Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jerusalem Forgotten? Part I

Jerusalem fell to invading Muslim forces in 638 AD. It was conquered by force of arms after a year-long siege, not by gentle persuasion and enlightened preaching (as some modern commentators would have you believe). It would be 1099 AD or 461 years before it was returned to Christian hands. 

That over four hundred year gap between the Muslim conquest and the Christian liberation has led  many to argue that 1) Christianity didn't really care all that much about Jerusalem, 2) after so  much time it has become a Muslim city, and so conclude 3) the First Crusade was not defensive or liberating but rather offensive and aggressive. 

In a two-part series, I look at that  "461-year gap" and see what happened between the Muslim conquest and the Christian re-conquest of Jerusalem. Today's entry looks at Jerusalem before the Muslim conquest and continues the story to ca. 1000 AD in the Holy Land itself.

But first, let us recall just how Christian Jerusalem was.  First and foremost, of course, it was the site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and a small Christian population lived in the city from the time of Christ onwards. Admittedly, it remained a predominantly Jewish city, despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, until the Romans expelled the entire Jewish population after renewed insurrection in 135. 

Jerusalem was then rebuilt by Hadrian, given a new name (Aelia Capitolina) and Roman temples were built on the site of the old Jewish Temple and on the sites sacred to Christians. The objective was to humiliate Jews and Christians alike and, in the case of the Christians, to wipe out the memory of Christ's association with certain sites. Furthermore, both Jews and Christians were expelled from Jerusalem and persecuted. Aelia Capitolina was a pagan city, and as such, it was nothing more than a provincial backwater of little importance to the Roman Empire.

All that changed after Emperor Constantine came to the Imperial throne. His mother, Helena, was Christian, and she is credited with helping persuade him to end the persecution of Christians in 313.  Despite her already advanced age, she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and attempted to locate the sites of Christ's nativity, execution, and resurrection. By building temples on the sites sacred to Christ, the Romans actually helped to mark the location, while the local Christian community and ecclesiastical hierarchy were also supportive. (See St. Helena

Little more than a decade later, a massive construction project was undertaken to turn Jerusalem into a major Christian capital. In 326 work began on two magnificent basilicas: one in Bethlehem over the site of the nativity and the other in Jerusalem over the site of Christ's grave (the Holy Sepulcher).

For nearly 300 years thereafter, Jerusalem was one of the most important cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Although unable to compete with Constantinople and Alexandria in terms of trade and industry, it was revered for its sacred traditions. Pilgrims flooded to the sacred sites providing a strong economic base that was reflected in the construction of churches, monasteries, shops, inns, and residences. The inhabitants of this revitalized city were primarily Christian, although Jews were allowed to return as well. The population exceeded 60,000 -- a very substantial population for this period.

In 614 disaster struck. A Persian army surrounded Jerusalem and took it after a 21-day siege. Aided by Jewish allies, the Persians slaughtered an estimated 26,500 Christian inhabitants and enslaved an additional 35,000. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was raised to the ground. In an ironic twist, the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem escaped destruction because the mosaic Adoration of the Magi over the portal depicted the Magi as Persian kings; the Persian troops stayed their hand out of respect for the "Persian" kings.

Thirteen years later in 627, Emperor Herakleios wrested control of Jerusalem back from the Persians after defeating them decisively at the Battle of Nineveh. The treaty following the battle required the Persians to withdraw from all conquered territories, including Palestine and so Jerusalem. Yet while Byzantine control over Jerusalem was restored, the destruction of the city's sacred monuments and the slaughter or enslavement of the inhabitants could not be so easily overcome. All the Emperor could do was start a rebuilding and resettlement program. In punishment for their role in the slaughter and destruction of the Christian population thirteen years earlier, however, the Jews were again expelled from Jerusalem and prohibited from entering.

Thus at the time of the Muslim conquest, the city was exclusively Christian. Furthermore, the fact that despite the terrible losses and destruction, the city held out for a whole year before surrendering to the armies of Caliph Omar I is a testimony to how vigorously the Christian defenders resisted the Muslim attack. In the end, they were too weak -- as was the entire Eastern Roman Empire. 
For the next three hundred years, Islam continued to expand -- by the sword. Indeed, within the next fifteen years alone Syria, Persia, Anatolia, Egypt and Libya fell. These losses crippled the economy of the Eastern Roman Empire, and in 655 the Byzantine navy was also effectively destroyed in a major engagement that left Constantinople incapable of providing support to the far-flung outposts of the Eastern Empire.  

The following year, however, the Shia-Sunni split led to the first civil war within the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) lasting from 656-661. At roughly the same time, Arab invaders encountered serious resistance from the Berbers in North Africa.  

By 678, however, the forces of Islam were again so powerful that they launched an assault on Constantinople itself. The Byzantines fought off the assault with the aid of their massive walls and the use of a new weapon which became known as "Greek fire" - a napalm-based substance that was delivered in pottery vessels that broke on impact resulting in fires that could not be extinguished by water. The attacking Arabs suffered such severe losses that they agreed to a thirty-year truce in the wake of defeat. Constantinople was temporarily saved, but the Eastern Roman Empire was in no position to defend its remaining Mediterranean territories, much less undertake an offensive to regain what had been lost. In 698, the mighty (Christian) city of Carthage fell to the advancing Muslim forces and by 700 Islam was ready to turn its violent tactics of "conversion" on Western Europe. 

A Crusade-Era container for "Greek Fire." Photographic credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority
Attacks on Sicily and Sardinia are recorded as early as 704 and Corsica fell in 713. More important, of course, the invasion of the Iberian peninsula began in 711. By 720 the Muslims had forced the Christian defenders into the mountains of the northwest and, dismissing them as a no longer viable fighting force, crossed the Pyrenees to start subjecting the land of the Franks

In 732, outside of Tours, a Frankish army decisively defeated the invading Muslims in a desperate defensive battle. The Franks furthermore continued fighting the invaders, finally driving them back across the Pyrenees a generation later in 769. By 795 Charlemagne had taken his forces over the Pyrenees to assist the Spanish Christians in regaining their territories as well. The Reconquista had begun. In short, in the 8th century, Western Christians joined Eastern Christians in opposing the brutal invasions conducted against them in the name of Islam. 

Meanwhile, Constantinople as still fighting for its very survival. In 717 a new Muslim force by land and sea appeared outside of Constantinople and a year-long siege ensued. After a desperate fight, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire fought off the besiegers, but it remained mired in a struggle for survival. There could be no thought of freeing something as distant as Jerusalem when Anatolia was constantly raided and plundered. It was not until 740 that the Byzantine victory at Acroinon provided the Eastern Roman Empire with a degree of security in the Anatolian heartland. 

The Byzantine victory at Acroinon notably coincided with a general decline in the power and strength of the Umayyad dynasty, which was also beset with problems on its eastern frontiers. This allowed the Eastern Roman Empire to at last start a "Reconquista" of its own. In 746, Constantinople regained control of Syria and Armenia, but already by 781, the Byzantines were again on the defensive. For the next half-century, the Byzantine Empire was locked in yet another bitter struggle in Anatolia

Meanwhile, Arab rule of the conquered Christian territories from Syria to Spain was characterized by brutality, oppression, and humiliation for their majority Christian subjects.  (See The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.) The small Arab elite ruled initially over populations that were overwhelmingly Christian. Due to the burdensome taxes, humiliations, and oppression, however, more and more people chose to abandon their faith for the sake of economic gain. Yet conversion is a far slower process than invasion and occupation. To this day, even after 1,400 years of Muslim rule, there are significant Christian minorities in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Historians now generally accept that after four hundred years of occupation the inhabitants of formerly Christian territories was still roughly half Christian, but as Ellenblum argues in her seminal work Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge University Press, 1998) even that estimate may be too low.

The plight of the oppressed Christians population (whether majority or large minority) remained, therefore a motivation for the recovery of lost territory and by the mid-9th century, the Eastern Roman Empire had recovered sufficient strength to launch a sustained "Reconquista." In 853 Constantinople sent a fleet to attack Damietta in the Nile Delta. Thereafter, despite some setbacks, the Byzantines continued to regain lost territory right through the middle of the next century. In 943 they liberated Mesopotamia with its overwhelmingly Christian Armenian population. In 961 they recovered Crete and in 965 Cyprus. In 969 Antioch was at last freed from Muslim rule and Aleppo offered tribute to Constantinople to avoid a similar fate. 

The recovery of Jerusalem now seemed possible, and Constantinople was determined to regain this most sacred of all Christian cities. A series of campaigns were launched that systematically recovered the coast of the Levant including Beirut, Sidon, Tiberias, and Nazareth. Acre and even Caesarea were returned to the Eastern Empire, but Jerusalem remained just out of reach. As the tenth century came to a close, the Byzantines lost momentum and their attempt to regain their lost territories faltered.

What followed was the worst phase yet for subject Christians in Palestine. The new and powerful Shia Fatimid Caliphate pushed back their Sunni rivals and took control of Palestine, including Jerusalem. The Caliph al-Hakim, who ruled from 996-1021, persecuted Christians and Jews and destroyed what was left of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Venice and Byzantium: The "Back-Story to the Fourth Crusade"

The Fourth Crusade, in which a host originally raised to relieve the Holy Land was instead deployed to attack and sack the Christian city of Constantinople, is usually described as an act of perfidy, barbarity and Western arrogance. Even at the time, it was highly controversial, with many of the initial crusaders, (e.g. Simon de Montfort the Elder and his sons) refusing to take part.

But no historical event is without its antecedents, and the Fourth Crusade is no exception. There was a long and complex history of interaction between the West and the Byzantine Empire that included both periods of cooperation and periods of deep suspicion, hostility and conflict. While that long history is beyond the scope of a blog entry, two important incidents of that history go a long way to explaining the Fourth Crusade.

After a long and mutually productive alliance between the Eastern Roman Empire and the city-state of Venice, tensions began to develop in the mid-12th century.  The Venetians opposed the Byzantine Emperor’s expansion in Dalmatia and his aggressive policies in Southern Italy. Meanwhile, the Venetian enclaves in the Byzantine Empire and especially in Constantinople were increasingly resented by the local population, who considered them arrogant and insufferable — largely because they were exempt from certain taxes and had become extremely wealthy.  So, in a move reminiscent of Philip IV of France’s arrest of the Templars 147 years later, on March 12, 1171, Emperor Manuel I ordered the simultaneous arrest of all Venetians in his realm by the local authorities.  He then confiscated all their property and held the captives prisoner.  

Venice launched a naval expedition to free the prisoners, but it was repelled and negotiations for the release of the prisoners got nowhere. For the time being, Venice had to capitulate, but the insult, the massive loss of wealth and loss of freedom for thousands of citizens was not something proud Venice was prepared to forget. Venice had good reason to hate the Byzantine Empire and to want revenge in 1204.

Meanwhile, Venice’s rivals Pisa and Genoa initially benefited from the abrupt elimination of Venetian presence in the Byzantine Empire.  For just over a decade, they basked in the sun of Imperial favor, expanding their own trading empires, especially after the death of Manuel I with the ascension of his 11 year old son, Alexius II.  Alexius II was the son of a Latin princess, namely the Princess Maria of Antioch, and she and her lover pursued a decidedly “pro-Western” policy — which soon aroused the hostility of the bureaucracy and the people in Constantinople. The anti-Western faction in the capital found an ally in the ambition of an uncle of the late Manuel I, and in April 1182 the mob was set loose on the Latin population in Constantinople.

According to Charles M. Brand in his history Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204, (Harvard University Press, 1968): “The populace turned on the merchants, their families, and the Catholic monks and clerics who lived in the crowded quarters along the Golden Horn…. When the mobs attacked, no attempt at defense was made. The crowds raced through the streets seeking Latins. The choicest victims were the helpless: women and children, the aged and the sick, priests and monks. They were killed in streets and houses, dragged from hiding places and slaughtered. Dwellings and churches full of refugees were burned, and at the Hospital of the Knights of St. John, the sick were murdered in their beds.  The clergy were the particular objects of the crowd’s hatred. The pope’s emissary, Cardinal John, was decapitated and his body dragged through the streets on the tail of a dog…. The Orthodox clergy took the lead in searching out concealed Latins to deliver to the killers.”

Does this massacre of a few thousand people justify the Sack of Constantinople in 1204? Certainly not! But if the terror attacks of September 11, 2000 could fill a modern democracy with rage and the desire for revenge — including the willingness to conduct long, drawn-out and expensive wars in distant places and undertake state-sanctioned assassinations — than it is only reasonable to factor in the anger this massacre incited in the West when analyzing the causes of the Fourth Crusade.

Balian d'Ibelin's wife was a Byzantine Princess, Maria Comnena and the relationship between the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine Empire plays a minor role in my biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. 

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Italian Communes in the Crusader States

From the first decade of the crusader states to their fall, the Italian maritime cities had a unique and distinctive role and place in society of Outremer. Today I take a short look at the Pisan, Genoese and Venetians in Outremer.


The First Crusade went tortuously overland and contained no notable maritime component. No sooner had Jerusalem been taken, however, than the need to establish permanent control over the coast of the Levant – or at least key cities that gave access to Jerusalem such as Acre and Jaffa  became apparent. Capture and control of coastal cities in turn required naval forces that could, at a minimum, blockade a city held by the enemy so that a landward siege could be effective ― or, in some cases, called for an assault from the sea.

The problem immediately faced by the Franks ― hanging on by their fingernails to the land captured in the First Crusade ― was that they were all, whether lords, knights or sergeants ― landlubbers. None of them was remotely prepared to or capable of undertaking maritime operations.  In the age of sail, designing, building and operating sea-going vessels required highly specialized knowledge and skills. These were, furthermore, complex skills requiring years of apprenticeship and experience.  There was no quick and easy way to turn a soldier into a sailor, or a knight into a marine officer.

Fortunately, there were professional Christian seaman willing to support the efforts to re-establish Christian control over the Holy Land. As early as December 1099, a large Pisan fleet arrived at Jaffa to aid the beleaguered Franks in Outremer (it was too soon to speak of a kingdom).  They failed to do much at this time and sailed for home after Easter, but they were replaced by some 200 Venetian ships. In the years to come the great Italian maritime cities repeatedly “lent” their fleets to the Frankish forces in Outremer.

Malcolm Barber notes in his seminal work The Crusader States that the treaty negotiated with the Venetians in 1000 “set the pattern for future agreements with the maritime cities and, in that sense, began the process of establishing the Italian communes in the East….”[i] This agreement granted to Venice a church, market, and one third of the booty of any city captured by the Franks in the Holy Land, as well as the city of Tripoli in its entirety, if captured in the period between June 24 and August 15, 1000. I.e. anything the Franks captured during the period in which their fleet was engaged in operations against the Saracens.

In the event, all that was captured in 1000 was Haifa, but it set a precedent. The arrival of the Genoese fleet in Jaffa in time for the summer campaigning season in 1101 enabled the Franks to seize control of both Arsuf and Caesarea. In 1102, the Genoese contributed to the fall of Tortosa, and two years later assisted in the capture of Gibelet, and ― most important ― Acre.  In 1109, Tripoli itself surrendered, and the Genoese were granted a full third of city. 

Meanwhile, the Venetians had returned and assisted in the capture of Sidon and, notably, Tyre ― a city that had resisted capture by the Franks for a quarter century before falling in 1124. For this service, the Venetians received “a church, street, square and oven in every royal and baronial city in the kingdom….Lawsuits between Venetians and against Venetians by outside parties were to be settled in Venetian courts…Property left by Venetians who died…would be under Venetian control. Finally, the Venetians would have a third part of the cities of Tyre and Ascalon.”[ii]

The rapaciousness so often attributed to all crusaders, many of whom in fact indebted themselves to undertake the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, would appear to have been very prominent among the Italian maritime powers. Joshua Prawer argues in his article about the Italian communes[iii] that the Italians were concerned less about the Holy Land than about “dominating the lines of communication and commerce between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and Europe.” This set them apart from the other residents, both native and immigrant, because they never fully identified with the crusader states, but rather with their cities of origin.

Certainly, the Italian communes retained their aloofness from the rest of crusader society. The right to their own courts was fiercely defended, as were their other privileges, particularly the immunity from royal taxes and service. They remained enclaves of foreigners, rather like diplomatic or colonial enclaves in later centuries, living by their own laws, speaking their own language, and retaining their rivalries. As Prawer puts it, “they might have been regarded by everyone else in the kingdom as a class apart, but they were a class composed of bitter rivals.”[iv]

In the early years, they were little more than trading outposts with communal lodgings and warehouses. The so-called “palazzios” of the Italian merchant communes were fact composed of warehouse space on the ground floor (that could be rented out by individual merchants by the square foot), and lodgings on the upper floors, rented out by the week or month. In between were the offices, courts, and reception rooms for the commune’s administrative bodies. In short, the large, multi-storied buildings occupying roughly a city block were not grand residences, but the practical consolidation of functional space need by a transient population of sailors and sea captains, merchants and agents. These men came only briefly to conduct business and returned “home” ― to Pisa, Genoa, or Venice ― as soon as possible. Their families remained in the home city.

Only gradually did some of the less prominent members of that transient community start to stay longer in the East. Only very exceptionally, such as in the case of the Embriachi family of Genoa, did prominent, aristocratic families establish a permanent presence in Outremer. Yet men of lesser standing at home sometimes found it advantageous to settle, marry and acquire personal property in Outremer.

Although by the 13th century, there were some members of the Italian Communes who were third or fourth generation residents of Outremer, they remained legally and emotionally the subjects of their home cities rather than Kingdom of Jerusalem. This found expression, for example, in the way the communes took sides in the civil war between the barons of Outremer and the Hohenstaufen Emperors along the same lines as their home cities ― the Venetians and Genoese opposing Frederick II and the Pisans supporting him. Tragically, the Italian cities as commercial rivals came to view each other as the greater enemy than the surrounding Saracens with whom they all traded. This resulted in open warfare played out with assassinations, attacks and fighting in the streets of Acre and Tyre particularly. This war was bloody, costing as many as 20,000 lives according to some sources.[v] Yet far more tragic was that the local barons and military orders took sides in this war, so that what started as commercial rivalry soon tore the Kingdom of Jerusalem apart. It also paralyzed trade, and so weakened the kingdom economically ― at a time when the Mamlukes were on the rise.  It is therefore fair to say that the commercial rivalries of the Italian communes contributed materially to the demise and fall of the crusader states in the second half of the 13th century.

[i] Baber, Malcolm. The Crusader States. Yale University Press, 2012, p. 60.
[ii] Barber, p. 140
[iii] Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Crusader States: the ‘Minorities.’ Zacour, Norman and Harry W. Hazard, editors. A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p.174
[iv] Prawer, p. 177.
[v] La Monte, John. Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 100 to 1291. Medieval Academy of America, 1932, p. 241.

Discover the inhabitants of crusader kingdoms, high and low, in Dr. Schrader's award-winning novels set in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.

       Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!


 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:
Discover the inhabitants of crusader kingdoms, high and low, in Dr. Schrader's award-winning novels set in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.

       Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!


Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Friday, June 1, 2018

Review: "How to Plan a Crusade" by Christopher Tyerman

This book came highly recommended and provides a wealth of valuable information for anyone interested in understanding the society that produced the crusades. Organized by topic rather than chronologically, it examines topics all too often ignored in more conventional histories from finance to health, safety and supply. Most important, it documents the immense amount of planning, coordination, organization and expense that went into mounting a massive military campaign across vast distances in the age of horse and sailing ships. After reading this book, no one can be in any doubt about how sophisticated, literate and well-organized medieval society was during the centuries in which crusading was undertaken. The book systematically and meticulously debunks notions of “spontaneous” movements by wild-eyed religious fanatics. It also highlights that in many ways crusader organization puts modern planning, blessed with all the advantages of digital technology, to shame.

The weakness of the book is that it never fully transcends the academic milieu from which it originated. Tyerman meticulously documents his opinions, citing “chapter and verse” of what feels like each and every single example that supports his argument. The result is that what he is saying often gets lost in the supporting documentation. In short, the book bogs down in details and rapidly became a slog through facts rather than providing stimulating new insight.  The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing that placed much of the supporting evidence in the foot- or end-notes and focused on the gist of the arguments.  

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Queen Melisende: Redoubtable Mother of Baldwin III

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 successfully only 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. Last week I looked at the first half of her life; this week I pick up where I left off, with the death of her husband in 1143. 

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 with (and evidently obtained the loyalty of0 some of the most powerful men in the country. These included 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.  Baldwin (now 19 years old) responded 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 hold on to 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 lead 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 underlines 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 it. 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 change sides in the struggle with her son. 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 to ignore him.  Furthermore, the elevation of his brother may have made Baldwin fear that his mother intended to replace him altogether.

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 against the coast 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 geographically 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 bases.  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 Tower of David where Melisende took refuge and was besieged by her son.

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. She was accorded due respect and he 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 -- or for some reason thought him unsuited to government. 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, perhaps. 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 then 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 that, a biographical novel that will bring her more fully to life.

Meanwhile, J. Stephen Robert has us a believable and sympathetic portrayal of the young Melisende - before her marriage - in:

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.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: