Melisende began her reign with her father at the end of his life. In 1129 she married Fulk V of Anjou (France). In 1131, they became joint rulers of Jerusalem, although Fulk outshone Melisende and effectively ignored her. In the mid 1130s this changed. Rumors flew, accusing Melisende of having an affair with Fulk’s biggest rival, the rebel Hugh II. Fulk chose to believe the rumors and provoked a war against Melisende and her supporters. But her forces prevailed, and her fortunes changed. She insisted on strong peace-terms, which included her admission to the inner councils of the kingdom. She was given great leeway in promoting the arts and in founding a huge abbey. Thereafter, wrote the historian William of Tyre, Fulk “never tried to initiate anything, even in trivial matters, with her foreknowledge.”
After Fulk’s death Melisende became regent for her 13 year old son, Baldwin.
But by now, however, she had had a taste of real power and she became determined to hold unto it. 1145 was the year Baldwin was to celebrate the attainment of his majority. Melisende ignored the date, easing him out of every place of influence, omitting his name from public acts.
Baldwin put up with this mother’s actions until 1152. Complaining to the high court of the kingdom that his mother would not let him rule, he demanded that the realm be divided between mother and son. This is what happened. Melisende ruled Judaea and Samaria and Baldwin the north.
The division didn’t last for long. While Melisende’s supporters urged the Franks to take account of her efficient administration and ability to rule, it was Baldwin who held the right to rule. This alone was enough to gain greater support for his cause. After a brief military campaign against her, he overwhelmed his mother’s army. Her last stronghold was the cramped confines of the Tower of David in Jerusalem.
In spite of their past disagreements, mother and son were reconciled, and she remained one of his closest advisers until her death.
But these rivalries greatly damaged the future of the crusader’s Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Muslims took great tracts of territories from the crusaders during the period of Melisende’s troubled reign. As a result, Jerusalem never again let a woman rule. When in 1186 a woman actually inherited the crown, her husband was effectively elevated to rule in her place.
Dates:1105-1161; Ruled: 1131-1153 Kingdom of Jerusalem, House of Rethel
Melisende was the most powerful woman of her age, and perhaps the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages. She ruled a kingdom for over twenty years, and was widely acknowledged by her contemporaries as an able and competent administrator. Beyond that, she was a great patron of the arts and religious institutions.
Melisende was the eldest of four daughters of King Baldwin II and his Armenian wife, Morphia of Melitene. The kingdom of Jerusalem itself had been founded by Baldwin II’s cousin, Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1099 during the the First Crusade. Because Baldwin II had no male heir, Melisende was groomed from childhood to inherit the throne. in 1128, for example, Melisende was the first witness on one of Baldwin II’s extant charters (a legal document used to signal land exchange or other royal decrees). Part of preparing Melisende for the throne included finding her a suitable husband who could manage the kingdom’s military resources in Melisende’s place. The french noble, Fulk, Count of Anjou, was chosen, and the couple were married 1129. Bladwin II died in 1131, and Melisende and Fulk assumed the throne together.
After the death of Bladwin II, there is evidence that indicates that Fulk attempted to push Melisende out of power and rule on his own, but Melisende rallied her supporters and insisted on co-rule between the two of them. William of Tyre, the main chronicler for the Kingdom of Jerusalem until about the 1180s said that after their fight, Fulk “became so uxorious that, whereas he had formerly aroused [Melisende’s] wrath, he now calmed it, and not even in unimportant cases did he take any measures without her knowledge and assistance.” As a way to apologize, Fulk commissioned the Melisende Psalter: an incredibly deluxe and beautiful illuminated manuscript for his wife (see below for pictures).
Fulk died in 1143, and Melisende continued to rule with her eldest son, Baldwin III, until 1153–well into Baldwin’s majority. During this period, the County of Edessa, one of the four Latin Christian Crusader States founded during the First Crusade, fell to Muslim invaders. This prompted military response from western Europe, which led to the Second Crusade. in 1148, Melisende met with King Louis VII of France and King Conrad III of Germany along with her son and many of their nobles to discuss military strategy for the Second Crusade.
Around 1150, Baldwin III began to feel as if he should rule the kingdom on his own, despite the fact that his mother was actually very good at ruling. He pushed the issue, going so far as to lay siege to his mother and younger brother, Amalric, in the Tower of David, the main citadel of the city of Jerusalem. Baldwin eventually won the confrontation, and Melisende left the capital and retired to her dower lands of Nablus. Charter evidence, however, indicates that Melisende continued to be influential and an active participant in government until she died in 1161. I have to wonder if Baldwin realized just how much work ruling was, and asked his mother to resume some of her earlier duties.
“Detail of the mid-12th century ivory cover of the Melisend Psalter, a unique work made in the Crusader Kingdom, showing one of the Seven Acts of Mercy, Clothing the Naked. Melisend was the daughter of King Baldwin II.”