Nowadays people complain that Game of Thrones, The Shannara Chronicles or any other modern dark fantasy is too violent. ‘Everything on TV is too violent.’ And then they go Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ But did you know that there was a plentyof violence in all the medieval romances where George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks and countless other fantasy authors have taken inspiration from?
We think that this is something recent. That authors in the good old days did not shock their audiences with vivid descriptions of brains splattered all over the stony ground (or wherever it was they did battle), and depraved carnal acts.
They knew better than that!
Well, boys and girls, that’s not how it went down. That is how the late 18th and 19th century writers would want you to believe (and some contemporary novelists) but in reality, medieval romances were filled with carnage and sex.
Just read Le MorteD’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, written at a time when England was embroiled in a violent civil war and you will see what I am talking about. Or better yet, read Chretien de Troyes. You do not have to go through all of his poem, just pick one at random dealing with the legend of King Arthur, and you will see nothing romantic about this legend. That is because our concept of romance is VERY DIFFERENT from what the medieval people saw as romance.
The more I revisit medieval romances, the more I fall in love with them (all over again). They are gory, sadder, than anything written recently. In a way, they were trying to copy their predecessors, Greek and Roman writers.
The way that Chretien, Sir Thomas Mallory, and several other medieval authors portrayed these legendary figures left a lot to be desired. And I do not mean this in a bad way. Arthur was a flawed character, his knights were less than perfect. Whoever wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” perfectly shows this. Sir Gawain sleeps with the Green Knight and (spoilers) after finding out that it was all a trap by the magical Green Knight (whom he previously chopped his head off), he gets angry but his anger turns to regret as he begs his opponent to absolve him.
Chivalry was one of the core tenets of medieval society. People aspired to be greater than their ordinary selves. This code of conduct was reserved for the rich, and only a select class of rich people. Aristocrats, Kings, and Queens, were seen as the moral arbiters of society. They were held to a higher standard than anyone else, people lived and died by their example.
But we are all human; we make mistakes. Some people learn from their mistakes, others refuse to accept any responsibility and continue to make them.
The Arthurian characters erred many times. Most of them picked themselves up and did their best to rectify their mistakes by becoming better people starting with them admitting they had done something wrong.
What the 18th and 19th century monarchs were smarter than their predecessors was in their approach to these figures. Rather than aspiring to live up to their example, they took a step back, read between the lives, examined their lives and used their failures as a way to reinforce their moral codes unto society.
What Victorians ended up getting was a morality play set in a pristine place that was ruined by human vice.
Out of all the writers of this era, the only one that didn’t follow this formula was Mark Twain with his science fantasy novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Originally intended to be satire, the author’s brutal depiction of the medieval era and use of sarcasm is truer to the medieval romances that popularized this legend than anything his contemporary Victorians wrote.
Gone was the sex and violence and acts that were too much for the Victorians to handle. Gone was also the political commentary. Some scholars believe that Sir Thomas Mallory used the Arthurian legend to criticize the two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty that had plunged England into a bloody dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Victorian writers did not want their audience to read between the lines. It was okay if aristocrats did it with older version of the novels that depicted a cruder and less civilized age, but not for the common populace who wanted something different (and far less complicated).
The end result is the medieval era as the new protagonist of Arthurian lore. An Eden-like setting filled with magic and beauty; the ideal place to escape.
This formula became so successful that it is still employed in TV, movies and other pop culture mediums.
To loosely quote what the character Fry from Futurama said, people do not want to be reminded of their dreary existence. They want to be spoon-fed the same old tired formula because otherwise, they will get confused or scared.
There is great book by Claire Ridgway that I recommend if you are new to the Tudor era or just new to some of the diseases that were plaguing the population during that time. The sweating sickness is by far one of the greatest mysteries of the Tudor era because no one knows exactly how it originated, although many scientists and medical historians have a good idea given some of the contemporary records.
“A remarkable form of disease, not known in England before, attracted attention at the very beginning of the reign of Henry VII.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
“It was referred to by many different names, including the Sweat, the Sudor Anglicus or English Sweat, the Swat, Stup-Gallant, Stoupe Knave and Know thy Master, Sweating Sickness and the New Acquainance.”(Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)
Claire Ridgway makes the distinction that she is not a doctor but has done a great deal of research on this topic (and she has also made a video on this topic which is a shorter version of the book) and has come to several conclusions, the main one being that this disease could have been the result of several things, including lack of hygiene in universities, homes and other places.
“Erasmus, in a letter to Francis, physician to the Cardinal of York, wrote of how English houses were not constructed to make a through-draft possible and that their rush floors were unhygienic because sometimes they were not renewed for around twenty years and so they allowed “spittle, vomit, dog’s urine and men’s too, dregs of beer and cast-off bits of fish, and other unspeakable kinds of filth” to fester. Oothers blamed the damp, foggy English climate and Caius mentioned flooding: “rot in the groundes after great flouddes, in carions, & in dead men”, but these factors are unlikely to have caused such an epidemic.” (Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)
She goes on to elaborate on other possible factors such as this being a new strain of influenza or a combination of various factors that made it possible for this to spread so fast and kill so effectively.
One thing she does dispel is that this was NOT brought over by Henry’s soldiers. This is something that is still perpetuated in some novels and while it makes for entertaining read, it is simply false. There are records of the disease before Henry and his army of mercenaries, disaffected Edwardian Yorkists and staunch Lancastrians landed on Milford Haven. In fact, one such account that she gives more details about in her book reads as follows:
“The disease was obviously known in England before the Battle of Bosworth because, according to the Croyland Chronicle, when Richard III called on Thomas Stanley to travel from his home in Lancashire to Nottingham, after news of Henry Tudor’s landing had broken, Stanley “made an excuse that he was suffering from an attack of the sweating sickness, and could not possibly come”. It appears therefore, that Henry Tudor and his forces cannot be blamed for its introduction.”
The Luminarium project website has an article on this subject that is straight from the Encyclopedia Britannica, third edition that dates back to 1910, leaving it clear that the disease hadn’t been brought to England by Henry’s soldiers but that it was already native to England.
“It was known indeed a few days after the landing of Henry at Milford Haven on the 7th of August 1485, as there is clear evidence of its being spoken of before the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd of August. Soon after the arrival of Henry in London on the 28th of August it broke out in the capital, and caused great mortality. This alarming malady soon became known as the sweating-sickness.”
The symptoms according to Thomas Forrestier, a French physician, who lived in London and wrote a treatise on the disease, were the following:
“A great sweating and stinking.”
Redness of the face and body.
English physician John Caius was more detailed in his description of the disease, adding that the muscular pain would be accompanied by redness, abdominal pain, cardiac palpitations and dizziness.
Game of Thrones, being partly based on the wars of the roses and the era after it, has sided with many novelists by having Ser Jorah on the show and Young Griffin’s (fake Aegon –sorry guys but I don’t think he is the real deal) guardian in the books be the ones that bring a horrible disease back to Westeros.
The show and books could surprise us by having these two characters finding some sort of miracle cure that stops it from spreading –sort of like what happened to Shireen- but it is unlikely. And it might be that the Stonemen’s disease or Greyscale, be Martin’s version of the sweating sickness in Westeros.
This would certainly make things difficult for Dany. The sweating sickness certainly did for Henry as it prevented him from going to certain places, or traveling alongside his wife years afterward. The sweating sickness was more deadly on England, killing many people and making no distinction between rich and poor.
Henry VII’s surviving son and heir, Henry VIII, could have come this close never to marrying Anne Boleyn because she happened to be one of the victims of this sickness. Thankfully for her and her family, she recovered. Other members of the nobility and the royal family weren’t so lucky. Take the Brandons for example. Charles Brandon’s last wife, Catherine Willoughby gave him two sons who survived infancy but didn’t live beyond that. During the reign of Edward VI they died, leaving the poor Duchess devastated.
The sweating sickness would go on to hit again with the last recorded incident in 1652 in Leipzig. This new variant of the disease would also be seen in other parts of the globe such as in France, Spain in Holland during the nineteenth century.
There were many attempts to cure it or control it with Henry VIII, who like his paternal grandmother, had a fascination with the natural world, keeping a detailed journal where he came up with several tonics and remedies to combat this disease.
In Game of Thrones we aren’t given a full explanation as to how Shireen’s father managed to stop the disease from spreading. Season five just reveals that Stannis hired every physician and magician from across the known world to come to Dragonstone so they could stop the disease from taking over and transforming her into one of the hideous creatures we saw that reside in Old Valyria. Like lepers in the ancient and medieval world, Stannis was advised to send his daughter away to live the rest of her life among the other people infected but he chose not to because he was convinced that she could be saved. It could have been a combination of his obstinacy (because Stannis is a proud man) and his love for his daughter that prevented him from making a poor decision that would see his only heir being sent to live the rest of her days as an animal. (Unfortunately, he would go on to make a worse mistake when he listened to Melisandre, and sacrificed her, believing that Shireen’s death would bring him victory.)
Daenerys sends Jorah away to find a cure. Some fans believe that Jorah will find himself back to the Quaithe, the mysterious masked figure viewers were introduced to in season 2 and whom book readers have long speculated about since we were introduced to her in ‘A Clash of Kings’. The first trailer for season 7 shows us as a disgusting looking arm with ridges, dried up blood and stone looking skin which leads us to believe it is Jorah and that maybe (like Shireen) he has found a way to stop the disease from spreading or that he hasn’t and like the rumors surrounding Henry’s men bringing the sweating sickness to England, he will bring a deadlier strain of the disease to Westeros, causing more deaths and more additions to the army of the undead.
Ridgway, Claire. The Sweating Sickness: In a Nushell. Made Global. 2014.
Lisle, Leanda. Tudor: Passion. Murder. Manipulation: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
A Song of Ice and Fire is rich with detail and characters that are as complex as the world they live in, and the faith they practice. The war of the five kings which was based on the wars of the roses is over. We have come to the Tudor period with strings of the last stages of the wars of the roses.
Henry Tudor failed to invade England in his first attempt. Buckingham’s Rebellion was supposed to destabilize the government but it did nothing of the sort. Henry didn’t give up and in his darkest hour he vowed that once he won, he’d marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the two houses of York and Lancaster and bringing peace to England.
It is unclear if the book series or the TV adaption will follow history but given that the latest trailer has made the similarities between the two more obvious, it is safe to say that it will come close.
We don’t know what Dany’s exact reaction is when she finally arrives to Westeros, specifically to Dragonstone. Dragonstone is the equivalent to Wales in the world of ice and fire.
Rhaegar was Daenerys’ older brother and thus, the crown heir and Prince of Dragonstone. Like his historical counterparts, the Princes of Wales, he was tasked with carrying out the King’s justice and ensuring that his subjects’ would stay loyal to the crown. Crown heirs as young as twelve would be sent here and like the princes of Wales, they would have their own household with a governor and tutors which would help them with the task of ruling and administering their principality.
After Rhaegar died at the battle of the Trident, many people saw his siblings as the sole heirs of the Targaryen dynasty. Like Henry Tudor, Daenerys was forced to flee along with her brother and seek refuge across the narrow sea. Her claim to the throne has been described as slim because of her gender and her father’s reputation as a tyrant, not to mention her older brother’s actions with Lyanna. But Daenerys insists that she, and only she, is the rightful heir to the throne and there is nothing she won’t do to get what she wants.
The Ones who were Promised
Daenerys is also seen as a savior by the followers of the red god. Coupled with the myriad of sell-swords, former slaves, hordes of Dothraki and disenfranchised aristocrats from her homeland, it is no surprise why she’s become the biggest contender.
The way Dany looks up in the latest trailer of season 7 after she lands in Dragonstone (way to make it obvious who these people are based on, am I right?) in an almost reverential manner is so similar to Henry’s reaction when he arrived to England after fourteen years in exile.
Besides claiming descent from the legendary Welsh King, Cadwallder, Henry also claimed to be a descendant of King Arthur, through his father, Edmund Tudor, who claimed to descend from Welsh Princes that went all the way back to ancient times. Henry Tudor adopted the symbol of the red dragon of Wales as his main banner, and as soon as the Welsh heard of his arrival, they began to sing songs about him, claiming that he was the one who had been promised.
According to the chronicler Robert Fabyan, upon arriving to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on the 7th of August 1485, Henry “kneeled down upon the earth, and with meek countenance and pure devotion began this psalm: judica me deus, and discern causmam.” (Psalm 43: Judge me, Oh God, and distinguish my cause.) Then Henry kissed “the ground meekly, and reverently made the sign of the cross upon him.”
Daenerys hasn’t shown herself to be pious but like her historical counterpart she has a strong sense of purpose. She believes that it is her right to rule because of her bloodline and her actions towards the slavers at the former slaver’s bay (now renamed Dragon’s Bay). But will that be enough to vanquish the forces of evil and more importantly convince the people to join her cause?
Only time, and in this case, shorter time (since the clock is ticking) will tell. Henry’s defeat of Richard III didn’t end the dynastic conflict, though he made it seem when he married EOY as if it did. And assuming that the theory of Dany marrying Jon Snow is correct, that won’t guarantee Westeros any peace as there will still be plenty of factions looking for ways to undermine their reign and gain the upper hand.
Another thing I noticed is Dany’s new look which mirrors Henry in his later years. Contrary to popular opinion, Henry didn’t always dress so dour. In her latest book, historian Tracy Borman talks about how he closely guarded his money and his possessions but he still spent a significant amount on clothing.
“… he had a more light-hearted side. His household accounts reveal that he was fond of playing cards, even though he regularly suffered heavy losses … Physically fit from his years of campaigning, he held regular jousts and liked to play tennis. The latter was a particular favourite with the king and was commended by a contemporary expert on courtly refinement as a “noble sport which is very suitable for the courtier to lay … for this shows how well he is built physically, how quick and agile he is in every member” … Miserly he may have been, but Henry Tudor was shrewd enough not to repeat this mistake. A man’s clothes –far more than those of a woman –were of great symbolic importance … Henry spent the greatest sums on his apparel during the early years of his reign, when he felt most insecure on his newly won throne.” (Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors)
Dany’s latest appearance mirrors that of Henry during the last years of his reign after he’d lost nearly all of his loved ones, including his wife and son.
Daenerys has this rich apparel with jewels and expensive fabrics, and she is finally wearing her house colors, but in contrast to previous seasons and other contenders, she appears more reserved. Even Cersei boasts of more jewelry and outlandish headgear than her! It could be that as Dany attempts to make her final claim at the Iron Throne, she wants to be seen more as a protector than a bejeweled tyrant.
Game Changers & Altering History
So after everything that I’ve written, you might be asking: Does this mean that Daenerys will end up as Henry Tudor? Beloved savior turned miserly female king who loses nearly all of her loved ones? As I previously stated, given that this is Game of Thrones, it is hard to figure out what the outcome will be but one thing is certain and that is that Daenerys as Henry Tudor have changed the rules of the game. As she told Tyrion in season four, she isn’t determined to be another spoke in the wheel, she wants to break it. “Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell, Stark … they are all just spokes on a wheel … On and on it goes … I am not just going to change the wheel, I am going to break it.”
This is an allusion to the wheel of fortune. A medieval concept that can be simplified to good luck vs bad luck. Either you were favored by God, or you weren’t (in which case you were pushed to the bottom of the wheel). Henry’s candidacy as the last scion of the House of Lancaster changed all that. If we looked critically at this claim, and forget about the outlandish tales he and his descendants weaved about his dynasty, we see someone who rose to power thanks to the in-fighting that was going on at England at the time and the tragedy of the princes in the tower, and who through his wit and cunning, won many people over, and who in spite of living on the run for most of his teenage and young adult life, grew up to be a very determined and cautious individual.
Daenerys says that it is her destiny to rule. Henry swore before an audience of disaffected Edwardian Yorkists and staunch Lancastrian loyalists at Vannes Cathedral in Brittany that he would bring them victory and peace by defeating Richard III and marrying Elizabeth of York. The way he spoke and interacted with his new allies, convinced them that he was a man worthy to follow. Over a century later, William Shakespeare wrote the conclusion to his history plays on the wars of the roses, ‘Richard III’. Richard III is filled with Tudor propaganda where he drew from plenty of sources written during Henry’s reign and his successors, that painted Richard as a hunchback and a twisted individual. It is no different than what we see Tyrion or Cersei being depicted at. While Cersei borrows the worst qualities assigned to Queen Regents and Queen Regnants during the Tudor era, the role she is playing in Daenery’s story is similar to that of Richard III.
There have been many fan theories that speculate that while the book series are told from different characters’ point of view, and we see this being expanded on the show, the whole story might not be nothing more than a single person’s take on these events. Someone who has interpreted these events based on what his best friend has told him, or how he wishes them to be remembered. Of course, I am referring to Samwell Tarly. The season 6 finale closed the chapter on Samwell’s story with him and Gilly and her son arriving to Old Town where they meet one of the grand maesters. He is examining a document with a special lens and as he guides Sam to the main library, we see the astrolabe which is largely featured at the beginning of the credits. Could it be that this story is showing Jon Snow and Daenerys in such a light, because that is how Sam prefers the population to remember it?
Let’s recall what Varys told Tyrion in season 2: “A very small man can cast a big shadow.”
Indeed, he can. If there is one thing we have learned from history is that it is bias and whoever is victorious, gets to control the narrative. The pen is mightier than the sword, and it might be that Varys’ sermon about how power is nothing more than “a trick, a shadow in the wall” and the greatest trick of all is the one that changes people’s perception to the point that their view of the world is whatever you tell them.
This doesn’t undermine Daenerys and Henry VII’s respective rise to power. On the contrary, it only highlights their genius and their ambition. Henry’s claim rested on his mythical roots to King Arthur and Cadwallder, his right of conquest (which was valid and was also claimed by his and the Plantagenets’ ancestor, William the Conqueror), and finally from his mother who was a direct descendant from John of Gaunt, 1st. Duke of Lancaster, albeit from an illegitimate branch. While Richard II had legitimized John of Gaunt and his former mistress, Kathryn Swynford (who was his wife by then), his successor, John of Gaunt’s oldest son, had undermined their legitimacy by adding a new clause that barred them from the line of succession. Henry’s victory made many of his supporters forget this little detail, but not the Yorkist remnants who continued to wage war against the Tudors -a war that escalated when Henry VIII broke away from Rome and created his own church.
Without a doubt, Henry and Daenerys are two of the best examples that the people who start off as the most inconsequential can become the most important players of the game and through a number of misfortunes and strokes of luck, break the wheel, and true examples that destiny is what you make of it.
“The reality of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne –his narrow escapes from death, his failures and anxieties, complete with constant uncertainty of his situation and the compromises that he had been forced to make, including the support from France and his former Yorkist enemies in gaining the crown- was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just as remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved a victory that he should not have won.” (Skidmore, Rise of the Tudors)
Ironically, even when Henry VIII tried to outdo his father in the Tudor Dynasty Portrait that has him, Henry VII, leaning next to a monument while their respective wives, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour (who was dead at the time this was painted) are on the other side, claiming that his achievements were better than his father; he had to admit that without him, none of that would have been possible.
Decades later, during Elizabeth I’s coronation, Henry VII was featured once again, this time through the device he created after his union to Elizabeth, that symbolized the union of their two houses, the Tudor rose. Elizabeth I would often invoke the past to justify her actions and lend validity to her claim. Like her grandfather, she saw herself as the rightful heir to the throne, not just because of her father’s will, but because her mother had been an anointed queen and like her paternal grandmother and namesake, she viewed herself as a symbol of unity who was destined to pull England out of darkness and into the light.
“On Saturday, January 14, 1559, at about two o’clock, Henry VIII’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, rode through London, from the Tower down to Westminster, on the eve of her coronation. As usual, a great series of pageants had been organized to illustrate the many ways in which the new queen’s majesty was righteous and worthy. At the corner of Fenchurch Street was Gracechurch Street a large stage was erected across the street, “vaulted with battlements” and built on three separated levels. The official record of the procession recorded that “on the lowest stage was made one seat royal, wherein were placed two personages representing king Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of king Edward the Fourth … [not] divided but that the one of them which was king Henry processing out of the house of Lancaster was enclosed in a red rose, and the other which was Queen Elizabeth being heir to the house of York enclosed with a white rose … Out of which two roses sprang two branches gathered into one, which were directed upward to the second stage … wherein was placed one, representing the valiant and noble prince king Henry [VIII].” … Buildings were decorated with the Tudor roses and other associated emblems of the dynasty. Great stained glass windows installed in churches during the sixteenth century blazed with red and white petals. Anyone who had been lucky enough to brose the books of the royal library would have found the exquisite illustrations on the pages decorated with roses red, white and Tudor –in many cases these were added to books that had been inherited from earlier kings- particularly Edward IV. Other books, too, were emblazoned with the simplified dynastic story of the Wars of the Roses … By Elizabeth’s reign, the mere sight of red and white roses entwined was enough to evoke instantly the whole story of the fifteenth century: the Crown had been thrown into dispute and disarray by the Lancastrian deposition of Richard II in 1399; this had prompted nearly a century of warfare between two rival clans, which was a form of divine punishment for the overthrow of a rightful king; finally in 1485, the Tudors had reunited the families and saved the realm. It was that simple.” (Jones, Wars of the Roses: Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors)
Perception is everything and it is more effective when the person twisting historical events is full of conviction and if there was one thing the Tudors had was plenty of conviction -something their founder’s fantasy counterpart also has.
The last book in the series will be called ‘Dreams of Spring’ and given how Shakespeare’s Richard III ends with Henry Tudor being crowned and promising a new beginning for England, it can be inferred that the last book’s title refers to a bittersweet closure to the song of ice and fire, with the war ending, some form of peace being achieved but at a great cost. And perhaps it is revealed at the end, that this was nothing more than someone else’s view of these events, leaving many questions (as with the wars of the roses and the era after it) unanswered.
Martin, George, et. al. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros. Bantam. 2014.
Lisle, Leanda. Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors. St. Martin Press. 2014.
Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors. Grove Press. 2016.
Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Penguin. 2014.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Richard III. 1592.
Weiss, Daniel Brett and Benioff, David, creators. Game of Thrones. HBO. 2011-?
I also recommend all the other books in the Song of Ice and Fire saga, including the latest spin off “Dunk and Egg” which expands on this world.