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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Taking the Reins

Coronation of Baldwin III and Melisende (Bibliothèque Nationale MS fr 779)

Through the issue of abdication, the highly popular and controversial television series, The Crown, the fourth season of which recently aired, has touched on what is certainly one of the most substantial concerns in the history of British monarchy, and one that was at the centre of another highly acclaimed series - Wolf Hall. I am referring of course to primogeniture (and before the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, male-preference primogeniture). But with the current English royal house, the difficulty that so famously faced Henry VIII, that of being able to produce a suitable heir, has been overtaken by a different problem, one occasionally facing the heir apparent - that of a sovereign’s longevity. Some English monarchs of the Saxe-Coburg, now Windsor family, are rather like those guests who come to dinner at seven and are still hanging around when the clock strikes one a.m., showing no sign of departing despite the host's frequent yawns and other, less subtle hints. Edward VII was nearly 60 when he finally inherited his crown and the current Prince of Wales, poor fellow, is already 72, while his mother (and here, my upbringing requires that I add - long may she reign) shows no sign of intending to hang up her crown.

If Edward had been impatient for nature to take its course, and Charles perhaps is even more understandably so, in the case of the crusader king, Baldwin III, such impatience was rather more difficult to justify. His mother, that best-known of crusader queens, Melisende, was not particularly old even by medieval standards, when he decided to demand that she step aside. She was in her mid-forties and he was barely 20.

The daughter of Baldwin II and his Armenian queen, Morphia, Melisende had married Fulk V of Anjou and Main in 1129. On her father, Baldwin II’s death in 1131 Melisende and Fulk ascended to the throne as joint rulers, and when Fulk was killed in a hunting accident twelve years later Melisende became both queen regnant by hereditary right and regent-queen for her son, Baldwin III, then aged 13. He was crowned jointly with his mother on Christmas Day, 1143. Joint crowning was not uncommon in medieval monarchies and Melisende herself during her father’s reign had been crowned queen at the age of 23 in 1128. At first this a was compatible arrangement and William of Tyre writes that Baldwin “lived in entire harmony with her and wisely complied to her dictates” which is natural enough considering his tender age.* However, by the time he was twenty Baldwin was eager to take over sole rule of the kingdom. According to William of Tyre, he was being manipulated by various elements in the kingdom for their own purposes. In 1152 he tried unsuccessfully to compel the patriarch of Jerusalem, to crown him alone in the Holy Sepulchre. The patriarch refused and Baldwin’s response was to stage a sort of self-crowning with a laurel wreath. He then demanded of Melisende a division of the kingdom between them. An arrangement was made whereby Baldwin was given control over the important northern port cities including Acre and Tyre, while Melisende retained rule over the inland region including the cities of Jerusalem and Nablus. This arrangement, however, satisfied neither side and was short-lived. Baldwin then took the initiative, invading his mother's territory and taking control of both Nablus and Jerusalem. Melisende sought refuge in the Tower of David, and Baldwin, in a display of extreme filial irreverence, brought in siege machines to oust her.** One cannot quite see the current Prince of Wales going to such extremes.

*William of Tyre, Chronicon 17.13, English trans., Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, vol. 2, New York, 1943, p. 204.

** Through mediation of the Church Melisende was compensated with possession of the city of Nablus. The two were later reconciled and Melisende died in September 1161.

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