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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Queen Melisende I: The Formidable Wife of Fulk

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 more successfully 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. Today I look at the first half of her life, ending with the death of her husband in 1143.

Melisende of Jerusalem was born in 1105, the first of four daughters, born to King Baldwin II and his Armenian wife, Morphia of Melitene. At the time of her birth in Edessa, her father was Count of Edessa, but 13 years later in 1118 her father was elected by the High Court of Jerusalem successor to Baldwin I. Some sources claim that her father was urged at this time to set-aside his Armenian wife and seek a new, and better-connected bride who might bear him sons as Morphia had failed to do.  Baldwin refused.  Furthermore, he designated his eldest daughter as his heir, and she was given precedence in the charters of the kingdom ahead of all other lords both sacred and secular. 

In 1128, when Melisende was already 23 years old, her father sent to the King of France, requesting a worthy husband for her. This appeal was sanctioned by the High Court, as all subsequent searches for worthy consorts of Jerusalem’s queens would be in the years to come. The King of France proposed Fulk d’Anjou. 

Although Anjou is small, it was a pivotal and powerful lordship in the heart of France. Fulk’s mother had married Philip I of France, and his daughter had been engaged to Henry I of England’s heir, William. When the latter died in a shipwreck, the agreement was mutated so that Henry’s daughter Mathilda married Fulk’s eldest son and heir Geoffrey. It was from this marriage of Fulk’s son Geoffrey and Henry I’s heir Mathilda that the Angevin kings of England sprang. 

Meanwhile, however, Fulk had traveled to the Holy Land and served with the Knights Templar. He responded positively to the proposal to marry Melisende, although some sources contend that he insisted on being named king, not merely consort. In fact, the terms may have been ambiguous, or at least open to alternative interpretations. Certainly, Fulk had a reputation for centralizing power and ruling unruly vassals with an iron fist. He was seen as militarily able, however, a vital qualification for ruling the ever-vulnerable Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1129, Fulk returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and married Melisende, now 24 years old. He was at once associated with his father-in-law in the government of the kingdom.  Nevertheless, in 1130 when Melisende gave birth to a son, named Baldwin for his grandfather, the proud grandfather took the precaution publicly investing his Kingdom to his daughter, his son-in-law and his grandson. This was not a partitioning of the kingdom, but a means of binding his vassals to his heirs.  Furthermore, when he fell ill the following year, he reaffirmed on his death-bed the succession of his daughter Melisende, along with her king-consort Fulk and their joint son, Baldwin. Melisende and Fulk were crowned jointly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on September 14, 1131.

Despite this, Fulk evidently felt that he had become sole ruler of Jerusalem. Melisende was abruptly excluded from the charters of the kingdom, suggesting she was excluded from power, and the important contemporary chronicle of Orderic Vitalis provides this revealing description of what happened next:

To begin with [Fulk] acted without the foresight and shrewdness he should have shown, and changed governors and other dignitaries too quickly and thoughtlessly. As a new ruler he banished from his counsels the leading magnates who from the first had fought resolutely against the Turks and helped Godfrey and the two Baldwins to bring towns and fortresses under their rule, and replaced them by Angevin strangers and other raw newcomers…; turning out the veteran defenders, he gave the chief places in the counsels of the realm and the castellanships of castles to new flatterers.[i]

While this was bad enough, he also appeared to seek the removal of his wife, Melisende. The suspicion was that he wanted to push aside the legitimate heirs of Jerusalem and replace them with his younger son by his first wife, a certain Elias.  His weapon was a not-so-subtle attempt to sully her reputation with an accusation of adultery.  In 1134, Melisende was (conveniently) accused of a liaison with the most powerful of the local barons, a certain Hugh, Count of Jaffa. 

While all chronicles agree that the charges were trumped up, the very fact that King Fulk was presumed to be behind them induced Jaffa to refuse to face a trial by combat, apparently fearing foul play.  The failure to show for a trial by combat, however, gave the king the right to declare him (and with him the queen) guilty, and to attempt to forfeit his fief. (Which some historians suggest may have been Fulk’s main motive in the first place.) What is notable about this incident is that the bulk of the High Court ― and most significantly the Church ― sided with Jaffa rather than Fulk. This underlines the degree to which Melisende was viewed as innocent of wrong-doing, and the degree to which the local nobility resented the Angevin influence described above. 

When the royal army moved against Jaffa, the southern lords, many of them Jaffa’s vassals, held firm for Jaffa. Until Jaffa made a severe tactical error: he sought military support from the Muslim garrison at Ascalon. The later was all too happy to see the Franks fighting among themselves and Jaffa beat off the royal army -- at the price of losing support among his own. Many of his vassals (and his own Constable, Barisan d’Ibelin) deserted his cause and reconciled with the king.

Yet just when Fulk seemed on the brink of complete victory, the Church intervened to end the dangerously self-destructive civil war and forced Fulk to offer astonishingly mild terms to the rebels. Hugh of Jaffa and those men who had remained loyal to him were induced to surrender Jaffa and accept exile for a mere three years, rather than the permanent loss of their fiefs. Although not explicit, subsequent events suggest that Melisende was behind this agreement and Fulk was anything but happy with it. Certainly, before Hugh could leave the kingdom to begin his exile, he was stabbed in the streets of Acre by a knight widely believed to be fulfilling Fulk’s wishes if not his orders. 

Hugh survived the attack and went into exile to die before the terms expired just three years later. Yet sympathy for the injured Hugh was so high that the Angevins found themselves in fear for their lives. Indeed, no one was more outraged than Queen Melisende, and the contemporary historian William of Tyre reports that Fulk feared for his life in the company of the queen’s men. Fulk had won the battle but lost the war. He had discovered he could not rule Jerusalem as he had Anjou. He could not impose his own counselors and ignore the men (and their sons) that had conquered his kingdom for him one bloody mile at a time. Most important, he could not replace his wife at whim, but must recognize her as her father had intended as his co-regent, his equal in power.

William of Tyre reports that after Jaffa’s exile Fulk “did not attempt to take the initiative, even in trivial matters, without [Melisende’s] knowledge.”[ii] This assessment is underlined by the subsequent documentary evidence that shows Melisende again jointly signing charters and otherwise actively engaged in the administration of the kingdom. She made some spectacular grants at this time (one presumes to her supporters), most especially to the Church. The reconciliation was furthermore sufficient to bring forth a second son, Amalric, who was born in 1136. 

In 1138, when Fulk and Melisende’s son Baldwin turned eight, he too was included in the charters of the kingdom, reaffirming his investiture along with his parents as ruler of Jerusalem, restoring the situation as it had been recognized by the High Court at the time of Baldwin II’s death. This troika of rulers continued until 1143, when Fulk died suddenly at the age of 53 in a hunting accident. Significantly, at Fulk’s death there was no need for the High Court to convene and elect a new ruler, because Melisende was already crowned and anointed and recognized, not merely as regent for her 13-year-old son, but as queen in her own right. 

This outline of the events in the first 38 years of Melisende’s life makes a mockery of modern commentary that dismiss medieval women as “chattels” or pawns.  Melisende’s right to inherit the power ― not just the title ― of monarch was not only recognized by the High Court (i.e. her vassals), but defended by both her barons and the Church. Melisende wielded real power, and she won the respect of her contemporaries. William of Tyre, for example, calls her “a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all spheres of state business,” who took “charge of important affairs.”[iii]

The woman herself, her feelings, her temperament, her motives, fears and dreams, are lost to us.  A few things are clear, however. First, in contrast to her grand-daughter Sibylla, her virtue was considered unimpeachable; no one of importance seriously believed she had committed adultery. Second, her intelligence and abilities as queen were respected sufficiently for people to be willing to fight for her right to rule jointly with her husband. Third, she must have been sufficiently flexible and forgiving to reconcile with her husband despite his attempts to first side-line and then dishonor her. That takes a very wise woman indeed!


Melisende is a major character in J. Stephen Robert's:

[i] Orderic Vitalis, quoted in translation by Hans Eberhard Mayer, “Angevins versus Normans: The New Men of King Fulk of Jerusalem,” Kings and Lords in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Ashgate Publishing, 1994, p. IV-3

[ii] William of Tyre, quoted in translation by Bernard Hamilton, “Women in the Crusader States: The Queens of Jerusalem (1100-1190),” ed. Derek Baker, Medieval Women, Basil Blackwell, 1978, p. 150.

[iii] Ibid, p. 157.

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:

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