The second king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, had the wisdom to marry not a bride imported from Europe, but an Armenian princess, Morfia, whom he met while he was ruler of the Armenian city of Edessa. The marriage seems to have been successful in all respects but one. Baldwin and Morfia had only daughters—four of them. As a matter of fact, many of the crusader states were inherited by women. Fortunately, they all seem to have been smart and strong. And the men around them, for the most part, were smart enough to let them rule.
Baldwin’s eldest, Melisande, was the first of the new generation of rulers who had been born in the Latin kingdoms. Jerusalem was the only home she ever knew. On her mother’s side, she had a rich heritage of an Eastern Christian culture. From her father she inherited a family network that covered the Crusader kingdoms and reached back to the royal families of Europe.
In a world where family loyalty was only exceeded by family betrayals, it’s a pleasure to report that Melisande and her three sisters seem to have been devoted to each other. It was good that they had each other, for all four of them led tumultuous lives.
The second daughter, Alice (or Alix), married Bohemond II, the son of Bohemond, prince of Antioch, and Constance, sister of Louis VI of France.2 Bohemond was about eighteen at the time of the marriage, tall, blond, and good looking.1 Alice seemed destined for a happily ever after, when Bohemond was killed in battle, leaving Alice with a young daughter, named Constance for her grandmother. While it isn’t part of the story of the Templars, it should be noted that Alice had no intention of letting anyone rule for her child. Over the years she tried several times to regain control of Antioch, even after young Constance was married to Raymond of Poitiers.2
The third sister, Hodierna, married Raymond, count of Tripoli, in about 1133. She had a daughter, Melisande, and a son, Raymond. The marriage went well for a time but the count apparently was extremely jealous and drove Hodierna crazy with his suspicions. In 1152, Melisande went to Tripoli to help her sister work out a reconciliation with her husband and then bring her back to Jerusalem for a visit. Shortly after, Raymond of Tripoli became the first known Christian victim of an Assassin. Hodierna became regent for her son, who was twelve at the time.3 She governed Tripoli on her own for many years.
Yveta, the youngest, had the most traumatic childhood. At the age of five she was sent to be a hostage in exchange for her father, who had been captured by the Ortoqid Turk Balak. She was kept by the Turks until Baldwin could raise the ransom money. It may have been that experience, or the knowledge of her sisters’ chaotic marriages and family entanglements, that made Yveta opt for the monastic life. That didn’t mean she retired completely from the world. Her big sister Melisande built the convent of Bethany for her, at the supposed site where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Abbess Yveta became powerful in the church and also at the court of Jerusalem.4
Baldwin was content to have his younger daughters marry locally to increase the ties between the Crusader states, but his eldest, Melisande, was heiress to his kingdom, Jerusalem, and for her he needed someone who was not only a proven battle leader, but also outside the constant family squabbles among those same states. He settled on Fulk of Anjou.
Baldwin had met Fulk when the count made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1120 and had been impressed with him. By 1127, when Melisande was old enough to marry, Fulk was a widower with children of her age. Baldwin sent his constable, Gautier de Bures, to Anjou with an offer of marriage and a kingdom. This was the same party that included Hugh de Payns on his journey to recruit more men for the Templars.
Fulk liked the idea and returned with Gautier, to the great joy of the populace.5 At the time, Fulk was still on the sunny side of forty, Melisande about eighteen. He was stocky and redheaded, not exactly a princess’s dream man. It seems that Melisande wasn’t thrilled with the match, especially after seeing the young, good-looking husband her sister Alice had snagged. However, she made the best of it.
King Baldwin died two years later, on August 21, 1131. When he knew he was dying, he had himself taken to the home of the patriarch at the church of the Holy Sepulcher, so that he could die as near as possible to the place where Christ was buried. At that time he formally called Melisande and Fulk with their year-old son and entrusted the kingdom to them.6
Unlike England a few years later, there was no protest against Melisande’s right to rule. This is amazing because she was both a woman and quite young. Also, the crown of Jerusalem had up until then been decided by an election among the barons and the bishops. The choice had always been a relative of the conqueror of the city, Godfrey of Bouillon, but not the closest one. Baldwin II had been chosen over Godfrey’s last surviving brother, Eustace of Boulogne.7 So the fact that Melisande was accepted so easily was likely due to Fulk’s military ability.
That doesn’t mean that Melisande ever let her husband take over the kingdom. While he certainly took care of the defense of the realm, Melisande held court, in the original sense of hearing disputes and dispensing justice. She would have heard arguments over land rights among the nobility and the church and also cases of rape, murder, and treason.8
Melisande and Fulk were crowned on September 14, 1131.9Shortly afterward, the newly widowed Alice decided that her brother-in-law might rule Jerusalem, but he had no say in the regency of her daughter, Constance. She revolted against Fulk, putting Melisande in the position of having to favor her sister or her husband. She seems to have put the stability of the kingdom over sisterly love. Alice was defeated and retired to the town of Latakiya, although she would be heard from again.
However, Melisande didn’t let Fulk have his way in everything. William of Tyre relates with great relish a story of how the queen was having an affair with her cousin, Hugh of Le Puiset.10 The tale says that, one day at dinner, one of Hugh’s stepsons accused him of being Melisande’s lover and plotting to kill the king. The young man challenged Hugh to prove his innocence in combat. When the day came, Hugh was nowhere to be found. He was judged guilty and his lands forfeit.
Now, William of Tyre was three years old when all this took place so it’s likely he learned all of this through local gossip long after everyone concerned was safely dead. It is certain that Hugh lost his lands and wound up in Sicily. What is intriguing is Melisande’s role in all this.
If the story of the accusation is true then Melisande seems to have survived without any stain on her character. She either convinced everyone that poor Cousin Hugh was imagining the relationship or else Fulk and the rest of the court suddenly remembered that it was Melisande who was the legitimate heir and so it didn’t really matter who fathered her children.
Without more evidence, we’ll never know. It is certain that after the incident, Fulk deferred to his wife a great deal more. Melisande and her friends may have taken this opportunity to let him know that they were in charge.
Fulk died in a hunting accident in 1143, leaving two sons, Baldwin III, age thirteen, and Almaric, age nine.11
Instead of remarrying, Melisande retained control of the government. She made it clear that she wasn’t a regent but queen in her own right, ruling alongside her son. William of Tyre, who was generally nasty about women who exercised power, was very positive toward her ability as queen. He said that she maintained the government and ruled competently, by right of law.12
Melisande ruled for herself and her son with no complaints until Baldwin was in his early twenties. He was tired of being a king in name only and mounted a rebellion against his mother. They agreed to divide the Kingdom of Jerusalem in half but after a few weeks Baldwin decided to take it all. He besieged his mother in Jerusalem until she gave in and retired to her property in the region of Nablus.13
She was soon back, but more subdued. Mother and son eventually reconciled and she regained some power, issuing charters of donations to various religious institutions.
Melisande also intervened to return land that the Frankish invaders had taken from native Christian owners. Her Armenian heritage made her sympathetic to the rights of the Monophysite Christians, whose ancestors had never left the Holy Land.14 She made donations to the Greek/Syrian hospice of St. Sabas in Jerusalem.15
In 1161 Melisande suffered what seems to have been a stroke, which left her unable to participate in government. She lingered for several months, dying on September 11. Her sisters Hodierna and Yveta cared for her in her last days.16
So, what does Queen Melisande have to do with the Templars?
When most people think of the Templars and the Crusader States, a very masculine society comes to mind. It’s true that the Latin kingdoms were constantly either at war or anticipating one. But it was not a world of men. For some reason, more female than male babies survived in that place and time. And, of course, the number of young men killed in battle was much higher than the average for western Europe. So, by default, for much of the two centuries of the kingdoms, women were the inheritors.
Most of these women married men who could wield a sword and lead an army. But they were often widowed young with underage children. Once they left the battlefield, the Templars found themselves in a world run by women. In order to understand the order, it’s necessary to know more than just the highlights of their military exploits but also the society that they were a part of.
A specific example of this is Philip, lord of Nablus. Philip was the son of Guy of Milly and, like Melisande, had been born in the East. He first appears in the documents in 1138. For most of his life he was a soldier and an important part of the defense of the country. He was also one of the few people who stood by Melisande throughout her struggle with her son. He married and had three children. Then, in 1166, he decided to join the Templars. He gave them a large part of his land, which was now near the Egyptian border. In August 1169, he became Grand Master.17
But even as Grand Master of the Templars, Philip of Nablus was clearly more devoted to the land of his birth than to an international order. In 1171, he resigned as master so that he could go to Constantinople on a mission for King Almaric. He died there on April 3, 1171.
When the Templars are studied as an independent group with only military or financial ties to the countries they lived in, it results in an incomplete picture. Philip of Nablus lived a full life as a military leader and royal adviser before he joined the order. He was very much a part of the political life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. His story shows that becoming a Templar was a natural progression for a man in later years, perhaps growing fearful for the state of his soul but unwilling to turn his back on a society in which he was still needed.
Without knowing what that society was, we can’t understand the Templars.
ONE of the rare treasures left from Melisande’s reign is her psalter, or prayer book. It was created by the monks of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, probably around 1140.18It is beautifully illustrated and it not only gives images from Jerusalem at the time, but also a portrait of
“The Harrowing of Hell,” the Melisande Psalter. Fulk and Melisande are on the right.
(The British Library)
Melisande and Fulk, clearly showing the difference in their ages. It is interesting to note that the king and queen are dressed in the Byzantine style, rather than that of European royalty.
Regine Pernoud, Les femmes au temps des Croisades (Paris: Stock/Laurence Penoud, 1990) p. 76.
William of Tyre, Chronique, ed. R. B. C. Huygens, 2 vols. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediavales 63 (Turnholt, 1986) pp. 623-24 (13, 27). William calls Alix an “insane woman.” For the life of Alix see Thomas Asbridge, “Alice of Antioch: A case study of female power in the twelfth century,” in Peter Edbury and Jonathan Phillips, eds., The Experience of Crusading, Volume Two: Defining the Crusader Kingdom (Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 29-47.
Ibid., vol. 63A, pp. 786-87 (17, 19).
Pernoud, pp. 87-88.
William of Tyre, p. 593 (14, 24).
Ibid., vol. 63A, p. 625 (13, 28).
Joshua Prawer, The Crusaders’ Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages (London: Phoenix Press, 1972) p. 96.
Ibid., p. 120.
William of Tyre, pp. 633-34 (14, 2).
Ibid., pp. 641
Ibid., p. 711 (15-27).
Ibid., “reseditque rengi potestas penes dominam Milissendem deo amibilem reginam, cui iure hereditario competebat.”
Ibid., pp. 777-81 (17, 13-14).
Prawer, p. 222.
Ibid., p. 224.
Bernard Hamilton, “Queens of Jerusalem,” in Derek Baker, ed., Medieval Women (London: Blackwell, 1978) p. 156. My sisters might take note of this example of family devotion, just in case.
Malcolm Barber, “The career of Philip of Nablus in the kingdom of Jerusalem,” in Peter Edbury and Jonathan Phillips, eds., The Experience of Crusading, Volume Two: Defining the Crusader Kingdom (Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 60-75, for the full story of Philip’s life. Barber suggests that Philip was elected after the king, Almaric (Melisande’s younger son) put pressure on the Templars. If so, it would indicate that the Templars were not as autonomous as they have been seen.
Hamilton, op. cit.