Post-classical history


Queen Melisende of Jerusalem

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.1 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.2 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.3 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.5 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.6

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.”7 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.”8 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.9 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.10 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.”11 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.12 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.


Within three years the royal marriage was in serious trouble and the kingdom of Jerusalem on the verge of its gravest political crisis to date. Two of the most influential men in the land, Count Hugh of Jaffa and Roman of Le Puy, lord of Transjordan, conspired to challenge King Fulk. Their motivation was a combination of the personal and the political, and represented the entwined interests of Queen Melisende and the native nobility.13

Hugh was in the prime of life: about twenty-eight years old, he was tall, handsome, and a distinguished warrior. William of Tyre eulogized: “In him the gifts of nature seemed to have met in lavish abundance; without question, in respect to physical beauty and nobility of birth, as well as experience in the art of war, he had no equal in the kingdom.”14 The count was the son of Hugh II of Le Puiset who had set out on crusade in 1106–7. En route to the Levant his wife had given birth to a son in Apulia. The boy had remained at the Sicilian court until he came of age when he traveled to the Holy Land and sought his inheritance from King Baldwin II around 1120. He was related to the royal house of Jerusalem through his father, and his family ties and career made him a natural associate of Melisende. Soon after 1123 he married Emma of Jaffa, the widow of Eustace Grenier (in his day the most powerful landowner in the kingdom and a royal constable). Emma must have been rather older than Hugh because she already had two sons, Eustace, lord of Sidon, and Walter, lord of Caesarea, both of whom were adults and important nobles in their own right.

During the early 1130s tensions began to simmer between the king and Count Hugh. The count grew arrogant: he refused to obey royal commands and started to drift toward open defiance of his monarch. Hugh was an immensely influential noble in his own right and the county of Jaffa was probably the wealthiest lordship in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Charters indicate that he enjoyed the full trappings of a royal household, including a chancellor and treasurer. His position was unique in the kingdom: no one else possessed the title of count; in fact, the only other men in the entire Levant with such a rank were the count of Tripoli and the count of Edessa.

As the friction between the two men became increasingly overt Hugh began to formulate a strategy. Almost nine centuries later, the details of his conspiracy are elusive, but we are fortunate to have a charter from the principality of Antioch that yields dramatic evidence. A document dated July 1134 places Hugh in the court of Melisende’s sister, Alice of Antioch.15 The princess had already shown herself to be the most independently minded and rebellious individual in the Latin East by staging two uprisings against the king of Jerusalem. This being so, it is unlikely to have been a coincidence that the count traveled over 280 miles north to see her. He must have gone to sound her out and alert her to the likelihood of open confrontation. As the champion of Melisende’s cause it is logical that he would want to enlist the help of the queen’s sister.

As the political momentum behind Hugh and Melisende increased, another, more personal, aspect to the situation became apparent. Fulk began to suspect the count of being more than simply friendly toward the queen. Perhaps he felt insecure—he was an older, placid man who may have been threatened by the obvious familiarity between Melisende and her dashing contemporary. Some whispered—tantalizingly—that there was proof of a more intimate relationship, yet none of our sources offers details. In such circumstances it is hard to make a genuine assessment of the truth. Sexual innuendo was, and remains, one of the oldest and easiest ways to disparage an opponent’s name, and if the gossip came from the royal camp it could have had a far wider impact. Such rumors obviously impugned the good name of the queen herself and if an open allegation of adultery were proven the legal process would be barbaric. The queen could undergo an ordeal by fire and if found guilty, according to laws laid down in the 1120 Concordat of Nablus, she would be punished by rhinotomy, the slitting or cutting off of her nose; Hugh would be castrated. Melisende might then share the fate of the lady of Banyas, a woman found guilty of adultery, although in this instance at the hands of her Muslim captors, and be sent to a convent. No medieval queen had been treated in such a way, but in the poisonous atmosphere of 1134 such an outcome was a theoretical possibility.

Unsurprisingly, when the matter of his wife’s infidelity was coupled with the simmering political conflict, Fulk conceived “an inexorable hatred” of Count Hugh. Charges of adultery reflected badly on the vitality of a king who seemed unable to preserve the sanctity of his marriage bed. Such an accusation would also damage the standing of the infant Baldwin, although, as we have seen, Elias, Fulk’s grown son from his first marriage, was waiting in the wings. It would be too sensitive to air the accusations of adultery in a formal setting—if Fulk was to flush out the conspirators, then the political route offered the best way forward.

At the suggestion of the king, and perhaps out of loyalty to his mother, Countess Emma of Jaffa, Walter of Caesarea brought the matter to a head. At an assembly of the royal court of Jerusalem Walter made the most sensational and inflammatory claim possible: that Hugh and certain companions had conspired to kill King Fulk.16 The fact that Walter confronted his own stepfather added an extra sharpness to the situation. Regicide was extraordinarily rare: the sanctity of kingship meant that except in open battle—such as King Harold at Hastings in 1066—slaughtering God’s anointed representative was almost unheard of. The fact that the king’s own wife and her alleged lover were behind such a move made this story even more incredible.

This was a moment of the highest tension: the king and the count faced each other across the royal court. The older man was trying to grasp the power he believed to be rightfully his, the other sought to preserve the status and dignity of the queen of Jerusalem. At the heart of this conflict was Melisende, the pivot around which the entire struggle turned. When he heard the accusation Hugh stood firm; he stated that he was innocent of this heinous charge. Proof may be difficult to provide, however. In the belief that he had allies among the native population the count turned to the court of his peers and said that he would submit to their judgment. The barons and leading churchmen of the land conferred. Could they condemn one of the most important nobles in Outremer, or should they join him, and break with tradition to defy the anointed king? In the early twelfth century an accuser and witnesses spoke to the court and then the nobility debated the outcome. The idea of a prosecution, a defense, and trial by jury were not invented in a form recognizable to us until the reign of King Henry II of England, forty years later. In the medieval mind-set only God could know the truth. The court decreed the matter should be settled by single combat, as was the fashion in contemporary France and Germany, and a date for the trial was set. Hugh and Walter were to face each other, fully armed and mounted on horseback. They would charge at each other until one was unhorsed. The rider might be able to finish off his opponent at that point, or he could dismount and begin hand-to-hand fighting. Sometimes the struggle was so close that the men ended up wrestling unarmed. In one contest the winner secured victory by biting off his enemy’s nose, in another by wrenching his opponent’s testicles. The defeated man was usually slain.17

Hugh returned to his lands at Jaffa, but on the day designated for the ordeal he failed to attend. Some interpreted this as an admission of guilt and there was disquiet even among his own supporters. Walter was famous for his strength and perhaps Hugh feared his stepson’s fighting skills. In any case, the High Court condemned Hugh’s absence and he was found guilty of treason and his lands forfeit.18 Had he fought and won, Fulk’s position would have become untenable.

William of Tyre described Hugh’s reaction to this news as a combination of panic and foolishness: on hearing the court’s verdict Hugh sailed south forty miles from Jaffa to Muslim-held Ascalon. He asked the inhabitants for help against the king—something they readily agreed to. As we have seen, treaties between Christians and Muslims were a fact of life in the Levant; the difference here was the state of division among the Christians, which made Hugh’s presence of particular interest to the Ascalonites. The count argued that he had support within the kingdom and that he could offer—presumably relying on Melisende’s agreement—something to the Muslims in return. We know that they already paid King Baldwin II an annual financial tribute, so a reduction, or even a termination, were the most likely bargaining chips available. An agreement was sealed with an exchange of hostages, again a common custom, and Hugh returned to Jaffa.19

The Ascalonites delighted in the dissension between the Christians and mounted raids into the kingdom up to Arsuf. The king was furious; the court proceedings had swung the balance of power in his direction, but this military threat had to be countered. He gathered all the troops he could and besieged Jaffa. The city lies on the coast and has a small port overlooked by a castle perched on a rocky outcrop. At first, Hugh did not act alone. The treaty with Ascalon had not entirely alienated his supporters, but as the king’s troops surrounded Jaffa some began to feel that his chances of success were fading. They tried to reason with him, but Hugh would not submit—he had, after all, been found guilty of a charge of high treason and must have anticipated a severe punishment. As the count persisted in his stance, more men began to slip away and, fearful of the consequences, offered their loyalty to the king.

The Muslim world looked on with pleasure. Ibn al-Qalanisi, a contemporary Damascene writer, gleefully observed: “Reports were received that a dispute had arisen amongst the Franks—though a thing of this kind was not usual with them—and fighting had taken place in which a number of them were killed.”20 As Fulk sat distracted outside Jaffa, Muslim troops captured the important city of Banyas in the north of the kingdom; the civil war was beginning to exact a severe cost on the Christians.

The deadlock at Jaffa had to be broken. If at all possible, the king needed to avoid a full-scale assault. It was essential to prevent the loss of any Christian knights, or the damage to Fulk’s reputation in the Levant and across the Latin West would only worsen. Churchmen visited the king and cited the book of Matthew (12:25): “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Patriarch William led a delegation of nobles to mediate between the two sides. After several bitter meetings “for the sake of harmony and the greater honour of the king,” William of Tyre recorded that a compromise was reached.21

Hugh and his remaining associates were sentenced to three years’ exile. After this, they could return without reproach, although in the interim the revenues from the count’s estates would be used to pay his ongoing debts and borrowings. In the circumstances this was an astounding result. Hugh had been accused of plotting to murder the king and found guilty by the High Court. He had made a treaty with Muslims, exposed the kingdom of Jerusalem to danger and loss, and openly defied the king at the gates of Jaffa. The death sentence seemed the only logical outcome—yet he had escaped with a ludicrously light punishment and, even more remarkably, he had not even been stripped of his lands. In three years he could come home to Jaffa and resume control of the most powerful lordship in the kingdom. Here—surely—we can discern the influence of Melisende. As Hugh’s most prominent ally and in her theoretical position as coruler, she must have told Fulk that to execute the count would humiliate her and create a deep and permanent division in the kingdom, starting in the royal household. The magnanimous sentence may also show that Hugh’s grievances against Fulk had some substance; such a penalty implicitly acknowledges that his case had merit. Hugh may have regarded himself as innocent, but given the way in which events had played out, he could still feel relieved at the outcome.

The matter was far from over, however. Hugh decided to pass his exile in his childhood home of Sicily. The conflict had ended in late 1134 and he now needed to wait until the New Year for passage to the West. Ships of the time were so primitive that the commercial fleets of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice only sailed the seas between March and October for fear of the treacherous winter storms of the Mediterranean.22 Hugh was passing time at a shop in the Street of the Furriers in the heart of Jerusalem. The cold winters of the Levant meant the production of such warm clothing was essential and this was one of many small, localized industries in this crowded district of the old city.23 Hugh was obviously familiar with one of the merchants named Alfanus and he had settled down to play dice—a very common pastime among medieval people. Hugh was enjoying himself and a crowd gathered around to watch and to cheer at the players’ changing fortunes. As he hunched over the table to roll the bones the count had no sense of danger at all. Suddenly, a knight from Brittany drew his sword and launched a frenzied attack, stabbing and slashing at Hugh again and again. The spectators screamed in horror, some drew their own weapons and, as the count fell bleeding to the floor, rushed forward to defend him. They jumped on the would-be assassin and captured him.

News of the assault ran through the city like wildfire; people huddled together to exchange stories and information. Who was the assailant? How badly wounded was Hugh? Gradually a dark and insistent consensus emerged: King Fulk’s hand must lie behind the deed. In his anger against the man who may have sullied his marriage bed, the man who had openly defied him, and whom he had been compelled to treat so easily, people said that the king had commissioned the unnamed Breton to murder his rival. Hugh’s cause attracted a wave of sympathy; no longer was he a treacherous outlaw. To the people of Jerusalem the atrocity showed that he was more sinned against than sinning and that their king was malicious and vindictive.

If he really was behind the plot Fulk cannot have anticipated such a public backlash in favor of the rebel. The king presumably wanted to eliminate the political and personal threat posed by Hugh; his demise would also send a message that in spite of the compromise judgment, Fulk would punish any opponents, if necessary by means outside the due process of law. He knew that Melisende would be furious, but, given the poor state of their relationship at this time, he calculated that he could weather any storm from her and, deprived of her closest ally, that she would submit.

The king needed to act to quell the outcry. Fulk ordered the captive to be brought before the High Court, the body responsible for judging capital offenses. Wisely, however, the monarch stayed away from the meeting. Given the plentiful number of witnesses there was no need for any formal hearing and the assailant did not deny the charge. By unanimous agreement the court sentenced the Breton to the mutilation of his members. Such a harsh punishment was intended to deter others from such foul acts. It meant the hacking off of the hands, the feet, and the tongue. If the guilty party survived the blood loss and the likely infection he would be condemned to a life of utter misery, crawling around, begging outside churches, eating from the floor, and facing almost certain death from exposure or starvation.

The court’s decision was relayed to the king, who asked that the man be permitted to keep his tongue. We shall never know whether Fulk engineered the plot, but if he erred in doing so he was astute enough to realize that if the man’s tongue was severed it might look as though he were trying to silence him. The Breton was tortured to reveal whether he was acting at the king’s behest, but even after the mutilation he maintained that he had been working on his own initiative and only anticipated a reward from Fulk thereafter. This confession did much to mollify the mood of the crowd and open hostility toward the king abated.24

Hugh slowly recovered from his injuries. We do not know where he was treated. Given the location of the attack it is probable that he was taken to the leading medical center of the day, the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, just two hundred meters to the west of the Street of the Furriers and directly south of the Holy Sepulchre itself. There had been a hospice in Jerusalem since the days of Muslim rule when a group of Amalfitan merchants ran some form of charitable foundation. After the Christian conquest the kings of Jerusalem eagerly supported the institution and the hospital acquired a Frankish character. In 1113 it secured papal recognition as a religious order and soon grew rapidly. It was open to everyone, regardless of status, race, or religion, although the majority of its patients were the thousands of pilgrims who came to the Holy Land each year.

Hugh must have needed his wounds to be cleaned and stitched, after which he was looked after with a mixture of prayer—a vital component of medieval health provision—and close care. Each patient in the hospital had their own bed, sheets, a cloak, a woolen hat, and boots for going to the latrines. A staff of four doctors did daily ward rounds, took the pulse and examined urine. Much of the treatment centered around good basic nourishment with sugar-based drinks (from sugarcane sent down from the county of Tripoli) and meat three times a week. Some medical practices seem strange to us: for example, the meat of female cows was banned because it was deemed to promote mental instability; some patients were treated by the use of hot stones—known as lapidary—to bring out fevers. As a man of wealth Hugh may have been moved to the house of one of his supporters but the basic principles of health care would have remained the same.25

Once he had convalesced the count sailed to Apulia and began to serve out his exile. It seems that a combination of his failed revolt, the legacy of his injuries, and his separation from Melisende broke Hugh’s spirit. He was received with every sympathy by Roger II of Sicily, who generously gave him the county of Gargano, but months later he died without ever returning to the Holy Land.26

It was in the royal palace that the effects of the attempted murder were felt most profoundly: the botched assassination tipped the balance of power to the queen. Melisende felt outraged by the entire episode. The combination of her assertive personality and a sense of moral right precipitated a sea change in the running of both the household and the government of the kingdom. Whether the stories of her relationship with Hugh were true or not, she was incandescent at the damage to her integrity. Allies of the king, such as Rohard, lord of Nablus, who had spread rumors about Melisende’s behavior, were forced to remove themselves from the household—it was said, for their own safety. Fear of her anger caused these men to stay away from bigger assemblies, such as feast days or processions. Most pointedly, Fulk himself was completely shunned by Melisende, her kindred, and her supporters. The royal marriage was, for the time being, dead. Melisende knew that her good name had been damaged by the public nature of the dispute and she was furious with the king for giving credence to such stories. Whether Hugh was her lover or not she cared deeply for him and when he was cast into exile she was grief-stricken for her absent companion. Interestingly, the Old French edition of William of Tyre’s chronicle, written later in the twelfth century, stated that Hugh had died “por li” (for her), giving the count’s actions a chivalric aspect. He had sacrificed his life for his lady.27


As time went on the open hostility between the king and queen caused increasing concern. Close friends of the couple tried to mediate between the two camps, but Melisende was immovable; Fulk had to offer major compromises to restore a semblance of normality. In the end he managed to persuade her to forsake the open antipathy toward his friends and to permit them to attend public gatherings. William of Tyre tells us of the most crucial concessions made by the king: “From that day forward, the king became so uxorious that, whereas he had formerly aroused her wrath, he now calmed it, and not even in unimportant cases did he take any measures without her knowledge and assistance.”28

Herein lies the heart of the matter. Running in tandem with the queen’s close relationship with Count Hugh was the fundamental dispute over Fulk’s governance of the kingdom. He had refused to accept King Baldwin II’s deathbed deviation from the original agreement that he should rule in his own right—instead he had tried to forge a path of his own. Rather than exercising joint power with Melisende, he had ignored her. Furthermore, as Baldwin II anticipated, Fulk started to introduce his Angevin henchmen into positions of authority at the expense of the native nobility. He dismissed the royal chancellor and a royal viscount and replaced them with his own men.29 In other words, a central aspect of the revolt of Hugh of Jaffa was the survival of the native nobility of Jerusalem, represented most dramatically in the person of Melisende herself. The contemporary Anglo-Norman writer Orderic Vitalis made this telling observation about Fulk’s behavior after his coronation:

To begin with he 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 with Angevin strangers and other raw newcomers to whom he gave his ear; turning out the veteran defenders, he gave the chief places in the counsels of the realm and the proprietorship of castles to new flatterers. Consequently great disaffection spread, and the stubbornness of the magnates was damnably roused against the man who changed officials so gauchely. For a long time, under the influence of the powers of evil, they turned their warlike skills, which they should have united to exercise against the heathen, to rend themselves. They even allied on both sides with the pagans against each other, with the result that they lost many thousands of men and a certain number of fortresses.30

Although Orderic wrote in northern Europe, his sources had, in outline, given a political narrative—excluding the details of any relationship between Hugh and Melisende—of the 1134 civil war, and provided a concise explanation as to why the uprising had taken place. In Damascus, Ibn al-Qalanisi also understood the problem: “After Baldwin [II] there was none left amongst the Franks possessed of sound judgement and capacity to govern. The new king-count [Fulk] who came to them by sea from their country was not sound in his judgement, nor was he successful in his administration.”31

Fulk had tried to sideline his queen, but through her indomitable will and the resistance led by Count Hugh, Melisende preserved her rightful inheritance and the power of the nobility of Jerusalem. The way in which she gained the ascendancy and forced Fulk to make such huge concessions showed the authority of a woman with strong personality and true bloodline. Fulk had not suspected that Melisende would challenge him with such determination; to his mind a woman should follow the Church orthodoxy and submit to her husband. In dealing with the unknown he had been caught off guard and had behaved ponderously until brought to recognize the wider political reality. As William of Tyre stated, from that time onward the king and the queen acted together—as Baldwin II had decreed. Charters that date from the period after the civil war demonstrate this. A gift to the Hospitallers in late 1136 was confirmed by Fulk “with the assent of his wife Melisende,” and another described an agreement made with “the consent of Queen Melisende.”32

It was not just in the kingdom of Jerusalem that the effects of Fulk’s loss of power were felt. Almost as soon as the situation in the south began to resolve itself, Princess Alice of Antioch rose in rebellion. The death of Prince Bohemond II in 1130 had brought turmoil to northern Syria. In 1134, for the third time in six years, Melisende’s younger sister threw off the direction imposed by the king of Jerusalem and asserted her desire to rule the principality as regent for her little daughter, Constance. In 1130, King Baldwin II had traveled north to impose order; two years later, Fulk did the same. On this latest occasion, however, Melisende continued to flex her political muscles. The king was prepared to remove Alice again, but Melisende countered him. She told him not to interfere in her sister’s governance of Antioch and, constrained by his promises to the queen, Fulk meekly agreed. For a brief period in 1135–36, Alice—who remained unmarried—ruled as sovereign in the principality of Antioch while her sister seems to have been the dominant partner in the kingdom of Jerusalem—a time of genuine female ascendancy. King Baldwin II’s eldest daughters were clearly a remarkable pair of women. To rule (or dominate) two territories at the same time in the macho, violent eastern Mediterranean was a spectacular achievement.33


There is a touching footnote to the dispute in Jerusalem because it seems that Fulk genuinely hoped to restore close personal relations with his wife. As well as making good his political failings, the king commissioned a lavish and carefully chosen gift for her. Melisende’s piety was well known and she was also recognized as a patroness of books.34 Fulk thought hard about the most appropriate present he could give his wife and, to modern eyes at least, he certainly came up with a magnificent peace offering. The Melisende Psalter is an extraordinarily beautiful little book that survives today in the British Museum. It is only twenty-two centimeters tall and fourteen centimeters wide—roughly the size of a modern paperback—but it has a multicolored silk spine and a dozen roundels, studded with turquoise, ruby, and emerald stones that decorate the intricate ivory covers. Inside, it contains twenty-four full-page hand-colored illuminations of scenes from the New Testament, a calendar of saints’ days and observances, as well as prayers, many of which have highly decorated initial letters. The book is not explicitly addressed to the queen, but its contents and decorative themes make such an identification almost certain. The Latin text, for example, is written for a secular woman, rather than an abbess (such as her sister Yveta). There is a special focus on the veneration of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, suggestive of a connection to the nearby abbey of Saint Mary Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem, a house patronized by the queen and later her burial place. More obviously the calendar has two especially personalized entries amid the daily list of general ecclesiastical commemorations. The twenty-first of August is highlighted as the date of King Baldwin II’s death and October 1 as the passing of Queen Morphia. No other rulers of Jerusalem are mentioned, although the capture of the holy city on July 15 is noted. The inclusion of Melisende’s parents is surely the most obvious sign that the book was for her. A more subtle indication that the gift came from Fulk—apart from the fact that it must have cost an enormous sum of money, perhaps only affordable by a king—is in the carving of a bird at the top of the back cover. It is labeled “Herodius”—also known as “fulica” in medieval bestiaries; in other words the bird is a falcon, and the name is a pun on Fulk.

The illustrations were produced in a workshop connected to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and four different illuminators painted the pictures. Their work reflects a mixture of influences: English, French, Byzantine, Arab, and Levantine, and they created a genuinely unique synthesis of styles. The ivory covers are particularly striking and their images are a clear indication of the message Fulk wished to convey. The front cover shows stories of King David from the Old Testament in which he proves his strength and fitness to rule, his humility, and his interest in harmony. In between the roundels is a battle between Virtues and Vices, the latter depicted as women with long, disheveled hair, defeated by women with neat head coverings. The monarch on the back cover, placed under the falcon, and dressed in the manner of a king of Jerusalem—the Byzantine-style regalia of a crown and chlamys—is probably meant to represent Fulk. He carries out the six acts of mercy as specified in the book of Matthew, giving out food and drink, clothing, help to the sick, visiting prisoners, and sheltering strangers. In between these roundels, Islamic-style birds and beasts fight. In essence, the covers show the restoration of a state of equilibrium and reveal a penitent king making good his misdeeds. The gift was meant to mark an end to the hostilities; it was a truly sumptuous book and the trouble taken over its subject matter and its production shows Fulk’s desire to apologize to his wife. We do not know of Melisende’s reaction when she was presented with the psalter; but we can judge some return to normality for the royal couple because in 1136 a second son, named Amalric, was born.

As the product of a mixed Frankish-Armenian marriage, Melisende represented a combination of different strands of Christianity, and she displayed this broad cultural background in her enthusiastic support of the Catholic and Eastern Christian Churches. Women had played a crucial role in spiritual matters since the early days of Christianity and the patronage of religious institutions was a familiar way for medieval queens to exercise power. There is a neat contradiction here because in spite of the Church’s portrayal of women as following the fallen Eve figure, many religious houses and senior churchmen looked to women in authority for advancement and often formed close relations with them. A deeply pious woman, Melisende gave many gifts to monasteries, encouraged the building and improvement of churches such as the Templum Domini or the Armenian cathedral of Saint James, and was known to welcome pilgrim visitors.35 The queen also commissioned the huge fortified convent of Saint Lazarus at Bethany, east of Jerusalem, for her youngest sister, Yveta, to take charge of. She then donated to it a huge collection of gold, silver, and jeweled religious objects.36 Most importantly, perhaps, she oversaw the reconstruction of the spiritual heart of Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Melisende’s patronage went beyond religious buildings and she created a school of book-makers and miniature-painters, the style of which again reflected her mixed heritage. She also organized the construction of a vaulted complex of shops in Jerusalem, including the legendary (and still surviving) Street of Bad Cooking.37

In 1143 the royal couple were out riding near Acre when the king spied a hare and, with his customary enthusiasm for the hunt, he sped after the animal. As he urged his mount onward the horse stumbled and Fulk was catapulted out of the saddle and landed on his head. Unconscious and bleeding from his nose and ears he lapsed into a coma, much to the horror of the men with him. Melisende soon arrived at the scene and became hysterical with grief and anxiety, screaming, crying, and hugging her husband’s inert form. Such intense grief seems to indicate that the marriage had, eventually, been a happy one. The king was carried back to Acre where he lingered for a couple of days, but his injuries proved fatal and he died on November 10, 1143. A funeral cortege soon wound its way toward Jerusalem where the clergy and population came out to meet their monarch. He was buried with his predecessors in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the foot of Mount Calvary.38


Melisende was left as the queen-regnant for their young son, Baldwin III, but when he came of age she refused to step aside. To survive and prosper she needed a strategy. As a relatively young widow she was in a tantalizing position—chaste yet fertile; she needed male allies, but she was unwilling to marry and risk creating factional strife. Almost inevitably, however, there were rumors of a lover. Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest churchman of the age, learned of this situation and warned the queen to maintain the standing of a widow: “I have heard certain evil reports of you, and although I do not completely believe them I am nevertheless sorry that your good name should be tarnished either by truth or falsehood. It is not beneath your dignity as a queen to be a widow. . . . Before God as a widow, before men as a queen. Remember that you are a queen whose worthy and unworthy actions cannot be hidden under a bushel.”39

To modern eyes, the most obvious manifestation of power is in the political arena. The prime symbol of this in the medieval age was the sword, ceremonially bestowed upon a lord’s son, and the representation of strength, virility, and authority. Almost every royal seal depicts a king holding such a weapon. Women were almost always excluded from the battlefield and so this crucial aspect of medieval rule was denied to them. On the rare occasions that they ventured into battle they were usually condemned as “savage” or “delinquent,” like prostitutes. It was for men alone to fight. This was a fundamental part of the framework in which Melisende had to work. For a woman to survive and to overcome the handicap of her sex she had to employ alternative strategies to succeed. One way of doing so—fighting aside—was to become, in effect, a temporary man. Displays of dignity, resolve, and decisiveness were a vital aspect of the required performance. In 1143, Bernard of Clairvaux advised Melisende: “The king, your husband, being dead, and the young king still unfit to discharge the affairs of the kingdom . . . the eyes of all will be on you, and on you alone the burden of the whole kingdom will rest. You must set your hand to great things and, although a woman, you must act as a man by doing all you have to do in a spirit prudent and strong. You must arrange all things prudently and discreetly so that all may judge you from your actions to be a king rather than a queen and so that the Gentiles [i.e., the Muslims] may have no occasion for saying: Where is the king of Jerusalem?”40

Even these actions were not necessarily sufficient. If a woman took on male attributes too fully, then she could be criticized. At one point in the struggle for power in England, Melisende’s contemporary, Matilda, began to behave in a masculine way, only to be condemned by hostile writers for being unfeminine and having “every trace of a woman’s gentleness removed.”41 A balance was needed: if women could overcome the demands of their bodies and show careful and strong political judgment, contemporaries felt it might be possible for them to rule successfully.

Yet the picture was more complicated still and power could take myriad other forms. There were many different ways, both public and private, for women to exert a profound impact on government, the household, and cultural and religious life. It was in the household that a woman had the greatest opportunity to direct her husband, her children, and her family. Medieval writers understood—and in the case of some churchmen, feared—the influence that could be gained through “the embraces of love” as one author rather coyly expressed it. After Count Stephen of Blois deserted from the First Crusade, his wife, Adela, frequently encouraged him to return “between conjugal caresses”: a positive use of the bedchamber. On the other hand, some writers believed that the presence of women at court caused a loss of knightly virility and counseled against it.42

From Fulk’s death in 1143 Melisende ruled Jerusalem, first in her own right, then gradually giving more of a role to her son Baldwin III. She dealt adroitly with the fall of Edessa in 1144 and met the crowned heads of France and Germany as they came to the Holy Land in the Second Crusade in 1148 (see Chapter Four). She skillfully maintained this balancing act until 1151–52 when Baldwin began to demand to rule alone. A civil war broke out and Melisende was compelled to back down, although she maintained a position of great honor and influence until her declining years. It seems likely that she suffered some form of wasting illness and she also showed the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, being described as “somewhat impaired in memory.”43 She died in September 1161 with her two surviving sisters at her bedside, the family ties between this generation of the royal family holding close until the end. She was buried in the Church of the Virgin Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat just outside the walls of Jerusalem where the site of her tomb remains visible today.44

A conventional contemporary assessment of Melisende would have depicted her as an ambitious, greedy woman who lusted after power for herself, who seduced men to achieve her own ends, and lacked the strength to govern properly. In fact, such were her political skills and so great was the force of her personality that the majority of writers (even though they were mainly churchmen) viewed her positively—even allowing for their inbuilt bias against the “evils” of women. William of Tyre described her as “a woman of unusual wisdom and discretion,” who had set out to “emulate the magnificence of the greatest and noblest of princes and to show herself in no ways inferior to them.” She had succeeded and proven to be “an equal to her ancestors”: men such as Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I, the heroes of the First Crusade.45 For a medieval queen to be placed in such exalted company shows what a remarkable individual she was.

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