Alice of Antioch: Rebel Princess

Katherine Pangonis

Katherine Pangonis offers a revisionist perspective of the female voice during the 12th century crusades.
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On the banks of the river Orontes, some fifteen miles from the Mediterranean coast, lies the modern-day city of Antakya. In ages past, this city was known as Antioch: the capital of Roman Syria. After the collapse of the Empire, the city entered a period of decline, but during the Middle Ages would once again become a place of great importance. A hub of trade and cultural exchange, strategically located, flanked by the great Orontes and the Nur mountains, it became the centre of the second crusader state forged in the eleventh century.

At the age of nineteen the heir to this principality, Bohemond II, made his way to Antioch from Europe to claim his inheritance, and a waiting bride as well. The bride was Alice of Jerusalem, daughter of the King and Queen of Jerusalem, Outremer’s greatest power couple: Baldwin II and Morphia of Melitene. Alice had three sisters but no brothers: the legacy and dynastic ambitions of her parents rested entirely on the shoulders of Alice and her sisters. Of all of them, Alice would prove the most headstrong, though it was certainly a close-run contest.

The story of Alice of Antioch is the story of a woman on a quest for independence. The story of her legacy and treatment by historians is one of defamation, prejudice and criticism. Alice was a complicated woman, and certainly a belligerent one. She was not however the two-dimensional villain painted in the history books. William of Tyre, one of the greatest historians of the 12th century, called her ‘extremely malicious and wily’, and modern historians have called her ‘flighty’ and ‘silly’. Alice’s history is full of gendered slander. The reality of her story is far more nuanced, and from a careful consideration of the chronicles, the image of a fierce, indefatigable and ambitious princess emerges.

Alice’s husband Bohemond II was presented in these chronicles as a medieval heart throb and their marriage started well. The couple swiftly had a daughter, but within two years of Constance’s birth her handsome father was beheaded in a Cilician war. His golden head was sent as a grisly trophy to the caliph of Baghdad.

The demise of Bohemond II heralded the rise of Alice. Widowhood was the freest a woman could be in medieval Outremer, and this was the first opportunity she was given to seize independence. Over the next six years, Alice would rebel against her would-be overlords – the kings of Jerusalem – three times, defying both her family and the fiercely patriarchal rules of her society.

Following Bohemond II’s death, Alice needed to act quickly. She wanted to claim control of her city, and rule it in her own right, rather than be thrust into the arms of another husband while Bohemond’s body was still warm. She might be able to pull off such a scheme, if she could rally the support of Antioch’s nobility behind her, and somehow fend off the army of Jerusalem. Without a moment to lose, she proclaimed herself ruler of the city, and regent for her daughter.

While Alice strategized, her opponents began to move against her. Her father and brother-in-law in Jerusalem would not entertain the notion of a teenage, female regent. With this in mind, they assembled a force and made ready to march on Antioch to take control of the city. When they left Jerusalem, they had no idea that Alice was preparing to resist them.

Hearing of their approach, Alice overplayed her hand through panic. She knew she could not hope to resist the King of Jerusalem in battle, for one thing Antioch had next to no army left since most of its knights had been killed alongside her husband in Cilicia. Alice needed a powerful ally with the military might to challenge Jerusalem. In desperation, she sent a messenger to none other than the Turkish Atabeg Zenghi, a Muslim warlord and the nemesis of her father. Alice offered homage to Zenghi in exchange for assistance in repelling her father and maintaining control of Antioch, deciding that retaining control of Antioch was more important to her than her loyalty to her Christian heritage. In making this decision, she doubtless alienated many of her supporters within the city.

Alice arranged an elaborate and symbolic gift to be sent with a messenger to the Atabeg: a snow-white horse, shod with shoes of silver and adorned with a saddle and bridle of white silk and silver. The messenger and palfrey never reached their destination. They were intercepted by Alice’s father’s men as they marched to Antioch, and after a brief interval of brutal torture in which the messenger revealed his mission and Alice’s intentions he was put to death. History does not relate what happened to the lovely white palfrey.

When Alice’s father arrived at the city, brimming with fury at his daughter’s audacity, he found the gates barred against him and the recalcitrant Alice refusing him entry, unless he promised her independence and the rule of Antioch. However, at the sight of the assembled fury of Jerusalem at their gates and realising the weakness of their princess’ position, many of the Franks within the city began to have second thoughts about supporting Alice’s rebellion. A Frankish knight, William of Aversa, together with a monk named Peter the Latin ignored the orders of the princess and opened the gates. In desperation, Alice retreated to the citadel of the city and barricaded herself inside.

It was not long before she accepted that further resistance was futile. After receiving the assurance of her life from her besiegers, she begged forgiveness from her father.

For a variety of reasons, she received it. In lieu of other punishments, she was banished to her dower lands in Latakieh. Baldwin took on the regency of Antioch himself and returned to Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, he died, exhausted by a life of constant campaigning. He was succeeded as king by his son-in-law Fulk, and daughter Queen Melisende.

Just as the death of Alice’s husband presented an opportunity to Alice, so too did the death of her father. The transition between rulers was always a delicate time in Outremer, and the death of a king or prince (or a huge battle against the Muslims) marked the time when the kingdom was least stable and least likely to resist an attempt to change the political order. Thus, almost immediately following the death of her father, Alice struck again.

Her second rebellion would focus on contesting the ‘suzerainty’ of Jerusalem, not only over Antioch but over the two other crusader states of Tripoli and Edessa as well. This second bid for independence would be far more threatening than her first and demonstrates Alice’s political skill in building an alliance with other crusader states.

In simple terms, suzerainty equated to over-lordship, and if the king of Jerusalem held suzerainty over Antioch it meant that while although technically the Principality was recognized as independent and enjoyed aspects of self-rule, the practicalities of this independence were limited.

A plot was hatched between the new generation of rulers in the states of Outremer to rid themselves of the over-lordship of Jerusalem once and for all. News of the plan reached the ears of certain Frankish noblemen who were not sympathetic to Alice’s cause, and who tipped off Fulk in Jerusalem. The new king immediately began to move his army north, to put down Alice’s rebellion and neutralize the unrest in Antioch for a second time.

Antioch lies in the southernmost province of modern Turkey, and to reach it from Jerusalem, one has to pass through modern-day Lebanon, which in the 12th century was the county of Tripoli. When the royal army reached the city of Beirut, King Fulk found that his way was barred by Alice’s ally, the Count of Tripoli. Fuming at this insubordination, Fulk loaded his army onto ships and sailed to Antioch.

The king had little difficulty in subduing the city, Alice was not a military leader and had no great army to speak of. Furthermore, Alice had once again failed to ensure the cooperation of the nobles of the city, and so Fulk was able to take control with relatively little difficulty. With the capitulation of Antioch, and the subsequent defeat of her allies, Alice was forced once again to flee to Latakieh, where she would bide her time, hatching one final plan.

While short-lived, this hastily patched up civil war nevertheless left dents in the armies of both Tripoli and of Jerusalem. Fulk and his advisors decided that Alice’s dreams of regency and rule in Antioch needed to be extinguished once and for all.

Surprisingly, Alice was permitted to return to Antioch not long after this conflict, but not as regent, instead under a new government installed by Fulk. Fuming, Alice began to once again marshal her forces in one final attempt to take control of the principality. It was her life’s ambition to rule Antioch and once again, she claimed regency and brought the great gates of the city swinging shut and declared herself against Fulk and Jerusalem.

Curiously, King Fulk did not react. No army was sent to Antioch, Alice ruled unchallenged. The princess may have breathed a sigh of relief, believing that perhaps her sister the Queen had intervened on her behalf.

During this period of eerie quiet, another curious incident occurred: a suitor arrived at the gates of Antioch, and offered to wed Alice.

The young man in question was Raymond of Poitiers, ‘of noble blood and ancient lineage’. According to those chroniclers that knew him, he was a charming and elegant prince. He was devout, skilled in war, good looking, and generous. This was an attractive offer to Alice, Raymond was only a few years her junior and it may have seemed like a blessed compromise when this man showed up out of nowhere to pay her suit. While Alice had once sought to rule Antioch in her own right, her position had deteriorated in the wake of two failed rebellions, and perhaps she could now see the wisdom of marrying a powerful lord of attractive countenance who could help her retain control of her beloved city.

Indeed, he did seem to appear from nowhere, as he had travelled in disguise to Antioch, and Alice knew nothing of his arrival until he was on her doorstep. The patriarch, anxious no doubt to restore order to the principality under a traditional male ruler, assured her that Raymond was a good match, handsome as he was, from a good family, a similar age to her, and offering promises of co-rulership. Alice, under the patriarch’s guidance, consented, and the young man was admitted to the city. The princess set about making preparations for her long awaited second marriage.

No sooner was Raymond admitted and Alice’s wedding preparations commenced, than another wedding took place in secret unbeknownst to Alice. The bride was Alice’s daughter, the little Constance of Antioch, and the groom none other than Raymond of Poitiers.

While Alice had been busy preparing for what she imagined to be her own wedding, no doubt ordering food and decorations for a feast, her assumed fiancé had married her eight-year-old daughter instead. Beyond the personal mortification this must have caused Alice, this marriage effectively cut her out of the line of succession and positioned Raymond to be the next Prince of Antioch. This scheme had been Fulk’s brain child, and it had been his emissaries that had proposed the match to Raymond in England and smuggled him out to Antioch.

Alice had been duped. This was her final defeat. Consumed with rage and humiliation, she fled the city, retiring to Latakieh where she would pass the rest of her days in quiet isolation. With the marriage of Princess Constance, any claim Alice had had to regency was nullified with immediate effect: Constance was the heir to the city, Alice only a guardian, and a mother is second place to a husband. Alice was publicly humiliated, and her daughter wed to a man four times her age.

This was an anticlimactic end to a career that, while ill-fated, had been exceptional for a woman at that time. Alice’s remarkable qualities and unrelenting determination to seize agency have been deliberately discredited throughout history. In the Middle Ages, the most effective way was to undermine her femininity. In describing Alice’s rebellions, William of Tyre is at pains to state that Alice was a bad and unnatural mother: he asserts that the child, Constance, ‘did not stand high in the favour of her mother’ and that ‘Alice was determined to disinherit her daughter and keep the principality for herself in perpetuity.’

This kind of petty yet damning criticism was designed to keep women in their place and prevent them from seizing power. Alice’s rebellions were not the actions of a ‘flighty’ or ‘silly’ woman but rather were political endeavours which challenged the pre-eminence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem over the Principality of Antioch. She was defeated by lack of military strength and ultimately was deceived by Fulk, the Patriarch of Antioch and Raymond of Poitiers. The remarkable career of Alice of Antioch deserves greater recognition than it has hitherto received.

Katherine Pangonis is a historian specialising in the medieval world of the Mediterranean and Middle East. She holds MA degrees in literature and history from the University of Oxford and University College London. Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule is her first book.