Originally posted 3rd March 2023

When the Crusader king Baldwin II of Jerusalem died, he left behind a complicated succession plan. Because he had no son, the crown passed to his daughter Melisende; even during his lifetime she was styled as “Filia Regis et regni Jerosolimitani haeres”: “Daughter of the king and heir to the kingdom of the Jerusalemites”. Before his death he had married her to Fulk of Anjou and the couple had a baby son (also Baldwin), but although Baldwin had promised Fulk the crown he changed his mind on his deathbed: instead, Fulk, Melisende and, when he was old enough, little Baldwin would all be jointly crowned and rule the kingdom of Jerusalem together. There was no indication how this would work, but on 14th September 1131 Jerusalem technically got its first ruling queen with the joint coronation of Fulk and Melisende.

Fulk immediately tried to sideline Melisende and her sister Alice, who was the widowed princess of Antioch, ruling on behalf of her young daughter. Fulk eventually had to lead an army against Alice, but as soon as he returned victorious he found a rebellion growing in favour of Melisende. Eventually, threatened with civil war, he finally started to treat her as a true co-ruler. However, their reign together was brief; he died in a fall from his horse in 1143. On Christmas Day Melisende was crowned again, this time alongside her son. Her reign alongside him would continue to be difficult as he tried to claim the rights of a sole king and she fought to remain as co-ruler; the conflict would eventually result in a brief partition of the kingdom before she died in 1161.

During Melisende’s reign, Jerusalem saw a flowering of art and architecture as it became an environment where a mixed population of Christians - native and European - mingled with Jews, Arabs, Syrians, and Turks and merchants came from Persia, Byzantium, and Egypt as well as other parts of the Mediterranean world. She may also have inspired other female rulers and heiresses such as Eleanor of Acquitaine, who may have met her when she came to Jerusalem with her first husband Louis of France on the Second Crusade. Her situation was also a parallel to that of Empress Matilda, fighting for her throne in England, though it’s not clear if Matilda ever considered Melisende as a precedent.

Originally posted 9th March 2023

Joan - or Joanna - of Acre was the second daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, born while the two were on Crusade. When they returned to England so that Edward could be crowned, Joan stayed behind with her grandmother in France, only coming to England aged 6. Aged twelve, Joanna was probably present when her mother gave birth to her brother Edward - the future Edward II - in the middle of a building site at the part-completed Caernafon Castle. At that point she was already engaged and she was married to her first husband, Gilbert de Clare, a week after her eighteenth birthday. Gilbert already had daughters from a previous marriage, but he disinherited them in favour of Joan and any children he might have with her, presumably hoping at least one of those children would be a son. Even though it was an arranged marriage, he also showered her with gifts during their courtship, especially expensive clothes.

The marriage settlement made her a joint landholder with him and although by law all her personal property passed to him on marriage he still had to get her sign-off on land transactions. This also had a significant effect when he died while she was still relatively young. Normally, since a widow was not her husband’s descendant or a descendant of his family, she was outside the normal rules of inheritance and only entitled to her dower: a gift from her husband the day they married. Other gifts he gave her were void because she couldn’t own property and anything she was given, saved, or earned belonged to him. At high levels of society the wedding-day gift (known as dower) was usually land but was limited to a third of the husband’s estate so something would be left for the eldest son while his mother was alive. However, in Joan’s case Gilbert had agreed that she held his lands jointly with him, so as soon as decent after his death she went to her father’s court to secure a life interest in the entire inheritance; her son Gilbert wouldn’t inherit a single acre until his mother’s death. As lord of the Clare estates, she pledged fealty to her father, using an oath very similar to that she would have used if she were a man, and also got custody of her children, which as a widow she did not have by default.

As a widow, Joan was now a free woman - not under the control of a father or husband - and a very wealthy tenant of the king. Since that property would pass to a second husband, she had also taken an oath not to remarry without Edward’s permission, but she went on to fall in love with and marry a commoner named Ralph de Monthermer. Edward was furious, but there was little he could do about it except punish the couple: he confiscated Joan’s lands and had Ralph arrested. Joan argued for forgiveness in a rare example of a woman’s actual words being recorded: “It is not considered ignoble or disgraceful for a great and powerful earl to join himself in legal marriage with a poor and lesser woman. Therefore, in the same manner, it is not reprehensible or too difficult a thing for a countess to promote a gallant youth.” This played into the chivalric ideals popular at Edward’s court and the two were reconciled, with Joan’s lands and husband returned to her. To all appearances, the two were happy - though their spending managed to exceed their considerable income - until Joan died in 1307 while Ralph was on campaign in Scotland.

Originally posted 15th March 2023

The Taborites were a radical Christian religious group based in Bohemia in the modern Czech Republic during the 1400s. They were an offshoot of the reformist Hussite movement, named for the popular preacher Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415. His execution was all the more provocative because he had been arrested while under a promise of safe conduct personally guaranteed by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor-elect, and provoked open denunciations of the pope as the Antichrist: the Devil on earth. An attempted crackdown in 1419 led to open revolt, including the so-called Defenestration of Prague, in which rebels killed royal officials by throwing them out of the windows of government buildings, and then to the Taborite movement, as some Hussites founded new towns, each called Tabor. One of these was on the site of an existing abandoned settlement with a half-ruined castle and still exists today.

The towns were run on principles that would now be considered communist: there were no hierarchies, no private property, and social equality. In Taborite towns, girls were allowed to go to school alongside boys for the first time in Europe. They were also intolerant and militant, believing that anyone who had not come to live in the five Taborite towns was an enemy of Christ and should be killed: one chronicler wrote that “Each of the faithful ought to wash his hands in the blood of Christ’s foes”.

Even their fellow Hussites were horrified by this, but when the Hussite movement as a whole became the subject of pan-European crusades and the Hussites of Prague were under siege they were supported by a Taborite army led by a man named Jan Žižka. Under his leadership, the Taborites were a formidable fighting force and by his death in 1424 all of Bohemia was under their rule.

After that, and despite their continuing significant military success, the initial fanaticism of the Taborite movement began to fade; it was becoming clear that no apocalyptic Second Coming was imminent and in 1437 the final town of Tabor - with its castle - reached an agreement with Sigismund and became a royal town. It still stands today, overlooked by the Kotnov Tower, the last surviving part of the original castle, and concealing an underground network of tunnels begun as cellars in the 1400s.

Originally posted 23rd March 2023

Empress Judith of Bavaria was the second wife of Louis the Pious, the son and heir of Charlemagne. He married her in 819 when he was in his forties and she was under twenty, allegedly after choosing her from a line-up of beautiful aristocratic young women. He may have been copying a Byzantine custom by choosing a wife this way, though in the Byzantine empire the search for an empress was not limited to the nobility. On the other hand, the sources that mention that Judith was picked out of a line-up for her beauty were written much later and may not reflect actual events. She had plenty of other charms to recommend her, not least her family’s extensive political connections in Alamannia: modern south-west Germany.

Judith’s marriage came at a time of flux for the role of marriage in the Carolingian empire. Charlemagne had passed legislation declaring marriage to be indissoluble; before, it had been relatively straightforward for a man to put his wife aside (known as repudiation) and marry another woman. At the same time, informal “marriages” were common; Charlemagne’s own daughters never formally married and remained at his court, but many of them appear to have had long-term relationships and to have had children without any stigma attached to them or their boyfriends. In fact, Charlemagne’s daughters appear to have been the most influential people at the court other than him. However, this may actually have harmed the position of the women involved; a repudiated wife was entitled to a financial settlement, while an abandoned informal wife merely had her reputation ruined.

When Louis inherited the throne from his father, he continued his religious reforms and deliberately cultivated the image of a puritan reformer, including using that image to carry out a palace coup, justifying his actions by citing the sexual permissiveness and corruption of the court (including specifically the sexual conduct of his sisters). When Judith began to play an increasing role at court, she became a target for opponents to Louis; when his sons rebelled against him in 830, they and their followers accused her of adultery and witchcraft and twice forced her into a nunnery, but both times Louis freed her as soon as he could marshal enough of a following of his own.

The fact that Louis’ opponents had to go to such lengths indicates how the definition of marriage had changed; they couldn’t just demand he repudiate - divorce - her, as he might have been able to do a couple of generations earlier or even, legally, a couple of years earlier; in 829 reforming councils had declared that repudiation was forbidden and even adultery was not a reason for divorce unless the couple was unable to reconcile afterwards. This may have been why, having made the accusation of adultery, Judith’s attackers tried to send her to do permanent penance in a nunnery.

Originally posted 31st March 2023

Berengaria of Navarre was the often-forgotten wife of Richard I, AKA Richard the Lionheart. She is said to be the only queen of England to have never set foot on English soil and even contemporary chroniclers seem to have found little to say about her except that she was sensible rather than beautiful - a particularly unkind observation given that praise of a queen’s beauty and fertility was practically pro forma.

Legend has it that Richard first met Berengaria at a tournament hosted by her brother Sancho and it was love at first sight. However, during their marriage he had very little time for her: they only spent a few months together out of the almost eight years they were married, hardly suggesting a couple who had been besotted with each other since they were teenagers. On his deathbed, he called for his mother, not his wife. Rather than love, Richard’s main attraction to Berengaria may have been the simple fact that Navarre would be able to defend the southern border of his land in Aquitaine while he was on Crusade.

To an extent, Richard’s neglect of Berengaria was unavoidable: they were married en route to the Third Crusade and she could hardly join him at the front in an active war zone. Then, on the way back, they travelled by separate routes and Richard was captured and held prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor. However, even after he had been ransomed and released he remained effectively estranged from Berengaria.

When she received news of Richard’s death, Berengaria was apparently very distressed and she would spend much of her retirement constantly fighting with John - Richard’s younger brother and successor - and his son Henry III for the income and land she was entitled to as Richard’s widow. Letters still survive from her to the Bishop of Winchester, asking him to “cause us to be satisfied about the money due to us according to the composition of our dower” and to Henry himself asking for “1000 marks sterling, which you owe us at this feast of All Saints”. She also had to petition the king of France for the land she was entitled to, all of which was in areas of France lost by John. He settled the county of Maine on her and there she founded the Abbey of l’Epau and retired.