with horses and the royal standard. This was a square of white cloth with a cross at each corner and one in the center to represent the wounds of Christ. Fulk and Melisende mounted their horses, specially caparisoned for the event, and the chamberlain pointed the way forward with the royal sword. Behind the couple came the seneschal carrying the scepter and the constable holding the standard. Given the scale of the entourage it is likely that the procession went along Temple Street, one of the wider thoroughfares of the city—perhaps seven meters across, rather than the two to three meters of most byways. Temple Street ascends gently uphill for about three hundred meters until a small dogleg moves onto David Street. The way was thronged with cheering spectators crammed in doorways, leaning from windows, standing in front of shops and up on the flat roofs of the houses. The route was decorated with highly colored banners and a swell of noise and anticipation rolled ahead of the approaching party. After another couple of hundred meters the procession turned right onto Patriarch Street and moved alongside the western wall of the Hospital of Saint John before turning right into the courtyard in front of the Holy Sepulchre itself. The street plan of this district of Jerusalem is barely changed today and many of the buildings that rise either side of these roads are crusader in origin. Almost claustrophobic, and often in heavy shadow because of the narrow streets, the area has a truly medieval feel. The absence of traffic, the bustle of people buying and selling; the slower, less certain pace of strangers visiting holy sites; the smells of cooking food and exotic spices, and the mounds of brightly colored merchandise provide the modern tourist with some echoes of the crusader age. Fulk and Melisende dismounted at the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre. The constable handed the royal standard to the marshal and took the horses’ bridles. Standing in the doorway of the church, waiting to welcome the royal couple, was Patriarch William I of Jerusalem, accompanied by his senior churchmen and the Eastern Christian religious hierarchy, all wearing their finest robes. The party moved from daylight into the holy of holies, the candlelit rotunda that contained Christ’s tomb. The building in place today was (as we will see later) the product of a reconstruction program initiated by Fulk and Melisende soon after their coronation, but in September 1131 the Sepulchre area was already laid out in a basic circular shape. As the candles flickered and incense wafted through the air, everyone knelt in worship and the patriarch led prayers for a successful reign. William then asked Fulk and Melisende to take the coronation oath. No previous rulers of Jerusalem had been designated joint monarchs in the way that Baldwin II had prescribed, but given Fulk’s and Melisende’s status—and the events that followed—we should assume that they both took the same oath. The infant Baldwin must also have been present, but for obvious reasons only as a witness.

The text of the twelfth-century coronation oath has survived and in this case probably resembled these words: “I, Melisende [or Fulk] promise, in the presence of God and his angels, from this day and henceforth, to conserve law, justice and peace for the Holy Church of God in Jerusalem and for my subjects.” They also agreed to seek the advice of the best churchmen of the land where needed. After swearing the oaths the king and queen promised to maintain and defend the crown. William then kissed the couple, turned to the clerics, nobles, and visitors who packed into the church and asked them to confirm that Fulk and Melisende were the lawful heirs to the throne. Three times he asked the question and on the third, a shout of “Oill!” (Yes!) echoed around the building. A further acclamation came through the open doors of the church from those unable to squeeze inside, then everyone sang the hymn “Te Deum Laudamus.”

Another solemn procession then entered the rotunda. Senior nobles had taken the royal crowns out of the treasury of the Holy Sepulchre and carried them forward. The king and queen sat in their choir stalls near the altar and Mass was said. William proclaimed a blessing and began to anoint them. This was one of the most crucial elements of the coronation ritual; the blessing of kings and queens with consecrated oil set them apart from all other laymen. Dukes and counts made oaths and received insignia, but royalty were the only secular people anointed in such a way. The patriarch, holding a horn that contained holy oil, dipped his fingers into it and then touched the head and shoulders of Fulk and Melisende. They now had divine sanction. Next Patriarch William moved on to the symbols of office; given that a joint coronation was unprecedented, either a duplicate of each object had to be found or, more likely, they were given to Fulk alone. A ring, to symbolize loyalty, was put on the king’s finger and he was girded with a sword to indicate justice and the duty of defense. Then he was crowned, given a scepter in his right hand to signify the punishment of sinners and an orb in his left to show dominion. At this point, Melisende must have been crowned queen.

The two monarchs turned to the senior churchmen present, said, “Long live the king/queen in prosperity,” and kissed all of them before turning to their thrones. The Mass ended with Communion. The patriarch blessed the royal standard and gave it to the constable. One wonders what was running through the minds of Fulk and Melisende. In some ways, both must have felt elated by the sense of occasion, their being the center of attention, the bellow of acclaim from the audience, the special ritual of anointing and the placing of the crowns upon their heads. Fulk must have been conscious of his elevation: from the ranks of the senior nobility as count of Anjou he had now reached the very top echelon, that exclusive level of royalty. Exactly how unwilling he was to share this with Melisende would soon become evident. Nothing from his experiences in western Europe would have prepared him for an equal division of authority with a woman; indeed he almost certainly believed that his wife should obey him in all things. The day secured Fulk’s handhold on royal status, but he resolved to ignore the element of joint rule that lay at the heart of the ceremony and he began to exercise power in the way he felt to be appropriate and his due.

Melisende too had moved to the highest rank of secular life; perhaps she felt some trepidation—even as a joint ruler she was doing something almost unprecedented in living memory. The only comparable case had been that of Queen Urraca of Castile and León (1109–26) and she had used a male companion to help govern without a husband. Whether Melisende knew much about Urraca’s experiences is unclear. At the very least she could rely on a core group of her father’s nobles with whom she had grown up and who were likely to be loyal to Baldwin’s memory.

The king and queen stepped out from the Holy Sepulchre into the sharp light of day to receive the cheers of the crowds outside. They retraced their steps back to the Templum Domini (today the al-Aqsa Mosque) where they laid their crowns on the altar to commemorate the presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the temple. This was the last solemn act of the day. Now the nobility of Jerusalem served a splendid celebratory banquet—singing, storytelling, and dancing rounded off one of the landmark events in the history of Jerusalem: the inauguration of a new and experimental phase for the royal dynasty.


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