In the medieval period, Jerusalem was central to the aspirations of Western Europe and the Pope – to fight the ‘infidel’ for the Holy Land was the pursuit of Kings and the ordinary men alike. To rule Jerusalem in this period was a challenge for the most competent of rulers, and this is why the nobility of Jerusalem attempted to persuade Melisende’s father, Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem to leave his wife, Morphia of Melitere. The couple had 4 children but they were all girls; he was encouraged to remarry so that he could have sons with another wife. He refused to abandon his wife and instead started to prepare his eldest daughter, Melisende (1105-1161 C.E.), to become his heir.
Baldwin’s decision in leaving his Kingdom to his daughter was a success – she was a highly competent ruler and well respected by the Haute Court, the Feudal Council of Jerusalem, who sided with her against male family members on several occasions. While Baldwin II might be seen as reasonably progressive for his time in trusting the competency of his eldest daughter to rule, he still felt she needed a strong husband to act as a co-ruler, and he arranged for Melisande to marry Fulk, Count of Anjou and Maine, in 1129. Fulk left Anjou to his young son, Geoffrey, which in turn gave his son the prestige to enable him to marry Matilda of England, the heir to the English throne.
Fulk was 16 years older than Melisende and almost immediately attempted to reduce Melisande’s future power to queen regent rather than queen regnant. This was not a good start to their marriage, but in 1130, the pair had their first son, named Baldwin after his grandfather. Baldwin had Melisende, Fulk, and baby Baldwin named as co-rulers at their coronation. With Melisende as the baby’s guardian, he was effectively reducing his son-in-law’s power. Baldwin II died a year later and Melisende and Fulk ascended to the throne of Jerusalem as co-rulers.
After Baldwin’s death, Fulk continued to try and erode his wife’s power, even going as far as accusing her of having an affair to discredit her. While this wasn’t believed, tensions between the couple escalated, and in 1134 the couple went to war. Melisende crushed her husband and the pair reconciled, having another baby in 1136, and they ruled together with relatively fewer problems until Fulk’s death in 1143.
After Fulk’s death, Melisende became co-ruler with her eldest son, Baldwin III. Due to his young age, she was co-ruler and regent, so in effect she was the sole ruler. It wasn’t until he was 23 that Baldwin showed any signs of wanting power, having enjoyed success as a military commander. However, Melisende wasn’t ready to cede control, which caused tension between the pair. The Haute Court decided on a compromise between them, splitting the region between mother and son; Melisende would rule the South, while Baldwin would rule the North. However, this wasn’t enough for Baldwin and conflict broke out again. This time Melisende decided to retire from public life, although Baldwin still trusted her to act as regent when he was away fighting battles.
While her husband and son sought to take power from her, Melisende was strong in defending herself. Even though her son fought her for power, it was unlikely he believed she was an incapable leader: he was quite happy to trust her regency whilst he was away. While the medieval period is not particularly well known for giving women opportunities to rule, two of Melisende’s sister’s also wielded power in this time: Alice, Princess of Antioch, and Hodierna, Countess of Tripoli, both acted as regents. Melisende was a successful ruler and garnered great respect – her accomplishments are even more impressive considering Jerusalem was a tumultuous place and her rule as queen regnant was unprecedented.