Welcome to the first in a series of articles that take a close look at George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series from the perspective of a Ph.D. in Medieval history and literature. Each book in the series will be analyzed against actual historical events in the Dark and Middle Ages along with literature, factual or fictional, from that time. This is the first time the author is reading the novels, so keep in mind that she’s unaware of major spoilers but that spoilers will be revealed as she progresses through the material.
By Catherine Smith-Akel, Ph.D.
Cyning sceal rice healdan.
The Seven Kingdoms
This series of articles is, essentially, a first-reader’s reaction to GRRM’s texts. A background in medieval (Old and Middle English) literature and history will allow me to “connect the (historical) dots” and bring some insight into, perhaps, the legends and history on which GRRM draws. Or—if that’s not the case—then history, whether factual or fictional, probably does repeat itself. The medieval themes of the story pop right off the pages of his book—superstition, the place and roles of women in the story, the emphasis on honor and loyalty, the focus on tradition; however, the strongest theme is survival, and not just survival of the fittest, but also survival of the least fit.
Martin’s generic medieval setting crosses the centuries of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, from about the time the Romans left Britain in the fifth century to 1485, the end of the Plantagenet Dynasty. This first book, A Game of Thrones, however, seems to be placed in the later centuries of the Dark Ages, say from the 6th and 7th centuries up until the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Saxons, after annihilating the Celts, created what is called the Heptarchy or the Seven Kingdoms: Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland, and East Anglia.
At various times over the centuries, the king of any one of these kingdoms could be more powerful than the others. Also, these kingdoms often included other mini-kingdoms within their borders. The first true king of a somewhat united England is Æthelstan who ruled from 924 to 939. Is Athelstan GMMR’s Robert Baratheon? Martin’s description of the House Baratheon is “The youngest of the Great Houses, born during the Wars of Conquest” (A Game 810). Æthelstan, king of Mercia and Wessex, certainly faced his own “wars of conquest” with the Norse king, Sitric Caech of York (to whom Æthelstan married his sister) and, at Sitric’s death, with Sitric’s brother Gothfrith, king of Dublin who claimed his brother Sitric’s throne.
Æthelstan, like Robert, was involved in all kinds of confrontations with the other six kingdoms, as well as the rulers of Norway, Scotland, the Danes, the Welsh, well, the list could go on. His reign is commemorated by a famous Old English poem, “The Battle of Brunanburh” which took place in 937. Æthelstan handily defeated the combined armies of Constantine of Scotland and Olaf Gothfrithson of Dublin. Æthelstan’s house was truly one born during wars of conquest. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Edmund, known as “The Magnificent.” If anything happens to Robert, let’s see if anyone magnificent succeeds him.
King Robert has gotten himself into a nice fix by choosing a wife whose family seems to have overrun the castle. Cersei’s father and brothers are within Baratheon’s trusted circle. King Robert seems blithely unaware—or perhaps refuses to see—that the Lannisters have already betrayed and murdered King Aerys. Although Robert clearly is not fond of Cersei, he does nothing to prevent her from forwarding her family and ignores Eddard Stark’s warning to him. This certainly foreshadows events to come, events that will not be favorable to King Robert, just as similar events were not favorable to several kings of England. Ah, winter is coming indeed!
Although both post-Conquest, two kings whose in-laws invaded the palace walls were King Edward II (reigned 1307 to 1325; murdered 1327) and King Edward IV (reigned 1461 to 1483, although deposed in 1470 and restored six months later). Edward II’s wife, Isabella, nicknamed “the she-wolf of France,” raised an army against him with her lover Roger Mortimer. In 1325, with the help of her French relations, they defeated Edward. He was imprisoned until his murder—arranged by Mortimer—in 1327. To make Edward’s death look natural, Mortimer had Edward held down and a hot poker inserted into his bowels until he died; he was 43. Eventually, Mortimer was executed on the orders of Edward IV, and Isabella was confined to Castle Rising in Norfolk—she was 39.
Closer to the storyline of Robert Baratheon, King Edward IV married Elizabeth Wydville (Woodville). The new Queen Elizabeth made sure her family held positions of power at court, placing her in direct opposition to the Earl of Warwick, Edward’s Chamberlain of England, who himself had designs for wealth and position for his own family. The Queen, however, had other ideas and promoted her many family members, particularly her brother Anthony Wydville, the 2nd Earl Rivers. Finally, Warwick and his family fled to France, raised an army against Edward, but was defeated by Edward at Tewkesbury. Edward died at age 40.
After Edward’s death, Anthony Wydville was captured and beheaded by the future Richard III. Elizabeth and the rest of the Wydvilles were in disfavor—her two sons, Edward V, about age 12, and Richard, Duke of York, about age 9, were eventually killed probably by Richard III as well. Elizabeth wound up spending the last days of her life in an abbey and died at about age 55.
Given the fate of queens who practice extreme forms of nepotism, the fate of Cersei’s family will be interesting to see, especially if anything happens to Robert. After all, at this point, King Robert is the only one holding the kingdom together and he has enough problems without his wife’s family interfering. “The king shall the kingdom hold” (Cyning sceal rice healdan) is the directive for all kings but “holding” this fractured kingdom is no easy feat. Will Robert Baratheon be able to hold the kingdom? It will be interesting to see, as I continue reading, whether these and other similarities will follow…….Just who will unite Martin’s Seven Kingdoms?
About the Author
Catherine Smith-Akel studied medieval history at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Stony Brook University. Her dissertation was on the early fifteenth century The Book of Margery Kempe and master’s thesis on the late fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She has published articles on The Book of Margery Kempe, the tales of Robin Hood, and other medieval pieces. She has been presenting at medieval conferences for over twenty-five years, including the prestigious International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, England, and the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI.