By Sharan Newman
In the twelfth century, Jerusalem was ruled by Queen Melisende, an indomitable figure who faced enemy armies, wily ambassadors, and ambitious bishops. The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem had only recently been established, created by the crusading armies of Europe – thousands of people, including men, women and children, who sold everything and set off to free Jerusalem from nearly four hundred years of Islamic rule. Now, just a few decades later, it was not only symbolically important, but also the strategic base from which the Crusaders sought to affirm their hold over the Holy Land. When King Baldwin II, one of the original Crusaders, died in 1131 he was succeeded by his daughter Melisende, the first person to inherit the crown of Jerusalem by succession.
Melisende is not a historical figure familiar to many, and her record has been largely distorted by later historians. She has often been dismissed as “regent”, “Queen Mother” and even treated as a usurper. In Defending the City of God, Sharan Newman sets out to set the record straight, restoring her position in history. Although Melisende was crowned as joint ruler of Jerusalem with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and later as joint ruler with their son Baldwin III, she wielded considerable power in her own right and was an extremely active ruler. It was through her hereditary line that the crown had passed, but she was much more than a passive player and it seems that her considerable political skills did much to compensate for her husband’s and son’s respective shortcomings.
Melisende’s life was far from dull; in fact she lived in the middle of a gripping dynastic soap opera and in a land constantly at war. When she was born in 1105, her father was being held prisoner in Mosul, having been captured during a raid on the Muslim town of Harran. Her husband, Fulk of Anjou, had devoted much of his energies into securing the English crown for his descendants, an ambition that was eventually realised, after several failed attempts, following the marriage of his son Geoffrey to Matilda, daughter of Henry I. The couple loathed each other but bore three sons, the eldest becoming Henry II. After Fulk’s death, Melisende ruled jointly with their son Baldwin III, but he tired of ruling only with his mother’s consent and attempted to seize sole power in a dramatic coup.
Melisende wasn’t the only strong female in the family. Her sister Alice married Bohemond II of Antioch. When Bohemond was killed in battle, Baldwin and Fulk rode at once to Antioch, but Alice had the city gates shut on them. She was only around twenty years old, but wasn’t prepared to turn control of her city over to her father and brother-in-law. Alice’s daughter Constance found herself as sole ruler of Antioch many years later. Her husband Raymond was killed when the Antiochenes were routed by the armies of Aleppo and Damascus, his head and right arm sent to Baghdad as trophies. Hodierna, another of Melisende’s sisters, married Count Raymond of Tripoli. The marriage was an unhappy one and she eventually left him, just before he was murdered by a party of assassins at the Tripoli city gates.
Melisende and Fulk certainly did not always see eye to eye. Fulk would have relied on Melisende’s knowledge of the court at Jerusalem, not least because he had an embarrassingly poor memory for names and faces. But he fell out badly with Hugh of Jaffa, Melisende’s second cousin and close ally. Hugh challenged Fulk’s authority in an episode that divided the Jerusalem elite. Eventually it was agreed that Hugh should go into exile for three years, but before he left he was stabbed repeatedly in a surprise attack by a Breton knight while playing dice outside a merchant’s shop. He survived the attack but died soon into his exile. The whole business bolstered Melisende’s position considerably. According to the chronicler William of Tyre, anyone who had sided with Fulk “came under the displeasure” of the queen who refused to speak to them or allow them at court. People feared for their safety and “even the king found that no place was entirely safe among the kindred and partisans of the queen”. Melisende and Fulk were reconciled, although Fulk was more careful to obtain his wife’s consent after this! Fulk died in 1143 after being thrown off his horse. The saddle landed on his head and William of Tyre recorded that “his brains gushed forth from both ears and nostrils”.
Melisende and her family certainly left their mark on Jerusalem, and her influence on the city is still evident today. When she first arrived, the city was suffering from the bloodbath that accompanied the Crusaders’ capture of the city and years of neglect. The population had dwindled, although there was a steady flow of pilgrims keen to see the most important sites and relics. Morfia, Melisende’s mother, set about organising the cleaning and rebuilding of the city and Melisende continued her work as well as overseeing the building of fortresses across her kingdom. This was a heavily fortified land that has been the scene of countless invasions and wars over the centuries. Aleppo and Damascus were so well fortified that they never fell to the Crusaders despite repeated attempts; the eleventh century minaret of Aleppo survived until 2013 when it was destroyed in the Syrian civil war. In fact, many of the place names in this history are familiar from recent events, a stark reminder of the continuity of conflict in this region.
In writing a history of these events based around Melisende and her sisters, Newman is attempting to offer an important corrective to the traditional accounts. The problem she continually faces is the dearth of evidence to draw on. Most of the written records from the period have disappeared over the centuries and the chronicles that survive were written by men who were mostly interested in warfare. Melisende struggles to emerge from the sources as a real character and too often Newman resorts to conjecture.
Historical accounts often reflect the times they are written in, and you can’t help feeling that Newman is trying to impose a 21st century view of the idealised woman onto Melisende and her female contemporaries. She wants Melisende to be smashing through the medieval glass ceiling while being a compassionate, family-orientated woman. This is an appealing fantasy, and Melisende may well have lived up to it to some extent, but there isn’t enough evidence to give us a fully rounded view of Melisende’s character. We can’t even judge the women of the Crusader states by the standards of medieval Europe as society operated in a different way. There was not the tradition of primogeniture that we’re accustomed to in British history, and with so many men lost in battle, women were frequently left in powerful positions.
The stories of the early Crusaders are certainly compelling. There are plenty examples here of the dynastic marriage market, political plots, sexual intrigue, family rifts and children being exchanged as hostages. Melisende’s narrative can get lost in the contextual detail which can feel like a thick soup of unfamiliar people, places and events. Our understanding of Melisende as a person will always be limited by the source material, but she was clearly a remarkable woman living in fascinating times.
Sharan Newman’s book is published in May 2014 and is available to buy from Amazon: Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem