Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, August 21, 2015

Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem

Melisende of Jerusalem (queen of Jerusalem, 21 August 1131)

The daughter of Baldwin II, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, Melisende followed her father onto the throne, as queen regnant, ruling Jerusalem for more than twenty years, from 1131 until 1153.  

Melisende at her
Born 1105 in the county of Edessa, a Crusader state established in 1098, Melisende was the daughter of Baldwin of Boulogne, the count of Edessa, and Morphia of Melitene, the daughter of an Armenian nobleman who ruled the nearby city of Melitene and became a vassal of Baldwin's.

Morphia was a politically astute companion to Baldwin, undoubtedly a capable model for her eldest daughter, Melisende, and the couple's other three children, all daughters, Alice (later princess of Antioch), Hodierna (later countess of Tripoli), and Ioveta (later abbess of Bethany).

When Baldwin became the king of Jerusalem in 1118, he was "encouraged" to put aside his wife, because Morphia had only given him daughters (three at the time) and as a king, Baldwin would, obviously, need a male heir. Instead, Baldwin raised Melisende as his heir, styling her "daughter of the king and heir of the kingdom of Jerusalem"; she was named officially as his successor in 1128.

Even so, Baldwin thought Melisende would need a husband to protect her status as queen regnant, and he arranged for her marriage to Fulk of Anjou in 1129, which proved to be a bad decision. (Fulk's son by a previous marriage, Geoffrey of Anjou, was married to a woman--and would-be ruling queen--whom we  have met before, Matilda of England.)

Even before Baldwin's death, Fulk began maneuvering to control Melisende's role as queen, aiming to reduce her to a queen consort rather than a queen regnant. But after Melisende gave birth to a son in 1130, Baldwin II held a coronation for his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, investing them as co-rulers of Jerusalem--Melisende alone was given the guardianship of her son, Baldwin III, thus reducing Fulk's influence.

After Baldwin II's death on 21 August 1131, Melisende began to rule jointly with her husband, who persisted in his efforts to wrest political power from her. Rather than rejecting a woman as ruler, the Haute Court, the feudal council of the kingdom of Jerusalem, supported Melisende. 

The conflicts and tensions between husband and wife persisted, and the two went to war in 1134. No less a man than the renowned theologian and religious reformer Bernard of Clairvaux urged Melisende to "show the man in the woman" and to "order all things . . . so that those who see you will judge your works to be those of a king rather than a queen."

After defeating the forces of her husband in 1135, Melisende was reconciled to him (she bore another child in 1136). She continued to rule with Fulk until his death in 1143, after which she ruled as regent for her son, Baldwin III. About Melisende's role as queen regnant, the historian and archbishop William of Tyre, concluded, "Power in the kingdom resided in the hands of the Lady Melisende, a queen beloved of God, to whom it belonged by hereditary right." (His Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, the History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea or the History of Jerusalem, was written between 1170 and 1184.)

In one form or another, she governed from 1131 to 1153, when Baldwin III was twenty-three years old--and insisted that he be given power as sole king, though he had shown no interest at all in governing before that time. To appease Baldwin, the Haute Court decided that, as a compromise, the kingdom should be divided into northern and southern halves, with Baldwin to rule the northern part and Melisende continuing as queen regnant in the southern portion, including the city of Jerusalem. 

But Baldwin was not happy with that decision. Once again, tensions broke out into warfare, this time the son attacking his mother. Eventually, peace was restored and Melisende "retired," though she was called upon to act as regent of Jerusalem for her son when he was on campaign, fighting endless battles to maintain control in the Holy Land.

Melisende died on 11 September 1161. Her son died just two years later, in 1163, succeeded by Melisende's younger son, Amalric. 

Interestingly, Melisende of Jerusalem was a ruling queen at a time when there were several notable women rulers. 

Although she was not a queen regnant, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who controlled the wealthy and politically significant duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, was Melisende's contemporary. As queen of England, she was a political player of the first order. Melisende and Eleanor actually met when Eleanor accompanied her first husband, Louis VII of France, on the Second Crusade.

We have also met Urraca of Castile and León, a queen regnant who, like Melisende, inherited her title from her father Alfonso VI. Matilda of England (1102-67), married to Fulk of Anjou's son, was designated heir to the English throne by her father Henry I, though she never managed to reign as queen.

And as another interesting note, Melisende’s sisters were also regents; Alice of Jerusalem (m.c. 1126) acted as regent of Antioch for her daughter, Constance, while Hodierna of Jerusalem (c. 1120s-50s) was regent of Tripoli. Melisende’s niece, Constance (1126-1160s), whose mother had functioned as regent of Antioch, herself governed Antioch as regent.

Melisende's correspondence is available at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters.

I can recommend two wonderful books about Melisende of Jerusalem. The first is a new biographical treatment, Sharan Newman's Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem. The second places Melisende in her cultural context: Margaret Tranovich, Melisende of Jerusalem: The World of a Forgotten Crusader Queen.

Update, 22 November 2019: The BBC's In Our Time features a full-length broadcast discussion of Melisende of Jerusalem on its 21 November program. To listen to the podcast, click here.


  1. Wish one could give more information about the relationship between Queen Melisande and Queen Eleanor when the latter (17 years older) stayed in Jerusalem - in the sense of culture-makers. All I know is that Melisande was the patron of the art books of the time and received the exquisite Psalter- and that Eleanor kept a court in Poitier as patron of poets and Romancers and held "a Court of Love". I'd like to know more, like who tought whom and what?

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and your provocative questions--exploring the connections among and the contacts between women is such a fruitful line of exploration for historians.

  2. Thank you for the resources at the end as well! Very useful

  3. Glad to see you are still interested in both the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the role of those remarkable women, Melisande and Eleanor.
    In Jewish lore (both the Talmud and the Kabbalah), Jerusalem is regarded as a female entity and the consort, or the Presence of God (the Shekhina). I am engaged in the design of "The Heavenly Jerusalem Games" where these two ladies have their place of honor. You might want to see the ongoing project as