Melisende and Fulk

Melisende was named for the Countess of Rethel, Baldwin II’s mother; it’s a variant of Millicent, an old Germanic compound name. Now it has become the name of a fairy-tale heroine of an opera, so it sounds fanciful, but when Melisende was named, it was probably just a family name.

The difficulty of finding a husband for Melisende lay in the family’s need for a strong war leader who would not only marry her, but also be loyal to her interests. Nothing would really stop a powerful man from marrying her, being crowned, and setting her aside. There was no clear choice among the local lords whose characters and alliances were known. The King of France chose the Count of Anjou, Fulk, a middle-aged man. Fulk was strong enough to hold Jerusalem against enemies and make wise decisions about internal plots and diplomacy. But was he actually too strong? His marriage was pragmatic, and it was soon clear that his marriage with Melisende was a battle of the Titans. Melisende was no traditional French wife; she was used to attending council meetings.

When Melisende gave birth to a son in 1130, her father saw an opportunity to block Fulk from a possible coup against her. First, he decreed that Melisende had sole custody of the infant Baldwin. Second, kings could have their successors anointed and crowned during their own lifetimes. Baldwin II had Melisende, Fulk, and infant Baldwin III crowned as joint monarchs. Fulk took as little notice as possible and began acting as if he were sole king.

After Baldwin II died in 1131, it only got worse. Fulk made it clear in public that he had little regard for his wife or her hereditary rights. In 1134, he took the first steps of exactly what the father had feared: setting her aside to make room for his own family. He began with a splash, publicly accusing her of adultery.

Melisende had always been close to her cousin, son of Baldwin II’s sister, who was now Count Hugh II of Jaffa. Fulk accused Hugh of treason, specifically of adultery with the Queen. Hugh was convicted by Fulk’s supporters in the council and, to defend himself, went into full military revolt. Jaffa allied with the Fatimid governor of Ascalon, and then Fulk besieged it. Fulk did, in fact, win the battle: that’s why he had been imported as a husband for Melisende, after all. He was good at these things.

Hugh was sent into exile, but as he was waiting for a ship to take him, he was suddenly attacked by a French knight from a region suspiciously close to Anjou. Public opinion had never accepted the allegations against Hugh and Melisende; Baldwin II had been a popular ruler who left behind much loyal sentiment.¬†Everyone believed that the assault was an attempted assassination, and the only reason to kill Hugh was to stop him from someday proving the queen’s innocence.

From that day forward, Fulk lost the power he had been trying to build up. Melisende’s supporters in the council enforced her presence and cooperation with all ruling decisions. Fulk was still needed as a war leader, but he had to become a king consort. He withdrew his allegations against Melisende and accepted living with her again. She had one more son, Amalric, before Fulk’s death in 1143.

By the time Fulk died, Melisende had become fond enough of him to seem genuinely grieved by his death. One record of Fulk says he was a cheerful, honest knight who just had difficulty remembering people’s names.

But after Fulk was gone, Melisende ruled alone. Well, technically, with her son Baldwin III. But that’s another story. Melisende is most famous today for her ownership of a Psalter that survived into our times, beautifully decorated and preserved at the British Library.

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