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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 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 firstborn. 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 reputation 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 Jehoshaphat.

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:

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