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Women who dared to rule

Female rulers such as Queen Melisende were forces to be reckoned with in the medieval Middle East, explains Katherine Pangonis

In 1134 a scandal erupted at the heart of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. A knight stood up in open court and accused his stepfather of treason and plotting to kill the king. He then challenged him to trial by combat. The knight was Walter of Caesarea and his fuming stepfather was Count Hugh of Jaffa. The king allegedly threatened was Fulk of Jerusalem. The chronicles do not elaborate on the nature of this treason, or provide any evidence to substantiate it. Many believed that the charges were false, fabricated by King Fulk as a means of discrediting a hated rival. Vicious rumours were swirling that the count was having an affair with Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, Fulk’s wife. The two were certainly close, indeed Hugh was Melisende’s own cousin and one of her staunchest supporters, but there is no evidence to suggest they were intimately involved. This public accusation of treason shone a light on the adultery rumours as well, and Hugh and Melisende found themselves afraid for their lives. Shock waves reverberated through the kingdom. Indeed, Fulk had more than one reason to want rid of Hugh. This matter was political and went far deeper than simply the fury of a cuckolded husband. Melisende’s share of royal authority was confirmed when she was crowned jointly with Fulk, becoming the first Queen regnant of Jerusalem. However, authority does not necessarily translate to tangible power. Medieval queens faced two challenges: first, being awarded authority in the first place, and second, being able to convert that authority into effective power. There were certain times and places where medieval society deemed it appropriate for women to wield power, such as ruling as a regent for their child, or defending an absent husband’s property from assailants. Such measures were deemed acceptable, but the concept of a female heir being invested with authority when healthy men stood by,

able to take control, still caused a certain amount of rancour.

In the early years of her reign, to the anger of many of the nobles of Outremer (the Crusader states), Melisende failed to convert her authority into the political power. Fulk excluded Melisende from matters of government, issuing charters and laws without her consent. Fulk’s political opponents resented this, and Hugh’s voice was loud among them. Such a man was a thorn in Fulk’s side and represented a further threat to his rule. Whether Hugh was guilty of either the affair or treason at the time of the accusation, he certainly did commit treason in the months following. On the day appointed for Hugh to attempt to prove his innocence in trial by combat, the young count was nowhere to be found. Instead of trying his luck with a long sword against the burly Walter of Caesarea, Hugh decided to rise in open rebellion against the king. He tried to rally support from among the local barons, and when allies were in short supply among the Christians, he turned to the Egyptians of Ascalon for support. His efforts were ultimately foiled, and Fulk’s armies crushed his would-be

Opposite: Map of Jerusalem,12th century, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

The joint coronation of Melisende and Fulk. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.

Photo: Alamy.

British Museum Magazine Winter 2021


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