Thursday, October 15, 2015

Richard the Lionheart and the Women of Jerusalem

by Helena P. Schrader

Richard's Tomb at Fontevrault

There has been a lot of speculation about Richard the Lionheart’s sexuality over the years, but whatever his personal proclivities, he cannot be accused of misogyny. He was raised by one of the most powerful women of the age, and he not only relied upon his mother for advice, he also entrusted her with delicate affairs of state. His relationship with his sister Joanna was also characterized by mutual respect. When she flatly refused to be a pawn in his negotiations with Saladin, for example, Richard meekly accepted her decision and made no attempt to coerce her. That might all have been Eleanor’s influence, or were his attitudes and reactions also colored by his family’s strong ties to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and his own sojourn there?

The crusader states set themselves apart from contemporary societies by the prominent role played by women.  This high status probably evolved out of the repeated failure of the ruling dynasty to produce male heirs and the high mortality rate among adult males generally.  A look at the succession in the Kingdom of Jerusalem illustrates this well. When Baldwin II died in 1131, he was succeeded by his daughter, Melisende, who ruled jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou (grandfather by his first marriage of Henry II of England and great-grandfather of Richard). When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende remained Queen of Jerusalem, and ruled jointly with her eldest son, Baldwin III, (half-brother of Geoffrey d'Anjou, and hence Henry II's paternal uncle). Although her son eventually side-lined her, it was only after a struggle in which several powerful barons and most of the clergy sided with the Queen.

Medieval Illustration of a King and Queen

At Baldwin III’s death in 1163, his heir was his brother Amalric I, but Amalric’s heir was the ill-fated Baldwin IV, the Leper King, who had no children, making his sisters (and through them, their children and/or husbands) his heirs. As fate would have it, in the century between the death of Baldwin II and the ascension of Friedrich II as consort of a Queen of Jerusalem in 1225, the crown of Jerusalem passed through the female line no less than ten times!

The situation in the other crusader states and baronies thereof was similar. Due to the almost continuous fighting and the many exotic diseases for which the Westerners had no immunity, mortality rates among knights and barons in the crusader kingdoms were exceptionally high. While many men died without any heir, even more died without a male heir. The small size of the Latin elite combined with the natural desire of families to retain their lands led to the early recognition of female inheritance. By 1131, laws guaranteed the right of daughters to inherit, and primogeniture of the eldest daughter in the absence of a son was recognized.  As a result, the title to baronies repeatedly passed through heiress rather than heirs. This fact alone would have raised the importance of women, but it is significant that these queens (princesses, countesses and ladies) were not passive vessels.


Melisende was Queen in her own right and commanded loyalty and support among her vassals to such a degree that both her husband and later her son had to take her political wishes into account.  Sibylla (Richard’s 1st cousin) forced upon the kingdom a man patently unsuitable for the kingship and soon detested by her brother, the reigning King, and the majority of the barons.  When her son Baldwin V died, Sibylla – not her husband Guy de Lusignan – was crowned by the patriarch;  she then placed the crown on Guy’s head as her consort.  Furthermore, many of Guy’s vassals viewed their oaths to him absolved the moment Sibylla died – despite Richard’s determined support for Guy.

In the end, even the Lionheart gave up and recognized that without Sibylla, Guy could not be King of Jerusalem. The crown passed to Sibylla’s sister, Isabella (another of his cousins). Isabella conferred the crown on two men in succession, Henri de Champagne (Richard’s nephew) and later Aimery de Lusignan. Notably, Henri de Champagne, a nephew of both Philip II of France and Richard I of England (his mother was a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Louis VII), never even called himself King of Jerusalem; he remained Count of Champagne, while Isabella was Queen of Jerusalem.

Medieval Illustration of Isabella 
and possibly Henry of Champagne --
note her crown is more elaborate than the man's

The dynastic importance of women was both cause and effect of a uniquely high status for women in the crusader kingdoms that took many other forms. Not only did women act as regents and receive homage from vassals, they enjoyed a freedom of movement and opinion that scandalized the Muslim – and sometimes the Christian – world.  While the sexual antics of the some royal women may indeed have deserved censure, the higher status of women generally meant that widows in the crusader kingdoms exercised far more control over their property and their lives.

The higher status of women also impacted their daily lives. Upper class women were literate as they could not otherwise conduct their affairs, and they owned books. Some accounts stress that they rode astride for greater safety in an always precarious environment, something that gave them greater mobility. They did not have to go veiled in public, although women almost certainly covered their faces from the ravaging effects of the Palestinian summer sun when out of doors.  But perhaps most important, they were entitled to their opinions, free to voice them and often heeded by their male contemporaries. William of Tyre records multiple instances when Queen Melisende's opinion or that of her sisters was sought out. Likewise, the Count of Flanders sought the advice of Dowager Queen Maria in a dispute with Baldwin IV and the High Court. The Lady of Tiberius and of Oultrejourdain are other examples of non-royal women with documented influence.

A medieval illustration
of a woman riding astride
while engaging in the sport of hawking.

Compared to their faceless and voiceless sisters in the Muslim world, the fact that women in the crusader states were viewed as intelligent human beings with opinions worth hearing was undoubtedly the greatest privilege of all.

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Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in the crusader kingdoms. St. Louis’ Knight is set in the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus in the mid-13th century and Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are the first two books in a three biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and later played an important role during the Third Crusade. St. Louis Knight was winner of the 2014 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction set in the High Middle Ages.

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3 comments:

  1. Excellent article, Helena. Absolutely fascinating about the influence of these women.

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  2. I cannot agree more, excellent article. What has caught my attention is Henri of Champagne and his titulature. Reading Gilbert of Mons' Chronicle of Hainault I received the impression that perhaps it was due to his piety and the fact that he found himself unworthy that Henri refused to use the title of King of Jerusalem styling himself ‘lord of the kingdom of Jerusalem’ instead (and to the very end ‘count of Champagne'). Gilbert, who completed his chronicle between 1195-96 so a year before Henri's tragic death, described hinm as "utterly offered to the martyrdom of Christ", so it couldn't have been the count's premature death that made him do so. Perhaps Henri's reason to refuse to use the title was personal rather than political. Did Aimery use the title? Perhaps this could tell us more... Of course Gilbert could have had different reasons to write the words quoted above. Just speculating.

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  3. History is always very interesting and revealing,even in strange ways.Here we learned how the circumstances of the inability of various "kings of Jerusalem" to produce male heirs threw women into positions of prominence and great political influence. So at a time when their female contemporaries in the muslim world were faceless and voiceless,the queens of Jerusalem,literate and outspoken,were wielding great power.Enjoyable blog.

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