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.