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Edessa, County of Edessa

c. 1161
Nablus, Kingdom of Jerusalem

Queen of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

"Melisende seems to have loved power for its own sake. She knew how to make herself obeyed, but she was incapable of turning [her] authority....Her regency [rulership] was marked by military disasters and political errors caused by her inability to rise to a crisis."

—Zoé Oldenbourg, The Crusades.

Melisende was one of the most powerful women on either the Christian or Muslim side during the Crusades, several religious wars in the Holy Land spanning two centuries. The daughter of the third ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem—the Crusader state carved out of Palestine by the Christians after they took the city from the Muslims in 1099—Melisende ultimately became the coruler of Jerusalem, first with her husband, Fulk V of Anjou, from 1131 until his death in 1143 and then with her young son, Baldwin III, from 1143 to 1152. There were rivalries and infighting among the powerful in Jerusalem, including between Melisende and her husband and son, that made these troubled years.

During her reign, the forces of the Muslims made a comeback in the region. Under the leadership of Imad al-Din Zengi (also known simply as Zengi), a Turkish Muslim atabeg, or governor, the Muslims captured the fortified city of Edessa in the north and brought on the Second Crusade (1147–49). This Crusade turned out to be a major failure for the Christian forces. Melisende was perhaps a better patron, or sponsor,

The Kingdom of Jerusalem

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was the name given to a twelfth-century Crusader state in Palestine having the city of Jerusalem as its center of power. When the Christian knights, or noble soldiers, of the First Crusade took Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099, they knew that they would need to organize themselves in order to hold on to the land. Badly outnumbered by neighboring Muslims of Egyptian, Arabic, and Turkish origin, these Crusaders began to carve out little states and principalities (the territory of a prince) according to the same system that was being used in Europe at this time. The nobles would receive land from the king in exchange for their military service. These nobles, in turn, would have a number of vassals, or knights pledged in service to a lord, who would do the fighting, and they would also have peasants, or workers on the land, who would pay rent in return for protection from the nobles and knights. This system was called feudalism, from the Latin word for "fee."

These transplanted Europeans developed this system in the coastal lands of present-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, where they set up their states. There was a big difference, however, between feudalism in Europe and in the Middle East. In Europe most of the nobles lived in the countryside, but in Outremer—another name for the Crusader kingdoms meaning "beyond the sea"—the nobles lived mostly in cities, where they built strong castles. The countryside was controlled by Muslims. Thus the economy in the Crusader states was based more on business and trade than on farming.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was one of several such Crusader states. The first rulers built it up beyond the borders of Jerusalem to include the port cities of Jaffa, Acre, Sidon, and Beirut. Other Crusader states included the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli. Jerusalem, however, was the most powerful of these states and informally governed the others. Melisende was fourth in the line of rulers of the city and kingdom, but even during her lifetime this arrangement was falling apart. Princes in the other states competed with Jerusalem for power; some even made arrangements with the Byzantine emperor to the north in Constantinople. The nobles always had more power in the Holy Land than they had in Europe. The High Court in Jerusalem made sure the new king was elected properly, handed out money to the king, and helped raise armies.

Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187, and though some of the lands nearby were recovered in the Third Crusade (1189–92), it was not until the thirteenth century that western forces once again occupied the city—and that was for just fifteen years. The title of king continued to be handed down, though this was in name only. For a time the kings ruled from other cities in the Middle East and then from the island of Cyprus, but by the end of the thirteenth century the Kingdom of Jerusalem had become a fictitious, or imaginary, realm.

of the arts than she was a ruler, for she ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed burial place of Christ in Jerusalem, be rebuilt, and she established a large abbey (institution for nuns) at Bethany, near Jerusalem.

A Child of the Middle East

Melisende was born in Edessa, a county and city located along the northern boundary of the states the Crusades had established in the Middle East at the end of the First Crusade (1095–99), a part of modern-day southern Turkey. Her father, Baldwin of Bourq, was one of the original Crusaders. From 1100 to 1118 he was the ruler of Edessa, a position given to him by his cousin, Baldwin I, who became king of Jerusalem in 1100. Baldwin of Bourq married the Armenian queen Morphia. Melisende was born in 1105, just after her father had been taken prisoner by the Muslim Turks at the Battle of Harran. She would not see her father until 1108, when he was finally ransomed, an agreed-upon amount of money being handed over for his release. When her father's cousin Baldwin I died in 1118, Baldwin of Bourq was chosen to replace him and became Baldwin II, the king of Jerusalem and unofficial leader of all the Crusader states. The family of three daughters then moved to Jerusalem, where Melisende continued her education.

The reign of Baldwin II was not an easy one. Although history records seven different Crusades, there was, in fact, fighting between Muslims and Christians on and off throughout the Middle East from the end of the eleventh to the end of the thirteenth century. In 1119 Baldwin II had to deal with invading Muslim armies by leading Crusader forces in the defense of the Principality of Antioch, another important Crusader state near the Mediterranean Sea, in the far north of Christian lands. The Crusaders were badly defeated at what became known as the Field of Blood, though Baldwin was able to drive these invading Muslim Turks out the following year. Melisende's father was again captured by the Turks in 1123 and held for ransom. He gained his freedom in 1124.

By this time it was clear to Baldwin II that he would have no sons, so he began making preparations to hand over power to his oldest daughter, Melisende, at his death. Usually, sons or male relations took over from the previous ruler, but Baldwin wanted to keep the crown in his family. Baldwin thought that his daughter would need the right husband to help her rule. He chose a European nobleman, Count Fulk V of Anjou, a powerful French region. In 1127 messengers were sent to France to make a deal with Fulk, a widower almost twice Melisende's age, who already had an older son. He was promised that he would be coruler with Melisende when Baldwin died. It took a long time to conclude the deal. When Melisende was officially declared the next queen in 1129, Fulk agreed to the marriage.

Queen of Jerusalem

Melisende and Fulk were married that same year. Soon they had two sons, the oldest being Baldwin, who would become Baldwin III, king of Jerusalem, and a younger son named Amalric, who would become king when his older brother died. As Melisende's father lay dying in 1131, he named Melisende, Fulk, and the infant Baldwin all corulers of Jerusalem. In effect, that meant that Baldwin III's parents were ruling for him until he became old enough to rule on his own. Melisende and Fulk were crowned on September 14, 1131, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was still being rebuilt by the Crusaders.

Things did not go well between the couple almost from the beginning. Melisende was accused of being the mistress, or lover, of the count of Jaffa, a rival to Fulk, whose name was derived from the port of Jerusalem. Soon the kingdom was split into two camps: those who supported Melisende and those who supported her husband. The count of Jaffa actually rebelled against Fulk, bringing in Egyptian soldiers to fight for him. Fulk put down the rebellion, and the count of Jaffa was forced to give up his property, but Fulk was not the winner. Melisende won the support of enough nobles of the Kingdom of Jerusalem so that Fulk, who wanted to rule on his own, had to share that honor with his wife, permitting her to have a real voice in governing Jerusalem. It was also said that Melisende had hired the deadly Assassins, a group of religious extremists and murderers, and that this so terrified her husband that Fulk never again made any decision without first asking Melisende for her opinion.

While these Franks, as the Muslims called the Christian invaders, fought amongst themselves, Zengi, a strong Islamic leader, was building up his forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, hoping to unite the Islamic world to fight a jihad, or holy war, against these Franks. First he had to challenge other Muslims, such as the Muslim leader Unur of Damascus, Syria, to try to gain power in the Muslim world. In 1139 Fulk actually sent a Crusader force to fight with Unur at Damascus against Zengi, their common enemy. Fulk was successful in this. For the next five years things were peaceful in Jerusalem. Zengi was busy keeping his lands together in Iraq, while the Muslims in Egypt had their own internal battles and rivalries to deal with and left the Crusader states alone.

When Fulk V died in 1143, Melisende became the main ruler, since her son was still an adolescent, or under age. She also placed Manasses of Hierges, a local lord and relative of her husband's, in the powerful role of constable of Jerusalem—in effect, making him another ruler. Baldwin III, her son, did not like being kept in the background and was eagerly waiting for the moment when he could rule on his own. Rivalry was already growing between the powerful mother and her son. The year 1143 was an important one for the Christians in the Holy Land, for not only did the king of Jerusalem die but also John Comnenus, ruler of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern Roman Empire based in present-day Turkey and Greece.

Zengi, the Muslim leader, took advantage of these deaths and the disorganization in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to invade once again. In 1144 he and his soldiers took Edessa, an action that brought a new wave of Christian Crusaders to the Holy Land in the Second Crusade, which was led by the French king Louis VII and the German king Conrad III. In 1146 Zengi was murdered by one of his own men. His equally powerful son, Nur al-Din, took over his fight to unite Islam. When the new Crusaders arrived in 1147, they attacked Damascus instead of trying to retake Edessa and were badly defeated, further weakening the position of the so-called Latin Kingdoms, or Crusader states in Palestine and Syria.

Mother Against Son

Melisende enjoyed having power too much to want to share it with her son. When the time came for the handover of the crown to Baldwin III in 1145, she ignored the date and continued to rule on her own with the help of Manasses. In addition to her duties as queen, Melisende found the time to oversee the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was completed in 1149. This major symbol for Christians was also the primary site that pilgrims (visitors) to the Holy Land wanted to see. Melisende and her architects gave the church a Romanesque look, a style of architecture with round arches and high ceilings. She also founded an abbey for nuns at Bethany, spent a large part of her personal fortune on a project to beautify the city of Jerusalem, and generally supported the churches of the kingdom.

By 1152 Baldwin III was twenty-two and tired of waiting for his mother to hand over power to him. He complained to the High Court of Jerusalem, a group composed of nobles and church leaders who made legal decisions. Baldwin asked them to divide the kingdom if his mother refused to give up power. They agreed. Baldwin got the cities of Tyre and Acre, while his mother got Jerusalem and Nablus. The court also decided that Manasses had to give up his power. But Melisende would not be defeated so easily.

Tension grew between mother and son, and soon Baldwin attacked Jerusalem and forced his mother to give up both the city and her power. She moved to Nablus, where she kept a hand in government. The rivalry between mother and son was finally laid to rest, and Melisende supposedly became one of her son's closest advisers until her death in September 1161. Melisende was buried at the simple Church of Saint Mary Josaphat in Jerusalem. Baldwin III died a little over a year later. He, however, was buried in the much more important Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Although she supported art and architecture during her rule, Melisende proved to be an ineffective leader. During her time as queen, the Muslims made large gains in recovering land from the Crusaders. The rivalries between husband and wife and between mother and son weakened the kingdom. Jerusalem would not have another female in line to become ruler again until 1186—Sybille, granddaughter of Melisende and wife of Guy of Lusignan. In that case, however, Guy had the role of king and held the real power in the kingdom. The year 1187 marked the beginning of the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, when the Islamic leader Saladin (see entry) captured Jerusalem. Although the kingdom hung on for another century along a thin strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea, the end was in sight. Melisende's rule was only one of several reasons for this final loss, but the infighting between competing factions (groups) in Jerusalem was a sign of the loss of Crusader unity among these men and women who had come to fight the infidel (one who is not a Christian), and stayed to build a Christian kingdom in Palestine. In fact, the Christians proved that they were no better at uniting into a single state than the Muslims had been.

For More Information


Jones, David. Women Warriors: A History. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1997.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. 2nd ed. Translated by John Gillingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Millan, Betty. Monstrous Regiment: Women Rulers in Men's Worlds. Windsor Forest, UK: Kensal Press, 1982.

Oldenbourg, Zoé. The Crusades. Translated by Anne Carter. New York: Pantheon, 1966.

Web Sites

"The Great Crusades: A Woman's Role." The Cultural Crusades. (accessed on April 21, 2004).

"The Kingdom of Jerusalem." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for MedievalStudies. (accessed on April 24, 2004).

"Kings of Jerusalem." Medieval Crusades. (accessed on April 16, 2004).

"Melisende Queen of Jerusalem." Women in World History. (accessed on March 30, 2004).