Women and Power in the Kingdom of Heaven: Melisende and Sybil Lecture by Professor Helen Nicholson and Hayley Bassett

Earlier this week I attended the fantastic Eileen Younghusband Memorial Lecture Women and Power in the Kingdom of Heaven: Melisende and Sybil hosted by the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University. I’ve been interested in the queens of Jerusalem since picking up a copy of Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule by Katherine Pangonis earlier this year, after seeing her article in BBC History Magazine. I have a longstanding interest in Queenship, but had never really explored queens in this geographical area before so when this talk came up on my Twitter feed, I knew I had to attend!

The talk began with an introduction by Dave Wyatt about Eileen Younghusband, who the lecture series is named after. I hadn’t heard of her prior to this but damn what a woman! She was a veteran who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World, earned her degree aged 87 and wrote 3 books prior to her death in 2016 aged 95. After this introduction, the talk then moved into two parts with Hayley Bassett discussing Queen Melisende and Helen Nicholson discussing Queen Sybil.

Coronation of Melisende and Fulk

Melisende was the first Queen Regnant of Jerusalem, being the eldest of Baldwin II’s four daughters. She was married to Fulk of Anjou (who was the grandfather of Henry II of England) and they went on to have two sons Baldwin and Amalric. Baldwin recognised Melisende as his heir, and educated her on the realities of rulership. By including her early, Baldwin was ensuring his key supporters accepted Melisende when the time came for her to inherit the throne. When Baldwin died Melisende ruled jointly with Fulk, well at least in theory, on a practical level Fulk shut her out. This was incredibly frustrating for Melisende, but the assassination of her loyal supporter Hugh, Count of Jaffa changed the political landscape. Fulk was already on shaky ground, he was not a popular chap, and his position was weakened by the assassination. Melisende assumed more power, and after Fulk’s untimely death in 1143 she ruled independently as her son and heir was only 13. As Hayley noted although her son was crowned and technically ruled with her, she was the one with who held the reins of power. Eventually her son rose up against her, as he wanted more power and authority, which led to a schism. Ultimately the two were reconciled and Melisende retained power and influence, despite Baldwin taking more of a key role, until her death in 1161.

Betrothal and marriage of Sibyl & Guy

The talk then moved on to Melisende’s granddaughter Sibyl. Sibyl was not as successful as Melisende, with the Western Crusaders ultimately losing Jerusalem during her reign. Helen mentioned how sadly there are no contemporary images of Sibyl and nothing is known about her personality. She’s most well known for agreeing to divorce her second husband, the unpopular Guy of Lusignan, for the crown of Jerusalem with the agreement she could choose her next husband. She then chose Guy and had him crowned King of Jerusalem, quite the power move. She appears to have been happy to acquiesce her power to Guy, and only took action when she had too for instance when Guy was imprisoned by Saladin’s forces after the Battle of Hattin in 1187. After the loss of Jerusalem, she wandered through the nearby Crusader states before dying in 1190 during an epidemic in Acre.

It was awesome hearing all about Melisende and Sibyl, with both Hayley and Helen knowledgeable and enthusiastic speakers. A silver lining of the lockdowns has been  that more events are taking place online, making them more accessible. I really enjoyed attending this talk and will keep a look out for future Eileen Younghusband Memorial Lectures!

Did you attend this talk? Do you know much about the Queens of Jerusalem? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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