The Women Who Dared to Rule

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 against King Fulk of Jerusalem. He then challenged him to trial by combat. The accuser was Sir Walter of Caesarea and the accused Count Hugh of Jaffa. Many contemporaries believed that the charges were false: fabricated by the king himself to dispose of a hated rival. Walter was noted for his strength, and it is unlikely that Hugh would have emerged victorious from the ring if the dual had gone ahead. Rumours were swirling that Hugh was having an affair with Fulk’s wife, Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. The pair were cousins and the two were close. Hugh was one of Melisende’s staunchest supporters, but there is no evidence to suggest they were sexually 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 and at the centre of a furore. 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. The wheels that set this scandal in motion had begun to turn some years ago when Melisende’s father, Baldwin II of Jerusalem, made a deathbed alteration to his will. Baldwin II had no sons but wished to ensure the crown of Jerusalem remained tied to his bloodline. With this in mind, Baldwin II did something remarkable. On his deathbed, he summoned powerful men representing the church and the state, as well as Melisende, Fulk and their baby son, to attend him. He announced that he would leave the crown of Jerusalem not to Fulk as had previously been arranged, but rather divide its power equally in a triumvirate consisting of Fulk, Melisende and their infant son. This action seriously curtailed Fulk’s power and status, but the solemnity of Baldwin’s death silenced him for the moment. Nevertheless, a storm was brewing: Fulk had left his lands in France behind in order to become sole ruler of Jerusalem, not to share power with his wife. 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 secondly 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, Melisende failed to convert her authority into 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, a 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 revolt. He was dragged back to Jerusalem to await trial and punishment. Public opinion was sympathetic to Hugh however, and the punishment settled on him was the very lenient sentence of three years’ exile. As Hugh awaited a ship to carry him away, playing dice on the Street of the Furriers in Jerusalem, an unknown knight leapt forwards from the crowds and ran him through. The man was caught and brought to justice, and while he claimed to have acted of his own accord with the aim of winning favour with the king, it remained a PR disaster for Fulk. Queen Melisende’s rage at the attack on her cousin, and his subsequent death in exile, knew no bounds. She terrorised Fulk and his supporters and they fled from court. When provoked, she showed that she was a force to be reckoned with and she exploited the opportunity that this scandal provided to, rather than be ousted from the throne, manoeuvre herself to its centre. From that day forward, she was the dominant partner in her relationship with Fulk.
The Women Who Dared to Rule
Marriage of Guy and Sibylla, 13th century, source

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Melisende of Jerusalem represents just one example of an aristocratic woman in the medieval Middle East finding opportunities to seize power.

The unique instability and near-constant state of crisis created a political environment in which noble-born women could be propelled to prominence and wield real power. Life expectancy was short for kings and princes in this region. If a man were not killed in battle he could be struck down by disease or mishap. Women began to outlive their male relatives who normally would have controlled them and became lynchpins of power and political loyalty in their own right. Melisende’s sister, Alice of Antioch, led rebellions against the kings of Jerusalem and her other sister Countess Hodierna ruled Tripoli after her husband’s assassination. Melisende’s granddaughter Sibylla would play a leading role in the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin. Sibylla cuts a mysterious and forlorn figure in crusader chronicles. She would only succeed to the throne of Jerusalem over the bodies of her father, her brother and her son. On the day of her coronation, she made history, crowned alone and unmarried as queen regnant of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However the event that would truly shock her audience and courtiers was not her actual coronation, but what immediately followed. As soon as she had been anointed and the crown settled on her brow in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sibylla rose and declared to the assembled congregation: ‘ I, Sibylla, choose for myself as my king and as my husband Guy of Lusignan, the man who has been my husband’. Uproar followed. Sibylla had pressed on, raising her voice over the objections undoubtedly being spluttered out by the lords surrounding her: ‘He is a worthy man and in every way of upright character: with the help of God he will rule his people well. I know that while he lives that I cannot, before God, have anyone else, for as the Scripture says, “Whom God has joined, let no man put asunder” The explanation for this unexpected speech and the reaction to it is as follows. After the deaths of all her male relatives, Sibylla stood as the heir to the kingdom of Jerusalem. Those nobility willing to support her only did so on the condition that she divorce her unpopular husband, Guy. Sibylla countered this with the stipulation that she would be allowed to choose her own husband from among the nobility afterwards. Shrugging, they agreed. They did not expect her to deviously select her recently divorced Guy the minute the holy oil had made her Queen. This was a powerful act of agency on the part of Sybilla, but this first autonomous act of her reign may also have been her last. The evidence suggests that Guy was likely the dominant partner in their relationship. Sibylla had the right to rule as Queen Regnant rather than Queen Consort, a key distinction between being the actual ruler, or simply the wife of the ruler, but this was a right she does not seem to have claimed. Many blame Sibylla’s devotion to Guy and willingness to let him make decisions for the defeat of the army and the collapse of the kingdom.
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The Christians had held Jerusalem for eighty-eight years.

Out of the ashes, blood and filth of the First Crusade, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been forged. The Christian states of Outremer grew from a rag-tag group of sequentially secured principalities and counties, centring on the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Legends of the questing knights in shining armour who had led the First Crusade abounded in Europe, feeding into the outpouring of Arthurian literature of the High Middle Ages. The crusade became the stuff of legend to those Europeans left at home. Songs were written, stories, poetry, and perhaps most importantly, histories as well. The First Crusade and the formation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem became one of the best-documented events in world history and provides a rich trove of sources for historians today. Something important however is missing from both medieval and modern histories of Outremer, and that is the voice of the women of the Kingdom. For centuries the stories of the queens and princesses of Outremer have been all but written out of the historical record. Where they are included, the details are sketchy and have led to highly sexualized and orientalist portrayals in popular culture, such as Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine declaring that she ‘rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus’, and Eva Green’s scintillating yet suspect portrayal of a murderous Sibylla in Kingdom of Heaven. The historical legacy of women rulers is subject to a variety of unpredictable forces: each of the Queens and Princesses of Jerusalem have received very different treatment at the hands of historians from the twelfth century to the twenty-first. Some have been turned into sexual fantasies, some have had achievements or crimes attributed to them for which there is little evidence, others have simply been ignored. Most have been remembered as the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of powerful men, not as autonomous individuals and active leaders with their own political agency. This is changing. A new interest in medieval queenship has been piqued in the last fifty years, and in academia, more attention has begun to be paid to uncovering the lives of women. This is long overdue: the ruling women of Outremer were powerhouses of political ambition and backstairs intrigue. They are just as deserving of scholarly attention as their fathers, brother and husbands, and historians and history enthusiasts alike will find their study of the Crusades all the richer for including the lives and reigns of these remarkable women.
The Women Who Dared to Rule

Katherine Pangonis

Katherine Pangonis is a historian specialising in the medieval world of the Mediterranean and Middle East. She holds MA degrees in literature and history from Oxford University and University College London. She has a particular interest in rewriting the voices of women into the historical narrative, re-examining understudied areas of history and bringing her findings into the public eye. Travel is central to her research process, and that is how she spends most of her time. Her first book Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2021.
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