Forgotten by History: Melisende, The Woman Queen of Jerusalem.

Melisende of Jerusalem was one of the Frankish royals of Jerusalem during the first two crusades. She actually sent the letter to the Pope that asked for the Second Crusade to happen.

(If you don’t know about the Frankish royals, basically what happened was, after surprising everyone by actually succeeding in taking Jerusalem, the first Crusaders decided to set up a royal line there. It was fairly short lived since their rule in Jerusalem fell approx 90 years later, but the Frankish kings sure fit a lot of crazy into the time they had.)

Melisende was basically a real life Cersei Lannister, except 900 times more competent. Her father, Baldwin II, didn’t have any male heirs, so he found a husband for Melisende (named Fulk) and waited for Melisende to pop out a male heir (Baldwin III). After Baldwin III was born, Baldwin II made Melisende and Baldwin III his explicit joint heirs, totally excluding Fulk.

An artist’s rendering of Melisende and Fulk’s coronation; Melisende is the sitting figure clad in green.

Things got bad after Baldwin II died, and Fulk started cutting off Melisende’s power and throwing his weight around.

Melisende said wouldn’t have any of that, and started a civil war. She then proceeded to win it — Melisende was much more popular than Fulk, and Fulk basically had to apologize to get himself back in with the royals. One of the surviving bibles we have from this time period, a beautiful illuminated manuscript called the Melisende Psalter, is probably an apology present from Fulk to Melisende over this very incident.

This is impressive enough on its own, but Melisende didn’t stop there. Baldwin III was getting big and wanted to be king in his own right. He asked the royal council to crown him king. They refused — Melisende was a better ruler. Baldwin III pushed the issue. They decided to split the kingdom in half, with Melisende getting the richer half.

This annoyed Baldwin III off enough to attack his mother’s portion of the kingdom, and the church had to intervene. However, instead of being sent to a convent or forced into obscurity like many other women in her position would have been (this is, after all, basically what ends up happening to her granddaughter-in-law Agnes of Courtenay), Melisende’s popularity and political strength prevailed even though her son had crushed her forces in battle. She was given rule of nearby territories for the rest of her life, and Baldwin III was forced to promise not to mess with mom again.

Baldwin III’s coronation, where he is flanked by his mother sitting directly on the right of him.

Things improved later when Baldwin III realized he had messed up by not listening to his mother, and took her back as an adviser, where she used her considerable credentials and connections to advise him successfully on military campaigns.

William of Tyre, who is generally a huge misogynist, had this to say about Queen Melisende:

“she was a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all affairs of state business, who completely triumphed over the handicap of her sex so she could take charge of important affairs…”, and “striving to emulate the glory of the best princes, Melisende ruled the kingdom with such ability that she was rightly considered to have equaled her predecessors in that regard.”

I think it is a crime this woman has been almost entirely forgotten in popular history. The time period in general is really interesting (Melisende’s grandson was the king with leprosy, if you’re curious, and her granddaughter Sybillia definitely took after her in a few ways, just with less success) and generally glossed over in favor of Richard the Lionheart, who is, quite frankly, rather boring.

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